Non-Digital: Murder in Helsinki

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(Photo from Tonnin stiflat by Tuomas Puikkonen)

Tonnin stiflat is a Finnish larp campaign played in Helsinki in 2014. Consisting of three games, it was organized by the veteran city game designers Niina Niskanen and Simo Järvelä.

The setting is Helsinki in the year 1927, and the subject matter crime, prohibition, working class life and the violent legacy of the civil war. The characters were bootleggers and policemen, struggling artists and their sybaritic patrons.

Niskanen and Järvelä have edited and published a documentation book about the larps in English. It’s downloadable here, for free, and definitely worth a look.

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(Photo from Tonnin stiflat by Tuomas Puikkonen)

The book is especially welcome as Finnish larp has traditionally been something of a poor cousin in the milieu of Nordic larp. There have been interesting games aplenty, but documentation has been scarce and Nordic attention usually limited to the games that Finnish writers have pushed the hardest, like Ground Zero.

City games played in an open urban environment have traditionally been a Finnish strong suit, and Niskanen and Järvelä are masters of this form. It’s especially nice to see this type of game documented in book form and in English, as the games that tend to receive this treatment are usually one-weekend affair played in a closed environment, such as Kapo and Mad About the Boy.

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(Photo from Tonnin stiflat by Tuomas Puikkonen)

Tonnin stiflat (the title is an expression for very expensive shoes in the traditional Helsinki slang) benefits greatly from the fact that it’s been documented by the Finnish larp photographer Tuomas Puikkonen. His photos are all over the book, and you can see the full set here.

There are many good larp photographers in the Nordic countries, but Puikkonen distinguishes himself by his ability to be in the moment and capture the subjective feeling of the player.

The only real complaint that I have for this book is that it’s so short. I could’ve read more about this stuff.

Research Blog Antarctica #136 – Blood and Ice

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Novel: Robert Masello: Blood and Ice (Bantam, 2009)

In one sense, Blood and Ice is a great Antarctic book. It’s clearly well researched, full of traditional modern Antarctic detail. Reading this, it feels like the author has gone through all the same books I have.

It’s the story of nature photographer Michael Wilde, who goes on assignment to an American base on Antarctica. While there, he discovers a slab of ice in which two British vampires have been preserved since the Crimean War. Indeed, Victorian England and Crimea are almost as important for the book as Antarctica.

Despite the vampire theme, the book proceeds in a very staid, detail-oriented fashion. The two lovers thawed from ice, the soldier Sinclair and the nurse Eleanor, are people, not monsters. The book’s idea of vampirism is almost like a medical condition, as befits its essentially rational worldview.

Despite its research and subject matter, there’s something in Blood and Ice that just fails to click. Near the end, the story is crumpled into less than the sum of its parts. The characters have been drawn according to the most rote, cliched understanding of humanity as seen in American popular entertainment.

Pikseliparatiisi: Täydellinen pelikokemus alle tunnissa

Kun aloitin videopeliohjelma Tiltin tuottajana vuonna 2009, pelimarkkinoilla oli selkeät suuret linjat: Konsoleissa oli tulevaisuus. Mobiilipelit olivat tulossa, mutta kuitenkin vielä epävarmaa puuhastelua. Pelistudiot tekivät pelejä, ja julkaisijat julkaisivat niitä.

Toki kuvio oli silloinkin monimutkaisempi, mutta kun Tilttiin haalittiin aineistoa viikon peliarvosteluihin, tilanne näytti tältä.

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(Pelissä Freshman Year tsekataan viestejä melkein yhtä usein kuin tosielämässä.)

Sittemmin pelimaailma on elänyt ja muuttunut hurjaa vauhtia. Älypuhelimet ja tabletit valtasivat oman osansa, PC on tehnyt alustana vahvan comebackin Kickstarterin ja erilaisten indiepelien myötä ja konsolit hakevat paikkaansa muuttuvassa maailmassa.

