Sunday, February 27, 2011

Decision-making logic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Emergent Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 21, 2011

Blood, gore, and tone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mundane character detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Analysis: Dragon Quest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh! Well, thank you, DQ9! 

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 14, 2011

Analysis: Final Fantasy XI

Also known as "Final Fantasy Online", FFXI is, in many ways, a standard MMO. It contains many of the concepts that can be found in other MMOs, such as a linear, static storyline and a reduced focus on "the individual". However, unlike a lot of other online games, FFXI has an undercurrent and a background that I really think could have used some development and focus. It's a game that, like Lost Planet, would do better with a wider range of games to explore the different facets of the setting.

The unfortunate fact about FFXI is that the things I'm about to discuss are largely irrelevant to the game itself. The need for an infinite swarm of players and monsters means that the political and historical setting of the game are irrelevant. Still, I feel that there is enough material to analyze it even if it is set apart from the game it's meant to represent. To that end, much of my information comes from supplemental material, rather than the game itself. In fact, I believe we'll discover that "the game itself" is restricting some otherwise believable content that exists only as lore.

Final Fantasy XI takes place in the world of Vana'diel, which contains both the "races of light" and the Beastmen. The races of light are the player-character races - the standard Humes, the proud Elvaan, the burly Galka, the cat-like Mithra, and the petite, but magical, Tarutaru. The Beastmen are, by and large, also fairly standard for their role as "human-like antagonists", with the warrior Orcs, the crafty Goblins, the theocratic Yagudo, the hive-themed Antica, and so on.

Initially, this seems like a very cut-and-dry setup, with the "good" races united against the "evil" races. However, both groups are more than they seem. The races of light, for example, have only recently united, and in the past they were fractured and divisive, warring amongst themselves for national glory. It is only the uniting of the Beastmen against them in the Crystal War that led to their forced alliance. In addition, the races are hardly perfect, with the same amount of backstabbing, infighting, and personal flaws that you'd expect from real humans. The "Beastmen" are hardly pure evil, either. In the past, they interacted with the other races at roughly the same level - to an Elvaan, a Yagudo was no more "beast" than a Hume was. However, offenses committed by the "races of light" have led to these Beastmen to unite against them. For example, the turtle-like Quadav were a fairly isolationist race until the Humes and Galka aggressively mined into their territory. The Yagudo, similarly, believe the other races to be encroaching on ground they think is rightfully theirs.

In essence, this is a story about ten or so different races that came together into two major groups. On the other hand, the way the story is presented initially suggests that it's the other way around - two groups that are made up of five or so races each. In terms of believability, it seems far easier to accept the former than the latter, because the former is built up on relationships and alliances, and the latter is a label applied to barely-developed cultures. One is a label applied for game reasons, and the other is a label applied for more natural reasons.

It's the same with any historical alliance. In World War 2, you could say that you've got the "Allies" and the "Axis", each with their own member nations - or you could say that a bunch of independent nations came together for their own personal reasons and formed two major powers: the "Allies" and the "Axis". The former suggests that their group identity is more important than their individual cultures, and the latter suggests the opposite. The former is better for gameplay, because it creates two solid and unassailable factions that can war against each other, and the latter is better for a believable world, because it doesn't make sense for things to be so cleanly divided. It's a pure game construct to justify two wholly static sides.

Background and History
The Crystal War is the defining conflict of FFXI's recent history, and as mentioned above it shapes the player's view of the conflict by making things very black and white. However, delving a bit further back into Vana'diel's history, there are a lot more "petty conflicts", or conflicts for purposes like greed and expansion rather than good and evil. Each race has had its own empires and its own wars, for whatever reason. This comes back to the black-and-white concepts described above: are these nations just there to be part of the "good versus evil" concept, or are they composed of individuals with their own desires and ambitions?

For example, Vana'diel's history has included:
- infighting among Aztec-themed Taru tribes in ages past.
- an alliance between Elvaan and Quadav to defeat Tarus and Mithras.
- Humes using superior weapons to soundly defeat the traditional Elvaan knights.
- a Taru version of Alexander the Great who was accused of insubordination and stripped of his rank.
- a Galkan captain who led raids both against other "civilized" nations as well as Beastmen and pirates.

This is the kind of stuff that never comes up; it's comparatively natural politics, with different motivations and cultures being involved. Compared to the "Good guys versus bad guys" main plot, it's far more intricate and believable. It's comparable to human history in that way. The whole "every race is its own solid empire" thing is a bit troubling, but there's at least hints of dissent that force cooperation and unity. Wars are fought over territory, over different belief systems, and over pure material wealth, but they're rarely fought for an enforced "right versus wrong" concept. Even the alliance of the "light" races is more comparable to the Holy League, with the Beastmen taking the role of the Ottoman Empire as foreign invaders from a different culture/religion. While the invaders are in the picture, everyone's united under their shared faith and belief, but you know as soon as that threat's gone they're going back to killing each other for selfish reasons.

Also, like Final Fantasy Tactics, the wars in FFXI are meant to be on a much larger, more conventional scale than the "adventurer" concepts established by the actual gameplay. Wars, at least as represented by background material, exist on a much more grounded level than combat in the game. One battle consisted of Hume musketeers holding a pass against Elvaan cavalry, which is grounded in logic that simply doesn't exist in the game. Things like "levels", "special abilities", and "stats" are not addressed in the same way that they are in gameplay. This is best represented by the game's opening movie, which is meant to be more like "real combat" than the gameplay is in terms of movement, strategy, and the amount of punishment an individual can take. This isn't reflected in gameplay, but if that movie reflected what was happening in gameplay it would look preposterous. In the same way, life for citizens in the game is not the same as life for player avatars - compare the description of Bastok and its economic/political situation to the infinite playground of the player character.

