Monday, June 27, 2011

Malleable Characters and Visual Aggregates

One of the most important aspects of human beings, overshadowing and enveloping all the specifics of behavior and development, is change. People change, people make changes, and people are changed by things. Human beings are not static; even an individual who stands perfectly still is still aging, still using up energy, and so on. People exist in a constant state of flux, adjusting to their environments and surroundings in order to survive and thrive. Simple changes lead up to larger organization and eventually technological cultural developments, and it is through change that humans (or any other life forms) became what they are.

Naturally, if you're trying to make believable people, this is an aspect that ought to be included. This doesn't just have to be in the present tense (i.e. change happening when the camera's on), but can also be reflected in a character's past or history. It doesn't have to be big changes, like personality development or standards, either. Even the changing of clothing is a "change", though a routine one. All the elements of the decision-making process are part of change, because making a decision is putting change into action. Essentially, though, acknowledging change, of whatever kind, serves to deepen the character's relationship to the environment they're in. It creates a cause for all their "effects": the nature of their personality or their physical appearance, the skills they possess, the knowledge they have, and so on.

The human body is a machine. It's built to adapt and thrive just as the human brain is. It's not as specialized as many other animals, but it has the capacity to improve, and it has internal mechanisms that require changes on some level or another. These changes can show, through visual evidence, a character's past and their status. When thinking about or visualizing the body, it's often best to assemble it piece by piece. So let's start from the top:

The human head is pretty important for a lot of different things, but in terms of visual design it's most important because it's a focal point for interaction. Therefore, the design of the face and its components will be the first thing we focus on. The face can represent several different things. It can be gaunt or chubby depending on the individual's weight and lifestyle. It can be unmarred or weathered depending on the hardships that the individual has faced in their life. It can be smooth or wrinkled based on their age or quality of life. The basic facial model is made up of a combination of bone structure and skin, and reflecting proper conditions allows even these basic aspects to tell a story through visual cues.

In addition, there are different things that can be added to the face through believable means that affect its visual profile. The most basic of these are facial hair and makeup, since these are things that are generally part of daily life. Showing facial hair and its growth might be justifiably considered a pain for artists or designers, but the representation of its growth and the character trimming it makes it feel more like real hair and less like something stuck onto the character. Similarly, makeup ought to be something that's applied, rather than being permanently attached to the character 24/7. Both of these things affect a character's face, so making them malleable rather than permanent allows a degree of logical changes within the realm of believability.

Hair has a combination of easily-malleable and difficult-to-change properties. The latter includes basic properties like color and texture, while the former reflects the fact that hair can be cut, trimmed, tied back, put up, and so on. Therefore, a combination of these two factors makes hair more relevant to a character's decision-making processes while still retaining a justifiably interesting aesthetic. The issue for believability is connecting the fashion to logical choices and processes rather than being something the artist thought looked good.

Probably the easiest and simplest way to alter hair is to tie it back or braid it. This can signify several different things depending on your perspective, but from a general utilitarian standpoint long hair being tied back means that it's not in your face and thus communicates a more no-nonsense approach. Short hair can convey the same message. The nature of the hair, even in such cases, is also variable; compare a stylized short hairdo to a simple buzzcut, or a quick, unkempt ponytail to a tight, professional one. The texture of the hair also conveys aspects of a character's life, depending on whether it's clean and loose or thick and raggy.

Not only simple or utilitarian hairstyles make commentary, of course. If a hairstyle is justifiably elaborate, it says something about the character and their willingness to spend time and effort shaping their hair into that form. Adding this element of believability turns it from a simple design choice to a visual cue just like any other hairstyle; without that element, it doesn't mean anything. If visible effort is a part of the universe, then a complex hairstyle can signify wealth, vanity, or just a willingness on the character's part to spend time on their appearance. There needs to be that element of effort in order for a complex hairstyle to be appreciable as part of a character rather than simply an artist doing what they think looks good.

Finally, it's important to convey the weight and nature of hair, even if that's fairly low-key. The consistency, thickness, and solidity of hair help make it feel more real, and what I see with a lot of artists is basically making the hair like some kind of glossy, solid mass. Hair flows, moves, and sways. If hair gets in your eyes, it's harder to see. It can be grabbed at or get caught on things. These simple things appeal to sensory concepts, just like many other "believable" materials, and if it's real to the characters it's more real to the audience.

