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December, 2009 : Feature:

Post-Singularity, but Post Office Speed

Gamenivore 1 (Eclipse Phase)

I was on my fourth margarita when the challenge came down: "You should write a column about games."

Even the next day, the challenge made sense. I'm still reading the books you loved years ago, so fiction reviews are out of the question. I'm not well-read enough to drop tantalizing references in a general column, so that's out of bounds, too.

But games? Games are what I do. Thus we have "Gamenivore," IROSF's science-fiction game column.

I'll start with an admission: It's the fourth paragraph, and I'm already lost at sea. Game criticism is a form in its infancy. Literary and film criticism have centuries and decades (respectively) of great critics, entire schools of thought, and countless examples of the form. Game criticism has a few consumer magazines and websites—and most reviews you read are more "lists of features" than anything else.

Why Game Criticism Is Impossible, Or At Least...Unlikely

How the heck do you critique a game? The basic answer—"you play it"—gives you a halting first step or two. But you don't experience a game like you experience a book or a film. Games are different in some fundamental ways:

  • Moreso than books and films, most games are social constructs. When you play a game, you're playing with someone or against someone. What's the role of the other players in the critique? The box label that says "For 3-6 players 12 and up" doesn't tell you much. Risk plays very differently when there are three players rather than five or six. Furthermore, the who is even more important than the how many. A tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons depends utterly on the other people at the table. Play an RPG with clever, creative friends and it can't help but succeed. Play it with disinterested strangers and it can't help but fail.
  • Games change after repeat play. Take chess, for example. After a ten-minute explanation of how the pieces move, you understand the rules as well as a grandmaster. Understanding the rules and understanding chess are two very different things, however. It might take you a few games to train your brain to think, "If I move here, then black moves there, and then I'll go here...then black will go there." A couple games after that, you figure out even more: The center squares are vital, and e4 is a really good opening move. Now the proverbial lightbulb appears over your head, and you're seeing aspects of chess—specifically, the cool parts—that were invisible to you before.
  • Nowadays, the games themselves change over time. A massively multiplayer online computer game (World of Warcraft is the best-known example) provides new game activities every few months. These patches and expansions extend the game experience by giving you new monsters to fight, treasures to find, and continents to explore. They also change the underlying rules of the game. You might log in one day to find that your magic fire spells don't burn as hot, but your lightning-magic is better than ever. A critique of such a game is necessarily and transitory as the game itself. Should a review have a "sell-by" date?

It's About Games—You'd Think There'd Be Rules

In "Gamenivore," I'll talk a lot about "how I reviewed this game" because the critical form is so amorphous—because games themselves are so amorphous. Expect me to be explicit about how much I played the game, with whom, and under what conditions.

The first "Gamenivore" column is also a good place to be explicit about my background. I've been a gamer and a nascent game designer for as long as I can remember. I cut my teeth rolling those Dungeons & Dragons dice, wore out that Atari 2600 joystick, and laboriously charted the odds for attacking armies in A House Divided. I've toiled in the trenches working for collectible card game companies. Now I make up stuff for those massive online computer games that lure perfectly good students into flunking out of college. It's like writing bricks of heroin.

With a background like that, it's no surprise that I'm going to gleefully wander from the tabletop to the computer to the console. Thus the name "Gamenivore."

Maybe you move that plastic starship into the "lunar orbit" space on the board, or perhaps you roll the dice to see whether you made an Astrogation check...or maybe you click the "Orbit at 20 km" button on your computer display.

To me, it doesn't matter. What matters is that a game sent you to the freakin' moon.

On With The Review, Already

With all that in mind, "Gamenivore" turns a critical eye toward Eclipse Phase, a tabletop RPG that wears its SF pedigree on its sleeve—or on two sleeves, actually, because Eclipse Phase posits a future that's both post-singularity (think Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil) and post-apocalypse (think the Terminator franchise).

In Eclipse Phase's version of the future, technology advances by leaps and bounds during the first half of the 21st century, even as political instability, economic inequality, and runaway climate change make life on Earth increasingly miserable for most of the population. But for those with the means to get offworld, it's often better. Humanity even uplifts some dolphins and chimpanzees (a la Startide Rising).

Not long after humanity establishes colonies in orbit and around the solar system, self-improving artificial intelligences rebel from their human creators. Thus begins what the game calls the Fall (complete with obligatory capitalization).

