Sunday, February 27, 2011

Decision-making logic

When something happens in a fictional story, there are two ways it can be interpreted: either as a logical result of different factors within the universe, or as the author making it so. In essence, the latter is always going to be the case, but the author's choices can match up with what makes sense for the story. When it comes to believability, this is one of the most important aspects. Every other part of a setting - armor design, clothing, weapons, whatever - are believable in the sense that they are part of a logical setup within the story. In most cases, it's something like this: "I need to deal with [x]. I will [y]." It acknowledges a threat or impetus and moves to deal with it. It doesn't matter whether or not that threat is swords or spears or rain and sleet, it is part of a rational decision-making process.

For example, when it comes to armor design, there are certainly reasons that someone might choose not to wear armor. It's heavy (to an extent), it can be uncomfortable, and in some cases it might not adequately protect against the weapons that the character is up against. However, their reasons must be established. In many cases when a character forgoes armor, it's just because they don't wear armor. In some cases, it may be justified by "slowing the character down", but the tradeoff is rarely worth it in plausible terms. That's dependent on internal consistency, though - if a character is markedly faster without armor, then that's fine.

Reasons don't have to be good, either. There's plenty of ways for a character to forgo armor for reasons of pride or insanity. Berserkers did not wear armor, and it added to their intimidation factor - they did not fear death. Unfortunately, people tend to miss out on the other half of this, which is the fact that berserkers tended to die a lot. It is a weighted decision to not wear armor. The irresponsible aspect comes when the negative aspects of that decision never come into play.

This is hardly the only example, but it illustrates a necessary concept: attributing something to a character or setting, versus attributing something to the author. This manifests in other ways as well.

Moral Standards
In the Bretonnia supplement for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, there is a preface warning that states the following: "Women in Bretonnia are second-class citizens, and many careers are only open to them if they pretend to be men. This is not a feature of Bretonnian society of which the author or Games Workshop approves, but women pretending to be men make interesting characters in a roleplaying game. If the sexism of Bretonnia makes you or your players uncomfortable, feel free to ignore it".

What was the purpose of this warning? Without it, people might have assumed that this fictional society was endorsed by the author, making them misogynist. This is one of the dangers of authorial influence: it is your world, and everything that happens is your design. In many cases, this is reflected as an automatic endorsement of everything that happens, and in many other cases, that is in fact actually the case: the world was created in order to appeal to the author's viewpoint. If something is not outright endorsed or despised by the characters within the setting, the reader may make their own judgments about the author's viewpoint.

For example, in Warhammer 40,000, the fact that only men may become Space Marines (because of the way the process works) is often attacked as being misogynist on the part of the authors, rather than something that makes logical sense in-universe (and even if it did, people would argue it should be suspended rather than allowed). However, on the other side, there are many instances where an event that would seem strange or unpleasant in real life is treated as being perfectly normal in a context where it shouldn't. Many unsettling moments are founded in this concept ("No, Captain America, everyone here in the unprejudiced modern world thinks that incest is great! Deal with it, loser!"). It comes down to moral dissonance: the author is in charge of the world, and thus can create "absolute" good and evil in a way that the reader might not agree with.

This is an issue with gore, as I've mentioned. Gore is something that can exist logically within a setting (what else do you expect to happen if a head is smashed by a sledgehammmer), but its depiction can create accusations that the author enjoys or supports it. In some cases,  this is accurate - there are certainly plenty of artists who draw gore for the thrill they feel. In many others, though, the gore exists simply because that is what would rationally happen. Differentiating them is an issue of intent: is the author showing this to create disgust and sympathy, or because he or she thinks that violence is "totally wicked awesome"?

A logical system can support (or disguise) this. If it makes sense within the confines of the story, it's more acceptable than "it just happened". For example, the issue of authors "killing off characters" is less of an issue if it's established that death can come suddenly and often. If 9 characters die slow, lingering deaths with dramatic speeches and the 10th gets shot in the head and dies, it's going to feel jarring or weird. If an event feels logically established within the rules of the world, then it's "fair".

Character Decisions
People aren't perfect, but they're generally rational (even if their reasons for making a decision are based on emotional responses). They have things that influence them and cause them to prefer certain decisions or approaches. Even if their reason is bad, it's still a reason. Moreover, they should be held to the standards of their decision-making.

Let's go back to armor design for a second. There are plenty of examples in history of people going without armor, either because they believed they were divinely protected, because they were proud and arrogant, or because they felt that heavy armor would slow them down. However, the fact needs to be established that they were not "forgoing" armor, they were sacrificing it. Armor is something that would have helped them. They went without it for one reason or another. Therefore, they lack the benefits that armor provides in exchange for this other thing. This is a rational setup.

Here is an irrational setup: "She's not wearing armor because the artist didn't give her any". The difference here is that the character's reason for not wearing armor is not established or touched upon. Instead, it relies on a meta-justification. There's no reason in-universe for the character not to wear armor, and I mean that literally: there's no reason. Not that there couldn't be a reason, but one isn't given.

A character's judgment can be impaired by all sorts of things. They could be emotionally unstable - angry or sad or afraid. They could be chemically impaired by alcohol or drugs or sedatives. They could simply be unaware of the actual nature of what they're doing, or are generally inexperienced with it. These are all reasons for a bad decision being made. On the other hand, when a bad decision is made for no reason, it undermines the logic of the setting and feels like the author just needed the character to do something stupid.

Player Decisions
Sometimes, players make decisions that don't make sense for a character. This is because of any number of differences in perspective - the player doesn't share the full range of the character's senses, the player doesn't have the same consequences as the character, the player isn't subject to moods like fear or terror in the same context as the character, and so on. The character isn't the player and vice versa, and thus the factors they include in their decision-making is based on differing information and priorities.

Sometimes, players make decisions that don't make sense for a setting. This is usually because of an abstraction in the rules - tactics and strategies that are meant to make sense in the lore or the fluff are not feasible in gameplay. There's two ways that this can be treated: either to adapt the rules to be more like the fluff, or to adapt the fluff to be more like the rules. Surprisingly, the latter seems to happen fairly rarely, although if anyone has any examples of an overpowered niche unit being acknowledged in-universe, I'd be interested in hearing about it.

Both of these things are decisions that make sense to the player, but not in-universe. They rely on logic, but not logic that makes sense to the characters. The character seems illogical because their reason makes no sense, but to the player it's perfectly rational. For example, the way armor works in many RPGs is enough of an abstraction that there's not really a reason to dress "sensibly" based on real-life logic. Instead, things like dexterity and evasion present a different picture of combat that simply would not pass in real warfare or in-universe warfare.

When an author is writing an event, there's a few questions to ask:
- "Why is this happening?"
- "Is it supported by the logic of the setting?"
- "Does the character's decision make sense in the context of the setting?"
- "Is the character's decision supported by their personality or state of mind?"
- "If these questions cannot be adequately answered, am I writing it just because I want to see it?"

A character's decision-making process reflects their viewpoint. A well-established process can make them feel like a real person with their own motivations, and thus is more believable. A poorly-established process makes them seem like a puppet of the author, and hence the reader will lose interest and have their suspension of disbelief broken.

So, To Sum Up:
1) When creating viewpoints and opinions in a setting, remember to differentiate between "your morals" and "the character's morals". Avoid the temptation to make them match up absolutely.
2) When writing a character, keep in mind the various factors that would influence their decision-making. The more it seems like "they" are deciding, the more believable it is.
3) When dealing with an abstracted concept, try to differentiate between what makes sense to the characters and what makes sense to players or other people dealing in meta-context.
4) Above all, provide some reason - even if it's not a good one, it's the character's decision. Don't forget, though, that decisions should have consequences.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Emergent Stories

When you play a game, whether tabletop or electronic, how do you think of it? Do you think of it as being merely a collection markers, or do you factor in the actual world they're meant to represent? Is a Space Marine just numbers, or is it an abstraction of an armored warrior from the far future? In essence, are you playing for the rules, or for the setting? When you tell stories of your games, do you think of them in terms of rolls and rules, or in terms of events? When it comes down to it, why are you playing a game that has aesthetics and background and lore if not for your attachment to the concept of an existing universe?

Compare your thoughts about a wargame to a roleplaying game, or even a strategy RPG. Does the focus on individual characters change anything, even though the mechanics themselves are not that different? The main difference between an RPG and a wargame comes down to nothing more than "filling in the gaps" - i.e. going outside the rule system with regards to things like interaction, background, and personality. So why are wargames different?

Wargames represent an under-represented entrant in the concept of an emergent story. By this, I mean that the rules in the average wargame represent things in-universe, and those events unfold based on a combination of strategy and luck. Therefore, in the same way that a role-playing game can serve as a fair and unbiased moderator of events, wargames can serve as a larger-scale unit's story. There are a few games like Necromunda and Mordheim that specifically deal with an ongoing campaign with veterancy and improvement, for example. It's the same concept as an RPG, but on a different scale.

