Tuesday, 11 December 2012

"Our range of actions, their borders and how we move beyond them, is defined by other people": Interview with Aaron Reed

This is one of a series of interviews I conducted for my article about what text can say about war that AAA games can't. You can read the other interviews by clicking here.

I contacted Alan A. Reed for this article because of his game Maybe Make Some Change. Reed is a PhD student in computer science who's researching the intersection between literature and computational media, which was very relevant to my argument. Maybe, with its text interface overlaying murky FPS footage and its ranks of unreliable narrators, perhaps best exemplified my headline.

You'll notice that this interview is rather longer than the others. That's not because I deemed Aaron worthy of more time, but simply because he was the only one I managed to corner in an actual live chat. Obviously, this went all over the place, as I tried to detain him with any question that came to mind like a grasping journalistic Scheherazade.

Anyway, after settling myself on my bed with a damp cloth over my eyes and tuning my mind into the Collective Unconscious, we got to talking:

In the game's about page, you say you included footage of counter-strike, BF1942 et al in the background because these are in general the only representations of war we see in games (a term I use loosely). Do you think they're inadequate? Or problematic? And how so?

When I first became aware of the real news event that "change" was inspired by in late 2010, I hadn't personally really thought about the war in Afghanistan for a while… it had been going on for so long I had almost forgotten about it, or had started to tune it out, and I think a lot of other people had done the same thing. There's an anti-war narrative film or documentary every now and then, but these haven't seemed to enter the mainstream consciousness very much in the last decade.

But there have been a lot of games set during real wars, some contemporary, that *have* been major cultural artifacts, selling tens of millions of copies and so on. And while some of these games engage with these wars in mature ways, many, probably most, even, do not. So the idea that most people, especially younger people, are relating to these wars through the black-and-white mechanics of a first-person shooter game started becoming deeply unsettling to me. And so I started to think about what it would be like to create an experience where you actually had to stop and think before shooting someone, where that became a morally charged experience again.

In a game, I should say. Hopefully it's still a morally charged experience for most of us in real life.

Although in your game, initially at least, you can stop and sthink all you want - you still only have one verb available and are repeatedly told to use it.

That's right. And I thought a lot about that, especially after in early testing a lot of people refused to type that first command. I finally decided, I think, that that was okay with me… if I made someone think about what they were being asked to do, and decide to refuse to do it, that was fine. I think refusing to engage with a system you find unacceptable is a valid response.

That's interesting because obviously it parallels a lot of people's response to Rendition - which straight up tells you "you can't leave, you haven't abused this man enough", and a lot of reviewers and players said they quit in protest...

Right. I think Rendition deserves more credit than it sometimes gets. I've heard some responses to it along the lines of, "this is disgusting, it's just for shock value, I don't want to play any more." But again, I think refusing to play, or putting someone in a situation where they choose to refuse to play, can be a powerful gesture. Brenda Brathwaite's Train, if you're familiar with that, does something similar, and there's an older IF called "1-2-3…" that made you play as a serial killer, with no options but to horrible murder the people you encounter. I think pieces like this can be about how people feel helpless in the face of compulsions, laws, societal obligations, or what have you, but they can also give players a way to reject that defeatism by simply putting down the game and walking away.

Isn't that a bit like shooting the messenger? I mean, it seems odd to respond by protest-quitting (a noble sub-form of the 'ragequit', I suppose) when faced with a game that makes a point of limiting your verbs, but not when faced with one which does so implicitly (ie there is not a hug button you can even be told not to use). As if the unpalatable thing were being reminded of what you're doing, not doing it. 

So I think one factor there is the sheer speed difference between being dropped in a real-time, first-person game, versus reading some text and then having a command prompt that will wait as long as you want for input. We're not used to having all the time in the world to think how to react when someone is running towards us in a game. And that situation is usually objective in an FPS-- it's being described with polygons, not racially-loaded language. So the doppler shift from turning a fast-paced, finger on the trigger experience into a frozen moment of contemplation creates a lot of disconnect, which was intentional.

And clearly I don't think protest-quitting is the only valid response, or I wouldn't have made the rest of the piece… but the rest of it obviously hinges on dragging out that single moment, replaying it as retold or foretold by a lot of different narrators, and eventually gaining the ability to try out different responses. So it's a bit like taking one moment in an FPS where there's no time to think, and stretching it out to a twenty minute stretch of contemplation.

So AAA shooters present an ideological fait acompli - "here is the world, you must react" - whereas with text, and especially if there is no real-time clock, there's more room to critique what's being represented to you? 

Just more time to think about it at all, beyond that fight-or-flight response that drives action games. And right--- even in a real-time text game, it takes more time to read the text than to take it a visual situation on screen. And more time to time a response.

I've always thought real-time typing is the only interface that really reproduces the clumsiness and difficulty of an action like reloading a weapon (fumbling for the mag etc)...but do you think text is fundamentally a more introspective medium than 3D graphics? 

I think it is, although that obviously doesn't mean you can't be introspective with 3D. Especially in the last few years with the rise of indie games, you see a lot more thoughtful games that also look gorgeous-- things like Dear Esther, and the games by Tale of Tales.

I think it just boils down to the fact that visual media work one way, and textual media work another. It's easier to play to the strengths of your chosen medium than to work against them, and one of text's strengths are presenting coherent, logical sequences of statements or arguments, and the ability of the reader to have absolute control over the pacing, from moment to moment, to stop and think mid-paragraph or mid-sentence, to jump back or forward at will, and so on. You can pause a movie or 3D game, sometimes, but jumping around is more work, and the experience is designed to flow on regardless of whether you're keeping up.