Like the face, the body can be shaped by a character's lifestyle. Weight, muscle mass, skin tone, and skin consistency are all simple elements that, in their own ways, reflect where a character's from, what their life was like, and what they're capable of now. It's the difference between a scholar and a laborer, or a noble and a commoner. Like any other part of a character's appearance, a character's life makes visible changes on their body. Some parts of this are easy to reflect; tanning in general is pretty simple to understand, whether it's a farmer's tan or a beach tan. Weight is also pretty simple, at least when you're creating a divide between starving beggars and opulent aristocrats. In more modern contexts, the "weight = wealth" issue isn't nearly as common, but in any setting or situation where food is a rarity, the ability to be fat and unhealthy is something that most folks won't get away with.

Muscle development, on the other hand, is reasonably complex. I think this giant image that I'm linking right here says things a lot better than I can, but the basic lessons that should be taken from it is that muscle development isn't like an on-off switch, but is dependent on the cause of development and the locations being developed. More importantly, the body-builder physique (which some of us probably think of as being the peak of musculature) isn't necessarily the best physique possible when it comes to muscle development. However, both form and function have their uses in believable development, because they're just alternate routes by which a character has come to their current condition.

Most importantly to this topic, bodies change in the long term. To use a classic example from the children's novel "Holes", the main character's body is described as going from tubby and pale at the beginning to lean and tan from all his time in the desert. There are certainly many other examples, but the body is something that is influenced by environments and lifestyles. It's something that's more long-term than hair is, and it's not as directly controlled by the character, but it's a malleable element that can be used to show changes in a character's situation.

I've already done some articles on outfitting - whether it's clothes, armor, or gear - but the role of those things in this article is the fact that, underneath their clothes and gear, people are people. Humans are universal across any setting they're present in. Clothing and equipment, however, reflects their life as well, because it's a combination of available resources and needs that must be filled. Clothes need to be made from materials that are available, whether it's cloth, linen, fur, or some other material, and they need to fulfill some role for the characters who wear them.

Relatedly, a character's possessions ought to be considered logical items in their own right, not just part of an iconic outfit. Clothes can be changed and chosen depending on necessity and availability. The person wearing them is relatively constant, but clothes are the most easily altered element of a character's visual design. Like any other part of a character's design, ignoring cause-and-effect with regards to equipment and outfits makes them less meaningful in design terms. As I mentioned with Soul Calibur, a character who wears clothing that makes no sense for them (or wears the same outfit all the time) feels less like a character and more like an artist's plaything. In contrast, creating justified reasons for clothing choices makes a character feel more like someone who's actually making decisions, which allows the audience to better suspend their disbelief.

If there's a lesson I'd like you to take from this article, it would be this: people change. Things change. Situations change. Change happens all the time. If you can reflect that in your characters and your designs and your story choices, the world will feel more real and more developed. Everything that happens ought to be explainable and justifiable in-universe, and that doesn't mean you can't have cool things or interesting designs - just that they need to be as impressive to the characters as they're meant to be to the audience.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Thoughts on MGS3/MGS4

Metal Gear Solid is the kind of game that's difficult to take seriously, even though it really wants to be serious sometimes. It's so campy and self-indulgent and chock-full of references and pointlessly wacky humor that when it puts on its game face and tries to deliver a serious moral about nuclear weapons or societal control or the nature of warfare, it's difficult for me to care. In addition, its "serious morals" rely on incredibly contrived setups, thus reducing their applicability to real life; this is fine when you're just making a campy action game, but less so when you're trying to be serious.

Regardless of its flaws, Metal Gear Solid 3 is one of my favorite games ever. The reason for this is simple: it's a game where you're left to your own devices a lot more than in any other MGS game. There are so many mechanics that are just based around letting the player figure things out that if the trend had continued to MGS4, MGS4 would have been a legitimately good game. Instead, they dialed back on the freedom and attempted to make up for it with scripting, setpieces, and cutscenes. But rather than be bitter about that, let me illustrate some things that I really liked about Metal Gear Solid 3.

Objectives and Environment
Like every Metal Gear game, the setup of MGS3 is this: you're dumped in an area with minimal equipment, and you have an objective to fulfill. The path ahead is linear, but in general this is a believable setup because it's something that makes sense for Snake to carry out. As you make progress through the game, the setup helps you feel like you're making progress towards something, although if there's too much extraneous stuff in the way it's hard to keep track of what that "something" is: rescuing hostages, destroying superweapons, assassinating enemies of the state, whatever.

