Thursday, February 12, 2009

In Praise of the Mundane

Yesterday I was talking about game labor, or the increasing onerousness of electronic entertainment. Game labor-- or what Steven Poole calls the “employment paradigm”-- is a big problem in modern game design. If you ask me, the prevalence of game labor is the main reason why that Nintendo Wii is outselling every damn system on the market right now. Normal human beings aren't willing to work for their fun, and they shouldn't have to. I don't mean to demean delayed gratification, but what passes for delayed gratification in most modern games is just drudgery.

Today I wanted to talk about another aspect of the employment paradigm: the simulation of labor. That is, not hacking fourty-six boars to death so you can get your next sword, but driving a simulated forklift. There are whole video game subcultures oriented around the performance of virtual jobs: men and women who are safely and efficiently piloting 747s from Sanfrancisco to Denver in Microsoft Flight Simulator, where they are guided in by other men and women who are staffing Denver's air traffic control. There are people running functional investment banks in the popular MMO EVE online, and embezzling money from them. I'm talking about bus driving simulations, which are currently on the market.

One could see in this the death of pleasure. Surely Adorno would say that simulated employment represents the total surrender of the imagination to capital, a degredation so total that we've come to take pleasure in our enslavement to the capitalist system. But surely this goes to far. (This is, remember, a man who though that Jazz was enslavement to the capitalist system.) I can't help but find this wholehearted commitment to normality endearing. Maybe this just betrays my midwestern roots, but it's utterly heartwarming to see people out there whose free time revolves around preventing simulated air disaster. And I'm hopeless as a critical theorist, 'cause I have a hard time with the false consciousness concept-- can't bring myself to declare others' quaint diversions a form of pathology. Apparently, some folks like a routine, and I can understand that.

I think there's deeper point here that goes beyond labor: to me, there's something enchanting about simulating the mundane. Games usually turn on shooting the next guy in the head and watching the world burn. I'm so inured to being thrust into violent, death-defying scenarios that the quotidian has a paradoxical charm.

In the very beginning of Indigo Prophecy there's a brief episode that goes like this: you've just come back from a disturbing scene in the restaurant. You get back to your apartment in the next scene, and spend about 20 minutes engaging in these unremarkable activities: you watch TV for a little while, have a drink, practice your guitar, have an awkward conversation with your ex. From that point on the game gets goes down the rabbit hole, but for that one scene it succeeds in communicating this idea that your protagonist is a regular human being who's trying to cope with the bizarre events that just transpired. It's the most successful sequence in the entire game.

Injecting these moments of normalcy into the unremitting stream ludicrous heroism has this way of transfiguring the everyday. I've been playing Yakuza 2 this week, and the really interesting moments don't come when you're fending off hallwayfulls of well-tailored thugs. They're when the game sets you free to roam the packed streets of Osaka and you to get lost in the commonplace events that unfold in every corner of the world-- the man trying to win a robot out of the crane machine in the arcade, or the restaurant owner who asks your help tracking down a dine-and-dash customer. Aside from the fact that these scenarios are essential to creating a believable world, they also serve to mitigate the alienation that comes with making your hero an all-crushing god-king every time he fights some dudes. Fumbling with the crane machine makes your protagonist a person, and that's essential to the fiction.

While the mundane may have a special charm to me, I'm not calling for every game to be Animal Crossing or The Sims. You can capture the texture and rhythm of real life without disposing of the heroism. It's the juxtaposition of the mundane and extraordinary that fascinates me. Few games take advantage of the possibilities when it comes to using quotidian detail and, yes, quotidian labor to create an authentic sense of world and character. (Well, No More Heroes apparently does something along these lines but I'm led to believe it's some kind of cruel joke.) Games are meant to pull us out of our lives and transport us into different worlds, but the funny thing is that they're often best at this transport when they take our world with them. And this is just what good art does: it reveals our everyday world under a new aspect.


Aler said...

My favourite quest in World fo Warcraft falls into this category.

During the Children's Week event, you take an orphan sightseeing, visiting a waterfall or a dam or a lighthouse. Each time you visit one of these locations, the child thanks you.

