Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Imagined Interactions

“Christ, how do I jump!?”
This is the first thought that enters my head as Final Fantasy VII’s opening cut-scene melds seamlessly into the game’s opening level. I mash buttons frantically as the two blue-clad troops attack me on the platform at the Sector One Reactor station, shooting machine guns and throwing uppercuts. Eventually, more by chance than any basic cognitive skill, I manage to press ‘O’ and choose ‘Attack’. EX-SOLDIER runs across the screen, swings his oversized sword, then runs back across to the opposite side. I have no idea if I hit the trooper or not, but some strange white numbers appear before quickly fading. No idea what those are about.
And so, with chaos and confusion, begins what would eventually evolve into a several-year obsession. This game is unlike anything I have experienced before. Enemies appear out of nowhere; I can’t jump; my character just stands there and waits for the enemies to attack him. The menus are a monumental hurdle: while Western Playstation games use ‘X’ as the universal ‘OK’ button and ‘∆’ as ‘CANCEL’, Final Fantasy VII, being Japanese, uses ‘O’ as ‘OK’ and, worst of all, ‘X’ as ‘CANCEL’. Even the physical aspects of the game are wrong. The case is HUGE. Three discs? What on Earth could the other two be for?
It is 1998 and I am twelve-years-old when I first rent it from the local Video Ezy. I choose it over the shelves of generic platform games and shooting games because I have seen a cool TV advertisement showing off all its beautiful cut-scenes. But why do I go back every week and rent it again and again for months until I finally have enough pocket money saved to buy my own copy? At this early stage, I do not think it is a labour of love (that would come later), but just pure bewilderment. I am not so na├»ve to think Final Fantasy VII was revolutionary in the greater scheme of things, but it was certainly revolutionary for me. I had to re-learn how to play videogames from the ground up. I spent several minutes figuring out how to use the save point (not to mention my new memory card). I died four times on the first boss because of the poorly worded “Attack while its tail is up! It counters with its laser!” (I read this as I should attack while the tail was up). Every hour I played, the game doubled in scope. I stuck with it and sunk more of my time into it than any game previously, but it just kept going… And then we left Midgar.
I cannot say where, exactly, but at some point it just clicked: Final Fantasy VII was not showing me a literal depiction of the game-world, but a representation. My party and the enemies were not really running back and forth, taking turns to hit each other—this was just a representation of the battle that was truly happening. The speed with which my ATB gauge filled represented how fast my characters were. I was not missing targets that were standing still; rather, my accuracy was being compared to the enemy’s evasion to determine my probability of hitting. It would be another twelve years before I had the words, but the game’s rules determine the game’s representative fiction.
Outside battles, too, the game–world represents an actual world that was only ever hinted at. On a meta level, the constant switches in graphic styles—from gameplay, to cut-scene, to full motion video of varying degrees of quality—portray completely different worlds. In more specific circumstances, a character will walk two steps to one side to allow other characters to have a private conversation. Never mind the enemies appearing out of nowhere and the party characters walking into nowhere. 

As a representative system, Final Fantasy VII demanded that I did not just use my controller to engage with the game, but also my mind. If I accepted the world as portrayed by Final Fantasy VII at face value, the game would have made no sense. The world-as-shown works to rules incomprehensibly different to our own world. However, by using my mind to interact with the game, I was able to imagine a ‘real’ game-world lying beneath and dependent on the layers of representation.
Of course, unknown to me at the time, this is something gamers had already been doing for decades on desktop text adventures and tabletop role-plays. But for me, growing up on platform games on the Master System II and Super Nintendo, I had never before been asked to invest more into a game than what I could see on the screen.
Final Fantasy VII was the first videogame story that I actively engaged with because I had to actively engage with it. It was up to my imagination to draw out the story and the world from the rules and mechanics. Once I learnt to do this, Final Fantasy VII stopped being this weird, quirky ungame and became a fully fledged fictional obsession. The world and the characters began to matter to me not because I made important decisions that affected them, but because I was central in crafting them. Not with a character generator like Morrowind or Dragon Age, but with my imagination. Their voices, their movements, their fighting styles—things that the game only ever hints at, I am responsible for forming.
Largely, the reason Final Fantasy VII looks like it does and requires the player’s imagination to fill in so many blanks is due to the technical limitations of the time as well as hangovers from the series’ Super Nintendo iterations. As the years go by and technology allows better visuals, videogames focus more on crafting more ‘realistic’ (or, rather, comprehensible) depictions of their worlds rather than representative ones. In just the Final Fantasy series alone, we see in later games the introduction on voice acting, of enemies walking around outside battles, of more consistent graphic styles and properly-proportioned character models.
