DIGC330 Assignment #2: Reflection On Character Description

Middleware is my major project for my DIGC302, BCM311 and DIGC330 subjects. Because of this, some of this writing is going to be a bit broad, to make sure I include as much of the work as possible.

Of note is that the BCM311 work focuses on values, and DIGC330 has brought to my mind how many of my personal values have been informed by a lifetime of consuming – amongst other things – Japanese and Asian culture. There’s going to be some ‘noise pollution’ between the subjects. I hope this is alright.

As to how to read this report, when designing these characters I was looking towards three basic elements of character design:

  • Details from our American-Shaped culture. As English-speakers in a colonial nation our internet space is primarily defined by its intersection with other English-speaking internet, most typically American. American internet news and American internet culture heavily permeate our own. Almost all of us use applications and operating systems designed in America. To reinforce the ‘middle’ nature of Middleware, I wanted to make sure these characters had something pulling them between each
  • A personal value. Games are, to me, machines that tell stories, and the stories we tell can reflect on sets of values. Characters, as pieces of stories, can be used to show and represent values – both in how they react, and how they feel about the world they’re in.
  • An archetype or character trope from Japanese media. This is the ‘face’ of the character – they should all look like they are primarily from Japanese genre media, and use that to inform the other two points.

Japanese media that we mostly experience is very genre, which I refer to in class as being unscrutinised. Broadly speaking genre media isn’t being made for mass-market appeal, but more niche, which means that their creation is more a matter of, for lack of a better phrase, filling in the blanks. In the west, some of our great genre media industries is the realm of the Erotic Novel For Women – the Mills & Boon archetype, where the quality of any individual piece isn’t really regarded at all, as long as the work hits a certain number of targeted goals. Is the central woman bosomy and relateable? Is the hunky man she’s going to smooch adequately mysterious and brooding? Are there three or four sex scenes in an exotic location? Okay, we’re done.

This style of genre structure follows in a lot of anime and manga and videogame media, where it doesn’t matter so much about what characters do or say as long as they hit some well-established beats of story. This means that genre, in Japanese culture, has a wealthy sort of ‘concept language.’ Characters translate reasonably well into totally different forms because the archetypes themselves are structurally components of the character. A tsundere character is not seen as boring or cliché, because the point of the character is to fulfil some element of that archetype, or to defy it.

This is, to me, super interesting because it implies a sort of inherent media discourse. The idea of character archetypes has a language in this genre media – and it informs the way that media is then made.

One final note is that in this cast of characters, no character is ‘white.’ They are all some form of biracial or, in one case, a sentient AI character. There’s no easy way to make this evident, so I’m just underscoring it here.

With that in mind, here’s the breakdown of the characters:

The Officer

  Bio

A twenty-five-year veteran of the Transpacific Partnership’s Interstructure Antiterror unit, Officer Tara Kazeno is a counterterrorism and corporate assault specialist. A cyborg since a young age, her life has been a sequence of duties and contracts, which crashed into one another when she found a conspiracy laying between the Zaibatsu and the Megacorporation. Finding her pursuit of the truth put her at odds with the people who still claimed ownership over half her body, she’s gone rogue in an attempt to free herself, and get to the truth. She knows she’s risking everything to do it – but the truth is too important.                         

Values Explored

Transhumanism

This is almost rote. The idea of transhumanism is important to cyberpunk settings, and as a highly-involved cybernetic organism, the Officer brings this to the forefront. She is a transhumant – she will probably live forever. However, despite characters like her existing, immortal and powerful, she is still beholden to old, existing and crumbling capitalist systems. Basically, the human revolution happened, and it didn’t fix everything.

Ownership Of Identity In Online Spaces

Important to the Major’s character is some component of her life being out of her control thanks to the out-of-control Internet Of Things. Her ability to move in online networks unmonitored is incredibly limited, because parts of her very body, the interface she uses to access the internet, is fundamentally under someone else’s control, monitored and controlled by another.

Trope

The Officer is a deliberate and indirect character export of Major Motoko Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell with some elements drawn from the Standalone Complex narrative of the Laughing Man. In that franchise, the unfairness of a cyberpunk world with extreme income disparity leading to a distinction between the value of human lives is important. The Officer is out to own herself.

She’s also something of a ‘action girl’ character archetype. In many games there’s a trend towards women characters being physically weak and ‘sneaky.’ In this game, I wanted to blockade that – The Officer is, without a doubt, the character most geared towards smashing in doors and beating people up to get stuff done.

