1s and 0s: On Binaries and Experience within BioWare’s MASS EFFECT

In Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Expressive Processing (2009), he spends some time exploring the dialogue- and quest- trees that constitute much of the gameplay of BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic (2004). One of the things Wardrip-Fruin wants to interrogate about the game is how we might learn from failures in its coding. KotOR is a game that feels like it is part of a fully-formed universe, not just in the spatial or astronomic sense, but also in how it constructs a series of social interactions and quests within the diegesis of the game. These interactions often feel contingent and actionable enough to approach some of the conditions of social life its players encounter out in the “real world,” beyond its textual bounds.

In addition to this, the game is addicting; Wardrip-Fruin, quoting William Huber, refers to the text as a “statistical bildungsroman” because of the particulars within the gameplay that encourage the player to continue playing, particularly how one earns experience points (or “XP”) Like many RPGs, “as characters accumulate experience they increase in ‘level’ and become more capable in the game world,” driving the player to play for “forty, eighty, or more hours,” creating an experience “more akin to a thick German novel of personal development than, for instance, a film (or even a season of television)” (Wardrip-Fruin 62). Beyond this description, KoTOR is a game about choice. As he acknowledges, what this more-basic description of the rules of the game might elide is how freely these threads of development unfurl; one can often choose the order of quests, or what order to visit given planets, or whether to adhere to the dark or light side of the force, in a way that feels somewhat freed from the linearity of some RPGs of yore.

When Wardrip-Fruin moves beyond the basic outline of the gameplay, into the game’s failures, he begins to illustrate that the underlying code of the game, which the player can often feel but not totally perceive, as it proceeds in computational, linear fashion through if/or loops. As it turns out, crafting a game with such a freedom inevitably produces nonsensical leaps within its narrative and diegetic spaces; it is impossible to write a long and complex video game with a nonlinear quest-tree logic without inevitably gumming up its novelistic or televisual qualities along the way.

For his example on the weird narrativity of KotOR, Wardrip-Fruin narrates a play-through of the game in which he completes a quest on Dantooine, proceeding through a dialogue tree with a woman whose lover has been captured by her father, agreeing to use her key to free him, then talking both families’ fathers out of an ambush and battle, through some dialogue-tree finesse. He then takes his character to the male lover’s compound, where the male lover’s father requests, on two separate visits, that the player rescue his son, the one we have already seen being taken back to the compound. Wardrip-Fruin then returns to the female lover’s estate, seeking to report on another, unrelated, quest, a death in that family, only to find that the estate has emptied out, with no unplayable characters with which to speak (63-65). Because of the computational path of the quest tree, one which can be felt but not entirely read or understood, not much makes narrative sense, although it is clear that there was some expectation, among the coders of the game, that the player would visit the male lover’s compound first. Without any intention to do so, Wardrip-Fruin shut down a tree of possibilities within the game, with no recourse to correct himself but load an old save file or play through again, with the coders’ ordering in mind. He has revealed the basic, binary structure of computing present in a game that wants to pretend such formulations do not exist; he can either do things his way, or more-linearly as the programmers intended, though to totally pursue his own path would be to close off the possibility of extra XP or a feeling of completion within the nondiegetic, external rules that a “serious gamer” might try to pursue in order to elicit a feeling of completion out of the text.

I already saved him, bro!

I already saved him, bro!

One of the things I find so interesting about Wardrip-Fruin’s narration of failure is that the if/or logic of the loop is also a logic built into the essential, intended, and basic play within KotOR. This is to say that, regardless of the invisibility of the quest- and dialogue-tree outcomes, an invisibility one might sense if she or he plays without external help, the game still unfurls within a similar if/or logic. Binarism constitutes the basic structure of KoTOR, as games within the Star Wars universe must adhere to gameplay that follows either the dark or light sides, and the future of this universe depends upon its player making a choice between these two sides. Regardless of whether a player encounters the type of glitch that Wardrip-Fruin did in his playthrough of KoTOR, she or he will explicitly understand that, by the end of the game, things will have shifted in one of these two directions, and that the game’s ending will depend entirely on the “good” or “bad” decisions made within its various dialogue-trees. The failure that Wardrip-Fruin experiences actually has much to say about the most-essential narrative structure that can be seen and felt within the game’s diegesis.