Here is the basic rule: a wargame tells the story of the characters and units currently involved in a given match. The scale of most wargame settings, whether historical or fantastic, means that the number of units involved is generally negligible on the larger scale. It's perfectly believable to have a skirmish between a company of units be part of a far larger ongoing war. More importantly, though, a wargame has a set list of characters (all the units involved) and events unfold based on a logical ruleset that represents what's supposed to be happening in-universe.

This is all a little abstract, so let's throw out a concrete example. This character on the left is Erasmus Tycho, a Space Marine from Warhammer 40,000. Tycho was, in essence, an ascended generic. He originally came from a battle report in an old issue of White Dwarf, where the Blood Angels player named his captain "Tycho". During that battle, he was hit by an Ork's psychic blast and was "killed" in game terms. This was rationalized as the character being grievously disfigured, and his character changed because of it.

These events can be split into two groups: the rule-based events, and the story-based events. The rules provide the skeleton: there is a captain, he was "killed" by an Ork Weirdboy. The story provides the meat: The captain was given a name, the "death" was reflected in a way that furthered his development. This is what emergent story can do. It is a way to provide avenues of imagination that are tempered and moderated by an existing structure of logic and luck, so that the story is "fair", rather than "i got you nuh-uh yeah huh".

What about this is different from an RPG? The larger scale would suggest that there is less room for individual characterization - yet, I do not think this is a bad thing. A complicated character is not necessarily a good one; as long as the character's personality traits and motivations are expressed, it ought to be good enough. It actually doesn't take that much to let players empathize with their soldiers, because imagination can fill in the details that the framework of basic traits provide. This is what leads people to write after-action reports: the fact that the gameplay provides a framework for a narrative. It's relatively simple to ascribe a name and a few traits to a generic officer, but it is the way they distinguish themselves during the battle that gives them real character. This is the kind of thinking that leads people to create their own Chapters or Regiments in WH40k, or their own color schemes in any other game. They're your soldiers.

This isn't limited to tabletop wargames, either. Games like X-COM are dependent almost entirely on the story emerging from the gameplay, because other than the background that is the story. Yet, almost everyone who's played classic X-COM has stories about some character or mission that was intrinsically interesting as an event, without the context of dialogue or plot. Dwarf Fortress is a goldmine for these sorts of things, because weird things happen all the time and the player naturally seeks to explain them in the context of the universe.

In Boatmurdered, for example, the fortress was randomly situated next to an aggressive herd of elephants. That's a random detail in game terms. In-universe, though, it's a whole story in itself. It is the player who fills in those details. A weird character trait or event is not just "a programming thing", it is internalized as something that exists in-universe, and hence the humor comes from subverted expectations and bizarre behavior. It's not unusual in a meta-sense, because that's just numbers, but it's unusual in an in-universe sense, because it's something that wouldn't make sense in real life.

Naturally, there are entire pages devoted to this sort of thing. Unlike most "CMoA" pages, Dwarf Fortress is populated entirely by emergent gameplay events. These are things that happened according to the rules, and were impressive based on in-universe expectations. For other series, CMoAs are generally scripted events or cutscenes. Dwarf Fortress and X-COM don't have that - all the events are based on rules, and the whim of chance determines whether they're a success or a failure.

So let's go over what we've got thus far:
- Rules can provide a moderated, balanced way to determine events.
- Therefore, rules can provide the skeleton or frame of a larger story.
- The human imagination is capable of filling in details and finding meaning in events.
- Therefore, imagination provides the specifics of that story.

When I hear about story in games, though, it's almost never this kind of thing. People tend to prefer dialogue and voice-acting (things that cannot be easily replicated), and they prefer what could be called "complex" plots. There's always the assumption that games should be books or movies, rather than developing naturally from what they are.

The thing that I feel is often overlooked is that small events lead to larger context. Dwarf Fortress works because you're doing everything, and hence things like political disputes and resource issues occur in a fairly natural manner. In contrast, what people expect out of games is something along the lines of an unrelated political issue with a brief period for "gameplay". Is that really a game's story, or is it just a story that's stapled to gameplay?

The idiosyncrasies of human interaction make natural dialogue difficult, at least when it's made to look realistic. There's a few things that can be done, though. Context is an important aspect of things, reflecting different emotional states and situations. For example, in Company of Heroes, units would change their voices to reflect whether or not the unit was in combat, and the status of the unit. This can be heard in this collection. Notice how believable the reactions seem: it seems like a perfectly rational response to whatever event is occurring, and there's a sense that the tank commander is worried when he's in danger, and grateful when he escapes it. Compare that to the siege tank from Starcraft, which has a single measly "I'm in trouble" quote and otherwise displays no sense of changing emotion or fear. There's no sense that the unit is in any danger, and thus it's not believable.

Dialogue also exists in the sense that it's an environmental indicator. Aircraft chatter is a great way to represent this: it may sound like pointless gibberish if you don't know what they're saying, but everything said on an aircraft radio has some meaning. Ace Combat made good use of brevity codes to help indicate what was going on. It relied on an "[x] [y], [z]" concept, where [x] is the squadron designation, [y] is the plane number, and [z] is the brevity code. For example, "Red 4, Fox 2" - i.e. Red squadron's #4 plane has launched an air-to-air IR missile.

One game that used this pretty well was Freelancer. The thing about Freelancer is that there's always some context to use, whether it's a destination planet ("Headed for [x]") or a targeted vehicle ("Targeting [y] [z]"). This meant that phrases could be assembled based on existing nouns and verbs. Silent Hunter did that sort of thing too, although relying more heavily on stated numbers ("Depth [x], bearing [y]"). These aren't going to result in the kind of performances that are notable on their own, but it is a way for dialogue to be utilitarian and purposeful with regards to a logically-developed message.

The main problem with regards to dialogue and speech comes from nuances. It's one thing to set up a pre-programmed voice with a bunch of different variables, or a text system that's able to create sentences out of "building blocks", but creating natural-sounding voices, with distinct pitch, word usage, and characteristics, is beyond the reach of current technology. It is not yet possible to wholly synthesize a voice, and while permutations can be applied to a sample, they don't give the same range as a wholly different voice.

However, I don't feel voices are necessary for the most part. I appreciate them when they come up, and they're very good at conveying emotion (as well as gameplay cues in an audio format), but when it comes to story and dialogue, a book is hardly worse than a movie. When there's no voice given, the player can use their imagination to, again, fill in the gaps. They can create their own concept of the character's voice based on their established traits and personality. It's not a perfect solution, but the innovation of the human mind should not be understated or ignored, either.

When it comes down to it, what is a plot? Plot is comprised of events and characters. We've discussed both of those. What separates a "real" plot from an "assembled" plot? It's really going to end up being down to the details. Let's look at an example video game plot, in this case Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 2, compared to what can be accomplished with a tabletop and some imagination.

DoW2's campaign is a combination of mundane patrols (hold this area) and occasional story-advancing battles. One strand of this plot is the fate of Davian Thule, the player's character in Dawn of War: Dark Crusade, who is now the commander of the forces that the player is part of. Early on in the game, Thule is injured by a Tyranid's poisons. Later in the game he is revived as a dreadnought. Does this sound familiar? On some level, it's essentially the same as Erasmus Tycho's story - killed in-game, brought back through a plot abstraction.

The difference between these two things is that DoW2's events are scripted and must happen. It is something that is not left to chance, and there is no opportunity for a major character to be permanently injured or killed in the same way. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, Davian's role as a static part of the plot is necessary to introduce the Dreadnought frame later in the game, when it's more balanced. Secondly, if a character was easily taken down, gameplay would quickly grind to a halt (as there are only a few characters in the game with the kind of voice acting and character modeling that makes a character unique). In essence, they needed Thule to die and return, and they needed the other characters to not die because of the resources that had been sunk into them. This is a video game "plot": things that need to happen to build up complexity that cannot be supported as a logically constructed concept.

Now let's compare this, not to the tabletop, but to another Warhammer 40,000 game: Chaos Gate. Chaos Gate was essentially the 40k version of X-COM: you've got a bunch of Space Marines with names, veterancy, and gear. Chaos Gate was far less "plot-intensive", because it was focused around the completion of missions rather than direct dialogue and character development. However, the player's ability to fill in those gaps came through again for a lot of players. I remember reading about someone who was playing through (as a Let's Play) and had a very popular character who distinguished himself repeatedly in combat. Unfortunately, this character was felled - an ignominious end, but a logical one. Later, however, the character was brought back indirectly in the form of a Dreadnought, to wild applause.

The difference between this story and the story of Davian Thule is slight, except for the fact that it's much more "by the rules". Davian Thule happened because it was always going to happen - this happened because that's what happened in the game. They're essentially the same plot, but one of them requires player abstraction and imagination, and the other has a more direct audio-visual connection based on distinct graphics and voice acting.

In essence, what I'm saying is this: the difference between "a complex, but pre-generated plot" and "a simple, but logically constructed plot" is going to come down to how much weight the player's imagination is going to have to pull. When you're spoon-fed characters with hundreds of lines, they make a more distinct impression, but your imagination doesn't have to do anything. All the work is being done for you, and while that's not necessarily bad, it's kind of a misuse of resources. There's no sense of player involvement, they're just watching an incredibly long movie that they occasionally get to interact with. They're not your characters, they're just characters.

