Tuesday, May 31, 2011

More On Death

I've talked about death a few times in the past (both from a character's perspective and from a larger story perspective). Death is an important part of believability when you're talking about genres and mediums that deal largely in combat. The fact that, in most cases, it's a zero-sum game (one dies, one lives) means that the influence of authorial intervention affects how the audience feels about those deaths and what they mean to the setting and story.

Death, in real life, has a certain gravitas about it because people only get one life. When you're dead, that's it. Not only are you, personally, gone, but you aren't influencing the world except as a memory. Your role in the "story" is done. It's why death still has impact in a fictional story, too - because the character is gone, done, and over. Many games reflect this idea by making death scripted only, and even tabletop DMs will often express hesitance to kill a character in a way that's not particularly "meaningful" (no random deaths, only when something like a last stand or heroic final effort can be accomplished).

Yet, as we've established, death is common on a battlefield. Not, perhaps, always instantaneous, but putting yourself in a dangerous situation is going to lead to the potential (however small) for death, and that potential is unacceptable for many storytellers. This creates two different styles: "action" and "survival". The action game, or action story, is heavily about combat, and thus dying is considered a failure of skill, rather than an inevitability. It's a top-down approach: dying is an exception, rather than a rule. Living is the default state, dying is a mistake. A survival game/story, on the other hand, assumes that death is more likely than not, and creates tension through the process of having a protagonist (or protagonists) attempt to escape it.

One important difference between the two groups is that the former is usually voluntary and the latter is usually forced. A survival scenario doesn't make sense if the character could just leave, after all. In contrast, games like D&D are generally about treasure-hunters and adventurers, and thus if it was super-lethal their choice of career wouldn't make as much sense. Almost every game that features combat ends up being lethal, and yet this rarely reflects on  the kinds of characters being played. Death exists in games, but no character is really ever truly ready to confront it - rather, it's just sort of there because it's expected to be lethal.

Death and Afterlife
When talking about mortality, and a character's response to it, one thing that certainly needs to be brought to the front is the nature of what happens after death. In real life, it's anyone's game: we don't know, at least not concretely, so different people have different ideas, and those different ideas influence how they live their lives. A person who believes that life simply ends is going to behave differently than someone who believes that they are going to be eternally judged after they die based on how they lived their life.

In many Fantasy or Supernatural settings, however, the presence of the divine (or unearthly, or whatever you'd like to call it) is actually confirmed. Priests and clerics can channel miracles, angels come from on high and demons come from below, etc. It is an objective fact (with visible evidence) that something happens after you die. How does this influence a character? How does a character's understanding of consequences influence their decision-making processes?

Take the concept of Valhalla, for example. An individual who believes in Valhalla is operating under the belief that dying as a warrior reaps eternal rewards. It's not just a cultural value, it's also an investment: die bravely, and you get rewarded. Therefore, their viewpoint towards a combat scenario is going to differ from someone who believes that there is nothing after death. They are not going to worry about death, because they know what happens afterwards (or at least they have an idea). This is going to be stronger if there is substantial evidence for this belief (i.e. Valkyries are a recognized, visible part of the setting).

Understanding the way an afterlife works is an important part of considering a character's morality with regards to death or murder. If necromancy enslaves the souls of the dead, it's different than if it simply animates their corpse. If being killed by a demon ensures that one's soul is trapped in Hell, then suicide (or being killed by a regular human) is a preferable alternative. It makes the difference between a priest delivering last rites during a heated battle being insane or necessary. It makes the difference between an officer executing disloyal men being totally evil or potentially justified. Like any other part of the setting, death and its nature are important.

Non-Lethal Combat
One of the things that makes pro wrestling what it is is the fact that nobody is gone permanently. In-universe, it's a competition, not a war. Nobody dies, which means that no character is permanently removed. Contestants can win or lose without being "removed", even if they're severely beaten. The worst that generally happens is a contestant might be out of the competition for a few months, and even that is generally a kayfabe excuse for the performer doing something else for a period of time. Championships and titles change hands, but nobody and nothing is beyond recovery.

However, competitions are generally considered to be insufficient for tension when it comes to fiction. Exceptions exist, of course, but the good majority of fiction (whether games, movies, or books) prefers lethal wars to non-lethal competitions. There's plenty of reasons for this, but I personally feel the most prominent reason is that war is more "important" than a competition; things being "to the death" make things more exciting for the players or the audience, because naturally there's more on the line.

Yet, death is rarely captured well in fiction, because it lacks the full context. It's something more akin to "being knocked unconscious, but for a longer period of time"; Dragonball Z's "other dimension" comes to mind to describe it. The lack of impact, both in terms of long-term consequences and in terms of immediate descriptions of death, generally creates an atmosphere where dying is basically the same as getting hit in paintball, or losing all your HP in a video game.

A non-lethal scenario means that this isn't a problem. In a non-lethal scenario, it's not "to the death", and thus it's less serious. This means you can be more theatrical, more show-offish, more flamboyant, whatever. If it's about pride, and not about life, there's a whole world of new opportunities that arises. In addition, a character can exist long-term without being killed upon their first loss. Generally, players and audiences seem to want things to be lethal for the "NPCs", but non-lethal for the PCs. If everything's non-lethal to begin with, it's more fair; the idea of running around killing goblins and bandits but not dying yourself doesn't seem heroic, it just seems silly. Yet, if it's possible for a character to lose without dying, then it opens up new possibilities.