Yksi uuden maailmanjärjestyksen ilahduttavista piirteistä on se, että selaimessa pelattavia lyhyitä tarinapelejä tuntuu olevan yhä enemmän, ja ne ovat yhä parempia. Tänä päivänä tällainen peli voi olla vartissa ohi, mutta sisällöllisesti silti kilpailukykyinen minkä tahansa pidemmän julkaisun kanssa. Entisajan rosoisten Flash-pelien sijaan meillä on viimeisteltyjä, toimivia ja omaperäisiä teoksia.

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(The Mysterious Shadows of Skullshadow Island on huumoripeli, joka saa odottamattomia syvyyksiä kirjoituksensa tason ansiosta.)

Tältä keväältä on kolme hyvää esimerkkiä, The Mysterious Shadows of Skullshadow Island, The Writer Will Do Something sekä Freshman Year.

The Mysterious Shadows of Skullshadow Island on parodia entisaikojen poikaseikkailuista, joissa neuvokkaat ja nokkelat nuoret ratkaisevat rikoksia, mysteerejä tai muuta kummallista. Se on julkaistu The Onion -parodiasivuston sisarsaitilla The Clickhole, mutta nousee rutiininomaisen nettijutun yläpuolelle omituisen ilmapiirinsä vuoksi.

Pelisuunnittelija Nina Freemanin Freshman Year on peli, jossa lähdetään baariin kaverin kanssa. Se on yksinkertainen, elämänmakuinen ja tavoittaa hyvin puhelimen ja hermostumisen suhteen.

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(The Writer Will Do Something on käytännössä dokumentaarinen peli.)

Elokuvantekijät tekevät elokuvia elokuvien tekemisestä, joten miksipä sama ei sopisi myös pelisuunnittelijoille. Matthew S. Burnsin The Writer Will Do Something on kuvaa kokousta ison pelijulkaisun käsikirjoittajan näkökulmasta. Siinä on ohut satiirin pintakerros, mutta oikeastaan peli tuntuu täysin autenttiselta otokselta siitä, miten pelejä tehdään.

Non-Digital: Better Dead Than Red

I wrote this article for the now defunct roleplaying magazine Playground. It went under before this got published, so here it is. If you want to read old issues of Playground, they’re all here.

Better Dead Than Red

Playing the right-wing roleplaying game The Price of Freedom.

The Communist party elite is scrambling away in panic. There has been a huge explosion on the stage, shredding the traitor Jack Reed’s body into pieces. The players have a short discussion whether firing a rocket launcher into the crowd is justified.

It goes something like this:

“I didn’t get to fire my rocket launcher.”

“All Communist sympathizers are traitors.”

“All right then.”

I’m running a game of Greg Costikyan’s anti-Soviet roleplaying game The Price of Freedom, published in 1986. It’s an early example of a political roleplaying game, well ahead of its time both because of its design innovations and its contemporary setting. We’re playing the game because we want to explore political games other than the left-wing orthodoxy of Nordic games such as Kapo and Mellan himmel och hav.

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A note to liberal readers

A probably unique feature in all of roleplaying publishing, The Price of Freedom’s Player Book contains a “Note to Liberal Readers”. Among other things, it says that: “The Price of Freedom is a fantasy roleplaying game in the true sense of the word; its fantasy is the right-wing nightmare that America is delivered into the hands of her enemies.” It instructs the players to think of the game as “The Lord of the Rings meets William F. Buckley“.

Indeed, the game seems specifically intended for a player of a certain political persuasion: it contains many conservative slogans such as “Don’t tread on me” and “Free minds, free markets”. I asked the designer Greg Costikyan about it, and he explained that the idea was to capitalize on the conservative fanbase of Twilight 2000, a post-apocalyptic military game popular at that time. “I wanted to out-do Twilight 2000, in a way”, Costikyan says.

“My political views are not those of The Price of Freedom; at the time, I considered myself a ‘left libertarian'”, he continues. “I supported free markets and the minimal state, but had a suspicion of large businesses and their frequent attempts to use the power of the state to exclude or diminish competition, and largely supported unions as a counterpoint to the power of big business. And, of course, strongly supported civil liberties.”