Which is why text games tend to be much more about observation and puzzles than graphical games, as a general rule. It's not just nice that you understand something, you *have* to understand it to keep going.

We've been touching on the idea of 'telling', and of course that's crucial to Change because every version of the events that you play through is a discursive creation of someone with an agenda and emotions. What was your intention with that - and do you think there's a difference there to the kind of shooters that play in the background? 

So the different narrators I suppose was inspired by trying to piece together all the difference fragments of story coming out in the Adam Winfield case, and becoming very aware of how much even "objective" journalism is about creating a story and shaping the reader's perception of the events to match a certain narrative. Shortly before the piece was released, the first two major investigative journalims pieces came out about the killings, one by Rolling Stone and one by Der Spiegel. The Rolling Stone one portrayed Adam Winfield as a coward who knew the killings were going on and let them continue happening. The Spiegel piece cast him more as a whistleblowing hero who tried to warn people even though his life was at risk but no one would listen to him. I was struggling myself with how to portray the events in my piece, and really came to the stark realization that forefronting that process of narrative assembly was what I needed to do, trying to get past a single narrative to the complexities of the real people behind true stories.

And yeah, to your second point, you do have to come to that realization about how the piece is structurally working to reach the conclusion, which is an excerpt from the real transcript between Adam and his father. And a lot of people, probably most, don't make it that far. But I think I'd rather it feel like a significant step for those who do than dumb it down to something that feels obvious, like you weren't the one who figured it out.

This is the IF puzzle conundrum, I guess-- the point of puzzles is that you feel smart when you solve them, but you only feel smart if they were hard, and if they're too hard you won't feel smart when you solve them. Er, you won't solve them at all, I mean.

What do you think is the difference between a game speaking about war and a game speaking about speaking about war? it sounds, from above, like you felt the only way to do the former faithfully was to do the latter.

Hmm, interesting. I feel like most people's responses to--- war, but also to almost any political or world event, come to think of it-- are mostly predetermined. If something you oppose comes up, you get angry and don't really think about it much. If something you support comes up, you feel good and agree. It's rare to have something that makes you actually stop and think about what's going on and how you feel about it.

This is I think a real strength of interactive media--- it can put us in that position of needing to stop and think about something. And I think that can be more powerful than a pro-X, anti-X, or even thoughtful-dialogue-about-X non-interactive piece. Unmanned also works this way-- it's not really overtly saying anything overtly preachy about drone pilots, more asking you to consider what it would be like to be one, or that those are real people with families and commutes and co-workers. Putting you in the shoes of someone else, and asking you to think about how you would act in those shoes, are two big strengths of interactive works about real events, and I think that's a type of game that's still tragically underexplored.

And that requires putting you into a situation which actually is ambiguous, I guess, and in which you have options that are more than merely tactical - something which manshooters generally try very hard not to do. MW3 and Homefront, for instance, both make you 'watch helplessly' as the enemy does bad things, but this is just a narrative gloss on their limited, combat-specific ruleset.

Right. It's funny, because my mom always used to walk in while I was playing video games as a kid, and be like, "Why don't you try talking to them?" And I'd roll my eyes or whatever, because she "didn't get it." But as an adult that's actually kind of a powerful story, because the verbs you give an actor, whether that's in a game or in some real-world situation, really do have a powerful impact on the way you view the world. You stop considering that it might even be possible to do anything other than shoot, if shoot is the only verb you're used to having.

Given that, why did you choose not to make all the verbs in Change available to the player from the start? 

To make the player feel that frustration. The opening really makes you consciously aware of the fact that you might very much like to do something other than shoot, but you can't-- the system simply will not recognize any other verb. But as you move forward and acquire other verbs through the responses of the narrators, the possibility space opens up. I'm not feeling very articulate about it right now, but there's something there about how our range of actions, their borders and how we move beyond them, is defined by other people, even the ones we don't particularly like or get along with.

I can fill in those gaps? I thought one of the most interesting moments in Change was where you have to actually pun on the verb 'miss' - something which I'm unsure has a direct equivalent in a non-text ruleset. I mean I really don't know what to make of it, especially as it seems to be the only moment of exploiting language ambiguity. Any thoughts on that?

Yeah, that's definitely a thing language and language-based games can do that doesn't have much of a parallel in other media. There's a whole branch of wordplay-based IF by people like Nick Montfort that builds on that disconnect between the representation and the reality. I suppose in "change" it's a little jarring, but I think it ties into what I was just saying about ideas and possibilities coming from other people, even if it's not what they intended… something someone says can spark a completely unrelated idea that you nevertheless wouldn't have had without their influence.

You study text and interactive media in relation - do you think players experience text as more motivated, discursive, less as a holodeck and more as a story told? 

I think it can work either way.  Language certainly has the power to transport people, to escape into the imagination, better sometimes than even state-of-the-art graphics. There's a bit I love by Richard Bartle, inventor of the MUD, where he imagines more and more fantastical technologies for creating virtual reality like immersive experiences, and ends with (paraphrasing) "What if we had the power to tap *directly* into the human imagination? Well it turns out we do. It's called text, and was invented a few thousand years ago."

But I think it also offers the ability for a different mode of engagement, especially when it becomes interactive. A lot of IF people have talked about the pleasing parity between text-in and text-out that you get with IF-- you and the computer are communicating in the same language-- but I think it goes deeper than a surface-level similarity. Text-based games really encourage you to think about things on a number of different levels: the simulated world, the person telling you about that world, the things that are described versus those left out, wordplay, etcetera… it can be a very rich, introspective experience, especially when you're participating in what's going on by typing back words of your own.


Until next time!!! 

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