Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Science of Evil and Dragon Ball Z

 Count Rugen: "Have you been chasing me your whole life, only to fail now? I think that's the worst thing I've ever heard. How marvelous."

I'm currently reading The Science of Evil, by Simon Baron-Cohen, on how empathy affects our everyday lives. He seeks to bring a scientific view to human cruelty, and so far, is succeeding in convincing me.

I've long wondered at how to write evil characters. As someone with a surplus of empathy, I find it difficult to create a character who can do the kind of things I want them to do, while providing them with adequate motivation. "He's not evil, just misunderstood!" is a tale for Sesame Street, as far as I'm concerned. And yet one of the reasons I've also been really enjoying Dragon Ball Z Kai recently is because the characters in it are so breathtakingly immoral. But how, and why? Spoilers to follow.

First, we have Vegeta. As a prince of the Saiyan race (and one of, say, 4 Saiyans left in the universe), he's a pretty powerful guy. In season one, he kills everyone, including the hero, who has to run back from heaven (Chinese mythology is awesome) to fight him again. Vegeta kills his own minion for getting beaten, unceremoniously wipes out four other fighters, breaks every bone in the hero's body - hence why he dies - and then starts beating up a child. Wow. As villains go, he's pretty scary.

For an example - and ignoring the irrelevant title the poster has given it - this clip on Youtube serves as a relatively good example of Vegeta's disposition.

Then you get to season 2, and you meet Frieza. Holy crap. This guy makes Vegeta look like a fluffy kitten. He interrogates an entire race of people, and kills them whether they tell him what he wants to know or not. Then he summons the universe's elite band of warriors to come and kill a child and a midget (sorry, Krillin). Vegeta is there too, being a little evil, but he also saves the kid at one point, essentially because he knows he's got no hope of beating Frieza alone and the kid might be able to provide a distraction, but sure. The end result is still a positive.

Then things get nasty.

Frieza is powerful. This much is obvious. In a series where the hero has achieved a power level of 180,000 after months of rigorous training in x100 gravity, Frieza's power level in his first form is 1,000,000. Well, damn it. There's a child who can heal his enemies. Frieza kills him. A warrior is defending the secrets of his people. With one arm behind his back, Frieza breaks the warrior's back and leaves him to die in the dirt. He shoots Krillian through the heart with a bolt of energy for interfering in his fight with another character, then mocks Gohan (the child) by blocking his way and refusing to let him save his dying friend. Frieza then beats the crap out of Vegeta, who he has raised as a surrogate son, just to prove he can. When Vegeta talks 'too much', Frieza kills him.

He doesn't even use his hands, or his superpowers, to kill Krillin. He's that much of a jerk.

But, most of all, when Goku, the hero, has finally arrived and decided to sacrifice himself so his son and friend can escape, and they're already on their way to safety, Frieza grabs the newly-healed Krillin, hoists him into the air and forces him to explode because he can.

Here is a being with no morals. Krillin is a main character - he was killed by Vegeta, then resurrected, so given the lore of the universe, the next time he dies, he stays dead. Frieza doesn't care. Likewise, Vegeta has been serving Frieza loyally for years, and only recently found out it was Frieza who destroyed his homeworld and made the Saiyans an endangered species. Vegeta then resolves to fight him... and fails. One of the episodes is subtitled: "Tears of a Proud Saiyan Prince." This character, who raised Vegeta from the age of 6 and has been lying to him all this time about the fate of his planet, kills him because he 'talks too much'. After beating the crap out of him. After telling him his entire life has been futile. And after Vegeta has purposely come close to death several times to increase his power level, all in a bid to take revenge.

Man, Frieza is a jerk.

But the surprising thing is not how evil he can look, which is like this:

But rather than he inspires fanart and merchandise like this:

Um, what?

This is not entirely at odds with the show, either. Frieza's most innocent expressions come when he's surprised, like this:

He seems genuinely confused that anyone would ever want to hurt him. His entire life, he's always been the strongest, so he assumes the people who can't beat him just aren't trying hard enough.

On Baron-Cohen's empathy scale, he definitely falls at the 0 level. In my opinion the reason the fan art and merchandise portray him as cute is because the alternative is too horrible for us to comprehend. I have that plushie, and it makes me feel a whole lot better about him as a character, to think he can be reduced to something cute. He's not evil, he's just a little childish.