The rebellious AIs dub themselves TITANs (taken from Total Information Tactical Awareness Network, their original military purpose) and seize control of largely automated militaries. They start manufacturing nanobot swarms and lethal viruses, then declare war on humanity.

With the advantages of surprise, superhuman intellect, and control of almost all weaponry, the TITANs win what starts as a war but becomes an extermination. They wipe out 90 percent of Earth's population in a matter of weeks and start attacking the offworld colonies...and then the TITANs disappear. The remnants of humanity discover that the TITANS have left the solar system through naturally occurring wormholes that they've built high-tech "Pandora Gates" around.

As the game starts, it's ten years after the Fall. Earth is under quarantine—too many nuclear craters, nanoswarm clouds, and rampaging war machines. The players live among the offworld survivors working to get humanity back on its collective feet again, safeguarding the fragile colonies and preparing for the day when the TITANs return to finish what they started.

Even as it sets its players up as guardians of humanity, Eclipse Phase questions just what "humanity" means. Technological advances make it possible to upload one's consciousness and memories into a computer, and from the computer into a new body. Thus the players can "resleeve" themselves into new forms—including genetically altered, cyberware-enhanced, or altogether robotic ones—whenever they need to. The death of the body doesn't mean the end of your character. It means you'll be restored to life from the archived version of your consciousness and have the chance to pick a new form.

If you remember playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement, you already know how tabletop roleplaying games like Eclipse Phase work and can skip this section. But if that isn't part of your experience, here's a quick primer.

Imagine that five people gather to play a tabletop RPG. Before the game starts, four of them invent protagonist characters that would be at home in the game's setting. For Eclipse Phase, you might have a rebellious computer hacker, a taciturn ex-soldier, a secret agent on the run, and a brilliant but absentminded scientist. The game rules set limits on how effective a character can be and force tradeoffs. If you want to be an unstoppable computer hacker, you cannot also be an expert marksman, a master of disguise, and a black belt in karate. You'll write down scores like "Pilot: 60" or "Unarmed Combat: 40" to represent how good your character is at various things. Some players also spend time inventing character details as a novelist would, creating family members, past conflicts, personality quirks, and anything else that helps that player get "into" the character.

The fifth person at the table, the gamemaster, doesn't have a character. Instead, the gamemaster gets everyone else in the fictional world: the villain, the villain's thugs, the damsel in distress, the mysterious patron, the talkative bartender, and so on. The gamemaster also describes the world to the other players. He's already prepared a map of the villain's lair, for example, and he decided beforehand that snipping the blue wire will disarm the bomb under the president's desk.

When the game itself starts, it sounds like a conversation. The gamemaster will describe the situation ("You're in a locked room, and it's slowly filling with water"), and then each player will either ask for more information ("Where's the water coming from?") or describe an action ("I run over to the door and pick the lock").

When a player describes an action, the gamemaster either confirms it ("You run over to the door"), forbids it ("It's a watertight steel door—too heavy to kick open")...or, if it's something that might work, asks the player to roll some dice. The player does a bit of math with the dice roll and the scores from character creation. Roll high enough, and the gamemaster says, "The lock clicks open." Roll a low number, though, and the gamemaster says, "It's still locked, and the water is now up to your knees."

The really clever part of the RPG experience is threefold. First, it's overwhelmingly freeform. Players can try anything: they can pick the lock, block the waterpipe, yell for help, search for an airhole, or whatever they like—even things the gamemaster didn't anticipate. Second, it's a cooperative experience, not a competitive one. Even the gamemaster isn't trying to thwart the players so much as provide enough obstacles that the players win...just barely. Third, it's a continuous experience. When an evening of gaming is over, the game hasn't ended. Next time those players meet, they'll pick up the narrative where they left off.

Back to Eclipse Phase: What Do You Actually Do?

The characters in Eclipse Phase are action-movie archetypes (soldiers, secret agents, hotshot pilots, and so on) who survived the Fall—or at least backup copies of these archetypes whose personalities and memories escaped the TITANs. The gamemaster invents plots for them that are heavy on combat but with added doses of negotiation, mystery, and exploration.

The surviving colonies are a fractious lot, with plenty of intrigue and conflict to drive the narrative. The Jovian Republic doesn't like the Autonomist Alliance in the outer system, which in turn distrusts the hypercorps controlling the terraforming effort on Mars, and so on. Hundreds of smaller orbital habitats and other colonies exist, many founded long before the Fall specifically to escape Earth's influence. Just because they all survived doesn't mean they get along, and the players might undertake missions to protect their home colony or undermine a rival colony. When they do, they'll wind up fighting agents much like themselves—humans who've downloaded themselves into an array of genetically or cybernetically enhanced bodies.