Building on Wardrip-Fruin’s work on quest- and dialogue-trees within KoTOR, I was interested in interrogating whether Mass Effect, BioWare’s next “nonlinear” franchise, might contain corrections to the problem of broken quest-trees. I was also interested in whether Mass Effect broke from KoTOR’s binarism, where the gameplay outcomes within individual quests almost always follow one-or-the-other, if/or logic. I learned that Mass Effect, while often having the appearance of nonlinear, free choice, is rather much like its predecessor(s) in the KoTOR franchise. One can feel, see, and predict the “good” or “bad” choices they are making, to the point that certain skills you can earn within the game (“Charm” and “Vagabond,” respectively) will alert you to a moment where you will be forced to make some kind of final, binary choice.

The "good," charm-determined choice in blue, with the "bad" choice underneath

A “good,” charm-determined choice in blue, with the “bad” choice underneath.

At the same time, I find that one of the most-interesting things about this relatively unchanged gameplay is how often the narrative and quests seem to gesture towards it. The narrative of Mass Effect feels obsessed with humanist binarisms, whether between human and alien or between human and machine. This manifests itself in interesting ways within dialogue-trees. Often, if one has neither enough Charm or Vagabond points, the “bad” choice is the humanist one, while the “good” promotes interspecies peace. This plays out in funny ways throughout the game. For example, the central quest of the game eventually reveals that a “species” of machines, the Reapers, exist only to destroy all organic life in the galaxy, but that they must do so through a kind of cyborg binarism:

Saren 1 Saren 2

In the longer, “more-academic” version of this project, I attempt to interrogate not only how Mass Effect fails in similar or different fashion from KotOR, but also how it acknowledges this structure of potential failure through a cyborg narrative that seeks to make its player think seriously about the problems of binary logics or thinking. I want to examine and write through the game’s failures while also explaining how it acknowledges these failures, in a mode of narrative and gameplay-centered self-reference that might force the player to realize just how-guided their path through the game might be; while there are so many choices to be made within its narrative(s), Mass Effect also plays itself, in some ways, creating a cyborg gameplay structure where organic and cybernetic agencies must cooperate to create a meaningful narrative.

On Loop Aesthetics

One of the claims Hayles makes throughout her first two chapters has to do with the dialectic between the analog and the digital, where she takes the middle ground that neither category, at this point, would be particularly useful without thinking through the other. In addition to this, Hayles is interested in what we might call the organicity of language, one of the main categories that structural linguists, after Chomsky, use to cleave apart a difference between natural and “artificial,” or computational, language. The Chomskyan argument goes something like this: we acquire a thing we can call natural language, rather than learn it, and the ability to acquire language is universal among all human subjectivities. The particularities of one’s first learned language, in this system, are arbitrary, involving a kind of flipping-on of switches within an underlying universal grammar during one’s critical period (before the age of 3, certainly). Results that might be unthinkable within the grammatical rules of one’s first language, or L1, are totally possible within other languages. We might say, for example, that Hayles’s assumption about the material impossibility of a word containing 100+ syllables is a mistaken one grounded within her L1, if her L1 is English (43); while the morphological and syllabic structure of English might not allow for a 100+ syllable word, an agglutinating language like Turkish would certainly allow for it, regardless of its seeming material clunkiness in English.

Is it yet clear how overseriously I took my early undergraduate coursework in linguistics? One of the things that now bothers me about this Chomskyan, evolutionary model has to do with its overreliance on generational transmission that seems to fail to account for intragenerational changes in culture and use — any advancement related to changes in the distribution of human universals, like changes in harmonic or rhythmic sensibility in music (which is thought of just as language in this kind of structural/neurological model) would have to take place over several generations–one would not be able to see it, clearly, within their lifetime. When we look at the way digital technology interacts productively with analog convention, I simply cannot accept that this is the case.

I’m interested in the way looping technology, over the last twenty years or so, has transformed the landscape of what musicianship might mean and what musicians might be capable of doing. My interest in this proceeds from my own embeddedness within a guitarist (and guitar pedal) culture that has, to my mind, experienced a sea-change over the last couple decades.