But, if we start to think that way, we get into the question of whether children can be evil,and that's a whole 'nother topic entirely. So suffice to say, my understanding of evil is this:

Hurting people with no remorse and undervaluing life.

Ultimately, as Mike Laidlaw once said, being evil is the same as being selfish. And, man, does our society have some problems if that's what we believe.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Option D: Skip Everything

Hi there. I’m a games writer, but I’m just gonna come out and say it: I hate dialogue in games. If I can’t skip it, I’ll ragequit. However, chances are if I do have the option to skip, I won’t. Why? Because I don’t like being told what to do with my time. You don’t control me, game.

I sat at this screen for hours.

But you know, I can’t think of a single mechanic I haven’t hated at some point – combat, jumping puzzles, hidden object scenes… Man, I must really hate every single game out there. Unfortunately for my bank account, that’s not true. In fact, I’ve dedicated my career, and most of my life thus far, to games and making them better for future generations. Why? Because I love them. I just don’t love all of them, all the time.

Sometimes I want to jump on a TF2 server and W + LeftMouse Pyro, while continuously screaming for a medic. Sometimes I want to talk to an imaginary person in Dragon Age because, at the end of a long day, as least they’re predictable. And sometimes I want to be that cool detective who solves all the paranormal cases, so I load up Mystery Trackers and click through hidden object scenes like a Diablo player on crack.

Stop hacking my account, Leoric!

And yet, I feel like I’m missing out. I don’t know the story of Halo, or Gears of War. I only know Dead Space and BioShock and their sequels because I have very patient friends. And, oddly enough, despite the crippling anxiety I feel while my friend Steve is calmly shearing limbs off nearby necromorphs, Dead Space 2 is one of my favourite games. I just wish I could play it.

The problem is, I suck at combat. It’s not for lack of trying, either. Playing Ocarina of Time with enemies that respawn every damn time I enter or leave a room drives me to throw my 3DS at the wall with alarming frequency. I’m just lucky my husband is a good catch (hur hur puns). If I could explore the Water Temple without worrying about random underwater bat-fish attacking my groin every time I try to navigate around this one set of spikes, I would be so much happier.

Pictured: What they should have replaced the Water Temple with.

There’s another problem. You know I love you, Fallout 3, but sometimes I just want to fast travel without having to discover the destination first. The same goes for you, Skyrim. I’m even an Explorer type (according to my idol, Bartle) but there are days when you just want to get to the dragon’s lair so you can shout at it until it dies.

Children, this is what we call ‘conflict resolution’.

But none of those are the real problems. As the Escapist series Unskippable (which highlights custscences that force us to watch them) points out, sometimes you just have to let the player skip your hard work. My problem is that, so far, this only applies to storytelling.

Playing God of War 2, I died the most often because I misjudged a jumping or swinging section, at which point the game would mock me by offering to decrease the combat difficulty. Thanks. On the other hand, I’m in love with Super Mario 3D Land because it gives me the stupid invincible tanuki suit when I die too much. I usually die for the same reasons as I did in God of War – bad spatial perception – but at least I have a chance of recovering from a misjudged leap. And I sparkle, and that makes everything better.

Have fun trying to get that image out of your head.

Hidden object games, in my opinion, have got the big games beat. Playing on casual mode, you can skip every puzzle, and if you can’t find most of the hidden objects by randomly clicking (if you really don’t want to look for them) you can just wait for the recharging hint, which will tell you, without judgement, where every single item is. You can even skip the story segments. What’s left, you may ask? Not a lot, but that’s what you get for playing the game like a jerk.

So why can’t I do this in other games? I would love the option to have a Fallout 3: Pacifist edition. If I could toggle a button for “short version, please” in Mass Effect, I might have gotten past the Citadel. An option to simply play a sequence containing the remaining story moments (i.e. all of them) in The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom would be nice.

It’s sad when you have to Google still images from a game based on a silent movie to get the plot.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand. Dead Space 2 without the combat would be a very short – and somewhat weird – game. Alan Wake would be half the experience without the risk-reward motivation of finding those missing manuscript pages on Nightmare mode. But you know what these games would be? My choice.

