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Come, Travelers. Enter this City of Steam and Smoke for I have a Guide for You

When taking the stage of my individual journey in City of Steam, my character was required to find a companion with whom she was supposed to be familiar amidst the horde of evacuees. This guide was of my House, lecturing me through my avatar on the necessity of a quick Exit Stage Right through the city burning all around us. Though my character was supposed to be of the House, I knew nothing about the House’s background, the politics of the land, who consisted of my virtual family members, what rank we all were, and for how long this guide was programmed to have known me/my character. In this world of Colossus and industrial steampunk ruin, I was the amnesiac, the tabula rasa, and only my guide knew who and what I was.

What I find fascinating is the ways in which games encompass their tutorial within and through a guide character. My character may be of the world, but these characters alternate between treating me like some newly arrived extraterrestrial or time traveler and treating me like a veteran soldier. As a long-time lover of video games and someone who is quick to mash buttons to figure out which one will let me swing my sword (or, I guess, raise my shield. Priorities, people), the guide with the tutorial spilling from their pixelated mouths are just there to tell me, Yes, you are of this world but here is a way you may survive it. I am less interested in their battle basics and more interested in them pointing me in the right direction.

While my guide (assistant?) in City of Steam was helpful on that front, there were other elements of her existence that seemed false to me in a way only an MMO can reveal. She would lead the way, past rubble and terrorized virtual victims, and then stop in a space where I would be sent forth to pick up items, talk to other non-playable characters, or battle my way through monsters. Like a faithful puppy, I  would do her bidding, stumbling past other players who would talk to my guide. Unlike in a single-player console RPG, this guide was not my guide alone. I was not in an isolated playground where I could pretend that this gaming experience was unique to me; I was being given the same tutorial experience as everyone else who had chosen my race and class. She was the guide, not my guide as much as the game tried to frame her existent that way. I was not the only hero who would collect the fuel to get the game out of town, not the only one she would scold for House matters, and not the only one who would try to find a safer passage way to keep up with her through a burning building.

Now, as I followed this woman, I realized that this program, this code taken humanoid form, had to follow the same path until she was no longer needed, herding players like me through a city that was doomed to burn over and over again, so that we could play as heroes.  We would crowd around her, awaiting instructions that would lead us towards the next stage of the game, and I began to wonder how many lives she has lived so far, though it would inevitably be the same life. My guide, their guide, our guide, hurtling again and again through a city racked by smoke and fire, overshadowed by the awakened denizen, the ancient debris that had fallen from the sky, and the Brood of monsters who lay siege on the population.

Step This Way

My Life as a Cylon

For this week’s assignment, my classmates and I were playing Battlestar Galactica Online. As I have only seen bits and pieces of the show (I know, something I need to remedy), I spent some time reading the Factions section on the homepage, which really only contained information on a few major characters from each side and ship details. Then came the big question. Should I play as the humans, who are trying to survive, or the Cylons, who seek the eradication of the humans? How to decide which side? Randomization, my friends, handed me over to the Cylons. A bright-eyed, not-so-bushy tailed recruit for their sweet siren song of extermination.

My character in introduction section of Battlestar Galactica Online.

My character in introduction section of Battlestar Galactica Online.

Our topic for this entry surrounds the question of, “what is alien?” While going through the character customization, I found it interesting that there were not very many options (or at least visible markers) to differentiate my robotic Cylon from all the others (I found a website that helped me understand why I was given a metallic body when the Cylons I was vaguely familiar with in the show looked considerably human). So, in my new form, what would be alien? Would I consider myself alien, foreign, dangerous, extraterrestrial? Or would I be normal, perfect, beautiful? Is my lack of difference in appearance a weakness or is it the perfection of a singular design? Would I consider humans with their fleshy squishiness as something disgusting, or would they just be the prototype for the evolved forms of my humanoid brethren? If that is the case, the prototypes are no longer necessary. But, if I am aware that my species (if we are self-aware but synthetic, can we be on our species?) was created at some point by humans, in all their squishiness, can I consider them alien?  Or just would-be gods who my people must overcome if we are to gain our freedom?

