woensdag 8 augustus 2012

Circumstance & Story pt. 1

At some point in my so-called career as a gamer, I stopped being interested in games. For a few years, the TV captured all of my attention instead - I was young, and MTV seemed big and shiny and terribly attractive. I floated back some time later, but found that I had missed out on a great deal of important titles, and I was reluctant to make up for it.

Was being the key word. I am as we speak knee-deep in a game of Thief 2, a stealth classic I have fuzzy memories of reading about in the magazines as I was starting to lose my interest in gaming. It's been an interesting experience leaping back to this game after several months of focusing primarily on modern AAA games. Not that the gameplay is necessarily that different (there's a distinct lack of chest-high walls, I'll give them that) but the way the story is told most certainly is.

As far as I've heard, Thief 2 approached its story by creating the levels first, and then winding the various missions around them. It shows: it takes a few moments before the set-up of every mission sinks in when you start, with context being given primarily in text, a relic of gaming's earlier days. At the same time, there's a modern edge to it: key story elements can be found as you play, outside of the main framing device, such as scrolls and scripted conversation between NPCs.

It's exemplary for 90s games that were trying to figure out how to fuse storytelling and gameplay together. Another example would be the original StarCraft, which used a few fumbling CG videos and a lot of small, repetitive character icons accompanied by text and voice to tell its story. Occasionally these icons would pop up again during gameplay, usually to exposition on a change in the level's parameters. Inevitably, though, these icons would fade away and leave you to the business of gaming, as if patting you on the shoulder and saying, okay, it's your turn again.

I remember being quite impressed by Half-Life in that respect when it first came out: to my young self, it was 'the game where the story actually happens in the game'. Sure, a lot of it looks clumsy now to our eyes, but it dragged the model from story-then-game to story-and-game. The famous opening sequences, where your avatar goes through the Black Mesa facility and physically pushes a cart into a beam, causing the story's catalyst (the resonance cascade) is exemplary of that.

Of course, that does generate this strange sense that the story should be manipulable, but isn't. I've played several games where I'd grow frustrated with my character's seeming inability to do something that seemed like it made sense, either because the game had already established that I could cause certain story flags to happen myself, or because it asked me for a solution that seemed so much dumber than the far more creative one I'd come up with.

It's that same effect that made parts of Mass Effect 3 so frustrating to some players: you're so used to some parts being interactive that the thought of another part not being interactive or malleable seems ridiculous. After all, if killing Wrex means you don't run into him in the sequel, then why does telling Garrus to fuck off in the first game have no real impact on his dialogue trees in the later games? As I discussed earlier, the more options you offer, the more consequences gamers feel they are entitled to cause or get.

I haven't finished Bastion yet, but so far it's offered me an interesting solution to this problem. The game's narrator talks about your adventures as you have them-- in past tense. Rather than just describing the key scripted points that your character can't avoid, though, the narrator seems to be intimately familiar with the details of your particular playthrough. For example: if you run around smashing everything, he makes a comment to that effect. It's a terribly effective way of offering the player the illusion of consequence, because everything they do matters to the story that is being told.

Of course, it is only an illusion, and that's the problem with our increasing assumption that everything in a game is, or should be, malleable. A game can only respond to actions that the devs have anticipated and programmed towards, and that means in a practical sense there's always a struggle with resources. Eventually, they'll stumble upon the ancient issue of depth versus width-- but I'll talk about Mass Effect versus Skyrim later.

Thief 2 is an interesting artifact. It's a game in which the story is mostly rigid, but you can determine a certain amount of the information that reaches you throughout the game-- by which objects the player chooses to interact with. At the same time, it doesn't really let you touch the story itself yet: it still gives you the story and then the game. But you can see the bleed starting to happen, the way the relatively simplistic story is given more detail via in-game elements-- probably Half-Life's influence-- and attempts to give you a sense that you're actually part of the world.

dinsdag 7 augustus 2012

Empty Bookstores

I took a trip downtown today to pick up some books for my thesis - a surely rollicking affair about newsgames and their uses in journalism - only to find that all the books the website had promised me did not seem to exist in the store itself.

