The Problem with Immortals

I was recently reading up on some tabletop RPGs, as I’m giving thought to starting up a new roleplaying group, now that my new house is actually starting to look like a home where I can host company, as opposed to a storage space for all my stuff. On a whim, I decided to check out some of White Wolf’s offerings; I’ve always been fascinated by the supernatural and horror, and I thought it would be cool to run a game along those lines. I looked through a few of their games, and some of them look great (Werewolf: The Apocalypse and the now-discontinued Wraith: The Oblivion look particularly neat).

But then I did some reading about Vampire: The Requiem.

Out of all the games White Wolf makes, Vampire is probably their most famous and has the most preconceptions associated with it. Just mentioning the name conjures images of groups of young goths, moping around parking lots, pretending to be scheming immortals. Admittedly, a lot of this perception is probably unfair (I’ve known a few people who actually did participate in Vampire LARPS, and they definitely didn’t fit the stereotype), so I did my best to go into it with an open mind. But the more I read about the game, the more it seemed rather…pointless. By the game’s design, vampires have no motivation beyond continuing to exist. They take no true pleasure from anything except consuming blood, and they can’t be “good;” they are on a slow but inevitable downward spiral away from their former humanity. And in fact, one of the sources I read said specifically that Requiem (the successor to Vampire: The Masquerade) did away with that game’s perpetual war between two vampire factions “…to create a world more in keeping with the themes of ennui and politics…”

It was at this point that I stopped looking at VtR; after all, why would I want to run a game that is specifically about ennui? Isn’t the entire point of games, and entertainment in general, to alleviate boredom? Why would I want to play a game specifically designed to simulate it?

But I began to think further, and came to the conclusion that the problem isn’t with Vampire itself, but with the concept of immortals as principal characters in a story. Because if you look at any story revolving around vampires , whether it be Interview with the Vampire or the other works of Anne Rice, the Legacy of Kain games or (God help you) the Twilight series, these themes of ennui and extremely limited motivation for the undead keep cropping up. And it’s not just limited to vampires; Watchmen portrays the character of Dr. Manhattan changing from a normal man into a detached, immortal god. Star Trek’s Q is omnipotent and immortal, and yet has nothing better to do with his time than antagonize random starship captains like a child tormenting bugs in a jar. The Meths of Altered Carbon have lived so long through medical technology that their entire lives have devolved into an endless pursuit of hedonism and pleasure to alleviate their endless boredom.

So clearly, this is a persistent problem with immortals as characters; their motivations tend to be inherently shallow. Either their entire existence is dedicated to the purpose of prolonging their existence, or they simply cannot die and are attempting to occupy their time with idle amusements. Either way, ennui dominates their lives. This creates two problems; one, how do you make such beings interesting as characters? And two, how do you write a compelling story around them?

The first problem is kind of an ambiguous one since, clearly, judging from the persistent popularity of vampire fiction, there is a market for stories about bored, immortal characters. So why is that? What is interesting to readers and viewers about undying beings who are bored with their own endless existence? I think the simplest answer is one of pathos; characters like Lestat or Dr. Manhattan are sad figures, in a way. For all their power, and as much as, at one point in their existence, they probably wished they would never die, now that they have power and immortality, they don’t want it anymore. Dr. Manhattan’s reflection on his own immortality is elegaic and mournful, evoking sadness at the humanity he has lost to gain so much. And while Lestat’s temperament seems to vary from book to book, there is an entire novel, The Tale of the Body Thief, where Lestat is so bored of his immortal existence that he agrees to swap bodies with a mortal, just to be alive again. So clearly, for some of these characters, it is the pathos of their situation that makes them attractive to readers.

But there are only so many stories you can write about a character who is bored with their non-life and wishes they could die. So how do you make an immortal work as the protagonist of a more traditional story? Well, if the entire problem of such characters is that they don’t have a stake in existence beyond simply continuing to exist, the author needs to give them something to be invested in. Highlander’s Connor Macleod is immortal, but he’s locked in a struggle with every other immortal on the planet, each of them forced to do battle until only one remains to claim the Prize, great power that could either save or damn the world, depending on who wins it. Thus, Connor is not only forced to fight for his own survival, but for the survival and well-being of everybody in the world. Even though he still has the problems inherent to immortality, such as outliving all his loved ones, he has clear, defined goals that drive him; defeat all other immortals, claim the Prize. Simple, but it works. Likewise, the titular character of Angel has an goal as well; to become human again, by fulfilling a prophecy and saving the world. Again, you have an immortal character with all the problems accompanying immortality, but who also has an endgame and a goal that he’s striving for.

