Sunday, August 05, 2007

Having and Eating: Immersion and Customizaiton

The internet is one of the best things that's ever happened to us. Don't try to deny it. We all love it for different reasons. For my part, it's the ability react to what you consume. I think that may be the most fascinating thing about electronic culture. We can all contribute, and everything we consume can be manipulated in some small way to make it our own. Part of our identity online.

This is a big reason why I love and have faith (gah! faith! get it off me!) in the video game medium. Interactive art is something that's been part of post-modernity for a long time and it's a/the fundamental principle of video games. It's a toss up between what's more important to me in gaming, the interaction or the narration. All I can really say is I've never found a perfect balance. As I've said before, I think the two facets are part of a tipping scale: the more interaction, the less narration.

This is a blog about Magic: the Gathering. It is, not really, but sort of a plug. But you know what, for a long time I've felt that there was something about Magic and gaming that went hand in hand perfectly. I'd meet gamers who'd turn their noses at Magic and say to myself "Either you never learned to play Magic, or you don't really like gaming." It took me being bribed with free cards, but now I've finally given some to why I feel that.

Magic: the Gathering makes an interesting bridge between interaction, in the form of customization, and narration, in the form of established goals and game structure. It's really very similar to real time strategy games like Starcraft and Civilization. You have an established repertoire of game resources (units in RTSs, cards in Magic) and each one has an established use. After that, the way the game goes is up to you. In RTSs this comes in the form of organization, build up, how you use your units, what sort of player you want to be. Are you going to turtle, like a puss, or rush, like a dick. Magic is the same way. In both games and Magic there's an element of preliminary planning and an element of on-the-fly interpretation. I think this may be one of the reasons that people get turned off to Magic. The preparation is pretty lengthy, and spontaneity is more limited once the games starts. But herein lies my excitement for Magic. It's tremendously complicated with enough different avenues to allow just the construction of decks to be exciting. Thousands of cards and complicated rules make for a lot of creative leeway.

I remember sitting in class in high school and thinking about better ways to use the Zergling's burrow ability better, but there was no way to try until the game started. And even then it was a crap shoot because anything could happen once the game started. With Magic I can take my time planning, refining, experimenting. Then, during the game, it's my planning and my luck versus my opponent's. For this reason, I think Magic is great for anyone who actually likes Myst invading their daily chores, but would really like solving the puzzle to mean more than being able to solve the puzzle.

There's another trade off to be had between customization and immersion. I think the hierarchy goes thusly: video games -> Magic the Gathering -> Dungeons and Dragons. The relation is how much you have to fight the knowledge that you're sitting in a room being a nerd in order to enjoy the fantasy you're trying to live. The point of all of these really is to pretend you're something you're not. To fantasize.

Video games, with their noises and colors and moment to moment concentration really lets you forget that you're sitting on a couch pushing buttons. The biggest enemy to a good game of Magic, for me, is silence. Nothing makes it harder to maintain my fantasy of being a badass spellcaster than the awkward, silent stare of an empty apartment broken only by my own reluctant voice saying "I cast Magic Missile Pyroblast". If there's one thing I like about Magic these days, it's the attempt to make the artwork more realistic and more situational. A good remedy for self-consciousness in Magic is a creature who's artwork is not only unarguably fun to look at, but helps put you in escapist role of a murderous wizard. Engaging flavor text (oh yea...flavor text) also serves to cement the cards in some tangible world. I've always loved the Weatherlight series for attempting an actual story with it's cards' texts and images.

On the one hand, it requires more effort to become immersed than simply looking at graphics. On the other, the fantasy becomes very personal. It's your deck that you built. In gaming you are almost always forced into the role of someone else. In Magic you have a lot of freedom to engage the fantasy world on your own terms.

And although one might feel a little bad sitting in a room playing a card game, there's definitely something nice about knowing who your opponent is rather than suspecting the trash talking prick who sniped you doesn't have his Adam's apple yet.

I suppose I should talk a little about the specific expansion that I'm being bribed with. As this is a core set there's not a lot to say about the set itself. The artwork gets better and better, which again is basically all the immersion aspect of it, so better art means better immersion. It's really interesting to see the cards that make it in and the ones that don't. There's a culture to Magic that core sets represent. Card popularity and usefulness (not to mention neutrality) are reflected in each new core set. I remember when Serra Angel was removed, I think from 6th. I don't know how long it's been back for, but it feels like the game is complete again. Cards that have served you well or inspired a deck theme become beloved characters in an amorphous story and it's always nice to see who's popular in the fantastical battlefield.

I don't know why it seems strange to become attached to cardboard and totally acceptable to fall in love with pixels. As far as I'm concerned they're both doorways into creativity and escape. I'd generally encourage anyone who plays video games passionately to take a swing at Magic. All the major themes of fantasy lore are in it. The qualities of elvishness and orcishness, the life giving power of nature, the corruptive side effects of evil-derived power. But more than in almost any fantasy interpretation, this one lets you take a look at all the powers in fantasy and really do whatever you're inspired to do as long as you can afford the cards. I'm really not sure why there's never been anything close to a successful magic/video game hybrid, and I'm not even going to touch it. I think it's still a great idea. But what I'll say is this. We want to live somewhere else sometimes. We want to be powerful. And when it comes to being part of another world, there's something about complete customizable freedom that not even MMORPG characters can match.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember reading a Nintendo Power magazine where they were talking about a SNES game where all the characters were Cards!

It looked pretty cool, too.

They weren't wizards, though. It was as if "The Adventures of Zelda" were a bunch of magic cards.

Take a look-see for yourself:

P.S. - I just realized that all those Pokemon games are what the bastard child would be like of Magic the Gathering and video games.