Thursday, September 24, 2015

[OE009] Handlug vs. Tat

Previous: [OE008] The Story: Oedipus

Handlug Vs. Tat

                While most are familiar with Freud’s take on the story, Freud is not the only game in town. Hegel uses the story of Oedipus to illustrate the difference between what he terms handlug and tat (if you thought I would pass up a chance to talk about Hegel, prepare to be disappointed).

                Handlug is the intended action while tat is the actual result. For example, let’s say that I pick up what I think is a delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich and take a bite, only to find a tarantula inside. My intended action is eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (handlug). However, my actual action is eating a peanut butter and jelly and tarantula sandwich (tat) because, unknown to me, a big hairy spider has crawled between the slices of bread. I intended to do one thing, but another thing actually happened.

                Oedipus’ handlugs are meant to escape his prophesied destiny: killing a belligerent old man as he flees his Corinthian “father,” saving a kingdom, and marrying a queen instead of his Corinthian “mother.” His tats fulfill the prophecy: killing his true father, marrying his true mother, and thus bringing down the curse of the gods on the kingdom of Thebes.

Escape the prophecy
Fulfilled the prophecy
Kill a belligerent old man
Killed his father
Save a kingdom
Cursed a kingdom
Marry a queen
Married his mother

                It bears pointing out that Oedipal morality is still binary – Oedipus is horrified at what he has done, as are the gods. Patricide and incest are evil, abominable things, things which cannot be forgiven by the excuse that Oedipus did not know what he was doing. The important point is not what Oedipus intended to do, but what he actually did.

                Hegel refers to this as “heroic morality,” wherein the moral actor takes responsibility for the results of action regardless of the intention behind them. It does not matter to my taste buds whether I intended to eat a peanut butter and jelly and tarantula sandwich or not. Whatever my intentions, the results are the same.

                This sort of thinking was popular among the Greeks, but we can also see traces of it in the Old Testament kosher laws. It does not matter whether or not I intended to touch a dead body (or to be born crippled, or to menstruate); I am rendered impure by actuality, not intent (In defense of old Yahweh, there is evidence this only applies to ritual impurity and not moral impurity - Jeremiah, for one, posits that it is possible to obey all of the ritual obligations and still be morally impure.)

                But there are also key differences between heroic morality and the Garden of Eden. Eve’s choices are explicitly labeled and lead to predictable results while Oedipus’ choices have their “labels” switched. Leaving Corinth seemed like the good choice that would lead him away from evil but ended up leading to his downfall. Yahweh's fruit quiz seems positively sporting in comparison.

                This same difference exists when we compare Pandora and Oedipus. Pandora acts consciously and in line with her desires – the gods may be setting her up, but she wants to open the jar. Oedipus, on the other hand, acts completely out of line with his desires. He is consciously striving to avoid evil, to the point of leaving behind the only home he has ever known.

                There are, of course, overlaps between Pandora and Oedipus. Oedipus exists in a world of fate, where he is destined to commit certain actions no matter how far he runs. We can still argue that Oedipus is being pushed, but Sophocles also uses the story to explore deeper moral dimensions. What is the difference between intended action and actual action? Are we responsible for who we are on the inside or what we do on the outside?

And this is the essential difference between Pandora and Oedipus. The story of Pandora is the story of an action. The story of Oedipus is a story about action.
Next: [OE010] The Game Mechanic: Your Precious Eyes

Thursday, September 17, 2015

[OE008] The Story: Oedipus

Previous: [OE007] What We Could Do: The Pushed Pusher
The Blind King of Thebes: Heroic Morality

                The Garden of Eden may be the Origin of Morality for priests and pastors, but philosophers and psychologists are perhaps more inclined to look at the story of Oedipus. While Adam and Eve were given a clear moral choice that left no ambiguity to the results of their actions, the situation with Oedipus is more... complex.

                The story of Oedipus is perhaps best known via Freud’s “Oedipus Complex,” that is, a subconscious desire to murder the father and marry the mother. But let’s go back to Sophocles’ account of Oedipus to see what the story tells us about morality.

"What? Is there something on my face?"
The Story

                Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes, were trying to have a child. They consulted the Oracle at Delphi, who told them that if they have a son, he will grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. This didn’t sit well with the two, so when Jocasta gives birth to a son, they abandoned him the wilderness.

                Through a series of wacky sitcom-esque events, the child was adopted by the king and queen of Corinth, who named him “Oedipus.” One day, Oedipus was told that he was adopted and so he went to the Oracle at Delphi to see if this was true. The Oracle told him that he was going to murder his father and marry his mother.

                Oedipus was naturally not thrilled at this prospect and so he ran away from Corinth – and towards Thebes.

                On the way, Oedipus got into a fight with an old man who refused to yield right of way at a crossroads (perhaps the true Oedipus complex is road rage). Oedipus murdered the old man, and in a further series of wacky events involving a Sphinx, ended up marrying the Queen of Thebes – Jocasta.

