new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Ties That Bind

It’s been quite a while since I’ve touched on any subjects relating to my pet project, which I have christened Contextual Gameplay Narrative. I’ve discussed narrative and gaming with Derek several times, and we’ve come to agree that gaming and narrative are not inevitable partners; rather there are some games that will choose to utilize narrative to enhance the core elements that videogames already manifest and there are some that will not – there will always be spectacular games that have no story elements whatsoever. But forget about those for a second and allow me to talk about the ones that do. I’ve always felt that the videogame structure of dividing gameplay elements and story sequences into separate components was a gross misuse of opportunity – imagine going to see a movie and every 30 minutes having the lights come up and an usher pass out books to the audience; such is the general state of gaming narrative. A much more effective strategy, in my opinion, would be to seamlessly integrate gameplay sequences and narrative in such a way that they are no longer individual entities – in effect, narrative is unfolded through play. There are games that have succeeded at this – Half-Life was probably the first, and Valve has gone on to show their mastery of the technique in both Half-Life 2 and Episode 1. ICO brought this concept to an entirely new audience, actually crafting gameplay mechanics that centered on forwarding narrative goals, and God of War went from best action game of a generation to best game of a generation altogether with one desperate, selfless embrace.

The games mentioned above all have different ways of going about gameplay and narrative implementation, and all of them rely on traditional conventions at one point or another as well, so by no means am I willing to concede that they’ve arrived at the perfect ideal, if such a thing exists. But they are easily the most advanced in terms of forwarding my agenda, and as such they are the best games over which to scrutinize. The first thing that leaps out to me when examining Half-Life 2 Episode 1, ICO, and God of War is that these three examples of contextual narrative all rely on the same motivational feelings; specifically, those of a man’s innate tendency to protect and care for women. Is this accidental? It most certainly could be; since it’s safe to assume that most of the people who developed these games are male, the concepts created could have simply evolved unconsciously. If purposeful, it is logical for the developers to conclude that the bulk of the playing audience would be male, thus scenarios taking advantage of natural male tendencies (like say, holding a girl’s hand and leading her out of a scary place) would be successful. Accepting this observation for a moment, I'd like to examine the unique ways in which these games successfully achieve their common goal.

I maintain that the greatest videogame persona of all time is Gordon Freeman. This stems primarily from the way that Valve presents, or doesn't present, the details of his character. Sure, you know he's a scientist, one who is late to work now and again. When thrust into a stressful situation, people look to him for help. Later, he turns into a sort of legendary figure and the one true Free Man, an instrument of revolution. But mostly, Gordon Freeman is whoever the hell you, the player, is. As he never talks, you as the player are solely responsible for the thoughts and actions of Gordon Freeman - you are Gordon Freeman, and in concept, I don't think there is any equal. But if there was a close second, it would be Alyx.

I'm guessing Alyx is supposed to be some sort of love interest. She's young and strong (stronger than Gordon, actually [she's seemingly invincible], but the game is careful never to paint her as such), and she lets her gazes hang a bit longer than they should on Gordon. She goes as far as to place a longing hand on the other side of a pain of glass, presumably awaiting Gordon's reciprocation, which of course you are unable to do. But strip away Alyx's comforting voice and athletic frame, and you've essentially got a really nice tutorial/prompt system. Alyx tells you where to go, moving the plot forward through some sort of overlying need (the destruction of the city and everything in it, most recently). She gives handy advice on how to dispatch of enemies, oftentimes in convoluted ways (cars on top of ant lion dens, hello). There’s one particular puzzle, however, that I find quite compelling. A staple of the shooter genre, Gordon Freeman carries a flashlight, useful for getting around in the typically over dark areas that have plagued first-person shooters virtually ever since their inception. Tragically, Alyx has failed to bring one along on their journey, and thus in some situations, she insists that you shine your light on enemies for her, so that she can see them. It essentially breaks down to simple plate spinning - the game wants you to be preoccupied with your interests as well as the interests of an external element. But because it's young, strong, Alyx asking for your help, and not some level object that simply requires your partial attention, you're compelled on a completely different level - an emotional one. Most of Alyx's core functions could be easily replicated by boxes of text, occasionally instructing you to complete this level puzzle here, or to help a group of fleeing refugees over there. Note, though, that the most important function Alyx serves could not be rendered so sterilely - she's meant to make you feel. Alyx is so effective because as a young athletic female she is able to reach your brain on an emotional level, perhaps in a way you don't even consciously realize. My conspirator James Chen would call this a more immersive way of going about things. I just call it awesome.

