Monday, January 11, 2021

Amateur Cartography

I have a habit of hammering out comments on blogs without necessarily having read the rest of the thread. I don't always do it, or even mostly, but there are times when I read the post, have an immediate reaction, open the comment field and have at it. Then I post the comment, read it back and only then read what other people have said.

Sometimes that means I find I've repeated a point someone else has made. Sometimes another comment adds information or insight that makes me wish I'd read it before I sounded off. Most times, though, it doesn't really affect anything. I'd have made the same comment either way.

Once in a while, though, something strange and unpredictable happens. This morning I made the following reply to a post at Later Levels entitled "Taking notes: keeping records during video games":

"I hugely prefer the game to do it for me, for two reasons. Firstly, as you say, it makes for a more relaxed experience for the player. Much more importantly, though, in almost all adventure or roleplaying games I see myself as the director not the actor. It’s my character (or the protagonist if it's a named character) who inhabits the gameworld. I’m merely facilitating their explorations. They have skills that are not my skills and knowledge that is not my knowledge. I can direct them but it’s they who have to act. Accordingly, it’s they who need to make notes, not me."

 When I read it back after I'd posted it, I spoted this comment by Quietschisto immediately preceding what I'd written:

"Taking notes is half the fun of mystery games! Automated notebooks etc. are a bit of a turn-off for me, as it takes away player agency. When confronted with a narrative focusing on a central mystery, the player character becomes secondary, it’s all about the player himself putting together pieces of the puzzle, and anything the main character does automatically can spoil something. What if the player came to a different conclusion? Following a wrong lead is part of the game, and when done correctly, can be a lot of fun. So, go Team Manual Notes!"

There could scarcely be a starker encapsulation of the difference between two sets of expectations of the same source material. The waters are muddied slightly because the nominal subject here is adventure or mystery rather than roleplaying but the genres share such an extensive hinterland these days I don't feel it's much of a stretch to treat them as variants rather than separate entities.


I've held roughly the same position since I first began playing tabletop rpgs in the early nineteen-eighties. When I was introduced to the concept and set about creating a character of my own I never felt that character was my avatar (not that we ever used that word back then). I felt I was the author or the director but never the actor.

In any situation the question was never "what am I going to do?" but "what is my character going to do?". Always at one remove. It made perfect sense to me. After all, I don't know how to cast spells or wield a battle-axe. I couldn't climb a cliff or ford a river in flood. If I lifted my torch to light a cave and saw an eight-foot tall spider looking back at me I'd probably have a heart attack and if I didn't I'd run like hell in the opposite direction.

It's always my character who has skills and aptitudes and abilities and attitudes that allows them to survive in these situations, not me. And the games enable that by use of various statistics and numbers and rules. The more the game can facilitate that process, the better.

I have never liked making maps or keeping written records while gaming. It's sometimes a necessary chore but I've always seen it as a shortcoming of technology. If making maps is a part of gameplay, my character should have cartography skill and checks should come from that. When passed, the game should provide appropriate mapping.

That didn't happen much in the early days of mmorpgs but my response wasn't to make maps of my own. Instead, like most people, I searched around until I found someone who liked doing that sort of thing and used theirs. Most people presumably felt that way because there was a whole publishing industry based around printed maps. 


One of the handful of websites all EverQuest players had bookmarked was EQ Atlas. Most of us probably had a folder next to our 14" CRT monitors with all the maps we thought we'd need neatly printed and filed. Another was Allakhazam, where you'd find all the nitpicking details of every quest, none of which the game documented for you.

As time went on, EverQuest, like almost every other mmorpg, acquired in-game maps and in-game quest journals and all kinds of accoutrements to make it so the player didn't have to do the grunt work any more. And for most of us it was grunt work. We'd all been relying on the existence of a relative handful of people who actually enjoyed making lists and drawing maps. And those people, because it was fun for them, kept on doing it. But the rest of us didn't have to and we were glad.

Except I wanted more than that. I wanted it to be my characters who had the combat skills, not me. I wanted the outcome of fights to be decided by dice-rolls not by how fast I could twitch my fingers. And, yes, I wanted the characters I played who had lower stats to be disadvantaged materially in game as a result. It was supposed to work both ways. You shouldn't be able to compensate for your characters low dexterity by dint of youe own nimble fingers.

