Hardcore Mode and the death of Permanence

While shopping for miniscule upgrades on the Diablo 3 auction house in a desperate attempt to keep my hardcore character alive a bit longer, I had the idea that a four-man, “No auction house/No twinking” game might be fun. Four players, each a different class, only using drops and trades from other players in the game. Hardcore only, of course.

In an uncharacteristic act of bravado (I am a notoriously anti-social gamer) I began to scour my friends list, populated solely by my fiance’ and the few folks on general chat who actually laugh at my dick jokes and racial slurs, for potential partners. While it didn’t take long to get through the list, I was surprised to find that not a single person on it played hardcore mode. Not a single one. And to a man they claimed that they didn’t because they were afraid of losing all their progress – levels, gear, etcetera. I was bummed for a few minutes, until a genuinely funny thought struck me – these people were afraid to potentially lose progress in a game whose information they ostensibly had LESS control over than other video games.

Everything in Diablo 3 is stored server-side by Blizzard. Literally the only thing residing on one’s computer related to Diablo 3 is the launcher, which connects you to all of that information that these players supposedly “own.” You, as a player, cannot move your save file to any place on your computer, because you don’t HAVE a save file. You cannot manipulate this information in any traditional sense. And at any time, Blizzard could ban your account, pull the plug on the servers, “lose” the information to thousands of accounts; your account could get hacked or deleted or shut down in any one of thousands of gruesome ways, but these people were still holding onto the idea of this information, the pixels and numbers that make up their characters, as “theirs”.

Cloud computing, server-side storage, online-connectivity DRM, e-books, Spotify, ipads and the internet itself all have something in common; they are the means by which modern information is becoming untethered from the physical means of manipulating it. We are rapidly moving to a point (though please spare me the word “singularity”) where information, even the imperfect ones and zeros that we have all grown accustomed to feeling secure about storing on notoriously unstable hard drives, will become untouchable, as distant and impermanent as the packets that flow between the wires meant to convey them. We have, for the most part, accepted our end of this somewhat Faustian bargain; we are willing to give up a certain amount of control over our media in exchange for being able to access all of it, anywhere, at any time. Meanwhile, businesses like Netflix and OnLive have had an epiphany regarding the realities of the new business of media – they are not selling us the information itself, only easy and unfettered access to it.

This would be the counter-argument to groups like the RIAA – if information can be streamed to any device at any time in the entire world, then how can it be said that they own it anymore than we do? Of course the courts and a few million-dollar lawsuits might have something else to say about that particular argument, but that’s for another time.

The point is, in some ways we in the first world have wholly embraced the inherent impermanence of streamed, all-access information. God knows I bought two copies of Diablo 3 on launch night, and raged along with the rest of the world at my own little Error 37-populated hell. Diablo 3 will probably be the last product I buy from Blizzard, but it’s not entirely because Blizzard is bulling its way forward with its vision of an online-only gaming world, the critics be damned. To disagree with them on that point would be fighting a losing battle. A world in which we have access to every bit of knowledge in human existence, but “own” none of it, seems inevitable.

So why are people so damned afraid of hardcore mode? It’s not like that character that you put three hundred hours into was going to last forever anyway. And I don’t just mean in Diablo 3. This extends to all games with such a mode, which has seen a recent resurgence with the rise of indie PC gaming. Rouge-likes are notoriously niche, largely because there’s no other way to play them than with permanent death. That’s the entire design of the game. Dwarf Fortress has entire pages of comics devoted to its merciless difficulty, and even embraces it with the slogan-cum-design-philosophy “losing is fun”. Another game I’m following with high hopes, Project Zomboid, literally starts with a screen that reads “This is how you died”, which seems destined to relegate it to a “love it or hate it” camp. The most frustrating thing about this last one is that there will be a large group of people that will loathe it, but won’t be able to express that the reason they do so is because there’s no “winning” the game in a traditional sense. They simply don’t like the idea of struggling for hours and then having all of that work supposedly go to seed.

In some ways I’m reminded of mine and my fiance’s first experience with Minecraft. We bought the game while it was still in alpha, and once we learned the basics we could not stop playing it. We carved a house into the side of a mountain, and I built a causeway that extended out into thin air, dug trenches on either side and painstakingly carried water, bucketful by bucketful up the mountain to fill the little rivers, so that when the sun set you could watch the light glint through the falling water. She built a room that faced the sunrise, and filled it with flowers, and called it her “Gallery of Pretty Things”. She almost exploded with glee when we found out we could make signs, so that everyone knew which room was which. Hell, it took hours just to get a stable server up and running, one of those labors of love that so often comes with indie gaming and PC gaming in general. And it was worth every second.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know that not typing the “stop” command into the server console to shut it down was a recipe for disaster. Apparently in its early alpha state the server program still had some bugs, one of which is that it would, under specific circumstances, SHEAR PARTS OF THE LANDSCAPE OUT OF EXISTENCE. When Mandi and I logged back in, we found a full half of our mountain-home completely gone. We could see inside, where we were just beginning to shape the kitchen, but everything to the left had just disappeared, all the way down to the bedrock that makes up the absolute bottom of Minecraft’s cubic universe. It was a complete loss.