                Years later, the curse of the gods descended on Thebes and Oedipus went to the Oracle to find out why. It turned out that the old man Oedipus killed was Laius, the King of the Thebes and his father, while Jocasta was his mother. Oedipus poked his own eyes out and Jocasta committed suicide, which I think we can all agree are reasonable responses given the circumstances.

Next: [OE009] Handlug vs. Tat


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

[BoRT Sep. 2015] The Bear's Dilema: Exploration and Abstraction

The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
And what do you think he saw? 

Fallout 4 threatens down upon us like the face of an unsmiling god, menacing gamers with hours upon hours of the free-form exploration Bethseda Game Studios has perfected. Bethseda, of course, is the war criminal responsible for Fallout 3 and the Elder Scrolls series, which have destroyed more hours of human productivity than Solitaire and Power Point combined. 

Bethseda is extremely skillful at creating Open Worlds, wherein the player can merrily skip over any mountain on the horizon like the bear of the song. Don't like any of the quests you currently have? Not interested in the main storyline? Endless adventures are no further than the next mountain over. 
While this sort of open-ended exploration can be very enjoyable, it is not without its issues. The open world is usually navigated by floating arrows which turn questing across fantasy worlds and post-apocalypses alike into navigating a modern city via GPS. 

This. Take this, mighty adventurer. We'll wait.
These arrows are the Siris of Tamriel, the immersion-breaking Navis of the nuclear wasteland. "Turn right at the moldering remains of a dead civilization. Turn right. REROUTING. REROUTING. U-TURN AT MONUMENT TO MANKIND'S HUBRIS IN 1 MILE." 

Our pointy overlords, IRL.
 Worse, perhaps, than the mood-killing navigation arrows is the Dilemma of the Bear. After all, once the bear went over the mountain, what do you think he saw? 
He saw another mountain, 
He saw another mountain, 
He saw another mountain, 
So what do you think he did? 
The bear goes over the mountain, only to see another mountain on the horizon. Another cave of spiders. Another town overrun by bandits. If the bear is in a Bethseda game, it will be an excellent mountain full of interesting side-paths and challenges, but alas, another mountain all the same. 
As we all know, the bear will proceed to the next mountain and do it again. And again. And again, until the children tire of the song. And while I look forward to Bethseda's upcoming romp through the wilderness, I realize that the mountains I scale will ultimately lead to nothing but more mountains. Completeing the main quest will not heal the world; it will leave its mountains unchanged for all my scrambling over. 
If Fallout and Skyrim and their like are GPS games, what does a Map game look like? 
While GPS faithfully reproduces every detail of the landscape to a fraction of Longitude and Latitude, a Map must abstract. A map cannot show every tree in the forest or every bend in the river, just the general contours and where the cities and towns lie. 
I am currently playing Grandia,which is perhaps as far from an Open World game as you can get without taking place in a single location. The world map is a literal map. The player does not wander around an overworld, as in Final Fantasy games, but rather select locations with a cursor:
Grandia's world map is a literal map.
Grandia's story is also very much linear. You progress from location to location, from event to event, without any say in the main character's decisions or morality. Justin is not a cipher, a voiceless protagonist for the player to project into, but a boy with a very distinct personality. You do not choose what he does or where he goes; you just help him get there. 
Angst-ridden protagonists need not apply.
I have found this extreme linearity very refreshing. It is an old game, but so different from most of what I have seen recently that it feels strangely new. I am reminded of Jim Sterling's video on Spencer Mansion and the importance of Small Spaces. Small spaces and a linear plots may not allow for as much organic gameplay, but sometimes that's okay. I will remember Justin's liner, abstracted journey across the continents much longer than I will remember Silent Protagonist #4,328 cresting over Mountain #98,657. 
Skyrim/Fallout let me piece together whatever story I can. Grandia tells me a story. Neither thing is inherently better, but both things are better at delivering different experiences. 
As I said, I am looking forward to Fallout 4 and plan on sandboxing it up for endless hours of mountain after city after factory after mountain after so on. But I'm also going to forget all of the inconsequential poking about. I'm going to be as un-involved in the central plot as I was in every other Open World GPS-fest I've ever played. 
Grandia, I'm going to remember. Its story is linear, a map. It does not bog me down in meaningless details and endless side-paths, but rather presents me with an abstraction of a world that I can enjoy. Sometimes it's better to leave the edges of the map to the player's imagination. 
Has the gaming world tired of mountains? I doubt it. The central mechanic of free roaming will always be attractive. But in a world filled with samey sandboxes, a developer who wants to stand out would do well to consider the value of linearity and abstraction. 
The bear went over the mountain, 
The bear went over the mountain, 
The bear went over the mountain, 
And what do you think he saw?