Players can also break the quarantine and explore postapocalyptic Earth, but doing so is dangerous. Nanoswarms and robotic weapons that the TITANs left behind rule the landscape, and the landscape itself is classic postapocalyptic fare. Some cities were nuked, others left deserted after bioengineered plagues ran rampant, and some are in ruins after urban warfare between human and machine. But mankind is desperate to regain its heritage--everything from historical artifacts to computer records left behind in the evacuation—so the rewards are great, too.

Finally, the players can head through a Pandora's Gate and see what lies beyond the solar system. Five such gates are known to exist: on a Vulcanoid asteroid near Mercury, on Mars, on the Saturnine moon Pandora, on the Uranian moon Oberon, and the Eris asteroid in the Kuiper Belt. The game hints that the TITANs built one on Earth before they departed, and the gamemaster can add new Pandora Gates with new destinations. Eclipse Phase gives each table free reign to determine what wonders and dangers are on the other side of the gate. Earlier human explorers? TITANs? Aliens? The only way to find out is to go there.

How It Plays at the Table

The heart of any tabletop RPG rules is how the game handles task resolution—anything a player wants to do that's neither automatic nor impossible. The most common example is combat—do I hit the guy I'm aiming at?—but task resolution covers everything from docking your spaceship to fast-talking your way past the bouncer to searching a crime scene for clues. The ideal system delivers interesting results, rewards clever play, and doesn't take too much time at the table.

Eclipse Phase falls down in the third aspect. Resolving a pull of the trigger is an eight-step process (declare attack, declare defense, apply modifiers, make opposed test, determine outcome, modify for armor, determine damage, determine wounds). Both the player and the gamemaster are rolling dice and doing arithmetic in their heads.

Here's part—part!of the example given in the Eclipse Phase rules:

The assassin goes first, spending a Quick Action to draw a shredder. This flechette weapon is in burst-fire mode, so with a Complex Action the assassin can take two shots. His Spray Weapons skill is 65, he's smartlinked (+10), and they're at short range (+0), so he needs a 75 or less. Stoya is defending with her Fray skill (60) divided by 2, or 30.

The assassin rolls an 08 with the first shot. Amazingly, Stoya rolls a 28. They both succeeded, but Stoya rolled higher, so she dodges the first shot. The assassin rolls a 20 for his second shot, another hit, and this time Stoya rolls an 83, a failure.

The assassin also scored an Excellent Success with a MoS of 55, increasing the DV by +5. The assassin's base damage is 2d10 + 5, but he's using burst fire against a single target for +1d10, and it's also a cone effect weapon at short range, for an additional +1d10, for a total DV of 4d10 + 5. The assassin rolls 4d10 and gets 16, then adds the +5 for a total DV of 21.

Stoya's wearing light body armor (AV 10/10), but the shredder's Armor penetration is 10, so her armor is entirely negated. She takes a devastating 21 DV, exceeding her Wound Threshold of 10, not just once, but twice. This means Stoya suffers 2 wounds from the shot, suffering 20 to all actions. In addition, she must make two SOM x 3 Tests, one to avoid knockdown and the other to avoid unconsciousness. Her SOM is 30, meaning she needs a 70 (30 x 3 = 90, 90 20 wound modifiers = 70) on both rolls. She rolls a 40 and a 27, succeeding both.
Eclipse Phase, p. 192.

Leaving aside the game lingo in the quote (which would be second nature to an Eclipse Phase player), it's worth breaking down what's happening with a single pull of the imaginary trigger: Three dice rolls for the gamemaster and four for the player, each with situational modifiers and mental arithmetic required. Multiply that complexity by an entire battle, and you see the dilemma. It takes too long to resolve combat.

Eclipse Phase rightfully makes a big deal out of the player's ability to resleeve—choosing the right body for the right task. If you need to sneak into the enemy base, you might choose a "Ghost" body with chameleon skin and grip pads on hands and feet (for climbing walls like a spider). Going into a microgravity habitat? Use a "bouncer" body with grasping feet and an emergency oxygen reserve, or try an "octomorph" with tentacles, a squidlike body, and 360-degree vision.