In MGS3's case, the objective of the main part of the game is to reach Groznyj Grad, the mountain fortress that serves as Colonel Volgin's seat of power. I'm singling out Groznyj Grad as the objective, and not, say, the Boss or the Shaghod, because it's actually possible to see evidence of major routes to the fortress, and realize that Snake is being forced to take the back route. There's river travel, there's helicopter travel, there's large gates that are closed off to Snake, etcetera. There were a lot of moments where I could look at my surroundings and say "hey, this must be how they x"; the game is a complex labyrinth, but on some level there's a believable infrastructure in place that supports the fortress.

What this does for the overall objective is remind the player that what they're doing is going to Groznyj Grad. It serves as a constant reinforcement, for an attentive player, that there is a long-term goal they are moving towards, and all the areas that they are in are part of that same environment. They're not just messing around in some random part of the jungle, or climbing some pointless ladder; they're going to the area they're supposed to go. It's all connected by visual cues, and it makes the world feel more functional.

In addition, when you reached Groznyj Grad itself, it was an actual compound - i.e. walls with buildings inside it, rather than a meandering set of tunnels. Comparatively, MGS1 had a long, disjointed base that ended up not making a whole lot of sense in design terms. Like MGS3, there were some areas that were inaccessible to Snake, but the whole thing felt small and oddly designed. It's the difference between an area being a natural zone that the player-character simply doesn't have total access to, and an area being a specifically-designed level for a player to traverse. MGS2, in general, should have had the best area, since Big Shell's size was small enough to be detailed properly, but the scripted nature of the game and how access to new areas was gained made it feel more fake.

In contrast, MGS4's focus on jet-setting around the world to trigger story events made it feel a lot less sensible, in my opinion. Sure, there were occasional bases and outposts, as well as barred-off gates to inaccessible areas, but the focus on larger, more open zones made the artificial walls seem more noticeable. There were times when the story required a linear path, and this occasionally resulted in scenarios and situations where things just felt totally orchestrated (as they were). The objectives felt like short-term "go here" rather than a larger objective centered around the place you were going to. Go to the Middle East, do this thing. Go to South America, do that thing. It could've all been done in one centralized zone, but they scattered it around to make it feel like a larger scale. It didn't give each act enough time to develop itself as an area, with different nooks and crannies, and thus reduced the scale of the whole thing despite attempting the opposite.

Interaction and Tools
One of my favorite aspects of MGS3 was how many things you could do in it. There were so many actions that could be taken that made sense when you thought about it, and it was just through the use of the items you had available to interact with the environment. You could blow up armories and supply depots with C4. You could throw snakes at people. You could use specific items on bosses that were based either on information you could gather or logical analysis of the boss' patterns. It wasn't totally all-encompassing, but it allowed information-usage and guesswork based on observable properties.

The reason that this was interesting was that it rewarded players trying out new things by making a diverse set of options available, and allowed them more options to interact with the environment. The fact that item availability was connected to difficulty was a neat touch, because it meant that on harder difficulties "improvising with whatever's available", as well as collecting items in the first place, was more of a concern. Ammo was rarer and you could hold less of it at a time, suppressors wear out faster, etc. There's logistical concerns that act as a factor to the player's decision-making, and the introduction of reduced supplies forces the player into situations where they are made to use whatever techniques and items are available to them.

In MGS4, one of the things that made me the most upset (from a purely gameplay standpoint) was the introduction of the Drebin store, i.e. a menu accessible at any time where the player can buy new weapons and ammo using money from scavenged weapons or items. This meant that one of the most important aspects of the series since its very beginning, namely the obtaining of items and weapons on the battlefield, was reduced and in some cases eliminated. The existence of the Drebin store as a readily available resource meant that running out of ammo was never a problem, and this was coupled with the fact that at the beginning of the game Snake is given a tranquilizer pistol with a permanent silencer. You can win the game with only that gun because it's a sneaking game (with the exception of boss fights). Why would you need anything else?

In essence, it felt like a lot of MGS4's items were taking the concept in the wrong direction. There were like 70 different guns in the game, from assault rifles to shotguns to sniper rifles to heavy weapons, but this undermines the fact that it's a stealth game. Even the boss battles aren't particularly suited to most of the weapons; there's less options than there were for comparable battles in MGS3, and the majority of the weapons are really just normal guns anyways. Sure, you want to have choice, but I think MGS3 did better with each weapon having a specific role (even if it was the difference between the loud AK47 and the suppressable M16) than MGS4 did with "there's a bunch of weapons with minor differences". There's even weapon customization, but it's not for every weapon, and it just makes the non-customizable weapons that much more useless.

