Monday, May 11, 2009


A few months ago, I had a conversation with my dad about my Warhammer 40,000 army. It was a thought-provoking experience. Now, Dad is the person who taught me everything I know about wargaming, and my oldest playmate, so it was a lot of fun to talk with him about the use of my orks on the battlefield. But what was thought-provoking was the fact that we could have the conversation at all.

You see, Dad doesn't play 40K.

He doesn't know the rules, either. Has barely ever even asked about them. This is the thought that our conversation provoked: what is the quality of the game that allows Dad and I to have an intelligent conversation about it when only one of us has made a study of the rules?

My answer is this: 40K is a tactical game.

"Tactical" is a buzzword when discussing games, particularly nerdy games that depict violence. "Tactical" the buzzword often means nothing more than "has choices associated with it." I don't find this to be a very helpful definition, since all games present the player with choices to make, so this definition usually ends up focusing on what the speaker things are the important choices. Compare Dawn of War 2 to StarCraft. Both are real-time strategy computer games. In the latter, one of the high-level choices players must make as they play the game is how much of their time and energy to devote to the holy triangle of engaging the opponent's forces in battle (offense), building their own forces (economy), and defending their means of production from the opponent (defense). By and large each of these three tasks is independent from the others, and finding the right balance among the three is one of the most important challenges of the game. Dawn of War 2 does not have this triad of decisions (a triad which has become one of the hallmarks of RTS games), focusing instead on decisions such as when to preserve and when to sacrifice troops, and which territory must be taken and which can be ignored (or abandoned). Because Dawn of War 2 does not present the player with the offense-economy-defense triad of choices, it might be (and has been) criticized as "not tactical."

The U.S. Army Field Manual, wikipedia helpfully informs me, defines tactics as "The employment of units in combat. It includes the ordered arrangement and maneuver of units in relation to each other, the terrain, and the enemy in order to translate potential combat power into victorious battles and engagements." With this as our understanding of "tactics," then, I propose the following definition of a tactical game: A game is tactical to the extent that it admits of analogies between tactics that can successfully be used within the context of the game and tactics that have been or are successfully used by real-world combatants.

One of the obvious implications of this definition is that you can learn about the tactics of a tactical game by learning about the tactics of its real-world analogue(s). In fact, if that analogue is a popular one, by learning about it, you might be learning about multiple tactical games at once, before you even know what they are. One of the less obvious implications is that learning about real-world analogues always teaches you at least something about all tactical games, because all successful real-world tactics have certain things in common. This is the quality that 40K has that allowed Dad and I to discuss the game even though Dad knows nothing about "the game" in the sense of sequence of play, how to read a unit's statline, etc.

You might think that a "tactical" game in this sense is boring, because you can learn about the game without actually playing the game. To some extent this is true; a large part of the appeal of a tactical game is in attempting to put one's tactical ideas into practice - the fun is in the application of knowledge to form a plan and execute it, not in gaining the knowledge in the first place.

In a sci-fi context, though, there actually is an element of discovery, because things don't necessarily look like what they are. For instance, consider my orks. Although they are large and green and armed with automatic weapons, they are essentially Napoleonic infantry. They function to best effect when deployed in contiguous battle lines with mutual support. The advance of orky infantry is dependent in large part upon coordinating simultaneous impact with the enemy, in picking a time and place to advance that neither leaves one exposed for too long nor unduly disrupts the formation, and in prosecuting the attack once begun with resolution. All things that would have been familiar to a commander of infantry in the early nineteenth century, I imagine.

Similarly, my ork warbikes function essentially as cavalry - they are highly mobile, but lack staying power, and flounder against a bold defense by infantry unless they have near numerical parity. Warbikes are not to be thrown against the front of an enemy formation unless they have every advantage, and sometimes not even then. And yet my warbike-mounted nobz (bigger, nastier orks on warbikes) function not as cavalry but more like a tank - unlike cavalry, they combine high mobility with high durability and high combat power. Regular warbikers go where the enemy is not. Nob bikers can force the enemy to be where they are not.

Part of the fun here is just the incongruity between what a unit looks like and what it is. Green-skinned aliens on motorcycles don't necessarily look like Frenchmen on horses, but they function the same way. It's not obvious that if you just increase the size of the greenskin he and his motorcycle buddies morph into a single armored fighting vehicle, but there you go. But another part of the fun is in figuring out why a unit is what it is. Nob bikers are "tanks" because they have the speed, durability, and combat power to muscle the enemy aside. But they aren't actually a single tank; they're multiple big orks on Harleys. The mechanism is different but the result is the same, so the two units can be employed in the same way.

The relationship is a little more complex than that, of course; nob bikers aren't tank-like in every respect (they lack the ability to project combat power at a distance, for instance), but if you patch together enough analogies from real-world tactics you can come up with a sound doctrine for their use. Figuring out the proper patchwork of analogies is part of the discovery fun, and then you get the fun of applying that patchwork to devise and execute a plan.

