Three Movies about Memphis, and the Death of Place in Recent American Cinema

I have been overthinking recently about place in movies, specifically American movies, and more specifically about the death of place in American movies. By what means was cinematic place killed? By my reckoning, it was the overweening dominance achieved of late by just two places, New York and Los Angeles, which have come in the cinema of today to stand in for all of the geographic diversity of vaguely urban American life.

I am as guilty as the filmmakers I malign – NY and LA are the two cities I have (thus far) decided to make my vaguely urban American life in. And while I understand my path to be typical of my generation’s trek back to the city, from which our parents and grandparents fled with such rapidity in the heady high modernist days of urban renewal and interstate highways, that typicality does not excuse the duty of cinema to show life in all its forms. This duty is being prorogued, and what we have instead upon us is a deluge of mediocre visions of boho-artistic or high-achieving life in inner ring Brooklyn or in Silver Lake, visions whose production costs swallow up all the air from the rest of the goings-on around the country.

(As an aside, the slimness of the novelties of this latest round of urbanization are noteworthy: when the teeming southern Europeans came, they built Pittsburgh and Cleveland and St Louis and Milwaukee. When the Sunbelt rose, Phoenix and Dallas and Houston and Los Angeles and San Diego were called into being out of nothing. What have we accomplished, with our aesthetics of gentrification? The Manhattanization of Austin? Of Boulder or Colorado Springs? Seattle? Maybe Boise will be our great legacy.) (As a second footnote, is Kate Wagner our first great millennial architecture critic? I think so.)

So as to be not totally unfair, I want to acknowledge the countless recent movies which take as their subject an unsung city. Lady Bird aches for Sacramento, even as the action of the film eventually takes its heroine away to Manhattan.

Lady Bird': Here's what the reviews are saying about Greta Gerwig's film |  The Sacramento Bee
From Lady Bird, dir: Greta Gerwig, 2017.

Last Black Man in San Francisco is deeply wedded to its eponymous setting, its other shortcomings notwithstanding.

Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails on The Last Black Man in San Francisco | by  Nell Minow | Medium
From The Last Black Man in San Francisco, dir: Joe Talbot, 2019.

Silver Linings Playbook and Creed bring us back to Philadelphia, for which we have to be always grateful.

Historical Philadelphia Comes to Life in Silver Linings Playbook |
From Silver Linings Playbook, dir: David O. Russell, 2012.

But the reader will note the easy parallel among all those movies – they are essentially fugues for the cities they depict, weepily elegiac for their long dead glories. Perhaps the only truly celebratory new take was Baby Driver‘s, which did not shrug away from an clear eyed vision of 2010s metro Atlanta.

10 things about Atlanta that Baby Driver got wrong - Atlanta Magazine
From Baby Driver, dir: Edgar Wright, 2017.

Instead we are besieged by visions of the twin coastal megalopoleis. Marriage Story is a bad offender in this trend but more symptom than cause. Funnily, it may have been another Baumbach feature, Frances Ha, that paved the way instead.

Another blaring symptom is given by Joker, so rooted in New York as to unblinkingly feature a whole scene on the Metro-North regional railroad. The shift in superhero depiction from the Gotham-cum-Chicago setting of The Dark Knight to the ebullient Queens-iness of Joker is a good illustration of the boot on our necks. Ebert touched on the placelessness of Dark Knight in his review, in 2008:

The movie was shot on location in Chicago, but it avoids such familiar landmarks as Marina City, the Wrigley Building or the skyline. Chicagoans will recognize many places, notably La Salle Street and Lower Wacker Drive, but director Nolan is not making a travelogue.

Roger Ebert, “The Dark Knight,” July 2008

(And as to the assignation of blame? The Avengers, naturally, and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with it. I think you can practically pick out Doctor Strange‘s Upper West Side apartment from the street signs.)

Doctor Strange: What His Apartment Says About The Character
From Doctor Strange, dir: Scott Derrickson, 2016.

Are there other movies besides comings-of-age and superhero films? Few, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood fits the bill. Despite centering on a character who rather prominently lived in Pittsburgh, the film is at least half set in the alleyways of Manhattan! Lulu Wang’s lovely, lovely The Farewell cannot shake the trend, nor can Uncut Gems. I will note that a common thread here is the semi-autobiographical nature of these movies, many of which are from young directors. This applies for Greta Gerwig as well as Lulu Wang and the Brothers Safdie. Baumbach, too, is a New Yorker by birth.

But this begs the question of why so many stories from New Yorkers are being privileged in film to the exclusion of stories about anywhere else. The Coens deserve commendation here – hailing from St Louis Park, they set Fargo and A Serious Man in their backyard. Moreover, they take on American regionalism with real zeal: their Western movies (Raising Arizona, less Buster Scruggs and True Grit) care about the West. O Brother Where Art Thou is inextricably Southern. And their NY/LA movies deal handily with their settings as well, whether the monumental studio lots of Hail Caesar or the cramped clubs of Greenwich Village in Llewyn Davis. It’s great stuff! (Is Kelly Reichardt the next one up in the regionalist film tradition? Maybe so, maybe so.)

What is it that we’ve lost? The ancien régime I long for is mostly represented by the filmography of John Hughes, which I spent this month watching in part. Of course, Ferris Bueller may be the greatest movie to sing the city in which it makes its scene, but all the rest of his movies quiver with a peculiar Chicagoland energy which we have lost. These are worlds which stitch between on the one hand, Michigan Ave and the El, and on the other, the leafy courts of Winnetka and Glen Ellyn. Families at work and at school and at home are represented, a far cry from the strange undomesticated childlessness which predominates in today’s films on New York. Pretty in Pink‘s country club and record store and high school are all easily slotted into the viewer’s mental model of the complete community on display.

How to Have a Ferris Bueller Kind of Day in Chicago | Condé Nast Traveler
From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, dir: John Hughes, 1986.

When we only tell decline-and-fall stories about the whole of the country wedged between the Hudson and the Aqueduct, we do a disservice to the perpetuation of the national community. I was set off on this rant by seeing an ad for a recent animated TV series, Central Park. It concerns a park conservator and stars Hamilton luminaries like Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr and veterans like Kathryn Hahn and Stanley Tucci. Apple outbid Netflix and Hulu for the rights to develop it. Fred Armisen guest stars in two separate roles. It is also about the fifth-largest park in New York City.

Kristen Bell to No Longer Voice Mixed-Race Character in 'Central Park' -  Variety
Promotional image for Central Park.

Where are the quirky animated shows about Zilker Park, or Rock Creek Park, or Balboa Park? Who would not sing for Seattle’s Gasworks, or the Power and Light in Kansas City?

At any rate, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him, and want instead of bemoaning our modern cinema to highlight the different approaches towards one city – Memphis – taken by a set of films. I was turned onto Jim Jarmusch by Richard Brody’s June 2019 review of The Dead Don’t Die, and recently got the chance to watch his 1989 film, Mystery Train. Mystery Train‘s lovely conceit of foreigners visiting Memphis propels the story across an anthology in three chapters.

Mystery Train Is A Memphis Pilgrimage You Must Make : Trunkworthy
From Mystery Train, dir: Jim Jarmusch, 1989.

The first third, featuring a young Elvis-obsessed Japanese couple, luxuriates in its alienness. The perpetually mean-mugging boy smokes cigarettes and pomades his hair from the train station to Sun Studios to the mysterious hotel at the center of the film. His poor girlfriend helps him lug their suitcase with a makeshift bamboo handle around the city, arguing about which rock n’ roller was best. They have sweet moments holed up in the hotel – the boy likes to take pictures of the hotel rooms they stay in, because those are the parts he won’t remember, the girl lights his cigarettes and paints him with lipstick.