Beyond that, the only other way to make an immortal work in a story seems to be making them the antagonist. Immortals are already removed from the human condition by virtue of the simple fact that they can’t die, and that inhumanity naturally predisposes them to be villains. In fact, if you look at a list of immortal characters in fiction, they tend to be bad guys the vast majority of the time. And moreover, they tend not to merely be villains, but truly monstrous ones, inhuman horrors that treat human life as a commodity that they are entitled to use however they see fit. If you see an immortal as a villain, they’re almost never complex or sympathetic, but range between being sadistic monsters (the vampires of Buffy) or beings of such immense, inhuman power that the well-being of humans never enters their mind (the Elder Gods of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos).

So there you have it, three ways to make immortals work as principal characters; they can be the Woobie, a hero with a goal that challenges them in spite of their immortality (and in fact, promises to end it), or they can be monstrous villains. There really doesn’t seem to be any middle ground between the three (though if anybody can think of other categories, I’m all ears).

In any case, I don’t think I’ll be bringing Vampire to my gaming table any time soon. Immortal or not, boredom is pretty easy to come by; finding fun is much more challenging.


Post-E3 Reflections

As some of you may know, I’m a pretty big fan of video games. I hesitate to use the term “gamer” because, well, I think it’s kind of stupid. I mean, we don’t call people who like to watch movies “movie-ers” or people who enjoy reading books “bookers.” It’s an annoying label for other reasons that I won’t go into here for the sake of brevity (maybe another time). I would, however, describe myself as a video game enthusiast, so the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) is always a big event for me; it’s where companies trot out their latest projects, where we usually get our first look at new games and, as we did this year, new hardware.

As such, I hope those among you who aren’t as into games as I am will bear with me while I take a moment to reflect on this year’s E3, and the state of the state of the games industry as a whole. Check back soon, and I’ll probably have something more up your alley.

Right then. Well, we’re at the start of a new console generation. Ordinarily, this would be an exciting time for me, seeing the new hardware on display, seeing new games and marveling at what the new systems are capable of in comparison to the old ones that are on their way out. I have fond memories of the first time I got to play a Nintendo 64 game, or a Playstation game, when the world seemed to open up and I saw games that allowed for three-dimensional movement for the first time. I remember playing Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast and Super Smash Bros. Melee on the Gamecube and being amazed at their speed, fluidity, and dramatically improved visuals. Those were amazing experiences for me, and I still treasure the memories as much as, if not more than, those Christmas mornings where I actually received those systems and games as gifts. The reveal of new consoles was an amazing, exciting event that only happened once every 5 years, at the soonest; it was like an eclipse, or a comet returning to Earth orbit to amaze and dazzle us.

Notice my use of the word “was” in the previous sentence.

I think the big problems, for me, anyway, started with the previous console generation, specifically with the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. I remember when the Xbox 360 came out, I went to my local Target to have a look at a demo unit. I had owned an original Xbox, and indeed, it was and still is one of my favorite game systems of all time, so I was excited to give its successor a try. I picked up the controller and started playing the demo game, the 360 version of the tie-in game for Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake.

And I remember thinking, very vividly, “This is just like an original Xbox game.”

Admittedly, it was in widescreen, which I had never experienced before in a video game, and it was in HD, at a time when HDTV sets were relatively new and hadn’t yet become widespread, but the visuals, while improved, weren’t improved by much. The game itself was a first-person shooter, just like any other FPS I had ever played on my Xbox. There was no new or exciting experience that was being pitched to me, just more of the same with a fresh coat of paint.

And that was probably the best way to sum up my experience in the 7th console generation, at least with the 360 and PS3: “more of the same.” Don’t misunderstand me, I do own both consoles, and I’ve played my share of exciting, unique games for each; games like Alan Wake, Bioshock, Fallout 3, Infamous 1 and 2, Uncharted 1, 2 and 3 and Lost Odyssey are high points that I won’t soon forget. But to be frank, there’s no reason those games couldn’t have been made on 6th generation systems. Oh, they wouldn’t have had a lot of the graphical bells and whistles that they did, to be sure, but the core of those games and the core of the experience would have been largely the same.

