Sunday, November 28, 2010

Artistic license.

The last post was about World War 2, so let's continue this discussion in a new medium: film. I've picked World War 2 for both this post and the last because it is simultaneously a very familiar setting, and at times an alien one, as well. We are aware of World War 2 as it has been presented, but there are some established, time-worn changes between "movie" World War 2 and "real" World War 2 that make them distinctly separate entities. Most of these changes fall under the general veil of artistic license, but they do have an effect when it comes to connecting to the real event. These changes fall under two main categories:

Changes In Depiction
In modern depiction, WW2 is almost synonymous with desaturation. Many films that use this technique in the modern era may be following the success of its use in "Saving Private Ryan", where it was used to replicate or imitate black-and-white newsreel footage. Artistically speaking, this is a perfectly sensible reason to use that particular technique, and it certainly seems to have hit home with many imitators. In this way, the crew of Saving Private Ryan (and others) attempt to draw the audience into the events by connecting them to real, actual footage from that time period.

However, what this doesn't take into account is the fact that, due to the proliferation of this technique, it's almost impossible to find an "accurate" depiction of World War 2 (that is, without desaturation). While it's certainly very evocative and connective, it also makes the work less "real". The world of Movie WW2 does not exist in our reality, despite all the measures taken by filmmakers to try to make things realistic.

So which is better? While I certainly feel desaturation served its purposes, I also think that it would help to have an identifiable movie without it. This is necessary to establish an accurate picture of what the war is actually like, in the same way that accurately depicting wounds and so on is. It's a fallacy to assume that people can just assume what it's like on their own; if this wasn't the case, we wouldn't need movies in the first place. Real life reenactors can help to bridge the gaps by making it far more "real" without any cameras to get in the way, but the extent of their reproduction is limited; they don't have the benefit of being able to depict things like artillery, gunfire (apart from blanks), or injury. Therefore, there should be at least some films that show the war as accurately as possible.

Another concern of "depiction" is the difference between an actor and a character. In cases where the actor isn't famous, it's easy to consider the character their own independent entity. However, if the actor is recognizable, it's going to create dissonance between the actor and the character. To keep up our theme of WW2 movies, the character "Captain Miller" in Saving Private Ryan essentially exists to be Tom Hanks (or, at least, Tom Hanks acting like an army ranger). If he wasn't well-known, it might have been easier to consider the character their own entity; most of the other characters (with the potential exception of Vin Diesel) are more recognizable as characters than actors. Even Nathan Fillion (making a short appearance as James Frederick Ryan) is almost indistinguishable from his later appearances. To make the universe convincing, the characters must exist as their own individuals, because otherwise it's just "x actor as a y".

This is not limited to regular acting, either; recognizable voice actors suffer a similar problem. Of course, it can be averted in both cases if the actor is good at actually portraying different characters, changing their voice and appearance, and so on. However, many actors make a living off of being themselves, Tom Hanks included. Hence, all their roles basically seem like them trying out a new job or quirk, which detracts from immersion (but may be funny in its own right).

Fabrication And Plausibility
This is an issue related to any historical fiction (or fiction set in reality), no matter when it's set. The difference between Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan is this: BoB is attempting to portray a real set of events with real people and real places as accurately as is feasible given the necessary, unavoidable gaps in knowledge and differing events. SPR, on the other hand, is a made-up story that takes artistic license on a lot of details. While it's accurate in some ways, the fact that it has to make a story up means that it's inaccurate in at least one major way. As it happens, Saving Private Ryan is also wrong in a bunch of other, smaller ways as well. Like the desaturation effect, it's plausible that many of these errors or changes were made for artistic reasons.

One example is the haircuts of the German soldiers in the film. In real life, the standard German haircut of this period was slightly longer, but in the movie they're buzz-cuts. This is, perhaps, designed to connect these soldiers to the modern conception of a "skinhead", or Neo-Nazi. According to the living history group portraying the Germans (http://www.sbg1.mistral.co.uk/film.htm), the haircut was actually forced upon them - being reenactors, their hair would naturally have been at the correct length, and many of them suspect (as I do) that there is a political reason behind it. In this case, it would literally have been easier to be accurate, and Spielberg had to go out of his way to change this particular detail.