While better technology is allowing more interactive narratives in the way the game-world is able to react to the player’s actions, I feel it is also detracting from them by leaving less room for imagined interactions. That is, we can interact more with games and their worlds with our hands, but less and less with our minds. We are able to perform more and more actions; however, these actions are largely meaningless since no room is left for personal interpretation.
The more the game tries to convince us that this is how the world is, the less likely we will be convinced. On the other hand, however, the more the game leaves ambiguous, the more our minds will instinctively fill in the blanks. Take platform games such as Braid and Limbo, for instance. Although arguably more ‘artistically-minded’ (whatever that may mean) than Final Fantasy VII, these games share the same attributes that allow me to invest in the told story. All these games can only be completed in one specific way; none have room for improvisation. Yet, because of their abstract, non-specific styles, there is plenty of space for the player to imbed their own meaning into their actions and the greater narrative.
Over at Above 49, Nels Anderson has been talking about the uncanny valley games enter when they try too hard to depict realism. This, specifically, stood out to me:
"Some might say this is splitting hairs, but what matters is as soon as you start to notice these [slight flaws in games trying to be realistic], it's not possible to stop noticing them. The incongruities can pull the player out of the experience, reminding them they're not seeing a real place, not dealing with real people or real consequences.”
In Final Fantasy VII the characters do not have mouths. This does not matter as you are able to imagine them with mouths. If the characters of a game such as Heavy Rain, for instance, walked around without mouths, that would just be creepy and weird. This is because Heavy Rain (along with most AAA titles of recent times) is telling the player what the world and the characters are like, not asking them to imagine what they may be like.
Anderson uses the example of Puzzle Agent to show a game can evoke how a place feels far more convincingly than a game can ever show how a place looks. For my twelve-year-old self, this is exactly what Final Fantasy VII did. I knew how the Midgar slums, Nibelheim, and the Golden Saucer felt and used my imagination to fill in the blanks that the game did not show me. I became more invested in the world because, in large, that world only existed in my head.
We talk a lot about giving the player agency over the narrative, thinking that the only way to do this is to increase the intricacy of choices and the quantity of paths. These are certainly methods that we should keep exploring, but how about the way readers have been interacting with narratives for centuries: with their imaginations?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Death of the Player

As kids, my two brothers and I devised a game called Traps. Influenced at least in part by playing Spy vs. Spy on our Master System II, Traps would see one of us design an obstacle course around the house and yard (usually just the yard as we would concoct games such as this when our parents kicked us outside) that the others would have to navigate through. As the name suggests, the course would be littered with traps. The most enjoyable part of the game was trying to invent new and exciting traps that our player (‘victim’ almost seems like a more fitting term) would not be expecting. We would lean buckets of water atop doors; hide small ditches of spiked twigs under leaves; and force each other to climb the sun-baked metal of the slippery slide.
The game could not have been any more linear. You finished by completing the course, but you were not allowed to deviate from the course at any time—not even to avoid traps. This meant that the course could only be completed by activating every trap along the way. Even if you saw the spike pit under the leaves, walking around it would be cheating. Interesting gameplay was not the primary concern in Traps—the traps were. While the player had an essential role in the game, that role was the equivalent of a lab rat in a genetics experiment.
Playing Playdead’s beautiful debut XBLA game, Limbo, last night, I found myself reminiscing about Traps. Limbo’s beautiful, beautiful monochrome levels (did I mention they are beautiful?) are littered with dangers that seem to have been extracted directly from the mind of the playable boy—giant spiders, spikes, bear-traps, other children, brain-eating leeches to name a few. Many of these dangers are not meant to be noticed and avoided the first time. Dying is a large part of Limbo and a lot of care has gone into the morbidly varied death animations. The designers have used many a cheap trick to ensure the player is dead before they even realise they are being threatened. Limbo is not about avoiding death; it is about dying. Again and again and again.
This relates to a kind-of-theory-thing I have recently been trying to no avail to flesh out into coherent thoughts. My justifications for it still need plenty of fleshing out but the essential argument is this: 
The player is not the most important element of all videogames.
I mean that quite specifically. The player is still very important (essential, even) to all videogames, and they are indeed the most important element for a lot of videogames. However, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that allowing the player to stand unchallenged atop the pedestal of priorities they have held for decades can be detrimental to creating more meaningful games. Okay. I know. I am crazy, but just hear me out before you scroll down to write an angry comment.
