The Stevies for 2013

Yes, it’s that time again, where I fight the holiday blues by viewing the year through a lens of terrifying meritocracy to sift out the very best things it had to offer. And as always, the rules are simple: it’s all about me. It doesn’t matter what year it was made or released, it matters when I encountered it. These are the best things Steve found this year.

Best Science

This goes to isolating the Higgs Boson. Finding the electron made the modern age possible. This sucker could give us a future we literally cannot imagine. Honorary mention to the fusion drive engineer and the people working on warp speed, just because of the enormous “fuck you” to people who said they were impossible.

Best Politics

Malala Yousafi, Edward Snowden, Wendy Davis, it was a hell of a year for politics. But behind it all was grass roots stuff and the power of Twitter and social media. Thanks to those, millions of people around the world witnessed someone change the official time record to try and shaft Wendy Davis. And it was the engine behind taking Indi away from Sophie Mirabella and into the hands of Cathy McGowan. It’s not the only solution and the big players will try to turn it against us but it’s changed the landscape. Some more examples of grass roots power from the excellent twitter-warrior Van Badham are here.

Best Movie

A great year for SF, and a special note must go to Elysium for generating more irony in audience reactions than a gigantic furnace of pure irony-burning-coal, but this goes to Gravity. Simple, perfect, wonderful. Powerhouse performances for a gorgeous story in a genre oft-forgotten but one of my favourites (man vs nature). Nothing more to say.

Best Comic

A great year was some truly amazing stuff landing on my bedside table. Special props to Saucer Country and Letter 44, for both being about aliens and American politics in two completely unique and compelling ways and blowing my mind both times and demanding I read the rest. And yet, pipped at the post this goes to CHEW by John Layman and Rob Guillory. Chew is hard to explain. It’s basically a dark police procedural set against a conspiracy landscape in a world where chicken is outlawed and food is a metaphor for everything, but it’s also a silly story about a psychic who can tell you everything about whatever he eats. It combines two of my favourite genres: the ridiculously silly and gritty police procedural in a way that diminishes neither, and that’s why I love it. It bestrides both genres like a colossus in a way few dare, fearing that the comedy may undercut the drama, but it doesn’t. Also, it has a building conspiracy arc, perfect pacing and reads like the best TV series ever made. If Bryan Fuller wasn’t already making Hannibal, I would have picked him to make Chew…

Best Table Top Game

For birthday and Christmas I got pretty much every game I was interested in at this end of the year, and there are some super contenders in there, and some I haven’t played yet (like Legends of Andor). I adore how easy it is to get a game of Love Letter and of Hanabi – games I can carry everywhere and sell to anyone. I loved how Eldritch Horror and Elder Sign (on the table and on the pad) reengaged me with the wonder of Arkham Horror, which is still marvelous and almost won just for inspiring those two. Heck, Elder Sign itself justified the purchase of my android device on its own. But I’m giving this to Pandemic. Picked up the new edition and two supplements spending $150 on a game I already owned because I felt it deserved it. Arkham Horror gets more iterations of play, but Pandemic has more pure elegance to it, and taps that modern setting thrill like nothing else. Saving the world feels better when it’s more cogent to our reality, and nothing does it like Pandemic.

Best RPG

I’ve given up reading and playing RPGs but not writing them because I a) still enjoy that and b) get paid to do it, so really the Stevie is going to go to the thing I got paid the most to write and had the most fun doing. I’m very proud to have won two Ennies for my work on Dr Who last year, and to be part of the incredible list of celebrities who worked on Hillfolk but mostly I’m proud of the setting I worked up for Action Cortex in The Hacker’s Guide. I have many more details about that setting in my head, but I got it down nice an succinctly and I love it and I got paid for it.

Best TV Show

The Wire. It’s not television, it’s poetry.

Best Computer Game

For the first time in years this is hotly contested and it’s because of one reason: multiplayer ascendant. I used to hate shooters, but thanks to the elegant design of Team Fortress 2 and the ability to play it with my friends and ONLY my friends I’ve learnt to love the better examples of the genre. And it didn’t cost me a cent. The same multiplayer power has also led to enjoying a platformer, in the excellent Trine 2, something I never believed would ever happen in this universe. But the virtue of multiplayer combined with just wonderful solo play in the clear winner this year: Civilization V. Two excellent expansions have led to game play evolving and staying interesting and it’s a computer game that even without friends, has held my interest long enough to not just keep away the demons but forget they exist. It has nursed me through terrible insomnia. It has fought down the depression. It has carried me through the long dark tea time of the soul and the mind-shattering emptiness of the holidays. And it costs less than the therapy. Hold me closer, Civ 5, for the darkness rises. And if anyone wants to join me for multiplayer, you know how to find me.

Steve out.




Immersion vs Submersion or why First-Person is Not The Only Way To Make Me Care

Immersion gets talked about a lot in gaming but without being talked about well. There are a great deal of nuances in the kinds of emotional experiences we can get from games (and, of course, from stories) but in a drive to simplify the language we’ve squished them all into one.

