Monday, March 23, 2009

Best of Both Worlds

A while ago I spoke with the head of a computer game development company. He explained to me that from an economics perspective, it's really important to keep the perspective on the player as a client of your company:
Imagine a graph of the player's enjoyment over time. The ideal arcade game starts the player with an amazing level of enjoyment, like eating chocolate cake with naked supermodels. Then after a minute or so, the enjoyment drops to zero so they put in another quarter.

Retail games are totally different. You only get their $50 once, meaning you want them playing the game as long as possible. This is so they'll recommend the game to friends. Having an absolutely amazing first minute isn't as important as long term playability and the general amount of content.
His comments stuck with me. A game designer needs to understand why players are supposed to enjoy the game, and whether it's more important to spend resources in one area or another. An arcade style game should focus on eye-candy and general visual "bling", including modern pay-as-you-go online games. The latest flavor of PC and console games only need enough eye-candy to initially attract people, and then get more mileage from more content. No one is happy with a pretty game that's finished in 3 hours.

He implicitly made one other point. Games are a tool for invoking emotional responses. He measured enjoyment, but games have the power to make us laugh and cry. They can frustrate us and make us rejoice. They can make us feel fearful and triumphant. It takes a truly brilliant game to do all of these things.

For me, that game is Thief: The Dark Project, from Looking Glass Studios. And by Thief, I also include the amazing sequel, Thief 2: The Metal Age. If you are unfamiliar with the game, I recommend watching Yahtzee's review at Zero Punctuation. It's delivered in his usual style of sarcasm and obscenities, but it's a very good review.

To summarize, Thief is a game that's the categorical opposite of a standard shooter. Rather than being armed with a dozen different firearms and enough ammunition to kill an entire brigade of bad guys, you play the role of Garrett, the master thief. Garrett is so weak that he's likely to die if he's involved in a fair fight with even one guard. Your whole job is to make sure that you never have to fight fair, ideally by avoiding fights altogether. The missions generally involve breaking into and out of heavily armed facilities, with every level providing a multitude of ways to approach it.

For example, to break into a manor, you might climb up onto the second floor and break a window to get in, sneak around to the back door and pick the lock, or knock out man guarding the front door. Each option has different challenges and benefits. Breaking a window is noisy and sure to attract guards to investigate, but being on the second floor means you're much closer to wherever the lord is keeping his valuables.

As a character, Garrett is a typical anti-hero, something I found refreshingly more believable than the standard do-gooder hero of today's games. Garrett is self-centered, distrusting, arrogant, and apathetic. He just wants to steal enough valuables to retire in style. But he's also extremely clever, and as a character, he is manipulated into both putting the world in danger and saving it through his natural reactions. Garrett only wants to save the world because it implicitly saves his own skin, and he'd rather not put himself in that much danger. But he doesn't have a choice, and the puppeteers in the game know this and take advantage of him because of it. To me, that's a much more believable character than an obscenely powerful special ops soldier who fights evil terrorists Just Because He's That Nice Of A Guy! I won't spoil the story because even after 10 years, it's still excellent.

I found the gameplay intense because it was the first game where I felt genuine fear. I'm not talking about the kind of frightening situations they'd put in a game like Resident Evil, where a zombie pops up out of nowhere and charges at you. That contains all the subtlety of a carnival funhouse. There's a difference between frightening and feeling fear. True fear comes from an impending sense of dread and worry, and that's something a zombie surprise cannot deliver. In Thief, however, you spend the entire game as a weakling. You know that if you make a single mistake, a whole slew of guards can appear and bring a world of hurt. So the entire game is spent wondering if you are hiding in a dark enough shadow, or if you can find a nearby window to jump through if things go downhill.

I'm so impressed that a game could do such a great job of bringing out a variety of emotions. In the space of one minute, you can go from suspense to fear to terror, and then feel extremely pleased with yourself by barely escaping death and finding a well hidden piece of treasure. And never have I played a game where the main character was so despicable, and yet I found myself liking him anyway.

I know that games should either be a lot of fun for a little bit of time, or a little fun for a long time. But somehow Thief manages to be the best of both worlds. The gameplay is always intense, and the story is so good that it hasn't gotten old in the half dozen times I've replayed the game. Somehow, this game embodies the best of both worlds. And while Looking Glass Studios is no more, I hope that someday someone makes another game as good as Thief.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor

Earlier this week, a reader made an interesting comment on my God of Stone post. Bryan analyzed the logic in the post and pointed out that it seemed to argue both in favor of and against revisionism in religion. My argument is actually progressive in nature. I favor revision religion when it's an improvement for humanity and I'm against revisions that are not. For example, removing the moral restrictions on eating pork is a good revision. Praying to a statue of the infant Jesus is not.

