Obsessive Rationalization of Unrealistic Genres

I am constantly amazed and disappointed by people’s perpetual insistence on willful ignorance and disregard of logic. It is common to tout that people are able to “distinguish reality from fiction”, but I am finding that hard to believe. This ailment is especially prevalent in fans or supporters of a particular lore; enjoyment of a genre appears to be a debilitating disease that leaves its victims completely incapable of making concessions to critics.

Let’s examine two examples. First, zombie lore. The genre is wide and diverse, but is generally accepted to be a gross fabrication and completely improbable, right? Nope. There is a fixation on coming up with more and more “realistic” explanations of how a zombie apocalypse could “actually” come to be. This is true both in media — we see the introduction of terms like “infected” to make the scenarios seem more authentic — and in the fan culture surrounding it. Look at any article on the Internet pointing out the most obvious reasons that a zombie apocalypse would never arise, and you will see a flood of comments defending the feasibility of such a scenario. Do they think that pointing out the unrealism of the genre is somehow offensive? That explicitly distinguishing reality from fiction (in a genre that is constantly trying to move the latter towards the former) somehow invalidates the fiction? It boggles my mind that people feel the need to defend the feasibility of a clearly fictional and improbable scenario.

But this feeling of wonder is only compounded whenever I accidentally wander near Star Wars or Star Trek fans. Both these franchises are clearly future fantasy (where technology serves only to further the plot, as opposed to hard science fiction, where there is a clear bi-directional interplay between the two). Yet many fan sites are created to help flush out the technological lore and attempt to apply rational, scientific explanations to the events in the media that are clearly only in service to the plot. If you point this out to a fan, they will become indignant and start explaining their way around any obstacle you toss at them. Never mind that the whole thing is fictional and doesn’t actually need to be scientifically accurate in order to be entertaining (and in fact was never intended to be scientifically accurate). This madness continues to the degree that later productions in the franchise may even try to explain some of the happening with science, but 9 times out a 10 this only bungles things up further.

Anyways, I wish die-hard fans would accept that they are fans of a fictional entertainment franchise that not only isn’t realistic or feasible, but in fact doesn’t need to be in order to be entertaining. Being unrealistic does not invalidate zombies or Star Trek or Star Wars in any way. So get over the fact that none of those franchises make any damn sense.

Jörmungandr

Here is a story I recently wrote. It was written over the course of an afternoon, for a school assignment.

Jörmungandr

One of the first few expeditions found him. As they plunged off their boat into the icy Atlantic and slogged onto Snaeland at, as they dubbed it, Seydisfjordur, his hollow ravings echoed down from the foothills and caused much inquiry. A group of the Norsemen set out from the expedition’s shore-side camp, and hiked up towards the source of these cries. They found him living in the carcass of a busse; the ship looked like it had been washed into the mountains, its beams broken across the crevices of the hills, its oars splintered on the tall pines. The Norsemen, not a little confused, dragged the raving lunatic back to their camp and kept him in an uthu adjoining the longhouse. For the next two nights, the Norsemen argued over what to do. Some wanted to hang him as an offering to the All-Father, but most were willing to wait and hear the prisoner’s explanation before deciding. How could such a heavy ship be lifted inland as far as a day’s walk?

After a few days of food and drink, the man began to speak some sense. They found his name was Gormund. As soon as this news spread, everyone was intensely curious to hear his story. In slow strides of language, Gormund began a discourse. His clothes were ragged and his hair long and unkempt, but his tongue was as erudite as the best skald. Gormund held himself very calmly, but every word he spoke was laden with insanity. Over the course of two days Gormund disgorged an enthralling madman’s tale.

He detailed an expedition made from Volmong (after explaining that Volmong was a Norse settlement hidden away in the mountains of Iberia, which was met by much disbelief), which had raided a string of monasteries. As they found out, these monasteries housed adherents to the Societas Eruditorum. Soon they had Charlemagne breathing down their necks. Pressed, the settlement held a thing, in which they decided that Volmong was doomed. The settlement was the size of a hundred, and leaving was never really an option, though not for lack of trying. The Norseman’s place is on the sea, not in the highlands; the settlers of Volmong were folly for ignoring that. The slow caravan to the coast was cut down en masse by the underfed armies of the mainland conqueror. Only a handful of longships left the Iberian shore, and fewer navigated the Channel successfully.