Based on the assumption that the player is the most important element of any game, gameplay considerations are almost always prioritised over all other considerations (such as coherency, believability, themes, aesthetics, etc.). In the article “Brave New Worlds” in GamesTM No.95, Rocksteady’s principal designer, Bill Green, says:
“Inevitably, sometimes we have to sacrifice believability for the sake of gameplay, and the player must have a smooth, readable ride even if that ceiling wouldn’t pass a civil engineers assessment. The player is the most important person in the world when you’re designing, and they must be able to read the environment, knowing up-front how they can interact with it and where they can go.”
The ludology line of thinking would completely agree with this. As would anyone with any financial interest in seeing a AAA title sell enough copies for them to keep their job. I completely respect that. Games are games and should be about the player and gameplay first and everything else second, right?
At the risk of being slaughtered by a mob of said ludologists, I would answer no. Some games have (or could have) a greater interest in elements other than gameplay and the player’s convenience and, dare I say it, enjoyment. Perhaps the flight simulator is a good example of this (then again, the genre is practically dead, so perhaps not). Certainly, the player’s ability to play the game is important, but is it more important to a committed simulator than hyperrealism? Sometimes yes sometimes no. All I am trying to say is that the player is not always the most important thing. In some games other consideration are just as (if not more) important.
Limbo is one of those games. The player is an essential element of the game; without them, the boy would just lay there, sleeping forever. However, the player is essential in the same way the player of Traps was essential—as a lab rat. The player exists in Limbo to run their rat wheel and allow the stunning aesthetic and thematic design to really shine. And, considering Limbo’s most potent theme is death, the lab rat player must die a lot of times.
Is this a justified strand of game design, where the player is not empowered but exploited? It is not something I have fully explored or entirely made up my own mind about. I was not planning on posting such thoughts for quite some time yet, but the few hours of Limbo I have played (I have not even finished it yet!) really made me want to get this out.
So please, rip my kind-of-theory-thing to shreds.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Gods And Their Machines: Deus Ex Machina in Games

The fundamental point of playing a game is to face challenges that, while still challenging, are ultimately resolvable. A maze would not be enjoyable if there was no path to the exit, but neither would it be enjoyable if the path to the exit was a straight line from the entrance. Furthering this, when a game pits a player against a certain challenge, the game must ensure that the player has the means to overcome it. The means could be a certain tool, a certain ability, knowledge of a certain fact, or some combination of these. Half-Life 2 ensures we receive the gravity gun before we confront any physics-focused puzzles that require heavy or distant lifting; Zelda games give us bombs before any secret passages must be cleared; Shadow Complex does not require us to double-jump to any platforms before the double-jump ability is obtained.
As game mechanics, these all make perfect sense. If we needed to double-jump to reach the double-jump ability, we would not be able to progress. The challenge would be too challenging (i.e. impossible) and not resolvable. The game would be a broken game. A game, at its base level, wants to prevent our progression at every chance, but it also wants us to ultimately defeat it and must give us the means to do so.
However, as believable fiction, coincidentally finding the perfect tool right before it is required can be a bit farfetched. Why is the red key always left lying around outside the red door? Why do enemy reinforcements always wait until after I have taken over the AA gun before assaulting head-on? Why would the Great Spirit left to protect the sacred boomerang have only one weakness—the boomerang? What are the chances that if I keep running through the first unlocked door I find, I will eventually get to my destination? Suspension of disbelief is a delicate thread that is already stretched taut by our engagement in a work of fiction. When that fiction seems too contrived, too unlikely, it does not take much for that suspension of disbelief to snap.
Conveniently finding exactly the thing to overcome a seemingly insurmountable challenge is a plot device known as deus ex machina, and it has been around for a very long time. Latin for “God from the machine”, deus ex machina introduces a means to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem, a way to get the protagonist (and the plot) out of the dead-end the author has burrowed it into.
In film and literature, deus ex machina is typically frowned upon. Usually it is the product of lazy writing. Without planning ahead, the writer has burrowed the narrative into a dead-end and can only get it out again by suddenly introducing a new character, a new tool, or a sudden-yet-convenient natural disaster. It is not believable and not enjoyable to read (that said, plenty of comedy harnesses deus ex machina where it is intentionally ridiculous).
As we watch the protagonist struggle, we want to think, “Oh boy! How are they going to get out of this one?” We expect them to solve the problem because that is what protagonists do, and we look forward to seeing what ingenious, thrilling methods they will use. We don’t expect them to whip out a can of shark repellent.
So in stories, deus ex machina should generally be avoided. In game design, however, as clarified above, the player must have access to the tools and abilities that allow them to overcome any challenge they face. So how do story-driven games give the player the tools they need without appearing contrived? Or is deus ex machina an essential plot device in game-story design?
