Building a Better Box: How My Friend’s Death Appeared as a Video Game

A few years ago, I found a friend’s suicide.  She–Meg–was brilliant and solitary, depressed in a way that good people can especially become.  We weren’t close, but a mutual friend had returned from out of town, and he said that he hadn’t heard from Meg in three weeks.  So I drove to Meg’s section-8 apartment, where I noticed that she had drawn all of her curtains.

Around this time, I was also playing Mass Effect 3.  This is a video game.  Specifically, it is a role-playing game, where the player becomes Commander Shepherd–a spaceship captain who amasses an intergalactic team of allies in effort to stop the villainous Reapers from devouring the universe.  Lots of people have at least heard of the role-playing video games.  Meg played them–and she’d enjoy that I mention them here.  

Nothing–and certainly not a video game–can make sense of her death.  But in light of all the suspicion about video games instigating death, I think she’d be pleased to know that this video game helped me to cope with her death.  I’m not talking about the grief of her death; that took both everything I had and some other things besides.  But the ordeal of discovering her death received some help from Mass Effect 3

These days, the ESRB bestows lots of video games with Mature ratings.  These M-17 titles peddle the flashy-splashy sex and violence, along with the use of theft, drugs and profanity.  And the fact is that these elements function a lot like profanity, where their presence begins to show the developers’ lack of imagination instead of any amount of artistic panache.  But in addition to indulging in some of this more pedestrian material, the Mass Effect series asks for maturity by involving the player in relationships with characters–relationships that, though admittedly predictable, can last literally hundreds of hours.  Then the game forces the player to make choices about these relationships, as the universe goes to war.  In general the game requires the player to act the heroine all along, but it also gives her options about what kind of heroine she’ll become–whether she’s a Paragon who’s orderly, kind, and restrained,  or a Renegade who’s chaotic, ruthless, and aggressive.  These decisions happen frequently, and some of them must happen quickly. And it was with this character-crisis mindset that I stood on Meg’s blooming and neglected lawn.

I confess that I’d volunteered to check on her because I have a naive love for adventure.  That is, perhaps, also a reason I play video games.  I did not expect to find my friend three-weeks dead in her living room. Not really.  But when I saw that Meg’s mail had piled out of her box, and when I spoke with the neighbors, I got scared at first. I mean a sick, unfunny scared. And then I surprised myself with a question:  I didn’t ask: what would Commander Shepherd do? After all, Commander Shepherd isn’t Jesus.  But I did ask: what would a Paragon do? I blinked in the sun and deliberated.  I could almost see the choice on a computer screen.  This was an illusion, of course—or at least an illusory framing of circumstance. But in crisis, the mind will do what it can–and even manufacture what it can–to grasp at any modicum of familiarity and training.  Illusion allowed me to peer below the bottom of Meg’s curtains (Paragon), to remove the window pane (Renegade), to smell death, to back away, to call the police (Paragon), and to remain calm and lucid (Paragon) while the detective questioned me about Meg and my desire to break into her living room.  

Before that last part, I sat on the steps of the apartment complex, while a neighbor stood before me with her silent, nine-year-old child.  

“She’s dead?” said the neighbor.

“Yes,” I said.

“How do you know?”

“It smells like death.”

“How does death smell?”

“It smells like bad meat.”

“So that lady’s dead inside there?”

“Yes.”

“She’s been dead for three weeks?”

“I think that’s the case.”

“So you’re her friend? And you didn’t check for three weeks?”

I can be a heroine in a video game.  That’s perhaps the primary reason I play them.

In Mass Effect 3, it’s possible to fail your friends.  If you don’t heed your companion’s rather overt calls for attention, he won’t flourish enough to survive a mission.  You’re left with his grayed-over silhouette on your ally screen.  His story arc has closed.  Any future moments that he could offer to the universal narrative have also closed.  Most every benefit that he has given your character has ceased.  

Video games have begun to return to the idea of Permadeath.  This is the notion of the squashed Mario–three stumbles, and you’re done.  Such a thing offers the challenge of the irrevocable, and as such, I think it can offer the instruction of the irrevocable.  I’m reasonably sane.  I teach college; I have a husband and a household; I participate in a liberal church.  And yet, during one of the most visceral moments of my life, I relied on the conditioning that I acquired in a video game.   And because of this, I wonder what would happen if something like Mass Effect 3 faced us with the irrevocable by employing circumstances that were better cloaked in the ordinary.  We should still save the universe; few things can replace the allure of becoming a big heroine in a big way.  But let’s make games that challenge us with something more subtle, more real.  Some games, especially the indie ones, have lately allowed us toe these deeper waters.  But I ask for more mainstream games to ask us to save the universe a little bit at a time.

I know a game of that sort would not have enabled me to prevent Meg’s death; I’m not that naive.  But this game might have moved the world to be a little nicer to her–if only insofar as it moved me to be nicer.  What is the Paragon response when a bleak friend asks you for coffee while you’re dealing with forty students and don’t have the energy to share another’s depression? Beyond the obvious prompts, how do you best nurture any one of your allies?