And those are the high water marks; those are the games that haven’t been diminished by being developed in the HD generation. Many games have; most FPS titles have been reduced from having open levels to being linear “cinematic” experiences, because having higher resolution textures and fancy lighting effects is valued more than a better-designed game. JRPGs have continued their de-evolution into barely-interactive CGI movies; Final Fantasy XIII is the most infamous example of this, having famously traded its open worlds, explorable towns and secrets for what amounts to a linear corridor with gorgeous scenery for wallpaper. Where new hardware once brought possibilities of new game design ideas and new ways to play, with the PS3 and 360, it became a set of gilded shackles. Developers had to make pretty-looking games to compete, and they had to make them “safe”; with budgets of upwards of $30 million, a single failed game could torpedo a studio, and so nobody wanted to take risks and innovate, for fear of going bankrupt if sales didn’t keep pace.  And so “more of the same” became not just a customer complaint, but a business mantra as well.

The lone exception to this, in my opinion, was the Wii, specifically because Nintendo opted to eschew radical advances in GPU and CPU technology that would have only benefited those with HDTVs (admittedly, in retrospect this was something of a mistake, as HDTVs caught on very quickly after the introduction of the PS3 and 360) in favor of what we now call motion controls. Despite not having superior graphics, by focusing their hardware innovation on the way user input was handled, the Wii gave rise to a slew of games that wouldn’t have been possible on previous platforms, not without diminishing what they fundamentally are.

And while the PS3 and 360 were later updated with peripherals to accomodate this “trend,” I discount those for two reasons; one, they were aping Nintendo’s work, rather than attempting to create something new. And two, their execution was lacking. The PS Move, while actually a decent piece of hardware (I do own a set) was barely emphasized, and fundamentally did exactly the same things as the Wii’s hardware already did, but with slightly greater accuracy and improved visuals. The Kinect, on the other hand, was a train wreck. To this day, I’ve never gotten a Kinect unit to work well for me; apparently my six-foot-five frame is just too much for the camera to keep track of at once, at least while remaining close enough to see what’s on the TV. And I’ve heard much shorter people than myself maintain that, even for them, the device isn’t terribly accurate in the first place, to the point where any game more complicated than Kinect Sports or Just Dance is basically unplayable; Rise of Nightmares and Steel Battalion were the poster children for the “hardcore” Kinect game, and both of them were wretched failures. The Kinect simply couldn’t live up to the expectations that Microsoft had set for it.

And that brings us to this year’s E3. The start of a new console generation; Nintendo’s Wii U has been out for a little under a year now, but now its 8th generation competitors, the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 have been formally announced, have price points, release dates, and we’ve been shown footage of some of the games in development for them. We have our first impressions of what the next generation of console gaming is going to look like. And my impression…well, if last generation was “more of the same,” this generation is looking like “more of the same, only worse.”

In terms of visuals, Nintendo is the only company that’s making a drastic leap forward from their previous console. Granted, this is largely thanks to the fact that the Wii wasn’t much more powerful than the 6th generation consoles, but the Wii U is estimated by some to be more than 20x as powerful as its predecessor. That puts it behind the Xbox One and PS4 in terms of power, but for people who owned a Wii, that’s a huge difference.

The Xbox One and PS4, however, are much more modest leaps forward from their predecessors. Basically, the visual advancements for these consoles are going to amount to native HD rendering (one of last generation’s dirty secrets was the fact that the supposedly HD consoles actually rendered most of their games at sub-HD resolutions and then upscaled), somewhat improved polygon counts and rendering (one of the bragging points for the Xbone was that its version of the new Call of Duty will render curves as true curves, which is really only noticeable in cutscenes). Apart from that, they’re going to offer visual effects and features that have been widely available for PC games for the past 4-5 years. Yay? I realize that PCs have always been ahead of the curve, but the way Sony and Microsoft have been bragging reminds of an elderly relative who just discovered iPods or Facebook and won’t stop talking about them; it’s not impressive, and it’s honestly kind of embarrassing.

So that’s the “same.” Where’s the “worse,” you might ask? Well, that comes from three fronts. First, you have the continuation of “dumbing down” games, to the point where some of these games actually seem to play themselves. One of the big launch titles revealed for the new Xbox, Ryse: Son of Rome (stupid name, but it’s from the people who make “Crysis,” so what do you expect?)…and the reveal consisted of an incredibly linear demo where the player walks from one scripted fight to the next, and has to win via a series of quick-time events (i.e., “push this button or die!”). However, turns out they aren’t even quick-time events; apparently the developers have admitted that the player will win whether they succeed in the QTEs or not, because they “didn’t want the player to get frustrated.”


