Monday, September 14, 2009

Fontaine's Ghost

The following is a letter I wrote in response to an article in Edge Magazine (E206) titled "The Death of The Author" in which Clint Hocking of Far Cry 2, Chet Faliszek of Left 4 Dead, and Ragnar Tornquist of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey talk (quite bleakly) about the irrelevance of authored narratives in the future of gaming. I agreed with a lot of what Tomquist said, but really disliked what Hocking and Faliszek said--which is ironic as I love their games and have never heard of Tornquist's. Anyway, this is my response--one that could be far more elaborate and detailed, but it is a start.

I find it disappointing and somewhat unsettling that the minds behind some of recent history’s most interesting interactive narratives (namely Clint Hocking of Far Cry 2 and Chet Faliszek of Left 4 Dead) have some of the grimmest, most apocalyptic predictions on the importance of authored narrative in the future of gaming (“Death of the Author”, E206).

The issue of authorship in narratives, and just who possesses it, has been debated in literature circles for decades. Certainly, the unique element of player interaction that makes gaming narratives so interesting complicates the author’s role, but I think it is rash to claim that the author is made redundant simply because two players will play through the same game in a different way. Player expression has not killed the author, but has merely given the author a new, slightly more subtle responsibility: that of story-presenter instead of storyteller. The author no longer writes a script for the player to read in a linear order, but instead writes a world and presents it to the player.

Left 4 Dead is an interesting example as it straddles the fence between authored narrative and player expression. Certainly, each play through the campaign will leave the player with a different experience and a slightly different narrative—one time it may be the narrative of the college student who saves the day; the next day it is the Vietnam veteran who uses his training to get the survivors to safety with a valiant self-sacrifice. However, regardless of what stories the players tell in the social experience, the games author still looms overhead, ensuring that whatever narrative is told by the four interacting players, that narrative will still be about four survivors of a zombie outbreak making their way to a hospital rooftop.

An author is required to present the narrative of Left 4 Dead, to present the narrative of four survivors desperate to escape the city. Within that presented narrative, it is the player’s responsibility to shape how the story is told. This is the opportunity that gaming alone offers us, and what makes our medium of choice so exciting.

Bioshock attempted to teach the gaming community this lesson in 2007. No matter how the player chooses to play the game, no matter what choices they make, the game’s author is still looming above them, whispering in their portable radio, saying, “Would you kindly play this narrative that I have presented, and no other.”

To state as the article’s interviewer does (and as Hocking and Faliszek agree) that players constructing their own narratives makes the author’s role redundant, is only addressing half the problem. In gaming, the author has a new role: to present the tools that the player requires to construct that narrative.

Player expression has killed the author about as successfully as Andrew Ryan killed Frank Fontaine, but all of Rapture is still jumping at his shadow.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Deep Breathes

The article in the latest issue of Edge (E206), "Death of the Author"is brimming with stupid comments that I want to respond to. I am going to try to finish this article, take some deep breathes, and then see if I can't formulate an intelligent reply.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Breaking the Mould

So I gave in and got the full version of Shadow Complex and do not regret it at all. This game is great! Just, the commitment to the old-school style of side-scroller is unprecedented despite the incredible graphics and slick animation. The story isn't half bad either. I guess I ahve to agree with the majority of people who are saying you shouldn't let the guy's political and personal beliefs prevent you from enjoying his creative IP. That, and I guess ignoring his opinion is no beter than him hating gay people... or something.

Anyway, the game is great, and one little cutscrene was awesome. This may be a little spoiler, but not really an important thing, so you decide if you want to skip this following paragraph.