Mandi was absolutely disconsolate; she didn’t even want to look at the game for weeks. I admit to shedding a single manly tear myself, like a Native American gazing upon a deforested plain full of discarded candy bar wrappers. What was the point in going back, my subconscious screamed. I had had exactly what I wanted; it was perfect, and more importantly it had been ours. What else could there be? So we moved on, played a lot of Left 4 Dead and Torchlight, and let the loss settle, until it stopped genuinely aching (and don’t laugh, I know every one of you has had an experience with video games much like this one).

And eventually, as these things always happen, we went back to it. We started a new world in Minecraft. This time, I wanted to build a floating castle (what Mandi would later refer to as my “shoebox in the sky”). She spent her time blowing up the mountains surrounding our home and digging a mote full of lava. We spent hours on it, days. Looking back at the screen shots, it had to be one of the ugliest Minecraft homes ever made.

The thing to remember is that the entire time, Notch and the team at Mojang were updating the game. The nature of the world-generation algorithm meant that any new feature Mojang added would require players to travel out to a previously ungenerated landscape to experience it. After a while, we decided the floating shoebox was too ugly to let live, and besides, we wanted to see this new mineral (or biome, or plant) that Mojang had added. So we mutually agreed to start a new world. And after that we started another one. We kept screenshots and save files of every world we had ever played in, but we slowly began to accept that playing a game still in development meant that new games would be warranted; complete wipes were to be expected – and eventually, something to be looked forward to and embraced. We enjoyed the feeling of anticipation, of fear (I might even use the word “sublimity” if I were being an artsy prick), that came with starting completely from scratch, something that Minecraft especially captures so well. Impermanence had become part of the joy, and the bitter-sweetness, of playing Minecraft. We were not creating worlds that we could hold onto forever – only the memories of the beauty we had shared together.

In Buddhism the word Anitya refers to the concept of impermanence, being one of the three “marks of existence” that stand as the pillars of the religion. To Buddhists the world is in a constant state of flux, as we and all things are imperfect, and are constantly moving through cyclical death and rebirth towards eventual perfection. In this way another Sanskrit word, Samsara. can mean both “continuous flow” and “to wander”. In our state of flux, we are all searching for our own perfection. One of the goals of Buddhism is to come to terms with impermanent nature of the universe; to accept that all things will change, and that they are, by and large, changing for the better.

Video games are now slowly becoming one more thing untethered from our sometimes misguided attempts at making something so ephemeral and difficult-to-grasp as “the truth” a thing that we can crush to our chests like an over-protective parent refusing to let their child leave the nest. This is not to say we should engage in a bout of post-modern, existential hand-wringing; simply that perhaps Socrates was more correct than he knew. All this time we’ve simply had the illusion of permanent information, when in reality it’s been a much harder thing to glimpse and grasp, something that requires collaboration, and yes, even a willingness to let go when the information no longer serves its purpose.

Video games have the strange distinction of being the first medium (besides a few George Lucas films) whose output can change so radically and completely after its already been released, and without a trace of its original roots. Modders have known and embraced this for years, and it seems that if we are going to accept the new models of game development, i.e. development parallel to player interaction, the rest of us are going to have to embrace it as well. Looked at in this sense, why would one ever fear losing a hardcore character in Diablo, or a save file in Dragon Age, or a world file in Minecraft? It’s going to change anyway, and in this post-cloud-computing world its become apparent that we never really “had” the information to lose in the first place. Instead, the only fear should be not having experienced something – beauty, fear, awe, sublimity, things that video games can give us in a way no other medium can, because we were there.

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One thought on “Hardcore Mode and the death of Permanence

  1. Considering the legal framework that has always surrounded software, I don’t think the direction towards clouds and accessing non-local data was ever really in question. We’ve just been waiting for technology to catch up. After all, all those ToS we always skip over essentially say, “You don’t own this. You own the piece of plastic and limited rights to borrow the data contained on it.”

    I gotta say, though.. The concept of an ethereal webverse sounds a little to me like we’re creating our own digital utopia, only to be populated temporarily by whatever piece of information happens to hold our momentary whimsy. I think it sounds pretty cool.

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