Category Archives: Video Games

Divinity Original Sin Diary Part 1: False Starts

Even the start screen is enticing. Yes! I think, pressing any key to begin. Here we go. This is what I need, this is what I’ve been looking for, give me this colourful, bright, pollen-in-the-air RPG, give me that melodic soundtrack filling me with wonder and optimism. What can I say? Sometimes you’re just really in the mood for a densely detailed, text-heavy tabletop style RPG. No really, you are.

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Hey, remember when games weren’t afraid of varied colour palettes?

Personally, I blame PC Gamer for it. Their coverage of Divinity: Original Sin, along with Pillars of Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numenera et al., was making me crave a vast game I could lose myself in, learning scraps of lore, investing myself in each character with their own idiosyncrasies and stories. The more ridiculous, the better. The clincher was PC Gamer’s Game of the Year choice: Divinity: Original Sin 2. I’d had my eye on it for a while but that settled it. I wanted in on this. However, I opted for the first. It only felt right; it was the beginning of an immensely popular PC RPG, highly acclaimed in PC gaming communities. I owed it to myself to play this. Also, it was cheaper than 2 in the Steam sale.

Then my friend B mentioned that he was interested in it as well, since someone had recommended it to him. Now, we’re no strangers to co-op. We’ve been doing it for years. Our co-op playthroughs of Dark Souls 1, 2, and 3, as well as Bloodborne, are legendary (to us). We’ve conducted successful campaigns together in Total War: Warhammer, too, painting the map with our respective colours. But Divinity? A text-heavy, classic-style RPG? Well, there’s only one way to find out.

Now, having played very little of Divinity-esque games in the past, I’ve only got a vague idea of what I’m in for here. Given its lighter tone, I’m picturing the stat-heavy combat and customisation of Dungeons and Dragons mixed with the bright aesthetic and toilet humour of Fable. This is a winning combination. Navigating through the pretty main menu, I start a new multiplayer game, hovering over the Honour Mode option, a one-save-only Hard Mode, only for a laugh before settling on Classic Mode, a sensible choice for a novice.

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This looks stat-heavy and intimidating at first: don’t worry; it is.

In the character creation screen I run into my first hurdle: I have no idea what’s going on. I relax, though. This is normal RPG fare. Have faith in yourself, click around, read the label. You’ll soon settle in. I set about scrolling through the options for one of the characters before B diligently points out that I need to invite him to join the game. Well, I suppose. He gets the character on the right, the man. I get the woman on the left, a choice I’m happy with given how much fun my Femshep playthrough was in Mass Effect. Not only that, but the only body option for a male character appears to be an absolute tree trunk. Cycling through the options for face paint, hairstyle, hair colour (and, for presumably important plot reasons, underwear style), I’m struck by how little aesthetic choice there really is beyond skin colour and hair. Bioware RPGs have spoiled me. Not only that, but once I’ve settled on a look for this character, I can’t find a portrait option at the top to match her. It’s a tiny disparity, really, but nevertheless, it’s enough to make me mourn what could have been.

True to embarrassing tradition, I name my customisable characters after my favourite writers and critical thinkers (Gilles Deleuze, the protagonist of my abandoned Persona 5 playthrough, created an intriguing ‘French intellectual in Tokyo’ narrative). For my Divinity character, I settle on calling her Sunday, after Susan Sontag. Slapping myself for being such a poseur, I decide on her class: Fighter. Since I know B will make his man a mage of some kind, I want to create a potential tension between my stoic, non-magic wielding paladin and the arcane-enamoured Enchanter. I decide to play around with stats as little as possible, leaving that for a future playthrough once I’m more familiar with the systems. Backing out of my creation menu, I catch a glimpse of B’s character, Lawliet, a giant of a man with a silver mohawk and some very nice facepaint.

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See you on the beach, assholes.

Happy with ourselves, we begin. The opening cutscene details something called the Source which has gone bad and which people in Rivellon must now hunt. I should be paying attention as a sailor explains our current position but I find myself wondering why more games don’t begin on dimly lit sailing ships, a grizzled captain providing exposition. Orc ships are blocking our way. My attention is divided between the game and the chat box so I make a mental note to buy a microphone so that future sessions can be covered with voice chat.

As we explore the beach we’ve landed on, I test out my knightly combat abilities. My Crushing Fist attack accidentally crushes Lawliet into the sand. Friendly fire is operable, I see. Working our way up the beach, exploring, we eventually come to our first combat encounter as an evil-looking cultist summons a group of skeletons. So far, so fantasy. Combat is turn-based, action points determine the distance you can travel and the moves you can make in your turn.  Unfortunately, we spend so long cycling through our actions and surveying the field that the dramatic, adrenalin-fuelled fantasy score fades away, leaving us confronting our first enemies in the game with nothing but the sound of lapping waves on the shore. There are worse soundtracks.

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I should be excited about how future battles and abilities can let me conserve action points and manipulate the queue, but I’m more enamoured with the cartoonish textures on that boulder behind me. 

Once we get things rolling, the combat is entertaining and gratifying. All the tension sucked out of the room, Lawliet tightens the noose once more with a freezing spell, turning a skeletal thrall into an ice sculpture. I follow up, using myself as a battering ram to knock over a Lieutenant and his servant. I sneak a stab at the prone Lieutenant, kicking him while he’s down, but now I’m in the middle of their grinning troupe. Luckily, they’re more interested in my companion, who receives the brunt of their attack. I focus on the Lieutenant, missing him once in a series of frantic attacks before finally smiting him. My enchanter buddy picks up the frozen servant and telekinetically smashes him onto the sand, shattering him into bony ice shards. Given the light show he’s providing, I find myself wishing I’d opted for a magic character after all: shoulder bashes and swordplay are all well and good, but I want my fireballs and lightning strikes. While I’m pondering my error, the sole survivor of our amateur offensive chances a puny slash at me before I finish him off with a swish of my starter sword. Job done!

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This is about to go spectacularly, badly wrong. 

Skirmish concluded, our characters enter a dialogue, discussing topics such as the magic stone the cult leader possessed, and the murder, the details of which we must hae missed in the game’s opening when we were too busy talking about boats. We move on, but a notice pops up informing me of a Dungeon in the area. ‘Tutorial’ flashes before my mind’s eye, but B is already off, combing the beach for shells and, oddly, a cookbook. I chase after him, but by the time I catch up with him, he’s insulted two drunk men on a bridge and has engaged them in mortal combat. I curse my firebrand companion, and dive in.

We make short work of the guards, but our characters voice their concern: this could have been avoided. We agree. Ordinarily I would accept this mistake and move on, but we are a democracy, plus I’ve already realised I’ve made the same mistake I make in every RPG: Knight characters are boring. Why would I play as a sword and board paragon when I could have played as a witty, lightning-throwing sorcerer? B and I chalk this up to a learning experience, quit to the main menu, and leave the past behind us. Next time, we say, it’ll be different.

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Photo Mode Mode

Okay, let’s try again. Riding rings around the swooping creature circling my position, I reach the open stretch of ground once more- perfect! I pause the game, select Photo Mode, observe my options. I adjust the position of the camera, putting myself slightly off-centre in the middle ground, amplifying the size difference between Wander and the colossus he’s chasing, arrow nocked, bow stretched. The camera is practically on the ground, the ratio of land to sky almost half and half. Slightly too harsh with the sunlight, though. I flick through the menus until I reach the filters, setting it to a less vibrant option. Now instead of a harsh midday top light, we get a nice dusky haze, which contrasts nicely with the white balloon shapes on the creature’s body. I adjust the contrast to make sure Wander and Agro don’t get lost among the more muted shades of the ground around them, then hide the menu. Click the share button, press Triangle. Perfect action shot.

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It’s no surprise so many games are adding photo modes these days. After all, with the rise of 4K gaming, high fidelity graphics, HDR and other buzzterms adding to the awe-inspiring vistas of many releases, games these days are just so damn pretty. And boy, do we know it: PC Gamer recently released a gallery of its favourite screenshots. Graphically speaking, we’ve reached a peak of artistic achievement we’re unlikely to progress too far past. But is that the only reason for including a Photo Mode? To maximise the aesthetic potential of your game? After all, a simple screenshot would do if you were looking to capture a glitch or a happenstance, or even a nice view in a pinch. There’s another reason: with the inclusion of Photo Mode, games want to bring you as close as possible to the constructedness of their worlds.

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Bound, a game whose Photo Mode lets you accentuate its stylised presentation, even features a Trophy for first entering it. 

Upon the invention of the camera, its ultimate purpose was to capture a realistic depiction of the world, to capture things as they were. Of course, in the age of Photoshop, we’ve moved beyond such limited ambitions. Two seconds on Instagram will grant you access to wonderfully inventive, beautifully composed photos, perfectly manipulated to achieve maximum dark/light ratios, complementary colour palettes, leading lines, etc. After all, why capture the world as it is when you can make it better? Photo Mode functions similarly: it brings the aesthetic potentialities of the camera lens into worlds beyond our own, giving the photographer’s eye access to realms beyond reality. As Susan Sontag suggests in her landmark book On Photography:

It is as if photographers, responding to an increasingly depleted sense of reality, were looking for a transfusion- travelling to new experiences, refreshing the old ones. Their ubiquitous activities amount to the most radical, and the safest, version of mobility. The urge to have new experiences is translated into the urge to take photographs: experience seeking a crisis-proof form.

Of course, despite my liberal use of Photo Mode, I’d never consider myself a photographer. But you can see the appeal. Sontag frames the appeal of photography as a response to changing social conditions and art forms, inviting the desire to make the old new again. ‘Experience seeking a crisis-proof form’ is perfect for the videogame, itself an experience which offers new realities, new experiences. Photo Mode is therefore a way of immortalising these constructed realities; an accessible means of capturing and aestheticising another form of mobility.

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The PS4 Remaster of Shadow of the Colossus allows for maximum aesthetic…or hilarity.

Thanks to this new aestheticisation, I seem to spend more time tweaking photos than I do playing. It’s a style of play I’ve taken to calling Photo Mode Mode. Like a performance within a performance, I find myself going out of my way to style a shot, playing to the camera I’ll inevitably insert into the action. As every lifestyle blogger will tell you, experiencing life through the lens of a camera is not experiencing life. Games are big enough, some may say. Why bloat the experience further with a gallery of pictures clogging up your console’s memory? Well, because it’s fun. Very rarely can an art form give you such ready access to a means of creation, especially with the deftness with which games have integrated Photo Mode. There may not be a career in it, but it’s an exciting new form for capturing our experiences.

Look at the experiences I captured!

But what goes into the creation of these new photographic forms? How do they draw attention to the construction of these worlds? Beyond the interplay of light and shadow, beyond stepping out of a cave to be greeted by a beautiful landscape or seascape, what governs the tastes behind the desire to capture these new realities, and how do its creators respond? The discovery that the remastered edition of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker featured a selfie mode in which Link could espouse a number of comical facial expressions caused an internet sensation. A similar selfie mode in Grand Theft Auto V immediately reached its zenith as a means of juxtaposing the mundane and the fantastic when selfies emerged of Franklin or Michael smiling as an explosive pile-up occurred on the road behind them. Like the game itself, Photo Modes don’t exist just to capture their respective worlds as they are; they can be used to emphasise their estrangement from ‘reality’.

They achieve this in part due to their complicity with a game’s systems. Photo Mode complements the notion of player agency, injecting them into a world with the knowledge that they have (to an extent, at least) the power to change it. Photo Mode foregrounds the deference the player character exhibits towards the player. It’s a complication of Roland Barthes’ musings on being photographed in his famous work Camera Lucida:

I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing, but (to square the circle) this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality, apart from any effigy.

In Photo Mode, this essence is already altered: the characters being photographed are already effigies; the pose is already a pose; the work of an animator and an artist. The subject or object of the photo is already subjected to the gaze, or the control, of the player. If I play Horizon: Zero Dawn or Middle Earth: Shadow of War, I recognise the limitations of the figures in their Photo Mode, that Aloy or Talion are representations, approximations of many parts: voice; model; texture; animation. The onus is on me to position the shot, to balance the tone. For the most part, the character isn’t able to pose for themselves (Aloy does gain limited posing options in a more recent patch for Horizon, an addition which throws more questions of subjectivity into the mix, issues I wouldn’t have the patience to work through in a short piece), therefore an action shot, such as the one I described in the introduction, becomes much harder to choreograph.

The end result is usually either beautiful or funny to look at. Here are a couple of shots I took from my playthrough of The Last of Us on PS4:

On the left, a relatively traditional shot, aesthetically pleasing, if I do say so myself. On the right, Joel remembering he’s left the stove on while up to his neck in a river. I’ve used Photo Mode to capture views and experiences, sometimes pretty, sometimes comical. In this case, Photo Mode acts like an embellishment, going beyond just capturing the moment and becoming a means of changing the moment as it happens. I can adjust the position of the sun in the sky, I can make characters invisible. Photos taken in this mode aren’t just a matter of ‘look what I did in this place’, but ‘look what I made this place do’. Player agency goes beyond the actions of an avatar, toward the actions of a god. We’re already used to this diluted form of egomania; puppeteering our characters; commanding tiny figures on a battlefield. All Photo Mode has done is extend this power to the world.

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However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Most of the time, it just comes down to making pretty pictures, surely? Not at all. Photo Mode is our most entertaining method of exploring the games we play. Even just manipulating the Photo Mode camera can give you knew insights into how a game’s systems and designs are implemented, as Twitter found out when we discovered Shadow of War’s Talion was at the centre of every snowfall. The sense of freedom on offer in most Photo Modes is liberating: cel-shading, depth of field, borders, filters, all at your disposal. Every shot taken, no matter how awkward, busy, ugly, or hilarious, is a contribution to this weird new art form.

Photo Mode’s well-deserved renaissance also goes hand-in-hand with a renewed focus on how photos can be used in a game’s approach to story and character development. Prompto’s camera, which he uses independently throughout Final Fantasy XV, delivers an album of pictures which bring you closer to the lives of its main cast and emphasises its road trip themes. Life is Strange, which explores the potentiality of power in physical photographs, uses its pictures to investigate the effects of knowing every possible moral outcome in life’s decisions. Like story in games, like artistic ambition, like thematic exploration, critical interrogation, this feature is only just beginning to explore its own boundaries.

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FFXV and Life is Strange show how photos can record memories…or miss opportunities.

I don’t regret a single second I’ve spent in Photo Mode. It’s part of the magic for me. In fact, I want to use it more: it can save a playthrough for me. Middle Earth: Shadow of War, for example, was a bloated monument to the best and worst of videogames; every landmark setpiece juxtaposed with an unwelcoming grind, every satisfying assassination offset by the nebulous threat of more loot crate drudgery. Arguably, its Photo Mode was its best feature.

My hope is that I can use Photo Mode to explore, to use it as a photographer would; not just picking out the best position of the sun in the sky to best compliment the silhouette of my leaping avatar, but to capture the elements we all take for granted in these constructed worlds. Let’s look beyond the role of the player and start looking at how the worlds they inhabit are shaped: a close-up portrait of a character’s face, the play of light on a blasted out wall, the interactions between NPCs around a fire. If they glitch out, if we immortalise something a developer never intended us to see, so much the better. If we can embrace these figures, these worlds, as constructs, and yet still recognise the depth of their creation, then we’ve succeeded. It’s time for them to join the social game, to enrich the fabric of the games we play. It’s time to capture new facets of these effigies, and imbue them with new layers of signification. Embrace Photo Mode Mode. Take a picture: it’ll last longer.

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As if you needed any more proof of Photo Mode’s artistic portfolio, here’s Agro’s ‘come hither’ look. Boundless potential.

Horizon: Zero Dawn and the New Human Narrative

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*Spoilers for Horizon: Zero Dawn follow*

Horizon: Zero Dawn’s world does something other games rarely do. The overgrown post-post-apocalyptic setting is nothing new; in fact, it is already on its way to trope status. What makes Horizon: Zero Dawn’s world so engaging is that it is the setting for a narrative in which its depiction of the human is saddled with new, hybridised meaning.

Horizon presents a civilisation ostensibly knocked back thousands of years, yet strands of modernity and postmodernity remain in the vocabularies of its inhabitants, their crafting and building materials, and their linguistic structure. The game’s societies (the hierarchical structures of human tribes, how they cohere or do not cohere with each other, how their settlements are lived in) are not a simple regression. As in every video game apocalypse, the remnants of the previous world remain. Language has remained intact, though its signifying structures have shifted in certain aspects, and the technology of late-capitalism is hybridised with the weaponry of the prehistoric hunter-gatherer. The material phenomena in the game world imply this hybridity everywhere you look, most obviously in the machines which populate it.

The machines, for the most part, are animals. Their insertion into the game world creates a constructed ecosystem which complicates the relationship between human and animal. The late great John Berger illustrates this relationship well when he claims that ‘[t]o suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th-century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises’. Here, Berger notes the secondary nature of the animal as material; its primary significance was as an atavistic marker of wider spiritual concepts. The machines fulfil the same function, but their signifying matter has shifted to messengers of a post-industrial machinic warfare. Flesh and bone animals are present in Horizon’s world, but the boars and foxes and rabbits which sparsely populate the environment fulfil only the second, material function, as resources for the game’s crafting and bartering.

The machine-animals, however, are both material and promise. In envisaging Aloy as simply hunter-gatherer we not only diminish her heroic status in the game’s science-fiction narrative, but also project 19th-century attitudes forward, furthering the spectative aspect of the human/animal relationship (that nature is a force to be dominated, appropriated, and finally only contemplated), and eliding the wider significance of the machines. Their zoomorphic form is in fact anomalous to the human/animal distancing Berger outlines when he describes the historical division which separated man and beast:

 

The decisive theoretical break came with Descartes. Descartes internalized, within man, the dualism implicit in the human relation to animals. In dividing absolutely body from soul, he bequeathed the body to the laws of physics and mechanics and, since animals were soulless, the animal was reduced to the model of a machine.

 

On the surface, the machine animals thus present the ultimate concrete manifestation of this mind/body dualism which has dominated (and hindered) much of Western thought. The machines’ ‘soullessness’ distances them from the human, their alienation from ecological normativity exemplified by their uncanny animal forms. Those machines least resembling animals, Ted Faro’s Corruptors, Deathbringers, and Metal Devils, typify the machinic mode of existence since they serve only to aid in annihilation. Their distancing, however, doubles back on itself, since their design is wholly human. The machine animals (Sawtooths, Stormrulers, Grazers, etc), designed by the artificial intelligence GAIA and her industrial node HEPHAESTUS, present a hybridised form blending purpose, design and time period. As the threat from humans grows, the machines are designed in ever more varied and dangerous forms; as dinosaurs and prehistoric birds. The animal and the war machine blend together as a means of making earth fit for natural life forms to inhabit it and as a means of defence against the post-collapse human tribes. The well-trod binary of human vs nature is complicated and hybridised as nature becomes a hybrid itself.

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This new intertwining of human and nature is both a step forward and a step back, and neither step is wholly positive or negative. This new relationship springs from a system of intelligent design produced by an autonomous machine. GAIA, the game tells us, is a multi-faceted AI designed to see, feel, know, and do more than humanity ever could. She strives iteratively for perfection, designing new forms of machine life to a degree of utility humans cannot achieve. Why, then, are her designs so familiar? Leaving the meta commentary on the limitations of game designers aside, it is simply because Gaia’s origins as a human-designed algorithm make her new ecosystems always inherently flawed. The machine animals her HEPHAESTUS node creates will never achieve true perfection (always unknowable and unattainable), since they will always carry the trace of the human which makes a utopian vision seem impossible. The Enlightenment-influenced distancing between the human and the new machine animal begins to weave itself together; the human appears now in the animal, as the animal has always appeared in the human.