In 2015, the Entertainment Software Association reported that over 150 million Americans play video games.  Of those folks, 42 percent play video games at least three hours a week.  So:  A significant number of people spend a significant amount of time giving  a significant amount of attention to video games.  They must be teaching us something.  

I’m not saying that video games should offer us our moral codes.  We have religions and philosophies that are much deeper wells for that sort of thing.  But it is possible that video games could allow us to practice our morality–in every sense of practice, even if they granted us the Renegade’s gift of experimenting with that morality.  We’ve done this sort of thing before.  In fact, we do it all the time.  We imagine what we’d do if we were Rick Grimes, or Starbuck, or King David.  Stories let us practice ourselves.  And when video games get to the point where they move us to achieve this same level of empathy–when they truly show us what it’s like to both save and be saved–they too will become art.

Why I Uninstalled Wolfenstein: The New Colossus

(This post describes fictional animal violence. Considering its subject matter, it’s particularly strange that GameStop would not let me publish this review on their website, partially on the grounds that it considers the word Nazi to be profanity.)

I looked forward to playing Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. I wanted the catharsis of putting some Nazis in their place. The prologue had the drama, technical smoothness, and professionalism of any Bethesda game. I was excited to start the adventure. Then (spoilers) I participated in a scene where my protagonist’s abusive stepfather shot and killed the protagonist’s terrified dog. If I hadn’t noticed that I had the freedom to defy the stepfather, I would have had to direct the protagonist to kill his dog himself.

I uninstalled the game after that. I understand that Wolfenstein deals with human atrocities that far outweigh the death of a single pet. Regarding all that, I also know that in wringing my hands about a dog, I risk echoing a perversion that the Nazis themselves shared when they passed stringent laws against animal abuse even while they were gassing millions of people. But in buying Wolfenstein I’d given permission to see a modicum of general wartime violence, in exchange for my feeling as if I were stopping a great, cathartic amount of white-supremacist violence. In contrast, the close-up killing of a terrified animal is almost on the same level as a close-up killing of a terrified child. That is, the death of non (or not-completely) rational innocents carries a special kind of brutality that I actually play these games to escape. This is especially true when in the real world, the border crisis and the climate crisis make the suffering of children and animals all too inescapable. I want to play a game like Wolfenstein, because I don’t want to feel helpless. In fact, I want to be an agent of heroic correction. And, yes.  I know that if I’d stayed with the game, I would have directed BJ Blazkowicz toward some serious butt-kicking for goodness. I might have even gotten revenge for my dog. But I didn’t need to see the dog die in the first place. I didn’t need to stand there helpless, the way I do in front of so much of the evening news.

Video games (and fiction in general) can get away with violence toward the non (completely) rational innocent—but only if they earn it with a very good reason. All Bethesda earned with this scene is the point that racist abusers need to be stopped. Well, duh, Bethesda. You’re usually smarter than that.

The Creepiest Thing on the Block

I play Minecraft. I’m proud to say it. I’ve created parts of my novel in Minecraft. My pattern recognition, directional memory, and sense of design have improved through Minecraft. And my hope is that when I’m a little old whatsit, I’ll still play Minecraft, from my recliner, as a means of staving off dementia.

But sometimes Minecraft is scary is hell. I’m not talking about the screeches of a demon cow somewhere in the night. I’m not talking about coming across a charred hallway in a dungeon, mining a block of emerald in the floor, and spotting a dragon’s tail sliding along the cavern beneath. Nor am I even talking about scaling a mountain to the sky, only to find a creeper at the edge of the summit, where he blows me down, down to my death.

I’m talking about the things that, by nature of the program, shouldn’t happen in Minecraft.

[Let me make an introductory aside: For those of you who don’t know, Minecraft is a survival game, where you live in a cartoon wilderness. The trick is that you can manipulate any block in that wilderness. And this allows you to build houses (or castles, or factories, or ruined abbeys). It lets you dig mines for resources. And it challenges you to explore the surrounding deserts, forests, and structures that the game randomly generates. There are monsters that come out at night–and never really leave the darkness (of say, a cave)–so there are points when you’re staving off the baddies torch by torch, while outside your little halo, the only thing you can see is a gleam of magical quartz in the distance. I have, in fact, been eaten by a Grue.]

Now if you know Minecraft, you probably recognize that many of the scariest events I’ve mentioned don’t come with the standard game that the company ships. Instead, you might realize that I’m playing what’s called modded Minecraft, where I’ve downloaded programs that users make available as a means of spicing up the vanilla experience. If procured from a trusted clearinghouse, these mods are astonishing in their variety and professionalism. (MIT has a Minecraft modding license.) Among a multitude of other things, they introduce magic systems, more monsters, distant lands, new building blocks, airships, spaceships, crypts, city-managemen simulators, mini games, and turbines run by hamsters. They also, necessarily, mess with the code of the game. And this–I hope–is what can explain the few moments when I’ve come across things that should not be.