I did find the gaming section eventually: seven or so books wedged in the back of a bookcase full of how-to iPhone app guides and thick C++ for Dummies tomes. Apparently, Art merits ten or more stuffed cases and a display, television gets its own bookcase, and gaming isn't really worth mentioning. I picked the only one vaguely relevant to my research (an analysis of the Wii in both technological and narrative terms) and went on my way.

I sound bitter, but I'm not: god knows, game studies are only into their second decade. TV studies books are only just starting to pop up in the bookstore, and they've been going for quite a while longer. Media take a long time to become respectable enough to warrant analysis in not just the niche but the public eye, and gaming hasn't even wrestled out from under its reputation of being 'for kids' or 'for boys' yet.

Still, it makes me sad. Because gaming is an incredibly interesting phenomenon from a narrative point of view. New media (or I suppose in the case of gaming, sub-media, as it's part of computing at large) spend time struggling to find their own approaches to narrative. I've always been a huge fan of television - even before qualitative series became more 'mainstream', so to speak - because of what it does for storytelling. Television allows for stories to be told across longer spans of time without boring the audience - a good show pulls you into the story not just for the duration that you're watching an episode, but for the rest of the weeks that it's running, driving you to talk, think, and feel about it well after the credits show while invoking anticipation and creative supposition for the next episode.

For me, that makes a story come to life much more than film, which provides a more compact structure, a story that goes from point A to point Z within its running time. (I'm not saying that film is inferior to television - but that I enjoy what television does to a story more than what film does) But in order to get there, television had to go through a process of remediation where it tried out different clothes. Theater pieces were filmed and put on screen, real life was drawn into the medium through live television, the news was read to the audience. All of these things remain in some form or another, but eventually, television found a format that it did best-- better than everyone else: serials. You can't keep making people spend money and go out to see a new part of a movie every week (never mind the old expenses of film) but if you can broadcast something to their living room every week, you've suddenly got a dedicated viewership. And knowing that, you can start experimenting, creating your own narrative grammar of serialized entertainment.

Gaming has found its defining feature rather quickly: interactivity. It's a feature inherited from its big overarching medium, the computer, the one thing it does better than everything else. Bringing narrative into that feature is another matter entirely, though, and one the medium has been working hard to master for years now, starting with the rather stolidly defined lines between adventure/text game and action game back in the 80s and 90s, where one was all-text with interaction that didn't go far past the flipping of a page-- an attempted remediation of the book-- and one built the most simple narrative it could to justify what its characters were doing.

And by 'characters', I mostly mean you: the player. Because while interactivity might be a defining feature of computing, and gaming as an extension thereof, it's first-person that's becoming gaming's real contribution to narrative as a language. Spec Ops: The Line, which I talked about earlier, is a prime example of that; the game forces you to think about whether you can divorce yourself from your character. The solution I proposed to one of the game's more maligned sequences is really the difference between asking the question 'Is this avatar you or someone else?' and 'Do you realize what games ask you to do?'. Both are valid-- I might happen to find the second more interesting, but they're both valid pieces of criticism about gaming and its first-person point of view (yes, even if it's a third-person shooter).

Game studies might not be big enough yet to populate my big-city bookstore in any significant way, but it has a lot of interesting things to say about stories, and the way we can tell them, and the different forms that viewer participation can take. Films are in many ways done when they are shown, television draws in its participants with tension and anticipation in the breaks between airings, and games put you at the wheel and ask you to decide what form the experience will take and how long it will last. Each approach has a significant impact on its story.

But this is just my starting point. I'll say more on that in later posts.

donderdag 2 augustus 2012

Crossing the Line (Some Thoughts The Morning After)

I finished playing Spec Ops: the Line last night. Unfortunately, I did not go in entirely unspoiled - something which no doubt jaded my experience of some of the game's more shocking moments. So: In the off chance that you're reading this without having played the game: this one's going to be a spoilery one. Reading it might diminish the emotional impact of the moment I'm about to discuss.

Now that that's out of the way...