Not every game admits of this kind of analogizing. Many first-person shooters, for instance, bear no resemblance to any real-world tactics. The only way to learn about the tactics of Quake is, well, to play Quake, or other games in the "twitch shooter" genre. No amount of clever analogies will change that, and all the knowledge in the world about close-quarters battle will be of basically zero use. The only way to learn about the tactics of Final Fantasy Tactics is to play that game, or other such "tactics" games. No analogies can be drawn to real world combat of any time period. These games offer lots of interesting choices and skills to master, but they aren't "tactical."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Let's Go Shopping

But all love was troubled and made cold, and Maleldil's voice became hard to hear so that wisdom grew little among them. - C.S. Lewis, in Perelandra

I heard a story once, in law school. I don't know if it's true or not. The story goes that a transactional lawyer much like myself was once at a presentation being given by another lawyer who did public interest work. After the presentation the transactional lawyer, much impressed, caught the presenter and expressed his sincere admiration for the cause he had just heard about, and the work that the presenter was doing. "Why don't you join us?" asked the presenter. "We could always use more attorneys on staff."

Feeling a little guilty, the transactional lawyer declined. "The work I'm doing here is important too," he said.

To his surprise, the presenter agreed. "Yes," he said. "The world needs people that do what you do. But if it ever feels less than heroic, give me a call."

For most of my life I have been - overall - quite content with where I was, and what I was doing. It was enough to keep my eyes on the present, because I was sure that what I was doing now was what God needed me to do, and that he would lead me in due time to what I needed to do in the future. I wasn't caught on the academic treadmill like some. I was fortunate in that I really did like school, but I never felt any pressure to take certain classes or to go to certain schools or even to perform well, except that I wanted to kick ass academically because I knew that I could. Gifts want to be used.

I was also fortunate in that most of my thinking spiritual life was conveniently broken up into bite-sized chunks. More or less the seasons of my spiritual life coincided with the major school changes - middle school, high school, undergrad. I just knew, without perhaps thinking it through very critically, that my life would change at those junctures, and roughly speaking they did. This being my conviction and my experience, it was difficult to feel too adrift. Whatever was going on now was what I needed to be doing now, and now was very probably going to end at or about the next graduation, which was never more than four years away.

I wrote home once that being at Stanford was like being on vacation all the time. From this point of retrospect, my entire life prior to graduation seems that way.

And then came law school, which was the next thing that I knew God needed me to do.
For the first time school was hard, intellectually and morally (not that there weren't intellectually hard things at Stanford, but I didn't feel called to chemistry, thank God, and my classics studies weren't hard - they merely required lots of effort). And not only were things hard, but for the first time, I wasn't sure I could do it. At all.

Something broke inside me during law school that still hasn't been put together. The confidence that I could do anything - maybe not easily, but that I could do it - was shattered. Not obliterated. But fractured. Unwhole. Something else was shattered at the same time: the sense that God was with me.

Please note that I said the sense. The great rhetra upon which Charismatics learn to rely grew hard to hear, and wisdom has perhaps grown little with me of late. And so I am left going to work many days, like today, feeling decidedly unheroic, wondering what it's all for, and not really convinced, deep down, that I can kick this job's ass if I really have to.

Mornings (and afternoons) like that are bleak, especially because I still feel like I'm where I need to be and doing what I need to do. My moral North Star feels like it's grown dimmer, but I'm still sure where it is.

So what's a guy to do?

A lot of things that Charismatics learn to rely on are like sex - they're great, and I think it's stupid to build a relationship without them, but it's equally stupid to build a relationship upon them. So it is with the voice of God. So it's hard to hear these days, is it? Well, what of it? What does that change?

It changes how brave I feel. It changes how safe I feel. But does it change what I know? What I trust?

Depends upon what my trust is founded. If my trust is founded upon the subjective religious experience of hearing the voice of God, then I am a) screwed and b) a great fool. But my trust is not founded upon that; it is founded upon Scripture, and buttressed by experience. And Scripture tells me that while God may speak to me, he won't necessarily - and it suggests that if I find him hard to hear, the problem is more likely on my end than his. Very well, there's plenty about my spiritual life that could be better. Very well, this sucks. Doesn't change what I know. What I trust.

So I don't always feel like I can do it, do I? Well, why did I feel that way before? If it was because I was a cocky smartass, well, losing that isn't a bad thing. If it was because I knew that what I had to do is something God has called me to do, or that my success - indeed, my very competence - rested on him more than me, well, that puts a different spin on the need to front up and get on with it.

So I don't feel heroic, do I? Well, who does? I don't actually think that heroism ever really feels heroic. Heroism is, as I know perfectly well, usually just getting on with the job in the face of what seem like very good reasons not to.

This isn't to say that there aren't things in me that truly are broken, and need to be fixed. And I do miss the old certainty that all was well because, if we had to, God and I could kick the ass of anything that came our way. But in the meantime, I need to focus on what I know.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Beyond Grace

I had a recent conversation with Marion that brought me back to the subject of Bioshock. Bioshock wins my award for Best Use of Violence in a Long, Long Time. The game's hype touted its "moral choice" system, but what that really boiled down to was whether you killed mutated little girls to increase your power now, or cured them of their horrible condition in order to increase your power later. It was viscerally effective - when you had the little girls in your hands they were so little girl-like you really felt awful about killing them, which is the real reason I never did - but it was trying way too hard. And the fact that you were rewarded for saving the little girls turned the whole thing into a simple economic transaction.