The latter stories are less compelling, but the hotel’s employees who recur are keenly felt. A fidgety bellhop in misfit uniform tries to carry on a conversation with the laconic manager, played by a massive Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in an even louder red suit. All told, Mystery Train exposes us to the daily experience of life in a place whose time has passed, but through fresh eyes, unleavened by the common narratives we as Memphis-adjacent American viewers internalize.

Mystery Train (1989)
From Mystery Train, dir: Jim Jarmusch, 1989.

I do have to wonder if at the time of release the idea was as preposterous as it is today. Jarmusch cannot, of course, show a bustling town up on its toes, full of industry – even his Memphis is hollowed out – but in 1989, Elvis was only a dozen years dead. Imagine someone making a movie like this about Detroit, set as we are today nearly a decade from its legendary municipal Chapter 9 filing. What dissonances would arise in the minds of American viewers?

The other two films are more mainstream. John Grisham’s legal thrillers first hit the screen with 1993’s The Firm, where Sydney Pollack guided a red-hot Tom Cruise from Harvard to Memphis. Four years later, Francis Ford Coppola played a variation on that theme, breaking out Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor for The Rainmaker.

Review – The Rainmaker (1997, dir: Francis Ford Coppola)
Danny Devito and Matt Damon in The Rainmaker, dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1997.

Of the two, Rainmaker is more soulful, with a heartfelt story of an underdog seeking justice against a family wronged by a health insurance giant. Rainmaker‘s story resonates even a quarter-century later, testament to the paralysis of our politics. That Donny Ray, the sick young man whose case Baylor takes on, dies halfway through the movie is a heartrending development, but one deftly parlayed into raising the stakes of the more standard courtroom drama which follows. Claire Danes sparkles throughout, even if the violent scene between Baylor, Danes’ Kelly Riker, and her abusive husband beggars some disbelief. In truth, the many plot threads never come quite so neatly together, because there’s too much going on – we haven’t even addressed the FBI raiding Mickey Rourke’s office – but the whole thing works.

I don’t think Rainmaker overly cares about being set in Memphis, but it pays effective lip service – Baylor graduates from Memphis law in the first scene, and the Rays’ house, where sick young Donny is mostly confined, is appropriately Upper South. By contrast, The Firm goes full bore into being a Memphis movie. It gives all the flashy landmark shots you could want. Cruise’s Mitch McDeere and his wife Abby, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, are early on paraded through a lush patrician party set atop the Peabody Hotel. A critical sequence towards the end takes place on a funny piece of public transit, the Mud Island Monorail. There’s really effective contrast drawn between McDeere’s life in a cramped Boston tenement and the amply-acred Tennessee house he’s set up with once the action gets going.

The Firm at The Peabody Memphis - filming location
Tom Cruise and Hal Holbrook in The Firm, dir: Sydney Pollack, 1993.

The Firm is a giddy hook of a movie, which pulls you along somewhat breathlessly. An incredible performance by Gary Busey at the start of the second act winds the movie into its whodunnit phase, and while each and every one of McDeere’s machinations to stop the bad guys weren’t perfectly clear to me, the climactic scene between him and a fresh-off-Goodfellas Paul Sorvino delivers a scrumptious finale.

How to weigh these movies against each other? Perhaps we can take an archaeological approach and excavate the class relations each of these movies plays with. Mystery Train concerns itself with showing the ordinariness of life in a hallowed city – its characters are hotel managers, convenience store owners, tour guides, diner employees. Rainmaker is sympathetic to the lower class but occupies itself with the halls of power, and Rudy Baylor is successful insofar as he transcends his lower-class status and beats the moneyed interests in their own arena. The Firm could have said “greed is good” – there are offhand remarks about Mitch McDeere’s family poverty, but it’s unimportant, and the rewards to the work Bendini, Lambert, & Locke perform occupy the bulk of the movie. The battle in the movie is over the discovery of those gains being ill-gotten, not about the morality of the affluence in the first place.

What’s more, I don’t think The Firm has a single black character. Mere demographics usually present a hollow argument, but the population of Memphis today is undeniably 65% black. Rainmaker at least features a stellar (and uncredited!) Danny Glover as the sympathetic judge, while Mystery Train is replete with black figures making their way in the city. This is, I believe, a rather disqualifying assessment for Pollack’s movie, and Coppola’s Rainmaker scarcely better. Hopefully the next Memphis flick will do better.

Hamilton, the Quaternions, and Mathematical Mythologies

The arduous discovery of the properties of the quaternions by William Rowan Hamilton has always stuck in my mind as among the most romantic of modern math’s encounters. Until the fall of 1843, Hamilton was set to work extending the complex numbers, by then a regular feature of the theory of equations. As he would later write in a letter to his son,

Every morning in the early part of October 1843, on my coming down to breakfast, your brother William Edwin and yourself used to ask me: “Well, Papa, can you multiply triples?” Whereto I was always obliged to reply, with a sad shake of the head, “No, I can only add and subtract them.”

Lucky for us, the mathematician was no more than a few weeks from perspiration paying a handsome dividend of inspiration. The image topping this post is an inscription, set by the city of Dublin, on Brougham Bridge, which reads,

Here as he walked by on the 16th of October 1843 Sir William Rowan Hamilton in a flash of genius discovered the fundamental formula for quaternion multiplication i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = −1 & cut it on a stone of this bridge.

William Rowan Hamilton - Wikipedia
A portrait of Sir WR Hamilton, ca. 1860.

I used to read fondly about the Hamilton Walk some lucky mathematicians and quaternion admirers went on annually, along the foggy span of the Royal Canal, retracing his eureka moment.

Imagine my surprise, then, when in the course of reading Tristan Needham’s peerless Visual Complex Analysis, I read a note on the history of the quaternions which alluded to prior discovery.

As is well known, the quaternion rule was discovered in algebraic form by Sir William Rowan Hamilton in 1843. It is less well known that three years earlier Olinde Rodrigues had published an elegant geometric investigation of the composition of rotations in space that contained essentially the same result…

Needham, Visual Complex Analysis, p. 44
Olinde Rodrigues - Wikipedia
A portrait of Olinde Rodrigues, date unknown.

Rodrigues was an interesting figure in his own right. His mathematical discoveries were noteworthy, but the greater part of his writings were political. He was a noted follower of the Comte de Saint-Simon, whose philosophy, Saint-Simonianism, counts among its descendants the utilitarianism of Mill, the anarchism of Proudhon, and the positivism of Auguste Comte. Despite all that, Rodrigues was said to be Saint-Simon’s favorite.

His works on math, though, are what we’re dealing with here. They shift the perspective on quaternionic discovery. Far from being the classic eureka moment of 1840s Irish mathematics, the near-simultaneous discovery sets up a new battle in the mold of the great Newton-Leibniz Calculusschlacht.

Of course, that would be the case, had both Rodrigues and Hamilton not been preempted by – who else? – Gauss:

Hamilton and Rodrigues are just two examples of hapless mathematicians who would have been dismayed to examine the unpublished notebooks of the great Karl Friedrich Gauss. There, just like another log entry in the chronicle of his private mathematical voyages, Gauss recorded his discovery of the quaternion rule in 1819.

Needham, Visual Complex Analysis, p. 44

I was motivated to track this citation down and stumbled upon a kindly scan of Gauß’ wissenschaftliches Tagebuch 1796-1814, published in 1903 and edited by none other than Felix Klein.