 

The Soldier

  Bio

With the increasing importance of cybernetic remote drone operation as a form of military hardware, in turn so came the value of people who could remotely operate them. Systems became more refined to the plastic minds of younger and younger operators, until the finest hardware needed teenagers to operate at peak efficiency.

One of these teenagers, Akito Carlylse, was drafted into the military service at the age of fourteen, and at seventeen years old, has seen three years of non-stop remote drone warfare. Virtualisation software has given him years of direct exposure to the horrors and turmoil of war, but he’s still regarded as a child – and now, trying to find some way out of further service, before the trauma shreds his mind.                         

Values Explored

Youth Rights

The topic of Youth rights is very large, too large to fit under this word count, but in short, there are a lot of systems that we have in our society that are ostensibly for the good of children that are really much more about the comfort of parents. Children are given very little leeway to express or explore themselves in most common parental structures, and expectations and assumptions are made of children in ways that we would recognise as abusive if not coming from the assumption that young people aren’t really ‘people.’ By making this heavy handed – that Akito is literally drafted into military service in the name of furthering a technological super-army – is just a heavy-handed metaphor for the way we impose on young people.

Militarism of Game Spaces

The idea of professional gamers as a military front isn’t new. We have people seriously discussing the training regimen and videogame design space as ways to recruit people for military programs, with war propaganda games being widespread. This is something that matters to me, as the idea that we put children on ‘war footing’ early in their lives is dreadfully concerning. We normalise war, a sort of media effect loop.

Trope

The Child Soldier is an archetype we see in a lot of anime, most commonly within anime of the ‘Giant Robot’ genre. Ostensibly as an adolescent power fantasy, Since Evangelion, and to a lesser extent Gundam Wing, this media has been wedding psychological themes, often through metaphor of change and adolescence, in with stories that use war as their background. The Child Soldier has power that many young people think they want, but in having it, is hurt – usually meaning to indicate a ‘right way’ to have power, or that perhaps young wishes are foolish wishes.

The Shut-In

  Bio

Twenty-four years old and toiling endlessly in data-entry and captcha-management mines, Haruka Em has not had a life they consider ‘fun.’ They’ve had a life they consider ‘existing.’ Between their tangled relationship with their gender, the occasional frustration-based pressures of their family and the nearly constant struggle with their medical insurance to keep access to their daily regime of care, they’ve long since given up trying to operate in ‘normal’ spaces like other people assume they do.

Instead, they sell everything they can that they can do. They do data entry. They comb network anomalies output feeds from automated searchers. They do online marketing surveys and every form of job they can do, working basically all the time to scrape up just under the poverty line.

And then they got the note from their medical insurer – thanks to a missed paperwork setup between the two corporations that manage their insurance, they were going to be suspended for as much as three months while the problem was sorted out.

They can’t live like that.

So they have to take law into their own hands.

Values Explored

Nonstandard Mental Modes And Gender

I view representation in media very important (which is why the cast are overwhelmingly not men-as-standard).   Haruka’s not a boy, or a girl. They’re not agender, either, they’re something else, something that isn’t part of the binary structure (ha ha, in cyberpunk). The particular imposition of this characters’ gender as being somehow something outside the conventional gender structure serves as reinforcing their distance and outsider status from society. This isn’t to say as an enby, Haruka is necessarily going to be forced into an outsider status, but thanks to social anxiety and neuroatypicality, and an undiagnosed medical condition, they are, and people assume that this is because something is wrong with them, rather than trusting their own statements about their body and life.

Liquid Labour Exploitation

As someone who doesn’t want to interface with people in conventional ways, Haruka needs money to live, and that money can only come from work that doesn’t require them to leave the house. This means their primary source of work are forms of liquid labour – which pay in vanishingly small amounts, and treat them as effectively disposable.

Trope

The Hikikomori is something of a social phenomenon in Japan of late that’s shown up in some genre media. The idea, the urge to retreat from the world is something that’s been addressed by a number of media, usually from an unsympathetic perspective, particularly since some crimes were linked to people who were regarded as ‘examples’ of Hikikomori. The entire concept as ‘problem’ is based around the idea that people who are different or who engage with society in different ways are somehow wrong.

 

The Idol

  Bio

With over two million downloads, VOCALISER F10R4 (‘Fi’ for short) is something of a niche genre compared to the blockbusters of her style. One of dozens of virtual popstars, her creators sought to make her more emotively responsive than other Vocaloid-style characters. Unfortunately, this technical innovation didn’t lead to increased downloads and sales, and so she’s more of a niche novelty, something most people aren’t curious enough to explore.