Forza Motorsport 5, meanwhile, has added a feature called a “Driveatar,” which is a character created by you that, when the game is turned off, continues to race online for you, and when you log back in, you get credit for its work. So, effectively, these games are playing with themselves (pun absolutely intended); why do I need to be a part of this equation? Note that I didn’t bring up any Sony games here, not because I feel that they’re avoiding this trend, but because pretty much all of Sony’s games were shown as teaser videos, and not as representations of actual gameplay, which is disappointing in itself, but that’s been standard practice at E3 for years now.

The second item on the “worse” list is the inclusion of pointless features. Now, admittedly, I’m something of an old fogey in some respects when it comes to technology. I barely engage in social networking at all (though I’m trying to remedy that), and some social networks, like Twitter or Vine, seem completely pointless to me, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon. But be honest; was anybody really clamoring for a button on the PS4 controller that’ll let you instantly record footage of yourself playing a game? Especially when it’s unclear whether or not you’ll be able to edit that footage before it’s posted? And was anybody really begging to use their Xbox as a cable box, and their Kinect as a remote control? Probably not; the people who want to do these things already have devices to do them; they don’t need another, any more than I really need another device that can play DVDs. These features represent resources, time and money that could have been spent on other aspects of the hardware or on exclusive games, and it’s really just a disappointing waste.

Finally, there’s the matter of digital rights and oh, boy, are they taking a beating this console generation. Microsoft has gone ahead and decided to make their console an always-online machine, meaning that it needs to make periodic check-ins with the Microsoft servers and, if it misses a check-in, you’re locked out of playing all your games, on or offline. They’ve also effectively rendered disc-based games pointless, as all games are downloaded to your hard drive and to their nebulous “Cloud” and accessed from those locations. This means that discs are now just a delivery system, not games in and of themselves and, predictably, Microsoft is placing restrictions on how you use the license to the games that you are now effectively renting from them. This means, in effect, that you do not own any games that you purchase for the Xbone, and that the Right of First Sale is effectively dead on that platform.

UPDATE: In a move I would never have predicted, not six hours after I initially posted this blog, Microsoft announced that they’re reversing their decisions to require online check-ins and to restrict resale of disc-based games. So, things are not quite as grim as they appeared around the time of E3. However, it’s worth noting that Microsoft reps swore up and down that the DRM they were planning to implement could not be removed with the way the console was designed. Then, only a week later, they removed it. Microsoft have not only outed themselves as liars, but they’ve also demonstrated that they can add or remove these restrictions if they wish. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft’s ever-mutable Terms of Service were altered a few years after the Xbone’s release, and these policies were slipped in the back door. Microsoft and their publisher bosom buddies haven’t given up on this kind of DRM scheme. Not by a long shot.

And this is on top of the issue of the Kinect being able to gather all kinds of data, from spoken conversations in your house to video, even down to your heart-rate and skin temperature. Now, Microsoft has said that they won’t gather any data if you opt out, and that you can turn the Kinect off, and that in that state it will only be listening for the command “Xbox on.” But this means that, even while it’s “off,” the Kinect is still always listening. And given what’s surfaced about Microsoft providing customer data to the NSA in the PRISM scandal, I think we can agree that any promises Microsoft makes about protecting our privacy aren’t worth the air it takes to speak them.

Thankfully, Sony doesn’t seem to be indulging in any of this nonsense (so far, at least), and Nintendo has categorically refused to do it. But there’s still the looming specter that they might, and that’s going to be haunting me until the next round of systems are revealed.

Bottom line, I have owned pretty much every console in every generation that I’ve been alive, aside from occasional one-off systems like the TG-16 or the 3DO. But I don’t see that happening this time around. Microsoft certainly isn’t getting a purchase from me, and Sony has yet to show me anything that would compel me to spend more money on another system, especially since they have no backwards compatibility with PS3 titles. I’ve got my Wii U and I’m happy with that right now; there are some amazing-looking games coming down the pipe for it, and I can’t wait to play them. But as for my other gaming needs, the third-party titles, I think I’ll take the money I would have spent on those other platforms and build myself a nice gaming PC. Leave the console wars behind.

The magic is gone now, and I don’t think it’s ever coming back.



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