As a reminder to newer readers, I am not a Christian anymore, although I was a highly devout one for thirty years. For an explanation of why I left my religion behind, you can read the posts In The Cleft of the Rock, The Man Behind The Curtain, and The Emperor's New God. I am now a humanitarian agnostic. In other words, I'm not sure if God exists, but I believe morality and ethics have meaning even outside the context of God.

While I don't agree with everything the Bible says, I certainly understand the perspective of those that do. Having studied the Bible for decades, I'm convinced that the biblical authors had a similar perspective-- that the true measure of morality and immorality is whether an action helps or hurts humanity. Furthermore, religious authorities in the Bible had no problems revising laws when the new law provided a greater benefit to humanity.

The clearest statement of this philosophy comes from Jeremiah 7. Jeremiah has received a message from God for the people is Israel and soundly chastised them for their idolatry and other immoralities. Then in verse 19, it says:
"But am I the one they are provoking?" declares the Lord. "Are they not rather harming themselves, to their own shame?"
In other words, no amount of immorality can possibly harm God. The whole reason things like idolatry are sinful is that they harm the sinner, by pushing them away from a God that loves them and will bless them with his presence.

This is a crucial argument. Given the premises of the Christian religion, it is absolutely impossible to harm God. Because God loves humanity, he wants them to prosper. Therefore, the only things that God considers sin are those things that work against the humans he loves. So if something doesn't harm any portion of humanity, it cannot be a sin.

Things are only sinful if they harm humanity.

I encourage Christians to stop thinking about God as a random set of likes and dislikes. "God liked Jews and hated pigs. Then later he decided pigs were alright, but homosexuality was still bad." That's just irrational. If you believe in intelligent design as most Christians do, then you need to accept that your God is rational and work from there. God likes stuff that helps humanity and hates stuff that hurts humanity. He might have a better understanding of what "help" and "hurt" mean, but that's as simple as it gets.

When you view the evolution of religion as a gradual improvement on rules that benefit humanity, many stories in the Bible make more sense. For example, in Genesis 9:3-4, Noah has just survived the Ark, and God changes the law of what food humans are allowed to eat. Before the flood, humanity was supposed to be strictly vegetarian, but now God says it's okay to eat animals. Why did God revise his law? Animals were no different than they were before the flood, and now there are fewer of them. Either you think this story is factually true, in which case God must have changed his mind. Or you think this is just a story, so at least the Bible's author has revised the religious law. In either case though, the reason for the revision is clear-- the new law benefits humanity more than the old law did.

God isn't the only important religious figure who revised the Judaeo-Christian religion. Jesus did too, in his Sermon on the Mount. Starting at Matthew 5:17, Jesus says:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
He then proceeds to give nearly a dozen different examples of things people should do different from what the Torah (the law from Moses) instructs or permits. Here are some of these:
  • Insulting people is sinful
  • Looking at a woman lustfully is as bad as adultery
  • Divorcing a woman who has not been unfaithful is sinful
  • You should not seek retribution on people who have offended you
  • Love your enemies
The entire Sermon on the Mount was a revision of the Torah, or at least a reinterpretation. If Jesus said he didn't come to abolish the law and then proceeded to contradict the Torah, then the Torah must not be the law he was talking about. The simplest explanation is that the Torah is merely one interpretation of the laws "Love your God" and "Love your neighbor as yourself". This interpretation can be improved, and that's exactly what Jesus set out to do in his Sermon on the Mount.

If God was willing to revise his own law and Jesus could revise the law God gave to Moses, then everyone who believes the stories in the Bible must logically conclude that revising religious laws can be a good thing, as long as the new law does a better job of loving your God and neighbor. Sometimes the Bible got it wrong and needs to be improved with a good dose of common sense. If Jesus did it and Christians are supposed to act like Jesus, they should not be afraid to apply common sense to their religious text either.

And while I'm not a Christian anymore, this is the reason I believe that every Christian should be pro-gay. There is nothing about homosexuality that is inherently harmful to any human. It makes the couple happy, so logically there's no reason it should offend God. If there are rules against it in the Bible, then maybe those authors just didn't hear from God correctly and people should reconsider whether a ban on homosexuality actually embodies "love your neighbor". It's not at all loving to telling two consenting adults that they cannot marry each other just because they are of the same gender.