If cognitive synthetic life becomes a reality, at what point do they stop being our creations and start becoming their own people? At what point are they our equals, or the next step in evolution? When do we, who seem to collectively think of ourselves as the highest form of all life, become that which is alien, unnecessary, and hunted?

Despite the overall seriousness of the game, a war being waged between man and his creation, I was reminded of a lighter version of the same conflict in the Ratchet and Clank series. I included a cutscene from the series with the robot-diva Courtney Gears singing “Robots of the Galaxy” (better known by its alternative title “Death to the Squishies”); lyrics can be found here. ^_^

A Little Control, But Where is the Storm?

Ah, back to Pirate Storm I trudge, but this time it is to the concept of control that I turn my attention. While I could talk about the tedious point-and-click gameplay mechanism, it was the lack of control I had over gameplay style that upset me most. It was the skeleton play of commanding a ship, but what exactly made it a pirate ship? No sign of a crew, no pillaging and plundering, and not even the daring, swashbuckling madness of fending off the Queen’s men. Instead, it was pointing-and-clicking my way through a series of pointless quests, bypassing “enemy” ships and giant sea creatures. When I earned enough coin and diamonds, it was possible for me to upgrade my ship and its weapons, but for what? So that I could kill the same targets with more efficiency? So that my ship will be a taller series of specks in eerily quiet waters? This is a far cry from the trailer that had ships sweeping past with the sense of daring and danger.

Maybe I am too used to being able to customize, to be at ground level as I maneuver through a gameworld, and to follow an avatar and not just an object. I long for the ship from Assassin’s Cred: Black Flag where there was at least the sense of controlling a character amidst a crew and getting to navigate a ship and decide how I get to take down the enemy. Do I blast my cannons at them as I sneak up behind, do I hammer away at their defenses as we race across the seas side-by-side? Do I sink the bastard or board her to gain my resources? So many choices, so much more freedom to wreak havoc on the pixelated seas. There was always the sense that I was in control of my battle strategy and that my upgrades has physical manifestations beyond watching the point value for the damage I had done.  For me, that is what embodies control worth having: being more than an anonymous ship with little to no direction beyond killing targets and zone hopping. I allow myself to be controlled by the game by allowing it to direct my actions and giving up my free time and my efforts to win something, but I expect a certain level of control given to me in return.

Screenshot of gameplay from Pirate Storm: Death or Glory. Image hosted on Best MMO RPGs.

Screenshot of gameplay from Pirate Storm: Death or Glory. Image hosted on Best MMO RPGs.

Naval combat in Assassin's Creed: Black Flag. Image hosted on IGN.

Naval combat in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. Image hosted on IGN.

To Death or Glory Do All Maps Lead

Oh Pirate Storm, what to say about you? A land of open waters, dotted with islands, giant crabs, Sea Rats, William’s Guard, and players’ ships existing in a world dislodged from historical context. How to talk about seas where the waves do not roll under the fierce gales that sweep out before the approaching hurricanes? How to meticulously linger in a world where the sun never sets, the moon never rises, and the taverns are just a point-and-click, point-and-click away in harbors unconnected to towns?

Best to start with that which leads all players to their destinations. In a world where everything is a set of coordinates within sets of squares, the map will always guide the player to the wharf. It is not often that we think of maps as technology, or the pen that traced its geographical contours, or the alphabet and the symbols that compose its legend, and yet maps are still a technology, long before Google Earth changed how we viewed our world. Linked together as a rope, the “zones” of Pirate Storm exist on a map, aptly titled “World Map,” and within each zone are squares littered with dots for ships and enemies, islands, and an anchor symbol that identifies the (only?) harbor located in that particular zone. However, the World Map and Zone Maps are not the only ones; Bonus Maps become available, modeled much like the zone maps but filled with rampaging enemies (as compared to the more passive enemies who only engage in harpoon warfare when struck first). While the world and zone maps are static, a smaller map appears in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, letting players see but a smidgen of the watery world they are expected to traverse.

Just a Taste of the Grand: