Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Being Ender: A Shattered Horizon

Or, How PC Gaming Ruined Ender's Game For Me

I keep Ender's Game as a 'nightstand book,' always at the ready for me to open and flip through in a moment of boredom. Anytime I can't sleep or just have some idle time, I'll flip open the book and read a bit. It's a classic story and I guess I'm hoping some of that will rub off on me. But I find it harder and harder to accept Ender's tactics in the game as particularly brilliant. Card details his conception of the Battle Room in the author's foreword, and while I admit that the idea is sound, Ender's innovations hardly seem revelatory. Ender is heralded as the prodigy and savior, a genius amongst geniuses. And the Battle School students are supposed to be the smartest, cleverest, most cunning children the world has to offer, yet the behaviors they are shown perpetuating before Ender shakes things up are appallingly senseless. I'm no genius, but I feel that any person with a spark of intelligence could come to the conclusions Ender does about null-g combat. I know because I also happen to have some experience in null-g space infantry combat, thanks to a little game called Shattered Horizon, and I can attest that many of Ender's great ideas are readily apparent to even the average player once they step into their first match.

For those that aren't familiar with the novel, Ender's Game revolves around the Battle School, a space station that trains child prodigies in the basics of commanding interstellar space combat – sort of a West Point elementary school of the future. The training centers around the Battle Room, a gravity-less arena where teams of students square off in matches of high-tech laser tag. The arenas are cubical/rectangular in shape, with handholds on the walls, and fixed cubical obstacles known as 'stars' arranged in random, symmetrical patterns. Players can only move by pushing off walls, stars or other players – they don't have jetpacks or other sources of thrust – and shoot light beams at the enemy to 'freeze' them. The volume of the area is never stated but it is implied to be at least a hundred meters a side, if not quite a bit longer. Ender, the titular hero of the novel, is heralded as a tactical genius due to his perfect winning streak and his supposedly astounding insights into the game.

Now, Mr. Card didn't have the benefit of modern computer games when he envisioned the Battle Room as a training aid, I'll give him that. But I find it hard to believe that no one else in the history of Battle School (which in the novel has apparently been operating for decades) ever figured out some of the things that Ender does, because they're almost painfully obvious to anyone who plays computer games. One game in particular, the ambitious multiplayer space FPS Shattered Horizon by Futuremark Studios that pits opposing forces of rifle-toting, jetpack-equipped astronauts against each other in outer space, stands out as a shining example of Battle Room style combat, thus demonstrating how preposterous it is to believe that Ender was the first student to realize the things he did.

Ender's greatest supposedly astounding insight into zero-g combat is that gravity-based up-down orientation is useless in zero-g – orientation is arbitrary. And perhaps slightly more importantly, that people still need to have some sort of orientation, so for convenience's sake, you might as well orient yourself meaningfully relative to the objective: "the enemy's gate is down".  While all the other players fight in the arena as if they're moving forwards towards the enemy's gate, persisting in maintaining a strict up-down floor-ceiling orientation, Ender realigns himself as if he were falling down towards the enemy's gate. The novel describes this as an immensely clever insight that serves as the basis for his later improvisations, but for anyone who tries out Shattered Horizon, the futility of maintaining an absolute notion of floor and ceiling is made apparent rather quickly. Players can easily rotate along any axis, as well as 'land' on any surface amidst the floating rubble. The first time a SH player flips over and adroitly alights on an asteroid that a moment ago was floating above her head, thus shifting her entire perspective, she must wonder how the Battle School students ever managed to maintain a strict up-down orientation at all during the heat of combat. As for the second part of Ender's realization, load up one of the open SH maps that doesn't have one large central mass to orient yourself to, especially the one set in a long row of asteroids with spawn points at each end. For me at least, the sensation of falling 'down' the asteroid belt toward the enemy's spawn point as I fire my forward thrusters is almost palpable purely through visual cues, even when in reality I am still firmly planted to my chair due to gravity. Since players can rotate any which way, it's almost inevitable to imagine that one is falling, tumbling end-over-end or spinning round and round or what have you, moving down towards the objective. After a few rounds of Shattered Horizon, Ender's game-changing idea seems like common sense. How did the hundreds of other child geniuses before Ender fail to recognize these simple, almost intuitive ideas?