I used to argue that case in game, not infrequently. It was rarely well-received. Most people thought they were playing a game not watching their characters living a life. And, ironically, the more the games did to take the load off the players, the less important the characters became and the more the games became about player skill.

It wore me down like water on a rock, smoothed away away the jagged edges but left the core. I don't mention it in chat any more and I accept that much of what my charactesr do in game will be limited by my skills not theirs. But it didn't change my basic belief: it's not about me, it's about my character. 


The result is all games mean less than they did. They've become just that: games. Somehow, they used to be more than that.

In mmorpgs it doesn't matter all that much. It's a confused and confusing medium anyway, the personal mixed inextricably with the social, other people's enjoyment affected by your knowledge, ability and skill. Once you start playing team games it can't just be all about you any more. And once you've learned the habit it carries over even when you're playing alone. 

Single-player rpgs and character-based adventures and mysteries are different. There, it's the player, the character and the game. No-one else's feelings or wishes to consider. You can cheat as hard as you like and you'll only be cheating yourself. Use walkthroughs, save-scum, keep rolling the stats until you get the ones you want. Even download third-party hacks that break the whole game. Go ahead, knock yourself out, no-one else knows and if they did they wouldn't care.

If you're going to play it straight, though, it comes back to the perspective split. Who's looking at the world? You? Your character? The two of you together? The first feels mechanistic, the second is impractical. It has to be both, doesn't it. But in what proportion and with what precedence?

This has much to do with what I liked about my time in Revachol and also what I didn't. More than most games I've played it goes hard on the concepts of character skills and knowledge. The protagonist can do things you never could, knows things you never will, feels things you just can't. He does it in context and without your assistance. He has hunches, feelings, insights. He pulls off feats you wouldn't have thought him capable. Him, neither.


If he did this all on his own Disco Elysium wouldn't be a game. It would be a peculiarly animated movie. But you direct him. You build up and tear down his personality. You dress him in costume. You give him motivation. I've rarely felt the role of director a more apt metaphor than here. At times it's scarcely a metaphor at all.

I said at one point that I felt Disco Elysium worked best as a game. My views on its weakness as a narrative have moderated but I don't want to walk that back. In fact I think I'll walk it forward. It plays as I feel a video game should, if it aspires to be something more than a game. For once, most unusually, I didn't find myself thinking here was a story I'd enjoy more told in another medium. As a movie perhaps or a novel. For once the gamelike elements seem integrated, utilized, not appended or indulged.

One of the great strengths of the design is that the gameworld retains an intense, brooding sense of mystery while at the same time not expecting the player to go searching every nook and cranny for enlightenment. Everything that can be revealed is highlighted for you. Everything, that is, the character is able to perceive. 

The character's perceptions are modified by many factors: items, thoughts, skills, attributes. Only through a combination of these does he see his world. But you see him and there's your agency. You wind him up and set him down and hope he performs.

It's a compromise. Technology hasn't yet reached the level where we can insert ourselves into worlds nor yet change our perceptions to match another's. We're stuck for now with smeared lenses and thick gloves, trying to squint the world clear while we fumble at the controls. But this feels a little cleaner, a little closer. If I screw up my eyes I can almost see the future.

It's a future where I won't be keeping notes. Or drawing maps.


  1. How often do you find yourself relying on the memory of your last gaming session, only to find that your memory wasn't quite as good as what you thought it was? I ask this because I'm finding that a lot of the games I'm playing lately have a lot of overlap in terms of skills, attributes, combat types...etc, and I really have to put a lot of effort into keeping them separate where my characters are concerned.

    1. All the time! Even if I stick to mostly playing one game it still happens if I switch characters. As for swapping between games, which I do a lot, it's manageable if I play the same characters each day and do the same things but if I go off track and start on something new I have to relearn a bunch of stuff every time.

      The good thing is, it all comes back pretty quickly. Not the fine detail but the basics, enough to get me going. Even with games I haven't played for months or years there's a core of information stored somewhere in the back of my mind. For example, I logged into DCUO yesterday for the 10th Anniversary gifts and ended up doing a bunch of dailies, a group instance and a raid instance, all through the groupfinder. I hadn't played for a few months but the minimal understanding I ever had came back quite fast. Including how to queue for a group instance, which I probably haven't done for a year. I was still a liability, mind, but not totally useless!


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