Thursday, October 10, 2013

Walter White Syndrome

There's a curious thing about games and movies.

The two mediums have almost a parent-child relationship; games aspire to be movies, whereas movies are often compared to games in a derogatory manner (usually "this would be more fun if it was playable"). Movies are respected and well-regarded despite their Bays and Shymalans, whereas games are despised and ostracized despite their Crusader Kings and their Planescape: Torments. Accordingly, the responses and expectations they garner are different as well. Stupidity in a movie is seen as worthy of criticism the majority of the time, while stupidity in a game is seen as "just part of the medium" in similar amounts. Movies have higher expectations placed upon them, whereas games basically accept whatever they can get. Movies are princely, fair and tall, while games are homely, stunted, and undervalued.

But this is not intrinsic. Intrinsically, there is no reason that "uninteractive audiovisual" should be a more respected medium than "interactive audiovisual". Intrinsically, there is no reason that interactive narrative experiences (electronic or traditional) should be loathed while "talkies" and "flicks" should be loved. It's worth remembering that for a while, movies were just sort of a cartoonish gimmick, accepted but not respected. They were a novelty, not a proper medium for conveying stories like books were. However, while games have struggled with this reputation for forty-odd years, movies actually got over it pretty quickly.

The difference, when you got down to it, was subject matter. It's easier, in a lot of ways, to make a serious movie than to make a serious game. A serious movie is telling a pre-made story, where actors and actresses can display emotion in response to an event in a relatively normal way. A movie, or a book, or a TV show is about one story. There's no need to worry about alternate outcomes and there's certainly no intrinsic need to make the process of reaching those events "fun". Engaging, yes. Compelling, yes. Not fun. They CAN be fun, of course, but again, it isn't a necessity.

What does this mean for subject matter? It's simple to make a movie about...anything, honestly. If there is a series of events connected by even remotely logical segues, you can get a movie. You can get a movie about people in a concentration camp. You can get a movie about people in an earthquake. You can get a movie about people falling in love and falling out of love. You can get a movie about someone dealing with moral dilemmas of every imaginable kind. You can take any set of events and turn it into a movie, as long as you find a way to keep the audience interested - not necessarily "entertained", again, but connected in some way to what's going on.

Games have a harder time with this, and part of the reason is that games generally require a minimum of ten hours of gameplay to be CONSIDERED a game. You have to INVEST in a game, and more than that if you want to see what happens in a story you damn well better learn how the gameplay system works (even if it's totally unrelated in every way). Games are high investment for, in most cases, an equivalent or lower payoff. This is especially true of games that embrace ludonarrative dissonance, making no attempt to connect their stories to the things the player is spending hours actually doing.

So What's This Walter White Shit

Part of what storytelling in fiction accomplishes, apart from the whole entertaining/compelling aspect, is that it creates hypotheticals. What if? What would you do? How would you feel? Books like 1984 attempt to immerse you in a scenario, right down to the grimy details, and ask you: what would you do? And in many cases, whatever answer you give, they have a response. Many movies and books and TV shows function as moral exercises by attempting to connect your own real life to the things these fake people are doing, because (and this is key!) you're supposed to forget they're not real. This is why you care about things happening to fictional characters: if your thought is "well that actor still gets paid" then it is pretty much provable that they have done their job poorly.

Which brings us to Walter White. Walter White, the main character of AMC's Breaking Bad series, is a piece of shit. He is human garbage. He is an absolute terrible human being in every way. And this is a thing a lot of people recognize: the creators, the actors, a lot of the fans, etc. And yet there's some people who ignore his murder, his drug-dealing, and his ego-driven family endangerment and attempt to argue that Walter is a cool, reasonable guy constantly beset by a bitchy, underappreciative wife. They argue that on certain moral grounds Walter is actually great and not awful.

See what happened here, though? Everyone involved addressed this hypothetical scenario based on real moral logic. When someone argues that Walter White is good or bad, it's not just about "the show", it's about their standards and their values. Breaking Bad is a modern show with a "family man" main character and thus despite the murder and the drug-dealing it's incredibly relatable, at least early on. The audience is meant to connect to these characters based in large part on the fact that they're very human and the consequences for their actions reflect this. When Walter spends an entire episode questioning and rationalizing his decision to murder or not murder a drug dealer he has locked up in the basement, that's a struggle we can connect to. We may not have had to ever make that choice ourselves, but it's so visceral and so low-key that we can imagine being there and to imagine the way we would think about that situation. In some ways it's no different from any other thought exercise or social experiment.