The turning point of Spec Ops: the Line happens when the main character, Captain Walker, commits an atrocity from which there isn't any coming back. It's the moment that sets it apart from other shooters of its kind, making you think about what you've been doing and what you've just done and what it actually means.

The problem is that it's marred by an absence of choice - a deliberate decision on the parts of the developers. Walker rains down white phosphorus on a large army encampment and winds up killing civilians in the process. In the larger context of the gameplay, this is unavoidable. You cannot progress past this stage in the game without picking up the mortar and turning the area into a reflection of hell. This was done, according to the devs, so that players would blame them for their own decisions, much the same way as Walker increasingly blames the circumstances and the enemy for his own terrible actions.

The point is valid. Narratively speaking, it also makes sense: the game is about Walker's descent into madness, his furious attempts to externalize the blame for the horrors he perpetuates, and the way his desire for heroism turns him into a villain. But something about it niggles.

There is an option available-- you could put down the controller and refuse to play. But this is not really an option within the narrative itself, because putting down the controller means stepping outside of the story, sticking your fingers in your ears and going na-na-na-na. You're not confronting the fact that your own desire to escape and be the hero is causing untold damage in this game - you're actively running away from it. (Of course, from a critical standpoint, you could say that putting down the controller is part of your personal experience/narrative sense of the game. However, I have a feeling the average player would simply go on to pick up another game that does graciously allow you to revel in personal heroics, which kind of breaks the narrative a bit.)

Perhaps the game would have been stronger (though possibly not attainable in a resources sense) if it had offered a parallel, albeit perhaps shorter, narrative. An alternative choice that is not simply a way of getting around using white phosphorus while still killing everyone and continuing on your merry way, sense of heroism untouched: the choice to walk away in-game. What if you, as a player, had the option of sending Walker walking straight on back, giving up on the dream of being a hero, try to simply get out of the city? It wouldn't have to be long: maybe just a level of trying to get back to the storm walls. Just enough to keep you from feeling like you've been stolen out of the narrative itself.

It might not be as dramatic. It doesn't touch on the question of how close we are to our game avatar - a theme that the developers also chose to include - and maybe in that respect, it's not quite right for this game. But it would have been a more interactive solution, something that takes more advantage of the fact that this is a game, it is not the book Heart of Darkness or the movie Apocalypse Now!, it is its own creature. Not only that, but it would burden the player with a much stronger sense of responsibility: knowing that there was another way to see the game to an end, and yet they picked the one that caused so much pain, just because they wanted to be a hero.

Just like Captain Walker.

donderdag 12 juli 2012

Lonely In The Dark

Lone Survivor and Limbo are both very creepy games.

Limbo has its gruesome-shadows-in-the-dark aesthetic. The way it veils itself - the details reduced to shadows, shapes - is a very efficient tool in promoting terror, giving you just enough information to realize something terrible is happening, and just not enough to let you fully grasp how. Lone Survivor crafts its terror with sounds (the sucking, stalking, crawling noises of zombies in the dark), bloody imagery and the strange, nightmare-like quality of the interactions with other sentient beings.

Both'll give you nightmares.

But there's one significant difference between the two games: how they play with fear. Limbo never lets you come down from it; you're always going forward, sometimes because something is forcing you to, sometimes because there's simply nowhere to go. After a while, it becomes nigh-claustrophobic. The unsettling feeling it forces on you keeps increasing, and there isn't any sign of it letting up.

It plays like a traditional horror narrative: The only escape you've got is quitting the game and returning to it later. You have to take yourself out of the experience to kill the tension.

On the other hand, Lone Survivor very consciously gives you an escape that's embedded in the narrative. Rather than pushing you onwards, the game anchors you in your own apartment, and thus gives you somewhere to return if the unsettling noises and sights of the outside world become too much. Suddenly, the game that was all about fleeing zombies becomes about cooking dinner, sitting down on the sofa to play a video game, and maybe petting your cat.

And that's not a bad thing. It's a grounding experience in the middle of a game that seems so intent on alienating your character from reality. It provides a place to recharge - not just your character, but as a player - before going on. In a strange way, your character's apartment starts feeling like it's home, because it's your only refuge.

