Maxwell's Demon

by Delta V, last updated 22 Aug 2012 12:43


3: The entropy of a system approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches zero.

X. Entropy is a difficult thing to define simply. It's a measure of disorder, of uncertainty, of the possible microstates1 which produce the observed macrostate2. The thermodynamic meaning of entropy has links with that of Claude Shannon's information theory — as the possible number of microstates grows, so to does the information required to specify which set of states the system is in, and the information-theory equations to do so parallel the thermodynamic ones. Information becomes physically embodied at this low level, and entropy is its descriptor.

Y. Tom Bissell calls Max Payne 3 "quite possibly the most ludonarratively dissonant video game ever made"3. And on the face of things, that appears to be true. We kill a thousand men, over the course of our rampage. We take a thousand bullets, when merely one is enough to cripple Max in a cutscene. It has all the normal problems of shooters. Max is faintly horrified at his own brutality, but the player is treated to slow-motion closeups of the death throes of each firefight's final enemy. As is so often the case in shooters with stories, it seems like the player and the character inhabit two separate, non-overlapping worlds, joined only by the avatar's face. But there is another way to view this dissonance which makes it work in service of the story instead of against it. We do not play Max Payne. We play Max Payne's addiction. Not to booze or pills, but to violence.

2: The entropy of any isolated system not in thermal equilibrium almost always increases.

X. Entropy can be used to describe games, as well. For any set of "interesting choices"4, there is a corresponding number of their possible states. For every firefight in a shooter, there is a starting condition (low entropy) and an end condition with a large number of possible microstates - of corpses at the player's feet, of amount and type of ammunition expended, of health lost, of time taken - which equate to the same macrostate, where the sequence is completed and the player may progress. Playing the sequence is the process of entropy increasing. Playing is an act of thermodynamics.

Y. Halfway through5 Max Payne 3, Max attempts to quit drinking. The next morning is a long, slow walk through a brilliantly-colored favela — and for a few minutes at least, there is nothing to shoot. We can do nothing but walk forward, like a hangover of gameplay. We can finally take our time to look closely at the vivid scenery, so lovingly created by Rockstar's talented environmental artists, that we've previously whisked past in a haze of bullets and painkillers. It's a reflective moment that lets us long briefly for a chance to walk somewhere else, to poke around in this lush environment, to escape the bounded path and do something other than spit bullets at heads — or cause us to tap our feet impatiently, cursing the developers for our boredom, eager for the next fight. This could have been a cutscene, after all. The game doesn't really need us to walk forward. Max can do that himself. But like most cold-turkey attempts, Max relapses, and we have our purpose again.

1: The change in energy of a system is equal to the difference between the heat added to the system and the work done by the system.

X. The process of playing, then, can be seen as equivalent to extracting work from a system for the purposes of "fun". The non-trivial traversal of the ergodic text is a Carnot engine, inputting heat (our time) and outputting work (our fun). The waste heat is our time lost to replaying sequences when we fail, and the dissonance we work through to accept the necessary conventions. It is the price of a game meant to be completed instead of impossibly hard. The story nodes we move between are our thresholds, our system boundaries. However linear and unchangeable a game's story is, it is still a process, a system, requiring our input to proceed. (Compare this to almost every other medium where the story (if one is present at all) is a sculpture, crafted by the author and placed immobile for our inspection.) What value is added to a linear story by depending on this system rests entirely on whether the game can make use of that waste heat somehow, can add to our experience of the text in a way which makes our additional input worthwhile.

Y. Max Payne 3 is overflowing with cutscenes. We cannot so much as approach a door without triggering another short movie. We are only in control of Max when there's someone to shoot, or ammunition to be collected from those we have recently shot. Even during Max's slow-motion action-movie stunts - hanging from a helicopter, leaping from a flying boat, riding a ceiling winch like a zipline - we are the ones tasked with aiming and firing. For all Max's self-professed incompetence, we are supremely effective, with our bullet time and shootdodges and painkillers and checkpoints. We hunger for more targets, more guns, more battlegrounds, and we care little for the traumas we put Max through so long as he can still stand and aim. We stand apart from Max, if only a little, like the double-vision the game is saturated with. We watch him make mistakes over and over, during those many cutscenes, but when our turn comes we play over and over to ensure we succeed at the task he would fail alone. In return he picks fights, stacks the odds, chooses the frontal assault, all so we can have our fill.

0: If two systems are in thermal equilibrium with a third system, then they are in thermal equilibrium with each other.

X. Story-driven shooters are inefficient, in the same fashion as internal combustion engines. They waste too much of their input heat. There are alternatives, either more efficient or more powerful. They run too cool to let stories emerge of their own accord; they run too hot to ensure a tight coupling of player and avatar. But in the same fashion as those inefficient engines, they are common, and reliable, and familiar, and when working within their limitations they remain appropriate for certain vehicles (both for stories and for riders). It's unclear, though, if a shooter can tell more than a small subset of stories in a literal fashion without its waste heat obscuring its meaning. Perhaps a reliance on metaphor is not just allowed, but required.

Y. There is a moment near the end of Max Payne 3, in the airport terminal, where the only song on the soundtrack with lyrics6 kicks in. This is the cue that the finale is approaching, and for perhaps the first time all game the player and Max are united in purpose. Both wish to see this story to its conclusion, both wish harm and vengeance upon those left standing in the way, both wish to see the villain vanquished and something good to come from the carnage. And for perhaps the first time all game, Max is using the player instead of the other way around, using his addiction to get himself through instead of offering himself up to feed his addiction. It's a transcendent moment, a resolution of sorts to the player/Max conflict — and after the brutal fight is won, after both the instrument and instigator of the conspiracy are defeated, Max and the player go their separate ways. Max is now at peace; we have now finished the game. Equilibrium has been reached. The text no longer requires our input.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License