Tuesday, January 18, 2011
The role of communication
This seems like a good place to note that the Exploring Believability twitter is currently up and running, and all future updates will be noted there. In addition, I'd like to take this segue to thank the individuals who have linked to this blog on forums or articles. This, too, is a kind of communication: how can people judge or assess something if they don't know it exists? All advertising has the purpose of not only convincing the audience that the product is good, but letting them know that the product is there to begin with. Something as simple as a forum link can bring a concept to people who would have no way to reach it otherwise, and for that reason I'm deeply indebted to everyone who's shared my articles with someone else. With that said, let's look at some concepts.
A real-time-strategy game is a strange thing. Even if the tactics and logistics are depicted realistically, there is generally one thing that remains consistent: the nature of the commander and their connection to their troops. In a real situation, a commanding officer receives information from their subordinate and must manually assemble it into a larger "picture" of what's going on. Though the use of aerial surveillance and satellite imaging has improved the understanding of the battlefield, there's still a large gap between what the troops know and what command knows.
In an RTS, this is not the case. A strategy-game player can see everything their soldiers can, without exception. There is no "data transmission" or anything along those lines - it's an instant communication that cannot be interrupted in any way short of death. If you send a scout off and the scout dies, you (the player) know everything the scout saw even if he doesn't make it back. There is no way for a unit to be cut off from command and be forced to make their own decisions. The player can directly command every single unit on the battlefield, even making decisions like which rock to hide behind and when to throw grenades.
In real life, communication difficulties make up a huge part of war. Artillery units have to fire without ever seeing the rounds hit, relying on the corrections of forward observers and grid-labeled maps. Aircraft have to be able to tell who's friendly and who's not when everyone on the ground looks like specks. Tanks and infantry can't see the battle as a whole from their low perspective, and thus must rely on their commanders to piece information together from all their connected units. This is the real "fog of war" - the gap between each individual unit that creates different understandings and perceptions of a situation. In a game, units might as well be part of a hivemind. Everyone reports directly to the player, and the player can see everything they can. It's almost a sci-fi concept, in some ways.
One example of an in-game "communications blackout" comes from "Chromehounds". In Chromehounds' multiplayer, there was an entire class ("Commander") devoted to managing and dispersing communications. It is the commander's job to detect and identify enemies and relay that information to other units. This short narrative establishes those concepts, as well as the role of "communications towers" (without which microphone communication is impossible). The entire role was based on the idea that only those people could really organize and command their comrades, and everyone else relied on them for information.
Penny Arcade's Tycho discussed this in one newspost, noting how the commander's role was almost intrinsically connected to the limitations of the game: "When I sent a player - or multiple players - to get one of these things, I lost communication with them the moment they went out of range. It was often the case that, in a rush to secure the front, my entire team would be out of range." He notes that the addition of an internal "group chat" program to the console creates a way around this, destroying a valuable and interesting game mechanic. The same is true for any PC game - the presence of chat programs and Ventrilo would pretty much override any "internal" justification for limited communications.
Another aspect of communication can be found in the concept of "aggregate characterization". Information, or lack thereof, is a major defining trait in a person's life. Education, morality, culture, language - the list goes on. Everything about a person has a source, and information generally serves as that source. How does someone know how to do something? There is a source for that information. In modern times we can look up almost anything with the internet; how does this differ from a situation where your only sources of information are local villages and traveling merchants? When everyone says that people from a neighboring country are torturing and killing everyone they come across, how do you check that for yourself - and what do you do if it happens to be true?
Think about how this relates to propaganda: if you're given inaccurate information from a source like your own government, how are you supposed to obtain actual "accurate" information? This is the key issue with regards to freedom of the press, for example. One could ask why a Wehrmacht soldier in World War 2 didn't simply give up if he knew he was working for the "bad guys", and the question is: how is he supposed to know that he's the bad guy? Sure, the Allies send over pamphlets saying that they are, but then the Axis sends pamphlets to the Allies saying THEY'RE the bad guys, and the Allies laugh off this obvious German lie. It's a more complicated situation than an observer might assume. (As a response to that Mitchell and Webb skit, I offer this quote from Heinrich Himmler: "I know there are many people who fall ill when they see this black uniform; we understand that and don't expect that we will be loved by many people.")