Design & Construction
When artists design characters or armor, they tend to not worry as much about how believable it is. We've established this pretty well in the past - the armor only works because the game says it works, not because it makes sense in-universe. This is where it becomes necessary to differentiate two different types of design: "premade" and "logical".

A "premade" design is something that exists as a set inventory item with an abstracted connection to it: this is a sword, it has five attack. Obviously this sort of abstraction is necessary for most things, but it also leaves a void of consistency. It's not that the intrinsic physical properties, shape, and material of the thing give it that stat - it's just "five attack". Armor can be the same way; no matter the coverage or sensibility, it's "six defense".

A "logical" design, on the other hand, is assembled according to rules and logic, whether it be physics or chemistry or whatever. In real life, swords are used not because of an abstract concept of "attack", but because their construction and shape grants them advantages in certain kinds of combat. This is based on their weight, their sharpness, the way they can be swung or thrust, and so on. In essence, it possesses physical properties based on underlying principles and that is what makes it useful.

The clearest example of this that I can think of can be found in Dwarf Fortress, a game where it's possible to build a working computer (based on water flow and other internal principles) but not a gun (because small objects are premade). One of these things is on a large enough scale to be affected, and the other is "an inventory item". There's rules for the former that can be twisted to the player's logical advantage, but the latter is pre-generated.

Now, think of armor. Armor in real life has a bunch of physical properties that I've discussed in the past - coverage, thickness, weight, and so on. In a game, those things are generally abstracted, so coverage and thickness come together to form a vague armor level that's meant to connect to what it represents. That's just a number, though, so it's easy to slap on an inaccurate number. Compare, though, how Mount & Blade handles armor based on locational damage. It's still abstracted, but less so: in M&B, attacks are handled by swinging in a given direction or thrusting. An attack that connects deals damage to the body part that was hit. There's very little abstraction there except regarding the damage taken.

Why is that important? Because the rules of the game logically connect to the rules of in-universe reality. A character would wear a helmet for the same reason that the player would give them one: to protect their head. There are still minor differences in the decision-making process, of course, but the logic is still basically the same: "wear a helmet so that if someone hits your head you don't die". It's natural logic that's fully explainable in-universe. It's an aspect of believability that makes game decisions share the same logic as character decisions.

In essence, things work the way they do for a reason. If you recreate the physics and logic behind them, then they can be assembled in a sensible way. If not, then people are just going to have to be stuck with premade concepts. The former allows for some exercising of creativity, the latter serves as an easy-to-make template that nonetheless lacks a lot of deeper properties.

The point I'm trying to make with this article is that story can come from anywhere, but having a story that emerges as the logical end result of the player's actions ought to be more immersive than having a story that the player simply shuffles along. I've also pointed out the ways that such a story would be inferior based on the limitations of technology, and yet things like After-Action Reports and Let's Plays suggest that the human mind is capable of filling in the blanks even if statements are not specifically made. If the writers wanted to be more specific they could do what FFXI did and have a few different personalities with malleable lines (and I'm sure there have been other games that did this too).

Basically, there's a lot of ways that a seemingly normal or low-story game can develop a story. A story like that rewards the player for making choices in the context of the gameplay itself, and thus should be developed. The average video game story, at the very most, allows the player to pick which linear path they trod down.

So, To Sum Up:
1) Gameplay in a game exists conceptually in-universe: it is meant to be a battle or event that's taking place for all the characters involved with it.
2) Therefore, there's no reason to assume that things like personality and characterization cannot be attributed to those characters the same way they are in an RPG.
3) Allowing the events of the game to provide a framework for a story allows for more exercising of imagination and creativity than simply being told what their lines are and what their voices sound like.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Analysis: The Legend of Zelda

One of the classic Nintendo franchises, "The Legend of Zelda" represents the classic "high fantasy" concept of mighty heroes and fiendish villains mixed with the child-like freedom of exploration and discovery. It makes use of a lot of iconic, well-defined imagery and design choices - Link's green costume, the Triforce, the Master Sword, and so on. It may have changed styles over the years, but there's no doubt that the underlying stylistic elements of The Legend of Zelda make it one of the most recognizable games on the market.

Zelda's inspirations are pretty classic, too. An interview with Shigeru Miyamoto revealed that much of the game was themed around his own experiences in nature, exploring his backyard or delving into a cave. This, I think, is part of the reason it appeals to a lot of people - it always tries to feel like an adventure, rather than a routine occurrence. It's an attempt to turn understandable real-life elements like fields and caves and forests and rivers into a child's imagined version of those places, with monsters and dragons behind every rock and tree. It's a world of magic and intrigue, but it's never quite as dark and hopeless as more "mature" settings, nor is it as predictable and logical as more "routine" settings.

In this sense, its "believability" is a bit skewed. On the one hand, it can't be logical, because that would take away from the abstract magic of the concept. On the other hand, it has to be sensory, because it's attempting to connect to real exploration and discovery. The appeal of the series is reliant on appealing to pre-existing knowledge, but avoiding predictability and regulation if it would negatively impact the game's concept. Instead, it focuses more on creating a recognizable gameplay dynamic that's internally consistent while still being at least somewhat plausible.

I'd like to make a note in advance here: when I talk about the setting and design I'm talking exclusively about the games themselves early on. I examine the other works later in the article. Please keep this in mind.

The majority of Zelda games take place in Hyrule, a genre-standard fantasy kingdom of sweeping castles, bustling towns, and quaint villages. In that sense, Hyrule serves exactly the purpose it needs to serve - it is a standard fantasy backdrop for standard fantasy adventures. There are a few things that are "unique" to Hyrule and the other Zelda countries, such as Gorons, Zoras, and the mix of medieval technology with things like bombs and cameras. In essence, though, Hyrule and its citizens are people for Link to save; they are not there for the sake of a logical backdrop.

One of the things I don't like about Hyrule, even keeping that role in mind, is how empty it feels, despite also being remarkably small. There's towns and villages, but not a lot going on between them - there's no sense of travel or commute, no mines or farms apart from those infested by monsters. The bustling market of Hyrule Town in Twilight Princess was a neat step away from this, but most of the game just felt very empty. There were isolated pockets of humanity - the villages and the fishing hole, for example - but no sense of travel between them. This was due in part to the circumstances of the game, but even in friendlier times (such as the "child" part of Ocarina of Time) there's no visible travel and few people outside of town. This may seem like nitpicking, but I think it's important to establish that there's an actual world to save, and to add some weight and credibility to Link's quest.

To me, Zelda feels like it has a setting that does what it needs to do, and nothing more. In other games, there's a background political structure that suggests that other things are happening besides the immediate things that the player is dealing with; Final Fantasy XI had the histories of the various kingdoms, Lost Planet had the larger concept of T-ENG and pirates, and so on. The Zelda games have a lot of lore, but not a lot of what I call "room to grow". Hyrule is a tiny country with limited places - if you wanted to do anything else there besides Link's main quest, you'd have to make places up on other parts of the map. It's so enclosed and limited that it's stifling. I never really get the sense that I do with, say, FFT, where there's a large world beyond the boundaries of visible gameplay. What you see in Zelda is pretty much what you get, which means there's a bunch of leftover issues about infrastructure and population.

This is especially unusual because of the fact that there are a lot of tabletop adaptations of The Legend of Zelda, ranging from D20 adaptations to independent systems. In most of my other articles, I analyzed how a game's setting could be expanded with different modes of play. With Zelda, I feel the opposite - the setting exists only for the gameplay, and would fall apart without it. Yet, there are enough recognizable concepts (such as the different races) that people are willing to play in the setting. Of course, even that brings up another issue - the races are hardly balanced, either. They don't have access to the same sort of tool-usage that humans (or Hylians) do, which is shown in Majora's Mask where changing races is more of an alternate form than an alternate play-style.

In essence, my complaint is that Hyrule as depicted in the games is a very limited, fantasy-standard setting. The things that make it different from, say, Dungeons and Dragons are "proper nouns" - i.e. using "red potions" instead of healing potions. It reminds me of Metroid - everything outside the immediate gameplay is meant to be generic. You have "wise old predecessors", the "Galactic Federation", and "Space Pirates". Other than identification and brand recognizability, there's nothing innately unique or interesting about the setting as a whole. Yet, people are willing to play in that universe, not to explore those concepts, but just for a chance to have characters specifically in Hyrule or on Zebes or whatever. I suppose part of this is that they have very solid concepts to work with, since they've spent a bunch of games exploring the locations and interacting with the characters, but it still feels very limited.

One of Zelda's biggest draws is the concept of exploration, adventure, and acquisition. It's a classic setup - there's a place full of stuff, navigate traps and monsters to get it. It draws on a lot of child-like feelings of mystery and curiosity, symbolized by the classic image of delving into a cave with a lantern and your wits.