Simply, to not look contrived, games need to ensure the player feels as though they have a challenge by harnessing an existing tool in a unique, improvised way—even if it is the only way that challenge can be overcome. If we watch a film protagonist and go “Oh boy! How will they get out of this one?” then, when we play a game, we need the chance to go “Oh boy! How am I going to get out of this one?” It is the difference between already having a grappling hook in your inventory and coming across a grappling hook at the base of the cliff.
By having some time and space between the challenge and its solution, what is essential on the game design level will not seem so contrived on the fictional level. Games such as Zelda and Metroid achieve this by having the player pass inaccessible paths and items for hours before a means to access them is obtained. Rather than feeling like a contrived solution to an immediate challenge, once the player finds the required tool, all those old paths open up and the player’s explorative abilities increase ten-fold. By having to backtrack to all those rocket-doors already discovered, it does not feel as though Samus conveniently found these rockets just in time. If Samus were to only find rocket-doors after finding rockets, however, that would seem contrived and unlikely.
Another solution is not to give the player a specific tool to overcome a specific challenge, but a range of tools that can be used and combined in a variety of ways to approach a range of challenges in different ways. Recently, I stared playing Alone in the Dark (the more recent, 360 version). While it has some quite horrible deus ex machina in the opening stages (a fire extinguisher sitting beside every burning corridor), the item-combining mechanic, as well as being able to pick up a variety of objects with different properties, keeps things feeling dynamic and not too contrived. Fighting one crack-possessed person, I ran out of bullets and frantically searched until I found a wooden chair which I stuck into a nearby flame (the whole building was on fire) and hastily finished the battle before I burnt my hands off. Perhaps that was the only way to progress at that point, and the fire and chair were placed there to be used in exactly the fashion I used them. However, it felt like I figured it out myself and like I was lucky to find those items.
The Halo games achieve this quite well, also, by limiting the number of weapons the player can carry. Depending on your chosen weapon-set, the player will inevitably have the advantage in some conflicts and the disadvantage in others. This is most sharply felt in levels like “Two Betrayals” where the player must switch back and forth between Flood and Covenant confrontations—each requiring different weapons and tactics. This often leaves the player with no choice but to improvise on the spot and leads to a greater sense of achievement. When you come face-to-face with a Wraith tank and blast it with a rocket launcher, it is usually because you lugged that rocket launcher across half a level, not because it was sitting right before the Wraith, waiting for you. This avoids the pitfall of deus ex machina and allows for a more convincing story.
But does it allow for a more convincing game? In Bioshock, when the player needs to become a Big Daddy to get a Little Sister to unlock a door, you just happen to be in the part of Rapture where people are turned into Big Daddies. Do people just accept this? When I was playing Bioshock, I certainly did; the coincidence did not faze me at all. It was not until afterwards that I thought about it as slightly too convenient.
Each storytelling medium has its own accentuated mechanics. Novel protagonists often think and muse to themselves so that their thoughts can be rendered into words for the reader to read; film characters strike visually effective poses, even when no other characters are watching, to help the audience read their emotions. Perhaps we are more willing to accept deus ex machina in games than other mediums as a necessary mechanic for game stories.
One argument in favour of deus ex machina in games would be that presenting the player with challenges specific to a new tool, ability, or character allows for an improvised training ground of sorts. While it may seem farfetched that each Zelda boss has a weakness to the most recently obtained item, these boss battles provide a space for the player to come to terms with the abilities of the new item. Similarly, Half-Life 2’s “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm” stage provides a training ground for the newly acquired gravity gun.
Uncharted 2, meanwhile, embraces deus ex machina. On the train level, when Drake is being pestered by the gunship, he stumbles across a very convenient AA gun. “How the hell am I going to take out a— oh… hello!” he exclaims as he stumbles across the gun that saves his life. While I typically roll my eyes every time I find the obligatory AA gun in every single game, this time I did not mind at all. It was tongue-in-cheek; it was conscious. Uncharted 2 knows that it is a game and that games require resolution to challenges so it unabashedly gave me an AA gun.
In The Matrix, the matrix itself is essentially a videogame. In order to complete the “Save Morpheus” level, Neo and Trinity need “Guns. Lots of Guns.” And that is exactly what they get. It does not jar with the audiences expectations as the hackers’ ability to manipulate the matrix has already been explained; Neo and Trinity are entering a computer program and will take the greatest advantage available—especially when the opponent is the computer program. In a sense, it is not even deus ex machina as it is entirely feasible within the rules set by the movie.
In another sense, though, it is the most literal form of deus ex machina as Neo plays God inside the machine world. Neo is able to do this because he is a product of the same programming that crafted the machine world. The machines, by nature, must do everything in their power to stop him, even if his ability to manipulate the machine world makes his victory inevitable. Much like Neo, the player must be the true god inside the machine-world of the game. The game must try to stop the player but, ultimately, it will be from the machine that the player obtains the means to eventually overcome it. It is inevitable.
