Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Playing to win

In all this wall to wall coverage of Ronald Reagan's death, one clear message is coming through: he might not have known what was going on most of the time, but boy was he lovable. I saw a replay of a speech he gave, and I have to admit that it makes me downright nostalgic to have a president who can actually string an entire sentence together and deliver it without sounding like he's a second grader being put on the spot by his teacher.

I have always felt that there are two divergent elements to politics: there is the "passing good policies" aspect, and there is an aspect that is more like a game. The game is getting elected, and our political system is set up so that the winner of the game gets to run the country.

So these skills are connected to each other, but only in the sense that one is a prerequisite of the other. Other than that, there is a little overlap between the two skills, but not as much as we'd like there to be. Someone can be the greatest policy maker in the world, but they'll never get a chance to prove it if they run a boring campaign.

I have gradually become convinced that the far right wing have become incredibly skilled at playing the election game. About thirty years ago, they realized they were starting to lose the hearts and minds of the people, and they threw all their energy and money into figuring out the best way to play the game. And by and large, they've done it, while Democrats have been doing a crappy job of playing.

Whatever you think of Republican policies, you have to admit that they've done a masterful job of making a lot of people THINK that they can do a good job. This is what playing the game is all about. And it's time the other side realized that having good ideas and intelligent policies isn't enough. As distasteful as it is, they have to be prepared to play the game and win, against an opponent who plays the game as a full time profession.

I wish that everyone would read and understand this article, entitled "Playing to Win". It is about playing games competitively, which I understand may not fascinate everyone as much as me, but it is really friggin brilliant.

For those of you who don't want to read about video games, I'll sum it up:

There is no such thing as a "cheap" victory. A win is a win, as long as you play within the rules of the game. People who play competitive games and get beaten over and over again by the same tactic often complain that their opponent is being "cheap" because his strategy never changes. What they don't realize is that the opponent isn't being cheap; he's being smart. His play never changes because THEIR play never changes, and his play works.

Players who complain about cheapness -- whom the article refers to as "scrubs" -- claim that the game is better or "more fun" if you try different tactics every time. But ruthless and/or smart players, who only care about winning the game, exploit this attitude because those who play only "for fun" play badly.

If your opponent is really a one-trick pony, you should be able to beat him easily. I mean, if you're playing rock-paper-scissors, and your opponent's strategy is to choose scissors every time, then you know what to do. You choose rock. Every time. Until your opponent wises up. You do not choose paper occasionally because it's "more fun" or "more fair." You do the thing that beats your opponent.

The Democrats lost in 2000, in large part because the Republicans know how to game the system. But the fact of the matter is, the Republicans won, and they did so without getting arrested; hence it was legal within the rules of the game. Some of the tactics they used seemed sneaky, unfair or "cheap". These tactics may have included, but are not limited to:

* Purging law-abiding voters from the rolls as felons.
* The use of media demagoguery persuade people to vote for things that aren't in their best interests.
* Stopping the recount.
* Using an arguably stacked Supreme Court.
* Getting groups of "protestors" bussed in to stop the recount in progress.

Future tactics may include all that, plus:

* Using rigged computerized voting machines.
* Redistricting key states in order to smoosh largely Democratic districts into largely Republican districts.

Assuming that these points are even true, many of them not only seem unfair, but OUGHT to be illegal. However, they're either not currently illegal, or they are technically illegal but our justice system isn't interested in going after them. But here's the hell of it: the more they win, the more they get to change or bend the rules in their favor. And that's not fair! It's cheap! But it's the way they play the game, and they're winning because we keep on playing nice.

Democrats don't have a problem with idealism; they have a problem with winning the game. The first step that needs to be taken is recognizing they have a problem. The problem is that they NEED TO WIN. Part of winning, in the changed landscape of this game, is that people respond to stuff like patriotism and war veterans and the image of being "strong on defense." These issues are mostly very low priorities for me, but they matter in winning over the electorate. The fact is that John Kerry is actually generally on the right side of issues that I do care about, such the rights of private citizens, the lack of interest in gigantic tax cuts only for the super-rich, and separation of church and state.

Does John Kerry "inspire" me? Is he my perfect candidate? No. I actually think Al Gore would have made better policies. I voted for Howard Dean in the primaries. As far as I know, I might even like president Ralph Nader more than I'd like president Kerry -- but I can't definitely say that, because I haven't paid that much attention to Nader's platform. The fact is, Nader won't be president. Nader pisses some people off because everyone knows that no matter how good his ideas may be, he's willingly altering the rules of the game to swing it in favor of Bush. It sucks that our political system is like that, but the only way to change our political system is to first WIN THE DAMN GAME.

Having said that, I do not believe that it's a waste of time to complain about the injustices of the 2000 election. The fact is, complaining is a legitimate game strategy. If you complain about something loudly enough, and convince enough people, those people will put pressure on those currently holding office; and they, in turn, may feel that they have to do something about it in order to make their jobs more secure.

But the bitching has to be constructive. It can't be just a smug little assertion that "Well, Gore really won that election, Bush is not my president." It has to be used as one weapon in an arsenal of strategies for playing the game better next time.

So am I saying that Democrats must become as ruthless and underhanded as Republicans? No. I don't believe that's necessary. I believe that the Democrats are capable of becoming just as skillful game players as the Republicans, and still retaining the core of what they stand for. I think the skill of governing and the skill of winning are totally separate from each other. The Democrats need to learn to use populism and mass media, they need to block every attempt the Republicans make to cheat or game the system... AND they need to hold on to a set of core beliefs that would lead to intelligent and successful government.