If there was ever a prototype for Alyx, and a prototype for all in-game companions after her appearance, it would be Yorda. In interview, Fumito Ueda (who is either very brilliant or very lucky – it almost doesn’t matter which) has stated that the relationship between ICO and Yorda was inspired by classic anime featuring younger males paired with older females, like Tetsuro and Maetel from Galaxy Express 999. In Galaxy Express, the relationship between the two characters is maternal; Maetel reminds Tetsuro of his mother – a similarity that plays an important role in the bond between the two characters. Ueda brought the ages of ICO and Yorda closer together to create a more romantic connection. This change was so effective because it allowed ICO to retain both maternal and sexual elements (icky for some of you I’m sure, but this is no new notion). Visually ICO appears young and clumsy, and like all adolescents quite awkward in his body. Still, he retains that boyish adventurism that allows us to climb to heights in our youth that we can only imagine reaching as adults. Yorda is timid and unsure of herself, stepping lightly and hesitantly, only making herself vulnerable at ICO’s beckoning. While they are both childlike, their movements are reminiscent of two young people in the early stages of a relationship, still nervous, and shy around each other, desperately attempting to seem composed at all times, which invariably encourages the opposite result. Because they are thrown into this dire situation, they naturally find strength in each other. This is reinforced by the complimentary abilities that the pair posses. ICO is able to fend off the shadow monsters that seek to steal Yorda away, and Yorda can open various doors with a magical energy that emanates from her body. You as the player must guide Yorda out of danger, and the game must show you through Yorda that your efforts are successful. One of my favorite moments in ICO comes during a routine moment, where ICO and Yorda are jumping across some small gaps. Normally, Yorda is too unsure of herself to attempt large jumps on her own, but on this occasion she makes the jump on her own, without ICO having to instruct her to do so. This is because, according to Ueda, Yorda has learned to trust herself, and her traveling companion. They have formed a bond, and this is that bond’s expression. It’s is a subtle indicator, but the message is delivered all the more powerfully because of it.

Yorda is unlike Alyx in a lot of ways. Yorda is physically weak, and she doesn’t do any guiding at all. Most of the game, in fact, has the player trying to figure out just how to get Yorda to places that ICO has relative ease negotiating. And yet there is so much similarity between them as motivators. Games have always relied on various story-driven impetuses through which to guide us through, whether personal like saving your girlfriend from a marauding monkey or grandiose, like the ever-popular saving the world from a seemingly endless supply of aliens. Yorda and Alyx are certainly meant to appeal to the player on a more fundamentally reptilian level; they tug at the very fibers of nature and humanity itself. They are as real as you are within the synthetic game spaces, and their states, whether triumphant or vulnerable, are communicated to you more directly than perhaps any other characters in videogames.

[Aside: On]

I talk about God of War a lot, I know. I do this for a few reasons, one of which is that it is probably the best console game of this generation. If you’re tired of me referencing it I’m sorry, but there’s hope for a respite on the horizon: God of War 2 comes out early next year.

Kratos is a really interesting character, one that divides, I think, how many people feel about God of War. Many people, in this era of the erudite and emotive male, interpret him as this ultimate manifestation of the Generic Angry Videogame Character, smoldering with a healthy dose of omni-directed rage. I can possibly understand this opinion if it is partially formed by the public perception of the game’s director, David Jaffe. He’s got a great big personality which tends to clash with the traditional (Japanese) concept of the modestly reserved videogame director (see Miyamoto, Kojima, the aforementioned Ueda, etc.). I think many erudite, emotive males have trouble making sense of the way Jaffe comes off, and moreover, I think a fair dose of bias for Japanese sensibilities has made Kratos an unfair target of criticism, which is ironic, of course, because God of War takes advantage of several of the same design sensibilities that many of the more popular Japanese games also utilize.

Sorry to digress, but some of the criticism I’ve heard of God of War really confuses me. Alright, back to feelings and whatnot.

[Aside: Off]

Kratos has made a lot of mistakes in his life, mistakes that culminate in the adventure chronicled within the game. I’ll be honest, until the final boss fight, I thought of God of War as simply the most sensibly designed, well-crafted action game of this generation. It was gorgeous, its level design was impeccable, its camera was flawless, and everyone could effectively utilize its world-class game play systems – the very same design choices that catapulted Resident Evil 4 to its critical acclaim. After completing boss fight stage 1 however, the game aspires to something much more. Kratos is thrust into a world comprised solely of a very pivotal event – the murder of his family by his own hands. In this world, however, his hands are multi-fold - dozens of Kratos clones rush the scene, attacking Kratos’ wife and child. In a powerful moment of self-sacrifice, Kratos must defeat these variations of himself, and when his family suffers injury, he must transfer life to them through hugs.

I want you all to think about that for a second. This supposed vessel of generic rage must embrace his family to progress the sequence. Kratos’ wife and child don’t utter a single word in this entire game; they don’t even have proper names. And yet in this moment they are so fundamentally well expressed that they annihilate pretty much every other video game martyrs that have come before them. And had they been any other relation to Kratos – brothers, parents, cousins, comrades, etc. – the effect would have been completely different. Again, this is a simple matter of human nature. We as men are providers and protectors, and the circumstances depicted in this man versus himself battle concentrate these tendencies in a super–frenetic action sequence that has you throwing Kratos around more frantically than any other time in the game. After successfully negotiating this sequence, I hated Ares. Not “me” Kratos, but “me” Omar, the guy playing the game. I wanted to get back at him for what he had done to me, and what he had done to Kratos. I remember the venom I felt going into the final battle, and I remember the tragic vindication I felt when I beat him. And I know I just wouldn’t have felt the same without the final moments spent between father/protector and family/protected.