For the sake of the gameplay the player must always have the means to overcome a challenge (except in rare exceptions such as Bioshock’s confrontation with Ryan or Red Dead Redemption’s ending). But for the sake of the fiction, the means cannot seem too contrived. The true god inside the machine is the player, but the game must do everything it can to fool the player into thinking the opposite is true. To risk an overdose of film analogies, C-3PO is the game and Chewbacca is the player. The game must put up a valiant, convincing fight, but in the end must let the Wookie win. 

Note: This post gets a Portal screenshot even though Portal is not mentioned at all in this article because I could not find any of the screenshots I wanted to use. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Moments 03: Fallout 3

[In this pseudo-regular section, I record some of my more memorable gaming moments, the moments that remind me why I play games. In this entry I describe the futility I felt as I took my first steps out from Vault 101 in Fallout 3.]
The cog-shaped door to Vault 101 rolls into place and grinds shut with a conclusive screech. I can hear the guards shouting and banging on the inside. I take a moment to get my breath back; they aren’t going to follow me. I turn and walk towards the light at the far end of the tunnel.
I step through the rickety gate at the other end. Outside, my eyes take long seconds to adjust to the glare. At first I can see nothing, but slowly I realise there is just nothing to see. My first sensation is one of overwhelming agoraphobia. There are no walls, no ceiling. The world just keeps going.
I stand on a ledge. Beneath me, to the east, skeletal timber frames line a crumbled road. To my right, to the south-west, uphill, sections of a raised freeway sag and lean against each other. Far to the south and east the Washington Monument protrudes from the horizon like the precarious minute-hand of an old clock atop a scrapheap.
I have no idea where I am meant to go.
Days later, I will check the notes on my PipBoy that say go to Megaton, but somehow I missed that line of dialogue in my rush to get away from the Overseer’s guards. For now, I am disorientated and aimless. I begin up the remains of road, climbing towards the crumbling freeway. I keep a wide berth between me and the burnt-out husks of cars.
I nearly drop the controller when I stumble into an old shopping trolley and accidently kick it down the road. It bangs and clatters and exaggerates the stark silence that inevitably returns. This is when the true meaning of ‘wasteland’ first hits me. Nothing here belongs to this age. Everything is a relic, rusted and forgotten.
I reconsider my current, uphill path. Surely at its crest will be another vista looking west. I don’t think I can deal with that right now; I already feel small enough. I turn around and walk back down the road into the lands I have already seen.
I come out among the ribbed cadavers of houses I saw from the cliff—the pre-war town of Springvale, I later find out. My hands tremble. It is hard to find the words that describe how I feel that first time I enter this town. I have no idea where I am; I have no idea where I am meant to go; I have no idea what I am meant to do. I have no idea what the point is. This world is dead, destroyed. I am just a leftover, shuffling through its charred remains and kicking up the ashes that, regardless of my actions, will inevitably settle once again.
The trailers did not prepare me for this. I was ready for city streets and corridors, not this endless, ruthless land. Insignificant. That is the word. Never has a world made me feel so sharply insignificant than those first steps into ruined Springvale. I take two steps into the closest house (through a wall; such conventions as doorways are meaningless now), realise I have no idea why I am in there, and step back out.
Music. Something is approaching from the road. A floating, robotic orb blasts a tinny tune. I pull my 10mm pistol but do not fire (I wasted too many bullets on radroaches and must horde what I have left). I just stare dumbly as the Enclave eyebot glides past me. It ignores me entirely. I am, after all, insignificant—a relic from a previous age. I stare dumbly as it continues out of Springvale.
I put the pistol away and look down the various roads leading out of the dead town. Eventually, I decide to head north—the exact opposite direction of Megaton. As I start up the road, Yankee Doodle is still audible through my rear speakers, carried on the post-apocalyptic breeze.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Frayed Narratives, Closed Games: Understanding My Allergy To BioWare Games

I do not enjoy many BioWare games. There I finally said it. Baldur’s Gate overwhelmed me; I gave up on Knights of the Old Republic; I could not stand Dragon Age: Origins. I did enjoy the story and style of Mass Effect a lot, but it took months of apathy towards the gameplay before it obtained the dubious title of being the only BioWare title I have ever completed. I am currently halfway through Mass Effect 2, but the disc has not been placed in my 360 for over a month now. I just do not feel the need to complete BioWare games. There is something about them that just makes the overall experience meaningless to me.