There are plenty of examples of opposing units working out their differences once they're given a chance to communicate. The Christmas Truce is probably the most well-known example of improvised communication and understanding on the battlefield, though similar arrangements have occurred between units in other wars, as well. In a war, both sides are generally given reasons to hate their opponents by their high command - it's not usually conducive to morale to say "Yes, we're totally in the wrong, but please fight our noble, righteous enemies anyways". The difficulty comes in separating the reality from the propaganda. Witold Pilecki is one man who found this difference all too well: his reports about the Holocaust were considered "exaggerated" by the Allies, despite the fact that had willingly sent himself into Auschwitz to provide information about it. Once lies are expected, overcoming those lies with the unbelievable truth can be difficult - the classic "boy who cried wolf" scenario.
In fiction, misleading an audience can be an important part of the proceedings (as with the unreliable narrator), but in general the audience serves as an invisible observer whose connection to the movie or book is related to their detached point-of-view. If the audience knows something, it seems unbelievable that people in-universe wouldn't believe it. After all, it's the "truth". This is the realm of several cognitive biases, such as the bias blind spot and the Dunning-Kruger effect. The concept of what is known and what should be known is a point of contention in real life. In fiction, the audience's access to information not normally accessible (such as people's thoughts) seems to make the situation much more clear to them.
In some cases, the opposite must occur: a person who is normally connected by numerous gadgets and devices to the rest of society must be isolated for purposes of drama. This is a concept used by countless horror movies with regards to individual phones, but is also occasionally done for an entire town. There's a very good reason for this: the drama of the situation requires that only a certain number of people be involved. Why should the protagonist solve the problem if they can just call in the police or the military? A lack of information access, or a disconnect from the outside world, can justify this sort of isolation.
This reiterates the point that conflict makes drama. In real life, all these systems are convenient. It's possible to drive to an entirely new place and not get lost or put in danger at all thanks to things like GPS and satellite phones. However, "danger" is what makes things exciting. It also creates more exciting cast dynamics: an isolated environment means that nobody's getting in and nobody's getting out, and thus all the characters visible will play some part. In some cases, a non-isolated cast means that there's no reason for the protagonist to be important: it's easier to be the most capable person in a small group, but not when the entire rest of the world is available. It's important to be "the right man in the right place", and isolation ensures that "the right place" is much more reliant on that "right man".
In short, isolating an environment can serve as a focusing mechanism for a series. The limited environments and characters receive more screen time, and thus get more fleshing out. An isolated location can have quirks and strange aspects that would not make sense without the idea of being separated from the rest of society. However, as people become more and more connected, the ways of establishing this become limited. For example, in Twilight, the ending of Romeo and Juliet is echoed (in the sense that a man thinks a woman has killed herself and intends to kill himself as well). However, in this case, the man destroys his phone for really no reason other than to necessitate the woman's following after him. The classic setup doesn't work, because there should have been plenty of ways to communicate with him. There are, of course, ways to become isolated in real life - batteries die, coverage fails - but they're not nearly as common as cinema requires.
To put it more simply: isolation is a dynamic. It justifies a smaller cast and area when the world itself is huge. There are plenty of examples of "naturally isolating" environments: islands, airplanes, boats, prison cells, etc. The idea that there is a natural separation between "this place" and "everywhere else" makes it easier to flesh out the area without worrying about the possibility of the cast being intermingled with the general population, or the focus moving to a new area. Compare the sprawling maps of Grand Theft Auto to the smaller, more detailed maps of Hitman: one's grand, but simple, and the other's small, but fine-tuned. The smaller area has a lot more development, and the characters have more in-depth routines, because of those limitations.
1) The audience's understanding of information is often going to differ from characters' understanding of information, simply by the nature of the medium (though there are exceptions).
2) Communication connects a smaller group to a larger one, and how encompassing this is can affect the nature and direction of a story or narrative.
3) Communication is part of a dynamic, just as any other part of a story. It should therefore be given the respect and care that any other logical part of the story would receive.