It’s Monday Again: Attention and Fantasies

A sketch of a woman sitting alone at a bar.

I did a lot of stuff last week so I decided to once again shamelessly steal an idea from Leigh Alexander and update you on all of the places I was doing things around the Internet.

Last week’s episode of Justice Points featured Lulu, otherwise known as BlueSweatshirt, talking about her indie witch simulator  Fantastic Witch Collective. We asked her a lot of questions about the gay witch aesthetic, as well as poked at issues of diversity, decorum in e-sports as well as Far Cry 4. It was a lot of fun.

I have had a lot of issues lately sleeping and so I’m often up very early in the morning and that is a good time to play video games without being interrupted. One such morning saw me playing Borderlands and I had a very odd experience with killing a skag. Goes to show though, how little I know about the mechanics of some of my favorite games and instead choose to barrel into fights without any outside knowledge about how it should work. Still, it was weird feeling that emotional about a fictional animal that would tear my face off.

A lot of interesting digging has been going on about The Hashtag That Shan’t Be Named lately, specifically in a sociological vein. I read A Man in Black’s Storify about their perceptions of Goobergate from the perspective of how 4Chan culture operates and felt inspired to go on a tweet rant  about the larger forces at work that inform said culture. This also lead to an interesting tangent about why I hate the phrase “attention whore,” because Goobers seem to be using terrorist tactics towards any woman who dares to be successful. You can read the Storify on all of this here. Thanks for WarrenIsDead for collating all of it.

Finally, my first published piece of game writing went up over at Paste Games! It is my thoughts on the intersection of how millennials have been living and why so many of us love life sims for this reason, including the newly popular Fantasy Life. I was really excited that Paste picked up my pitch and it is a subject that I consider pretty close to my heart as someone who’s had to move around and live fairly austerely; gaming has been a huge savior in my life even when I have fallen on hard times.

If you like this feature, let me know in the comments section!

Marley (and Me)

Image of Marley courtesy of the Borderlands Wikia.

Image of Marley courtesy of the Borderlands Wikia.

I don’t think that killing a skag was supposed to be emotional.  Yet here I was sniffling and crying about a dead digital hellbeast in the darkness of my living room.

I haven’t played Borderlands in a couple of weeks and I’ve been picking at it slowly because I was stuck on one bounty board quest – The Legend of Moe and Marley. The dilemma I was having is that these two incredibly hardy skags were stuck at the ass-end of Arid Hills. I’d try my hardest to clear through all the mobs on the way but by the time I faced these beasts, I’d be low on ammo. I’m not a good FPS player in the slightest so dying to one or both of them and having to buy more ammo and slowly re-clear was frustrating. Through sheer determination I managed to take Moe down, but getting Marley had turned into an exercise in futility and I gave up on it for a while.

It wasn’t until 5 AM this morning that I loaded up Borderlands and gave it another go. After some stunning defeats because I had managed to pull both of them at the same time, I got into the rhythm and figured out how to cope with that particular scenario. Falling back on my intense World of Warcraft training, I remembered that I could kite both dogs, slowly picking their health off, especially because Marley was prone to standing and turretting electric bolts versus getting into melee range. Eventually I had pulled Marley and Moe all the way back to a bandit camp, and finally polished Moe off, and set to working on Marley. The camp had started to respawn in that time, including two snipers on an overhead bridge and suddenly I noticed that Marley had begun to spin around and occasionally attack the other mobs, who were doing their damndest to also pick off her health. Despite seeing this interaction between the skag and bandit AI before, it didn’t occur to me that this would happen if it was a mob I was also fighting at the same time. Pretty soon it was a huge shootout, with me crouched behind a fence to avoid Marley’s bolts and also bandits.

As her health slowly went down, something came over me. I noticed that it was 4 bandits on the ground, 2 snipers and myself, all shooting at one skag. It felt a little bit unfair, especially since most of the time Marley would spin around to try and attack the two snipers that were well out of reach. The idea of two dudes with guns shooting down at an animal that couldn’t reach them was cruel. When the skag finally keeled over and spit out the expected money and loot, I felt incredibly upset. Sure, it was an intended function of the AI but my own accidental blundering made the realization a little more poignant. I had essentially lead something that just was going about its business into a camp full of people with guns, only to turn what was merely a frustrating quest objective into a bloodbath. And for what? So some douchebag could mount her head on his wall?

I don’t know if this precisely what Borderlands was supposed to evoke. It is fairly apparent that our characters, as close as you might get to them, are assholes.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling terrible, all over a scabby alien dog.

When I went to look up the quest on the Wikia for this blog post, I couldn’t help but feel worse since that’s one of the strategies suggested on the webpage to take both skags down, given their relative difficulty. All’s fair in love and bounties, according to the game. It is a strange change from MMORPGs, where abusing terrain,mob AI or pathing is usually forbidden. Both of these points reflected my embarrassing lack of understanding, especially now. My initial belief that this was a broken act of game AI gave way to the thought that perhaps it was I who had broken out of what the game required of me.

Shoot-and-loot games, which Borderlands is easily the most narrative of the genre, require a distillation of roles in order to make them work correctly. There’s whomever or whatever is in the sights and who is pulling the trigger (you). Most of the visual elements stress this – your appearance is novel and fleeting, whether it is a pair of disembodied hands or just the form of your gun. Enemies are constantly coming for you, outlined in red. This crystallization has some really problematic forms when it boils down $enemy to characteristics like “brown people.”  It’s crucial that FPS games have this format; the ability to mimic real behaviors such as identifying targets in a fraction of a second and to unemotionally make a judgement just as fast to take them down is what drives the genre. For all of Borderlands goofy trappings, it still has this at the core.

Marley should have been merely another box to tick off, another challenge to overcome in order to progress my character and gain skills to go farther in the game. Despite Borderlands’ best efforts to pass me through this in a perfunctory, expected way, I still entered into it with my unbearable reflex to assign emotions and value to the inanimate. What I had even believed as a chance occurrence of AI interaction may have been intended as a potential solution to the problem. This was overwhelming because I felt utterly alone in my hysterics in that moment.

Despite my embarrassment with having feelings, I feel that my discomfort with some moments in any game, especially games like Borderlands is worthwhile. Being taken out of the core loop of any game is usually considered a negative. Being empathetic for a fraction of a second, even towards a simple boss mob, is not a failure state in the slightest. If the last few months have taught me anything, it is a requirement.