By the late-90s and early 2000s, the amassing of an unreasonable number of unreasonably expensive guitar pedals had become a cliché of high-minded alt- and indie-rock. This leads to images like this one, of the pedalboard Kevin Shields used for the My Bloody Valentine reunion tour in the late-aughts:

shields board

Unfortunately, much of the discourse surrounding this kind of textural obsession/ridiculousness RE: guitar playing is rather poisonous (if you want that exact sound, you need that pedal).

At the same time, a single feature on a single pedal, the Line 6 DL4, has substantively changed the way musical composition occurs in such highfalutin musical settings. It looks like this, goes for ~$150 used, and most touring guitarists seem to have one, or a pedal like it:

DL4Modeler-large
The loop sampler function, which becomes engaged when the user switches the left-most knob to the 6 o’clock position, is the function embedded within this pedal that most interests me. It turns the pedal into a live sampler that transforms its input(s) into a recorded digital output meant to be layered-over by the performer — in essence, the top-down studio view of music as modular and digital, in Hayles’s sense, which looks like this:

maxresdefaultcan now be controlled by one’s foot, in real time; I would argue there is a sense of democratization of this kind of top-down understanding of musical composition implicit to the use of the DL-4. Here is an example of the sampling function of the pedal in live use:

Here we see the live-loop logic, co-opted from hip hop and DJ culture away from the the human body by digital studio convention, brought back into more-dynamic relation with such a body (though I would hesitate to remove the particularities of racial history from this technical history).

I would argue that guitarist culture, or musical culture generally, has moved away from a textural logic, present in the infinite-pedal dream of 90s alt-rock, to a logic of meter and rhythm through the sampling of loops. I would admit this has created a sometimes silly state of affairs, where for example the late-aughts Animal Collective were almost unrecognizable from earlier “folk”-based iterations, having the appearance of just pressing buttons and turning knobs over and over (for better or worse):

At the same time, we can also see how this kind of digital, loop-based thinking might provide altogether new possibilities for musical composition. I remember being floored by the sense of melodic and rhythmic simultaneity created by Thom Yorke’s rearrangement of his song, “The Clock,” on a single acoustic guitar, when the original had had a very rhythmic, loopy bleep-bloop feel to it:

(here is the original for comparison:

)

I believe that the question of productive interaction between digital and analog processes can be seen in recent developments in music technology, and wonder what will come next, though it seems clear that any sense of analog virtuosity (be it guitar shredding or pedal-collecting) has given way to much more-streamlined interactions between the human and the digital.

“Distant Reading” and the Complexity of Language

While I do believe that Ramsay does a good deal of work to prove how all manner of readings end up deforming their text(s), forming the “paratext” that a classmate described in another blog post, I still find myself unconvinced in attempting to understand how “distant reading” revolutionizes our understanding of how texts are experienced. This, of course, has a lot to do with my own academic training — I jumped ship from a PhD program in literature that loathed the push towards quantification and alignment with STEM disciplines as The Important Disciplines that is taking place all across universities (particularly state-funded ones).

My beef with distant reading has to do with the way in which it is so often employed, to produce word lists like these:
Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 3.46.17 PM
To further-articulate this beef: literary texts may be nothing more than an aggregate of words, but these words are always shaped by their given grammatical context! Our experience of literature hinges on much more than the lexicon of a given text. I believe that some of Ramsay’s own textual examples prove this point; a text like the I Ching is embedded within a tradition of Chinese literature and philosophy that makes use of a near-infinite polysignifying discourse (a popular example of this, articulated in linguistics texts and courses, has to do with how the word [ma], in Chinese, can mean either “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” or “scold,” depending on context and the affixed tone). Or, regardless of how Ramsay seems to situate him, an author like Faulkner is challenging not for the number of unique lexical items in his vocabulary but because his syntax is always threatening to overflow the prescriptive limits of written English grammar (or so I believe).

