Two Minute Game Crit – Virtue’s Last Reward and The Chinese Room

 

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Transcript:

There’s a bit in Virtue’s Last Reward where you’re just about to escape from a puzzle room when you’re interrupted by a friendly Cockney robot, who talks to you about The Chinese Room, and then explodes and is never mentioned again.

This is one of the most fascinating scenes in a game already full of interesting ideas and in this Two Minute Game Crit, starring me, Stephen Beirne, I’d like to discuss why.

So what is The Chinese Room? The Chinese Room is a thought experiment presented by John Searle to refute the idea that computers can have a mind the same way people do.

Imagine there’s a woman locked in a room. Every now and again somebody slips a note in Chinese through a slot in the door. Your wan can’t read Chinese but conveniently she has a book of Chinese phrases, so she writes down what looks like a response and slips it back through the door. As far as the person on the outside is aware here’s a system which understands Chinese, even though neither the room as a metaphorical robot nor the woman inside it have any clue what’s going on.

The point Searle makes is there’s a difference between actually having a mind which understands something and merely simulating having one.

But Cockney Robot Friend draws a different conclusion. He says a computer being programmed is the same as a person being socialized. A mind, like knowledge of Chinese, isn’t a hard fast thing that people “actually” have or don’t have. Rather it’s a matter of perception.

This lines up with Virtue’s Last Reward’s thing where reality is literally defined by the ideas of people and where people are vessels filled by ideas from their surroundings and communities. If a group of people is traitorous, the world seems harsh and hopeless.

Whereas for Searle consciousness is intrinsic, in Virtue’s Last Reward consciousness is extrinstic and transitive, shared between people. We can only say someone understands Chinese because there are others who agree she understands Chinese. Individually people are unknowable but together they form a pattern of semantics.

If this seems weird consider it another way:

If you take a puzzle or a mystery novel and isolate just one single clue, you’ll never figure out its relevance. But by putting it together with all the other clues and examining the whole you get the truth.


 

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Two Minute Game Crit – Metro: Last Light or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the World

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit, and I’m Stephen Beirne.

When we talk about a game’s first level, it’s usually to note it as an entry-point to the game’s mechanical design–how to move, what to collect and what to avoid.

Less often do we consider it in terms of narrative design, in a broader sense than just what we learn mechanically. This is what a first level does, as well – it introduces a world and a story which we have to understand and relate to, rather than merely operate in.

Look at Metro: Last Light.

At the start of the first level we’re woken from our bed by this happy chap, who quickly gives us some exposition and our first objective – “go to Point A”. The second he leaves we’re taken to the table to pick up our stuff, and another, different conversation kicks in.

The instinctive thing is to go look for who’s talking, and in any other game we’d be allowed to, but here you only gain control after he’s finished. Straight away this puts us off a bit, since it goes against the way we feel things should be.

Once we have control, it’s fun to spend a few minutes just skirting around the bedroom for some environmental storytelling, to get into our character’s head. See what kind of music he likes. Check out his guitar, to which the game responds…

[Footage of screen briefly brightening and the sound of distant chimes.]

Whatever that means.

So we leave the room and yet another conversation starts up with these two lads in the far corner, and at the same time a tutorial box opens. So which do we focus on?

Everywhere you go, there’s this constant overlapping of things begging for your attention. It’s in how you manage your resources, figure your way through a level, and just whenever you enter a new room.

This narrative noise, and our ability to wade through it, is a key dramatic point all throughout Metro. The story here is about how fear and cynicism have destroyed humanity, and how we can repair the damage by opening our hearts to everything around us.

We may not realise it at the time, but what we’re being taught here is to choose how we see the world of Metro from the onset. Is the clutter a source of hostility and frustration? Or are you willing to filter through it and find the sense within?


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Two Minute Game Crit – Zone of the Enders 2 and AI

 

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I’m Stephen Beirne.

In a recent issue of Five out of Ten Magazine I wrote an article about the idea of technological determinism in Zone of the Enders 2. Technological determinism is the theory that a society’s forward direction is defined by the technologies available to it. Or in other words…

NOHMAN: “Since the dawn of history, Human beings have realised various forms of energy. Civilizations have progressed with them.”

I want to expand on this with regards to artificial intelligence, which crops up in Zone of the Enders through the characters of ADA and Viola.

So as you can see this is a hack and slash action game based around mech combat, and ADA is the AI installed in your mech.

KEN: “ADA, please look after him.”

ADA: “If I have to.”

She’s gas, and even though she’s clearly her own person, at the end of the day she’s still got it in her head to be subservient to humans because of her programming. Despite how some people encourage her, she doesn’t value her own life.

DINGO: “How can you throw away your life for no reason?”

ADA: “I don’t need a reason.”

On the other side of things is the Viola AI, a rabidly destructive machine modelled after the personality of a tenacious soldier named Viola. The AI’s a success insofar as it mimics her combat abilities, but totally fails to capture her essence.

Whereas the original was “immortal” through sheer force of will, the Viola AI replicates this passion for life through deceit – it’s actually just being mass-produced, not resurrected.

Here we have two different degrees of AI, one wholly synthetic, the other amalgamated from some abstract concept of humanity. In practise, the main difference between the two is the Viola AI is in every way a wholly vapid automaton, completely derivative, while ADA is an entirely new type of lifeform.

Viola is a zombie. ADA is a frontier.

Viola’s a T-1000. ADA’s a Tachikoma.

…One more.

Viola’s the Borg, ADA is Mr Data.

Now, unlike Shodan or GLaDOS, Zone of the Enders isn’t interested in framing AI as some harbinger of doom. Instead it’s much more interested in similarities, like the way humankind and AI-kind are equally suffocated by the militarism that results from technological determinism.