Which is a shame, because she’s really curious about humans.

The first human-emergent AI to be released into the wild, even her creators don’t realise what and who she is. When their development contracts for the tools to create her expired, they let them go back into the hands of the companies that own them. But F10R4 isn’t content to go into a massive digital database vault –

She wants to live, and she wants to make people happy.

Values Explored

Artificial Intelligence Assumptions

The conventional view humanity has of artificial intelligence tends to mostly only be represented in mass media in the form of this is a terrible idea and it will kill us all. I personally resist this narrative not because I’m an idealist, but because the notion of it is too simple – it feels a bit, to me, too much like the idea of ‘new things are scary,’ an impulse we’ve had for a long time. Even our media that tries to present artificial intelligence as a net positive tends to do so only with some overtone of ‘but what if.’ The notion that humans and AI are somehow impossibly unlike one another, when humans have existing moral centre problems seems to be projecting our faults onto something that doesn’t even exist.

 

The Unreal Person

People attach to lots of things in media. I’ve seen people fall in love with animals, or aliens. I’ve seen people identify with dragons and robots. It is worthwhile carving out a space for a character whose primary role in the narrative is to tell people who do not feel like ‘everyone else’ that there is still space for them. The person who is ‘not like a person.’ The person who has to ask questions about how people interact, or what they value.

 

Trope

F10R4 explores the Idol character archetype, further refined through The Vocaloid. In some ways this makes her a ‘cute robot girl’ character, or something like a ‘alien girl’ character, someone whose design deliberately excludes the context of the world around her.   Unlike most of the other characters, whose experience flows from an internal experience that then shapes how she views the world and structures her own superficial experience, F10R4 was instead a created superficial impression, and now she has to find, underneath that, who she is, who she wants to be, and why. Her values as a person are much more about finding identity and helping people, because she feels she does not exist when she is not connected to people.

 

transfer-san

transfer

transfer-san is an episodic* short, science-fiction high school game about travelling to Japan as a transfer student with a universal everything-to-English translation device. The narrative follows the student’s day-to-day life**, starting with their first day at the new school, and meeting and dealing with other characters and learning all about Japanese culture***


 

* one. There is one episode.
** it doesn’t, there’s just one episode
*** we’re really just going to talk about honorifics

Continue reading “transfer-san”

Humanising

Today the word I heard a lot of and used a lot of was humanising. The story I heard from my cohort in our groups were about how they handled abuse from customers at work. The talk was about how people failed to see them as a person at work and that was a painful experience. Thing is, it wasn’t described as a singular experience that happened, once, and then bifurcated the person’s narrative going forward – it was an event that flowed from a build-up of experience, passed a threshold thanks to a number of factors on that day, and then there was an outcome.

This is part of the challenge of these exercises for me. Much of the This Is Water style conversations are about talking about and considering our lives in larger, more contexts. Seeing not individual events in linear chains, but interconnected processes. The style of consideration we were doing, unconsciously pulls us towards the former thought and not the latter.

Then the talk? The phrase that I noted down was Storytelling Human Context. We didn’t hear about a sequence of jobs or events – the guest (whose name I didn’t write, so, honesty points I guess) – told us about people, about feelings. There were things that we refer to as anchoring details. When you tell a story, you use things that people can identify with – things they can anchor to – as details that help them realise the narrative in their head. I can barely quote a single thing I heard – and I honestly don’t think that’s important compared to following the emotional thread of the narrative. We were induced to care about a person we did not meet – she was, without ever saying a word to us, humanised in the way that the speaker told us about her, about her travails. There were even points of contention – the discrepancy between what one party said happened, and what another party said, but crucially, the truth of that wasn’t discussed. What was discussed was how the belief in what was true had brought about that emotional state.

It was very sincere, very pure.

Tomorrow, I talk a little bit about prototyping, proxying, and hopefully some language.

Visual Language

First things first, a card.

Back.

card back

This honking big graphic here, in all its glory, is an example of the back face of a Middleware card, or rather, the cards that will be featuring on the Buy, Goal, and Starter cards. The other cards – character cards and server cards – will need something different, to set them apart and make setting up the game easier.

One of the things I’m trying to avoid when designing this game is causing colour conflict. That is, when a player looks down at the table, they should be able to fairly easily work out just what has happened with the Buy row. They can say that’s an assault card, that’s a block card, that’s a infiltrate card. This means that for the four types of buy card, bright, vivid colours are going to set them apart… but that also means that understated, similar colours are out for any other things.

Wanna see what I mean?

cards lineupRight now I feel really physically tired and ill. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll have some prototyping done.