This also means that if the show got unrealistic, it would break a lot of the tension and distance us from realism that the show spent so much time building. There's violence in the show, but it's very quick and decisive, with serious consequences every time it happens. The most "cartoonish" violence in the show is two guys being very suddenly run over by a car, and yet even that had an entire episode to set it up and then an entire ARC dealing with the consequences. There is a logic to everything that is going on that requires things to maintain a realistic level of believability.

So What's This Video Game Shit

Let's compare Breaking Bad to another video game that is also about crime: Sleeping Dogs. Sleeping Dogs is a game about undercover policework, sometimes. Sometimes it is a game about shooting a lot of people. Lots of people. With guns. Lots of guns. And you get shot a lot of times and you shrug it off by hiding behind cover. And also you run people over with cars. Bad guys, civilians, whoever. But then BAM you're working for the police again to bring down this bad guy and nobody ever questions the fact that you did more damage "dicking around" than the bad guy ever did in any other circumstance. This is because the GAME part of Sleeping Dogs isn't real but the MOVIE part of Sleeping Dogs totally is.

Breaking Bad would never do this. There will never be a segment of Breaking Bad where the rules just collapse, where the main character's actions suddenly lack all consequence or relation to the reality of the world. This would never happen in Game of Thrones, either. The idea that, for the sake of player enjoyment, the rules of reality and logic need to be thrown away so the player can dick around in their own self-indulgent sandbox is a disease that only games seem to catch. And more importantly, gamers expect it, too. Gamers accept games like The Last Of Us or Bioshock Infinite, where characters casually shift from "fake reality" to "real reality" like it's controlled by a fucking light switch. "It'd be really bad if Daisy killed that kid" thinks the player after having previously murdered ten thousand permanently-hostile human beings without a single drop of remorse or regret. The reality turned back on, so now killing is Not The Answer, even though it was answering every single question up to that point.

It's expected that a video game's gameplay will be Fun. Not immersive, not compelling, not intriguing or interesting or eye-opening or horizon-broadening, just FUN. Fallout: New Vegas is a game about exploring the post-apocalyptic Mojave desert, interacting with the remnants of the Old World and the reforging of the New World. It is also a game about blowing people's heads off in slow motion, because FUN. Assassin's Creed is a game about a secret conspiracy throughout history involving major political figures. It is also a game about stabbing a shitload of people in the face and then gleefully running away like a cheeky boy, because FUN. LA Noire is a game about investigation and police procedure, about solving crimes and figuring out puzzles. It's also a game about shooting ten billion dudes in the face and regenerating your health, because FUN.

There's nothing wrong with fun, on its own. There IS something wrong with it essentially being treated as the only way in which a game can interact with its subject matter. A lot of games shouldn't be fun! They can be compelling, or educational, or immersive, or whatever else, but "being fun" is a concept that stretches games unnecessarily and ultimately separates the things you do in the game from the things you're TOLD you're doing in the story.

And here's the Walter White point.

So What's This Morality Shit

In Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones or whatever, it's possible to look at the hypothetical scenario as though it's real, and examine the emotions and values you feel in relation to them. It's not only possible, but expected. The cast and crew of Breaking Bad expect people to see Walter as a reprehensible human being, based on the characteristics he's been given. Contrary to their expectations, many audience members had their own standards they judged him by; standards like "provides for his family" and "takes a stand" and "is strong" and "is confident" and "says badass shit". Regardless of how horrific or short-sighted or harmful his actions are, those people are not judging him on his morality, they are judging him on how cool he is, and the general reaction to those people is one of disgust and contempt. It says something about the way they'd feel about a real-life Walter White. There is no "wall of fiction" that defends their viewpoint, because it's a hypothetical scenario, not just a lie.

Games don't get that. We expect game protagonists to be murderers. Not just that, but we expect them to murder for fun, not just for necessity. Some games try to curtail this - all its other problems aside, Metal Gear at least acknowledges the act of killing and gives players alternatives rather than making it the default. But that's one series compared to the hundreds that surround it, which are essentially shooting galleries full of red jelly and ethnic stereotypes (also, Kojima ruins the effect of MGS by constantly trivializing and misrepresenting PTSD, in some cases for purposes of sexualizing female characters).

