Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Long War, Part II - The Origins of X-Com

Previous: The Long War, Part I - X-Com Revisited

Disclaimer: The following is a work of fiction! While I have utilised real people and places, the story relayed in this blog series is not meant to represent factual events nor accurately represent the people portrayed within.

First Contact

In October 2015 SETI observers at the University of Berkley in California were astonished to pick up radio transmissions emanating from space. Fearing some kind of prank they ran diagnostics on all their systems and systematically ruled out all other possible sources until the only remaining possibility was that of extra-terrestrial transmission. What was staggering to the observers was that the source of the radio signals appeared to be coming from within the solar system. Initial attempts to triangulate the source placed it in orbit around Mars. The possibility that it was a malfunctioning satellite was mooted, and a call was placed to NASA requesting information as to the status of the three American satellites known to be orbit around the red planet. Similar calls were placed to the European Space Agency and the Indian Space Research Organisation, both of whom had satellites around Mars. NASA was initially very truculent to reveal details, but the scientists at SETI soon learned a grim truth - in the very same period all three satellites operated and supervised by the space agency (the Odyssey, the Orbiter and the MAVEN) had gone dark. The Europeans declined to comment on the status of their satellite, but the Indians confirmed that they, too, had lost contact with the Mangalyaan. What mystified observers was that the signals had remained hitherto undetected prior to their acquisition from Mars. As chief scientist Dale Andersen at the SETI Institute said, "It's like a burglar sneaking into your house undetected, only to have them go to the kitchen, pick up a pot and a pan, and then bang them together to get your attention."

The world was stunned by the revelation that SETI had picked up radio signals from space.

What was unknown to the civilian space agencies was that military forces worldwide had also been tracking numerous contacts in the sky over the last few months. These contacts moved at tremendous speed and possessed amazing manoeuvring capabilities, far beyond anything possessed by terrestrial craft. Dozens of sorties from different air forces all over the world had been scrambled in an attempt to interdict the UFOs, but thus far to no avail. Attempts to bring down the UFOs failed utterly. Radar guided and heat seeking weapons simply failed to lock on, and flak guns were largely ineffectual due to the speed and manoeuvrability of the UFOs. This was followed shortly by a spate of UFO sighting worldwide. These reports were first discounted but soon grew in number and frequency. The advent of social media at the turn of the century meant that news could spread faster and wider than had been traditionally possible with TV and print media, and soon Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram were flooded with images of mysterious unidentified craft. Many UFO sightings have been reported throughout human history, but it was only recently that so many sightings have been reported so frequently by so many witnesses at the same time.

The BBC's footage of the incident over Tel Aviv, in which two Israeli F-15s were "buzzed" by an UFO before it climbed out of sight.

By November 2015 the staggering amount of UFO sightings world-wide could no longer be discounted as an elaborate hoax. The BBC was the first credible source which aired footage showing what was unquestionably a vehicle of extra-terrestrial origin streaking with impunity in the skies over Tel Aviv. The UFO was pursued by a pair of F-15s which appeared to be closing on the target, before it abruptly changed direction and flew straight at the pursuing fighters.  It passed between the intercepting jets and climbed to beyond visual range at incredible speed.

Deadlock in the Security Council

The real crisis which precipitated global action was the attack on the satellite networks encircling the planet. On 11 November 2015 the Galaxy 14 satellite, the communications relay which carried most of the digital signals for cable television for the east coast of the United States, abruptly ceased functioning. Outraged consumers suddenly bereft of their wrestling and sports channels immediately complained to their cable companies, who in turn related the news to authorities. One by one the satellites around the world went dark and ceased functioning, wreaking havoc on global communications and rendering GPS software useless.  In Australia amateur astronomers claimed seeing the remnants of the Optus communication satellites burning up on re-entry in the atmosphere. Ground based telescopes and radar trained on the locations of the satellites found either nothing or debris fields, leading to the ominous conclusion that something was systematically dismantling the Earth's satellite network. Even the International Space Station went dark and ceased communicating with ground control. Despite frantic attempts to re-establish contact, the fates of the six-man crew on board remained unknown.