This is not the only example of inaccuracy in the film; things ranging from characterization to tactics are depicted incorrectly. The problem arises because of how many people saw Saving Private Ryan, and what a credible source it can be considered in other fields. For example, the Omaha Beach scene is almost permanently connected to the real D-Day landings, even though there are numerous inaccuracies. Additionally, "Omaha" was not the only beach targeted in the Normandy Invasion, but the other beaches (Sword, Juno, Gold, and Utah) are far less well-known because they don't have bombastic action sequences associated with them. Of course, movies can't cover every part of the entire war, and many of these errors are forgivable as part of the moviemaking process, but the fact is that SPR's status as a "believable" movie makes its errors all the more problematic. With a ridiculous movie, people can accept the idea that liberties have been taken and so on. With a movie like SPR, it takes a trained eye to actually pick out what's wrong, and the untrained eye thinks that it's accurate - and is "learning" something that's made up.

In essence, I feel that some inaccuracies are more forgivable than others. I can accept the depiction of Omaha Beach, because it's necessary to make a very tight, distinct action sequence that conveys the emotions and feelings behind the event rather than only conveying its history. However, many of the inaccuracies that were left in to make the Americans seem like big, silver-screen heroes and the Germans seem like simplistic bad guys are less understandable. It can be argued that this sort of thing was necessary to convince both executives and audiences that the movie had merit, and such a statement is certainly plausible with regards to Hollywood, but its ill effects cannot be ignored either.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gameplay systems and depicting reality.


War games are nothing new. They range from first-person action games to real-time strategy games to grander strategic scales - entire theaters, or even fighting an entire war. How many war games do you think take place in "the real world", using real locations, wars, and weapons?  World War 2 alone has dozens of games, and even more movies. How many of them can say they accurately attempt to depict the conditions found in that war? There, the list is much smaller.

In real life, everything from "warfare" to "engineering" to "economics" is an attempt to obtain the maximum efficiency from existing systems. For example, the concept of tactics (from individual soldiers all the way up to armies) is based almost entirely on trying to get the most results out of different maneuvers. The carnage and death of World War 1 was the result of a failure to adapt to a new system - namely, trench warfare and the advent of the machine gun. It took some intellectual overhauls to overcome the old, outdated mode of thinking and adapt to the reality of the situation. In video gaming, attempting something similar (trying to get the most out of the rules) is considered standard conduct (ranging from "min-maxing" to "pro gaming"), but is also considered very unimmersive. That is to say: you can do well at a game, or you can play a game as though you were a real person living through those experiences, but not both.

One glaring example of this effect is Metal Gear Online, the multiplayer component to MGS4, which uses modern warfare as a backdrop. This can be seen in the use of real gear and guns to try to make the universe seem more plausible. However, there are many changes that affect how well this can be carried out. Body shots do roughly 1/10th the damage of a headshot, and damage does not negatively affect the capabilities of the player-character. The aiming system is very precise, even as the player is being hit by gunfire. Some actions are much faster than others - for example, leaning is almost instantaneous, while "popping out" from behind a wall is slower. The camera is third-person, which (for example) allows players to look out from behind a wall without actually exposing their body. Grenades do minimal damage, and are really only useful for knocking people around.

The result of these simple changes (and a few more) is that the game is tactically dissimilar from real wars, despite the attempts to make it "believable". In real life, firefights are conducted through the use of things like suppressive fire and flanking. In MGO, firefights consist of acrobatic mercenaries rolling at each other, then popping up to try to get a headshot. The leaning ability's effectiveness will allow some players to "duck and weave" like an expert boxer; while their legs remain stationary during leaning, they are also basically immune to damage - while the vulnerable head is moving around too fast to be hit. In short, trying to use "real" tactics in Metal Gear Online will end up poorly because the system of MGO differs from the system of real life.

Here are some general examples of ways in which "realistic" games will often differ from the world they're trying to depict.

Medics
In real life, medics are protected under the Geneva Convention due to the fact that their role is humanitarian, rather than tactical. Soldiers saved by medics are often incapable of returning to combat, and while this is not always the case their inclusion in the Geneva Convention is based on this concept. In videogames, of course, this is hardly ever the case. Medics exist in a very active tactical role - that is, healing people while you try to shoot them. In addition, they are usually carrying weapons of their own (which is itself strips them of their protected status under the GC). Both of these things elevate the medic from a background humanitarian to a foreground tactical element that must be dealt with.

One notable example comes from Company of Heroes, where it seems at first like the medics are "accurately depicted" (players build medic stations, medics automatically run out and bring wounded soldiers back to the station). Of course, once enough wounded men are brought back to the station, they're formed into a new infantry squad - which, again, elevates them from "humanitarian" to "tactical", and justifies shooting medics and blowing up medic stations.