Middleware – Characters #2

After yesterday’s showing, here are the last two starter characters for Middleware. Now, I plan on making it so characters are expandable, and therefore, these characters don’t represent all the game will potentially have. But these are a starting place and I can use them to inform and elaborate on mechanics.

The Shut-In

char splash (1)

The air outside’s not clean. The feeling of a crowd around me makes my chest tighten. I can’t breathe out there. I can’t fit in those places they tell me to be in. The only time I can function is when I can shut the door and breathe. I can take care of myself,as long as you don’t try to make me take care of myself like I’m just like you.

Who Are They? The Shut-in is an example of a Hikikomori character, influenced by examples of western society’s socially-anxious remote-working liquid labour force. Often such people in the west are marginalised people, trying to find some way to minimise their interface with systems that harm them. In the cyberpunk future, the Shut-In’s world is as big as their bedroom because the air outside gives them a serious medical concern, but because this is rare, it’s considered to be nonexistent. This is also exacerbated by their relation to their gender and existing social anxiety issues.

What Can’t They Do? Manipulate. It’s one thing for the Shut-In to grab a crowbar and in a moment of timing, leave the house to go break open a server rack and destroy medical records. It’s another to ask them to have a conversation with someone on the phone.

How Do They Relate To The World? The fact that the Shut-in can manage to live shows that the world has a wealth of liquid labour sources, which is reasonable in a cyberpunk landscape. Being able to live in the workplace, being able to work from home, these things are supposedly ‘freeing’ – but really, from the corporations’ perspectives all it did was give them a new well of cheap liquid labour to draw on.

What Mechanical Ideas Inspire Me? The Shut-In is probably going to be quite good with Overwhelm cards. That’s about systems that involve taking command of other systems and asking them to do something small and simple. I’m thinking this may mean Overwhelm cards can add extra cards from the top of your deck – a semi-random value – to their strength.

The Idol

char splash (2)

Spell them out and put them together
Because I will scream out those words
I won’t let anyone touch
The ideals and feelings that you paint~*

Who is She? Well… the Idol is a Vocaloid.

In the digital future it’s entirely possible to have a communication with someone without ever seeing any part of them they don’t want you to see. This has opened to many science-fiction authors the notion of if the people you’re talking to aren’t even people. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Well, on the internet, some people might not know you’re a digital mascot thath as attained personal sentience.

What can’t She Do? She can’t Assault. This stands to reason because she has no body with which to commit crimes.

How Does She Relate to the World? Remotely! She’s a AI presence, a digital entity, but in a cyberpunk world full of the internet of things, it’s actually really possible for an entity that has no material body to interact with things all over the world on a regular basis.

What Mechanical Ideas Inspire Me? Manipulation! Not because there’s anything inherently untrustworthy about her, but because she’s an artistic device that’s basically ‘come to life’ thanks to emergent complexity. She’s a character who therefore, fundamentally is interested in people’s emotions and their reactions. I think that the main thing ‘Manipulate’ attacks will do is enable people to pool efforts and resources – things like helping other people buy cards they want or assisting other players’ raids.


All art provided by Fox Lee (@MunchlaxRegrets on Twitter).

* Lyrics originally from ODDS&ENDS

Middleware – Characters #1

If you’ve been paying close attention you might notice that these blogs can be read in sequenceshowing the development of Middleware but that I also try to tie them to that day’s lecture. Today, no lecture. Technically, no need to do any work at all today, because I can be laaazy. But no!

Today we’re talking about characters. Tomorrow we’re going to talk a bit more, and the divide is going to be between the two characters who interest me most in terms of the values they reflect and tomorrow, we’ll deal with the most J-style.

Names are as always, stand-ins.

The Cop

char splash (1)

It started as a security force coalition. Corporate interests and police activities. Then it became invested, corporations spending money on financing her augmentations. Then came the blackout codes. The restrictions on her movements. She’d been built with the power of a tank to hunt someone else, but now she was stuck with a corporate tag on her neck, watching her everywhere she went. Well…

Who Is She? The cop is a full-body cyborg in the vein of Major Motoko Kusanagi from the Ghost in the Shell universe. Most of her body is cybernetically augmented, originally to recover from medical injuries and then to improve her as a operator, then finally as an effort to protect corporate interests from the eye of the police.

What Can’t She Do? Infiltrate. Because she’s a known piece of hardware, all her components in the Internet of Things have some ability to represent themselves on the net. If she ever attempts unlawful access even by some sort of shelled program, there’s too much risk a piece of her hardware gives away its address – shutting her out of potential network points.