In December 2015 an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was convened, with the agenda of establishing a global response force to investigate with the extra-terrestrial threat. The meeting was beset with difficulties. US and Russian antagonism was approaching Cold War levels due to Russia's continuing use of their veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council were the US, the UK, France, China and Russia, and each of these nations, representing the victors of the Second World War, had the power to veto any substantive resolutions in the UN regardless of the level of international support. Russia had already blocked four resolutions on Syria and one resolution on the Ukraine, and had made it abundantly clear that they were quite prepared to do so ad infinitum in order to protect her interests in these regions. Worse still, the Russians did not perceive the UFO threat as legitimate. For some reason the skies above Russia had remained clear of UFO traffic and her satellites left undisturbed, which led many in the country to believe that at best, it was some kind of global hoax and at worst, some kind of Western ruse to create an international force which could intervene in the Ukrainian civil war. The fact that Russian air space remained inviolate aroused the suspicions of NATO and contributed to the brinkmanship in the UN meetings. Angry accusations were levelled at the Russians about the deployment of some kind of new orbital EMP weapon, and it was only through a last minute dialogue between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin that a crisis was averted. Putin agreed to abstain from the vote in return for the lifting of the sanctions placed on Russia as as a result of the war in the Ukraine. This was a shrewd piece of realpolitik from the Russian President, as he was able to leverage a non-issue in Russia into the removal of the sanctions which had been crippling the Russian economy.

US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in last minute negotiations prior to the Security Council vote to establish a global agency to investigate the proliferation of UFO phenomenon around the world.

What signalled the death knell for the Security Council resolution was not Russian intransigence, but France's decision to exercise her veto power. Despite immense diplomatic pressure from the US and the UK, France stubbornly refused to budge, citing lack of credible evidence as a basis for such a task force. French Permanent Representative to the UN Francois Delattre was apologetic and clearly uncomfortable. He was unable to explain his government's sudden change in position, having made assurances to the contrary to his American and British colleagues several weeks earlier. This was the first time that France had exercised her veto power in the 21st century, which made it all the more baffling at the time. Later events, however, would bring to light the sinister forces which were manipulating French policy behind the scenes. In the waning days of 2015 however, such considerations were beyond the imagination of most policy makers. The resolution was defeated by the French veto, despite polling 13-1 with Russia abstaining.

The General Assembly Rallies

Despite this setback the impetus for a global response to the world-wide UFO phenomenon remained unchecked. The most strident advocate for the creation of the task force was UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who had very strong personal reasons for doing so. On 19 October 2014 his son Ban Woo Hyun had disappeared along with 27 other South Koreans in a widely publicised abduction case near Busan, South Korea. Woo Hyun and the other Koreans in his party had ascended Jangsan Mountain overlooking the city to investigate an unexplained light phenomena near the peak, and had disappeared without a trace. Despite a national investigation no signs of the missing have ever been found. Although no direct evidence was available there was a clear correlation between the appearance of UFOs in the sky and the subsequent disappearance of people within the vicinity. This pattern was to be repeated all over the world in the months to come, but because of the sporadic nature of these events and the lack of firm evidence, world reaction would remain muted and sceptical for the immediate period.

UFO sighting over Busan, South Korea on 19 October 2014, taken from Jangsan Mountain. On the evening of the same day 28 people, including son of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon disappeared without a trace.

The problem facing Ban was determining how to create an international unit capable of using force across national lines without the assistance of the Security Council. According to Article 2(4) of the UN Security Charter the use of force was only authorized in two situations - either in self-defence, or through the approval of the Security Council. Since the resolution in the Security Council had already been defeated by the French veto, it appeared that the UN had been effectively defanged. Nonetheless there had been precedents in which the UN had acted without the approval of the Security Council. In 1991 in Kosova and in Yugoslavia NATO forces had bombed a series of targets and justified their intervention on humanitarian grounds. Ban had a more creative solution. Having grown up in the shadow of the Korean War and the ensuing stand-off between North and South Korea, he invoked United Nations General Assembly Resolution 377 and called for an emergency special session of the General Assembly. This particular resolution was created by the US in the 1950s as a way of defeating Soviet intransigence in the UN when China invaded North Korea during the Cold War. Like modern day Russia, the Soviets had wielded their veto power as a means of frustrating and defeating UN initiatives which were not in their interest. Also known as the "Uniting for Peace" resolution, Resolution 377 states that in any cases where the Security Council, because of a lack of unanimity amongst its five permanent members, fails to act as required to maintain international peace and security, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately and may issue any recommendations it deems necessary in order to restore international peace and security.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon addressing the General Assembly for the need to establish an international response team to investigate the UFO phenomenon.