Klein himself was among the greatest of the many great mathematicians working in Göttingen and others of the first-class German universities in the tail end of the long nineteenth century; he studied under Lipschitz and taught, among others, Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro (developer of the theory of tensor calculus), Walther von Dyck (formalizer of the modern notion of group), and Max Planck. In 1875 he married Hegel’s granddaughter, Anne, and in 1895 he hired David Hilbert as a professor at Göttingen. His was the recommendation that the basis of secondary-level mathematical education be analytic geometry, which endures today in the common Algebra -> Geometry -> Pre-Calculus sequence.

Felix Klein
Felix Klein, by Max Lieberman, 1912. In the collection of the Mathematisches Institut Göttingen.

Aside from the Klein bottle, Klein is best known for his lectures at Erlangen, the first place he held a professorship (at 23!), wherein he motivated a new synthesis for modern mathematics and established new directions for mathematical research – this is the famous Erlangen Program. Needham puts it well:

…[A] geometric property of a figure is one that is unaltered by all possible motions of the figure…in answer to the opening question of “What is geometry?”, Klein would answer that it is the study of these so-called invariants of the set of motions…Klein’s idea was that we could first select a group G at will, then define a corresponding “geometry” as the study of the invariants of that G.

Needham, Visual Complex Analysis, p. 32, 33

Amid all that work, Klein found the time to edit Gauss’ journals. May we all be so productive. In his preface, he noted one of two things “which bestow upon the journal incomparable biographical value” :

What we win for ourselves here is an unadulterated, personable insight into the scientific development of the young Gauss in the years 1796-1800.

[Diese] ist der unmittelbare, sozusagen persönliche Einblick, den wir gerade für die entscheidenden Jahre 1796-1800 in den wissenschaftlichen Werdegang des jungen GauB gewinnen.

Klein, Preface to Gauß’ wissenschaftliches Tagebuch, 1796-1814, p.2

The reader at this stage may have noticed the regrettable error in my research – the copy of Gauss’ journals I could find on the internet only went through 1814. The note in which he sets out the defining relations for the quaternionic algebra appeared in 1819. Try as I might, I ended up there, and so cannot get to the text of what Gauss did find.

Wikipedia stakes a further claim in the really nicely done “History of Quaternions” article. It relates that the quaternionic relationship is implicit in Euler’s four-squares identity, which I believe, but cannot work out for myself.

Regardless of the ultimate decision on who found quaternions first, I feel glad to have tracked down a little of the mathematical lives which worked on this problem and admired each other’s work.

Dramaturgical Notes on “Hamilton”

I follow in the tradition of the great A.C. Bradley in presenting here some odd notes on Hamilton I thought up while watching the filmed version a couple of weeks ago. I have adored Hamilton since 2016 or so, and I got there by way of The Knack’s “My Sharona,” which has always been to me a timeless song, worth it, at the very least, for the clinic of a solo Berton Averre puts on. (Odd addendum: apparently Quincy Jones was inspired by this song to include a rock-and-roll song on Thriller, an inspiration which became “Beat It”. If you haven’t watched Quincy on Netflix, it is well worth your time.)

One day, I had the song going on Spotify and it finished, and the next song thought up by the engine to play for me was “My Shot,” off the Hamilton soundtrack. And it worked! I used to come home after going out and sit and listen to “Guns and Ships” or “Right Hand Man,” or the “Cabinet Battles”. Anyway, thoughts on a few items in Hamilton:

– So much of the action in the play is about events which did not occur. Instead, Miranda manages to make plot, and drama, and development out of the internal conflicts of the characters as they choose not to take actions. The most clear example of this is “Burn,” where Elizabeth Hamilton chooses not to publish her letters defending herself following the publication of the Reynolds Pamphlet.

Burn Lyrics - Phillipa Soo | Genius Lyrics
(A still from “Burn” from the filmed production of Hamilton.)

In fact, “We Know” comes from a similar place. It involves a meeting between Hamilton, now disgraced and out of power, and the Democratic-Republican triumvirate of Jefferson, Madison, and Burr over their accusations of the former’s improper financial transactions while Secretary of the Treasury. The outcome is that the trio won’t go public with their (inaccurate) accusations.

We Know | Hamilton Wiki | Fandom
(A still during “We Know” from the filmed production of Hamilton.)

“It’s Quiet Uptown” is not too far off from this mode, in that it concerns the Hamiltons’ retreat from public life, which, again, is a non-event. In the first act, the conceit of “Satisfied,” where Angelica Schuyler gets to imagine her romance with Alexander, is in keeping with this trend and is probably the part of the musical where it is most explicated. And lastly, “The Room Where It Happens” is a twist on this – it is about a very real event, the Compromise of 1790, but from the perspective of a character who wasn’t there. More on that song next.

– In the back half of “Room Where It Happens,” the musical’s most obvious showstopper (now famous enough to provide the title for the administration memoir of John Bolton), Hamilton appears to Burr mid-solo.

(A selection from “Room Where It Happens”. Source: Genius)

The whole song is off-kilter insofar as a “unity of place” is concerned, as there’s an earlier digression where Jefferson and Madison discuss their plans for the upcoming meeting. But when those asides occur, the characters do not interact with Burr, who acts as a kind of master of ceremonies, spotlighting them and spinning the camera back to himself to keep the action going. I’m sure this will sound as cliché as I think, but in this way, it’s sort of reminiscent of Rashomon, as we get to hear the event told by those who were there in different ways, but never see the truth of it ourselves.

Film Club: Rashomon and the Notion of Truth in Akira Kurosawa's ...
(Rashomon, 1950. Dir. Akira Kurosawa)

At any rate, when Hamilton appears, he and Burr get to interact and discuss Hamilton’s plans. Burr’s movements through the musical are worthy of more interrogation – in particular, the question of why he’s present for “Washington on Your Side,” is a good one, and I believe even briefly acknowledged in a double-take Daveed Diggs (as Jefferson) sneaks in before the song starts – but that he and Hamilton would begin speaking randomly following this pivotal meeting is at least curious. What’s more, they don’t do the exchange of greetings which is a motif of all the other times they meet and speak, as in “Right Hand Man,” “The Story of Tonight (Reprise)”, “Non-Stop,” “The Election of 1800,” and “Ten Duel Commandments.”

(A selection from “Ten Duel Commandments”. Source: Genius)

My conspiratorial interpretation of this elision is that Hamilton does not, in fact, speak to Burr here. Instead, what’s presented is Burr’s theorized recollections of what Hamilton would say in such a conversation. Burr dwells on Hamilton’s thoughts and words and deeds, most obviously in “Wait For It,” so that the action of the play would involve Burr projecting Hamilton before him to explain his choices is not too far beyond the pale. A Genius commenter with a similar theory also noted that Hamilton’s speech in this song is darker, more “fire and brimstone” indeed than in most other songs. What to make of this? Little, but it is fun to hazard a guess at.

What is going on with interest rates and the yield curve in Civilization VI?

Now that the summer doldrums have set in, I’ve turned back to playing Civilization VI. Fully equipped with its two expansions, Gathering Storm and Rise and Fall, the game really is fantastic – probably the best in the series – and able to keep me in rapt attention for many, many hours.

Concomitantly, I’ve started watching the videos of prolific YouTuber PotatoMcWhiskey (PMW from here), who is very good at (1) playing the game, (2) talking about the game and (3) teaching viewers how to be better at it. One thing he said in a recent video, while he was playing Arabia, caught my eye.