Death is a big deal. It's the biggest deal. It's a really huge deal. It's also rarely treated with the reverence it deserves, simply because of how awkwardly it exists in a story. Death is treated as the natural "oh well, this character lost" result, and its zero-sum nature means that, eventually, it's going to be unfair in favor of the protagonists. Influencing the nature of death - how common it is, how the characters perceive it, and so on - can change the nature of a setting or a piece of work.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Lessons from Pro Wrestling

Professional wrestling is a bit of an odd duck. It's a combination of athletics and storytelling, but done in a way that "purer" fans of both elements tend to look down their nose at it; the scripted nature of the matches brings scorn from those who prefer competitive sports and believe that the "unnaturalness" of the exercise makes it less legitimate, and the simplicity of the storytelling generally means that the creative community at large thinks of it as a joke at best and stereotypical ham-headed posturing at worst. While it is true that wrestling is generally "entertainment", and that its content is meant to be emotionally evocative or humorous rather than deep, developed, and serious, there are a few elements of Professional Wrestling that need to be taken into consideration, and that can be applied (in one manner or another) to more traditional forms of storytelling. So let's apply pro wrestling to some older topics.

Authorial Fiat
As mentioned, one of the perceived issues with wrestling is that it's "fake", which is to say that the things that happen - the moves that are used, the events that occur, and so on - are scripted. The wrestlers are not fighting to win, they're fighting to look good and, hopefully, avoid injuring each other. When it comes down to it, though, one wrestler isn't going to "wrestle harder" than the other; if they were meant to win in the storyline, they win. Obviously I've talked a lot about emergent stories and so on, and in pro wrestling "emergent stuff" is generally limited to mistakes, accidents, or unexpected fan reactions. The storyline, or "kayfabe", is closer to that of a traditional authorial setup: what the script says happens, happens.

However, I believe it's important to note a major distinction between pro wrestling and a book, movie, or other form of uninteractive media. In a book, the words exist by themselves: once they're written down, that's the end of it. In a movie, there are elements in play to reduce the danger to, and strain on, the actors, and thus the rare individual like Jackie Chan who performs their own dangerous stuntwork is respected. In wrestling, every competitor or participant has to make the script happen. It's one thing to say that a wrestler does something, it's another to actually have a real person do that thing. While there are a lot of pulled punches and the wrestlers obviously aren't trying to hurt each other, there's still a lot of elements that are simply painful or dangerous to pull off.

One need look no further than the career of Mick Foley to see that, even in its softened version, wrestling is still a very painful and dangerous profession. The fact that wrestlers pull punches and there's mats and padding doesn't mean that it doesn't, or can't, hurt. In the third Hell in a Cell match, Mick Foley suffered several major injuries, including being thrown 16 feet from the top of a cage onto a table, being chokeslammed through the top of the cage down onto the ring, and throwing out thumbtacks onto the mat that he was later slammed into. While this is possibly the most extreme example in wrestling, and led to a much more safety-oriented company following the affair, the fact remains that this isn't just empty gymnastics and athletics, it's a very physically demanding and potentially dangerous affair. Therefore, even if things cannot be appreciated on an emergent level, they can be appreciated on a technical level.

The thing to remember is that, essentially, while wrestlers can reduce the danger to themselves and their fellows, they aren't wizards. They can't undo gravity, they can't soften metal or wood. They can hit each other in a way that makes things less hazardous, but pain is pain. In addition, they still have to be able to perform these moves, meaning that they have to be in top physical shape to pull off highly coordinated (remember, everything's scripted) throws and grapples. Even if it's all planned out beforehand, it's still a major feat of athleticism to pull it off.

Impact and Damage
One of the most important parts of wrestling, in terms of actual in-ring maneuvers, is "selling" a hit. Selling is defined as responding to an attack in a convincing manner; for example, physically responding to a pulled punch as though it was a real punch, or exhibiting pain and disorientation after an attack. This can be botched in two ways: "no-selling" and "overselling", both of which involve inappropriate reactions to the attack; the former involves no reaction, and the latter involves a comically overplayed one. In some cases, what would be considered a no-sell or an oversell can be appropriate for the scenario, to indicate a powerful defense or offense as appropriate.

A lot of the necessity of "selling" comes from the aforementioned pulled punches; that is, to create a scenario where the audience is not taken out of the moment by obvious falsity. The concepts of safety precaution prevent wrestlers from using actual pain reactions (as in, legitimate injury that would cause them to respond "realistically"), so they need to make up for that by acting like a pulled punch is a real one. The hit must be believable to some extent, because if it's not then it's calling attention to the fakeness of the exercise.

In a video game, by comparison, there's actually no real impact, and so "selling" a hit is even more important. Models are swinging weapons at each other and triggering animations, and if that animation isn't convincingly forceful, it's going to seem like a joke. Everything relies upon selling, because there isn't even a basic pain response to rely upon in a video game. It's all an illusion, and if it's not convincing the audience won't be drawn in. "Selling" draws upon the most basic principles of invoking a believable reaction.

Professional Wrestling is, at best, only partially about the wrestling itself. What tends to be more important is the overall context - not just the storylines, but also the characters and their distinct styles. A person who watches a random wrestling match without having any understanding of the people involved isn't going to have the same experience as someone who knows who's wrestling. The characters that distinguish themselves create emotional attachment through a combination of aesthetic style (costumes, wrestling techniques) and expression of personality (backstage interviews, promo videos).

Wrestlers need to set themselves apart through gimmicks, through distinct personalities, and through any concept that makes people go "oh, right, it's that guy". Whether it's a distinctive voice, moveset, theme, or costume, there's got to be something to make the wrestler recognizable. It creates a niche - something that the character brings to the table that you can't get with someone else. It's an entertainment business, after all, not a setting - it's not about "getting things done", it's about being entertaining to watch, and that's a difference we'll talk about in the next section.