The vote was put forward to the General Assembly in January 2016, and it passed by an overwhelming majority, more than surpassing the two-thirds required for the resolution to pass. The General Assembly recommended the creation of a global task force to investigate the UFO phenomenon. It was essentially a fact-finding mission with a UN mandate to cross state lines and act within national borders, but it also incorporated a security detail to safeguard the well-being of the researchers. What mystified observers during the process was France's continued flip flopping in the UN. Having defeated the Security Council vote she now voted FOR the resolution in the General Assembly, much to the disgust of the US and the UK. No one was aware that several members of the French cabinet had been compromised by the visitors, and that this was the real reason behind the schizophrenic decisions emerging from the country. Nonetheless, she offered funding and soldiers to the cause which Ban reluctantly accepted. Russia as well, perennially suspicious of UN motives, contributed a cadre of troops and technical staff ostensibly to, in the words of President Vladimir Putin, "contribute to international efforts in maintaining world peace." No one doubted, however, that the main function of the Russian contingent would be to monitor the movements of the new task force. All members of the Russian security detail were officers in the Federal Security Service, Russia's espionage and counter-terrorism agency. Unlike other espionage agencies like the CIA and MI6, however, the Federal Security Service were members of the Russian armed forces, which made them eligible to serve in UN peace keeping missions. Ban, in the interests of harmony, raised no objections to their inclusion. He had accomplished his objective. Through his efforts the agency known as X-Com was born, although it would not be known under that name until much later.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia wishing two Federal Security Service members good luck before they deploy with X-Com.

It must be remembered that at X-Com's inception the visitors had not overtly acted against any nations of the world. If the visitors had limited their activities to streaking over the skies, it is unlikely that any kind of global response would have been initiated. The destruction of the satellite network, however, constituted a massive provocation which demanded an immediate response. Satellites were the pickets of the global age, and their destruction by other nations, much less by extra-terrestrials, were tantamount to an act of war. While the details were kept hidden from the general public, the impotence of the world's air forces and the systematic destruction of key satellites were immensely worrying to the high commands of the US, the UK and China and their allies. The US in particular, didn't need the troops or equipment offered by the UN. What was vitally important for them was the access and legitimacy conferred by the UN resolution, and consequently they lobbied hard behind the scenes to make sure that it passed. But no one in the UN, much less the US would have imagined that the creation of X-Com would be vindicated in spectacular fashion in the months and years ahead.

Next: The Long War, Part III - Japan

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Long War, Part I - X-Com Revisited

The sequel to X-Com is scheduled for release in February 2016, and as a long time fan of both the original DOS titles and the reboot released a few years ago I have to admit to being very excited about this news. It's still shy of being a half a year away though, and as a preamble to release I thought I'd dust off the X-Com reboot and give it another go. For those unfamiliar to X-Com, it is a squad level tactical turn based game in which the united governments of Earth try to stave off an alien invasion. It has won a stack of awards, and is one of my favourite games of all time. My second ever blog post was on X-Com, and I have played the snot out of this game, beating it on Impossible difficulty on Ironman. Yes, I'm a masochist at heart, but hey, it's my own play time and preference, and I like the added sense of danger for my brave band of virtual soldiers.

Rather than starting a new vanilla game from scratch, I decided to mix things up and try out the Long War mod. For those already familiar with vanilla X-Com (X-Com: The Enemy Within plus the two DLCs, Operations Slingshot and Progeny) X-Com: The Long War is a community made mod which completely overhauls the X-Com experience, and turns an already great game into something truly, truly epic. I've done two dry runs, playing games until May (the game begins in March 2016) and there are significant differences. For one, my troops in my test run are still wearing default gear. In vanilla my squaddies would already be rocking carapace armour, laser rifles and accompanied by a Mech or two to boot in the equivalent time period. The Long War is exactly that - a gruelling campaign in which normal vanilla tactics of satellite spam and tech rush to beam weapons do not apply. Building satellites and workshops does not increase the number of scientists and engineers on your team - these personnel have to be earned as rewards via abduction missions, Council missions, and as rewards for doing the various Council nations favours of one kind or another. Government requests come in thick and fast in this version of X-Com, but you have to balance those requests with the needs of your research and engineering team, as well as the overall strategic picture. And the rewards can appear meagre - one or two scientists or engineers per completed request. Satellite spam is not longer a feasible strategy because it hits the bottleneck of not having enough engineers. Instead your coverage of the world appears to grow at a constant rate, and your funding is spent on research or augmenting your squad's survivability instead. Another big change is that you can win back countries which leave X-Com by detecting the location of enemy bases and taking them out. This makes the battle for Earth's survival more of a see-sawing affair in which the beleaguered defenders always have a chance, rather than an attempt to play a "perfect" game in order to minimize irretrievable errors. The game only ends when the last country left on the planet falls to the aliens.