I love it when game/movies/stories/whatever set up what looks to be a stereotypical, well-rehearsed scene that could be in any other game/movie/story/whatever but then just totally jar it off in another direction. In Shadow Complex, you spend the first hour-ish of the game trying to track down Claire who is going to be tortured and potentially killed by (cue dramatic music) MR. SWEET! You havent seen (dramatic music) Mr. Sweet yet, but he is only mentioned with a sense of anticipated violence by the grunts. Like, you know he is someone to fear and is a sick enough person to be able to make anyone talk. So you finally get to see (dramatic music) Mr. Sweet preparing his scalpels and instruments of torture while Claire is chained toa dentist chair beside him, talking about the gruesome things he is going to do to her, when your hero bursts in with a gun pointed squarely at Mr. Sweet's head. Mr. Sweet chuckles and I expect a MGS-esque blurb at gunpoint followed by an epic boss battle. But no... Your dude just shoots him in the head, kills him, and frees Clair, and that is that.

This was as funny as it was anticlimatical. What made it so great was the entire game up to this point had been setting up Mr. Sweet the same way Metal Gear Solid might set up Praying Mantis (but not to the same level, but you get the idea). It was just really well pulled off.

In other news, I have started playing through Bioshock for the second time. Well, third time, I suppose, but I never finished it the first time over a year ago, so I guess it is the second time. I am going for several achievments (yes, I do like going for achievments, i am one of them). I am playing it through on hard, and I want to rescue EVERY little sister. Last time I rescued/harvested about 50-50. It's gonna be a challenge, but it's gonna be cool.

BioShock is one of those few utterly incredible games up there with Half-Life and very few others that actually KNOWS how to present a story in a game without relying on other mediums. SUre it has one or two cutscenes, but the vast majority of the story is the player's own responsibility to uncover. On this playthrough, i am already much more aware of how the world fits together. SO much of the time is spent walking through halls inthe back walls of buildings and the such that if you dont stop and look around, it can just feel like random corridors. But it really does all fit together so perfectly. It truly feels like the designers created the world and then placed the story in it, instead of the lazy alternative of creating the story and the world to conveniently fit around it.

I LOVE the twist in Bioshock as one of my favourite twists of all time. (Don't worry, I am going to be vague and not say what the twist is because you NEED to experience it for yourself). I had to stop playing after it for about an hour just to think about what had happened. HOWEVER! This leads me to my gripe about Bioshock: it is hypocritical. It has the twist, it makes its very important criticism of gaming in general, and then it falls victims ot its own observation. The game should end when you get to Ryan's office. You should deal with Ryan, press the button to prevent hte explosion, have Atlas give his little spiel, then fade out to credits. That would have been excellent!

But no! It would have been too short, I hear people say. Well really, half the levels after Ryan's office are generic enough tasks that thety could be placed before Ryan's office. Regardless, I would rather a short game than a hypocritical one. I may go into this further in a later post where I name the twist so I am less vague. That said, the game is excellent and I am glad to be playing it again.

So last night TeamOGL (my housemate's team) took on Team Crazy Bill for the top spot in the Cybergamer Left4Dead ladder and just missed on the win. It was incredibly close with some great plays on boths sides. The videostreaming worked on gamestah this time, too,, so my other housemate and I prett ymuch watched the entire game from beginning to end with the added realism of our housemate yelling and swearing from across the hallway. If you have got 90mins to kill, I strongly recommend watching it. Some excellent plays all round.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Shady Complex

I downloaded the trial version of Shadow Complex and really enjoyed it. It reminded me of the five seconds I have played of Super Metroid (yes, I am ashamed) and of Knytt Stories in it's exploratory ways.

Ironically, I never would have heard of this game if not for the failed boycott of it by gay-rights activists. When I first heard of this boycott, I was more than happy to join it as I had heard nothing about the game and was more than happy to stick it to the homophobic man.

But now I have read more about it and I have played it and I enjoy it. Conundrum much? Yes!

But! My ingenius girlfriend may have saved my conscience on this one. I can buy the game, play it, and just try to get some screen-captures of guards/characters in suggestive, homosexual poses, and post those online. if I think about it, this probably won't actually work, so I am trying not to think about it to hard.

Expect a rant on what is wrong with Bioshock in the near future.