Ungames

Nov. 11th, 2014 04:42 pm
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (mini-me)
[personal profile] liv
I think it's Wittgenstein or some philosopher of that ilk who has a famous discussion of the fact that it's really hard to define what a game is; any definition you can come up with, it's easy to think of an exception which most people agree is a game. Recently I've been playing a couple of things which are kind of edge-casey, and I wanted to talk about some of them.

One is Microscope, which [personal profile] jack discovered while looking for roleplaying systems more fun and less time-consuming than D&D. We managed to get session in with [personal profile] ceb at the weekend, and I really enjoyed it a lot. I mean, that's partly because it involved spending time with [personal profile] ceb, who is always awesome; she pointed out we hadn't seen eachother since Worldcon, which is a pity except that we've all been busy doing fun things.

For me, Microscope distils exactly the things I like out of table-top roleplaying, while leaving out most of the annoying aspects of D&D and its descendants. What I like: having a framework in which people can collaboratively create stories. Microscope does really well at this, it has enough structure to make sure everybody gets some input and you don't just reach false consensus based on letting the loudest person take over. And equally enough structure /constraints that you can usually think of something to extend the story, you're just trying to do the impossible task of "write something". It manages to be almost entirely open-ended beyond that minimum, though, which is a good thing if like me you enjoy the story-creation aspects of RP, but possibly less good if you like the discovery aspects of gradually following someone else's story. There is no GM as such; it makes sense to have at least one player doing some minimal organization and probably suggesting the initial story seed, but beyond that it's fully collaborative, not GM versus players. This also means that it requires vastly less preparation and buying pre-set scenarios than traditional roleplaying. You can just show up and put some pizza in the oven and dive straight in to play.

What I don't like: having to wrangle lots of complicated tables of statistics and rolling lots of dice to see whether you're successful in fighting monsters or possibly other things you might attempt. Trying to reduce your character to a further series of statistics, to the point where adding more fine-grained detail to the list of traits they have doesn't really help with characterization. Microscope has exactly none of that, so if what you like is strategic wargaming and levelling up and so on, it's not the game for you.

The concept where you start with the broad outline and gradually "zoom" in on the details means that the timing is really flexible. You're not in too much danger of running out of time with the story still halfway through, or having to rush through the final section or whatever. We played this in a single session of about 3 hours, and had a story that felt, not finished but at least satisfying. I think it would probably work as a complex enterprise over several sessions if you wanted it to, though that would probably require at least some amount of write-up between sessions to keep track of what you'd already composed.

There's a small amount of what might be conventionally defined as role-playing, in the sense of players pretending to be characters and improvising dialogue. That's about right for me, because I enjoy that aspect of table-top but in lots of ways many scenes work better if you play the broad outcomes rather than the exact words stated by the different characters. And you don't necessarily stick with the same character throughout the scenario, though I suppose in theory you could if you were really invested.

If Microscope is almost all creativity and no formal rules or measurements of success (the only victory condition is that you make a good story), you might say that the opposite end of the spectrum is Ingress, which is basically all gamification and essentially no strategy or play. It's the first pervasive game to really take off, the idea is that you use a smartphone with GPS to make the real world playable. When I first heard of it, I both loved and hated the idea. Loved, because it's so very cyberpunk, having a portable computer which creates a shared imaginary structure overlaid onto the real world. And hated, because the game is a very, very thin bribe to get people to transmit their fine location to Google at all times. What tipped me over into playing was that [personal profile] khalinche and [livejournal.com profile] timeplease were enthusiastic about it when I was hanging out with them in London the other week, and then [livejournal.com profile] ghoti also enthused about it, and hey, if my friends are playing that makes the game a lot more appealing than just the gameplay for its own sake. And to be fair, Google pretty much tracks my movements anyway, since I have an unrooted Android phone which reports my location pretty well when I connect to WiFi, even without GPS.

Basically, in Ingress you go to real world places, and get points for doing so. I like the mechanic where players can suggest new locations, called 'portals', and the game devs vet them and eventually add them. Portals are places of interest; it can be quite minor interest, like a bench with a plaque in memory of someone, they just have to be identifiable locations rather totally generic places. The idea of the game is that there are two factions, green (Enlightenment) and blue (Resistance) and the team that visits a location most often gets to control that location. You can pick up and deploy virtual objects to attack enemy portals and defend portals controlled by your team, that's about it so far.

So far I've been wandering around with it running for a couple of days, and I'm finding it reasonably fun, though I definitely am being suckered in by the standard reward mechanic that every semi-evil app has these days. It's easy to pick up, with a fairly standard modern app system where the tutorial itself is gamified. And I've visited a couple of places I wouldn't have gone to if I weren't looking for Ingress portals, including the village war memorial, appropriately for the season, which is tucked away at the top of a side street rather than in the centre as is more typical. It really eats battery, though, more even than just having GPS turned on in general. Just walking the ten minutes from my flat to the medical school (albeit by a slightly circuitous route so I could get some portals on the way) ate 2/3 of my battery, which isn't really manageable.

(Username ewerb, team Resistance, if you're playing or thinking of playing)

Apart from trying out new quasi games, I've had a fairly quiet few days. Some good conversations with [personal profile] jack, some gardening (for we are boring middle-aged home owners now), and a really fun visit with [livejournal.com profile] ghoti and [personal profile] cjwatson Saturday evening. The very good thing about being boring home-owners is that we have awesome neighbours.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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