The opening screen for the Long War. Each country has a special starting bonus - in the case of Japan I could have chosen extra thermal vents, augmented SHIVs and MECs, or one maximum level soldier. I chose the latter, and coupled with the Commander's Choice perk (which allows me to choose my soldier's specializations), opted to make him a sniper.

The Long War isn't just vanilla set on Marathon mode, however. You start with 40 soldiers in your barracks, and your initial squad size is already set at six, with the option to eventually expand to eight. Your default gear, while still poor compared to laser and plasma weapons, is composed of an impressive variety of goodies. Rifles come in two different flavours depending on your playstyle, and touting a SMG gives you less firepower but +3 to movement, making them ideal for scouts and recon units. You have AP grenades, HE grenades, and flashbang grenades, all of which are crucial to survival if you consider that your soldiers are going to have to wear this gear for three months or more. Soldiers are divided into eight different classes now. Snipers are either vanilla snipers or scouts. Heavies have been split into gunners and rocketeers. The assault class can either be traditional assault troops, or infantry whose base ability is to fire twice in one turn if they don't move. Support classes become medics or engineers. Engineers are important because damage from explosives has been randomized - grenades and rockets were so reliable in vanilla X-Com because they were accurate and dealt out constant damage. In the Long War structures may stay intact, grenades may fail to kill aliens and rockets can go embarrassingly off course more often. If you want to blow up the environment the way it was done in vanilla X-Com you're going to have to train up some engineers. Engineers specialize in demolishing structures and lobbing grenades, and their perks and talents are tooled to this to task.

The biggest change to squad composition is the introduction of fatigue. After each mission your soldiers will require 3-4 days of rest, which means there is a need for a B squad, and perhaps even a C squad when alien activity goes through the roof. No longer is your team The Avengers - they will need to take some R&R between missions. In vanilla once you had trained up your squad of six there was no real need to ever replace any of them except in cases of fatalities, making the rest of the soldiers in your base largely redundant. The Long War requires you to build a deep and wide cadre of soldiers to deal with the fires which pop up all over the world. In emergencies a fatigued soldier can be called up for duty, but the penalty is that once they return to base they will become exhausted, and have to rest twice as long to recover. During this time they will not be eligible for missions.

The air war has also been re-tuned from vanilla. Fighters now have pilots associated with them who level up with kills, making them another precious (and all too vulnerable) human resource. In my second run through it took me three months to shoot down one stinking scout-class UFO. My squads were able to handle the threats once on the ground, but in the air it was an altogether different story. The UFOs were just too bloody fast for my interceptors, who had mere seconds to land two missiles on them. Interceptors can adopt aggressive, defensive or balanced postures during interception which increases their hit percentages, but also makes them more vulnerable in return. This is not a good thing for terrestrial craft squaring off against alien technology. My very first interception was against a battleship-class UFO, and the pilot was recalled immediately upon coming face to face with that behemoth. All we could do was disengage, and watch as the UFO flew over Japan and China with impunity. Repair times are dramatically longer, and it is not enough to field a pair of interceptors any longer. Four seems to be the bare minimum per continent, and even that can be grounded for weeks after a bad interception.
The leader of the X-Com forces on the ground, Master Sergeant Takeda Shingen. Rank names have been overhauled to fall in line with US convention. Non-coms range from Private First Class with the highest non-commissioned rank maxing out at Master Sergeant. Non-coms can be promoted to officers (Lieutenant and beyond) with the addition of the Officer Training School.