Given my training as a de Manian, always looking at the way metonymy is playing out in a given text, I would be interested to see how natural language processing might be used in reference to literary syntax in order to better-uncover the workings of given lexical items in context. Such an approach might still be deforming, but it would certainly be less-deforming than the word-list approach. How might a computer deal with something like the first sentence from Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04?:

The city had converted an elevated length of abandoned railway spur into an aerial greenway and the agent and I were walking south along it in the unseasonable warmth after an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death.

It’s true that octopi and the notion of their “proprioception” appear all over Lerner’s text, but how do these figures play out within what Lerner calls the “prosody” of his sentences? Do computers yet distant-read syntax, and could they ever do so within the competing discourses of Prescriptive Written English and the infinite spoken varieties of the English language?

Do you know the old language?

I do not know the old language.

Do you know the language of the old belief?

As usual, I am interested in what it feels like to dip into a text like Dwarf Fortress and experience it in a raw way that doesn’t seek out context or a sense of comprehensive understanding of everything that is happening. But I’m definitely in over my head. After figuring out installation, and learning that it is possible to easily run .exe files on a Mac (I think my Mac knowledge is frozen ~2008), I was feeling confident. If I had made it over what seemed like the first weird hurdle, the game itself couldn’t be so bad, right??? The discourse around this game is just all exaggeration and as an ex-hardcore gamer I would be able to figure it out, right???


what does it all mean?!

I’m interested in the esotericism of the DF community, and what dipping into it might tell us about gamer or programmer discourse generally. When I read about DF, I feel like I am attempting to join a cult, and not doing a very good job of assimilating (my first year of grad school, heavy in critical theory shorthands without citation, felt similar). And I don’t feel like I am trying to join a vulgar sect of Satanism run by teenagers or something, either — this feels more like Scientology, if Scientology had a user interface that did things in the lobby of the Scientology recruiting center and the promise of Scientology was to learn how to read that interface and make it do things.

Some text from the DF Wiki, on the page about “Dwarf Fortress Mode”:

Fortress mode is the more popular of two modes of gameplay in Dwarf Fortress, with the other mode being Adventurer mode. It is often the mode implied when one talks about Dwarf Fortress. In fortress mode, you pick an embark location, and then assign your seven initial dwarves some starting skills, equipment, provisions, and animals to bring along. After preparations are complete and your hardy explorers embark, they’ll be faced with the fortress site you picked down to every little detail, from geologically appropriate stone types to roaring waterfalls to ornery hippopotami. Rather than control individual dwarves, you design everything and your dwarves will go about implementing your designs on their own.
[emphasis mine]

There is a definitely a strong sense of an in-group here that is so in- that they might not be able to even articulate things in a language I can understand. In my DF gameplay, I think I have stalled at the early mining phase (though I’m not sure how I could really tell). Here is what the Wiki Tutorial tells me:

Dwarves will automatically have some labors enabled if they start out with skill in those labors, and some labors (such as hauling and cleaning) are enabled for all dwarves by default. This is why you didn’t need to enable any labors on dwarves to get them to haul and mine, but later you may need a labor that no dwarf is currently capable of.

Look over your dwarves’ assigned labors. Press v (View Units) then place the cursor on a dwarf. Now, press pl for “preferences: labors”. You will see a list of labor categories that you can navigate using and +. You can enter each category with Enter (except for mining, which is a single labor), toggle each labor off and on with Enter, and get back out with Esc.

After exiting the View Units menu, you can use u (the units screen) to help you locate dwarves. Hit u, select a dwarf, hit z for “zoom to creature” and you’ll automatically be placed in view mode on that dwarf. (Then use pl to get to the labor configuration menu if necessary.)

Oh.

While I’m pretty sure I have correctly followed all of these instructions and set all my dwarves to mine-only (which feels like it will quickly lead to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome on my Macbook keyboard), and I have mapped out a mining space, my dwarves are all idle. Though I think they are moving around. This is about as far as I’ve gotten. What’s been funny for me is just how close this experience feels to the procedurality associated with coding that we have already explored, at length, in our discussions of learning how to use Python. Just as I struggled to understand what each bit of code was doing in order to enact the Pig Latin exercise, I’m struggling to read both the in-game UI of DF and also some of the text associated with it. Along with this, I’m a bit worried that it would be a bad thing to fully understand DF, or that if I ever did come to fully understand it, it would be at the expense of being able to, say, successfully complete a dissertation on anything else. What can we say for the depth of discourse and the proliferation of specialized signs that circulate around the game? When does the point of a game become its discourse community, rather than something one goes to to “have fun”?