We need games where we can treat the character - PLAY the character - like a real person. Not an avatar for our indulgence, not a medium for dicking around and improving our numbers, but an actual human being who happens to be under our guidance and care. This isn't impossible! This isn't even unreasonable! There's games that give the player enough choice to actually roleplay a character, so that decisions are weighted morally as well as mechanically.

I bring up roleplaying because "playing a role" is where gaming, especially gaming as an interactive narrative, really started. It was the transition from Wargaming to D&D - the idea was that you'd take a single person's role instead of an army's, and you'd make decisions based on that character's ability and personality and so on. Games have largely moved away from this, in large part due to the transition from the open, malleable world of tabletop games to the rigid, restricted shooting galleries of video games. Video games, for example, would rarely produce this as a natural moment:

You see this shit? Do you see what happened here? A player JUDGED another player/character's actions based on a moral code, a code established in large part by movies. It establishes "what it means to be a hero", and what kind of actions can stain that idea. Conversely, rather than rebutting with the in-character logic of "I do what I have to do to survive", the gamer responds with "that's just the rules of the game". They don't treat it as another reality, they treat it as a set of rules to follow in order to gain points and win rewards.

For video games, this isn't entirely the player's fault. A lot of it comes from the system. In a tabletop game, the DM/referee can punish players for doing things that are out of line, with logical consequences that match the behavior. A situation that absolutely couldn't be solved by negotiation or trickery or bluffing would be seen as unusual even in games where combat is the norm - after all, sometimes you've got reasons not to fight. But in games, it's totally expected that you won't be given that choice, and that killing your enemies will be the absolute only way forwards. How many games, now, have based their "twists" on the fact that they do exactly that, and then afterwards blame the player for doing the only thing the game allowed them to do? The answer is "like seven, at least, three of which are highly regarded in gaming spheres for doing so".

But there's one other thing too.

So What's This Puppeteer Shit

The biggest difference between games and movies is that movies consist of a cast of characters who all exist "in universe" and have feelings and relationships and emotions and senses that all exist within that universe. Their decision during the course of their stories are prompted not just by immediate desires but also by their emotions and their sensibilities. A character wants to avoid getting shot not because it's an inconvenience but because getting shot hurts and the prospect of death is terrifying. Characters have emotions and feelings and therefore characters also have stakes.

Players don't have stakes. Not really. Players have desires and whims, sure. Players want this, or they want that. They get annoyed if they die because they have to go back fifteen minutes (worst case scenario) and try again. It's comparatively hard to get players to make decisions based on "character logic", or at least logic that's similar to the emotions and feelings a character would be feeling. Players are puppeteers, alien entities controlling a character without feeling any of its sensory input or emotional variables.

It's possible to work around this. Some games do a great job of making players forget that they're sitting safely behind a computer screen and force them to feel fear and tension. Some games make characters believable enough that players feel empathy and compassion for them, even if they're not really allowed to do anything about it. But most games are inept about actually doing anything with these sorts of emotions. This is compounded by the concept of "saving", where emotional attachment is undermined by the ability to reverse consequences and ultimately reveal how "not real" everything is.

What it needs to come down to is choice and consequence. Realistic, logical choices and consequences based on realistic, logical scenarios. If you want a Breaking Bad of games, you need to deal with the morality and ethics and nuances of murdering a human being. If you want a Game of Thrones of games, you need to deal with the morality and ethics and nuances of declaring war and maintaining honor and marrying for love or duty or power. If you want a game with depth, you need to make a GAME with depth, not just a "movie with depth" stapled onto a game without it.

I don't want this to end on a negative note. I want this to serve as a lesson, a lesson about why movies are well-regarded and games are treated like toys for children. The answer is that games, and gamers, treat themselves as part of a medium that is for entertainment and indulgence first and foremost. The rare games that defy this are largely ignored because they aren't working with the expectations that have been set. If games want to be treated like something beyond "Michael Bay's Transformers", they need to start actually working towards a level of ludonarrative interaction instead of just pasting on more "serious" cutscenes to their goofy, murderous games.

Games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last Of Us and Spec Ops make it totally clear that some game devs want to be seen as adult and mature. But they (or, in many cases, their publishers) lack the resolve to push through it, to deliver an experience that can be taken seriously during 100% of the game's length. Instead, they're forced to deliver "breathers" of goofy content so they can dive into the serious stuff, with the added expectation that many people will skip the serious stuff to go back to dicking around.

Games will be taken seriously when they grow the fuck up.