St Cuthbert

Saint Cuthbert? Or a modern videogame designer?

It shouldn’t by this point be any surprise that the mainstream media does a lousy job commenting intelligently on videogames.  When they aren’t talking about videogames as a business (in which case they are always awesome) the standard narrative remains that playing games is bad for you.  Games either actively damage you in some way or prevent you from engaging in activities which are supposedly a lot better for you.  Sure, the mainstream media does occasionally flirt with the idea that games may be beneficial on the individual and social level.  But this is really the equivalent of the fake compliment, something they know they have to say to keep the wheels of conversation moving, when what they really want to say is that those jeans do make you look fat.  When something new and game-related appears, however, the media reach for their default frameworks. It took all of two days after the release of Pokemon Go, for example, for the Washington Post to come up with a story built around the stock “games are dangerous!” frame.  Like all such stories, it takes a few anecdotes and while it never explicitly argues that this is a trend, strongly implies it, and relies upon readers’ familiarity with the broader frame to come to the necessary conclusion for themselves.  (The Pokemon Go phenomenon is obnoxious but for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the supposed potential to make people so self-absorbed that they walk into lamp posts or in front of cars; in terms of massive levels of screen-based self-absorption society has left orbit on that one already).

But there’s at least some evidence to suggest that it may be making videogames that is hazardous to your health.

Case in point: Richard Garriott.  Garriott is routinely talked about as a “legendary” or “influential” game developer.  But this formidable rep rests almost solely on the Ultima games, a pioneering RPG series  which, like most things “back in the day,” I suspect, people probably remember as being a little more awesome than was actually the case.  Nevertheless, many people consider these games very important in the history of game development.  And he was the founder of the influential game publisher Origin (ultimately—ha ha– assimilated, like almost everything else, by the EA Borg) But that is pretty much the entire basis of his reputation.

Garriott did attempt something quite different with the game Tabula Rasa (2007) a combination MMORPG and FPS.  The game was beset by development problems but in terms of the game itself these were pretty typical and nowhere near as bad as the early days of many MMOs.  The game itself had a lot of promise, so much so in fact that some of its most innovative mechanics started showing up, without fanfare, in other games.  What was relatively unprecedented was the game’s brief life.  Publisher NCSoft pulled the plug after a little more than a year of live gameplay.  Given that MMOs can take a substantial amount of time to develop fully and to build a stable audience, this is extremely unusual.  When I wrote about this many years ago I pointed out that it probably indicated that the issues with the game were not so much developmental as they were internal and organizational.  Just prior to the demise of Tabula Rasa a letter was circulated claiming that Garriott was leaving to “pursue other projects” (the equivalent of the standard political “spend more time with my family”).  More recent updates to Garriott’s Wikipedia entry, however, include his claim that the letter was faked by NCSoft, and this served as part of a suit brought by Garriott against NCSoft for mishandling his termination.  In the end, he was awarded $28 million (of which he probably got to keep $100,000 after lawyers fees and court costs.  This is the US after all: In Litigation We Trust!).

So it seems that both a circuit court and a court of appeals confirmed that there was some skullduggery afoot at NCSoft; as I said, that much was obvious from the rather strange sequence surrounding the termination of the game.  I am still convinced, however, that a big part of the problem was that NCSoft was never going to be a good fit for the kind of game Garriott had in mind.  Tabula Rasa‘s failure was never a result of Garriot’s design skills.  But it did call into question his business acumen in deciding to partner with NCSoft in the first place.

Spaced Out

There is no doubt, however, that Garriott is something of an odd bod.  Like most players he developed a fictional alter-ego for his gaming, Lord British.  Unlike most players, however, he coded his alter-ego into many of the Ultima games as a character.  And not just any character, but the benevolent ruler of a kingdom built around cardinal virtues.  Garriot would even reportedly dress up on occasion as his virtual avatar.  When Garriott created Tabula Rasa, the idea of a Lord British was obviously not going to really work in a high tech tale of futuristic human struggle against an alien horde so Garriott reinvented himself (or his avatar, and frankly by this point the difference between the two was starting to blur) as General British.  Not surprisingly, Garriott was routinely accused of having something of a God complex , and if you have a God complex, there is arguably no better way to live out that fantasy than to be the lead game designer (ruling over legions of serfs) creating a fantasy game about people ruling over legions of serfs.