All of this is just scratching the surface of the differences implemented in the Long War. I'm sure there will be many more surprises to come, some welcome and a few quite unwelcome. Also, in honour of a series done by Jeromai over at Why I Game, I'm going to name soldiers who attain a high enough rank after the bloggers around this particular corner of the Internet. I followed Jeromai's series quite keenly and was quite sad to see it peter out. I never did find out whether his intrepid band of bloggers did save the world in the end, or whether they all died screaming in a hail of enemy plasma fire. With this series I'm hoping to chronicle the story all the way to the bitter end, even if it does end in tears. I'll be playing on Classic difficulty on Ironman, which means no saves or reloads - just a straight up war story in which there will be blunders, misplays and permanent casualties. Without the element of risk however, I would just be going through the motions - it's the possibility of dying which makes virtual heroism possible in roleplaying games. I love rogue-likes and permadeath as a game feature for this reason, and I think the way X-Com incorporates these features without making them game-ending is the chief reason why the classic and the reboot have been so loved by gamers like myself.

Next: The Long War, Part II - The Origins of X-Com

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Long War - Table of Contents

***Work in progress***

I. X-Com Revisited

Introduction to the series.

II. The Origins of X-Com

Earth is racked by fear and wonder as UFOs begin to appear over the skies of the world.

III. Japan

The destruction of the world's satellite network prompts a resolution by the UN General Assembly to create a new task force based in Japan.

IV. First Contact

The new X-Com task force meets the visitors on the ground for the first time.

V. Opening Moves

The nations of the world take the fight to the air.

VI. France

France withdraws from the X-Com project and X-Com scores a victory in the air.

VII. Global Unrest

The world reacts to the reality of extra-terrestrial life.

VIII. The Phony War

The long awaited alien invasion never materializes.

X-Com lands in the Nigerian city of Ogbomosho to face an enemy unknown.

X. Terror in Nigeria

Nigerian soldiers inadvertently release a devastating organism which threatens to overrun the continent of Africa.

XI. Crisis in Africa

The African crisis deepens as Boko Haram jihadists, assisted by a new splinter group known as EXALT, launch an offensive in the Nigerian north-east. UN Secretary-General Ban tries to rally support from the UN and NATO. 

XII. The Battle of Ogbomosho

X-Com and UN forces struggle to contain the chryssalid outbreak in Ogbomosho.

XIII. Escalation

In the aftermath of Ogbomosho Bradford re-organizes the remnants of the UN brigades into a cohesive alien fighting force.

XIV. Battle for the Skies

The air forces of the world try to wrest control of the skies from the aliens.

XV. The Enemy Within

EXALT expands beyond Nigeria and appears in the Syrian conflict, where they begin the fight for the hearts and minds of the people.
XVI. Advent Rising

France collapses into totalitarianism as alien forces infiltrate the highest levels of government.

Two former French X-Com soldiers return to their country to find it in turmoil.

In Japan a young girl finds herself the target of unwanted attention from the visitors.

X-Com deploys in war-torn Syria in a bid to ascertain the nature of EXALT's presence in the region.

The civil war in Syria takes an unexpected turn as the aliens intervene decisively against Russian-backed government forces.

China and Japan, long time rivals in the Pacific theater, find themselves on the brink of war engineered by the visitors.

X-Com goes covert and braces for war as the world is racked by crisis after crisis.

On the run from the authorities and pursued by agents of the visitors, Chilong tries to escape from Hong Kong.

Old comrades Dacheng and Chilong finally re-unite, and X-Com meets the thin men for the first time.

XXV. Hearts and Minds

The alien intervention in Syria begins to change public perception of the visitors.

XXVI. The Speaker

The aliens address the world for the first time in New York.

XXVII. The New York Address

The Speaker's maiden speech to the world.

XXVIII. Shanghai Nights

Chilong's account of the alien infiltration of the Chinese High Command.

To Be Continued

Friday, September 18, 2015

Letters from Tamriel, Part XI - Saviour of Nirn

I am a saviour of Nirn.

Not "the" saviour of Nirn, mind you - merely "a" saviour of Nirn. There is quite a few of us running around - you can tell by the title when you mouse over another player. I set my sights on this goal after completely finally finishing all the questing content in the game. Daggerfall, then Aldmeri, and finally Ebonheart zones have all been completed, and all that is left is to clear all the world bosses, systematically gather up all the skyshards, and wipe out the dolmens in each zone. The latter achievement is the one that awards the title of "Saviour of Nirn", and I managed to finish this by clearing all the dolmens in Cyrodiil. When I found that my avatar could solo the dolmens in heavy armour and tanking spec I incorporated dolmen hunting in my experience gathering activities, and after sixteen months my TESO avatar has finally hit the level cap.