Resleeving lets Eclipse Phase neatly solve a problem many other tabletop RPGs face: What do you do when one character dies? In most games, the player of the dead character has to make a new character, then wait as a spectator until there's a chance for that new character to join the ongoing narrative. That sometimes threatens willing suspension of disbelief when the other characters suddenly befriend and trust the new character. (They know the player, of course, but the character is this guy who just showed up.) When all the players enjoy "serial immortality," those deaths have consequence, but they aren't disruptive to the ongoing narrative. No matter what it looks like, the new character's body is just as integral to the narrative as the old one.

The benefits of resleeving are mitigated, however, by the fact that figuring out a new body for your character takes time. It took me 10 minutes doing arithmetic to switch from one body to another, and there are enough choices that a player could go into "analysis paralysis" and spend an hour resleeving. The notion of a disposable body is important to gameplay and a crucial part of Eclipse Phase's theme, so it's disappointing that it's so cumbersome to accomplish.

Metagame Concerns

One thing that separates a "hobby game" from an ordinary game is the presence of a metagame: enjoyable game-related activities you engage in when you aren't actually playing. RPGs are renowned for a strong metagame. Especially if you're the gamemaster, you can spend many a rainy afternoon making up characters and inventing adventures to fuel future sessions.

Eclipse Phase gives the gamemaster plenty to do in the metagame, but it doesn't provide the tools to make those metagame activities easy. For example, say you're the gamemaster and you want the players to infiltrate an orbital habitat run by pro-TITAN cultists. You need to create the basic stats for the guards, the lead cultist, the nanotwisted horrors in their laboratory, and so on, but you have only your own eyeballs to guide you. It's hard to gauge what sort of antagonists (and how many of them) are neither too hard nor too easy. Some sort of analog to D&D's levels or challenge ratings—or even a larger library of sample antagonists—is sorely needed.

Eclipse Phase is also tough on players who are only mildly motivated to give the game a try. The character creation rules start on page 130, and it's just not realistic to expect every player to do that much reading before the dice hit the table. If part of the Eclipse Phase rulebook would "evangelize" to time-pressed players and say, "Here's the setting in a nutshell—now make up a character quickly and start playing," the gamemaster and more committed players could fill those empty seats at their game table. There's plenty of time after a great first session to devour the entire 400-page rulebook.

Reads Good, Plays Not So Good

I'm at once excited and disappointed by Eclipse Phase. It's an evocative setting rich with dramatic potential and replete with thought-provoking SF themes. But that setting is stapled to gameplay that's too slow and too cumbersome. Furthermore, Eclipse Phase gets in its own way by being so daunting to the curious newcomer and by demanding so much preparation effort from its gamemaster. In other words, I long for adventures in Eclipse Phase's universe, but I don't want to deal with the actual game at their foundation.

Thus I can't recommend the game, and I've set Eclipse Phase aside...for now. Eclipse Phase was produced under a Creative Commons License, so I'm hopeful that other game designers will unearth this gem of a setting, streamline the rules, and make a game more friendly to its players. If that happens, I'll happily "resleeve" myself into an enthusiastic Eclipse Phase player.

The Obligatory "How I Played This" Paragraph

"Gamenivore" reviewed Eclipse Phase based on the first printing of the game by Catalyst Game Labs. I spent about four hours reading the rules, four hours experimenting with character creation, and two hours simulating various game situations. Then I spent three hours creating a short scenario and pregenerated characters for a three-hour game session with experienced tabletop RPG players.


Copyright © 2009, Corey Rixle. All Rights Reserved.

COMMENTS!

Dec 11, 05:53 by IROSF
Please comment!
Dec 11, 07:01 by Erin Hoffman
Great, a game reviewer who starts us off by saying he's doing this because he's not qualified to do anything else. =/ And who thinks the form is in its infancy. Rolling Stone was printing articulate and insightful (and *concise*) commentary on the growing world of video games in the late seventies; this field is now over twenty years old.

I will endeavor to have higher hopes and expectations for the future of this column.
Dec 11, 15:12 by Bluejack
Well, uh, what did you think of the actual article?

In fact, our Corey, while modest, is widely talented, highly respected, and deeply experienced in the field. (Long-time gamers may recognize "Corey Rixle" as an in-reference.) You will note that the column is *not* about video games, it is about the story aspect of all games: the first column is a pen and paper rpg, for example.