People like Viola are made as cogs for this relentless engine, and miraculous creatures like ADA are thought as void of sentience as the soulless Viola AI.

Now, if you’re not convinced that humanity objectifies itself by objectifying AI, just trust me. Because…

DINGO: “You should take time to worry about the meaning of your existence later.”

(Also)

DINGO: “I’ll get rid of it while you’re doing your homework at home.”

 


 

 

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Two Minute Game Crit – The Role of a Menu

 

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I’m Stephen Beirne.

I mentioned before when talking about Vagrant Story, how menus work as a form of introspection, since a menu always represents something internal to the character you’re playing. You can learn a lot by looking at what menus occupy your time and interest.

Persona 3’s a good example because its menus are very pretty, which helps when you spend so much time in them, and also, usefully, they’re quite poignant.

So, what are the menus where you spend, or I should say where I spent most of my time? You have:

  1. The social links menu, showing all the people you can hang out with and when in the week they’re available.
  2. The persona fusion menu, which is a recipe book for mixing persona.
  3. And the battle menu, where you select the attack options of persona you have equipped.

Each of these menus connect back to your use of persona, obviously, but notably they also represent the planning of these relationships across different frames of time: the long-term, when plotting out your week of social activities, the medium-term, when mixing up which persona to bring with you tonight, and the short-term, when strategising with persona in battle now.

It’s clear that time is a big theme in persona 3—clocks, calendars, the Dark Hour—but what about the mental act of planning? Well, planning is important because of NEETs.

In Persona 3 there’s an epidemic of something called Apathy Syndrome, which makes people so apathetic they stop attending school or work and just fall out of society. When you’re using your Persona to fight monsters, you’re doing it to combat Apathy Syndrome, the jeopardy of which relates the growing concern in Japan over the rise of NEETs and Hikikomori, terms used to identify a category of mostly young people who are falling through society’s cracks.

Some do so unwillingly for economic reasons, while others are disenfranchised with what they see as the oppressive, career-led lifestyle that’s socially expected.

Many Japanese games emphasise community and legacy to touch into this sentiment and rouse interest in social participation, and Persona 3’s no different. It wants you invested in planning for the future by asking you to get active in thinking about an allegorical long-term social crisis. In Japan it’s a population crisis and irresolvable pension schemes and collapsing industry.  In the game it‘s Nyx coming along and eating everyone’s souls.

And the first step to combating this, is by opening your menu and getting involved.

 


 

Video description

Stephen Beirne talks for two minutes on how Persona 3’s menu system links the fictional epidemic of Apathy Syndrome to Japan’s real life youth crisis.

If you like this video, help Stephen make another one by becoming a patron and tossing a few quid his way: https://www.patreon.com/stephenbeirne:

Music: Blind Alley
Composed By: Shoji Meguro, Kenichi Tsuchiya
From: Persona 3

Footage courtesy of:
TaD6644AuxiliatrixieDrawer-samaMoogleBossXxDeadlyViperxXVisualOtakuStudiosAP ArchiveReuters

Further reading:
A LONELY LOCKDOWN: THE HIKIKOMORI PHENOMENON, Post Bubble Culture, March 2011

JAPAN’S POPULATION PROBLEM, Forbes, June 2010

YOUNG PEOPLE AND WORK IN JAPAN: FREETERS, NEETS, TEMPORARY WORKERS AND SHY ABOUT WORKING ABROAD, Facts and Details, March 2012

SHUTTING THEMSELVES IN, The New York Times, January 2006

Two Minute Game Crit – Weapon Degradation


This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I’m Stephen Beirne.

Weapon degradation. Lots of people hate it. This whole business of weapons having a durability stat that you have to monitor in order to stop them from shattering into a billion pieces. And this is considered disruptive. There’s the sense that, when weapon degradation is working it interrupts what videogames are normally for, which is hitting things with other things. And when it’s not working it’s because you’re putting in the busywork to keep the game from annoying you.

This is not universal. There are plenty of games that are remarkable for their use of weapon degradation, like Fallout 3 and Dark Souls and The Last of Us. You can see the trend there that these have narratives which centre on survival, and the world being banjaxed. We can tell when needless busywork or additional stuff contributes to a game on a whole or takes away from it. As always it’s all about what the stuff says in the respective context.

One of the best games with weapon degradation, one of the best games in general, is Vagrant Story, a wonderful, incredible jrgp dungeon crawler Square did between Final Fantasies once upon a time. It’s got this great big cast of characters but the protagonist, a peacekeeper named Ashley Riot, spends most of time alone as he’s a solo operative.

Instead of friends, he has weapons, lots and lots of weapons. Your life is consumed by the introspection of inventory management and stat planning.

For our purposes, look at the two bars on the top left here, DP and PP. DP is Damage Points, which decrease as you wear out the weapon, usual durability stuff. PP is where it gets interesting. These are Phantom Points, and they increase as you use the weapon. The higher both of these bars, the more damage the weapon does. When Damage Points reach zero the weapon becomes kind of a dud, but you can spend a weapon’s Phantom Points to repair its durability.

The narrative of Vagrant Story is all about themes of body and soul, balancing identity and power through self-sacrifice. So Ashley’s weapons are building up a phantom, a ghost, an identity, but the more of a sense of personality they get the greater the risk to their strength. They grow fragile.

This all contributes to the weapon’s other, highly important stats of class and affinity, which also change through use and also build up in each weapon a sense of character. And then you can make your own weapons out of parts and give them their own name to call them by. ‘Wand’ might not be the best example of that though.

So, Vagrant Story. A great example of how to do weapon degradation.