On the third day of Gormund’s consciousness, his narrative was cut short when a lookout cried from the palisade. A Gaelic warship had appeared off the coast. The men, suddenly electrified by the chance of combat, began to arm themselves, and pushed off in one of their three longships, dragging Gormund along in spite of, as they found, his deathly fear of the sea. As their longship drew closer to the Gaelic craft, the Norsemen made out its shape: it had the contours, in the front, of a Roman bireme, maybe a trireme, but as it turned they saw that the back was rough and squarely built. When the ships were three thousand fot apart, the Norsemen saw why; a massive ballista was mounted on the head of the Roman warship.

Too late to reconsider tactics, and already heady from bloodlust, the Norse threw their backs into the oars and plowed towards the Gaelic ship at ramming speed. The Gaels loosed a flaming bolt from the ballista, which struck the drum beater. The weight of the shaft sheared his body in two, and the flaming oil spilled across the deck of the longship. With cadence broken, the oarsman made slower progress, but still they closed the gap between the ships. Another bolt was loosed, and it struck the side of the longship, shearing away many oars. Crippled, the Gaels lobbed flaming bales of hay onto the longship, and sat apart as the burning wreck sank into the cold Atlantic.

The Gaels dragged the two floating survivors aboard. One was conscious, and lashed out at his rescuers. They cut his throat and dumped him into the ocean. The other corpse was limp, but after some time of lying on the deck, he awoke, sputtering. The druid aboard hoisted the man up and pressed him against the forward mast, seeking fear in his prisoner’s eyes. But as the druid gazed, he saw a spark erupt within the Norseman’s eyes. Backing away in fear, he averted his gaze as the man’s face glowed an unearthly pallor. Gormund then spoke out in Gaelic, in an attempt to quell his captor’s fear. Of course, this was in his best interest; he didn’t want these Britons dumping his lifeless body in the cold Atlantic. He said, “I am Gormund, son of Bjiolnir. Bring me to Kaupang.” The Gaels could do nothing but obey him, and so they sailed to Kaupang. They left him on the ocean-shore of Outer Kaupang.

When he reached a fishing village on the bay-shore, the villagers took him in as a fellow Norseman. When beseeched to explain his business, he refused. When pressed, he warily recounted his passage from Seydisfjordur. The villagers, realizing he was a madman, locked him in the boathouse. The next morning they sent an envoy to Inner Kaupang to inform the herad-lord of a madman who claimed to hail from Snaeland. The herad-lord, on a whim, called for the man to be brought to his longhouse.

The next day, Gormund was brought before Þorhrafn, the herad-lord. “I am Þorhrafn, son of Harald, son of Refrbrandr, chieftain of Kaupang and contender for the throne of Skiringssal. Name yourself,” commanded Þor.

“I am Gormund, son of Bjiolnir. I hail from this town.”

“You say you live here, eh? You claim to have come from Snaeland.”

“I was with a landing at Seydisfjordur, when a Gaelic warship sunk the Karvi we launched. I convinced the Gaels to transport me here.”

“A Gaelic ship got you? Hah! And you convinced a ship of victorious Gaels to ferry you a hundred vei? How’d you manage that? Got an all-tongue, do you?” The chieftain guffawed.

“Yes, I have been granted such powers by the gods.” At this, the herad-lord let out a cry, and doubled over laughing.

“Qlfuss tunga! Hah!”

“I was at Volmong, where we raided Societas Eruditorum bastions. They have unlocked many secrets of the gods.”

“Bahahaha! What is Volmong? You’re a crazy ‘kilg’n!” The chieftain turned to his attendant warriors, “Give his life to the All-Father.”