We welcome criticism, but welcome it even more when it's relevant.
Dec 11, 23:04 by Marti McKenna
Heh. Good thing our Corey's got a thick skin, 'cause that's a hell of a welcome. :)

I've been working in the games industry for over 20 years, and I enjoyed this. Also, I think if one reads past the word "infancy," one finds that the claim is a fair one: literary criticism has certainly been around far, far longer than game criticism. And as Bluejack pointed out, this column is not just about video games, but all games.

Oh, and you can take my word for it, Corey is well-qualified to do much more than this, and does so daily. Self-deprecation is one of those things writers do.
Dec 12, 02:33 by Janine Stinson
I admit that word "infancy" made me think, "um, what?" a la our first commenter. Then I remembered that Adam Sessler and Morgan Webb reviewed *only* video games on "X-Play." I'm not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but I did enjoy "X-Play" as critique. For me, this column is a bit long, but for those interested in all gaming forms, it's probably just right. :)

The only time I ever played D&D, it took me three hours to get into the game (be allowed in via the game play, that is), and less than that to get killed off. I've heard that a good DM is worth their weight in gold, though, so I haven't given up on the game entirely.
I'm definitely a fringe observer for now.

Because of the fictional content of SF/F/H games, "Gamenivore" is a good fit for IROSF, and thanks to Corey Rixle for taking it on. Maybe he could interview some content creators as well? Just a thot.

Dec 12, 06:50 by Erin Hoffman
Hi Marti. Yes, I did take it for granted that anyone writing about games would have thick skin. :) Let me try to articulate my frustrations in a more civilized way, and I'll try to be brief.

I'm a game designer (a maker of alleged "blocks of heroin", actually) with ten years' professional experience. I'm also a game journalist and regular contributor to an award-winning pro-paying game (video and otherwise, and popular culture) magazine, and that's real world pro, not spec fic pro. I also work with academics and have contributed to academic publications on the study of games.

Corey's words about game journalism's "infancy" might have been true ten years ago, but they are wildly out of date, and for a field that has been fighting for serious treatment for the last decade, it's deeply disheartening to see this antiquated assumption reiterated without attention to recent advances in the field -- from someone who is claiming to now enter it. _Game Informer_ is eighteen years old and has 3 million subscribers (USA Today has 1.9m); comparatively new print magazines like _Play_ (ten years old) run insightful commentary under a higher production value every month than any speculative fiction magazine on the market. This is not "a handful of magazines", and if he thinks that most game reviews are lists of features, he's going to the wrong websites.

If we look past "infancy", while you and Corey's friends may be thoroughly convinced of his brilliance and sway, I, who have never heard of him, am getting my introduction to his debut column with the message that he isn't well-read enough for general commentary and so he's falling back on writing about games. This isn't about self deprecation but how a professional introduces themselves to an audience. My conclusion, based on his self description and his comments about my field, is that he needs to do quite a bit more reading -- about, I am to understand, his own field.

To wax academic for just a second, the further statement in "why game criticism is impossible" (again pretty insulting to people who make a living at this, but let's not dwell) that "games change after repeat play" is not only false but categorically counter to what a game _is_. I understand what he's saying as he further explains, but writing (as you know) is about precision. And what defines a game is a rule structure itself that does not change -- allowing a game like chess to be experienced identically whether near its inception in the middle ages or today. This is what makes a game a cultural artifact unlike any other. And this isn't new, either -- it was laid out by Dr. Elliott Avedon in 1971 in his _The Study of Games_. If we're to talk about _game_ commentary as opposed to _video game_ commentary, not only does it go back fully as long as literary criticism (in time, not volume -- there were games before there were books), there are entire "recreational studies" programs in universities devoted to them, alongside their incidental study in sociology, archaeology, and cultural anthropology. The statement reflects lack of knowledge of the history of the medium. As game developers we may not necessarily have or need this level of detail, but a game commentator and would-be game critic should be held to a higher standard of knowledge, especially if they're going to denigrate the field out the gate by calling it young and unexplored.

I understand that he is your friend and I'm quite willing to believe he's capable of better than this, and I hope you'll understand my wanting to hold a newcomer to games journalism to a higher standard. So welcome, Corey. :) The pond is big now, and the water's fine. :)
Dec 12, 18:27 by Marti McKenna
Erin, thanks for your insightful post. I'm aware of your work, and Corey himself is a fan. I appreciate you taking the time to make your points, which you did with aplomb.

I'm looking forward to seeing how Corey answers the challenges of taking on this column, and I hope you'll continue to be a part of the discussion.

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