Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Psychological Action: a Profile of Trouble in Terrorist Town, Its Greatest Accomplishment

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A genre is a peculiar thing. It's arbitrarily defined, varying from one person's interpretation to another's, yet it's used in every kind of professional context imaginable. No normal person could up and describe what "Jazz" or "Horror" is on a nuts and bolts level, because those terms have such broad implications. Horror could be anything from The Shining to Unfriended, after all, and there couldn't be a larger world of difference between the two.

Some genres, however, are so specific, and cater to such a niche, that they deserve some kind of precise definition. For psychological action, a genre of video games, I provide the following:
  • Psychological Action - A genre of games revolving around the implementation of behavioral manipulation from a secondary source, or from the player.
Note that the keyword is "revolving." Many games -primarily multiplayer ones- feature the concept of behavioral manipulation as an aspect of their design (e.g. "mind games" in fighting games), but rarely does a title solely focus on it in the way that Trouble in Terrorist Town (TTT) does.

I'll come right out and say that Trouble in Terrorist Town is possibly my favorite game, or at least makes it into my top 5, and is my second most played title. The amount of time I've played TTT is a testament to how it refuses to lose its initial freshness -but I'm getting ahead of myself. First, I should explain what TTT is, exactly...

Fanart representing the premise of TTT: "The Usual Suspects" by reddit user NorKal.

Trouble in Terrorist Town is an online multiplayer game mode for Garry's Mod, released in 2009. The premise of the game is as follows; A group of players are dropped into a location of some kind. Most of the players are "innocents," but a few are randomly selected to be "traitors," and there is no visual distinction between the two, so nobody knows at the start of a round who is a traitor and who is innocent (except for yourself, since you always know whether you are a traitor or not). Once everyone has picked up their firearms, the traitors must work towards killing all of the innocents, and the innocents must find out who the traitors are and stop them.

Innocents can view dead bodies in order to gather evidence that leads them to the killer. Since the traitors are vastly outnumbered, they are given access to superior weapons and equipment that the innocents don't have, such as explosives, shurikens, and body armor. At least one of the innocents is randomly selected to be a "detective," who also has access to better weapons and equipment, such as a DNA scanner to prove who killed someone, a "visualizer" that shows the bullet trajectory into a deceased comrade, etc. Once the traitors or innocents are all dead, the round is over and a new one starts up, with new traitors. 

Two players engage in a gunfight after one is called out as a traitor (left); A detective investigates a dead innocent (right). All screenshots are taken from the Wolves' Vendetta Server, my personal favorite.

If an innocent kills another innocent without evidence, or a traitor kills a fellow traitor, they have to spend the duration of the next round "slayed," i.e. unable to play. Rules change slightly depending on the server, as do the weapons. If this all sounds complicated, that's because it absolutely is. The learning curve is a bit steep, and you will likely find yourself shooting the wrong people or getting literally stabbed in the back on your first few hours of playtime, but once you experience a bit of trial and error you'll be sleuthing with the best of them.

A traitor lies dead (left); Looking at his dead body reveals information about when, how, and why he died (right).

TTT, in essence, is a "who dun it" mystery finished in the span of ten minutes. Your deductive skills are put to the test with no room for error, and your alertness is stretched to its maximum. I've often found myself sweating profusely during my playtime, just because of how well the game generates tension.

That in itself may be the most curious aspect of TTT. As you can see from the screenshots, it's a fairly ugly game, awash in compressed textures and visual noise. True, the game is no looker, and the presence of a microphone communication system often makes TTT more comedic than anything, but to me, that just speaks to how solidly the aforementioned tension is crafted. If a game can make me laugh when I'm scared to death, that's a rare experience that I want to hold on to. Hundreds of people still play the game, despite it being a 7-year-old title running on a 12-year-old game engine, which speaks more to its enduring appeal than I ever could.

Levels (AKA maps) are usually dark, with large open areas surrounded by claustrophobic corridors. Both create tension because the open areas are more susceptible to snipers, while the corridors are easier places to get away with murder. Usually the maps have some kind of thematic hook, such as taking place in a museum or giant kitchen, as shown above. 

The first topic that must be broached when talking about this game is the absence of a skill ceiling, at least in the way we traditionally understand it. The "skill ceiling," in reference to games, is a theoretical term used to describe the absolute highest level of play: when you have mastered every mechanic, learned every trick, and become the best player possible. It is a universally understood concept in game design, which makes it all the more fascinating that TTT is lacking it almost entirely.

You see, to succeed at TTT as an innocent is to solve crimes, and there really is no telling how quickly you can deduce something. There's an almost random element to how things fall into place that ensures no two rounds are the same. The evidence is ever changing. Similarly, as a traitor, your performance is based almost entirely on how well you can lie, and there's no ceiling to what you can invent as your justification for shooting someone. I've heard people lie in TTT in ways I never considered before, and no matter how well you adapt, someone with a different playstyle or personality can always come along and find a novel way to deceive you.

Aiming your gun correctly definitely has a skill ceiling, but landing a perfect headshot every time pales in comparison to being able to tell a good fib when you miss a shot. My favorite excuse is convincing other players that my mouse hit the side of my keyboard. Classic.

Typical crime scenes in TTT. When accusations fly, the body count racks up fast. Misunderstandings are the biggest killer in this game, so clear communication is key to a clean victory.

You are constantly pulled between the easy path and the correct path, and often rounds will be decided by actions somewhere between those two states. The gathering of mounting evidence against a person builds up like a court case, but often the evidence just isn't there, and somebody has to be killed on a hunch to ensure the safety of others. There's an immense amount of guilt in this game, be it from killing the wrong suspect or accidentally causing someone's death. In a way, you could call TTT a "due process simulator," and when somebody doesn't get their fair shake, the results can be gut-wrenching and possibly fatal.

Names don't disappear off the player list when they die. Only when their bodies are checked are you certain of their death, meaning that unseen victims obscure the process of elimination needed to crack the case. Nothing has put me more on edge in my gaming career than being stuck in a shadowy air vent, alone with a possible traitor and a possible cadaver, waiting for the last enemy to sneak up and kill me in an instant.

Twitchiness is both rewarded and punished in this game as a result of the insistence on putting justice and deduction first, creating a truly unique FPS experience.

The meat of the experience takes place through communication. This is a cropped screenshot, demonstrating both voice chat (top) and text chat (bottom). FloppyHotDog (top) is pleading his innocence after someone has erroneously called him out. Corbin Staab (bottom) is explaining how he "accidentally" threw a grenade: a big no-no in TTT.

As you play with the same people more and more, you'll develop friendships and rivalries, and even discover "tells," similar to a game of poker. This makes TTT a highly social game, even if the people you're socializing with are largely dipshits who won't listen to your call-outs.

A lingo is also developed during your time with them: KOS, RDM, T-baiting, T-room, RSB, Jihaded, AWPed and High Sus may all seem like nonsense slang terms, but with growing playtime you'll develop an almost religious reverence and understanding of their implications. Both the implications on your innocence, which you will become highly defensive over, and on the innocence of others, whom you will jealously defend from false accusations. A sort of kinship is born in the silliest context possible, and a smart player will be simultaneously feared by the traitors and recognized as a high-priority target.

The innocents defeat the traitors. Success!

I really can't overstate how much this game has been overlooked. Silly, tense, and wrought with psychological hijinks, TTT incubates just about every kind of emotion a game can attempt to evoke, and does so in such a tight, endlessly enjoyable way, that it's impossible for me to recognize it as anything other than a superb achievement of computer gaming, and gaming at large...

...provided you find a good server, of course.

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