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.