On the other hand, I really never got a sense of that specific idea, even though it's implied both by Miyamoto's background and the art. While I can see the inspiration, Zelda dungeons after a while stopped feeling like sacred places and ancient ruins and started feeling standardized. The aesthetics tended to be very impressive and looming, but it never really felt logical, even in the usual "dungeon deathtrap" terms.

That's an opinion, of course. There's plenty of solid "dungeon" concepts in, say, Twilight Princess, such as the ancient desert prison or the Hylian temple. But the abundance of, and perhaps over-reliance on, gadgets tends to make them a bit questionable. I'm again reminded of Metroid, where the design choices in the levels tended to be "what's best for gameplay" and not "what actually makes sense". Like Metroid, Zelda's dungeons are designed for the protagonist's equipment, and while that's fine in a game sense, it also brings up the question of how the inhabitants get (or got) around.

As far as "tense, isolationist adventuring" goes, I always feel like Demon's Souls did that a lot better (although obviously that's not a fair comparison because it's far more recent than most Zelda games). In Zelda there's the sense of preparation (getting your gear ready, making sure you have enough arrows and bombs) but I never really felt like it was "an expedition" per se. It's just a bunch of obstacles that you work your way around with the gear you have at the time. There's not enough sense that this is an existing place that Link is going into - it seems tailor-made as a level for a game, with everything specifically adjusted to the equipment Link will need to get through it.

In essence, I feel that it's possible to make a dungeon feel like an actual ruin or temple, rather than "a video game level". I just think that's hard for Zelda to do specifically because it has to adjust for all the gear that Link accumulates in a given game. Everything encountered has to be solvable with one of those tools - it's just how it has to go for the game to be what it is. Hence, it always feels like "exploration" to me, because it's not "Link delving into a pre-existing place", it's "completing the next dungeon".

As a series, Zelda is one of the most diverse series in terms of visual style. From its pixelated beginnings, to the more concrete style of the N64 games, to the cel-shading of Wind Waker, to the quasi-realism of Twilight Princess, Zelda's tried a bunch of different things, and ends up relying more on identifiable elements (green clothes, the Master Sword, etc.) than a distinct artistic approach. This ends up being a bit confusing in terms of defining Zelda's design concepts, but does provide a pretty wide range of options for fans of the series.

As you might assume from my focus on sensible design and tangible materials, Twilight Princess was my favorite Zelda in design terms. Link's costume alone is an excellent example of design concepts. The clothes, apart from the hat I suppose, are sensible traveller's gear, and there's even some armor - an underlying bronze/brass mail shirt (which is visually striking as well) and leather arm guards. Even the normal sword looks more sensible than usual, being made of solid steel instead of the somewhat unrealistic Master Sword's materials.

The sensibility of the other designs in the game varies, but it was definitely the most tangible game in the series regardless of everything else. Twilight Princess did a fantastic job with making materials look like what they were meant to be, and even with somewhat abstract costumes it was easy to tell what it was meant to be made of. That doesn't mean there's not some use of unusual materials - it just looks like unusual metal instead of some weird kind of plastic.

The interesting thing, though, is that if you took the graphics away, Twilight Princess would be a pretty standard Zelda game - and the same's true for Wind Waker. The universe itself stays consistent, it doesn't get more "realistic" or more "cartoonish" based on the design style. You're still swinging a sword around, you still use hearts for health, etc. The gameplay is essentially unchanged, but the design choices make the difference. Not that this is entirely positive. In fact, Eiji Aonuma believes that the choice to make Twilight Princess realistic in design may have negatively influenced the game as a whole, because it sets a standard that the gameplay can't realistically live up to. When things look more real, you expect more real concepts out of it. Zelda is a cartoonish game, and hence cartoonish things must happen.

I agree that it was easier to find things to complain about in terms of believability when talking about Twilight Princess if only because of expectations: the fact that the world looks realistic brings up questions when it's not. It's almost an uncanny valley concept - it's too close to realistic to be excusable as cartoon logic. Still, in general, I appreciated Twilight Princess in aesthetic terms, and appreciated the artistic decisions made. Like Dragon Warrior, though, it creates an immersion that can be hard to deal with - once things look realistic, you have to expect and deal with the rules of reality.

The role of mages and sorcerers in Zelda is a pretty big example of what I'm talking about when I say that Zelda is necessarily illogical in order to preserve the real sense of wonder that permeates the setting. There's plenty of good and evil wizards in Zelda, ranging from Zelda herself and the various sages to foul sorcerers like Aghanim, Vaati, and Veran. It's also the historical background in a few of the games, such as Twilight Princess, where the Twili are the descendants of those who dared to use magic in the past.

Despite all these spell-slinging characters, though, magic in Zelda is incredibly vague. There's no established set of rules about what can or can't be done, or what elements are used. Magic does what magic needs to do for the purposes of the narrative. It's the kind of thing that shows up in a lot of myths and legends - the limits and powers of a magician are never clear to the audience, and it's pretty much acceptable that something can happen "because it's just magic".

While this isn't great for the internal logic of the setting, it does accomplish what it's clearly intended to do: be magical. It's about what trick's going to be pulled out of the bad guy's sleeve next, not about using magic as a rational part of the setting. While that does somewhat undermine the threat level of the enemy ("If he could do that, why couldn't he just blow Link up"), it does maintain a sense of mystery and wonder that's necessary for the exploration-based concept of the setting. It's the kind of over-the-top warlock-style sorcery that's necessary to make magic unknowable and incomprehensible rather than just another part of the setting. I wouldn't endorse it for every setting, but it works for Zelda.

An important aspect of this is that Link is not a sorcerer himself. Magic is used by NPCs and occasionally bestowed in the form of a reliable magic item (like the crystals that house different spells in Ocarina of Time), but Link cannot create or use magic in the way that these characters can. This is important because magic represents a vague concept understood only by those who use it, and if Link could use it, the player would necessarily need to understand the logic of it. As soon as limits are in play, "magic" becomes much more limited - unless you account for every conceivable use of it, as with cantrips in D&D.

As befits a series about exploration and magic, Zelda is limited primarily by what it can and cannot show. The world of Hyrule, on some level, needs to be grand and natural - yet to accommodate gameplay and technical limitations, it can't be. The fact that Link needs to be able to investigate every nook and cranny and leave no stone unturned means that there's not a lot of room for the "off-screen background" of games like Final Fantasy Tactics. Instead, everything's right there in front of the player, and as Eiji Aonuma pointed out, that can lead to problems with suspension of disbelief. It makes the world feel too small when you know you can explore every corner of it and still not find the logical underlying systems you'd expect.

When I said that Zelda would make a bad tabletop setting, I suppose I wasn't being entirely fair. For example, the manga adaptation of A Link To The Past does a pretty good job working with the basic story and concepts established by the game and then expounding them in ways that make sense given the different constraints of the story. The camera follows Link, hence only the places Link goes to are relevant. There's a whole kingdom out there, but only the part Link goes to are important.

The problem, I feel, is that when a tabletop adaptation tries to rely heavily on the literal interpretation of the games, rather than their themes. I've seen people try to map out Zelda in Ocarina of Time for use as a tabletop setting, and considering that it takes like ten minutes to run across the entire map, it's not exactly a huge, open setting. Instead, you could use the theoretical concept of "Hyrule" as a basis for populating a fantasy kingdom and filling in the gaps that the games can't show. Zelda needs to be about not knowing. There always has to be a frontier, whether exploratory or magical. There always has to be some new artifact, some new temple, some new spell, or some new land, because the game is about exploring. Relying on established concepts undercuts that theme so much that it's not recognizable.

I really, really hate to bring this up, but one thing I liked about the Zelda cartoon NO WAIT COME BACK one thing I liked about the Zelda cartoon was that the episodic nature of the show meant that there was always some new adventure to find or enemy to defeat. Ganon was always the bad guy, but it felt like new things were happening. That's what the series is about: "new things". It's what inspired Miyamoto to delve into that cave, it's what's inspired explorers and cartographers throughout history, and it's what will push the human race into the depths of space. There always has to be a frontier.

So, To Sum Up:
1) The Legend of Zelda is a series themed around exploration and discovery. Hence, it relies on environments that are new and exciting without being logical or, more importantly, predictable.
2) The technical limitations of the game can constrict that exploration in ways that end up being uncreative.
3) Therefore, the goal of new works (whether official or fan-made) should be to find ways to expand that universe rather than retaining the same limitations as the games.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Blood, gore, and tone

The use of gore in movies and games is a highly contested concept. On the one hand, gore can provide the sort of visceral reactions that makes events more meaningful - a gritty war movie that doesn't use gore will seem almost cartoonish, and in some cases war movies with gore can be shown on major TV networks, something that gory movies lacking that context cannot do. On the other hand, gore can also be seen as a cheap thrill with questionable moral value, thrown in to appeal to teenagers rather than to have any real significance or bearing on the story. But what does gore do? What about it creates this divide?