I’m tired of missing out on all the good stories because I have the reflexes of a wet dishcloth. A very dear friend of mine worked on Halo: Reach, so I bought it and tried to play it. Guess how far I got. That’s right, I died in the tutorial. Repeatedly. Really.

Sure, I’m not going to get better without practice, but you know what? I don’t want to practice that. I’m just not good at some things, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is being forced to get better (or get better friends?) if I want to indulge my Nolan North obsession and play through the Uncharted series. Let me turn off combat. It won’t be the experience you wanted me to have, but we live in a post-modern society anyway. The death of the author has already been established. Let me play the version of your game that I want, even if it may as well be a movie. That’s my choice, not yours. Stop taking it away from me.

I am in for this, by the way.

The Futurama game on PS2 already did it. They included the game disk and a DVD containing all of the cutscenes and salient sections of gameplay to link them all together into one mini-movie. I ended up buying the game just to watch the movie. I never played the game, but they got my money, and I reckon they’d call that a win.

The point is, we can already skip most of the cutscenes and dialogue available in games. We’re still at the stage where we have to do the puzzles ourselves, but at least there are walkthroughs. There are no walkthroughs for sucking at combat or having poor depth perception. Even if causing all the Darkspawn to flee from my presence when I turn off the option for combat causes a Benny-Hill-style montage of foreshortened tactical retreats, I’m okay with it. Or what about allowing the game’s AI to take control of my character during combat in BioShock 2, even if it means I don’t always come out with the most ammo or the most health, but I come out alive? Both of these are still better options than what I could accomplish alone. Sad it may be, but that’s the way things have been for 20 years. I don’t seem ‘em changing any time soon.

So I vote that every game should include an Option D: skip everything. Make each standalone element fun or successful in its own way, then let me choose which ones I want to engage with. Who knows? If your combat’s as much fun as your exploring, I might even give it a try.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Deus Ex and Memories of Love


It's a side-quest back in Detroit that leads you to Ms. Walthers. Alone in her well-furnished, but surprisingly bare apartment she waits, sitting on her couch, for the delivery of her dinner. The kitchen shows no signs of use, the trash no wrappers or other signs of habitation. You wonder how long it's been since she last ate, when she confuses a six-foot cyborg with her local friendly 'Rolling Meals' representative.

She speaks slowly, but gently, full of fondness for a child she once knew and the memories of him that must seem closer now she's in the ever-deepening mists of dementia. Photos spark more memories, of a child so beloved that, instead of killing him to stop his DNA from being used to inoculate another generation of children into super-soldiers-to-be, his parents set their own research, and all records of him, on fire. Ultimately, they died there, leaving their child in the arms of his nurse.

Here she pauses - there were other children, other infants who didn't survive. Other cribs that were already empty. Only Adam remained. Only Adam was able to be saved, in turn saving further rows of cribs from becoming empty. He was adopted, by a lovely couple who raised him as their own. Ms. Walthers has been saving money for him, for all the birthdays and Christmases she missed. He must be 12 or 13 by now. Buy him something nice, won't you?

Her story reminds me of another old woman I visited, in my guise as an investigative journalist. She couldn't remember what happened to her children, but she was worried they thought she had abandoned them. She would have liked a television in her room, but they told her she didn't have enough money. It's a shame. She likes television. She used to make origami dogs for her sons, and they would always be called Max. She loves orchids. Her sons used to bring them to her from the garden.

Why is it that these figures are so tragic? Surely they're happier in the worlds where their sons are alive and the boy they rescued is still whole. How can it be that we mourn them while they live, alone and alive in the memories that sustain them? Perhaps it's because they're not present, because they don't know what has happened, but I think, as is always the case, we mourn them for ourselves. These people loved us once, but they can't love us now. They don't know who we are. There's a power in that, in the duality of being remembered and being forgotten, all at once. It's a gap we can never cross, of time and neuroscience and an infinite field of yesterdays.

They're stuck in the past, and with every day we're leaving them further behind. We can't bring them with us. And always, as parallels real life, there comes a moment when you have to admit that sometimes there are people you just can't save.