Guns
MGO is certainly not the only example of guns behaving differently in real life and in games. Even if things like "operation" and "statistics" are given accurately, guns still behave differently in games because of how characters respond to them and how they can be used. For example, guns rarely act like a "held" object. Instead, they're essentially bolted to the character's frame, with little to no swaying or shaking. The rare exceptions to this are games like Red Orchestra and ARMA, where the barrel of the gun moves around with the mouse cursor. This also neccesitates the use of iron sights or scopes for the same reason they're used in real life. In games where this is not the case, reflexes become much more important as firing from the hip is just as accurate as actually aiming.

Another difference is the connection of injury to suppression and covering fire. In real life, the threat of being hit is what actually causes the effect of "suppression"; soldiers will avoid exposing themselves if it means they're very likely to be hit by machine gun fire and so on. In most games, especially games with regenerating health, it's usually okay to take a bullet or two if it means that you can use a sniper rifle to hit the guy in the head instantly (something that's fairly simple due to the point-and-click interface and the lack of interfering factors like bullet drop or wind). Company of Heroes includes suppression, but generally underestimates the effect of normal rifles to the point of near-uselessness except in massed groups.

Logistics
This is one of the hardest issues to avert in a game. The nature of supply - starting at resource collection, moving to processing and production, and ending up in transportation to wherever it's needed - is complex enough to be a game in and of itself. However, there needs to be a system in place to govern the availability of things like personnel, vehicles, and ammunition. Many FPS games use a ticket-based/reinforcement system for personnel, and have vehicles be infinitely respawning, but limited in either how many can be on the field at once. RTS games, in contrast, have either a simplified resource system (collect gold, use gold to train soldier) or an abstracted system (capture points, get resource, use resource to train soldier). Either of these systems changes the tactical dynamic.

In Company of Heroes, for example, there is specific buildup from infantry to light vehicles to heavy vehicles, with the "fuel" resource necessary to upgrade status. This means that, rather than being solely about tactics and deployment, CoH is also about an abstract sort of resource management so that you have enough "fuel" to deploy anti-tank weapons before the enemy can start producing vehicles. While this is perfectly logical as a game system, it's also a (somewhat necessary) departure from real life. This means that, rather than emulating World War 2, Company of Heroes is a separate game that just happens to take place during World War 2 and use many similar things from it.

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These are not the only ways that tactics differ. The key point here is that real-life tactics and weapons are the result of optimization and finding out what works in real life. In fiction, these generally-ineffective tactics are still brought to bear; there's no creation of weapons that would actually be optimized for the setting. For example, fantasy games show individuals running around with swords and armor while there's mages lobbing fireballs across battlefields. This generally necessitates a change to the sword-wielder to make them "balanced", which also helps to destroy the setting's believability. While things like this are almost a necessary part of game concepts, they must also be recognized for what they are: ways in which the rules of a game differ from the rules of reality, even when the game attempts to depict reality.

The importance of believability.

It's not a universal opinion that "realism" = "better". How can the imagination become involved if everything is real? How can new concepts be explored if we are anchored to the old? These are valid concerns, especially when it comes to fiction (which is necessarily "unrealistic", at least in a few senses such as specific details). However, I would say that "reality" serves as the foundation for every series, no matter how apparently-unrealistic it is. This manifests in a few different ways.

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1: Immersing the audience in the story. (SENSES)
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One of the primary obstacles that media has to overcome is its inherent nature as a sense-limited medium. Media can depict two senses in an incomplete manner (sight and sound) and has no way to connect to the other three senses (smell, touch, taste). Of course, the characters in the story are generally depicted as possessing all five senses. To fully "immerse" the audience, the product must attempt to bridge this gap by using things like effects and character reactions to depict the "full" conditions.

The effects of this can be seen by the way that things like games and movies are described. More immersive material will have descriptions like "bone-crunching" or "nauseating", while less immersive fare feels "floaty" or "weightless". Fight scenes attempt to create a sense of actual damage and consequences, and a scene that's clearly faked, with no hits connecting, may suffer as a result. This also applies to things like props or object design: if an object feels tangible, like something that could conceivably be real, it will make a stronger impression on the audience.