Gormund spoke out again, his voice slightly modulated, “Do you want to know how I got to Snaeland?” The warriors paused. “As I was sailing home, to Kaupang, when the worst storm any of us had ever seen beset our ships. Waves like giants walked among us, and threatened to carry our busse from the sea and into the sky. One by one, we lost sight of the other boats, their calls spirited away on more powerful gales, their image divided from us by sheets of water, and their wake obliterated by the churning of the sea. The sky and water were the same color, and the water so enveloped us that there became no difference between air and water, sky and sea, light and dark. The same wet grayness surrounded us for what seemed like an eternity.

“I hope the others fared better than our lot, but since you seem to be unaware of any return, I can only assume they succumbed to the sea, their valiant defense of the ship falling to a crushing blow of water… such a fate would be better than our own.

“At one point, I became distinctly aware that a set of eyes besides our own were among us. Yet every time I would turn to face the intruder, I found nothing. But then I, and others, noticed a transient murky form beneath us. Moments passed, in which the sea seemed to calm. Then a crew member cried out; the largest wave I have ever seen, seeming to rise above the sky itself, towered above us. As I watched, two glowing eyes pierced through the gray veil of the water, followed by a hulking, coiled shadow beneath the surface. I made out two enormous wings, limbs, and a wrapping tail. A silence descended, in which only the rushing of water was heard. Somebody cried, “Jormungandr.” Then the world went dark.

Jormungandr

“The next thing I recall is being found in Snaeland by the Seydisfjordur expedition. When I regained sanity, I remembered in a rush the campaign in Iberia. The Societas Eruditorum had given me things stolen from the vaults of the gods. Loki sent the World Serpent to apprehend me, to destroy my ship and return what was taken. Jormungandr’s storm carried our ship to Snaeland, and only I survived. I suspect that Jormungandr will return; he didn’t get what he wanted. My purpose in returning to Kaupang is to raise a force to fight him off.” As Gormund finished, the throne chamber echoed emptily. Þor considered these words, rolling his tongue around in his mouth as if appraising the taste of the tale. The only noise was the crackle of the fire. Then the herad-lord snorted.

“That is quite the tale. And one I’m not particularly inclined to believe. Even if I thought you weren’t a qlfuss, your story doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t the Serpent get you while in transit from Snaeland? Why not send a god to take back… whatever you stole, rather than a Loki-spawn, no less? Would not Jormungandr’s release of Midgard to attack you allow the oceans to spill over? And what was it that you stole?”

“The all-tongue, to name one.” Gormund paused, and was about to speak again but was interrupted by a courier, bursting into the chamber.

“The sea is boiling!” he cried. Everyone rushed outside. Gazing at the sea from atop the town-fort walls, they saw that indeed, the frothy waves had sheets of steam rising off them. A storm had come up, and dark clouds coated the Kaupang coast. Giant waves smashed the shore, breaking some of the boathouse piers. Then, from the water, a tower column of scales and flesh emerged, atop which sat a terrible head, with a maw lined with innumerable teeth. A horror fell upon the lord and his warriors.

Gormund muttered under his breath, “Jörmungandr.”

A Solution for Difficulty Curves and Power Creep

Most games portray you as a hero of some sort. A common trope is for the hero to be either inexperienced at the beginning of the game, or lack his equipment. This gives a reason for why the hero does not just plow right up to the main baddie and kill him at the beginning. In any case, a lot of games suffer from a strangely shaped difficulty curve. The game starts out fairly easy as the player learns the ropes, then the enemies get harder. Finally, you max out your stats and the game begins to get easier again.

Granted, the best games suffer from this less, but a lot of games have trouble with this type of power creep. Spore is a prime example of a ridiculously easy endgame (the space stage was essentially a sandbox). Some developers solve this by making enemies more powerful as the player progresses. This can work in games where, for instance, the enemy starts to realize just how much of a threat you are. In open-world games like Skyrim, though, this makes little sense.

Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation, mentioned in one of his Extra Punctuation an inkling of an idea for a game that is designed with this problem in mind. I have taken the liberty of gripping the nebulous concept by the horns and fleshing it out.