Computational Media and Modernist Aesthetics

One of the quirks we have harped on, in relation to Ian Bogost’s work, is the way he seems to endlessly reference his own games in order to prove a given point. To be kinder to Bogost, he also references games produced by other theorists who have similar didactic designs for their aesthetic products. Reading across Bogost, this begins to feel very silly, for example in this moment in the “Persuasive Games” article:

Crawford refers to his own game Balance of Power as a contrasting, desirable, high process intensity specimen. The game simulates Cold War geopolitics by algorithmically analyzing data like insurgency, economics, might, and prestige across many nations in relation to user actions like sending aid, escalating conflict, and backing down.

Good for Crawford, I wanted to say after reading this. I found this seemingly unquestioned habit of citing programmer/theorists, rather than just theorists, sort of nauseating — what could be worse, and more conspicuously tautological, than a theorist who thinks their own work is one of the best, and/or one of the only examples of a game that they want to exist more broadly within the culture?

At the same time, I am above all other things a relativist, and realize that the particularity of the discourse community we are moving through must be considered as a factor in how we interpret its rhetorical gestures. In considering my own experiences moving through other “canons” in the academy, big or small, I have begun to realize how much this habit of self-aggrandizement is part of what we often define as a Modernist sensibility. In the field of poetry studies, there is a term deployed to describe makers like Ian Bogost–poet-critic. Within the field of poetry studies, being a poet-critic, having a foot in both creative and critical practice, is the most-respected position possible. Authors like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein continue to be appraised as greats partially because of their hybrid practice, and often these two authors’ work involves a self-appraisal of greatness within the extra-poetic work, a self-appraisal that we question little today. Perhaps, then, it would be best to think of Bogost and company as a vanguard of sorts, though I’m apprehensive to attempt to map a radical politics onto anything that involves computing. Pound and Stein were fascists anyway.

Across his career, Pound develops his own processes towards producing an ideal poem that “contains history” — at first, this can be seen in his attendance to verbs and nouns over all other forms of speech, then he turns to the Chinese ideogram, which he believes better-refers to an object or concept than any other form of writing. Eventually, he turns to patchwriting and “translation” that can often be read as plagiarism of others’ work. As one moves through the work, one can see Pound amassing more and more processes to write the Cantos. I would argue that the Cantos are almost all “process” pieces whose surface refers back to everything underneath. From the very first Canto, the process of translating from different sources, and of intervening within this translation, is foregrounded in the surface of the text. The historically-real Pound seems to speak directly to Andreas Divus, whose translation of Homer he translates into English, then ends the poem with a colon that ought to signify continuation:

And Anticlea came, whom I beat off, and then Tiresias Theban,

Holding his golden wand, knew me, and spoke first:

“A second time? why? man of ill star,

“Facing the sunless dead and this joyless region?

“Stand from the fosse, leave me my bloody bever

“For soothsay.”

And I stepped back,

And he strong with the blood, said then: “Odysseus

“Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,

“Lose all companions.”  And then Anticlea came.

Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,

In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.

And he sailed, by Sirens and thence outward and away

And unto Circe.

Venerandam,

In the Cretan’s phrase, with the golden crown, Aphrodite,

Cypri munimenta sortita est, mirthful, orichalchi, with golden

Girdles and breast bands, thou with dark eyelids

Bearing the golden bough of Argicida. So that:

(bolding mine)

Wardrip-Fruin, in his citation of Tristan Tzara in his book’s introduction, seems invested in the idea of vanguardism relating to his project. I would argue that Pound’s vanguardism reflects a sophisticated, explicit understanding of one of the diagrams in Wardrip-Fruin’s book, figure 1.4:

Screen 1
The reader of Pound’s Canto, if they become dissatisfied with its irregular surfaces, is forced to move through Pound’s process- and data-oriented writing practice–if I understand Wardrip-Fruin’s diagram correctly, the reader of The Cantos must consider their movement through them in relation to all of the parts of this diagram. Surface and process are difficult to distinguish, something considered part and parcel of the poems’ construction.