MGS3's use of the radio made up for the traditional usage of codec conversations as "cutscenes, but less visually exciting". This was because, while there were a lot of really tedious mandatory conversations, the main usage of the radio for the player was to call people about things. You could do that in the other games, too, but no other game had the sheer breadth of MGS3 when it came to context. They were a player resource, and one that made sense in-universe: if Snake wanted help with something, it makes sense for him to call his support team.

It also has the role of making Snake feel like part of an operation by constantly reminding the player that Snake isn't the only individual involved. It creates an information network, just as it did in Metal Gear 2 and Metal Gear Solid 1. It creates a dynamic between Snake and the team, although this varies depending on the quality of the support the team provides. If it's just little tidbits, as in MG2, then it's questionable. A developed team with lots of contextual, helpful information makes the player use and rely upon them more, thus deepening their value.

MGS3 did a decent job of providing actual advice in situations where the player would reasonably want to ask for help; one particularly niche conversation takes place if the player finds a dead body in one area and decides to call the Major. It's an oddity that people might not find (although it's not totally out of the way), but the fact that Snake's address to the Major after the fact is "I found this dead body, what the heck is going on" rather than a totally irrelevant piece of information is neat. Basically, I got used to the fact that if I wanted someone's thoughts on a recent event, I could call them and they'd have something to say about that recent event. It might even have spoiled me a bit, since one can hardly expect that from every game.

You can see why, therefore, I was annoyed that the radio in MGS4 consisted basically of Otacon and Rosemary, and Rosemary was almost never useful in any fashion. There's a few different conversations, but that's like 4 or 5 tops, compared to almost everything in MGS3 having a contextual conversation. Mostly the radio in MGS4 is used to restate mission objectives and to have story-advancing cutscenes. It's another tool being eliminated: a resource for the player to use being taken out of the game in favor of more uninteractive movies.

Time Management
MGS3 isn't a perfect game. It's not absolutely believable by any stretch of the imagination. It includes believable gameplay elements and connects it to a linear action-thriller storyline, and depending on your perspective that can be enough or it can be not enough. But here's a few things that I think would have improved the in-depth aspects of the game a bit more: The most important of these things, in my opinion, is the nature of the survival gameplay and how it reflects on the more "action-based" parts of the game.

The pause menu is the biggest offender. Eating, healing, managing inventory, changing camouflage and so on all happen from the pause menu. Making radio calls also takes place in a stasis zone. The issue is that this takes away a part of "the game": MGS is a stealth game, and stealth implies staying away from guards. Yet the time-freezing of MGS3, and every other MGS game, means that the things you do in the pause menu aren't part of the "stealth" gameplay. You don't have to frantically bandage yourself up while guards hunt you down, you don't have to set up a camp in a safe location  where patrols won't find you, you don't have to make a drop-area for your gear that you can come back to. It's just the pause menu. While this is fine in terms of an action game, it also takes out a part of the gameplay.

I'll let Gary Gygax make my point for me:

You may ask why time is so important if it causes such difficulties with record-keeping, dictates who can or can not go adventuring during a game session, and disperses player characters to the four winds by its strictures. Well, as initially pointed out, it is a necessary penalty imposed on characters for certain activities. Beyond that, it also gives players yet another interesting set of choices and consequences. The latter tends to bring more true-to-life quality to the game, as some characters will use precious time to the utmost advantage, some will treat it lightly, and some will be constantly wasting it to their complete detriment. Time is yet another facet which helps to separate the superior players from the lesser ones.

MGS4 never pretended to have the sort of survival gameplay that MGS3 had, instead opting for the vaguer, more questionable "psyche meter". Therefore, the fact that it was "action as all get out" wasn't a conflict. Instead, MGS4 is just straight-up a dumb shooter with some stealth bits tacked on, removing all the parts of the game that involve using or altering the environment and replacing it with setpieces and staged battles. Even the few halfhearted attempts at detail, like the ability to befriend local militia units, was underplayed by the lack of choices given in the scenario. In every way, MGS4 just felt like a step back from what could have been a tighter, more detailed gameplay experience.