There are two major kinds of wrestlers: "faces" and "heels". Faces are good guys, and are meant to evoke sympathy; they play fair, they work hard, and the audience cheers for them. Heels are bad guys, and are meant to evoke disgust or hatred; they use dirty tricks and have repellent personalities, and the audience boos them. Both of these, if done well, are meant to be entertaining, in the same way that a good comic book villain can be repugnant but still fun to watch. Heels get booed, but it's in a "the guy you love to hate" way. There is a special kind of jeer called "go-away heat" that refers to booing for the sake of hating the wrestler themselves, not because of their role in the show.

One of the important aspects of this dualist identity, though, is that characters will switch between the two concepts while still maintaining the fundamental aspects of their identity. Here's some examples:

Steve Austin: As a "face", Austin is a classic good-ol'-boy, who likes beer and trucks and hates authority. As a "heel", Austin is a bit more corrupt and corporate, acting as more of a greedy prima donna who doesn't really "believe" in wrestling. This is sort of a recurring theme for big-name wrestlers, as The Rock and Hulk Hogan had similar concepts in their heel turn: the idea of wrestling being about the money, not about the wrestling.
Kurt Angle: Based around classic athletic virtues (working hard to reach one's dreams); as a heel, however, he does this in an overbearingly aggressive manner and looks down upon the fans.
CM Punk: Based around the "Straight Edge" lifestyle (no drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, etc). Laid back and tolerant as a face, but arrogant and judgmental as a heel.

One of the things I've talked about in the past a few times is the issue of mortality: how the need for protagonists to survive things interferes with the idea that they're involved in a life or death struggle. The measures that characters take in terms of self-indulgence and in terms of getting away with stupid stuff because of their protagonist status influences the believability of a work if the audience is meant to believe that they're in danger. If the protagonist dies, the story's over, so bad things don't happen to them out of necessity. In some cases a character can be convincingly wounded or maimed, but even those things permanently affect the character if we're meant to believe that this is a serious combat situation.

However, wrestling doesn't have that problem. Wrestling is wrestling, and that's it. It's not a zero-sum game. Nobody involved dies, except as an extremely unusual storyline concept. The only thing that's at stake is personal pride, and that's usually enough to keep people drawn in. The difference between this and "life or death" is that it changes the mechanics of the situation. In wrestling, the characters are fighting to win. In combat, characters are fighting to survive. It's not a huge deal to lose, because you can try again later. If you're dead, you're dead, and that's it. A character can lose and keep existing in the universe, so it's possible to have a character lose a match and come back later. However, it's not possible for a character to die and return (in a believable manner) without cheapening the threat of death to begin with.

Think about how this changes the dynamic. Even though wrestling is scripted, it's a lot more unpredictable than a lot of media, because the potential for a popular character losing always exists. It's a perpetual storyline, and it's meant to be. The "in-universe" reason for the perpetual combat is the same as the real reason for it: it's a competition, not a war. In games like World of Warcraft, that are actually meant to be real combat with real swords between combatants who actually die, the whole "respawn" thing is weird and jarring because it's not how the universe works in the storyline. However, in this, there's no suspension of disbelief. It's just wrestling. It's wrestling that's taken super-seriously by the characters, but it's still wrestling.

While Pro Wrestling is a silly, indulgent form of entertainment, it's by far better, for multiple reasons, than the standard "rule of cool" material. It involves actual athletic performances that can be appreciated on a technical level. There's actual pain and suffering involved on the part of the competitors, which lends weight to their performance. There's justified in-universe understandings of the mechanics of the scenario. In short, while wrestling is basically defined by doing stuff that's cool or entertaining, it does so in a way that's appreciably more believable, on multiple levels, than many other forms of media.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Analysis: Soul Calibur

This is kind of a weird game to look at on a blog about believability, so this article's going to be a bit more informal than usual. Soul Calibur is a weapon-based fighting game that takes place in the real world, including countries and regions from all over the globe. It's hard to say that Soul Calibur was ever meant to be "realistic", but there was a time that it was meant to be at least a little grounded, and that period has been far exceeded by how cartoonish and over-the-top it is. Still, the few traces of a basis in reality (and how those concepts were either eliminated or marginalized) is worth exploring, at least a little bit.

Soul Calibur centers around two swords, Soul Edge and Soul Calibur. Soul Edge is a sentient sword that cultivates slaughter and death to absorb more souls and grow more powerful, while Soul Calibur is (initially) not sentient, but can be used by the right wielder to defeat Soul Edge. In essence, Soul Edge is the focal point of the setting; without it, Soul Calibur (the series) is just a generic historical fighting game. In gameplay terms it still is, but the story and all the characters are organized around interaction with Soul Edge, either with obtaining it or destroying it.

Soul Calibur takes place during the late 16th century, but includes elements like sorcery, ninjutsu, alchemy, and ancient gods. The combination of things that Soul Calibur gets "right" and that Soul Calibur gets wrong is really just baffling, to be frank; in some areas, they try to show their research, and in others they clearly don't care one way or another, and not just in "well, whatever, there's magic and stuff so they can stretch reality a little" ways either. They just get things wrong, and it's not that they don't do the research or whatever, because they do. They do the research, and then they go out of their way to ignore the more obvious parts.

Let's start with something reasonably believable: the character and background of Siegfried Schtauffen. Siegfried is from the Holy Roman Empire; his father was a knight who fought for the people during the Peasants' War (though the timeline is off by a few decades), and Siegfried idolized him as a hero growing up. However, when Siegfried was a teenager, his father went off to a foreign crusade (although no crusades were going on in real life at the time). Siegfried fell in with a patriotic crowd of teens who decided to attack knights returning from the crusade based on the justification that they were cowards fleeing from battle. I think you can see where this is going: Siegfried accidentally kills his own dad, freaks out, and then hears rumours of Soul Edge being able to restore the dead. Hence, his motivation and his reason for being in the game.