To elaborate upon this, my experience reading the chapter on Tale-Spin also mirrored some forays into Modernism. One “error” passage reads like a computerized Gertrude Stein:

Screen 2
Beyond Modernist poets, Wardrip-Fruin’s elaboration of Tale-Spin also reminds me of a favorite, bizarre, critical article — one on William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” by Jennifer Burg, Anne Boyle and Sheau-Dong Lang published in Computers and the Humanities in 2000 (if anyone is interested, the article is available on JSTOR). In their article, Burg, Boyle, and Lang develop a computerized methodology to track the temporal movements and activities of the characters in that story, reducing them to a set of variable-coordinates, only to find that the variables can never possibly line up:

Screen 3
It seems to me that the academic procedure involved in the Faulkner article is a kind of reverse-engineering of the types of processes that produce the texts in Tale-Spin, which leads me to a final question. If we want to emphasize process-intensity in computer-generated texts, why not turn to the Modernist strategy of self-reference in order to foreground this? It seems to me that a more- “broken” version of Tale-Spin would draw attention to its processes in a way that would invite inquiry beyond the surface and allow those who interact with the text to do so in a dynamic way.

Feeling Tweepy

I am beginning to wonder whether my progress in “computational literacy” can be measured by my own self-satisfaction with a small victory. (This is what process feels like, isn’t it?). Coding has been hard. My brother is a programmer and I think he must have gotten all of the left-brain genes. As I think I’ve mentioned here, I like algebraic/fill-in-the-blank tinkering but have trouble with conceptual formations in programming / understanding exactly what I’m doing.

 

The project I tried to undertake in class was more or less plagiarism of the code we were initially provided, an attempt to get my bot to tweet Paradise Lost line by line (http: //www.twitter.com/paradiselostbot). The text file was available on Project Gutenberg (and was apparently already input into a computer in the ’60s) — as straightforward as it seemed it would be to get the bot tweeting with a slight alteration to the code, I kept receiving Twitter’s 403 error. At first, it seemed I was tweeting too often, or maybe that each time I restarted the bot Twitter was seeing I had already tweeted a line (despite my attempts to create a more-perfectionist timeline with no restarts by deleting all my tweets before a restart). In the end, I discovered my bot could not read line breaks — by using Matt’s code to start on a later line, I was able to get it to tweet the whole first stanza of the poem, which feels like victory enough for the moment.

Towards a Phenomenology of Coding (?)

Terribly caffeinated and full of trepidation at my self-perceived lack of quantitative skills, I made my first go yesterday, for about an hour, at the Python coding tutorial. Maybe I have tried too hard to forget the introduction to coding course I took during my undergraduate years, as I do find coding very fun, at least within the classroom environment. There is something about the tactility of the keyboard and screen, coupled with the addictive move-on-to-the-next-step lesson structure, that seems to inform the “tinkering” experience that others have mentioned here, and that we have discussed in class. When code properly executes, I feel like a microtransaction of some kind has occurred in my brain, one that yells “Success!”

 

At the same time, I find myself feeling an inordinate amount of anxiety in relation to upcoming lessons within the Python tutorial, and also in relation to the prospect of trying to code a functioning, meaningful object of some kind by the end of the semester. (My final project in that undergraduate coding course, a game of blackjack coded through Java, would not execute). As someone who has always loved solving algebra equations, and multiple-choice tests, there is something about exiting the fill-in-the-blank structure of the tutorial that is terrifying to me.

 

Perhaps my coding anxiety comes out of a background in poetry writing — as someone who was never much for recognizable fixed forms, finding ways to innovate experiences in language that had the appearance of developing from the ground up has always been exhilarating. But code in Python, like the traditional sonnet, has a series of beats and lines that must be filled according to protocol; I will not be able to Berriganize my code, despite a desire to, by the end of this class, produce some kind of aesthetic object that eludes fixity.