But for now, I think their crucial weakness is in the former, and they need to concentrate real hard on correcting that weakness by November.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Zelda: Windwaker (GameCube, ***)

Legend of Zelda: Windwaker is over a year old now. Recently, Ben has frequently been badgering me to play so he can watch, so I've played through it and I'm almost done. It's only the second time I've played through it, and I relied heavily on a walkthrough this time so I could find most of the secrets.

I think there are some very serious problems with the game, many of which don't show up until you've played over half of the game. No, I don't have a problem with the cartoony graphics or the childish themes. What bothers me is that there are a lot of gameplay elements that are not only not fun, but actively annoying.

Many of the elements that I loved about previous Zelda games are present through most of the game, and I will list them here:
  • Starting out with a relatively weak character and gradually growing into an unstoppable badass (even if it's a badass with adorable puppy-dog eyes).
  • Getting a growing arsenal of toys that you can use in various situations.
  • Lots of puzzle filled dungeons, filled regularly with rewards in the shape of maps, hearts, and new toys.
The last one, I think, is extremely important. I know the dungeons were the best part of the game for me. The first time through, I would often have my older stepkids watching and giving me advice on what to do next. But whereas most previous installments (especially Ocarina of Time and the SNES game) had eight or nine major dungeons, this one only had five or six. So while there is still lots of puzzle solving to do in the game, an awful lot of the game is done in non-dungeony activities. Which brings me to the horrible, HORRIBLE overworld navigation system.

As a novelty, it was fun for a while. The world you live in is a giant ocean dotted here and there by islands. You get a boat, you sail between them. Eventually, you get warping capabilities that jump you to selected islands around the map. You use the wind waker, a conductor's baton with a small skill game attached to it, mainly to warp around the map and change the direction of the wind.

But travelling between the islands is tedious and should be kept to a minimum. It should have been more like a mini-game, not THE ENTIRE GAME. Travelling from one grid on the map to another takes around 3-5 minutes. Each time you use the windwaker, it takes another 30 seconds of fumbling around. In order to get to most locations, you must go through all of the following steps:

  1. Get on the boat.
  2. Figure out what square you're aiming for.
  3. Select the wind waker in your inventory.
  4. Play the "warp" song.
  5. Identify a square near where you want to be.
  6. Wait for the warping animation to finish.
  7. Figure out which way the wind needs to blow for you to get to your final target.
  8. Pull out the wind waker again and play the "wind" song.
  9. Wait to finish sailing to the next square.
  10. Get out of the boat.

How often are you willing to do all these actions? I reckon about once every thirty minutes is my limit.

Furthermore, at the beginning of the game, every square is unreadable on your map until you track down a fish somewhere in the area and get him to fill in your map. It is technically optional, but pretty much necessary that you visit the fish in every location. That's 7x7=49 times when you must repeat pretty much repeat the same action in a different place.

In the beginning, inter-island travel is kept to a minimum and all is fine. As you approach the end, you have to island hop more and more. After you do a surprisingly small number of dungeons, the game switches over completely into full-time travel mode, and the amount of time you spend doing this is roughly the same as the amount of time you've spent on the entire game before.

There are eight triforce pieces, NOT hidden in dungeons, but hidden under the water. To find each triforce piece, you:

  1. Travel to a location on the map, using all the previously mentioned steps.
  2. Solve a few easy puzzles to get a new treasure map.
  3. Go to the island where your maps get deciphered.
  4. Figure out which square the treasure map points you to.
  5. Sail to that square, using all the previously mentioned steps.
  6. Use the map to get you to the new location.
  7. Look for the precise location of the triforce piece, and get it.
These steps are the same every single time, for all eight triforce pieces. For those of you keeping score, that's three trips for each of eight pieces, for a total of 24 island trips. Each trip has ten steps, but the deciphering island is located on a warp square, so let's cut one of those tens in half... 25 steps times 8 squares is still 200 mostly uninteresting steps you need to take -- and of course, that's after you visit the fish 50 times.

But wait, there's more.

Deciphering a map (step 2) costs 400 rupees, which is incredibly expensive. Once you've tapped out all the money you had, the only efficient way to get more is to use still more treasure maps to find still more underwater chests -- some of which contain heart pieces, and some of which contain 200 rupees, so you need to locate 400*8/200 = 16 more chests in 16 other squares, plus more maps if you want all the hearts, or if you were looking for money and got the hearts anyway.

I'm just READING what I wrote, and my God I'm bored.

I cannot emphasize enough the fact that using the wind waker itself is a dreadfully tedious experience once you've figured out how it works; I'm betting (without exaggeration) that you have to use it at least 500 times throughout the course of the game, if not more. Not only to get around the map, but to shift the wind so you can float in the right direction; to control your friends' actions inside dungeons; and to change the cycle of day and night.

And then, of course, every single island has some kind of hidden secret (the usual stuff -- hearts, extra bottles, a seemingly endless number of treasure maps, and other trinkets that have limited use in the game). So if you're going for completeness -- which I thought I would, but I've changed my mind -- you have to visit all of the 49 squares, often multiple times. And that means two uses of the wind waker and some sailing each time.

Previous Zeldas didn't do this to you. In Ocarina of Time you can use the ocarina to warp to many different areas, but you can usually find a shortcut from where you are that will jump you around the map in about a minute or two. And then there was the horse, which was an awesome way to travel. More importantly, there was a much more limited number of important locations, say 10-15, where you could find most of the things you could ever be looking for.

I finally got the triforce together this morning. On balance, given the choice between the completed triforce and the time I spent getting it, I wish I had the time back.