This has always bothered me as I do not think BioWare make bad games. Many would argue, and I would have trouble disagreeing, that they are among the best world-builders (in the fiction sense, not the polygon sense) in the industry. They form worlds rich with details, bureaucracies, and consequences that make other game-worlds look like flat, cardboard cut-outs. Games like Dragon Age have an unprecedented amount of recorded dialogue so that the player’s actions can affect the story, world, and characters in meaningful, persistent ways. These games integrate story and game so tightly that the two can’t be separated. These should be the games that justify my belief that games can tell good stories in ways pre-existing mediums never could. Yet I do not enjoy them.
Meanwhile, I thoroughly enjoy games such as Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3, and Halo 3: ODST that give me some arbitrary amount of spatial freedom to move around an open world, yet force me through an ultimately linear narrative. These games let me do whatever I want, but then remove my agency entirely to progress the story in a certain way. If I would rather be told a pre-authored story than author my own, why do I invest so much time into playing and researching story-driven games instead of film or literature?
This question has pestered me for some time now. It would not be exaggerating to say I feel guilty for enjoying these games while not enjoying the BioWare titles—to the extent that I have even doubted my own belief that story has a place in game design. It was not until the following passage from Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives caused me to stop and think for whole minutes that I began to understand why: 

"I want to be told a story—albeit one I happen to be part of and can affect, even if in small ways. If I wanted to tell a story, I would not be playing video games."
Before I go on, it must be stressed that this can only ever be a purely subjective thing. I am not trying to argue for one form of storytelling over another. There is no single, prescriptive way to put stories and games together. I am not trying to disregard the BioWare model (that would be foolish as so many people obviously do enjoy their games) but, rather, I want to understand why the BioWare form of storytelling does not appeal to me.
If a game such as Red Dead Redemption is a closed story (one beyond my control) in an open world (one I can navigate freely), then a BioWare game such as Dragon Age is an open story in a closed world. Or, instead of ‘world’, let’s say ‘game’; that way I am not limiting my argument to sandbox games. Both Deus Ex and Metal Gear Solid, for instance, are closed stories beyond my control (my actions do affect which ending I view but each possible ending is still predetermined), but are open games in the sense that I am able to navigate and interact with the levels freely—even in ways that render the story nonsensical.
Dragon Age, on the other hand, feels like a closed game which does not give me any freedom to navigate or interact with the world. That is a contentious thing to claim that can easily be argued against, I am aware. However, each Dragon Age locale that I visit feels confined and contrived; I can talk and interact with characters to progress the story, but can only interact with the world—and by extension, play the game—in very limited ways.
Despite the rich depth of fiction supporting Ferelden, I never feel like I am visiting places, just levels. Shadow Moses Island and Deus Ex’s Liberty Island, despite the linear stories the games force me through, feel like real places. Metal Gear Solid and Deus Ex only allow me to interact with the story in limited ways, but I can interact with their worlds (and thus their games) in significant ways. Dragon Age, however, while letting me interact thoroughly with the story, rarely lets me interact with the game.
By closing off the game and opening up the story, BioWare games give me agency where I do not require it, and remove my agency from where I do require it. That is, I am able to affect the story more at the price of being able to play the game.
Narratives are essentially linear. Some are convoluted with flashbacks and various points-of-views and whatnot, but every narrative essentially starts at a beginning and progresses towards an end. Games have some fascinating contributions to make to storytelling discourse. One is allowing unique player experiences to emerge from the act of play in games such as The Sims or Far Cry 2. Another is allowing the player to partake in existing narratives by enacting a specific character role. However, I am increasingly convinced that one of these contributions is not the delinearisation of what are still essentially pre-authored narratives.
I feel that if a game has a particular story to present, it should present it. As the Bissell quote above states, I do not play games because I want to tell stories; I play games because I want to take part in a story. I want to enact a role in the game’s story, not rewrite it. The actor playing Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet does not get to decide whether or not he kills Tybalt, but he does get to decide how he personally, uniquely enacts the character of Romeo within the open space of the stage and the closed space of the narrative. Like the actor, the player guides a linear narrative through an open, navigable space.
Arguably, the branching dialogue trees of Mass Effect and Dragon Age are just a higher degree of this: taking part significantly in a story that is being told to me. However, for me this can never be more meaningful that those pick-a-path novels you read as a kid. I do not feel as though I am experiencing my own, personal telling of the story; rather, I merely feel like I am experiencing one of an arbitrary number of hypotheticals. Red Dead Redemption is the story of John Marsden; Deus Ex is the story of JC Denton; Metal Gear Solid is the story of Solid Snake. Dragon Age, however, is not the story of one specific character; it is the story of how a Grey Warden who may exist (but then again may not) may save Ferelden this way (but then again may save Ferelden that way). While the game’s efforts to give the player agency over the story should be applauded, the actual result was that my actions became less significant. The numerous potential paths of the narrative weakened my overall experience of the story. My actions were less meaningful because any other combination of actions could have had the same ultimate result. Ultimately, the story lacked authority.
