Friday, February 19, 2021

I Have Built A Treehouse

Roger Ebert
famously described movies as a machine for generating empathy. Or he didn't. Not exactly. It's what I've heard he said but I never heard him say it. So I looked it up because always check your sources and apparently what he actually said, assuming we can take a quotation website as an authority, was 

"Movies are like a machine that generates empathy."

My emphasis. Saying something is like something is very much not saying it is something. In a very significant way it's doing the exact opposite. If a thing is like another thing it is by definition not that thing.

Of course, it might just be loose language but Roger Ebert was a professional communicator so maybe the nuance is intended. Then again, he seems also to have been a believer in empathy as a kind of unqualified positive, (which it really very much is not) so he probably did mean what everyone thinks he meant.

But we don't come here to discuss clinical psychology or the belief systems of much-loved, now deceased cultural commentators. We come here to talk about video games. So why did I mention any of this in the first place?

Because yesterday, as I was playing far too much Valheim, it occured to me that if cinema is a machine for generating empathy, video gaming is a machine for generating stories. Not the curated narratives embedded by professional story-writers in the games themselves; the emergent stories created by the very nature of the gameplay.

Here's a tip: you can fix a door onto the entrance to a Burial Chamber and drop a fire outside for a warm and cosy troll-proof shelter.


It was XyzzySqrl who put the idea into my head with the comment "Even when I don't personally care to dip into these things I love reading the stories they generate." It's something I've very often thought about EVE Online. A lot of people, myself included, enjoy reading slice-of-life accounts from games they themselves would never dream of playing. 

Maybe it goes some way to explaining the exponential growth of watching other people playing video games as a pastime and a hobby. All those nested narratives exploding in real time. How can scripted entertainment hope to compete?

Maybe, but maybe not. A lot more going on there that replicates, substitutes and replaces social interaction than storytelling, I suspect. Although, some games would clearly offer more in the way of ad hoc storytelling than others. A notional audience watching my antics in Valheim, were they to have been streamed as they happened yesterday, would have been kept royally entertained, provided they were fans of slapstick comedy combined with "Oh god! Why are you going back in the woods?! Have you learned nothing?" slasher movie melodrama.

I could fill several posts with what happened although all the stories would end the same way: a viking jogging through the woods in a fur bikini trying to get back to where she'd been. And don't say she should have stashed a spare set of armor and weapons back at home. She did. Now she had to go get those back, too.

Then again, they live in nests. Maybe they're some kind of rat?
None of it would have happened if the 10th World wasn't so damned interesting. I think it's called the 10th World, the place Odin sends us all to at the start. Honestly, I've not being paying too much attention to the plot. It's more the little things that fascinate me. 

Remember when I said I'd decided the Greylings must be tiny treants because the only thing they ever drop is resin? I mentioned they all wear backpacks, too. Well, I managed to trap one inside my stockade, where I spent a happy few minutes tormenting examining it and guess what?

The "backpack" is actually the body of the Greyling. It's the stump of a tree. They are friggin' treants! That explains why the Greydwarves all drop wood. I thought they were carrying it but it must be their own bodies after I've hacked them apart with my axe. 

The Runestone that adds a whole section of Greydwarf lore to your journal when you read it doesn't mention any of this. In fact, it says something quite different. Or I thought it did. As I re-read it in the light of my own observations I realize there are more than hints towards the truth: "They are born from rot and rainfall, they spring like mushrooms from the smoking soil".

If there was any doubt at all (there wasn't) it was resolved for good and all when I met The Elder. Most of yesterday was taken up with an expedition to find the sacrificial altar of the second "boss". There would appear to be more than one place to summon him. I have two marked on my map, one of which looks to be a very long way away, quite possibly across the sea.

|Don't mind me. Just passing through.
The other was in striking range. One overnight stop. If only it had been that easy. 

Did anyone know there can be inhabited villages in Valheim? I came across one on the way. It was set in some idyllic meadowland, just beyond the dark of a band of black forest. There were more buildings in one place than I'd seen anywhere although they looked in poor repair. 

In the center of the settlement stood a wooden lookout tower and from the edge of the forest I could see they had scouts posted. I approached with caution, not knowing what to expect, and it was just as well I did. 

Draugr. A whole village of undead vikings in full armor. So much for my understanding. I thought they were swamp-dwellers but here they were in lush farmland. No wonder there were no farmers left.

I gave that village a wide berth. Every time I passed it. Which was often. There's a whole post in how I found an almost fully intact stone tower, not a mile away on the edge of the Plains, and how I ended up trapped there overnight, the doorway hastily barricaded, something unseen beating on the walls and cackling. 

Or how I built a shelter on a flat rock in sight of the Draugr town, only to find myself besieged before I could finish, swarmed by Greydwarves so persistent and numerous they eventually overwhelmed me. 

I got to know the pathways past the village of the damned better than I'd have liked, what with all the toing and froing to get back to my corpse. And yet I pushed on, learning as I went.


Nice tower. I'll have that.

Did you know that if you're besieged in the fragile, makeshift place you've made your home, nervous that should you be killed you'll awaken in the same bed you just died in, the way to prevent a potential spawn camp death loop is not to destroy your own bed? 

If you do, you won't next awaken, as I thought, in whichever bed you'd taken as yours prior to the one you just smashed to kindling. Oh, no. That would be far too convenient. You will, as I discovered, wake up in the original spawn spot where you first logged in, the standing stones where the game begins. It could be inconvenient if, like me, you died two days travel to the south.