This makes The Price of Freedom something of an oddity, a conservative game designed by a non-conservative designer wishing to sell games to conservatives.

Sometimes, reading the materials provided with the game, you get the feeling the designer is attempting to make something sensible out of a bizarre premise. The premade characters provided with the game run the gamut of anti-Soviet resistance: one is a rock star defending rock’n’roll, another is a vigilante cop who believes that the scum should be cleaned off the streets. Perhaps the strangest character is Maria Cagliari, a committed Trotskyite who fought against the Contras in Nicaragua and believes that Stalin betrayed the Revolution. The player who played Maria in our game said that it was particularly difficult to be a left-wing character in a right-wing game. In our game, Maria immediately found common ground with the vigilante cop: both believed in extreme solutions.

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(A sample character from The Price of Freedom.)

Death to traitors

I used to believe that it would be impossible to use roleplaying games for the purposes of political propaganda. Players had too much agency, too many opportunities to subvert the message.

I no longer believe this.

We set out to play The Price of Freedom as seriously as possible. According to the game book, things were supposed to be grim and heroic. The introductory adventure included with the game hadn’t aged especially well, but I used as many story beats from it and other adventure ideas in the game as I could.

Many of these were about how to sell the mindset of the game to the players. The game says that tragedy is a great way to motivate characters. Having the Soviet enemy perpetrate atrocities against your family and friends gives you the proper mindset to kill. With this in mind, in the beginning of my game a turncoat in the players’ resistance cell killed Moshe, an elderly veteran of the Polish guerrilla fight against the Nazis. As he died, Moshe gave a speech on the importance of freedom, resistance and killing snitches.

We discovered that once you decided to try to get into the game’s atmosphere, it was quite easy. Moshe’s speech was crude and obvious, but also fulfilled its intended purpose. When the characters finally caught up with the snitch, an old man and a friend of Moshe’s from the days of the Polish resistance, they executed him in cold blood.

Indeed, the game says that players should enjoy the license to kill without having to feel bad about it. According to the Player Book: “Let’s face it, we’d all like to blow things up. We’d all like to crush our enemies. Fortunately, society forbids us to act on those impulses. The Price of Freedom releases those emotions. And as a result, it can be a gas.”

And it was. Of all the design ideas, this concept of freeing the players from the moral qualms of extreme violence worked the best. One player said it was liberating to just kill people without all the moral agonizing that goes on in the games she usually plays. Costikyan describes the game as a “power fantasy, albeit with a darker setting than most”.

The propaganda beats of The Price of Freedom work, if you let them. For a player who’s intent on subverting the game, it doesn’t do a thing. But for a player who’s open to the message, I believe it can work quite well. Of course, the Soviet threat is no longer quite as germane as it once was, but I’m sure that other, more contemporary propaganda games work this way too.

Gutless President

The folder with the sample characters contains a summary of the events that led to the Soviet invasion of the US. It begins with: “A gutless President has been elected.” The Price of Freedom makes its politics obvious with slogans and conservative fears. The game doesn’t say whether the “gutless President” is Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, but we can hazard a guess.

The game wasn’t particularly well received. “Some of my more liberal friends were intrigued by the idea, but repulsed by the heavy-handed nature of its political message”, Costikyan says. “But in general, you know, it was a flop. We had quite a lot of interest from the distributors pre-publication, but in the event, it did not sell particularly well. Keep in mind that this was the Gorbachev era, US-Soviet relations were improving, and the scenario was viewed as pretty implausible.”

Perhaps unhappy with it himself, Costikyan concludes by saying that he’s: “A tad embarrassed by the game”. Despite his misgivings and the Red Dawn -style premise and politics, I think The Price of Freedom has aged surprisingly well. It’s a great antidote for the idea that roleplaying is inherently utopian. Sometimes the message is: “Eat hot lead, Commie dog!”

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(A slogan from The Price of Freedom.)

Extra

Can’t play this

A book doesn’t change even if the original audience is long gone. Its interpretations may change, but the text itself remains the same.

Playing a roleplaying game is a different matter. Since running the game depends on our own creative contribution, we simply cannot experience the game as it was intended to be experienced in 1986.