I’m the guy who cries in movies. All the time. And not always for the same reason. For example, in Les Mis I cried for Fantine in I Dreamed A Dream because her plight moved me to tears, but I cried for Marius in Empty Chairs at Empty Tables because it recalled the survivor guilt I felt myself. The difference in many cases may be too subtle to be teased out, or to matter, but they are different, and if we head further apart we can certainly conceptualize the two extremes. On one hand, there is the sense of deep emotional connection to a fiction, on the other, the reminiscence or even reliving of a real experience.

It is important to note that the former is nothing silly or foolish: to share the joy and sadness of an emotional experience to an intensity equal to or beyond that of real life experiences despite (or, as always, perhaps because of) the fictional nature of the characters and the situation is not something everyone can do but is something widely and deeply human, and part of why we engage with stories as a species. It is also important to stress that at no point does the fiction become real. We are never confused about the line between fiction and reality, yet our emotions are as strong as and even perhaps identical to real emotions, despite whatever knowledge we simultaneously maintain about the fictional nature of the information. When we use the phrase “the sensations become so real to us” we’re not talking about mental illness (hello, idiots on the internet) but rather the joy of mutual frames of reference. I can at once be sitting in my seat in a theatre seeing paid actors in costumes on a wooden stage and AT THE VERY SAME TIME be on the streets of Paris feeling an army coming towards me, and watching my friends die around me, with no trace of mental illness in play (indeed, mental illness often impedes this process).

And the conversion can be so strong we take on the physical sensations of being there – jump with fear, ache with love, thrash with rage. But it’s still not the same thing as an instinctual reaction that comes from what I’ll call submersion, which is the sense of actual being there, and being caught up not so much in a character but in oneself. This is the immersion of dreams, where things are indistinct from reality, and it can, indeed, happen in fiction but is most common in acting, and in roleplaying (in both senses), where we become so invested in the fictional reality we take on its forms unconsciously and think and act as if they were real. Again, this implies no mental illness or actual confusion, as it were, but a crossing of wires, a sense of what I believe is called cognitive dissonance, as what we know and what we believe swap places.

What’s important is that submersion is commonly talked about for actors and for Live Action roleplayers, whereas immersion is commonly talked about among an audience. What makes roleplaying so interesting is it is an experience that simultaneously bestrides the fourth wall, allowing the player to be at once both audience and actor, and thus become the participant in two different ways, through immersion and submersion.

And this is also true of all games with a story. We engage with such things on at least two levels, with the primal idea of meeting the game’s goals, which causes submersion, and with feeling connected to the story with immersion. When I play the Firefly board game and I see my income running low and my ship running out of fuel tokens I have an instinctual gamer reaction to the in-game difficulty of being stranded low on fuel and cash, which connects me submersively to the same emotion in Mal Reynolds in the same position, while the art and pieces help conjure in my head what such a moment would look like for my crew, and immerse me in that moment in my head.

As I say though, we kind of miss the difference between the two and that they work very differently, and that causes problems. A scene of rape or torture, for example, can be done realistically with the goal of immersing the audience in the horror of the experience, yet for some be too realistic and become submersive. I don’t watch horror because I inevitably get submersed far too far, particularly with the insistence on point of view shots and communicating horror through playing on the watcher’s visceral reactions, as opposed to imagined shared sensation. It’s a kind of synesthesia, in fact: I can’t watch an injury without feeling it in my body….unless, that is, I’m very immersed in the story so I feel it only through the character.

And that’s the important distinction. Many roleplayers argue that anything that distances oneself from the immediacy of the experience inherently blocks immersion and prevents people from connecting emotionally but that’s like saying the need to turn pages and convert words into images in our heads stops us weeping at Wuthering Heights. But immediacy DOES tend to be a big part of submersion, and when people say that LARPs and what are being called “connected mechanics” bring them into that world, that’s what they’re talking about. But they don’t realize that narrative, “disconnected” mechanics can, by heightening a sense of story, create a great sense of immersion which has its own wonderful power and connection.

And I think too often we try to get submersion with game stories, particularly in computer games. Things like Going Home and the Walking Dead and the Last of Us even though they give you a character, use first person views to heighten immediacy. But for me, this makes the sensation so realistic I instantly withdraw, from the experience and the story. The very fact that it asks me to be in the situation is what tells me it is false. Whereas I have wept for (and cheered and laughed with) Guybrush Threepwood, because his character touches my heart and is a mirror for myself. Without a trace of character generation or being forced, as a player, to make moral choices.

We are at a point in history where literally thousands of game designers have realized that games have this incredible power to share experiences with people through submersion but I don’t want to play any of them because I’d much, much rather be moved through immersion. And I think games can do immersion in beautiful and powerful and important ways, ways that can move hearts and change lives. And we forget that at our peril.