First, there was the desert temple I found. Desert temple. No biggie. They’re pretty common. I looted the basement, as you do—and heard a sort of howling thrum beneath the floor. This was not common. I dug down maybe six squares, and landed in a chamber that was lit by a portal. I stepped through the portal—because we’re just playing a game, right? I stepped through, and landed in the widest desert I’d ever seen. Maybe a desert plane. It had mountains that rose to the sky. It had red cactuses. It had a scattering of wells. And the only other creatures except my trembly self were red creepers (instead of green). They would explode so violently that they’d leave craters down to lava. The red creeper is sort of a mythical beast in Minecraft—so I’m not surprised that somebody made one. But the desert dimension doesn’t show up in any documentation. It doesn’t show up on Google. I don’t know where it come from. And I don’t know, if I had stayed, I would have found some kind of destination, or raison d’être to that plane–or if it just somehow existed as a particularly volatile Easter egg. I left; it seemed both repetitive and dangerous. I logged it as a curiosity, and moved on.

Last week, in another version of Minecraft, I built a chateau. It’s got vaulted ceilings, five floors, a few outbuildings. My sister ruined it some by saying the color and the window placement remind her of a yawning hippo. But that aside, it’s a good, big build. The trouble is that during the construction, if you told me that Minecraft had an invisible stalker in its bestiary, I would have believed you. There were times—at least four—when I’d be going along, and then just… run into something. You couldn’t see it. I never took any damage. But this impediment would just show up—and rarely stay in the same place. It reminded me a bit of de Maupassant’s “The Horla.” But whatever. Apparently these things are called Ghost Blocks, and they are glitches that show up in the game sometime–and anyway, onward. There’s no stopping the hippo chateau.

Then on Sunday, as I entered the chateau, I found that above three of the floors levitated a collection of blocks. There were eight blocks in each construction, in a square pattern with the center hollowed out. Think of a square donut. (Or a Minecraft furnace recipe.) They were made of marble—which is what I used to make the chateau’s walls. They were manipulable. I could add to them—because I didn’t feel so inclined to delete them. But what the heck? I am not open to any kind of public server. I’m not even open to LAN. But let me tell you: Since I’ve discovered these little… entities, the invisible stalker has gone away.

This is why I love Minecraft. Even when arranged as a solo-player experience, you aren’t alone. If nothing else, you’re in contact with the intention of the game designers, and the intention of the mod designers, and whatever the heck both their imagination and yours happen to summon–deliberately or not.

Are we looking at a program glitch in my chateau? It must be. I mean, it must be. But the space that those squares fill has always been just space. And though levitating structures aren’t too hard to implement in Minecraft, they rarely occur out of the blue. I think I have a haunted chateau. It’s so big that I can’t keep track of what goes on in every corner. And if this were an homage to “The Horla,” I’d have to get a hand mirror. And I’d have to hold it our way in front of me. And I’d have to see that between me and it, something stood, blocking my own reflection.

My Review of The Last of Us

I just finished playing The Last of Us, and I feel compelled to write about it. I know this post won’t resonate with most of you, but The Last of Us has given me so much to think about, that I don’t really mind. The Last of Us is a zombie-survival video game. That’s what it is. You play as a hardened smuggler who has to protect an orphaned child. It’s also the first game that has made me cry. 

I have a stress-knotted neck from this game. We say I have zombie cruft. The undead are horrid. The humans are worse. I had the subtitles on, because it’s hard to hear over gunfire–and at one point a human committed something so tragic that I said, “Oh my god!” And right then, the sentence appeared on the screen. This was clearly because a character had said the same thing. But the confluence felt right–because it also felt like the game had heard me, that it had registered my line, because I too was a living part of the story. It’s the dialogue and the resulting relationships that give a player such a profound connection to the game. You care about that little girl. And among all the alternating shooting and gnawing, you realize that you’ve walked out of a video game and into a cross between Blood Meridian and True Grit. 

Now, the ending fails. In my head, I’ve already rewritten it. The ending abuses the players, the characters, and maybe also the story’s own rules. It made me mad. In fact, it made me indignant. Poor James heard about it for half an hour–and you’re hearing about it now. I can’t say any more without crashing into whole stacks of spoilers, but I will mention that even in my disgust, I admire the story’s attempt. This is the first game that has ever gotten me talking–even critically–about character and narrative. (To say nothing of player rights–which is an area that is completely new.) What I mean to say is that The Last of Us asks a person to treat it as serious fiction. Regardless of its flaws, it exists as art. And that, dearies, is cool. That is Mario-smashing-into-bricks-and-having-Athena-come-out-of-his-head cool. The Last of Us is alive. For some of that very reason, I don’t recommend it for children. Nor do I recommend it for people who most deeply care for the welfare of children. The game is disturbing for what it shows–but it is astonishing for what it promises.

(Originally posted January 10, 2014)

Better Than a Loot Crate

You know what could be neat? If video-game corps married charity to their achievement system. Say, if you climb all the vistas in Guild Wars 2, the company buys x number of square feet in a rainforest. Or if you beat the grand-moff terrorist base in War Game Gazilion, the company sends x number of bucks to refugee relief. Wouldn’t this be cool? The game companies would get good press; they’d increase sales and subscribers; they’d get to control how and when they gave. They could even increase the price of their games a bit, if they felt they had to. I’d pay a little more to stick it to some real baddies.

(Originally posted November 24, 2013)