So what can we learn from all of this? Most of the experiences crafted in games exploit fundamental “guy” feelings; it’s just that usually, it’s the more aggressive expressions – the testosterone-fueled scenarios filled with big guns and fast cars. It’s obvious, however, that there are many more aspects of human emotion – both masculine and feminine – that can be engaged with great efficacy to forward the medium of games; maybe even to that point where we stop asking ourselves, constantly, if we have achieved legitimacy.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Best a Man Can Get

A few weeks ago I was with a group of friends about to get down with some sweet Super Turbo goodness (the one true Street Fighter 2), when someone pulled out a recent AAA-licensed videogame. I’m going to buck a trend of mine and not name the game – so don’t try to guess, and don’t bother to try to get me to spill. Suffice to say the game was from a major publisher, and was quite high profile, capitalizing on the public awareness of its product tie-in. I myself had seen screens and movies of the game in question before, and what I had seen did not particularly impress me. Nevertheless, I was enthused when some of us decided to take turns playing (the Super Turbo machine was undergoing repairs, so we had some time to kill). While waiting for my turn to play, I was treated to competent yet otherwise unimpressive graphics, and the current player expressed frustration at the game’s general play. Still, opinions can vary, and so I remained cautiously optimistic – I honestly wanted to give the game a fair shake.

My optimism was dashed against the rocks of mediocrity the moment my hands touched the controller.

This game is absolutely awful to control. With no exaggeration, it’s a chore to play. Flabbergasted in the middle of my play turn, I asked the room aloud why a developer would make these horrid control decisions intentionally. Eric (that’s right, I only play ST with top-tier developers) suggested simply, that perhaps these decisions were not intentional at all. Perhaps it was simple lack of skill on the part of the developer. He’s was right, of course. No sane developer would intentionally make their game so unwieldy, tedious, and frustrating – particularly one aimed so squarely at the mass market. With this revelation, though, a new question arose. Why would a publisher allow such a high profile game to rest in the hands of such an incapable developer (and before I appear to paint such a black-and-white picture, I do concede that it’s entirely possible the game was not given enough time by the powers that be to make the game as good as it should have been)? The answer is chillingly simple.

Videogames are generally only as good as they absolutely have to be.

I want you all to mull this over for a second. Many of you probably perceive games to be delightful little labors of love. After all, if you play games, there’s a better than average chance that you have a strong emotional attachment to at least one of them; it’s reasonable to imagine that love begets love. It would be ridiculous for me to try to convince you that all games are made devoid of any passion or love, and that’s not my aim. But make no mistake, games are a business first. If one day there’s no money to be made in the gaming business, you can be sure that videogames as you know it will cease to exist, passionate or otherwise. With big business comes careful calculation, planning, and risk management, and profitability comes before everything. Tragically, sometimes profitability comes before making the best product you can. Let’s face it, in life the best isn’t always the most popular – it’s public perception that rules the day. There are better sounding, more feature-rich mp3 players than the iPod, but that doesn’t stop it from being the undisputed king of portable music devices. There are cleaner burning, more abundantly available fuel sources than gasoline, yet fossil fuels are still the fuel de jour.

So what does this have to do with videogames? Well just like those other products, there are certain games that people will buy, regardless of their actual quality. Isn’t it kind of disconcerting that the lowest rated Madden in seven years is also the best-selling? Madden is far from being a bad game, but what happens when EA and Tiburon actually stop trying as hard, reassured by the fact that quality and sales are not directly proportional? One of my co-workers spoke to me recently regarding one of his past projects. The game was close to its release date, yet desperately behind in its schedule. Instead of being allotted more time, the developers were instructed by the publisher to get the game done and on time, quality be damned. The publisher’s unwillingness to allow more time to make the game better was simple. According to them, research indicated that the game was going to sell a certain amount of units no matter how good or bad it was. The game, a licensed one, was primarily going to appeal to young children, whose parents, who have no interest in actually playing the game themselves, would buy it for them. This particular buying group is typically less savvy than the hardcore gaming audience, who are more likely to check reviews and gather community feedback before committing to purchasing a new game. Parents pay more attention to the license of a game than its actual quality, and children are more tolerant of flaws so long as the license is represented well enough. This creates a perfect storm for publishers, who simply want to exploit this willingness on the consumer’s part to buy lower quality, cheaper games. The money saved in development can then go on to buy more and more lucrative licenses, which while not assuring financial success, certainly increase the odds of it. My co-worker’s game was released, to great commercial success and harsh critical attacks. That, ultimately, is how we ended up that day, playing that awful game.

Fortunately, there are still a lot of publishers out there who are dedicated to making the best product they can. For some games, quality is the most important factor in ensuring success. God of War is a great example of a game with no license, poor cultural relevance, and limited potential audience that has gone on to be one of the biggest successes of this entire generation, riding simple excellence of execution to both critical and commercial success. Rest assured that other publishers have already observed God of War’s successful practices, and are well on their respective ways to bringing you games of the highest quality possible. I can’t wait.

Thanks for reading.