The game is based around the power suit you wear. It is a magnificent piece of High Technology. Unfortunately, this means that nobody is quite sure how it works. The machining of the piece is much too fine to replicate, in any case, which means any replacement parts have to come from other pieces of High Technology, which are few and far between.

At the start of the game you escape from the main fortress of the Bad Guys with some sort of Valuable Item (perhaps information). You raid the armory and steal the suit before plunging yourself deep into the wilderness around the citadel. You spend the game running from a cadre of pursuers, trying to make your way to the border. At every encounter with an enemy, it is up to you to protect your suit as much. Each blow is physically simulated and, depending on where you place armor, where the hit was, how hard it was, etc. a component on your suit has the potential of breaking. Parts also wear down over time.

The most critical part of the game is deciding how to keep your suit in working order. Some systems are critical, like the pneumatics that let you move (damage to arm parts may impair aiming speed, damage to legs may reduce speed or jump height, etc), and some are dispensable, like weapons. If a critical system receives a hit and becomes in critical danger of breaking down, you have to stop and either fix it with any spare parts you find, or scrap a non-critical system on your suit to get the essential parts.

This meta-game with the suit solves the problem of power creep. You are at maximum power at the beginning, but enemies are also at the greatest density. Slogging through the wilderness and fighting enemies wears your suit down, so by the end you are barely limping along. As time goes on, you have to choose which weapon or system to scrap for parts. This means that you get a sample of all abilities at the beginning, and can keep the ones that best suit your play style. One of Bioshock’s biggest problems was that there was no incentive to try new plasmids. I’m sure the majority of players just improved the starting set, because buying new powers was too much of a liability.

I like the idea of having the game being mostly free-world. You can choose the best path through the different types of terrain to avoid encounters. Cold environments, wet environments, and sandy environments all have different types of wear and tear on the suit. Roads are easy to traverse (meaning less food consumption and lower likelihood of suit failure) but are more likely to find troops on them. Towns and other population centers are more likely to hold supplies (food and maintenance items are critical for survival) and spare parts, but the citizens will raise the alarm if they see you, and there are likely to be troops in towns.

The catch is that any alarms you raise will alert the search parties to your general presence and means a higher chance of encountering troops. Same goes for any military engagements in which an enemy scout or survivor escapes. The game is part stealth (avoiding conflict), part tactics(managing the suit, choosing your world route), part combat (winning conflicts you get into). At the end, instead of a boss fight, you have a final battle at the border of the kingdom as the search parties converge on your position and a friendly militia comes down from the other side of the border to help you across.

Epic-scale Strategy Game

One idea for a game that has stuck with me for over a year has been that of a massive-scale strategy game. A crude way to describe it would be a cross between World in Conflict(WiC) and Spore (except it wouldn’t be as lackluster as Spore). The idea behind it is that players start out at a low rank, and are promoted based combat proficiency on the battlefield. When I have described this idea to people, they have likened it to America’s Army.

Each round of the game takes place on large battlefields covering a multitude of environments. The game would undoubtedly be set in the future, so the environments could range from undeveloped farm worlds and water worlds to urban centers and various theaters of space. A single player presides over the whole battlefield as a general, setting basic goals and deciding strategy. Each battlefield is in turn broken up into districts, which ranges in size from a WiC map (usually a couple miles across) to four WiC maps. Up to 8 commanders control 0 to 6 squads (they can order more based on reinforcement points) within each district. Each squad consists of 4 to 8 players, with one squad leader.

Screenshot of World in Conflict

Screenshot of World in Conflict


The basic foot soldier is expected to focus on objectives set by the squad leader. The squad leader is in charge of directing which positions to take and which enemies to focus on. A commander sets goals such as strategic objectives (defined by the game), rally points, and drop zones to secure. They are also in charge of ordering more troops. Their basic strategic goals are determined by the general above them, or perhaps an intermediary presiding over the district.

One major problem that becomes immediately apparent is discipline. How does one keep a player on task? The first solution that comes to mind is to let superior officers give or take promotion points based on the performance of players below them. However, this is easily abusable, both in the giving or taking of too many points and in the complete disregard for dealing with promotion points. The best solution is to have proficiency judged by the game. So what kind of criteria does the game have?

