Friday, April 29, 2011

the state of the industry, Part I: Narrative

This post is going to be about video games. If you could care less about video games, leave the room now.

Any attempt to address the state of the game industry needs to involve an clear and detailed list of the current at-large issues facing the audience of said industry: gamers. We, as gamers, as those who play and enjoy and invest in games, need to face facts and be HONEST with ourselves about what issues actually exist, about what issues actually matter, and what issues can actually be resolved. Let's start then with a list.

In my experience, it's best to organize lists into relevant categories so that any unnecessary ambiguities and overlap can be avoided. However, one downside is the fact that since this is a largely insular approach to such a list, I may end up with categorizations you may disagree with, or items in the "wrong" categories (those are YOUR words! Be honest now!). In other words, bear with me. I'm doing my best!

After much thought and general cauldron-stirring, I've distilled the myriad issues that gamers have with games into the following categories:
  • Narrative
  • Aesthetic
  • Authenticity
  • Design
  • Piracy
 Next, I'm going to list a number of specific, common arguments levied against the current state of games (that is, the majority of games/mass-marketed games/"AAA games"). Since this pool is (ironically) relatively small, you will see the same game or type of game reappear in my attempts to provide concrete examples of these ideas.

First: Narrative.

Let's define the word before we continue. Narrative is another word for storytelling. In games, narrative is often used as a means to motivate the player; to encourage one to play through the game just to see the story. Some games use the game to tell a story, some games use a story as a game, and some games have no story at all. Narrative also serves to tie together the possible emotions or experiences the gamer may have while playing the game. As a side note, it would be interesting to see a developer form a narrative around the emotions that result from a particular game design, as opposed to creating a story and then developing playable parts of that story...

So, on to the issues:
  1. The narrative isn't engaging. - I've felt this way about a number of games, but the most recent game to induce this sensation was Dawn of War II. In DoW II, you play as enormous, genetically (and in every other imaginable -ly) enhanced soldiers fighting off an "inevitable" tyranid invasion. The production values for the game are remarkably high, but the story falls flat. I already know how this story will proceed, climax, and end. The only thing holding my interest in this case then is the satisfaction (or "fun") derived from actually playing through the missions. There may as well not be a narrative to get in the way of it, then.
  2. The narrative doesn't exist. - This may seem like a very ironic point to make in light of my last statement, but it's often cited as a reason why games are "bad". Lacking a deep, compelling story is unfavorable enough; lacking a story altogether is altogether worse. Many a gamer (myself included) has been disappointed by a day-one or even month-one full-price purchase of a hyped game only to be greeted by nothing more than a "play now" button followed by a few lines of exposition and a useless online matchmaking service. Case in point: Battlefield 2142.
  3. The narrative is all there is. - So now this is sounding like a lose-lose-lose situation. Gamers (RPGamers, mostly) have often been sold on the idea of a great story, only to find that the game itself is either unplayable, the sections of play are so short that they devolve into meaningless distractions, or gameplay is simply a means of propelling a story. Even worse are those games which have compelling narratives coupled with borked gameplay resulting in gamers literally suffering through those gameplay sections "just to see the story." Gamers rightfully expect a game, regardless of the quality of the story, to be playable, otherwise it cannot be considered a game. I don't want this argument to be confused with the shortcomings of genre (e.g. adventure games or "casual" games), because it's an issue that is found in all manner of games. However, its prevalence is higher in RPGs, which is a very personally saddening thing to admit. A shining example of this atrocity is Blade Dancer: Lineage of Light. A more well-known example would be the recent Alpha Protocol.
 So, exactly which of these issues is the real problem? Narrative is important, and is a biologically, evolutionarily, and culturally ingrained part of human existence. No one will debate that narrative is not a driving force in any form of media. However, this causes a problem as games themselves are a form of narrative. It can then be argued that any game which contains a "story" actually contains an intrinsic as well as extrinsic narrative, that is, a narrative and a meta-narrative.  In other words, the game itself is already a narrative; any exposition outside of gameplay in which the player must relinquish control is a narrative forcefully inserted into the existing narrative inherent in the gameplay. The degree of incongruity of forcing extrinsic narrative into the gameplay is directly related to the degree to which the player's actions are acknowledged and affirmed by the game.

To elaborate on this idea, let's compare the Call of Duty and Fallout series.

Often cited for their linear gameplay, the Calls of Duty place the player in the shoes of a faceless, "mindless" character with an impressive service history and/or preternatural combat skills. Everyone thinks of you as either green, but good or a prodigy just waiting for the chance to prove himself. Through the course of the game you control this character, infusing this effaced meatbag with your own persona (or persona of your choosing). The oft-cited linearity in this case is argued by the fact that in these games your meaningful choices are extremely limited. The number of enemies per sequence is fixed, their locations and spawn times are fixed, the path from A to B is relatively fixed, and the outcome is fixed. What you do get to choose is limited to such things as: which guy do I shoot first? Which weapon do I use to shoot him? What body part should I shoot him in? How many times do I shoot him? How many times do I let myself get shot? How quickly do I shoot these guys as they appear? How many times do I shoot rather than stab? etc. etc. etc. Interspersed between these choices are a number of expositional elements that, by and large, never acknowledge the quality of those choices you made. If you took your sweet time getting from A to B* no one calls you "slowpoke". If you shoot everyone with a pistol and not a rifle*, no one calls you "John Wayne". If you stabbed more than you shot*, no one calls you "Jack the Ripper". You're always and forever "green, but good" or "a prodigy waiting for the chance to prove himself". That is, until the story tells you otherwise.
At the same time, when you choose to take your time from A to B, or carefully make a parting shot to each enemy soldiers' jewel sack, or even choose to stab every trash can on your way through a level, you experience a narrative all your own, albeit one that is never affirmed by the game. Still, the narrative remains.