He is trying to trade with Rome and offers them 20 diplomatic favor, to which they bid 7 gold/turn for 30 turns. McWhiskey would rather have the gold up front, and takes the viewer through his process for figuring out how much gold up front Rome will be willing to give based on their bid of 7 gold/turn for 30 turns. A natural first guess is that they’d be willing to pay 210 gold up front, but that turns out not to be the case, because they impose a discount. In the end, he gets them to pay 143 gold up front.

This, I noted, is evidence that Rome considered the time value of money in their calculation. And from there, I wondered, what is the term structure of interest rates facing Rome that led to that decision?

I’ll step back – for the uninitiated, Civilization VI (like all the Civilizations before it) is a turn-based strategy game not too dissimilar from something like Settlers of Catan. Each player plays the leader of a civilization, like Pachacuti of the Inca, or Trajan of the Romans, or Peter the Great of the Russians. The game begins in 5000 BC and usually takes about 500 turns, ending in 2050 AD.

The best 'Civilization VI' leaders for all four victory types
A set of leaders you can play as in Civ 6, including Pachacuti of the Inca, Victoria of the English, Qin Shi Huang of the Chinese, Teddy Roosevelt of the Americans, Cleopatra of the Egyptians, and Seondeok of the Koreans. [edit: had him as Sejong, not Seondeok, credit a kindly Reddit user]

Your goal is to expand your empire by founding new cities, putting down roads, building the optimal mix of infrastructure, creating great works of culture, expanding your religion, investing in science, and dealing with the other player civilizations, be that through war, trade, or diplomacy.

Interface - Sid Meier's Civilization VI Game Guide |
Might look bewildering, but this is the main interface you see when playing Civ 6. In this case, the player is Pericles of the Greeks, and he is considering options for his city of Mycenae.

You gain resources by having citizens in your cities work specific tiles on the board. Some of those resources can be traded to other civilizations, either for gold or for other resources.

After the Review: The Frustration of Civilization VI's Diplomacy ...
An example of what it looks like to engage in diplomacy with another player civilization. In this case, the player is speaking with Tomyris of the Scythians. Options include “Declare Friendship,” “Declare Surprise War,” and “Make Deal,” which opens the trade interface.

Because it’s a computer game, when you’re playing alone, all the rest of the player civilizations will be controlled by AIs. The efficacy and ability of the AI to play the game skillfully, or rather the apparent lack thereof, has long been a bugbear of devoted Civilization fans. But the game offers different levels of difficulty for single-player games, and on the highest levels, the AIs receive large material benefits which do make them worthy rivals to even the sharpest human tilters.

In the video I referenced above, PMW was playing a single-player game on the highest difficulty level as Saladin of the Arabians, and encountered in the course of the game Trajan of the Romans. He wanted to sell a unique resource, “Diplomatic Favor,” to Trajan for cold, hard gold. Gold payments in Civilization can be structured in two ways: either as a lump sum, payable immediately, or as an annuity lasting 30 turns, the first payment of which is delivered immediately. Just like any other rational actor, the AIs are programmed to be able to switch between equivalent amounts of either structure.

Calculating Present and Future Value of Annuities
How an annuity works. If you thought we were here to talk about video games, buckle up.

Presented with the resource on offer, Trajan made a bid: 7 gold/turn for 30 turns. As in real life, the extension of credit in this way presents tradeoffs. In particular, if any two trading partners go to war in Civilization, all per-turn payments, either in gold or resources, between them are suspended. Lump sum transactions, however, are not reversed.

Cognizant of the risk that Arabia and Rome might go to war someday soon, owing mostly to geographic proximity and rising power, that old Thucydidean thorn, Arabia wanted the money up-front. PMW then had to guess the max lump sum Trajan would be willing to pay – he first guessed linearly, so 210 gold, but Trajan rejected the deal. Then PMW applied successive discounts until Trajan agreed at 143 gold.

The equivalence of these two payments – 7 gold/turn for 30 turns and 143 gold – can be used to get a sense for what the interest rate facing Trajan was. Classically, finance types like to say that “a dollar today is not worth a dollar tomorrow” – this notion is the time value of money, which gives rise to the notion of the present value of a future stream of payments.

Time Value of Money Formula | Calculator (Excel template)
Silly diagram, but basically all of finance is here.

The critical bit for switching between the present value and the sum of the value of the future payments is (usually) the risk-free rate of interest over the period in question. Different structures have different formulas for switching between the two values, so let’s take a look at the formula for the present value of an annuity, which is what we’d call a setup like paying 7 gold per turn for 30 turns.

Present Value of Annuity - Formula (with Calculator)
Some nice LaTeX for everyone today.

Using this funky little calculator, we can plug in the present value, 143 gold, the periodic payment, 7 gold, and the number of periods, 30 turns, and backsolve for the “rate per period”. In our case we get 2.683%.

We need to state precisely what this 2.683% figure means. In particular, it is the internal rate of return (IRR) of the annuity. It’s the number you get by assuming each future payment for this contract is to be discounted by the same risk-free rate of interest. The IRR wouldn’t be the same if each payment was 8 gold per turn, so it’s hard to use this figure to generalize. Moreover, risk-free rates can vary from year to year, so there’s no reason to expect that each payment would use the same rate!

Example of Calculations of the Forward Yield Curves - Risk ...
This little chart tells you a lot about what interest rates are today, but more importantly, what they’ll be in the future. Today, the 1-yr rate is 3.5%. In one year, the 1-yr rate will be 5%. In two years, the 1-yr rate will be 8%.

So unfortunately, we can’t use this one calculation to say anything interesting about the term structure of interest rates facing Trajan of the Romans as he decides to finance some resource acquisition. In particular, we’d need to have the ability to vary the length of the annuity to see what the IRR would be for a 5-turn contract, or a 10- or 20-turn contract. With that kind of data, we could start to build a yield curve.

But from there, we start to get into thornier theoretical considerations. These are the rates we can recover from the contracts entered into between Trajan and Saladin, but who’s to say those couldn’t differ from the ones between Trajan and Victoria, or Trajan and Teddy Roosevelt, or Victoria and Teddy Roosevelt?

Moreover, we know that this is the rate faced by Trajan early in the game, when neither of the two economies are very strong or advanced. Who’s to say those rates wouldn’t vary throughout the game? Or vary with strength of diplomatic relationship, or with level of technology achieved, or vary with difficulty level?

At any rate, I’m glad to see that even in 5000 BC, Trajan and his advisors have a solid grasp for the principles of banking, lending, and money markets. Hopefully Civilization VII will allow players to earn interest on excess reserves at their central bank.

Addendum: The Conclusion of “Death Stranding,” and Playing Games in the Summer

About a decade ago, when I was 15, I spent the months of June, July, and August holed up in my basement bedroom playing video games. This experience was not atypical of my adolescent summers. Nor was it entirely spurred by a cliché cloistered pubescence; I consider it rather more like an evolutionary adaptation, a means of fleeing the soaking highs of Maryland in June for subterranean comfort. I played a lot of good games then, none less so than Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 2.

I remember the night I ran the game to its heady conclusion – a night that ended late, as protagonist Raiden dealt with the third act’s winding changes in perspective. In short order, the game exposes Raiden’s trusty handlers to be unreal, unreliable AI-generated characters. It pulls back the curtain to reveal the conspiratorial, Truman Show-esque backdrop of the game’s setting, the oil rig known as the Big Shell. In truth, Raiden’s – and the player’s – mission to stop a group of hijackers has all been an exercise designed by shadowy government forces to test Raiden’s skills and form him in the mold of Solid Snake, the player-character in Metal Gear Solid.