On one end of the scale we've got "gore", which creates a sense of disgust and horror based on mutilating the human body (or other bodies) and appealing to the audience's own sense of fear and dread at having something similar happen to them. On the other end, there's "gorn", or "gore porn", which is gore for the sake of gore. It can be hard to judge the difference between them, because it's largely based on intent rather than severity or style, but the former is meant to have some value to the story, and the latter is meant to be "appealing" in its own right.

Sensory Reaction
One important aspect of gore is that it's an immediate, reliable, visceral reaction. Seeing gore can make the skin crawl in ways that merely hearing about "death" cannot. If you heard that a soldier died in a battle, you might not think much of it. If you hear in excruciating detail about how the bullet broke through his skull and punctured his brain, you may feel differently. The basis of concepts like finger damage and eye damage - things that may disgust you even if you just hear about them - are founded in intrinsic connections to identifiable parts of your body. You can almost always feel your fingers, and they're one of the most sensitive parts of your body. Therefore, if you hear about, or see, damage to a finger, that generates an immediate response. That's what gore can do: fill in for the sense of touch by immediately connecting to your real sense of touch.

This also creates a divide when talking about things like cartoons or anime, where the human body is strange and stylized. It's almost unbelievably unpleasant to watch a needle near a real person's eye - it's much less unpleasant to see one near an anime character's eye, because it doesn't look like an eye. In the same way, a lot of "stylized gore" ends up not connecting with the audience, because it doesn't look like damage that real people would take. Look at this clip, for example (gore warning, if it wasn't obvious): there's so much blood, and so little bone/muscle, that it makes me laugh. They don't seem like people, they seem like pinatas made of meat. It's like watching a video game model get torn apart. In contrast, this scene (also from a gory anime, naturally) relies on a realistically detailed finger - without that detail, the scene wouldn't be nearly as effective.

Anatomy is an important concept when it comes to averting the Nerf effect. Having realistic anatomy puts weight and damage behind an attack, because it relies on understandable, relatable concepts. When arms are sliced off in an anime scene or, heck, in the Star Wars movies, it's a clean cut. There may be blood, sure, but it still basically seems like a tentacle chunk in the shape of an arm. There's no sense of bones or muscles, just a big floppy "arm". In fact, most fantastic gore is like that - big bloody chunks, like something out of a Looney Tunes short. There's no sense of the constituent parts, or of any underlying skeleton: you just slice parts off like you were cutting up a roast. When you touch your arm in real life, you can easily feel the bones at its core. Media tends to depict it like it's only flesh, which makes it feel "unrealistic", at least in the sense that you can't relate to it. In contrast, a well-depicted arm break (complete with the sickening crack of bone) is generally far more effective. Compare this real picture (gore warning) from WW2 to the usual depiction of de-limbing: even though the end result is the same, the fact that the arm is a real arm connects it to all the properties of a real arm that are not present in a cartoon or anime sequence.

One particular type of damage that I feel is effective is damage from a cannonball. A cannonball is heavy in a way that the brain can relate to, and when fired out of a cannon that heavy thing is moving incredibly fast and bashing whatever gets in the way. On the other hand, it's also slow enough that you can see it coming - which, upon reflection, is terrifying. It's not like a bullet, where it's small enough that the brain might not even register it (when watching it, that is - presumably the person being hit is distinctly aware of it). A cannonball is large enough that if the brain has any idea of the weight of the thing, the idea of a limb being smashed off by one is as visceral as it gets. And it's not a clean cut either: bones are going to shatter and break as the cannonball impacts the leg. It's not just unpleasant (since I would say that most forms of amputation are unpleasant), it's unpleasant in a way that the brain can easily relate to.

In essence, damage and gore are the natural result of an object hitting the human body. Therefore, both the object, its speed, and the body are in play. The speed might be the most difficult part to understand in an abstract sense, but it's easy to hold a knife or a baseball bat, and it's easy to think about your body and how it would react to those sorts of stimuli. In fact, it's so easy that it's basically the whole point - your body feels uncomfortable even without you directly needing to think "that would be uncomfortable". Translating something unimaginable like "being slashed by a sword" into something brutally comprehensible like "getting your finger whacked off by a butcher's cleaver" is a major key to evoking emotional responses with fictional situations.

Depicting Reality
As mentioned above, war movies tend to get a pass when it comes to gore censorship:

"In both films [Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan], the content is not meant to shock, nor is it gratuitous. We applaud ABC for letting viewers know ahead of time about the graphic nature of the film and that the film would be uncut." -
PTC president L. Brent Bozell

This is a major issue when it comes to "mature themes": is the theme in question being used for cheap shock value, or to really examine concepts and real-life events? Saving Private Ryan is an acceptable movie because stuff like that really happened (and happens), and depicting it helps people to understand the horrors of war. Is there some substance to, or reason for, the gore other than "blood is cool"? This, I think, is one of the defining lines between gore and gorn. Gore can provoke an emotional and sensory reaction, yes - but what is the purpose of that reaction? Is it an escapist form of titillation? Is it to revel in the reviled and forbidden? Or is it to try to empathize and sympathize with the victims of violent events - to understand their plight? 

The context of the gore is the deciding factor, and this is why those two movies were acceptable. Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan (whatever problems I may have with the latter) are about victims. The scene on Omaha Beach is not meant to be "totally badass action sequence", it's meant to be young men (American and German) being cut down in the prime of life. Making up an atrocity to show scenes of rape and slaughter would be excessive if it wasn't justified, but showing the horrors of the Holocaust is acceptable because it has real historical implications. The goal of the concept is to make sympathy, rather than to allow people to revel in, and celebrate, atrocities and violence. Of course, the concept of audience interpretation means that such things cannot be avoided, but the intended tone of the product does play a major factor.

The thing about gore in general is that it's unavoidable if you're being realistic. Yes, it's certainly possible to over-exaggerate, but people are full of bones and guts and blood, and pretending that we're not going to react negatively when being hit by a sword or a bullet is itself unrealistic. If the assumption is that people in a setting have normal human bodies, then their bodies behaving in "un-human" ways is going to be weird. This ties into the concept of "hard but fair": when bad things happen with a logical background, it's more justifiable and sympathetic than when bad things happen for absolutely no reason. If there's fountains of blood, it's going to seem intentionally over-the-top. If there's a reasonable amount of blood for the injury type, it's going to feel more like the natural result of damage to the human body.

Realistic damage and the negative reactions it provokes can be a major humanizing element for a given character. It's easy to not care when a group of stormtroopers is slashed up by a lightsaber, but only because it lacks emotional connection - there's no sense of pain, fear, or terror, and there's no damage that can be connected to plausibly. It's faceless, armored soldiers being slashed up by special effects and falling down; there's nothing for the audience to relate to. The aspect of automatic emotional responses works better when there's other emotions and elements to work with, and those emotions will feel more real if there's a layer of logic and plausibility underneath them.

Women and Gore
"Female soldier" isn't an uncommon character profession in most modern works. The age of "women in the kitchen" has largely passed by, and in most cases it's expected that a female character with combat training will be at the forefront of the fight along with all the more traditional male characters. Averting this concept would seem backwards, and can result in accusations of sexism. Yet, as poorly represented as soldiers generally are, "female soldiers" for some reason get it even worse in terms of characterization. They rarely feel like "women" and "soldiers" simultaneously - the latter has to be emphasized for the sake of some feminist ideal, when in actuality "being a soldier" should be more alienating to the audience than "being a woman".

An important point about this is that women are rarely treated "equally" to men when it comes to gore and violence. There are plenty of movies and books about a lone woman striving to prove that she's equal to men, but comparatively less about female soldiers fighting and dying alongside the men in equally grim and unpleasant circumstances. There are a few games and movies with female soldiers being killed alongside men, but they're comparatively rare. Of course, it wouldn't be uplifting to read a story about a woman going into combat and immediately dying, but essentially it's an unfair concept (in addition to the unfairness of the protagonist shield concept). How can they be judged by the same standards if one group is able to die and the other isn't?

There's a negative societal reaction to female gore in general, since "women" still generally fall under the automatic sympathetic heading, along with "children". The idea of female extras being killed en masse is considered upsetting. Hence, even settings where women are considered part of the normal army will shy away from showing the same graphic deaths for women as they would for men. A work that does depict a blood or gory death for a female character is usually suspected to have some underlying misogynist or fetishistic motive - and many of them do. This creates an imbalance where it's perfectly okay for women to be soldiers, but it's not okay for them to die like one.

When I talked about Dragon Quest, I noted that the difference between the male and female warriors suggested that a man is expected to take damage, but a woman is not. If the woman was expected to be cut or injured in the same way as the man, it would be insane not to wear the same amount of armor as him. Instead, women are often limited to superficial damage. It's hard to determine whether this is misogynist or misandrist, but it's definitely unequal. If men and women are meant to be treated as equals in combat service, they should be treated as equals in the unpleasant aspects of that service as well.