At the end of the quest, the orphan says that when he grows up, he wants to be a hero just like you.

This quest, more than slaying any monster, makes me feel like a real hero, and it's because it turns me into a person, rather than a boar-killing machine.

Mack said...

Plisken's "In Praise of the Mundane" aka, "The Year of Being There Redux." You're tastes in games are consisetent, to say the least, if the regularity of open world/mundane events gameplay articles is to be trusted. (And I like that: GTA4 is my go to game when I have nothing to do and just want to relax - to exist and observe - drive off into the sunset as it were). I'd love to hear your thoughts on how this mundane game world relates to game heroes. i.e. I heard your description of what you liked about Yakuza 2 and was reminded of "The Everyman". Is The Everyman as hero an ideal character trope for you, and does this person sound as much like an Indiana Jones to you as they do to me?

steven said...


Steve gaynor said...

In environment design, it's common practice to create ancillary spaces that the player can see but can't reach, which create the illusion of the gameworld extending further than the critical path the player is confined within.

The point you raise extends the theory to systems-- the player can't only do what must be done to progress forward (shoot guns, jump, press buttons) but may also interact with the secondary, mundane elements that fill out a truly believable gameworld, off the mainline of the game's core interactions.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Tim Stone had a great NGJ on recreating a flight across the Atlantic on Microsoft Simulator. He talked about how there was good boredom and bad boredom. The good kind comes from the actions being inherently boring, a weird pleasure of going through the motions of the act. The bad kind is just tedious or unnecessary.

Ben Abraham said...

"You can capture the texture and rhythm of real life without disposing of the heroism. It's the juxtaposition of the mundane and extraordinary that fascinates me."

I know everyone who knows me is going to just groan and say "here he goes again" but I absolutely LOVE when Far Cry 2 does this. You KNOCK on a god damn door before opening it! And then, a minute later, you're blasting faces with an AK! That's juxtaposition!

(Also that Tim Stone RPS article on the long distance Flight simmer is awesome)

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@aler: that's pretty great. It's good to know that WoW transcends the fetch-quest structure on occasion.

@mack: Ha! to be honest, this piece is more like a "it's all in the details redux." same idea from a different angle. And I do think that incorporating these small mundane elements is more important for the open-world genre. If you're looking to simulate the world than it fits to simulate the more mundane details. (I thought GTAIV did some interesting things this front.)

As for the heroism bit-- I don't know if your hero has to be an everyman. I think there's something appealing about the idea of a regular human having greatness thust upon them, but the same juxtaposition I'm talking about here could apply to the stock-heroic characters that populate gaming.

@steve gaynor: I hadn't thought of this in terms of gameplay. If I understand what you're saying, your point is that there should be a variety of (possibly mundane) interactions built into the system beyond the core jumping, running, etc. So: if there's a lightswitch on the wall of this zombie-filled psych ward, maybe you should be able to turn it on and off, right? And flush the toilets and turn on the water. Is this what you have in mind?

@L.B: sweet link, and I like the idea of good boredom. Why do I find this insane commitment to a boring task more admirable than the guy who spends 16 straight hours playing WoW?

@ben: actually, as much as I love many of FC2's touches, I think that it doesn't create the feeling of normalcy all that well. Everybody's trying to kill you, there's no civilians. You can't talk with people except when they offer you missions. Stuff like that. It nails all the other immersive details, but I don't think it tries to capture the mundane. It's only in the conversations between the mercenaries that you get glimpses of the everyday: boredom, drinking.

Steve gaynor said...

I guess stuff like light switches and toilet handles are sort of unconnected peripheral interactivity, but I was thinking of stuff one level deeper-- something like the crane machine example from Yakuza 2. It exists in the world and the player can interact with it; an NPC acknowledges it and encourages you to interface with it skillfully; when you do so, it feeds into the XP system and adds an item to your inventory. It shows that interactions outside of kicking and punching can be meaningful to the gameworld.

The fake internet in GTA4 is a good example as well, wherein you can browse personal ads and send e-mails which feed back into the NPC relationship and quest systems, eventually resulting in gameplay bonuses. Things other than shooting and driving can have an impact on the gameworld.

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