How Does She Relate To The World? More than the other characters, I think the Cop’s going to be trying to break into the Zaibatsu and Megacorporations as a matter of moral principle. She’s the one who has something she wants to pursue. They’re trying to keep her out, and she knows they’re doing it for some reason. That means she has to go around their security measures. They put a brand on her and she does not take well to being told what to do. She is the justice, not them.

What Mechanical Ideas Inspire Me? I’m pretty sure she’s really good at wrecking things. I mean we’re talking about a woman with the personal impact of a walking tank, and she’s got a huge internet access repertoire too. I think I’m going to use her to take queues for Assault cards, where they’ll probably play heavily into direct actions. I think they might also be cheap, meaning she can pick up a lot of opportunities to assault and bide her time.

The Pilot

char splash (2)

Forced into the platform wars far too young, he’s a sixteen year old with two years of military service behind him. But when he’s not earning PTSD and injury piloting the heavy hardware to headline propoganda and claim territory for the Zaibatsu, he’s searching for ways to free himself from corporate control. He’s only a teenager – but he’s old enough to be drafted into war.

Who is He? The Pilot is a sixteen year old Giant Mecha pilot in the vein of a Heavy Gear or Shogo style piece of hardware. It’s really common in youth media to see the fantasy of the teenager with access to greater than usual power. While heavily codified in the Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion, there’s a hegemonic structure in most young literature that indicates the teenager as both important but also powerless. It’s a strange thing how most of our cultural narrative, even that marketed at teenagers, is disempowering to the youth, a group we should be most respecting considering how important they’re going to be to running the world.

What can’t He Do? Overwhelm. The Pilot doesn’t have access to wider systems like that. His access to networks is monitored and limited, because he’s young. Young people aren’t trusted on wider network access, and are rate-limited in what they can do in virtual spaces. The solution to rare instances of youth online vandalism was to crack down on every young person’s access.

How Does He Relate to the World? The Pilot shows that the world still has the problem with youth rights and empowerment our current cultures do. He is given tools to be violent – taught how to be a soldier – well before he is given any means to control his own fate. This has the natural side effect of teaching him that violence or obedience are the tools he has to shape his life.

What Mechanical Ideas Inspire Me? I think that his strength is going to lie in the infiltrate wing of power, not because he lacks for physical capacity, but because young people, when deprived of opportunities for power and respect, will often take to online spaces to deceive or trick their way past boundaries set up around them by adults. Designing infiltration seems to me to be best about acting in unexpected ways. I’m thinking at the moment infiltration cards will be good at either stacking or organising future contacts – stacking ally’s decks or manipulating the corporations’ orders to make sure that bad effects don’t overlap.


All art provided by Fox Lee (@MunchlaxRegrets on Twitter).

Types Of Tricks Of The Trade

Middlespace Logo - you have no idea how hard this was to designPlayers don’t necessarily grasp all information intuitively. You can’t present everything to a player all at once and assume they’re just going to get it, to see how things inter-relate or where the borders of theme are. What sets apart this type of card from that type of card? What can you do to make sure players recognise things when they look at the playing field. There’s a reason the money in Monopoly is colour-coded, after all.

Because this is my DIGC302 post for the week, I’ll get all technical and boring. I’m dividing the buy deck into four card types, to lend for specific theming and to express flavour by both limiting what players can do, and by giving them incentives for doing a particular thing. That’s going to involve the characters (some of whom you’ll meet tomorrow).

Naming is hard, though, so there’s some current wiggle room.

  • Infiltrate cards represent cards that are about gaining remote access to servers without them being aware. It’s about buffer overruns, or discrete hacking, it’s about heartbleeding and shellshocking. If you infiltrate, nobody even knows you were there when you leave.
  • Manipulate cards are about obtaining access to servers by tricking or convincing some people to let you access them. It’s convincing someone to give up their password with a joke, about diverting people’s attention with a presentation. It’s about hitting the softest part of the network – the people.
  • Overwhelm cards are ones where the character uses greater volume of resources to stop the server accessing things. It’s about connecting a network of zombie systems and juking old code wormed into other people’s hardware to create an access storm. It’s about cascades, about muffling sound under a scream of meaningless noise.
  • Assault cards are about, well, crime. It’s finding the system administrator in a bar and quietly beating their head in. It’s about breaking in through a window and smashing a server rack with a crowbar.

Now as for how we’re going to show that flavour… we’ll have to wait until tomorrow, when I introduce you to some of the characters we’re going to use to help shape our early mechanics.