This is not to say that fantastic elements can't be included, but there are some baseline assumptions that audiences make about a movie. Humans behave like humans, and are affected in ways humans are. If you cut them, they bleed. If you blow them up, they're full of guts and organs and don't come apart like a cartoon character. Even a fantasy series can benefit from this "grounded" design: it's easier to imagine damage from a sword or mace if you connect it to more plausible or relatable damage, like being cut by a knife or hit by a rock.

The goal of this point is twofold: to connect the character to the audience by sharing their experience, and to connect the audience to the world by showing them what it would be like to be in such a situation. There are many ways this can manifest, but all of them should revolve around overcoming the barriers between "real" senses and "depictable" senses.

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2: Making the story internally consistent. (LOGIC)
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In commentary for Aliens, James Cameron remarked that the movie works in large part because everyone takes it seriously, and thus it convinces the viewer that these characters are concerned about their lives in a very serious way. This is what internal consistency should support. In actuality, none of this is "real", but the trick is drawing in the viewer so that it seems like it is - and it should be real, at least to the characters.

Generally, making a fictional story requires a veneer of "real", even if it's not in the sense of matching our reality. That is to say, the story must be real to the characters. One of the problems with plotholes and other issues of logic is that it damages this glamour. We are meant to believe that these characters are doing something important to them, even to the point of being life or death. When characters make inexplicably bad decisions to create tension, it makes the story feel more fake overall, and generally leaves fans scrambling to find or create an explanation for it. While a delayed reaction may not be so bad ("Hey, that didn't make sense"), more obvious plot holes will immediately pull the audience out of the action.

Magic, in particular, is a thorny obstacle in the way of internal consistency. The Harry Potter series has many examples of objects that create plot holes, most famously the Time-Turner. This was an object that allowed for time travel, but was only used for one plot-related activity. It was primarily relegated to the simplistic purpose of allowing a student to take more classes than normal. The reason for this under-usage is never explored, and in light of it the entire story is diminished. All the drama and tension could have been for nothing if they remembered to use the obvious magical artifact that can solve everything.

It can therefore be said that the most important part of this point is making a world believable, and overcoming the natural barrier between "this is fiction" and "this is a story that I am invested in". Like any other design decision, it can make the difference between a sensible story and a story that can't be taken seriously (not that this stops people who are fans of Harry Potter or any other plot-hole-possessing series, of course).

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3: Making the story relevant to reality. (MORALS)
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This is, in my opinion, probably the least important aspect of the concept of believability. However, I mention it because of how often movies, shows and games try to have a "message" that pertains to real life regardless of how unrealistic the media itself is. The basic idea when dealing with morals or lessons applied to real life is this: every change you make to necessitate the moral is one step away from the moral actually being applicable. In some cases, this is more obvious than others - extreme cases that use ridiculous or fantastic logic to justify a change in real behavior. However, many "morals" are just as nonsensical underneath, yet appear normal on the surface. I have several examples of "lessons" that fall short due to varying factors.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Attempts social commentary on current events. Fails due to a lack of understanding regarding everything from sociology to economics to technology. Most unfortunately, the relative lack of context means that many players feel that it's "accurate" or "enlightening" despite its myriad liberties with plausible material
Chrono Cross: Attempts a green aesop about humans destroying the environment despite the fact that it takes place on a completely different world where humans live in small villages and the world is largely verdant and green. In short, an attempt to comment on reality that makes no sense in-universe.
1984: Shows the horror of a totalitarian world by using implausible/impossible technology and control. Exaggerates the level of control possessed by a totalitarian regime in some ways that could have easily been depicted accurately and been just as horrifying (secret police, curfews, etcetera)
X-Men: Attempts to connect "mutants" with "homosexuals" - as in, they are unfairly persecuted, "coming out" to parents is difficult and divisive, etcetera. The difference is that mutants possess dangerous powers that could endanger the lives of other people, and homosexuals do not.

The value of a lesson relies on its plausibility. There are many examples of stories that attempt to carry a lesson that are derided for their unlikeliness and obviously impossible natures, such as the Chick Tracts promoted by Jack Chick that claim that various activities and lifestyles lead to pacts with Satan and so on. The reason these "lessons" don't work is because they don't make sense. Therefore, if such things should be held to that standard, then all media that attempts to comment on real life should be treated the same.

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These three examples do not just apply to "totally realistic" products. They add a distinct layer to all forms of media, and provide universal, objective connections to the audience. This blog does not exist to debate the finer mechanics of "why" realism is good in and of itself; rather, it is the goal to explore how realism and believability can make a piece of work more credible and immersive.