This is perhaps why Mass Effect is the only BioWare game I have actually completed. Although the player has an impressive amount of influence over what kind of person Shepard is, Mass Effect is ultimately the story of Commander Shepard, not of the player, and it is a stronger story because of this. And, as a game relying primarily on its story, is also a stronger game.
A linear story threads through an open game like a thick rope that anchors and guides the player’s actions. BioWare’s multi-branching narratives are not multiple ropes, but one rope much frayed. The number of paths is not increased (they all still end in a similar conclusion), but the overall strength of the narrative is weakened. Branching narratives is not the way to go about allowing the player their own personal stories. Games can do this, but no pre-authored narrative can. Mass Effect, with all its dialogue trees, will never have the breadth of unique stories that have emerged from more emergent games like The Sims or Far Cry 2.
This is not to completely undermine al the incredibly things Mass Effect and other BioWare games achieve. The predicament with Wrex will go down as one of my more gripping gaming moments of recent times. BioWare does an extraordinary job of making me feel for its characters and worlds. However, I believe that is more a product of their splendid, encyclopaedic knowledge of their worlds than from any number of dialogue trees.
I have no issue with linear narratives in games, and I have no issue with open, emergent narratives in games. I also have no issue with games experimenting with linear narratives in new ways. However, I do have an issue with linear narratives trying to be emergent narratives. At best, they will be complex pick-a-path stories, nothing more.
This is why I find Mass Effect the most enjoyable of BioWare’s titles. It is a linear narrative about Commander Shepard fighting the Reapers. The player is able to participate in the narrative by making significant choices along the way, but the narrative itself remains the same. This is the story of Commander Shepard. Dragon Age, however, gave me no reason to commit to its narrative as the game itself felt uncommitted. It was not a story; it was one branch no more remarkable than a thousand other branches.
It is not the number of narrative paths that fascinate me about a story-driven game—a game based on emergent play will always have an infinite number more. Rather, it is the ability to take part in one specific, well-presented narrative path that interests me. I am a player and, by definition, my participation is in the gameplay; it is in the gameplay that my agency can do the most good. Narratives, historically, have always worked best when linear and closed off from the audience’s input; gameplay has always worked best when left open to the player’s experimentation. So perhaps, instead of merging the two together, games should keep it that way. Give the player a point A and a point B and a navigable space between the two and let them find the rope to pull them through it.

As noted throughout this article, I am not trying to be prescriptive here. I am very aware that many people do enjoy these BioWare games for exactly the reasons I do not. Perhaps I am simply approaching them with the wrong frame-of-mind. I can already see some key weaknesses in my arguments that could easily be argued against (i.e. How can I say the player has significant choices in Mass Effect if the narrative is unaffected?). I welcome challenges to the conclusions I have drawn here in the comments. Not because I think I am right, but because I want to understand why I do not enjoy these games.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Keeping Pace

Game stories, like all stories, follow the structure of beginning-middle-end. The beginning introduces the characters, status quo, and the conflict the characters face that disrupts the status quo; the middle places challenges along the characters’ path as they try to resolve the conflict; and the end is where the conflict is ultimately resolved (one way or another) and the status quo is reinstated (or a new status quo is reached). This is the narrative arc and is the thread that stitches the stories various scenes together. The story starts at an arbitrary point, rises in intensity towards the climax of conflict, and then drops again as the conflict is resolved. It may have small bumps along the way as minor conflicts present themselves and are resolved along the way, but it all contributes to the underlying arc. Very broadly, all narrative arcs look something like this:
The speed at which a story moves along its narrative arc is its pace. Pace to a story is as beat to a song. Without it, the story trips over its own feet and unravels into a random heap of disconnected events. A well-paced narrative arc does not peak too early, does not drop too late, and most importantly, does not flat-line.
Film has found a pace for their medium that works and has been accepted as the convention to which nearly all films comply: a two-hour narrative (give or take) with a slow build of conflict that reaches its climax around three-quarters of the way in. This pace works and, as long as it is maintained and does not flat-line, holds the audience’s attention well enough to allow the entire narrative to be consumed in one sitting.
Shorter videogames have adopted the filmic pace appropriately. Metal Gear Solid, for instance, is a brief, concise, single conflict in a single environment that paces itself along the traditional beginning-middle-end narrative arc well enough. The intensity of the conflict slowly builds throughout the game, and the climax never feels too far away. It is not entirely unheard of for people to complete Metal Gear Solid in one sitting.
