Saturday, August 18, 2018

Grinding as repetition as savefiles as insistence

In "Portraits and Repetition", Gertrude Stein argues that repetition is better understood as "insistence":
"... there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis." (PDF)
This rings true to me for basically any activity. Woodworking, cooking, dancing, guitar-playing, painting, writing, welding, negotiating, swimming, typing -- everything requires practice, and in practicing, we insist on the continued value of that activity each time. We can never repeat any performance or action exactly, by virtue of memory and time. Each repetition always means something slightly different, and changes the meaning of all the repetitions before it.

Game design theory formalizes this repetition as a "core gameplay loop" or "mechanic" or whatever, but let's keep following Stein's insistence on insistence for a minute:

"Nothing makes any difference as long as some one is listening while they are talking. If the same person does the talking and the listening why so much the better there is just by so much the greater concentration."
Stein complicates her argument by allowing for one possible difference between repetition and insistence: insistence is when someone is listening to you.

It could be someone else listening to you, or it could be you listening to yourself. Either way, it's a matter of tuning a mind to the proper frequency, of perceiving another layer. Here, Stein is insisting that language has a sort of mood space and body to it. Talking and listening (at the same time) entail depth. Repetition lets you talk and listen more clearly.

OK let's bring it around to video games now. Specifically, on a form of repetition that's usually maligned in games -- grinding.

I'm currently playing an old RPG called Arc The Lad. I chose it specifically because I was told it was short and did not require much "grinding." I used to define grinding as purposely entering optional encounters over and over, but as we just learned, Stein insists grinding is more about mood and salience.

Should I level-up my main character Arc into an invincible killing machine, or should I help more fragile support characters like Kukuru or Poco gain experience points to become more resilient against monsters? (Stein: "definitely just level up Arc") With grinding, the individual battles do not matter, but rather, it's more about how the general pattern of battles contribute to the long-term outcomes.

The famous "Reverse Design" write-up on Final Fantasy 6 argues the game's dungeons form a "long game" of resisting attrition across many battles. Losing a lot of health in a battle, once, doesn't matter so much by itself, because you can just spend MP to heal your characters -- but losing a lot of health, for 50 battles in a row, means you have to spend MP x 50 to heal. You are constantly trying to budget how much MP to conserve for the next save point / next battle. It is a grinding that doesn't depend on experience points, and with more dramatic stakes.

The Reverse Design writer then laments that most RPGs now use regenerating health mechanics and no longer deploy this "long game" of resource management, even this type of long game is precisely what drove me away from Persona 5's monotonous marathon dungeons. Maybe there are other ways to achieve a long game.

If she were still alive, I imagine that Gertrude Stein would point out that Arc The Lad 1 has its own type of "long game" that goes beyond simple leveling or resource management. At first glance, the game generously heals and replenishes your characters' health and magic points before every battle. That means there's no strategy between battles, right?

Arc 1 has something in mind that's maybe a bit grander. Most games with save transfer systems often interpret the old save file to unlock specific story branches or game content in the newer game, as in Mass Effect or Dragon Age games where past quest outcomes might affect whether you meet characters in future sequels. That scope of save abstraction is understandable.

However, Arc The Lad 2's core systems are pretty similar to Arc The Lad 1, which means it can take the rare step of directly importing character experience levels, stats, and inventory items from Arc 1... which means your leveling decisions stretch far beyond a "long game" of Arc The Lad 1, and into a "mega-long game" spanning both titles, that even continues into Arc The Lad 3.

According to the countless FAQs and forums I've consulted, Arc The Lad 1 is basically just a way to grind and train characters for import into Arc The Lad 2. (And I definitely should've been leveling Kukuru and Poco. Shit.)

The SHARECART project explored this idea, of how savefile sharing formalizes a loose collection of games into a mega meta-game. It seeks to give game data its own feel and logic within the game, and encourages us to let our games glitch and malfunction in stunning ways. What will each game use "MapX" and "PlayerName" for? Who knows! You decide! (NOTE: If you want to make a Sharecart-compatible game, here's Jake Elliott's ShareCartOneThousand.cs saving / loading script for Unity, and here's one for Lua too.)

But why stop at Sharecart? I think it's time we expanded this ethos to reappropriate other savegame files for our whims.

Let's say you happened to have a save file from the Brecourt Manor mission in Call Of Duty 1 where you let Sergeant Moody get injured at flak gun #3 and then stared deeply into his eyes -- and when you import this save file into my next gay sex game, it will compare the player's camera angle and Moody's health value. If those numbers check out, it unlocks the final gay sex scene.

What does this "cultural mod" do to Call of Duty 1? I argue that this act of radical listening will have created a "long game" that insists COD is ultimately just a preamble to the most epic gay sex scene you can imagine. Thirsty Tumblr users will eagerly grind Call of Duty so that they can watch some, uh, grinding, of a slightly different nature. It would transform Call Of Duty 1 into something more than grinding. It would be foreplay.

Listening and talking, reading and writing, importing and exporting... Anywhere there is time and memory, you will find insistence.

(Notoriously, Frog Fractions 2 imports Mass Effect 2 save files, but mostly just imports the player's name. But if the player's save file has completed Mass Effect 2 with a fairly high Paragon rating, they can also access an extra puzzle glyph in Frog Fractions 2.)