While there are some factual errors present in it, the basic layout of Siegfried's background is fairly reasonable. It's based on things that make sense in the general period, and while it's not 100% realistic, it works all right for what it needs to do. It explains his motivation and background within the limits of the setting. It also ties into his character design; he's German, so he's blonde, and he's a knight's son, which explains his equipment (which we'll touch on later). It uses different elements and ties them together to create a cohesive character, rather than having certain parts just be there because "well whatever we need to say he's from somewhere". The different parts of his design are connected.

Now let's look at Sophitia. No, we're not looking at the ninja, or the zombie pirate, or the the S&M tomb guardian. We're just looking at the Greek woman. You know, from Greece, a region well-known for its olive skin and dark hair and what the heck am I looking at here. The weird thing is that the design team knew that, at the time, Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and they decided Sophitia was from Athens, and thus incorporated Athena into her backstory (though the idea that the Ancient Greek deities are openly worshiped in 16th-century Greece is equally suspect). But they neglected to include or explain the fact that she doesn't look even remotely Greek. And it's not just her; her husband doesn't look Greek either, so unless there's some little Norse enclave in Athens, it just doesn't make sense.

This brings up the essential paradox of Soul Calibur's design: they could have made it realistic, but they didn't. They could have made it UNrealistic (i.e. "not use real places and just stick it in a generic fantasy mishmash, which they ended up doing for some of the side modes), but they didn't. The fact that they put it in the real world is what opens it up to criticism, because it's objectively and identifiably wrong. They cared about some characters (Mitsurugi, Siegfried, Xianghua, maybe Maxi if you squint a bit), and for other characters they were just like "lol whatever just ignore their background". If you're going to do the research, why wouldn't you use it? It's really just baffling, when you get down to it.

Design & Visuals
Despite being based around weapon combat, Soul Calibur has always been pretty poor when it comes to actually conveying impact in any other way than "the weapon made contact with the target". People get buffeted around by blows, but there's no sense of damage, either in terms of slashing, piercing, or crushing. What the player sees is basically what happens: the model was physically moved by the force of the attack, nothing more. Similarly, armor doesn't really do anything; some characters wear it and others don't, but everyone takes the same damage and nobody's more or less visibly pained by an attack. Armor is just another form of clothing, and weapons are just sort of blunt clubs at best. It does do weight pretty well, especially with the larger weapons, but the actual "impact" part of the equation just seems underplayed.

There are two main issues to discuss with regards to design: representation of materials and the sensibility of the outfit. Let's start with the first, because the second's going to take a while. Most Soul Calibur outfits never really seemed to be made of cloth, though latex and other artificial materials are far more common. It seems less like outfits and more like superhero costumes or something. As the graphics improved and became more detailed, this became more and more noticeable: none of these characters are wearing anything that looks like it was made by human hands. Of course, they weren't really before either, but you could at least assume that it boiled down to poor textures. Now there's higher-quality textures, and they look shiny and artificial, i.e. "like modern artificial materials".

This isn't totally universal; there's plenty of characters like Raphael or Hilde who have outfits that look more convincing (in terms of the materials used), and the metal bits on every character generally look okay. But for the most part there are a lot of characters and costumes where it's just sort of baffling when one considers what, exactly, the costume is meant to be made of. On the other hand, they do have physical properties - they're smooth or shiny or...latex-y, or whatever you want to call it. It's not exactly "believable" as something that makes sense in the time period, but on the other hand it does actually portray materials, whatever their origin. I mean, I've still got some problems with them (everything's too shiny, for example), but it's not a total loss. In some cases, the simplicity of real weapons (usually a character's non-main weapons) contrasts with the unusual magic weapons, like the organic Soul Edge or the crystalline Soul Calibur. It's inconsistent, but sometimes it works.

Visual Design & Character Design
Soul Calibur doesn't seem to have a lot of decision-making logic; that is, there's not a lot of explanation of why people are wearing what they're wearing, just that they are. The chaste, noble-born alchemist Ivy wears something that can best be described as "implausible", while the modest, pious village girl Sophitia starts out kind of unreasonable and ends up...well, it ain't good, is what I'm saying. Both of those linked pictures track the character's development, with increasing amounts of sexualization. The important thing to note is that neither was believable at the start, but it got noticeably worse over time.

The odd thing is that both Ivy in particular has a history of far more reasonable secondary costumes (SC1, SC2, SC3). These costumes cover more and look a lot more like something that she (as a character) would choose to wear based on their established personality traits, though they're hardly perfect in terms of believability. They're dignified and fit in well with how the character seems to perceive herself. Yet the ones that don't make any sense in any respect other than "made by an artist to look sexy" are, for obvious reasons, the famous ones. But this is more than just an issue of showing some skin, or wearing impractical clothing to a fight (since everyone who's not wearing armor is guilty of that, and that armor doesn't matter anyways). It's an issue of character motivation and perception. Nothing about the clothing makes sense with the character or the time period; it's just the developers playing dress-up to manipulate the players.

Therein lies the problem for believability. Very few of these characters use their costumes as a way to either (a) establish character traits in terms of how the character chooses to dress themselves or (b) say something about the character through the way the costume is designed by the artist. They're there to look sexy, and while this manifests in different ways, it's still pretty much the main driving force. There are exceptions, mostly male. Siegfried is the most immediately reasonable character in terms of what he wears, at least in Soul Calibur 1; he's even got mail underneath the plate armor in the ending illustration. His armor tends to vary in quality in other games, though, and his weapon has always been a big "rule of cool" stick rather than something meant to seem like an actual blade. Raphael's weapon and clothing are emblematic of his status as a nobleman,  although he gets a bit more thematically vampiric after his initial appearance (though this at least manifests in larger capes and bat-shaped jewelry, i.e. "things that exist in real life, even at that time"). Mitsurugi's gear is a bit stylized, but it's consistently respectable; even in its "one shoulder pad" ridiculousness, it looks like something a brash warrior would choose to wear.