However, the vast majority of game narratives are many times longer than those of film, taking anywhere up to and over a hundred hours to complete. Stretching the narrative structure of a two-hour film over even a twenty-hour game produces a diluted experience that takes too long to get started, grinds perpetually in the middle, and eventually reaches a conclusion that does not seem to warrant the time taken to get to it. The audience can tolerate waiting ninety minutes for the climax of a film, but waiting twenty-five hours for the climax of a videogame is unbearable. So what is a pacing model that could work for game narratives?
There is another narrative form that stretches a narrative across tens of hours: the TV series. If a single episode of a series is an hour long and a series consists of four ten-episode seasons, then that is a forty-hour narrative arc. Just like most videogames, a TV series is not intended to be consumed in one sitting. A TV series is not merely a forty hour narrative chopped into forty, consumable chunks. Rather, each episode works as a self-contained micro-narrative that also contributes to the broader, meta-narrative arc of the whole series. The status quo is not reinstated at the end of each micro-narrative episode, but a new status quo is reached from which the following episode can begin. Each episode is its own micro-narrative arc of beginning-middle-end threaded along the arc of the meta-narrative. Something like:
Just like TV series, games too split their narratives into smaller chunks: levels. In the same fashion as an episode of a TV series, each level of a game is a section of a broader narrative, but also requires its own micro-narrative arc in order to keep the game properly paced.
Uncharted 2 does this beautifully. Every level is a fully self-contained narrative with a well-paced beginning-middle-end that also contributes to the game’s overall meta-narrative. Every level follows a similar structure: the slow, stealthy introduction to the environment and goals as Drake sneaks in; the climactic conflict as something goes wrong; and the desperate rush to get out alive. Instead of beginning each subsequent level at the intensity of conflict reached in the previous level (i.e. starting with a shoot-out because the previous level ended with a shoot-out), Uncharted 2 beings each new level at a new status quo more intense than the previous level’s beginning but less intense than the previous level’s end. This allows Uncharted 2 to climb the meta-narrative arc at a consistent pace as each level begins with an actual beginning and each level rewards the player with its own climax and resolution. This keeps the pace consistent and steady, and prevents the player’s interest from waning.
Left 4 Dead is another excellent example with tangible micro-narrative arcs built into the very architecture of the levels. Each safe-house acts as the status quo at which one micro-narrative is resolved and the next one begins. Between each is a mad dash, each more difficult and intense than the last with increased types of special infected, scripted events, and a depleting supply of medkits and pain pills. The micro-narrative dash from safe-house to safe-house culminates in the finale event that acts as the climax for the meta-narrative of the entire game.
Assassin’s Creed, conversely, is just one of many otherwise-good games marred by its flawed pacing. I often consider returning to the game for a second playthrough, but I am unable to tolerate the long, boring introduction before the world opens up to me. Then, once the game finally ‘starts’, it is essentially just a grind until the assassinations are complete. There are no climaxes to keep me interested, no important character developments, just one constant slug through a list of hits. Arguably, each assassination is its own micro-narrative; however, there is no sense that the status quo is readjusting or that the conflict is escalating towards a crescendo. Assassin’s Creed is paced like this:
I enjoyed the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed; I really enjoyed the style and characters and writing, but because it failed at pacing its narrative, I have been unable to return to the game. It must be noted, though, that Assassin’s Creed is an open-world game while Uncharted 2 and Left 4 Dead are linear and more easily controlled by the designer. While pacing certainly becomes exponentially more difficult to manage when the player is free to spend countless hours just exploring, I feel open-world games such as Assassin’s Creed could still harness the micro-narrative within missions. The Grand Theft Auto series attempts this to varying degrees of success. While the player is free to take as long as they want to complete the narrative, the missions themselves work as increasingly intense micro-narratives along the meta-narrative arc. Assassin’s Creed, by comparison, deadlines throughout the middle.
Many games have great stories to tell and interesting mechanics to tell them with, but due to poor pacing, fail to keep the player’s attention for the duration required for the narrative to. While some have overly long introduction/tutorials that attempt to cram in an explanation of every single play mechanic, others stagnate in the middle due to drawing out the action with no climactic reward until the very end. Instead of grinding for hours across a taut, filmic narrative arc stretched too thin towards the one, eventual climax, the micro-narrative structure of TV series gives a longer game the faster pace required to keep the player interested by chopping the narrative into smaller, consumable chunks that each contains its own narrative satisfaction.

Notes: 1. The idea for this post first started in a rambling, musing comment to Ian Cheong's "First Impressions and Second Chances" over at Hellmode. 2. I am fully aware of the gratuitous amounts of innuendo present in this post.