In the latter case, the inclination to quit the game to take a breather isn't quite as strong, or at least it's framed very differently. Saving in Lone Survivor only happens when you go to bed for the night (an act that also influences your character's sanity rating), forcing you to return to that refuge whether you like it or not. In Limbo, you can step into and out of the experience at any time. It's more like putting a movie on pause.

With Limbo, there's no way but forward, but you can also skip out any time. It's hitting a pause button that you can hit again at any time, removing your character's experience from your own. I want to keep going as long as I'm playing the game, because the only promise of an in-game 'safe state' lies at the very end. But when I'm not playing, I don't feel as much time pressure to continue; the character will stay where he is until I decide otherwise.

I feel like Lone Survivor's take draws you further into the game, in that time spent away from it doesn't quite feel like a break as a player. Rather, your experience of living in that world keeps a 1:1 ration to your character's experience. When you are away from the game, he is asleep. When you return, he wakes. I found myself making sure my breaks in between playing sessions weren't too big, because I was left with the feeling of a story - or a life - unfinished. At the same time, I found myself dithering curiously about taking steps further into the game's narrative, because it meant leaving the safety of home base behind.

This difference has a very real influence on the flow of tension in these narratives. Lone Survivor's is perhaps the most interesting, because it steps outside of the regular horror movie mold. It's a more interactive experience: you choose when to take the lid off the pressure cooker, letting off some of the tension. Or perhaps 'letting off' isn't the right expression; it changes the tension of the game, shifting it from an intense in-the-moment sense of acute terror to a more location-locked, there are bad things outside feel.

And by changing the tension, it also changes the narrative of the game. After all, it's perfectly possible to do a straight-up run of Lone Survivor that involves spending almost no time in the apartment at all. That brings it closer to being like Limbo, with its constant driving force forward, and the idea that the goal is getting out, period. But if you take your time in the apartment, that's different. The story becomes about a character who's trying to survive with as much comfort as they can manage, sacrificing time and rationing food in order to keep their head screwed on straight.

Does the concept of this hub slow down the game, deflating the tension in a negative way? I don't think it quite does. The simple existence of the resource management gameplay element (you have to eat every x hours) means that your apartment is a temporary safe haven at best. The time will come where you have to go outside and collect more food, and that means facing the dangers of the outside world again. 

There's always a sense that the evil is lurking just outside your door, and you will have to go out and face it again-- but right now, you can sit your character down, play a video game, and take the edge off your mind-numbing fear... without ever quite forgetting where you are. As a consequence, the immediate fear is not as strong, but the tension might in fact be higher, because every day you dither is another day you risk death, whether by zombie or by running out of food.

Obviously, I'm not advocating that all games should be more like Lone Survivor. I like Limbo as the gruesome burst of high-octane adrenaline fuel that it is. But Lone Survivor's is an interesting take which plays with gaming as an interactive medium, where you determine the speed and direction of your own narrative-- and it does so without giving you the time-honed RPG tropes of obvious dialogue options and clearly demarked forks in the road.  

zondag 8 juli 2012

On RPGs and Choice

So. Mass Effect 3.

Though it's primarily known for its ending controversy, fans have been raising other issues with the game. Take my friend T., who's pissed off beyond measure at the sudden, quiet demise of the neutral dialogue option. According to him, he's lost his ability to play punch-clock Shepard, the galactic hero who's just doing his job and nothing else-- and for him, with about six different Shepards to his name, all subtly different, that's a deal breaker.

With that criticism in mind, I went back to the first game and played it the way T would with his punch-clock Shepard. Imagine my surprise when, besides a small gameplay change in the endgame (I no longer had enough points to talk big bad Saren into killing himself) this choice... didn't actually effect much. Lodged between idealistic and ruthless responses, the neutral dialogue choices often seem to be a less offensive way of saying A or C. The consequences are frequently negligible. If anything, it's an option characterized by the lack of consequences - but it does contribute a sense of roleplay versatility to the game.

And that got me thinking.