But Bioshock did and does make me think about moral choices all the same. Let me sketch a bit of background first for those who haven't played the game. Yes, spoilers follow. In Bioshock, the player finds himself in a nightmare underwater art-deco city called Rapture, founded by a visionary man named Andrew Ryan with a chip on his shoulder and one too many copies of Atlas Shrugged in his library. Naturally, this Objectivist paradise is overrun in fairly short order by a gifted thug named Frank Fontaine, whose criminal empire ruins the society. Fontaine spends most of the game playing the player for a fool by posing as "Atlas," a revolutionary figure who still struggles to overthrow Ryan's hypocritical tyranny. "Atlas'" wife and daughter are trapped in the hellish underbelly of the city, which is overrun by crazed mutagen-addicts, and he implores the player's aid to save them.

That will do for set-up. It's important to understand, though, that the aforesaid crazed mutagen-addicts (called "splicers" in the game) have some memory of their former selves, and like all drug addicts, are essentially pathetic. The player is forced to kill a good many of them, but none of them want to die, and are still human enough to feel pain and have desires other than killing the player. They cry over lost babies, have loving relationships, and on more than one occasion I felt that in their dying moments (e.g., as they were running around like human torches because I had immolated them) they regretted what they had become. One of these splicers is a boss-type character named Sander Cohen, who believes himself to be a great artist (and probably once was). Cohen is also a really nasty guy, who chains piano players to pianos to "audition" for him by playing one of his masterpieces and blowing them up when they fail to live up to his standards, creates statues out of people by covering them in plaster, that sort of thing. Yet the player must traverse his part of Rapture in order to reach Atlas' poor wife and son. By the end of it you've been forced to do Cohen's dirty work by killing several other splicers who hate Cohen for what he has done to them and their families, and Cohen at last reveals himself to congratulate you and wish you on your way.

So there I stood, with the monster at last before me, a not-inconsiderable arsenal of mutagen-granted powers, and a very powerful gun in my hand. I seriously considered blowing his head off. I had no reason not to; he had given me everything I needed to get past his locked doors. I even suspected he had a key on him I could use to gain some valuable loot. But I didn't. Why did I want to kill him? Because he was a terrible person. Well, so what? Does being a terrible person justify your execution? Cohen was indeed a monster, but was he beyond forgiveness? He was, at heart, like all the other splicers - doing terrible things in his drug-addled thirst for the things humans value most - love, family, art. I stayed my hand and moved on. But the entire Cohen sequence was enormously creepy, not least because I was killing people I had no desire to kill, and no clear reason to kill other than that they were in my way and attacking the intruder in their midst (me). Despite the fact that Cohen was the most morally despicable person in his private nightmare realm, and very nearly the only person I had not killed, it was almost a relief to let him live.

Contrast this with another situation, later on in the game, when it became clear that Atlas was Frank Fontaine, and I had been his cat's paw all along. Fontaine is, as you might guess, the ultimate villain of the piece, and the final act of the game is dedicated to hunting and putting him down. Yes, he has a megalomaniacal scheme to mutate himself into some kind of ubermensch, and for the sake of the few sane people in Rapture one might feel an obligation to stop him. But the truth is that I wanted to kill him because he had been using me, and in some twisted game logic that was an unforgivable sin.

I've experienced this sort of state before, as Danielle Meroit and as Monica Corvallyn. A few other games have had hints of it. It's like grace, but in reverse. If grace is unmerited favor, this is a state in which favor is unmeritable. Where a person (in this case, Fontaine) is beyond redemption, a stain on existence that cannot be blotted out by repentance, good works, or mitigating circumstances. Only death will do, the more callous and brutal the better.

Was Fontaine's wrong any greater than Cohen's? Not clearly. He was a manipulative, megalomaniacal bastard, to be sure, but he wasn't a sadistic artiste. His was a common, almost bureaucratic sort of evil - the cold pursuit of self-aggrandizement. Cohen's was darker, more sinister. But I skulked about Cohen's lair, scared and ashamed, and for all his horrors I was proud to let him live. There was something cleansing about it. Fontaine I pursued like an angel nemesis, and woe betide anyone foolish enough to try to protect him. The horrors of Rapture were expunged in that state of mind. Fontaine was not even a man any more. He was only a thing to be killed, the object of my clear, brutal certainty that his death was Something That Must Be Done.

I find this state of mind fascinating, because it is in my opinion the most horrific of all states that the human mind can get into. I think it strikes me this way because it really is the opposite of grace, and grace is the great trademark of the mind of God. Forgiveness is always an option, because in the final analysis forgiveness is never fully warranted. It cannot be fully warranted. No action will take back a wrong. We can paper over the wound, but what was done cannot be undone, and so restitution can never truly make a person whole. When forgiveness is taken off the table, whether we realize it or not we are saying that we refuse to forgive them. When we do that, we cut ourselves off from recognizing the very nature of forgiveness itself, and isolate ourselves against the very heart of God.