Every roleplaying game is designed with an audience in mind. The Price of Freedom is clearly and explicitly meant to be played by conservative U.S. players living in 1986. The recommended mode of play is the “avatar campaign”, a game in which players play themselves in the event of Soviet invasion of the U.S.

Playing such a game is impossible for us. We’re not politically conservative, and the Soviet Union can’t invade us because it doesn’t exist. We don’t live in the U.S. and it’s not the Eighties. One of us was even born in the Soviet Union, further complicating the us-vs-them setup of the game.

We decided to play The Price of Freedom with the ready-made characters provided with the game, and use the intended setting of 1986 America. This already makes the game different from what it was designed to be. Without its audience, The Price of Freedom ceases to be.

Pikseliparatiisi: Eurooppalainen äärioikeisto videopelipahiksina

Videopeleissä ei kauheasti nähdä mitään, mikä olisi tunnistettavissa arjeksi nykyaikaisessa Länsi-Euroopassa. Silloinkin kun pelihahmot elävät tavallisten ihmisten elämää, se tapahtuu anonyymissä Amerikassa, kuten ranskalaispelissä Heavy Rain.

Norjalaispeli Dreamfall Chapters on ilahduttava poikkeus sääntöön. Se ilmestyy osissa, joista toinen on julkaistu äskettäin. Chaptersin toinen päähenkilö Zoë Castillo on vapaaehtoisena mukana vasemmistokandidaatti Lea Uminskan vaalikampanjassa.

Voi olla, että täytyy olla pelannut paljon pelejä hahmottaakseen, kuinka eriskummallista tämä on. Jos on yksi aihe, jota pelit kammoavat kuin ruttoa, se on arkitasolla tunnistettava poliittinen toiminta. Karikatyyrit saattavat vielä käydä päinsä, mutta ajatus siitä että päähenkilöllä olisi poliittisia kantoja on täysin mahdoton.

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(Konstantin Wolf on puolueen European Dawn ehdokas.)

Zoën tukeman Uminskan merkittävin vastustaja on European Dawn -puolueen ehdokas Konstantin Wolf. European Dawn on viittaus Kreikan Kultainen aamunkoitto -puolueeseen, ja on piirun verran ilmeisempi fasisminsa kanssa kuin omat kotoperäiset Perussuomalaisemme.

European Dawnissa näkyy nimenomaan eurooppalainen huoli äärioikeistolaisten poliittisten voimien noususta. Maailmaelementtinä siinä on tolkkua Suomessa, Norjassa, Ranskassa ja muualla Euroopassa, ja on hauska nähdä että kerrankin rajaviivoja vedetään muutenkin kuin amerikkalaisen pelaajan ehdoilla.

Chapters jakautuu kahteen osaan. Yhdessä Zoë seikkailee scifi-Euroopassa ja toisessa yrmeä Kian fantasiamaailmassa. Kian on kolonialistisen Azadi-kansan edustaja, joka on loikannut antikolonialistien puolelle. Chaptersin kakkososassa hän liikkuu kaupungissa, jossa Azadi-mieliset miehittäjien mielistelijät ovat kokoontuneet salaseuraksi, jonka nimi on National Front.

Tosielämässä kaksi kuuluisinta National Fronttia ovat englantilainen ja ranskalainen äärioikeistolainen puolue.

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(Lea Uminskan vaalitoimisto.)

Chaptersin edetessä jotkut alun poliittisista teemoista jäävät taakse, ja toiset tallautuvat perinteisten korruptiojuonten jalkoihin. Toivon silti, että peliin tulee uutta nimenomaan eurooppalaista poliittista tematiikkaa. Kakkososassa näin käykin, kun Azadien kolonialistista projektia valotetaan.

Vaikka Suomi on kova videopelimaa, on yllättävän harvinaista että peleissä on jotain joka liittyy niihin keskusteluihin ja kysymyksiin, jotka ovat täällä olennaisia. Jos Suomi ei tällaisia pelejä tuota, haetaan sitten Norjasta.