All of these adventures (and there were many, many more) fade into insignificance when compared with the events that transpired when I eventually found the altar I was looking for. At this point I could describe what happened but I'd genuinely hate to spoil the surprise for anyone who hasn't seen it for themselves. If you're curious there are plenty of videos on YouTube.

All I'm going to say is this: he's fricken' huge! He also completely and definitively nails the Greydwarves are treants theory. Or wood elementals, maybe. Is that the same thing? They sure as hell are not the made from "the souls of murderers or great sinners" I'm pretty darn sure of that.

Another thing about The Elder: terrifying as he is when you're fighting him (I got him to about 85% so some work and/or research needed) he's orders of magnitude more fearsome when you come back and find him corpse camping your grave. 

This must be the place.


I say your grave. It's more like a couple of hectares, centered on your grave.

Seriously, I've rarely seen a more impressive tantrum. Again, spoilers, but it is absolutely worth losing the fight (or just backing off a few hundred meters during it) to see The Elder in full fury. He knocks down trees like they were matchwood, which is what they become as he stomps on the fallen trunks. He rages and crashes about in a frenzy of wanton destruction and woe betide you, his summoner, should he catch your scent.

When I got back to the scene of my defeat after a very long run I was dismayed to find The Elder still hanging around. Years of gaming have trained me to expect a reset in situations like this. Not here. You summoned him, now deal. 

He has an aggro range measured in hundreds of yards and a sphere of malign influence many times that. I was about to commit my fallen corpse to memory, along with everything on it (all my good stuff, naturally, since I'd been prepped for the big fight.), until I realized you can kite him! Like the trolls, if you hold your nerve you can bait him to follow and he'll come. A long way. 

I was tempted to pull him right back into the Draugr village to see if the two forces would finish each other off only I wasn't sure I could survive long enough to find out. In the end I pulled him almost to the shack I'd built then circled back around behind him, grabbed my stuff and legged it out of there. He's probably raging still. I'm not going back to check until I have a better plan. Or, inded, a plan.

Come up! The view's amazing! The gravestone? Oh, that's nothing, never mind that.


And that would have been the end of my adventures for the day. Should have been. It was late. I was heading back up the coast, all my stuff recovered and lots to think about. I should have just made it back to my log cabin and camped for the night. Only I saw this beautiful oak tree.

It was standing in deep grass just where the meadows swept down to the sea. There were pines along the shore where wild raspberry bushes flourish and gulls wheel in the wind. It was stunning. And then I realized.

A treehouse! I'd found the perfect spot for a treehouse!

So I spent another hour and a half learning how to build one. That was a story in itself, a comedy, mostly, as I kept running out of wood, built the platform too small for the bed.then finally jumped down in the night to confront a Greydwarf as it tried to smash my workbench, only to kill myself with the fall. And I hadn't even bound yet so I had to run back yet again. In a thunderstorm.

So many stories. Time to go make some more.


  1. "Video gaming is a machine for generating stories. Not the curated narratives embedded by professional story-writers in the games themselves; the emergent stories created by the very nature of the gameplay."


  2. I genuinely prefer the curated narratives, to be honest. If I were looking for emergent stories, I would be playing tabletop RPGs.
    Still, any game is an engine for anecdote generation.

    1. On the curated narratives, it's the same as in any other medium, be it movies, books, comics... depends on how well-written and/or acted they are. The standard in single-player games is getting pretty high but even the best mmo-style games I've ever played have a long way to go before they compete with even run-of-the-mill narrative fiction in other media.

      The thing about gaming, though, is that the process inherantly creates narrative. If we're going to be picky then *all* action creates narrative but the story of me sitting in a chair reading a book or watching a DVD is a pretty thin tale. There's more to be made of a visit to the cinema but it's still mostly just sitting and watching. Any game involves almost continual action (well, except for the increasingly prevalent "walking simulators", which ironically seem to be trying to get ever closer to the already existing experiences avaialble in other media.

      Anyway, way to big a topic for a comment!

    2. This subject has the potential to be a blog post in itself. I agree that emergent gameplay that organically arises from undertaking a task in these sort of games, is a powerful experience. For some it is comparable or indeed preferable to traditional pre-written stories. I was going to jokingly say that by adopting this philosophy, even a simple journey to the shops in real life has the potential for adventure. And then I remembered that if I do such a chore with my granddaughters, then we do indeed turn it into a “quest”. Dragons may well lurk behind a garden hedge and there may be orcs hiding in the wheelie bins.

  3. They’re two halves of the same whole, as per Quantic Foundry’s oddly categorized Story motivation, where scoring high in Story indicates a preference for scripted drama and currated narrative, and scoring low in Story either seems to indicate a preference for player created emergent narrative, or no story at all.

    I think the player created narratives are more entertaining, in that each playthrough by a different player can create something original or different to read about or watch. It’s harder to derive third party entertainment from witnessing different players move through identical stories, except via seeing if their reactions differ.

    1. One thing I wanted to get into the post but couldn't manage was the longstanding idea that only PvP generates interesting stories, whereas PvE is much the same story for everyone. It has certain limited validity for "theme park" mmos or single player games but event then I think it's overstated. Wilhelm's accounts of the instance group doing Classic WoW dungeons are different stories to Shintar's or Redbeard's, even when it's the same instances. That sort of story is as much about the individuals experiencing it as the curated narrative of the instances.

      When I write about stuff like Neo Cab or Disco Elysium I tend to avoid rehashing the plot but I'm pretty sure I could tell stories just using what I did in those narratove-driven, written games that would vary wildly from other people's accounts. Maybe I ought to try it next time I play something like that and see.


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