Even though these characters have distinct visual styles and varying degrees of "do whatever's cool" to their design, they're still designed in such a way that their personalities and background are connected to their appearance. The problem with Ivy's main costumes isn't that it's stupid or sexist (well, those are problems too), but the fact that it says nothing about her character. If it DID say something, it would be something like "she's sexually open", but she's not - she's totally chaste. In the same way, Sophitia's costumes used to make sense in terms of being peasant dress or a warrior-maiden's garb or something possibly stupid like that, but there's really no way to explain her Soul Calibur IV costume other than "the artists know what people are expecting". Characters like Hilde are an attempt to reverse that trend, but it still continues in its own way.

There's a few other male characters I'd like to discuss: Kilik, Maxi, Yun Seong, and Rock. These are dudes who are not fond of shirts. There are some alternate costumes that cover more, but they're clearly willing to flaunt it if they got it. Are these characters called out on being designed for purposes of female fanservice? N-well, maybe by some people, but in most cases "no". Their costumes still seem aesthetically designed to support their concept; Kilik's a warrior-monk, Maxi's a southern-Pacific pirate, Yun Seong's a brash young patriot, and Rock's a barbarian. It seems like a natural part of their character, to the extent that it's not like "whatever, he doesn't like wearing shirts because that's hot". In contrast, most female characters who are more sexualized feel forced into it; it's not a part of their characters or their design, it's just something that's sort of there. Characters like Setsuka and Seung Mina wear sexualized clothing, but it seems like something they'd actually choose to wear for their own reasons (well, depending on the outfit). It says something about their characters, or at least their sense of style.

The point is that "sexualization" and "stylization" are not in themselves bad things, but they should be used to say something about the character. A veteran warrior is going to dress differently than a dapper young noble; a chaste scholar is going to dress differently than a geisha. The clothing says something about them, either in terms of what they choose to wear and why they chose to do so, or how the artist's choices reflect the character's personality. If you're going for the former, it's better to do so in a way that the character can understand (i.e. having clothing that makes sense to the character instead of a magic outfit conjured from the creative aether), but if you're doing the latter, you should actually have the outfit be relevant to the character, instead of throwing on a totally unrelated fetish suit.

Soul Calibur ultimately throws me for a curve because it's not realistic, but it's not totally unrealistic either. There's so many parts where it seems like they're actually trying to do something logical, or at least to have some sort of purpose in the setting and the story, and yet there's so much other stuff where it's just "rule of cool sexy outfit" or "the giant sword bashes the dude into the wall and stuns him briefly". It's not the style that's bad per se (again, it IS bad, though), but it's the fact that the style detracts from ways that things could have been done creatively.

History isn't that boring, guys. People had crazy fashion in real life, it's not just something made up by anime artists. But it still had certain styles to it, and it was still based on materials and techniques that were actually possible to make or use, not just "well here's some latex in 16th century Japan". I'd be okay with unarmored characters as long as the clothing looked like something people would actually choose to wear of their own volition, and while some of the alternate outfits do a better job of that, it's not really the same thing. In a game like Soul Calibur, visual appearance is one of the major defining aspects of a character in terms of expression, and Soul Calibur's developers took that opportunity to say "their characters are irrelevant, here's some tits".

So basically, to sum all this up: pick a reason and stick with it. If you're going to just be like "do what's cool, whatever", then why are you bothering to do research and make SOME of the characters look okay? If you're going to set your game in the 16th century, then why aren't you putting your characters in outfits that make sense (or at least look real in some regard) for the time period? If you're going to give your characters backgrounds and personality, why doesn't their visual design correspond with that? Why? Why did this happen?!?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Analysis: Mount&Blade

"Mount&Blade" is a classic game, and by that I mean that it's old-school as heck. This isn't just a question of style or graphics, but of the intrinsic way that the game treats the player and gives the player opportunities to interact with the world. It dumps you in a setting and says "do what you want", which is the kind of wide-open sandbox that doesn't come up as often anymore. It is an approach that emphasizes interaction, usually at the expense of writing and dialogue. While M&B's world isn't totally believable, the ways in which it's unbelievable are useful in terms of discussing why and how believability is used.

Mount&Blade casts the player as a new immigrant to the land of Calradia, a fairly simplistic and obvious collection of real-world cultures, including France (Swadia), Italy (Rhodok), Mongolia (Khergit), Scandinavia (Nords), Russia (Vaegir), and the Middle East (Sarranid). These nations war with each other in an unending struggle for territory and fame. The player's role in this is to find a logical niche, starting off slaying bandits or harassing caravans to build up the strength and numbers necessary to join a faction (or even start their own).

One of Mount&Blade's major appeals for me is that it is built on a logical universe. Calradia is made up of a series of villages, castles, and towns, and it is these things that define the world. Calradia operates on a highly feudal system; lords own property and use the income to buy troops, and then when the country goes to war they gather together to take enemy territory. Peasants bring their wares to towns, and towns send trading convoys to other countries. Bandits will set up lairs and hideouts to attack groups of peasants or trading caravans, and when the player destroys a lair, the bandits dissipate. Towns that are allowed to trade without disruption will grow richer; towns that are constantly harassed will grow poorer. You can even talk to guildmasters in the towns to see what they need, what they trade, and so on.