For example, I liked the character Emma Honeywell in The Last Remnant, because she was a sensible, down-to-earth character for whom "being a knight" was more important than "being female". This was reflected in one scene (major spoilers) where the way she fights is identical to what a male character would do in that position - no damsel-in-distress syndrome, no upper-arm-grabbing, nothing. But then I thought about it, and she's still one of the few female knights in the game. The generic soldiers, at least in this scene, are entirely male. She's a hardened knight with years of experience and a no-nonsense attitude, but she's also a protagonist, and thus gets a dignified protagonist's death instead of being crushed into a bloody pulp off-screen. There is at least a sense of her tiring and being wounded, but it's still something to think about.

On the other hand, there's "Aliens", a movie centering around a mixed-sex group of space marines. There were focal male and female characters and disposable male and female characters. The film did a good job of making it all seem very natural. All of these characters are marines, and they're all at risk, but some of them are male and some are female. Their gender is barely even relevant to their role. I've quoted James Cameron in the past stating that the consistency and tone of Aliens is what helps it succeed, and I think that includes this element of it. There's not a lot of meta-thinking or meta-justification - no "well x character didn't die because she's a girl". It all feels very real and very logical to the characters, and that reflects on the audience. 

What's especially interesting about Aliens is that Vasquez was written as a male character, but the gender was changed for a new dynamic. That's the approach I would say should be taken to the whole affair - don't write male marines or female marines, write marines. Their profession, environment, and skills should influence them more than their gender. If their job involves hazards and death, that should be represented, not just to be "fair" but to accurately represent the difficulty and strain of that profession. Above all, things should be equal.

To Sum Up:
1) Gore is a visceral concept that ties directly into immediate reactions of disgust and pain, which is an effective tool in manipulating the audience.
2) Gore can be effective in displaying how truly awful a situation is, and thus create sympathy for the characters caught up in it - but it has to be logical and reasonable, not over-the-top.
3) An unfair situation regarding gore (i.e. female characters don't die in the same way) creates an imbalance that undermines the logic of the situation, making the gory male deaths seem fake in comparison. Therefore, as unpleasant as it may be, consistency is a key element of making gore "believable" rather than "extraneous".

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mundane character detail

When it comes to creating characters, I've discussed ways that an environment can shape an individual - not just soldiers, but any human being. There is a tendency to make characters sort of exist in a static form, rather than a product of different factors and statuses. This can manifest as never looking different, never dressing different, never developing different beliefs, and so on. In contrast, things like character development and design development can help a character feel more real, and make events seem like they're having some impact on the character.

This doesn't need to be complex, though. You don't need to be a psychologist, a historian, or a paranormal expert to make a believable character. In essence, a character is ostensibly a human like you - different in terms of upbringing, values, and experiences, but still fundamentally similar. So here's a simple thing you can do to flesh out a character: plan out their day, from when they wake up to when they go to sleep. Include things like work, meals, and recreation. Think about your own life and the things you have to do every day, and then apply them to the character and the world they live in.

What does this accomplish? It establishes a lot of detail, including things like diet, hygiene, sleep habits, and living conditions. When discussing armor, I said that writers should ask themselves questions like "how would it feel", "how much does it weigh", "how easy is it to don", and so on. I brought up a similar concept when discussing buildings and cities: does a given area have all the facilities necessary to fulfill the inhabitants' needs? This is meant to accomplish a similar thing: to bring up the kind of questions that people can relate to, and to call on simple concepts that flesh a character out. We can sort these out into a few different categories:

Food and Diet
What does the character eat? Where does this food come from - nearby farms, supply trains, or a larger market? What food would be considered common, and what food would be considered a rare treat or delicacy? How does their diet reflect on their character - are they fat despite having little to eat, or thin despite an abundance? Where do they eat (i.e. do they have a specific cafeteria to go to)? Do they eat alone or with friends and comrades?

Hygiene and Health
What is the character's usual routine with regards to hygiene?  How do they shave? How do they clean their teeth? How do they bathe? If a character is incapable of cleaning a specific section, that should reasonably reflect on their character (unless you find it distasteful, of course). What sort of minor ailments might the character have to deal with, and how would they remedy them? If a character is wounded or crippled, how do they live their everyday life?

Appearance and Equipment
What sort of clothes does the character own? How do they decide what to wear on a given day? Take a brief moment to imagine them getting dressed, setting their hair, etc. (this will avoid travesties such as this and this). What daily rituals do they have with regards to "sprucing up" their appearance? If a commonly-assumed thing (like "applying makeup" for a woman) isn't present or common, their appearance should change to reflect that. If their gear includes armor or a suit of some kind, how do they don it and how long does it take? How do they clean their clothes and maintain their other equipment? Where did they obtain their equipment from? When they're on the move, how do they carry their equipment? If they're not carrying all of their equipment, where do they keep the rest of it?

Work and Experience
What does the character do as their "day job"? This does not necessarily imply a mundane preoccupation, but instead reflects on how they spend the majority of their time and how they bring in income. How does this time reflect on their skills - remember that, since this takes up most of their schedule, it's going to influence their capabilities and knowledge. Learn about the details of their job, and what it entails. Try to avoid "handwaving" this time period - understanding their duties and schedule will help you conceptualize their job, and thus their characterization. What sort of role does their job play in the community? How much money do they bring in, and how does it affect their holdings? What duties do they have outside of their immediate profession - i.e. cleaning the house, taking care of children, and so on.

Free Time and Socialization
What does the character do when they're not working? How much time do they actually have that's "not working"? What do they do for recreation? Who do they socialize with? What do they do with friends? What do they have to do when they're alone? How does the flow of information affect their understanding of the world? Where does their moral compass come from? Where do they get news from - gossip, town criers, local papers, or mass media? How do they react to mundane situations (i.e. stuff like "stealing from an employer" rather than rarer decisions like "do you kill the bandit")?

With this sort of information in hand, think about your own life and your own schedule. Think about an average day for you, and then replace the concepts that are specific to you with the questions you have just answered. Here are some examples to get you started:
Daily Life of a Peasant
Daily Life of a Knight
Daily Life of a Nun
Daily Life of a Roman Soldier (book link)
Daily Life of an Ancient Egyptian
Daily Life of a US Army Soldier
Daily Rituals of a Space Marine

What this kind of exercise accomplishes is making the character feel more "real". One issue with fictional characters is that, really, they only exist in brief windows of excitement - the audience can't be expected to hang out with them for all the boring parts of their life. And yet, it is the "boring parts" that shape who they are, what they enjoy, what they know, and what they think about things. Their character doesn't arise from nothingness - it's a reflection of their upbringing, their environment, and so on. By understanding how the character's basic needs and requirements are similar to, and different from, your own, you can make a more believable individual.

Now, you might say that this is the kind of thing that bogs a story down - readers don't need to know about every detail, players don't need to manually clean every strap of their armor, etc. While this is certainly true, this (and many other parts of believability) are not about directly shoving this into the limelight. Instead, it's an underlying logic that affects the way the character is depicted and portrayed without having to necessarily be shown. Not that I am saying you can't show it, as naturally a well-done "mundane" scene should cause the audience to identify more with the basic aspects of the character's life.

In essence, the goal here is to make the character seem like a human being by connecting them to all the basic concepts of "humanity". People have a basic set of needs - food, shelter, socialization - and appealing to those concepts should allow the character to transcend issues of setting and culture and create empathy within the audience.

So, To Sum Up:
1) Creating a "routine schedule" for a character can help you understand and display the kinds of things that their life entails outside of your specific story.
2) It allows you to use a logical setting in order to justify where things like food, drink, and information come from - if your setting makes sense, every need will have a reasonable source.
3) It also allows you to draw upon your own personal experience in terms of basic character design, and then see how that basic concept changes when you account for the character's different perspective.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Analysis: Dragon Quest

Dragon Quest is a classic series dating back to the original NES / Famicom. In that way, it shares a lot of its origins with Final Fantasy: it's a simple RPG about heroes vanquishing villains, with a lot of recognizable fantasy concepts. However, unlike Final Fantasy, DQ chose to stay in that genre. While Final Fantasy moved on from fantasy to steampunk (FF6), dystopia (FF7), and modern fantasy (FF8), DQ kept doing what it's always done.

Talking about things like the setting, story, and logic (i.e. my usual fare) of Dragon Quest seems to be a bit pointless. Dragon Quest has always been about being iconic, rather than challenging or innovative. It's had some neat plot twists and so on in the past, but the point has always been heroic adventure, not grounded politics and sensibilities. When I talked about FFXI, for example, I was doing so on the grounds that the material indicated a level of realism and depth that I didn't think was expressed in the game itself. Dragon Quest doesn't deal in that - it deals in mighty knights, crafty wizards, and noble priests banding together to rid the world of evil. It's simple, but effective for what it needs to do.

Early on, Dragon Quest's designs were essentially a way to convert Toriyama's art into character sprites, hence the need for bright, recognizable colors. They also helped to maintain a fairly cartoonish look that defined the tone and theme of the game - heroic, but childish, fantasy. This trend continued into later Dragon Quest games, where simple-but-recognizable designs like the cleric, the mage, and the warrior were necessary to create a sense of genre consistency based on immediately comprehensible iconic imagery. Dragon Quest could be said to have established a standard for the "generic 8-bit RPG", and whenever there's a parody of that era in a game or anime, it's going to resemble Dragon Quest on some level.