This design is abandoned when Solidus, the game’s villain, goes rogue and destroys the Big Shell. From there, the game speeds its way towards a dramatic fistfight between Raiden and Solidus atop Federal Hall in Manhattan, interspersing along the way mixed media digressions on the nature of the digital age, of information flow and control, of the nature of memes. Learned minds who care about this sort of thing have set firmly in stone the artistic value of MGS2, most of which is on display in this finale: the Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall, the ensnaring metanarrativity of how MGS2 sets itself among the rest of its series’ canon, the particular novelty of the ludic, mechanical experience of postmodern narrative.

I think often of a few scenes late in American Psycho, when Patrick Bateman wanders a hellscaped (moreso than usually) lower Manhattan. Raiden’s experience in the bowels of the game’s final setting sings in harmony with images from Mary Harron’s film; recall how the ATM commands Bateman to “feed [it] a stray cat,” a narrative stunt twinned with the disintegrating Colonel’s command: “Raiden, turn the game console off right now!”

From American Psycho (2000, dir: Mary Harron)
Metal Gear Solid 2 Was A Twisted Experiment In Mind Control ...
From Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001, dir: Hideo Kojima)

A decade on, I spent a late summer night unwinding the denouement of another Hideo Kojima game. I recently gave Death Stranding the highest plaudits for its mechanical and social experience, but in particular demoted the weight I gave to the narrative it told. This was a take steeped in the particular moment in the game where I wrote that piece. At midpoint, the breadth of the game’s mechanisms had emerged into full view, a sumptuous passage of movement in an environment of astounding natural beauty which left me so inspired as to write that earlier note.

But naturally, as the game concluded, the quickening beats of the story took priority and the mechanical experience ebbed away. A notable manifestation of this shift is that more and more of the game takes place in the all-important internal dreamworlds known as “Beaches,” upon travel to which protagonist Sam usually forgoes all of his tools and equipment. This bows the game into a quicker pace of boss fight > story scene > boss fight > quick traversal > story scene…etc.

Might as well take the opportunity to note deep spoilers of the game’s ending from here.

In the endgame, whose beginning I pin at “Episode 9: Higgs,” the player reaches the Pacific coast in the real world, and then goes to the Beach to defeat erstwhile central villain Higgs in a fistfight, by now a directorial mainstay. (Nodding again to the Kobo Abe short story whose excerpt provides the game’s epigraph, Higgs himself calls it a fight of “stick” vs “rope.”) A dissonant lyrical mood descends afterwards as you reunite with Amelie, Sam’s sister-of-a-sort and plot MacGuffin, and move to rejoin the rest of the game’s supporting cast back east, where the story began. Rather than tie things neatly up there, however, a half-dozen more hours of twisty developments proceed, culminating in an apocalyptic scenario put to Sam and the player. The central twist is this: Amelie is in fact no sister of Sam’s, and hardly even real, but rather one of a god-like sort who supervise the mass extinctions of life on Earth.

The scientific bent of Kojima’s stories as they approach the kind of stakes typical of auteur-driven action movies is worthy of more critical attention. He grounds this high-flying millenarian narrative in a mix, peculiar to him, of anthropology, archaeology, computer science, ethics, and media studies. His characters study geological strata and the fossil record to investigate the nature of these world-threatening plot devices, or else they leverage the supernatural elements of their world, like the timeless chiral material, into computational ends. Reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, as the game takes place more and more in these internal dreamworlds, totemic items take on key narrative roles – a quipu, a dreamcatcher, a bead bracelet they use the Portuguese word miçanga to describe. Even when the mysterious messiness of the human experience is augmented by the powers of a fantastical author, it remains inextricable from the human attempt to settle a scientific order thereto, or so Kojima’s characters, many of whom are genius scientists, claim. To claw that bog of criticism down, I’ll say at the very least that the research effort that goes into fashioning all these contrivances of plot is admirable.

Again as in Inception, the game’s hero faces eternal exile in the Beach if his plan to stop the big bad, Amelie, from destroying the planet doesn’t fully catch. Sam finds Amelie in the dreamworld and she lectures him on the dignity of giving up in the face of inevitable death, an ideology she had in fact passed on to Higgs as the secret string-puller the whole game long. She offers Sam the chance to interrupt the onset of the next extinction, but warns of its latent inevitability. Sam invokes the power of love and human connection to change the mind of Amelie the god-being with a hug, at which point she agrees to delay the inevitable.

Slideshow: Death Stranding Ending Explained
Sam and Amelie on the Beach, after their world-saving hug.

The rather reductive topic on offer – gauging the point of life in the face of inevitable death being the primary issue between the heroes and villains of this tale – is made better with the focus on the interaction of technology and identity in this world. The reveal that Amelie never really existed is compelling, as is the further explanation of her corporeal and non-corporeal existences, and why they present differently. Diegetically, most of the interactions with other characters are done via hologram communication, the facility whereof lets linger the constant question: to what extent are the game’s most apparently physical interactions even real?

The ultimate exploration, though, deals with Sam himself, as the mysterious tar-soaked man known as Cliff, who stalks Sam for most of the game, is eventually revealed to be Sam’s father. In his own life, Cliff was an army officer deployed to Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Another character, Die-Hardman, fought under him, and their mutual story’s end mines the rich vein of military relationships that Kojima crafted throughout the Metal Gear Solid series (and capitalized upon in The Phantom Pain). Watchful players could have guessed there was some familial relationship between Sam and Cliff much earlier in the game, but well-controlled direction and narrative sleight of hand work to obscure the exact nature of their bond until the very end.

After the credits roll, and the world is set to peace once more, the game concludes by unraveling a final knot of identity, that of the baby Sam carried on his body the whole time. BB-28, as the scientists refer to it, functions for Sam as a replacement for the child he lost in an accident, which is why he instead calls it Lou. Contrary to the game’s hints, BB-28 was not Cliff’s child, but rather a random baby meant for courier service.

In the course of Sam’s meeting with Amelie in the dreamworld, BB-28 died, and the government reserves for the reincorporated Sam the task of incinerating it. The trek to the incinerator, a repeat of one of the game’s earliest missions, is a soaring spectacle full of light and music. The camera pulls back and up as the player moves through a terrain rendered by the experience of 40 hours intimately familiar. Sam undergoes a set of visions at the incinerator which reveal to him the above mentioned truths about his own origins, and he decides to defy the government order and free the baby from its amniotic chamber. After bringing Lou back to life, Sam concludes the game by walking outside amid a rainstorm, framed by a rainbow.

BB-28 | Death Stranding Wiki | Fandom
The game’s final shot, with Sam and (halfway) newborn daughter Lou.

Most things in my life have changed in the decade that’s passed between my playing Metal Gear Solid 2 and Death Stranding. What hasn’t is the appreciation I have for the messy ends given to these games, which, even in their jargon-fueled haze and all-too-encompassing scope, manage to say something capacious and groundbreaking about the experience of our times.

“Death Stranding” and Being Hideo Kojima

As far as I can tell, legendary game designer Hideo Kojima spent all of his childhood, and then most of his following early adulthood, in Japan. He was born in Tokyo, but his father moved the family around for work and so he grew up first in Osaka and then in the smaller city of Kawanishi. When he broke into games, as a young employee at Konami, they were still headquartered in Osaka, a marker of the extent to which Japanese gamemaking remained at that time a provincial sport.