Calradia is interesting because it works in a fairly logical way. It's a lot of subsystems connected in a way that makes everything work and keeps the caravans running on time. On the other hand, it's a perpetual system; it's hard to actually make things change in Calradia, and the best you can really hope for is making things switch hands. Lords can't be born or die, castles and villages can't be built or destroyed, and nothing's really permanent. You, the player, make your mark in the world by rising in the ranks according to the system, not by overcoming or subverting it. Even if you lose, the worst that happens is you lose all your troops and have to build up from the bottom again. It's a neat system for interaction, but less useful for emergent story stuff.

The reason for these things is pretty obvious, though: the game is about a world that's perpetually at war so that the player can find something to do. Ergo, if important people could die in battle, the player's interaction would be limited by people constantly dying. It's a reflection of the game's thematic focus; it's not "live in a world", it's "lead a mercenary band". This manifests in other parts of the game, as well; there's a lot of detail on some aspects of the world, and a lot less on other parts.

Interactions with people generally come in two forms. The player has reputations in villages and towns based on tasks done for them; saving them from bandits, helping them get more cattle, or even something as simple as buying everyone in a tavern a round of ale will raise your reputation, while raiding and pillaging will lower it. The former is a question of sacrifice or heroism, while the latter reaps immediate benefits but results in a long-term loathing. Your reputation in villages determines how many villagers you can recruit to your cause; the more highly a village thinks of you, the more numerous (and better-quality) the troops they offer will be. A player who pillages freely may soon find themselves without friends if their army is destroyed.

The other form of interaction is interpersonal. This is done through a fairly bare-bones dialogue system, but the game does manage to capture different personalities and viewpoints reasonably well. Players can talk to lords and nobles to earn their esteem in various ways, and if a player has a good enough relationship with a lord from an enemy nation, they can attempt to convince them to join their side by figuring out their perspective and appealing to it. Some nobles are more kind and generous, while others may be more cruel and bloodthirsty, and hence different actions will influence them in different ways. Building up a good relationship can even lead to possibilities of marriage (daughters and sisters for men, the rare open-minded lord for women).

Interaction, though, is generally another field where the focus rears its head. You can interact with lords in a huge number of strategic ways, such as advising them on courses of action or dealing with political manners. Maintaining good relations has a big impact on your status as a member of the game world and how different factions and characters view you. Yet this detail is largely for its own sake; there's not a lot of dialogue outside of the "professional" problems. You can't really just chat; even the courtship process is fairly brisk and businesslike, and there's basically no interaction once you're actually married.

In the same way, the player will find themselves leading great armies, perhaps even with several named, important companions. Yet the dialogue is minimal; regular troops cannot be talked to at all, and companions only have a few lines for specific occasions. This is a scenario where more emergent things could have been done; status updates on morale (companions have them, but they are very basic), a narrative description of abilities and statistics instead of a direct stat sheet, and so on. Talking conveys information of one form or another, and games should be able to convey information through conversation rather than an awkward, unimmersive character sheet.

The reason that this sort of bothers me is that Mount&Blade is a wide-open sandbox, and hence it is a world for the player to interact with. Yet ultimately there's not enough rewards in terms of intangibles like respect, power, celebrations, and so on. You get things done, and when they're done they're done. It's front-heavy; a lot of effort put into the process of getting there, but not a lot to show for it when you've finally reached your goal. Hence, the game is driven entirely by player motivation, rather than any real rewards. In fact, that's true of a lot of the game; even the more tangible goals of gaining property and leading armies are going to be based on the player finding these things interesting, rather than the game going out of its way to make them seem worthwhile. While that's fine in a limited sense, it would be better to develop the rewards aspect more to make the world seem more rounded.

Mount&Blade's combat system is one of the few systems that really feels like it adheres to a common-sense view of fighting in that period. Everything is pretty much doing what it makes sense to do. Parrying and shields work by being physically interposed between the wielder and a blow or projectile. Armor reduces damage on the covered area, and an uncovered area can be attacked to do more damage (going un-helmeted is basically a death sentence). Weapons have swing arcs rather than simply being intangible, meaning that different weapons have different uses. This leads to intuitive tactics: in tightly packed quarters, swing overhead or thrust. In open areas, slashes are more effective. If you're approaching an archer, raise your shield; if a shield-bearer is approaching you, shoot him in the legs.

What I enjoy about M&B's combat is that it feels logical. When I mess up, I can see why. When I do well, I can see why. When I look at a video of other people playing, I can see why things happened the way they did. It's about physical location and movement, not about meta-gaming. There's a few unrealistic things, naturally, like movement and jumping in general, but overall it's a common-sense platform. Demon's Souls also tried for that sort of combat, but the nature of combat animations made it a bit more quizzical. Mount&Blade is simple: attack from a direction, make sure there's nothing in the way of you and the target. It's also challenging enough reflexively that it's enjoyable on its own, in my opinion. It's really the kind of system that should be emulated by every medieval game, because it's a way to do things that makes reasonable sense while still being engaging.

Artistic Direction
I don't think M&B would be half as immersive without its wonderful illustrations, done by Mongolian illustrator Ganbat Badakhand. These illustrations are used as a sort of reinforcing tool, being subtly connected to different events and occurrences. It depicts the world that the game's representing, and while the graphics are good enough to do that on its own, the presence of these illustrations definitely helps to establish "what we're supposed to be seeing". It's a very down-to-earth style that still manages to look stylized and interesting through positioning and visual direction.

Of course, the game's graphics aren't too bad either. The armor in M&B is some of the most sensible that can be found in any game, because it's all stuff that makes sense; hauberks of mail or jackets of brigandine, with coverage for four major areas of the body (head, arms, legs, and torso) that ensures that characters need to dress sensibly to survive. This doesn't mean that they look boring; there's a wide variety of tabards, surcoats, and tunics worn over or under the armor, but the most important aspect is that the armor itself is normal. Games generally seem to put too much focus on making the armor itself look strange or exotic, rather than having the clothes be the visually interesting part and the armor being more sensible. In addition, lords don't wear their armor all the time, and this too is something I think games tend to miss out on: the fact that, when you're out of battle, you can wear whatever you want. When it comes to armor design, business ought to come before pleasure, at least if you want it to be taken seriously.