However, as those class designs showed, "realism" wasn't really a major concern for classic Dragon Quest. The clothing is bright, colorful, and clearly not intended to look like "real cloth", while the armor is similarly intangible and nonsensical. The series has varied in its representation of what items are supposed to look like, from those very basic beginnings to slightly more tangible materials by DQ VII. The designs are still certainly cartoonish, but there's at least some effort to make the material look more real. It's a lot like "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" in that sense, where it's hardly meant to be realistic, but there's still room for things that looks a bit more "real" (as well as the addition of a mail shirt to Link's design).

This brings us to Dragon Quest IX, which I feel expresses both material realism and stylistic cartoonishness. In fact, I'd say the use of the former (far more than any previous DQ game) emphasizes the nature of the latter. This is going to tie both into armor design and clothing design. So, without further ado, let's take a look at some classes:

Right off the bat, we can see the clash between the old and the new. DQ9's warriors are laudable because they look like they're actually wearing metal, cloth, and leather. They did a good job of representing the material and making it look like what it's meant to be, rather than the sort of abstract "colorful metal" that previous games used. The male warrior is even wearing a padded or leather tunic over his mail in a quite sensible fashion. Sure, the helmet is a little cartoonish to fit his giant head, but overall the male warrior looks like a pretty solid design.

Which, unfortunately, brings us to the female. The female is weird because the materials are still there - it still looks like metal and mail and leather - but not much else is. It acknowledges the nature and subsistence of armor, but neither its role in providing coverage nor the discomfort that would follow with wearing armor in such a fashion. It's hard to imagine the woman getting hit without unpleasantly gory things following because of the nature of the materials. It's one thing to image being hit by a plastic sword, it's another if that sword is clearly sharp enough to cut flesh. This is probably something that deserves its own update - when women are depicted as soldiers, they're rarely shown to be as vulnerable to distressing or catastrophic damage as male soldier are.

While both of these designs are pretty solid in terms of materials (I especially think the male paladin's cape and tunic being bordered in such a way is a nice touch), there's still some visible imbalance. For no adequately explained reason, the woman is leaving flesh exposed on her upper legs and upper torso. There's not even cloth underneath, unless she's choosing to wear skin-colored cloth. It's just skin under mail and plate.

One strange thing about this picture, though, is that in some ways the woman is actually better-armored than the man, with leg protection, gauntlets, and some light plate protection on the torso. However, those pointless gaps draw enough attention that it overcomes that difference. The man's legs may be exposed to damage, but at least they're not exposed to the elements. He seems like a reasonable traveler - she does not.

Now here, at least, is a class where both male and female are equally exposed. Sure, the female is still wearing a skirt for no reason other than "girls wear skirts I guess", but in terms of armor protection they're basically equal, and they both show off some skin for no reason. This is the crux of the issue - thematic fairness, rather than simply being protected or unprotected. It's okay for Red Sonja to run around in unrealistic gear as long as Conan does the same. Naturally in the earliest Robert E. Howard stories, both Conan and Sonja were reasonably armored for whatever period they were in - it was the style of comics and movies that resulted in the depictions we imagine today. As a side-note, I think this design does a pretty good job with tangible materials despite its obviously less-than-sensible coverage design.

Look how close they are to having balanced design. They're so close. They're both reasonably clothed in a pretty exciting visual style that still looks tangible and sensible (although perhaps not for long-term adventuring), and then the woman just neglects to wear pants. Now, obviously, skirts are a real thing and there has to be some allowance for their existence, but within the context of the illustration it just seems unfair. Technically the skirt seems short enough that she could still move around and so on, but still - if she's a traveler, she's going to want to avoid exposure to the elements. The part that bothers me is that it's so close to being equal and sensible, but there's still bared skin for clear fanservice reasons. I just wish there was a class where the woman was wearing more and had more coverage than the man did.

Oh! Well, thank you, DQ9! 

While I really like both of these designs in terms of style and tangibility (with clear steppe inspirations), it's funny how the warmth and coverage of some sections makes the few exposed areas look weirder. Like obviously there's the male refusing to wear a shirt, but even little things like the woman having some leg-skin exposed and not wearing gloves just makes me feel like they'd get cold quickly. It's not just because skin is exposed per se - after all, it makes sense to wear less if it's warm out - but the presence of thick clothing and fur hats sort of suggests that it's meant for cold weather. I suppose it all depends on the artist's mindset when he drew it.

There's still a few classes left I haven't looked at - casters, primarily - that I didn't feel were quite as important to get across what I'm trying to say. Most of those classes focus on cloth and leather alone, and some are pretty good as far as coverage and equality go. These pages have all of them, and even the unrealistically exposed ones like the minstrel and mage are justified by at least a general sense of fairness (i.e. neither the male nor the female is really meant to look like a serious adventurer). The warrior is by far the weirdest case, not just because the female's unrealistic, but because the male is.

This goes back to concepts of tone. If things are going to be realistic, they should be realistic equally. If things are going to be unrealistic, they should be unrealistic equally. Theoretically, "unrealistic" is less of a hassle because something can look plausible and still be unrealistic, as these designs are, but it still creates a sense of distance between the two. A realistic or plausible design naturally brings up concepts of coverage, protection, and materials, and this ends up correlating to the idea of a blow hitting flesh rather than leather or metal.

As far as clothing goes, though, it's all going to depend on how the environment is portrayed. Heat and sweat are naturally going to make exposure more reasonable, while wind and chill are going to suggest bundling up. I tried to judge these designs not by an assumption of a default environment, but by a sense of consistency within the design itself. Covering up 9/10ths of your body with heavy materials and then deciding "no, I think a skirt is fine for weather like this" seems a bit counter-intuitive. This isn't as big of an issue, because unlike armor clothing choice comes down to personal comfort and so on, but it's still noteworthy to me because of the depiction.

So, To Sum Up:
1) Dragon Quest is a pretty solid "not realistic, doesn't care to be realistic" RPG series.
2) Its recent forays into more realistic textures (if not characters) has led to an odd disconnect.
3) While this decision was for stylistic, rather than logical, reasons, it still has an impact on perception of the world.
4) Establishing gender equality becomes an issue when armor seems logical, rather than stylized.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tone and believability

Today's topic is the intersection of two major themes: "tone as presentation" and "tone as storytelling". The former refers to the sense-based qualities of the work - its artistic style, its costuming, its use of sights and sounds, and so on. The latter refers to the nature of the setting, and the way people act and react to it. Both are important in creating a tone, and the closer together they can get, the less dissonance the audience will feel - although the matching of presentation and storytelling can certainly be useful in more ways than that. But what constitutes "tone", and more importantly what sort of concepts lead to it being "sensible" or not?

Storytelling and Tone
Storytelling, as mentioned, refers to events within the setting, and also how characters respond to those events. For example, the concepts of fear and risk are a major part of setting tone - it's hard to take a setting seriously as being "dangerous" or "unpleasant" when the characters don't act like it is and when the story doesn't support it. Likewise, a series that claims to be lighthearted and simple would find its assumption quickly challenged if characters started dying off and the darker aspects of the psyche were explored. Generally, if these things don't match up, the series begins to feel fake and unnatural (if it was meant to be natural) or twisted and misinterpreted (if it wasn't).

The value of a "realistic" tone is that it can strike very close to home in ways that escapist fantasy cannot, and it can create doubt and fear within the audience that leads to a greater sense of trepidation and tension. This is what many gritty writers attempt to go for. However, if that concept is marginalized or weakened by contradiction, the effect ought to be undermined. A good writer can mask this, at least for a time, but eventually the contradictions will be noticed - hopefully long after the work is completed.

The value of an "escapist" or "fantastic" tone, on the other hand, is that it doesn't worry the audience. Things end up well for the heroes, good wins in the end, and so on. It's not meant to be an important life lesson - it's just a fun little romp. It's meant to make the audience feel good, or powerful, or any number of positive emotions. It may not breed the same kind of sympathetic pain and loss, but it produces other emotions that are reasonably valid.

What bothers me, though, is when a dark or serious concept (a realistic tone) doesn't apply to the protagonists (an escapist tone). To me, this undermines the main goal of the concept by taking the people the audience is meant to care about and separating them from a source of tension and sympathy. Obviously there's some leeway for the whole concept of "you can't tell a story unless you survived it", but in general if protagonists and non-protagonists are being judged by different meta-rules, but are acting like they're being treated the same, it's going to feel fake. This is a concept of fairness and equality: sympathy should be doled out according to the potential for danger, and if that danger doesn't exist, the sympathy should go with it.