Sidenote: Nexus: The Jupiter Incident, a space RTS, also captures this disorientation well. Unlike other space RTS games which artificially constrain the map and hence the units with set axes for up, down, etc., such as Homeworld, all the movement of ships in Nexus takes place relative to other ships, or landmarks such as asteroids. Due to the free camera controls, the visceral sensation of falling is not present, but the player is still forced to make an arbitrary orientation for herself, that is easily reset whenever she switches focus to a different ship. In fact, one can imagine that the simulators at the end of the Ender's Game novel played very similarly to Nexus.

Ender's other 'brilliant' ideas also seem like common sense to the modern gamer. Anyone who's ever rushed the bomb site as a terrorist in Counter-Strike knows that if disabling all your opponents is not a victory condition, you certainly needn't bother yourself disabling all of your opponents, and that it's sometimes even tactically prudent to avoid fighting them at all. And teamwork-oriented players of any of the latest Battlefield games and joined a squad can attest to the effectiveness of working as small autonomous groups, each independently pursuing victory, as opposed to the logistical nightmare of trying to coordinate an unwieldy formation of thirty or more players. Ender is meant to be a god-figure in some regard - we're not supposed to sympathize with him fully. He is held up as a prodigious intellect, someone who is quite literally super-human. But when his miracles seem so trivial, so common sense to a modern-day gamer, it strips away some of the magic and awe. (And I am not tactically gifted by any stretch of the imagination... I play Total War: Shogun 2 on *gasp* normal difficulty... but that's for another post)

That being said, I really love Ender's Game. I feel that it's one of those novels any self-proclaimed geek has to read – it's a rite of passage into geekhood, if you will. As I mentioned before, Card didn't have the benefit of these modern games to shape his idea of the Battle Room, and while these games may have slightly dulled the impact of Ender's brilliance for me, the novel is still a wonderful story. If I may, however, I'll close by offering some humble ideas to improve the Battle Room as a training simulation, since, as Card declares, "something like it will certainly be used for training if ever there is a manned military in space":

1. Make the Battle Rooms spherical. The reason given for other students' adherence to the 'old ways' of up and down is because the Battle Room itself is shaped like a traditional room, with four walls and a top and bottom. Space doesn't have walls at all, so why not use a perfectly-symmetrical sphere? A sphere doesn't lend itself to any orientation, and isn't the purpose of the game to teach students to be able to lead attacks free from any given orientation? The 'stars' should be spheres as well, since most planetary bodies such as suns and planets are also spherical, not cubical. Yes, a sphere means a lot of wasted space if you're imagining the arenas as stacked together, but I urge you to read the novel for further insight into that problem – suffice to say, it's probably not an issue.

2. Give every player a hook. In the novel, teachers and army commanders (during training) can make use of a tool called a hook that allows them to move around the arena at will, using what appears to be either magnetism or gravity manipulation (the answer is revealed in the novel but I'm avoiding spoilers here), very similarly to how Shattered Horizon equips players with jetpacks that can provide thrust in any direction. In the novel, during games, players can only move by pushing off walls or stars. This is not analogous to actual starship piloting at all: there are no walls in space, and spaceships have engines that allow them to move under their own power. Giving every player a hook would simulate spaceship combat more accurately. If the teachers do want students to learn to deal with drift, it shouldn't be hard to simply alter the game mechanics so that 'damaged' but active soldiers lose the use of their hooks, leaving them to drift just as a spaceship would after losing its engines.

3. Give every player a headset, and install some sort of software that enables a hierarchical radio net, similar to – continuing the comparisons to modern-day software  –  Teamspeak or Ventrilo with their multiple channels. In Ender's Game, all communication is done via shouted commands on the field. This is another unrealistic and impractical aspect of the game that is easily solvable with current technology. Again, concessions such as radio jamming and spying on enemy communications are easily simulated via modifications to the game.

Random aside:

I'll admit, I read the parallel novel Ender's Shadow before I read Ender's Game when I picked it up off the new arrivals section at my local library back in seventh grade, though I had heard of the original novel.  I still find Shadow to be the stronger, more adult novel, and Bean to be the more interesting character, though I appreciate Game for its unabashed Campbellian Hero's Journey mythic structure and it's more emotional-driven human drama.

In fact, maybe that's how this Ender-bashing started for me – in his parallel novel, Bean is shown to be the superior tactician, and his book does a very good job demonstrating this by allowing the reader to glimpse what's going on between Bean's ears. Like a good detective novel, it allows the reader to get in on the problem at hand, and the solutions are clearly explained in a logical way (a trait that unfortunately fades away in the successive Shadow novels). Going from Shadow to Game, Ender's "brilliant" deductions seem a little blunted in comparison.

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