Mount&Blade (or Warband, I should say) doesn't really look super-great in comparison to its contemporaries, and while there are some mods to fix it, this tends to detract from immersion. It's a scenario where I feel like the knee-jerk response is "gameplay is more important than graphics", and while that's true I think the presence of graphics can be used well to make the game feel more real to the player. Still, it's hard to fault the design and aesthetic in general; it's only the technical details that fall short.

Mount&Blade is a game that I would say needs to be experienced fresh to really understand the appeal. It's a game that gets boring after you've played it for a long time, but there's a real feeling of accomplishment in going from a low-level nobody to a great general through force of arms and quickness of wit. The first time you've built up enough troops to storm a city and claim ownership of it, it shows how far you've gone in the game world. While the period after that accomplishment is a bit dry and underdeveloped, it's the kind of RPG that really tries to portray the player's rise to power instead of just throwing him at higher-level things as he or she gains strength. It's not exactly a universal game model, but it works well for what it does, and it's easily expanded upon for new games as well.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Analysis: Bioshock

 Bioshock is one of the most well-known names among "people who take games seriously" crowds. Its artistic style and philosophically influenced setting has drawn a sort of artsy following and earned it a lot of critical acclaim. However, I've always had a problem with it, and the problem is that there are two Bioshocks: "story Bioshock" and "gameplay Bioshock". Story Bioshock is based on reality with some minor deviations (plasmids and splicers). Gameplay Bioshock is a pretty standard FPS that doesn't treat anything like its real equivalent in order to make a very "game-like" experience. Story Bioshock is about an unbelievable underwater city populated by believable human beings; Gameplay Bioshock is a series of corridors populated by hostile AI.

It's the same problem that games like FFXI and, to a lesser extent, Lost Planet had: the setting does not support the gameplay, and the gameplay exists in a way that ignores the setting. The difference, of course, is that while one has to go digging for interesting concepts in FFXI and LP, in Bioshock the interesting stuff is staring you in the face. However, in Bioshock those concepts are used as a distraction to try to make the player ignore the fact that the actual gameplay has nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, to make use of its setting properly, Bioshock would have to be a different game; perhaps not totally different, but different enough. There are too many things about the gameplay that just don't make sense for it to be believable. So let's start from the beginning.

Story & Premise
Bioshock takes place in the Randian utopia/dystopia of Rapture, a massive underwater city designed by its founder, Andrew Ryan, to serve as a haven against the various societal and governmental influences that exist on the surface. One of its main goals is to escape the ideas of forced altruism that Ryan felt pervaded the surface world in the form of taxes, charities, etc. Another goal was to avoid the influence of things like censorship and moral control, especially in regards to things like research and development.

One of the things that this unhindered research results in is the development of ADAM, a material taken from sea slugs that allows for genetic modification and development. While the player mostly comes into contact with combat-related Plasmids like throwing fire or lightning, most of the Plasmids are suggested to be more utilitarian in nature, ranging from cosmetic improvements to medical advancements. However, the side effect is that ADAM eventually causes mental and physical decay, resulting in the mutated beings known as Splicers.

Rapture is eventually taken down due to Ryan's paranoid need to keep the city a secret from the surface world (though how a billion tons of material and thousands of prominent citizens just disappeared without notice, I don't know). His fear of the surface allows smugglers such as Frank Fontaine to establish a racket based on the unfulfilled needs of the populace, especially the poorer segments of the population. This eventually led to a civil war between Fontaine's followers and Ryan's followers that ended up destroying most of the city, a war exacerbated by the sanity-influencing effects caused by Plasmid usage.

The player in Bioshock takes the role of Jack, Ryan's son, who was subject to research by Fontaine that accelerated his growth and instituted mental programming. He was taken out of Rapture, then activated later as a Sleeper Agent. Jack's genetic makeup allowed him to bypass many of Ryan's security measures, and Fontaine's use of the command phrase "Would You Kindly" kept him under control. Under Fontaine's instruction, Jack made his way to Ryan's sanctum and murdered him. Following this, Jack was rescued and deprogrammed, at which point Jack made his way to Fontaine and murdered him too. The events following this depend on the player's morality.

While there's a lot of things in Bioshock's story that rely on suspension of disbelief, it's not a bad story. It's a logical set of events for the most part, and while its commentary on the Randian ideal is somewhat diluted by the necessity of crazy genetic modifiers that make people go insane, it's still fairly solid as a philosphical analysis. However, the problem is that Bioshock isn't a book or a movie. It is a game. Games are meant to be played and interacted with, and the role of the player takes Jack's role from "acceptable" to "forced".

Bioshock's plot twist - that the player is being controlled by their friendly radio voice - is designed in such a way that it serves as commentary on the traditional player-character relationship, in a crude aping of the Metal Gear Solid formula (which was already fairly questionable). However, the mechanics of the mind control don't match up with the way that the player is corralled throughout the game. The player does what they do for two reasons. Firstly, they are receiving instructions on the radio that are indicated to be issues of survival, i.e. "if you do this you will get out of Rapture". There is no reason for them not to be followed, and if there was a reason it would be undermined by the second issue.