Hatakeyama pauses outside the Fungal Grotto, attracted to the place by the weird blue mushrooms.

Well, not for long. The Imperial City DLC added another two more VR levels, so my stay at the pinnacle of levelling was embarrassingly short-lived - a total of two days at the end of August. A strange thing happened as I got closer to the level cap - I started slowing down, exploring, and taking my time. Halfway through August I was half an experience bar away from dinging to level cap, and it took me the rest of August to reach it. My second sojourn in TESO has unearthed a sea change in my playstyle. If we go by Bartle archetypes I would be classified as a "killer" first and foremost, given the type of games I play and my proclivities in-game. I still intensely dislike this label by the way, because it is more Bartle showing his play style bias rather a true reflection of the mindset of many people who play PvP. For good or ill however it is here to stay, even if it does mean that anyone in the world who plays sport or any form of competitive activity involving other people is now a "killer" in Bartle-speak.

Killer or not, I have been branching out into the other quadrants of the Bartle typology. My time in TESO can best be described as fitting the achiever or explorer archetype, which is something which has not been true in WoW for some time. I find myself poking around in nooks and crannies and running around the edges of the map and looking to see what lies inside old ruins, towers and burnt-out farm houses. Archeage was more rewarding for me in this respect, because the players were able to terra form the world to a limited degree, and it was always interesting to stumble onto an illicit player-created plantation hidden in the hills. In TESO I can only find things constructed by the developers in the initial act of creation - there is no way for players to leave their mark in the world. The only way we know other people have been in TESO is to either see their avatars, or to pass in their wake as they tear through a bunch of mobs. In Cyrodiil your hackles rise when you enter a delve and notice that there are no mobs about. This means that another player has been here quite recently, and it becomes a question of whether they are friendly or hostile and you prepare accordingly. Apart from this temporary sign, the world of TESO, much like that of WoW, does not change and remains largely immutable. The world of Archeage was so much more alive because even if I didn't see other players I would see signs of their passing, and the artefacts they left in their wake. I miss the player villages and farms, the illegal plots in the hills, the random plants and animals left all over the world, the crazy makeshift forests created by players with too much time and virtual money on their hands, and even the bloodstains left in the wake of perpetrated crimes. The closest TESO has to this is the Alliance War in Cyrodiil, in which the keeps remain in the possession of the Alliance which took them until they are taken in turn. Cyrodiil is safely walled away from the rest of Tamriel, however, and there is no integration of economy, territory and PvP as there is in Archeage and EVE. TESO is the most beautiful MMO I have played to date, but in terms of a living, breathing gaming world Archeage and EVE still far surpass it.

Riding away from a completed dolmen in Cyrodiil.

There are upsides to walling away your creation from the grubby inhabitants of your virtual world. For all my hymns to player-created content it must be noted that not all player-created content is equal. You would never find a forest fashioned in the shape of a giant penis in TESO, for example, but sooner or later someone will probably create one on one of the servers in Archeage. Nonetheless I still prefer bottom-up rather than top-down content in MMOs, because I foolishly believe that MMOs should still be about being massively multiplayer. I love top-down content, too, but I prefer to imbibe it in my single-player experiences, where the author-developer can complete the illusion and cater exclusively to me. Morrowind made me believe that I was the Nerevarine, and it did it in a manner that inspired me, moved me, and made me BELIEVE. Mass Effect did the same, as did Skyrim to a lesser extent. As MMOs go, however, TESO comes the closest to emulating the single player experience.

I've long come to the conclusion that achievements in games mean absolutely nothing at all. I was so obsessed about chasing rating in WoW thinking that it meant something, and now I look back at it and I wonder why the hell I bothered. I still respect people who do well at games and work at it to become better - it's the same kind of accolade I give to people who are good at their chosen fields, whether that be in games, music, sports or their profession. I've ceased to try to impose my own playstyle on other folk, however - I used to align with the Gevlon/Sirlin philosophy that if you play a game you should play to win, but now I hang my hat in the "fun" camp. The power gaming philosophy made sense to me because basically what David Sirlin espouses is just a virtual variation of the old aphorism that if you're going to do something you should do it as well as you can. Unless you make money playing games, however then games are an intrinsically driven activity conducted in our free time. No one has the right to tell you what to do in your free time, and games are not a necessary adjunct of living, and may in fact be detrimental to it. So I guess if milling around uselessly around the bridge in Arathi Basin is your idea of fun, then I guess more power to you. It might not be the most efficient way of winning, but hey, maybe you don't want to win. You might be practicing your DPS rotations. You might be teaching your five year old how to play WoW.  It may even be possible that you think that this is the optimal strategy for this map, in which case you must excuse me while I headbutt my desk in disbelief.

