What are we abstracting, anyway?
I think concession is a beautiful word when applied to art and communication. To concede, to back down: normally I wouldn’t think of that sort of thing when considering my preference for ideal expression. I’d want something that takes no compromises, that delivers fully as intended. That’s what I think I want, and of course, what I’ll say I want. Ultimately, that’s a simplified thought, because every work makes concessions. This very work has already given up things in who can read it and why. Rather than mire in games culture, I can say that, if someone did not have a well-enough grasp on the English language to engage with my work, then I’ve already conceded this experience to English literate people. Obviously, a lot of the assumptions I could continue to make are seeped in, and are results of, neighboring culture. They may not really be conscious choices, but can be boiled down to a necessity. Since we believe in this necessity, or even concede as much, my writing is not equipped to teach and give the tools necessary to understand it on a surface, universal level.
So when Devon wrote, “Alongside simple abstraction is the nature of concession to technology, courtesy, or gameplay.” I took it to believe he’s asserting that abstraction and concession work in tandem in informing the role-playing game construction. Which is absolutely correct, mind.1 I don’t think it’s specific, or unique to rpgs, however.2 Various concessions are the distillation and the essence of communication. Any such variables and situations are all taken into account when the communication itself materializes. In other words, any given concession is not a shrug or a limitation, but ultimately what was chosen, because of circumstance surrounding the decision.
There is budding, building popular western critique surrounding role-playing games, in that they’re frustrating because they’re arbitrary and unrealistic. An obstacle that could be overcome at any time in an action game requires a specific, curated set of abilities in a rpg. These critiques run true, I believe, but not in any shameful way. That is: role-playing games simulate absolutely nothing resembling life, reality, or anything like that. This is not only something supported by rpgs themselves, but something I think should be the precedent when considering the modern rpg format. I’m going to quote Devon again because he’s already done the good work, “Even since Dungeons and Dragons, hit points are an abstraction of a character’s physical capability and mental willingness to go on despite injury or trauma. Experience is a simple representation of a character’s personal growth. Magic systems vary, but represent the mental capacity of a character to utilize magic.”
Now, it’s impossible to deny that these numbers were constructed and are assumed to represent each of their respective, outlined functions. Still, I’m going to flat out smash that assumption: the numbers can’t represent their respective functions. Applying a tangible, measurable value to things in life that actually are not tangible, or measurable, instantly invalidates its position as a so-called simulation of life. A rpg is not modeling life, components which are part of the living experience are being modeled to be used for a different end. With this perspective, I’m justified to intuitively understand mana as my character’s mental and spiritual capacity. With same respect, I’m justified to retort that the numbers in a rpg are completely meaningless outside of a rpg.
When these numbers-as-abstractions are taken as abstractions-that-model, it can lead to some unsettling conclusions. Role-playing games model the purest meritocracy, the most awful gamification, the idea that labor can transfer 1:1 value. Fighting battles, to gain experience points and currency, to result in being better at fighting battles. Sure, practice is a necessary part of life, but the way the rpg frames practice feels like a gross simplification. I’m going to argue beyond the baseness, that the model not a simplification, but an outright fantastical denial of personal progress. People’s interaction with skilled, complex labors, cannot be distilled to any model on an individual level. As goes for any interaction, it’s just way too complex. It’s not just that a rpg makes concessions on how things are displayed or communicated, but, the rpg uses a multitude of concessions to retool human life, interaction, and labor.
Even though a role-playing game is not modeling anything strictly real, the craft and the consistency of its rules and its sensory communication can send such thoughts out to the farthest of my consciousness. My imagination runs and processes my interaction with the game and I frame many not-at-all real situations into a relatable, realistic context, to have a frame of reference that resonates with my lived experience. In a way, this figurative understanding of the RPG erases my literal interaction with it.
This wasn’t something I could model to myself, or even understand, until I played through Earthbound. I once told a friend of mine that Earthbound is an incredible subversion of the japanese-style role-playing game. While I understood such a thing intuitively, he didn’t, at all. With just a passing familiarity with the format, the game seemed like any other. That Earthbound is so tightly constructed to resemble Dragon Warrior is part-homage, part-satire. Discluding the entertaining, humorous, and outwardly satirical interactions with npcs in Earthbound (which is discluding most of its subversion, I would add) it still flips the jrpg on its head while only changing a three nouns: the knight becomes a small boy, the sword becomes a baseball bat, the slime becomes a cop.
Gaining money and tangible progress from beating a cop with a bat in Earthbound, as a stepping stone to saving the world, is its own ridiculous assertion. Yet because of how little is changed formally from Dragon Warrior to Earthbound the activity feels like an extension, the micro-conflict between you and a slime in Dragon Warrior is starkly similar. If changing three nouns is all it takes to create a surreal experience, then it becomes hard for me to say that Earthbound created the surreal experience. Dragon Warrior is pretty damn surreal on its own.3
If a role-playing game tries to simulate anything, I believe there will always be a disconnect, because the constructions to begin with were incapable of handling any simulation at all. Maybe some developers do believe they can create more ‘real’, more ‘tangible’, more simulated experiences with the format, but it seems to be chasing an end without being equipped to do so.
2 devon pulls out a great example of concession that happens in uncharted and I’m sure he understands concession is not at all just a rpg thing, to clarify that context
3 an added thing: earthbound doesn’t implement or reach for anything new within its constraints as hardware and software, so, I think it’s a model for purity within the jrpg. rather: it doesn’t make concessions based on tech, but precisely for its aesthetic