  1. Completion of given objectives

  2. Objectives are judged by the difficulty regarding enemy presence in the area and a number of other minor variables, the most important of which is subordinate proficiency. Failure to complete an objective due to it being impossibly difficult or having an inept team would barely count against a player. Conversely, failure to complete simple objectives would be counted against a player.

  3. Rendition of reasonable objectives

  4. A commander, whether at a high strategic level or as a squad leader, has a responsibility to give orders which make sense. If a commander is extremely incompetent, his commanding officer can choose to temporarily demote him, allowing another to take his place. In addition, sound tactical decisions are encouraged. Deciding to attack a position without much intel, even if the position is strategically important, is a bad choice. If a commander has access to tactical aid, poor placement will result in removal of promotion points.

  5. Combat Proficiency

  6. If the player is a grunt, he is also be promoted based on statistics like accuracy, deaths, and kills. Heroism and initiative may also be rewarded, such as single-handedly taking an objective or destroying a vehicle.

A player who accrues enough promotion points will be promoted to the next rank. There may be multiple ranks per command level to ensure that there will most likely be a command hierarchy even if two decimated squads are merged. Even if a player is promoted, though, it is possible that he will fill a slot lower down in the structure. If there are already enough commanders, someone qualified to be a general may be forced to serve as a grunt. However, if his squad leader is killed then he will instantly fill that slot (unless someone is of a higher rank than him). When a soldier dies, he is placed in a reserve pool. Until a commander orders another squad, he has to wait. Fortunately, battlefields are huge, and most likely, especially at the height of the battle, someone will need a new squad. Nonetheless, a delay time while waiting to be ordered also acts as natural motivation to stay alive. Be warned though, cowardice will be punished highly! Soldiers who pass qualification courses for things like vehicle piloting, administering first aid, and sniping will be able to fill special support slots.

Alongside infantry, commanders will be able to order a range of vehicles, including tanks, transports, and dropships. Other vehicles, like helicopters and ships, will be available as a special unit which must leave after a period of time. Tactical aid not delivered by a player includes artillery (including orbital strikes), airstrikes, and reconnaissance. All tactical aid (i.e. units and abilities not able to be ordered with reinforcement points) is able to be gained through spending tactical aid points, which a commander receives for performing well on the battlefield. Tactical aid points are different from promotion points in that they do not stick from game to game and that they are awarded for quantitative properties, such as objectives completed and enemy units destroyed.

The first person gameplay of the grunts would mirror other mainstream shooters. Each soldier has an array of guns, with the maximum weight decided by the planet’s gravity. Secondary weapons such as grenades and tactical devices (repair kits, radar kits, radios, medkits, etc) are available. A soldier can resort to melee if he runs out of bullets or is restricted by the environment (close quarters, pressurized space environment, presence of volatile props). The game’s varying environments also heavily affects gameplay. For instance, combat in space is an entirely different experience. Players would be able to move almost infinitely far (but would be penalized for abandoning objectives), and combat would be a lot slower. Players would have to worry about keeping their suits intact as well as jetpacks. Vehicles would also play a larger role. Alongside dropships becoming more versatile and critical, spaceships would start playing a role. In some cases the commanders might even be able to control large cruisers with a deadly array of weapons. Space stations would also hold a lot of firepower for whichever side’s soldiers could maintain control of it.

The story of the game would revolve around two distinct sides. Two budding empires emerge from different sectors but end up clashing for control of the core colonies. Whichever side dominates the colonies gains ultimate control over known space, since the colonies are the main centers of knowledge and raw material production. Humans have developed faster-than-light travel, but have not yet perfected material synthesization, so the majority of humans still rely on farm worlds and other such production centers to get metal, food, and leisure products. The FTL will probably be like The Mote in God’s Eye, in which ships can manipulate certain zones of space determined by gravitational fields to jump between stars. These jump points are hard to calculate, and only one exists between each set of stars. FTL communications have not been developed, so the only way to get a message to another system is to send a ship (a jump disables electronics and requires a sentient being to boot the systems back up).

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