The second issue is the fact that the path through Rapture is entirely linear, and there is no way to go except forward. It is not a question of control or exertion of free will, it is the fact that the choice is literally not the player's to make. There is nothing else that you could do except go along with Fontaine's plan, and it isn't because of the mind control. The mind control is shown to work in a very direct and unavoidable way: go here, do this. However, unless Jack's programming knows exactly where Ryan is, there is no reason for the rest of the city to be inaccessible. In addition, there is no reason for Fontaine to mess around with all the other excuses and justification: he could have just grabbed control of him immediately and told him to go kill Ryan.

In a normal plot, these would be relatively minor gripes. The fact that the game is a game is what makes it a problem. The player will try to do other things and find that they cannot. It is not because of Fontaine's insidious plot, nor is it because of the limitations of Jack's will. It is because they did not program those areas. That is the reason. Bioshock's plot is the same as every other linear FPS' plot, except they are laughing at you for it. That's it. Even if you were suspicious of Atlas from the very first moment, there is nothing you can do. Even if you really just wanted to get home, there is nothing you can do. It makes assumptions about the player's motives and then taunts them for having them even if it cannot confirm them.

What bothers me about it is how little work it required on the part of the developers versus how much praise they got for it. It was a way for them to change absolutely nothing about the gameplay while still retaining intellectual credibility. It's like making a bad game and then at the end going "I tricked you, you just played a bad game". It doesn't make the game good, it's just a poor justification for bad gameplay. The in-game justification is mind control, but the actual issue is that the programmers didn't provide any alternative paths, and to be frank the mind control justification doesn't actually cover that.

One part of the game that should have made for an interesting concept, but wasn't really used that well, was the concept of the Splicers. Splicers are human beings who use mass-produced Plasmids exactly like the ones players use, found in vending machines across the game world. They are insane individuals, but it's indicated that Ryan is coercing them through payments of ADAM, and thus they can theoretically be reasoned with to some extent. They're part of a hostile environment, but they're still people, even if they're unstable people with a wide variety of superpowers.

Naturally, the game doesn't use any of this.

Splicers are always hostile units who are grouped by class: Thuggish Splicers, Leadhead Splicers, Spider Splicers, Houdini Splicers, and Nitro Splicers. Splicers of different classes are fundamentally identical even if they're defined only by the weapon they carry. Some have Plasmids, but it's based entirely on their class, not on individual variations. They feel like factory-churned robots, not like people, and it doesn't help that there's only a few Splicer models and voices. It's supposed to feel like a city full of lunatics, but instead it feels like a game area full of standard enemy types.

What bothers me about this the most is that a lot of the voice acting is really good. It's intense, it's emotional, and it suggests a humanity that is totally undermined when it's strapped to a robot with the instructions "kill kill kill kill kill". There's even voice clips in that video that suggest Splicers can be bartered with. They have different factions, different motives, and different viewpoints. They have different origins and different Plasmids and different mutations. They should be different, and the game grinds them out like an assembly line. It's hard to take seriously when they serve no purpose other than speedbumps and pop-scares. They should have been treated like people, and instead they're treated like robots.

Presentation and Combat
While Bioshock's artistic direction is certainly distinct and memorable, there are other forms of its presentation that tend to suffer as a result of not being the main focus. It is these things that primarily took me out of the game, not just in terms of logic but also in terms of tactile connection. Indulge me for a minute and allow me to tell you a story. I picked up Bioshock after not having played in a while, due to my recent interest in that time period. While I remembered that I didn't like it, I felt like it ought not to matter because I was there for the immersion. This worked reasonably well for the game's intro; the sweeping visuals, the distinct design, the detail on the different objects, etc. However, it simply evaporated as soon as I engaged in combat. The worthless little plinks of the revolver (or even worse, the tiny scratches of the Thompson SMG) drew zero reactions from the Splicers, who kept advancing without even acknowledging they were hit. Then they hit me, and all that happened was that my health went down.

Damage in a game is kind of difficult to do. Condemned is one of the few games notable for its brutal depiction of melee combat, so expecting Bioshock to be able to pull off the same concept might not be fair. On the other hand, it creates a problem. I was drawn in by the realism and detail of the world, and all of that became totally useless as soon as I picked up a gun. It turned it from a tangible, believable world to a game level. The guns and their effects on the Splicers are so unbelievable that it was almost impossible to go back to appreciating Rapture as a "real place" afterwards. It was basically necessary for the gameplay, though, which is also inhernetly unrealistic.

So how would this be fixed? My suggestion would be to make the game more of a stealth/adventure game than a high-powered FPS. Make encounters with Splicers more optional (i.e. provide ways to negotiate or evade them), but also more deadly. Problems should have multiple solutions, and the most direct one shouldn't always be the best. In essence, it needs to be realistic, not just because "realism is good" or whatever, but because it's attempting to portray a realistic world in Rapture. The world it shows it at odds with the gameplay, despite the fact that many parts of the setting are there to justify the standard FPS conventions (such as the different stores).

Bioshock is first and foremost a game about combat, regardless of whether you're using stealth or hacking turrets or whatever. It's a game about Splicers getting shot en masse in the face. The atmosphere of fear that the game attempts to cultivate through the use of "monster closets" and atmospheric noises is undermined by the fact that Jack is a superman who literally cannot die due to the presence of Vita-Chambers. It attempts to make the Splicers justified, but then treats them like disposable zombies instead of insane people. It tries to make the world realistic, but fails when it comes to depicting combat and damage.

What bothers me the most about Bioshock is that people praise it for its setting, and then apply that praise to the game itself. Bioshock is a mediocre game with an acceptable setting. If Bioshock is accepted as a shining example of gaming, then the bar is being lowered; it doesn't matter how well the game plays or how well it integrates concepts as long as it looks nice. In terms of gameplay, the setting only exists to justify the linearity, and even that's half-done. They could have made a game that actually worked with Rapture and the concepts it represents, but they didn't, and people are okay with that. We, as a gaming community, ought to expect more than that.