Garriott is the son of US astronaut Owen Garriott, so it is hardly surprising that he has long nurtured an ambition to go into space.  What was surprising was that he chose to pursue this dream while in the midst of an imperiled project.  Spending a year training for space, he eventually flew to the International Space Station as  a private citizen in late October 2008.  About two weeks later NCSoft announced it would be pulling the plug on Tabula Rasa and the servers were shut down three months after his return from space.  Judgment?  Timing?  To which I guess the obvious response is always going to be “But it’s space flight, man!”  And fair enough.  Of course, it probably sucked arse if you were one of the many non spaceflight people working on Tabula Rasa.

This is my body, given for you

After a hiatus from game design (perhaps caused, understandably, by the court case against NCSoft) Garriott came roaring back. . .OK, no, that isn’t right.  Garriott, sadly, decided to do what so many designers of yesteryear are doing these days: trying to re-make their games of yesteryear, just with slightly better graphics.  So Garriott announced a new game, Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues which is basically, you guessed it, Ultima All Over Again.

I’m prepared to cut other designers like Chris Roberts and David Braben a little slack when they pursue the same strategy because they are at least trying to supply a kind of game that hasn’t existed for many years, while also pushing the design envelope.  Roberts’ Star Citizen (which may be finished in time for Christmas 2020) is not just trying to revive the visceral thrills and immersive worlds of Wing Commander but craft an authentically and completely first-person space MMORPG.  And Braben’s Elite Dangerous isn’t simply a revival of the original Elite, but instead offers a stunningly vast and beautiful galaxy on an unprecedented scale.

Shroud of the Avatar, however, is doing nothing of this sort.  This was completely obvious from the game’s original trailer two years ago at E3.  It’s worth a watch if only so you can keep track of how many times your cringe reflex kicks in.  Especially for a trailer, and especially for an E3 trailer, and especially for a trailer supposed to secure Kickstarter funding, everything about this is just sad.  (For a comparison, see Roberts Star Citizen launch trailer for his original Kickstarter).  The voiceover is sad.  The music is sad.  The graphics look sad.  The way the game shamelessly trades on a barely remembered glory (and there’s that troubling blurring between Garriott and British again) is just sad.  But the saddest thing of all is that Garriott seems to be completely unaware that we have all spent the last couple of decades playing games that are mostly knockoffs of Ultima.  So now, from the guy who brought you the original Ultima, we present. . .another Ultima knock-off.  Moreover, the promo is making us all the same promises that every MMORPG ever made has made its players.  A world created by players!  Only the best gear made by players!  Wow, I’ve never heard of such a thing!

Of course, many game players have the memory of a gnat, so this strategy may well work.  It has proven to work numerous times before, after all, with almost every MMORPG ever launched.  In the world of MMORPG the adage is: “Once bitten, bite me again, and again, and again. . .”  But perhaps not this time.  It is fair to say that the buzz generated by Shroud of the Avatar has been more of a background hum, faintly audible beneath a steady torrent of derisive snorts and farting noises.  So perhaps it wasn’t surprising when Garriott decided to double down on both the game and his crazy game persona.

By offering his own blood for sale.

Yes, you read that aright.

Or maybe you didn’t, because what was actually being offered for sale was the blood of Lord British.  This singular promo stunt was covered by the gaming press with a mixture of bemusement and glee.  As Ars Techniaa noted, Garriott offered for sale on E-bay five “reliquaries” of blood, with bids starting at $5,000.  The “reliquaries” were art pieces designed to be hung on the wall, and yes, there’s a picture in case you are wondering.  And just in case you might have been tempted to think that this was fake blood being offered for sale, Garriott actually livestreamed having his own blood drawn.  Or rather Lord British’s blood drawn.  From Richard Garriott, via some kind of strange transubstantiation.

To which one can only say.  What.  The fuck.

The “reliquaries” were subsequently removed from Ebay, because of the tiny, inconvenient, overlooked detail that the site has a policy against selling human remains, fluids, or body parts.  I know, hard to believe given everything else that is sold on there, but there it is.  In an update Ars Technica noted that the objects were then moved over the to the game’s own store site where, god help us, two of them actually sold.

In case Garriott’s terminology choice isn’t obvious here, it is worth pointing out that reliquaries are containers that are usually used to house the remains of saints.  Or, more usually, what were reported to be the remains of saints.  More often it was the finger bone of some poor local hanged for buggering sheep that the church tried to pass off as the coccyx of St. Simpering of Naples, part of a brisk trade in Holy Fakery that sustained the church well into the Early Modern period.  As an attempt to drum up support for an illogical and failing enterprise it probably makes sense that Garriott would have used the marketing of relics for the same purpose.

So I suppose we ought to cut Garriott/British some slack here.  The man doesn’t have a God complex.  He merely believes himself a Saint.

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