But when at 24 he was asked to take over the design of Metal Gear, he consciously refashioned a bumbling project for the MSX computer into an homage to classic American films like The Great Escape. Thus protagonist Solid Snake begins the mission as a soldier of the nebulous Western governments that want to thwart the activities in Outer Heaven. America and its cities, its ethos, its myths, and its governments, both their outward projection and their shadowier cabals, would go on to pervade the games for which he would become the most famous – the Metal Gear Solid series, and, as well, last year’s genre-defying Death Stranding.

Indeed, Death Stranding is so peculiar in its fixation on America as to attract curious observation. The game’s bizarre setting pre-requires a model of American political-cultural economy as hegemonic and insuperable.

Trappings of American imperial myth – the absolute indispensability of the American presidency, of even the Oval Office, of the flag and its icons – are critical story elements. A kind of repeat Western expansion and integration, the hallmark political project of the 19th century American state, provides the main narrative thrust of the game. Its protagonist, Sam, is archetypically an American hero – brooding, individualistic, possessed of an unweening sense of duty.

It even manages to fold in something of the fringe millenarianism and doomsday cult that is so important towards understanding and reifying contemporary and past American culture – the preppers, descendants of vindicated survivalists, the types to buy hollowed out missile siloes in the Montanan plains, are key characters in the game’s third chapter.

Death Stranding - How To Recycle Cargo On Reverse Trike (Bike) For ...
A campaign-style pop-up with the face of Death Stranding‘s fictional President Bridget Strand, accompanied by a little trumpet stinger, appears every time you recycle unneeded materials at a station, a common task.

What does this focus impart to the game, and our attempts to understand it? Among its offspring, I find it tickling curious to be treated by a non-American author in a way many American authors have treated foreign cultures – at heart, Death Stranding takes an essentializing, Occidentalizing approach to painting its American setting. In the same way that Rockstar Studio’s open world games (like Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto) compactify and heighten the appearance of the territories they simulate, Kojima heightens the variation within America – its geography, its people, and its state – to tell his story of overcoming an apocalypse not through technological ingenuity, but instead by the dogged, human insistence to keep putting one foot ahead of the other.

In working to tell a universal story of human connection, it is natural that he had to remove himself as capably as possible from the confines of the setting in which it takes place – put differently, I doubt he could have set Death Stranding in Japan. His coat would have caught on too many hooks.

Structurally, the interplay between mechanics and setting in Death Stranding represents a serious break from a previous model Kojima had adhered to in developing the Metal Gear games, all the way up through The Phantom Pain.

When we consider not merely the statics of the relationship between mechanics and setting – how at any one point in the game one informs the other and vice versa – but also the dynamics of that relationship, how the relative importance of each waxes and wanes over the course of the game, we remark firstly that the previous model, exemplified by the core Metal Gear games, begins by dropping the player-character into relatively banal circumstances.

As Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid, you arrive at a snow covered military base to investigate terrorist kidnappings – as Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2, you SCUBA up to an oil derrick to kick out some terrorists holed up there – as Naked Snake in Metal Gear Solid 3, you parachute into Russia to pick up a defecting scientist.

Only after an hour or so’s gameplay passing, and then all at once, does Kojima pull back the curtain and usher the player-character into the labyrinth of his kooky larger story. So once firmly ensconced in the Shadow Moses facility, Solid Snake sees the head of the terrorists revealed to be his twin. Likewise, after becoming firmly acquainted with the main stage of the game, the Big Shell, Raiden encounters a deathless guerrilla and a vampire (of course, things really go off the rails, narratively speaking, much later in the game – I wish I had written this entire thing about Metal Gear Solid 2 – but let the attached video suffice). Naked Snake likewise loses the defector to his mentor, The Boss, who is working in conjunction with the (literally cloaked) Patriots, and a nuclear attack on the lab he’s just escaped from sparks an international incident.

While the story unfolds, little in the way of mechanical progression is on offer. You start the game with essentially the full repertoire of verbs, equipment, and abilities that you will end the game with; the most common exception is the sniper rifle you get in the mid-game to fight a particular boss of MGS, MGS2, and MGS3.

This dynamic relationship offers an easy way to understand the statics of those games at any later point in the course of those games – the experience is basically a constant function of the mechanics, since there is little progression, and varies directly as the setting, namely the story, changes. (To caveat that point, there may remain a kind of virtual progression as the player acclimates to the complexity of the mechanics and attains a mastery in controlling the player-character in the setting, but this is to be distinguished from a pattern of true mechanical progression wherein new verbs are appended to the stack of possible actions.)

Death Stranding reverses this scheme. Within twenty minutes, Sam and the player are submerged in the full wackiness of Kojima’s post-apocalyptic world; before the first mission, a “void-out” has occurred, Sam has died, and the player must return to the world through the Seam, the game’s “afterlife”. By the start of the second mission, it’s revealed that the president of America (“the first and last woman president,” expositive informant Die-Hardman says, at which you have to chuckle) is Sam’s mother, that Sam’s sister is trapped by terrorists somewhere in San Diego, and that in order to prevent another void-out, Sam must incinerate his mother-president’s corpse at a mountaintop a kilometer away or so.

Mechanically, however, you start with the rudiments. I’m still in awe of the opening to Assassin’s Creed 2, where the player witnesses the birth of protagonist Ezio and then learns the control scheme by moving the baby Ezio’s arms and legs.

The opening to Death Stranding isn’t far off from that scale of adroitness. You can move Sam, squeeze the triggers to hold his pack as you take hard turns, and pick some stuff up, but that’s about it. But really rapidly, the game starts to open new avenues of interaction – the “PCC,” the device that lets you build permanent structures, comes next, as does, in time, the first use of a vehicle, the trike. Then you get some exoskeletons, the ability to make more structures, road-building. Soon enough, even the game’s terrifying enemies, the “BTs,” can be dispatched. Then guns show up, non-lethal and lethal, and you can get bigger vehicles – trucks and long-range versions of trikes. Ziplines, floating carriers, fast travel; the scale of mechanical interaction is massive.

But Kojima massages that massive scale into the game’s firmament with the grace of a pastry chef, and so the entrance of a new verb is exciting, a gratifying rush in the player’s experience. Few games I’ve played achieve the exact feeling of mechanical progression Death Stranding pulls off.

The magic, then, comes as the progression of Sam’s expanding mechanical powers matches the setting’s drive to persuade the player of the stakes of Sam’s larger narrative mission. As you get the ability to hurtle a truckload of cargo over dangerous terrain at high speed, safe on roads you built, you get the sense for the gains to society from having capable people like Sam around. In a funny way, the detective story component of the narrative is the junior partner in the larger setting – I want to know what’s “really” going on in the world, sure, but I also just want to make sure that next big city gets connected to the network. I want Sam to make the terrifying world of post-apocalyptic America safer for the Americans who still have to inhabit it.

Death Stranding Player Designs Custom Drive | Game Rant
Sam, Death Stranding‘s protagonist, atop snowcapped mountains.

Without reservation, I can say already, near the game’s mid-point, that playing Death Stranding has been one of my favorite experiences in gaming. The gamble Kojima took to make that structural inversion detailed above pays off in a rich sense of progression, which comes around in the midgame to offer truly serendipitous, emergent gameplay, the likes of which have been only pipe dreams in some of the industry’s most soaring minds.

That critical ingredient in creating that emergent gameplay occurs along a mechanical avenue distinct from the player-movement/verb system elaborated above. That avenue is the game’s multiplayer/social system, which consists largely of tools and structures other players leave behind, purposefully and otherwise, that appear in your world. I should say that this system has surprised me in how core it has been to the gameplay.

Death Stranding Multiplayer - Lost Cargo, Signs, Likes, Structures
A screen from the “Bridge Links” menu, part of the game’s multiplayer/social system.