What are the consequences of this human trace for the rest of the game? HADES, the failsafe mechanism, will always be necessary to wipe the slate clean and allow the eco-evolution to begin again, correcting even the most minor anomalies. HADES is introduced as ‘the ultimate killer app’, threading together technocratic dominance and planetwide extinction with alarming ease. Its creator, Travis Tate, is its human equivalent, the father of this ‘badass’ AI weapon modelled on the worst atrocities in history. Recordings in-game show Tate insisting on the inclusion of torture videos in the Apollo Archive, a collection of all the history and knowledge humanity has gained, to be taught to future post-apocalyptic generations.  Tate is every man-baby asshole you’ve ever met online, glorifying death and violence, subjecting others to its displaced effects through a misguided sense of rational superiority.

Small wonder, then, that his project is pure extinction. Concern over whether to censor this violence pervades the Apollo Archive’s in-game development, which shows its creators debating what to include. Where do we draw the line? It draws a sketch of humanity’s origins; its sources of knowledge, and the reasons for its destruction. The hubris of humanity is everywhere in the game world, presented in the traces of the human found in every machine animal, and in the corrupted machines and humans who disrupt the ecology. The remnants of the world’s near total mass extinction reside in recordings and scraps of communication documenting humanity’s struggle against itself. The Apollo Archive’s gamified approach to learning suggests a reification of the technocratic system so troublingly empowered in the 21st century. The Tree of Knowledge proudly presented by the Alpha scientists would, as Deleuze reminds us, simply retrace the structures which always lead to power exercised by the strong over the weak. What hope is there for humanity, the game implicitly asks, when its methods for its own renewal are the very means of its inevitable self-destruction?

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The Apollo Archive’s deletion, Faro’s ‘cultural obliteration’, is a loss, but it is more than a simple denial of historical repetition. A new narrative path opens in which life (social and ecological) can grow in a mode more in line with Ursula LeGuin’s vision for science fiction:

 

If, however, one avoids the linear, progressive, Time’s-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic, and redefines technology and science as primarily cultural carrier bag rather than weapon of domination, one pleasant side effect is that science fiction can be seen as a far less rigid, narrow field, not necessarily Promethean or apocalyptic at all, and in fact less a mythological genre than a realistic one.

 

Horizon does not let scientific and technological superiority alone ensure victory. Aloy is a vision of a new kind of science fiction storytelling in games; one in which our cultural carrier bag has been deliberately emptied, and a new culture can grow. Aloy’s status as outcast at the game’s opening is due to her lack of a mother. Lack of origin is an alienating device in Horizon’s story: the machine animals also are without perceived origin. Even the deletion of the Apollo archive is in effect a deletion of an origin: the future human race becomes motherless. Cold technocracy destroys its base, perpetuating a cycle of destruction, as Sylens realises too late when Aloy presents him with an alternative in which affect and empathy matter more. Aloy is the face of the new cultural carrier bag; the tank-grown child of a scientist’s genetic code and the simulacrum of a goddess. Her origin is thus human displaced a thousand times, a distancing whose removal from late capitalist domination gives it space to choose a different path.

Yet, on every possible path there remains an echo of the human. The ecosystem is the product of a human project, the machine-animals its perpetuator. Berger’s vision of the capitalist appropriation of nature has been realised, but in the world of Horizon there is no capitalism (as we know it). Nature is not subjected to the technological whim; technology is now another manifestation of the natural. The appropriation is thus complete in the rebirth of the world, but it has also set nature free. There is no distancing between man and animal because the boundaries are once again blurred; tiny traces of human and animal experience becomings everywhere. The machine is never truly present; in the face of every Intelligence or machine is the face of the human staring back. The game world’s blank slate is a palimpsest, drawing a new narrative over the faded engravings of the old, though the path of its evolution is no longer foreseeable.