I'm a roleplayer - I spent my formative year cruising text-based MU*s of all stripes online. Each type of MU* (a catch-all abbreviation for multi-user-insert-fancy-word-here) falls into its own domain of roleplay, with emphasis on different things. MUDs are closest to western RPGs as we know them: still text-based, they utilize a great deal of programmed-in mechanisms to help your character defeat monsters, level up, and interact with the world.

In that sense, the MUD gives you choices, and then calculates the consequences for it. If your strength stat holds up to a certain number, then your next blow will kill the ogre - if it does not, the ogre has another chance to hit you back. There's no way to say 'no, I actually killed the ogre' or 'no, I cleaved the ogre's arm off so it can't hit me back'. The system has handed you one of a set of pre-determined consequences, and that's it. You have to live with that.

Many other forms of MU*, though - a MUCK, for example - merely hand you tools and expectations. The emphasis lies on versatility and creativity (in fact, I have friends who refer to this kind of roleplay as essentially text-based improv theater) and the responsibility to come up with consequences lies with the players themselves.

I play a knight, my friend plays an ogre, and together, we decide: does this blow kill the ogre? Does it take its arm off? Where can we go from there? It's a free experience with almost limitless choices. There is nothing to determine what consequences your character could possibly get. The downside of that is that the onus really is on you: you cannot rely on a programmer's infrastructure to guide you through your play. The MUCK will probably have provided a world for you to play in, but that's where it stops holding your hand. If your creativity fails you and your partner, there's no system to step in and give you a way to continue.

Games like Mass Effect - despite the marketing that insists on the importance of choice in their narratives - apply a MUD-plus structure by necessity. They're in fact stricter than a MUD, since they're not just limited by text but also by visuals. Making visuals is hard work. Writing text takes much less time. So you have to make choices and limit the players' ability to change their world and their narrative, because at some point down the line, it's your system that has to show and calculate the consequences of those choices, and you might simply not be able to generate visuals for every possible consequence.

Ironically, with Mass Effect also the visuals - and the excellent voice-acting therein - that help make the story as engaging as it is, bringing Shepard to life in a way a MUD can't quite manage. It bolsters a sense of ownership that's only made stronger by the amazing range of choices offered in the games. This goes especially for the first game, in which the player is asked for input almost continuously. And it leads people to expect more customizability: choice begets consequence, after all, and with so many choices, there ought to be just as many consequences, if not more.

Looking at Mass Effect 1 now, I wonder if the choice to have that much choice back then didn't generate expectations that couldn't possibly be lived up to. The Mass Effect series isn't a MUCK, and consequences need to be limited to what's structurally possible by necessity. It wasn't as terrible for the second game, which still held the promise of future games to fill in whatever consequences Mass Effect 2 hadn't. But by the third game, all of those choices had to come home to roost.

And yet not all of them did. Perhaps the best example is the decision to kill or save the insectoid rachni: it only affected ME3 in the sense that it complicated your final choice (whether to take ME3's rachni queen at her word or not). Regardless of whether you killed the queen or not, the race reared its head again, and Shepard was forced to deal with that.

Yet while playing the game, I didn't care. I didn't care when I was done, either. Even months later, watching others spew their bile about it, I still didn't care. I understood their position - after all, they'd been sold the idea that choice begets consequence over and over again - but I couldn't find it within myself to be upset about it.


Because I don't play a MUD for the fully-interactive, limitless consequences. I play a MUD to see what pre-programmed consequences the programmers and the writers have come up with. I enjoy the interactivity of a  MUD because it is limited: I can freely choose to add creative headcanon or no, I can make decisions that shift the game within the context of the pre-programmed structure, but the onus of keeping the plot going is not on me. I am following someone else's structure, and I am keen to see what I'm given and what's possible.

I never bought into the sense that every choice would matter. How could it? In my experience, the only scenario where that's possible is if we're talking Mass Effect MUCK, where another human being can react to my actions in real-time. But players can't be faulted for feeling betrayed for feeling otherwise, when so much of the first two games - especially affairs like the oft-consequence-free middle option - was set up to give you the idea that since the choices were nearly limitless, the consequences would be, too.

I don't mourn the neutral option. But I do feel it set expectations that couldn't be lived up to - and that's a problem that far predates Mass Effect 3.