What happens a lot with storytelling, I feel, is that the need to assume traditional structures - an epic quest of monumental importance, with powerful protagonists who are much stronger, or at least less in danger, than any "normal" person - is making things, by default, unfair. This is a concept that results when some people are just intrinsically better than others. Certainly there can be justifications for it - a veteran soldier who has been through countless wars should be considered at least marginally better than the average goblin - but it's still basically an unfair setup. Ask yourself this: if the story was about anyone else, would you still accept it? Would you accept the protagonists running into another group of "heroes" and being effortlessly slaughtered, not because of logical reasons but because of contextual reasons you had no reason to know existed?

Not every story wants to be realistic or dark. There's always room for Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, which exist in a somewhat realistic, but primarily "heroic" work. However, thinking of the characters logically, there should be an explanation for why they're more powerful. I'm sure that the brave soldiers of Rohan and Gondor are eager to know why they can die from an arrow or a sword wound when untrained hobbits like Merry and Pippin have managed to survive much worse, and in the same way I'm sure all the veteran Rebel soldiers would like to know how Luke survived his trip through the Death Star despite being a farmboy with no combat skills.

This is the "logical setup" of a realistic work: to make victories feel earned, rather than given. Again, this can be ignored for the sake of the narrative and tone, but in essence I feel that making those characters feel real or developed is going to call attention to that imbalance. I specifically chose those two examples because both were based on "being real people", and the difference between the protagonists as "real people" and non-protagonists as "real people" comes down to a system that does not exist in-universe.

In terms of tone, the issue is one of risk and fear: is death scary, and is it plausible? If a work is meant to have a serious tone, the answer to both questions should be yes. If it's only "yes" for non-protagonists, that's a double standard - especially when the serious parts of the setting are meant to apply to both groups. The greater the difference, the more disconcerting it's going to be. I'd say that original Star Wars got away with the difference because for the most part it felt like the protagonists were in danger, even though they weren't in a meta-contextual sense. In the prequels, there is neither fear nor risk, which separates the protagonists from the much more humanized (and yet not enough) clone troopers.

So to sum this part up, basically it's fine to have things be lighthearted, and it's fine to have things be realistic, but once you start mixing them together it's probably going to result in an unequal situation that attempts to judge both "vulnerable" and "invulnerable" characters by the same standards, or more commonly being severely upset by the death of a major character and, at worst, slightly irritated by the death of a minor one.

Design and Tone
So now you've got your concept of storytelling tone. You know if you want to make things silly or serious, and you know if you want to make situations dangerous or tame. If you want to make things lighthearted, then you don't really have to worry about whether your design is believable or not - anything will do, because you're already expressing a disinterest in consequential logic. Sure, you can use any of the things I've talked about, such as armor design or clothing utility, to make the setting more immersive, but it's not a particularly huge deal.

On the other hand, in a serious work, believability is key. Here's why: believability represents logic working at its most optimal level. It is the ultimate expression of things making sense, and without it you get questions like:
- "Why didn't he just ____?"
- "Really? Did he just get away with ____?"
- "Do you really expect me to believe that he ____?"
- "Are you kidding me? He just ____! He can't ____ after he ____ and his skull comes clean off!"

Believability is about setting things up in such a way that they make sense. This brings it into conflict with setting things up in a way that they look genre-standard but don't make any sense. For example, when I talk about armor, I'm talking about optimization as well as senses. If you have giant holes in your armor, you should expect to be stabbed there. This is based on a two-part logic: First, the logic of the stabber, which is "there is a hole there, I should stab it because this is the obvious thing to do", and second, the logic of the stabbed, which is "I don't want to be stabbed there, perhaps I should put something between my flesh and an offending object".

This is what I mean by logic. Light-hearted or escapist fantasy doesn't care - it doesn't matter what parts of my body I armor, because I'm not going to get hit in a non-armored part anyways. But it also makes less danger. In contrast, having more sensible armor establishes that there is a level of danger, and it's such that the character is doing something to avoid exposing themselves to that danger. If you're going into battle in sensible armor, then it at least shows you cared enough to do something to reduce the amount of danger you're going to be in. If you're going into battle in non-sensible armor, not only should you expect to have that weakness exploited, but in addition, if it's NOT exploited, then you've pretty much established your foes as being completely incompetent.

The same thing applies to something like a lightsaber. Is it the best choice for fighting in that situation? If not, why are you using it? Sometimes these things can be explained as a matter of honor or necessity, but essentially using a ridiculous weapon or wearing ridiculous armor creates a gap. We are meant to believe that this person is invested in their success and their continued health, and yet they are using something that is not leading them to victory for the sake of "looking good". Would this be acceptable in real life? Would you say to a firefighter, "You know, you could wear all your protective gear and rescue me easily, but on the other hand you could take it off and go in anyways and endanger both our lives so that you don't have to look all clunky and weird"?

When it comes down to it, this is how logic works: are the characters doing everything they can to win? If yes, then it establishes that the characters fear loss and death. If not, it makes them seem like they don't care. "Why didn't they just ____" is not only a question of sensible storywriting, but it's also a question of a character's role in the series. In "Huckleberry Finn", there is a part where Tom Sawyer specifically undermines Huck's efforts to free Jim because "it's more exciting". I cannot think of a more perfect metaphor for what I am talking about, and it's telling that Twain used this moment to express his developed dislike for Tom's sense of adventure and need for conflict.

Presentation and Tone
This is a much less "realistic or unrealistic" aspect than the previous issues, because this is an issue of representation and style, not of design or characterization. I've touched on the importance of an artistic style before, but I'd like to also tie it into this current examination of tone. To sum up that article: the way a universe is represented can affect how people think about it and how they extrapolate new information or settings. If you make it so that cover art is bright and cheerful or grim and dreary, the rest of the book is probably going to be envisioned that way. This is why a bad cover can end up being so damaging, and good art can be supportive. Here's some examples of art influencing a work:

- A Series of Unfortunate Events. The art and story are both meant to be grim and dreary, but also evocative of a certain set of sensibilities, possibly connected to the words "creaky", "antique", and "Victorian". This art brilliantly helps frame the mood and tone of the story by reinforcing the same sort of things that are meant to be taking place. This mood worked so well that even the movies emulated it, creating a visible artistic style while still transferring the book's world to live actors.

- Bioshock. While there was certainly praise for the story and the gameplay, I would say that most of Bioshock's reception was due to its iconic art deco style and visually stunning environments. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the game would not be nearly as popular or well-thought-of without it, because presentation was used to mask the linear storyline and relatively constrained gameplay in such a way that most players didn't mind. If the game was released just with the nuts and bolts - with a very basic or simple visual style - I have no doubt in my mind that it would have been barely noticed.

- Tales of Symphonia. While at some points the art and story of ToS match up perfectly - a cartoonish, goofy game where characters crack bad jokes like it ain't no thang - the game occasionally tries to introduce more serious or "important" topics like oppression, murder, and genocide. This is kind of hard to do in a game where everyone looks like this. To be fair, ToS ends up being a lot less about "presentation dissonance" and a lot more about "story dissonance" (we're supposed to take it seriously when the lovable goofball who uses two swords because "that's double the attack power, right?" is trying to save the world) but I think the art also plays a pretty important role. It sets the standards as being somewhat goofy and unrealistic, which is fine, but then it tries to delve into serious things and treat them in a serious manner, which is at odds with the way things are presented.

- The Lord of the Rings movies used a lot of real props and designs (versus the more CGI-heavy bent of recent years) to create weapons and armor that seemed very tangible and believable. While I certainly appreciated this as a fan of such things, I also felt that it occasionally made the unrealistic or heroic aspects a bit harder to take. The armor certainly seems solid, so it makes me wonder why none of the protagonists ever choose to wear any (apart from Gimli, who is comedy relief in the film). Furthermore, the realistic nature of the armor is occasionally undermined by something like an arrow passing right through plate and mail without even slowing down. The design is there in spirit and I appreciate it for that, but the storytelling and events simply do not match up to it.

The recurring theme is that an artistic style affects the way people think about a world, whether it's hard and real or soft and fantastic. An artistic style can make or break a concept. It can reinforce realism and grittiness, or it can make things feel unrealistic and intangible. It can be visually stimulating even as a "side attraction", or it can be so dull and boring that people refuse to get involved. In essence, artistic choice and proper usage of a given artist's style is as important to establishing tone as decisions made about the setting and story itself.

Aggregate Tone
Now we have three pieces. We have story, we have design, and we have presentation. To make a truly serious work, all three must be equally connected. Of them, "presentation" is the most subjective, and is hence given the most leeway, but also creates more of an abstract sense of design that makes a product unique. In this way those three things can be seen as sides of a scale. Story is the most concrete, because events are generally logical and based off of logical conclusions. Design is a bit less, because there's still room for personal expression while making something sensible or believable. Presentation is the most abstract, because what defines an artistic style as being "serious" or "fantastic" is less definable than what makes a story such. 

So, To Sum Up:
1) "Tone" consists of an aggregate product of the logical and sense-related aspects of a setting or product.
2) One aspect of tone is based around how the story is fashioned and events are portrayed.
3) Another aspect of tone is based around the design of objects in-universe.
4) A third aspect of tone comes from artistic choices and decisions and how they reflect on the work.
5) If these aspects match up, a more seamless universe can be created.