*choices like these are sometimes affirmed by modern games through things like achievements.

On other side of this spectrum is the Fallout series. This franchise has been through a lot of turmoil, developmental distress, and has even changed hands a few times, so its quality varies greatly from game to game. That being said, it has at least always focused (in principle) on giving players a feeling of making meaningful choices, non-linear progression, and extensive cross-quest consequences. In its most recent iteration, it goes so far as to let you choose things beginning from birth. While most of these choices are cosmetic (hair color, race, voice, nose depth, chin depth, eye color, etc.), some are not (gender). They even allow you to choose how noisy you are by allowing you to make your neonatal avatar cry with a button press. And still it goes further. The quality of your (albeit pre-written) answers to a fictional aptitude test determines your proficiency in certain skills. In this case you may even circumvent the "normal" course of events and talk your way out of the test (though you achieve a nearly identical result). As you progress through the game, completing quests, killing baddies, talking to NPCS, and general tomfoolery, the world tends to react to you. This is more pronounced in the earlier Fallout games (1 and 2), where random encounters and NPC interaction was heavily influenced by gender, age, intelligence, ethical behavior, skill point distribution, completed quests, faction reputation, number and type of enemy dispatched, and even sexual activity. This stands in stark contrast to the type of choices and consequences presented in the Call of Duty series. Here, the intrinsic and extrinsic narratives of the game are less incongruous.

Why then do we feel the need for narratives in our games if they are in fact already there? Are we blind? Are we stupid? Are we insane? Or are we simply living during a time of media evolution and interconnectivity and "intersubjectivity" that amplifies the subtle and inevitable expectations that are thrust upon any form of media as a result of being exposed to humanity? My best answer to each of these questions is yes.

Are we blind? Yes. Extrinsic narrative is a necessary evil: people aren't always aware that they are participating or creating a story. It's the "reality effect" - nothing happening to us ever really seems that story-worthy, despite those things being unique in perspective, timing, circumstance, and impact. Humans necessarily ignore much of the intrinsic value of things in order A)to conserve mental energy and focus or B)be part of something that is recognized by others as worthy. As social creatures, we prefer to focus on those things that garner us attention. As self-satisfying creatures, we prefer to focus only on those things that interest or benefit us. We are blind.

Are we stupid? Yes. Most people can't tell a compelling story. It's true. We all have that friend who thinks they tell the best stories. In actuality, their stories are dry, convoluted, and unintelligible, often lacking any sort of climax or resolution. But everyone loves to hear a good story, so oftentimes we find ourselves suffering through our friend's terrible storytelling hoping for a decent story, too selfish to tell her that her storytelling capabilities are severely lacking or that her stories just aren't that great. We love stories that much.

Are we insane? Yes. We are all the stars of our own show. We all believe we are the most important person in our life. Without us, we couldn't have gotten where we are now. And yet at the same time we feel so insignificant. This dissonance causes immense emotional and mental distress which, if left unresolved, often turns to violent outbursts. The Greeks knew it, the Chinese knew it, and now we know it. One effective way we've developed to deal with these possible outbursts is to nip that rose in the bud by allowing us to burst out vicariously, through identifying with characters in story. We're wired this way. When you see someone engaged in a fight, you're there with them. It's the mirror effect. You may not feel every blow, but you feel the shame in defeat, the glory in victory. You feel the elation in love and the despair in heartbreak. Stories are a curious necessity of the human existence.

Are we simply living during a time of media evolution and interconnectivity and "intersubjectivity" that amplifies the subtle and inevitable expectations that are thrust upon any form of media as a result of being exposed to humanity? Absolutely. At no other time could a level of collaboration and criticism occur at the speed it does in the current age. Feedback is instant. It is critical. It is withering. The lifespan of ideas is unlike that of physical beings, meaning that they can grow through a multitude of generations, evolving at each step, in mere days, hours, or even minutes. In the past, this process was individual; more creative individuals simply had more voices in their heads telling them what they did was pathetic and idiotic, and why. Now even the most sane of individuals can have a thousand voices shouting at them withing minutes of posting a video, a song, a blog, or a thought, telling them how good, bad, terrible, fantastic, idiotic, insightful, profound, or banal their material is. It's ridiculous. Ridiculously amazing, really. Games are no different. Every game is an idea. An idea that a person is throwing out there and, much like movies, music, and painting, is being looked at, experienced, critiqued. These ideas are being either nurtured and fed or castrated and thrown into the streets, where their creators find their neutered corpses and weep before taking them home and reengineering them in some freak frankensteinian laboratory. And inevitably, what is produced is invariably human. It is a reflection of what humans are, what humans want, and what humans feel. It is a story that is thrust onto a stage and asks to be experienced. Of course games will remind of books and movies, if that is what we have read and experienced. And of course books and movies will remind us of games, if that is what we have played! And of course convergence is inevitable, if all these things were made by nothing other than humans.

The Solution: Make it up as you go along. It's your game. It's your story. It's your choice. Know what you're getting into when choosing a game. If you happen to be playing an interactive movie, have a little equanimity when evaluating it's gameplay. After all, it's a movie. If you want a narrative without the gameplay, read a book. If you want to play a game with a narrative, get lost in the game, then make it up as you go along. Games aren't books. Books tell stories, games make stories. It's like owning an aquarium but hoping for a screensaver.

The magic comes in when you get involved.

Part II: Aesthetic - next week.