Without the other cohort of players involved in your world (and bracketing out several cohorts does appear to be how the game works in a netcode sense – the entire past and present player base of Death Stranding does not cointeract), there would be no feasible way to build the road network which makes such hay of getting between the game’s farflung locations. There would likewise be no way of spanning unleapable ravines or of descending steep canyonfaces, which the game so often asks you to do. And while the player cherishes those purposeful interactions, rewarding your thoughtful forebears with hundreds of likes, there’s something to the accidental crossings – where one player’s dropped item ends up being just what you need in a tight spot – that transcends.

As a case in point: late in the third chapter, Sam is tasked with disposing of a nuke under a strict (real world) time limit. Thoughtfully, the game has primed the player for missions done under time limits, so the new restriction does not jar oddly. Also by this point, the game has offered to the player a range of movement options – sturdy, spacious cargo trucks, floating carriers which relieve the burden on Sam’s back, agile trikes – and so the player sets off for the disposal site, a tar pit, at a quick clip.

In my game, I had recently extended the road network south of the departure point, which made the first few minutes of the mission trivial; but in a rush to get through the chapter’s story, I had stopped the network there, and so ran into some rocky terrain and impassable rivers after too long. The truck performed admirably, to a point; and when a misjudged fall off some rocks took Sam and the truck to the bottom of a cliff, I thought I’d have to restart. The timer was running below ten minutes at that point – Sam had actually died in the fall and I’d had to do the “afterlife” gameplay to get back to where I was in the world – and the truck was wedged in a cacophony of rockfaces, like a Dodge Hemi beached at the Giant’s Causeway.

The real-life Giant’s Causeway. Basaltic column formations abound in Death Stranding‘s environment – I suppose it is the most evocative of geological features.

Sam rose to his feet, and we got down to the remains of the truck and recovered the cargo. I deployed both of Sam’s trusty floating carriers, a true “delighter,” and set off to hit the objective point by mere pedal power. It was still far to go, and the game offered no immediate recovery, so I figured there would be some clambering struggle before an ignominious (read: a mission restart) end. Cresting a cliff in my course, nearly having lost both the carriers, I – and Sam – panned the camera around. Miraculously, another player’s abandoned trike came into view, perched pleasantly, as if in anticipation of my coming by. Relief rolled over me like a wave. Kojima’s grand social plan came true, and I set my cargo on the heaven-sent trike and hit the objective easily.

It’s never been easier for me to comment on the scope of a creative’s work than with Kojima, as, after following his twenty-one years of work since the publication of Metal Gear Solid, the recurrences are clear. Popular press publications had a field day of his social-system-based push in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to present a message of nuclear disarmament; take it then as unsurprising that a story current in Death Stranding offers a way to experience the horrors of nuclear armament that far exceeds Phantom Pain‘s efforts. He may moreover be the game designer most conscious of the thematic role pregnancy can play in a game’s story; Death Stranding makes sexuality, and its changes relative to the world before and during the apocalypse which sets the game in motion, an acknowledged, if not necessarily core, element of its presentation (Mama’s pregnancy is an acute storytelling device, like the nuke in the third chapter, which serves Kojima’s aims precisely).

These themes, which, aside from Kojima’s presentation, can be observed all over modern Japan, shine through more acutely in Death Stranding than in his previous works. This I attribute to the way Death Stranding disposes of the action-movie conceit which motivated the narratives of Metal Gear Solid. With this present game, as before, we are met as viewers with an expansive, creative, and challenging world-view; but as players, we must face up to the burden the game lays on Sam’s all-too-human shoulders.

My Twitch Stream of “Borderlands 3”

Hi all,

I’ve started streaming on Twitch – check me out here

Planning on streaming a big campaign of Death Stranding in a couple of days, and still working through Red Dead Redemption 2.

The inimitable Tim Rogers’ review went a long way towards convincing me it’d be fun to try it out.

On the multiplayer front, think I’ll be streaming some Borderlands 3, some Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, especially Warzone.

Speaking of which, the news of a streamer getting 37 kills in a Warzone match was really something:

You can find my first real stream, of Borderlands, below. Watch this space!

Quests and Narrative Progression in “Borderlands 3” and Other Looter-Shooters

Finished some longrunning content this week – took down Borderlands 3 and Luigi’s Mansion 3. I have my gripes about both games, but will confine my remarks here to the former.

Borderlands, as a series, is far more story-driven than I’d realized going in, a tendency which feels at odds with the gameplay structure. As I was streaming one of the missions late in the game, on the Eridian homeworld, the game urged me of a sudden back to Sanctuary to hear the Greek chorus of NPCs blather on before sending me back to Pandora, for the game’s final mission. Stiff models of the main characters, which I as a (quasi-)series newbie had neither familiarity with nor great affection for, delivered lines about the galactic goings-on just ahead of us, fully on display, while my avatar (hollow as that word is), Amara, stood, her weapon held up in front of her, obstructing my view.

This description is given to point out an instance of what I believe to be a ludonarrative dissonance emergent in the structure of Borderlands 3, which others among its genre – what I’ll generally call looter-shooters, though varying amounts of looting and shooting obtain among them – sidestep, tacitly or otherwise. In Destiny or in Diablo, quest-givers and story-critical characters are rather quicker in saying what they need to and getting out of the player-character’s way. This decision privileges the continuation of the all-important gameplay loop: the deployment of new skills and weapons on the world-objects, the flash of ever more spectacular particle effects on-screen, the recoupment of yet newer skills and abilities, and lastly the shift in environmental location, that the loop might recur with a new skin grafted atop it. This loop has long been held as the defining feature of the looter-shooter (in other parlance some writers speak of Skinner box game design).

If embedded in that loop of a gameplay structure we recognize two principal skeins, by which I mean the components the developers create and manipulate to achieve their artistic goals, we can best identify those as the mechanical skein and the setting skein. Skeins themselves are comprised of formal elements, like story, narrative, characterization, gamefeel, progression, empowerment, environment (in all its forms), etc., but all formal elements belong to one skein or the other, and not to both.

In that language, we can see that the approach taken by Destiny and Diablo is to jettison story as a formal element of setting and install mechanical player-character progression as the primary formal element within the gameplay structure.

We know moreover that there is magic in the overlapping interaction of the two skeins, and it may in fact be the case that looter-shooters, constitutionally, fail to apprehend any of that magic. For the loop, which drives progression, is massively sensitive to interruption – this is why a common lament of looter-shooters involves menu design and inventory management, for these are necessary parts of the game which are also necessarily outside of the loop (this is moreover why the console port of Diablo 3 received such high plaudits – it solved, or came close enough anyway to solving, a previously intractable problem).

Decades of advance in game development have yielded little fruit in another area which has tended to exist outside of the loop – the tools of story presentation have long been stagnant, and each implementation today is little more than a variation on another. Schematically, the structure of looter-shooter stories goes as follows: To advance the story, players undertake quests comprised of objectives, upon whose conclusion players must return to quest-givers and receive quest updates, a step without which progression – and the loop – cannot be restarted, as exploration is halted. These quest-givers then deliver the story update via speech, either in monologue or dialogue, whose result is the assignment of new quest-objectives.