Hatakeyama chances upon an ancient Argonian pyramid deep in the swamps.

So when it comes to achievements I guess I don't want to talk too disparagingly of them, because their ubiquity suggests that there is a fair chunk of people out there who find completing them rewarding and fun. I've talked about fun before, and how hard it is to quantify this term. Fun might just be something that is self-defining - that is, if people do it, and spend time on it, then that activity is fun. There is no why - if you spend time on it, then it is fun. Gevlon spends his time on making virtual currency and financing a war against the Goons, which means that activity is fun for him. Bhagpuss spends his time poking around the corners of the map in MMOs, which means that activity is fun for him. Izlain pushes rating on the ladder in League of Legends, which means that activity is fun for him. I cleared every dolmen in the lands of Tamriel to get the Saviour of Nirn title, which means that activity was fun for me.

Wait...what? Really? I don't recall being overwhelmingly ebullient or shouting with glee everytime a dolmen collapsed under my solo onslaught. Is that what my definition of fun shrunk to - a minute sense of satisfaction at having ticked off an inconsequential goal within a make-believe world? Being the Saviour of Nirn in TESO represents no narrative triumph, no grand unfolding of a make-believe world, and no gradual unravelling of a central mystery. It's just a tick in a checklist of things to do, as routine as clearing your mail or updating your crafting queues. Is this what I've settled for? Why do I play games? To paraphrase Hannibal Lecter - what needs do I serve by playing?

Deep within a delve Hatakeyama comes across a troll feasting on the bones of its latest victim.

Self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan) is the best answer that academia has got, and like Bartle's typology, I find it simultaneously helpful and frustratingly obtuse. It's helpful in that it gives me a common vocabulary with which to engage other people in dialogue. At the same time it is frustrating because it does nothing to illuminate the roiling, seething mass of impulses, needs, desires, hopes and fears which churn away beneath my skull. Intrinsically driven behaviour is explained in terms of competence, relatedness and autonomy. The first relates to our desire to master things and become proficient in their use; the second pertains to the human need to connect and establish meaningful relationships; and the third is linked to the human desire to be the master of our own fates. Why pursue these achievements in-game? If we integrate Bartle, Deci and Ryan, we might come up with a hypothesis that my desire for human contact leads me to play MMOs, and I pursue achievements and titles in order to advance my social standing within the in-game hierarchy. Pushing rating, optimising builds, and beating other players reinforces my sense of agency, tells me that I am in control of my destiny, and soothes that part of my brain that craves mastery. Funnily enough, the desire for competence explains the ennui we experience between games that Azuriel talks about in this post - it is deflating and disempowering to realise that all the effort expended to accumulate in-game achievements amounted to nothing in the end once the game was finished. It is a microcosm of the existential fear that the sum of all human achievements may amount to nothing in the face of a vast, indifferent, and uncaring universe.

Revisiting the Aldmeri Dominion Hatakeyama is struck by the beauty of the locale, which was something she missed in her initial travels because of her mad rush to level.

That fear is unfounded, because it fails to take into consideration the ability of humans to impose meaning on the world around them. Just because science says we are insignificant motes of cosmic dust doesn't make us so. Meaning and purpose can be derived from anywhere - from the serenity of true self-knowledge, the laughter of your children, the warm eyes of someone you love, in the satisfaction of a job well done, and in the act of creation. Looking inward can be as fruitful as looking outward. As William Blake says:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

I'm just trying to figure out where games belong in this scheme of things. I know that I love stories, both as a passive recipient and as an active participant. I don't have bouts of existential angst when reading books or watching movies. It's only with games. I loved Mass Effect because I became wrapped up in the story, and wanted to follow the branches to their final conclusion. I loved my first Wabbajack campaign in TESO because I became part of the story - the various groups fighting in that inaugural campaign collectively told a story in which I was an active participant. I don't know what story I am telling when I putter around from dolmen to dolmen in TESO, except perhaps something that might be entitled, "How To Waste Time In Front of A Monitor For No Good Reason At All."