Precisely here is where the rub lies. Quest updates in Borderlands 3 are given by actors behind a proscenium arch, an effect created by both the persistent 1st-person perspective and the silence of the player character. These updates have a very wooden feel – within the arena-environment, the part of the game world where the mechanics are acted out, technological limits severely constrain the possibilities for artful character blocking, interaction, or drama. Borderlands, as a series, has always sought to alleviate this uncanniness and forestall player disengagement with witty writing, as a radio program or talk show might. These efforts, it should be said, are often successful, especially when paired with dense, creative environmental design; but it is also the case that not all attempts of this breed can be successful, and more likely that at least a plurality of attempts will fail to rouse a laugh in the player, precisely because so much of the wit relies on timing, and updates are entered into with no precise rhythm, only on the whim of the player-character.

Waiting for Ma to provide the update in the quest “The Homestead,” late in the course of Borderlands 3.

As some of the wit must fall flat, there is now a guarantee baked into the game design that the player will be bored during updates and that as a consequence, the loop will be interrupted and progression will suffer. Borderlands is and has been a successful game not because of the interaction between its two skeins but rather in spite of it, as the highs of the mechanical experience are sufficiently lofty to compensate for the doldrums of the story-setting.

What’s most peculiar about this outcome is that the tools chosen for story delivery in Borderlands are easily seen to be, a priori, the least intrusive means of interrupting the gameplay loop. In particular, the persistent en vivo perspective within the arena-environment requires no shift in player identification or user interface to complete the necessary agenda of the story update. The player-character may still take advantage of all the facets of mechanics available to them – the verbs of running, jumping, shooting, weapon switching, crouching, ability casting – even if that advantage earns less profit, owing to the local geography in which the story update takes place usually being denuded of arena-objects (take this term to mean, basically, enemies or interactable environmental components).

A player might even, according to their tastes, turn away from the quest-giver mid-update and walk away, or go and begin another quest-update. What again emerges as a problem is the precise timing of the quest-update: although player freedom within the arena-environment persists during the quest-update, that freedom is, all of a sudden, shockingly undirected. The player must wait for the end of the quest-update, when objectives are refreshed, quests are given anew, and the game world is ready to acknowledge the next player action.

Were the quest update handled slightly differently, such that the world-readiness was triggered merely at the outset of the quest update; or were it the case that quest updates involved the cashing-in of many chained objectives and the projection of many long-ranging objectives-to-be-done, this problem would be so scarcely felt that it may never have risen to attention at all. While those analog tweaks are unobservable from where we sit today we may by comparison with alternative implementations of the quest update system derive some further understanding as to the optimal arrangement of things in this our genre.

We take as our objects of analysis the other aforementioned looter-shooters, namely Destiny and Diablo, and will assess the necessary interruptions in their loops in turn. The Diablo quest system is aided by relatively larger environments in which the first part of progress is always exploration – note the expanding of the lit areas of the map, the expulsion of the fog of war which has been so long a mainstay of that game’s play. This means that individual objectives may be sustained over many loop cycles, with returns to quest-givers only needed after a long period. This, as conjectured above, would probably serve to ameliorate the thorny annoyance of the radio program model we took a look at in Borderlands, had that been the model taken up by Diablo‘s creators.

New Tristram, early in Diablo 3, serves as the major area where players interact with quest-givers.

It was, however, not, and instead they implemented a design for quest updates which I analogize to the reading of a book. What’s notable about Diablo is that despite its position as the genre-progenitor – recall the first entry appeared in 1997 – relatively little about its design has changed to today. Tool invention, the basis of the implementation of formal elements, then was tightly bound by the technological frontier – the fog of war effect alleviated the burdens placed on already taxed GPUs, while text-box based character interaction was merely paradigmatic. They stumbled, happily, on a winning formula amid those strictures, and have needed not to change it since.

Indeed by Diablo‘s reckoning, the proper relationship of story to setting (and, transitorily, of the story to the mechanics) is akin to an iceberg. A certain sum floats above the water and must obligatorily impressed upon the player. Otherwise, the game runs the risk of substituting for the long-term purposive fuel of narrative the chained short-term highs of the mechanical loop (this is a problem not unfamiliar to bank executives and financial regulators). This obligatory story content, however, need not come exclusively through the quest-giver’s diegetic speech-updates, and keen developers will be quick to realize this.

To that end, then, Diablo puts the whole of the story in its quest updates, but also lets the player set his own pace in dismissing the update and continuing with the loop. A critical tool here is the way the quest update alters the player perspective: it pulls focus, halting the verb-expression of the player and opening a new, segregated mode of the game world. Instead of allowing the natural rhythm of the loop to die its own death while the quest-giver delivers an update, the use of the segregated mode severs the player’s connection to the loop and to the arena-environment in which it takes place. One can dismiss the segregated mode nearly as quickly as it appears and rejoin the arena-environment; but in this way, and through thoughtful, punchy writing, Diablo can shake the player loose of his mechanical loop-delirium, deliver the modicum of story needed, and spit the player out once more to fulfill the story’s next objectives.

To its credit, Destiny, too, makes use of the segregated mode, albeit with changes sufficiently large to obtain different effects upon the play-experience. Destiny‘s implementation I analogize to a ticket-counter at an arcade. Bungie, the series’ developer, has chosen to elevate the quest-giver from being merely a tool of story into a hybrid form, setting into motion the formal elements of both the mechanical and setting skeins. By this I refer to the cashing-in of both quest-objectives and incidental bounties, where loot generation – critical within the loop mechanism – is handled also in large part by the quest-giver. The length of time needed for this cashing-in is non-negligible, an important component of the feedback system which makes Destiny such a tactile experience.

An example of a ticket counter interaction in Destiny 2, this one featuring the quest-giver Ana Bray.

To account for this, the quest updates are not text-skippable as in the book model but instead closer to Borderlands‘ voiced-diegetic implementation. The saving grace, then, comes in the freedom of the player to exit the segregated mode, halt the speech of the quest-giver, and continue on anyway with the new quest’s objectives.

What this choice brings about is a relocation of the story-delivery from the stationary, active quest-giver to a moving, passive accrual within the arena-environment in the course of the quest. This is the motivation behind the Ghost character as well – in a system where more story is to be delivered on foot (as it were), the presence of a character capable of providing story everywhere the player goes is needed. Think instead of how much sillier the presentation might seem with quest-givers and other NPCs not actually present with the player reacting to the movements and deeds of the player, environment, and arena-objects.

Because the quest-givers’ role is more as mechanical figure than story-deliverer, the focus pull upon player interaction does not, as in Diablo, succeed in impressing upon the player the critical story. It is then the case that the “distant delivery” is the only way players obtain narrative justification for their actions. Because these distant deliveries take place as the player is navigating the arena-environment, the guarantee of any one component of story being impressed upon the player is never achieved. This is an uncanny balance, which does not resolve neatly, and may provide for the player an incomplete experience.

I hold the quest-update as the most interesting and critical locus of looter-shooters as a genre, as it’s only here that the long-proven model of the loop is forced to stop. How a developer chooses to implement narrative progress amid the player-driven mechanical progress is key towards putting together a consistent, engaging experience. Diablo, in its earliest incarnation, may have hit precisely upon that magic I described earlier as occurring in the intersection of the two skeins of formal tools, the mechanical and the setting, as can frequently happen when the right idea, the best people, and just enough technological limitations come together. Destiny forgoes really nailing the quest update system in favor of a loftier environmental experience, and I think this focus serves the game well. Verticality, which Destiny knows how to do, is often the mot juste for transcending the mechanical-setting divide. And there’s something transcendent as well about the dogged fervor of Borderlands‘ loop, the ribald creativity and range of the mechanical experience, the vivid characterization of player and arena-objects, bordering on caricaturization. The radio show, the book, the ticket counter – all three in their own way avenues to stand athwart the looping player and yell, “Stop!”