In short, from a historical perspective, FFXI wants to be believable and grounded - not, perhaps, "realistic", but fantasy is fantasy. In comparison, the game itself is bound by its own nature, relying on a lot of meta-concepts and additions that are simply not acknowledged by the world at large. Now, I'm being a bit unfair here, because things like "good and evil are not that simple" are technically brought up in the game, but the issue is that for gameplay reasons they're never important. The Beastmen, with the exception of some goblins, are always hostile, forever. This is because they need to serve as sources of experience and money for players. The background, in contrast, indicates that the situation is a lot more morally grey, leading to concepts like interaction and diplomacy that just don't fit in the confines of the gameplay.

Weapons and armor in FFXI can range from fairly reasonable sets of cloth and mail to more unrealistic designs, whether in terms of material or in terms of...everything. It's hard to say where one ends and the other begins, so in general it's easier to say that FFXI's aesthetic is "vaguely realistic" and leave it at that. However, a lot of the more grounded designs, I feel, can be ascribed to Mitsuhiro Arita, who provides a lot of the artwork for the game's supplemental material. For example, this article from the Vana'diel Tribune establishes believable armor layers, including different parts, and generally suggests a much more believable design (in terms of materials and in terms of its sensibility) than is established in the game.

Mitsuhiro Arita also provides the illustrations for the Vana'diel Profiles, the historical biographies that provided a lot of the information I analyzed above, such as the pre-Crystal War stuff. The combination of writing and artistic style is what really sells them, for me - it feels more like a historical record than a JRPG plot. They operate on different rules: FFXI is power-hungry high fantasy, while the background material is much more grounded and connected to some sort of reality. Again, it's all the necessities of gameplay. Besides obvious things like graphical and content limitations, FFXI as a game has to deal with the fact that it's essentially a theme park. Players need to have unlimited, unhindered access to content, they need to advance in a very drastic and direct way, and they need to have things to kill so they can move up in the world.

Essentially, that is the issue. Final Fantasy XI has an interesting world, but that world cannot co-exist with the necessities of gameplay. Perhaps if it had been done as something else - a tabletop RPG, for example, or even a miniatures wargame - it would end up differently. Of course, the parallels with Warhammer Fantasy become more clear at this point, but while Warhammer had more grounded content as the majority of its material, with Warhammer Online being the exception, Final Fantasy XI has the opposite situation. In essence, the world that the game presents is defined by its gameplay.

This was also an issue with Final Fantasy Tactics, but in general I felt that FFT's squad-based approach and potential for perma-death made it at least a little less of a problem. In FFXI, the game's setup is so alien to its background material that they might as well be entirely different. Like FFT, the background material of the game relies heavily on the mundane, using simple, understandable historical events in addition to a larger backdrop of magic, gods, and demons. The problem for both is that the RPG gameplay does not correspond with a world where people behave, and are treated like, people.

So, To Sum Up:
1) Final Fantasy XI is a primary example of gameplay influencing and limiting story and interaction.
2) Its good ideas can be ascribed to things that exist outside the purview of the game's mechanics.
3) Its bad ideas can be connected to the necessities of MMO gameplay.
4) If it was set up in a different format that was less reliant on non-realism, it would be better able to explore its mundane elements and eschew its "grindy" elements.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Risk, fear, and mortality

Combat is a major aspect of media. Games bear the brunt of combat-related events, but films and books have their fair share of it. In some cases, combat is reasonably non-lethal (based on unarmed melee combat or something similar), but in the majority of cases, combat is meant to be lethal, either by guns, swords, or magic spells. Injury and death are two very different things. Injury can be healed or recovered from - death cannot. Death is a lesson that cannot be repeated; if a character dies, then they are done.

This is a topic I've covered before, but that was largely based on a concept of avoiding death through different actions. Today, I'd like to talk about reactions to death, or how it's depicted within the universe. There's two major concepts I'd like to establish: "Risk" and "Fear".

Risk refers to the likelihood of a character's death, either in statistical terms (for games) or narrative terms (for books, movies, and cutscenes).  A character with a lot of plot shielding is low risk, as is a character who's not usually in lethal combat situations. A powerful character is at less risk than a weaker character, and a high-level character is at less risk than a low-level character. The importance of risk is that it determines the plausibility of a character dying, and affects how they ought to react. Risk can best be described as the meta-aspect of character death.

Fear refers to a character's reaction to the potential of dying. A character who is doing everything he or she can do in order to avoid death has high fear. A character who quips and snarks in the middle of combat and clearly doesn't give a damn has low fear. Fear is important because it is an aspect of their characterization - if the character feels like he or she is going to die, then the audience should become drawn in. A lack of fear can be seen either as being "badass" (i.e. they don't care if they die) or "irreverent" (i.e. they know they're not going to die) depending on how it's handled. Fear can best be described as the in-universe aspect of character death.

So with those concepts established, let's take a look at this chart I whipped up. "F" and "R" represent fear and risk, respectively, and "-" and "+" refer to an absence or presence of that element. The interaction of these elements can affect the audience's understanding of a character and their condition. Low amounts of either of these elements can result in something being "cartoony" or "rule of cool", while higher amounts makes a work more "serious" (as in, "something that should be taken seriously").

No Fear, No Risk (-/-): This is a character who is immune to everything and they know it. This is the standard "snarky protagonist" who beats up every enemy soldier without a second thought. There's no drama, just a visceral "awesome" feeling from watching a guy be objectively superior to everyone they encounter. The Star Wars prequels were overloaded with this, culminating in Episode 3 when an entire elevator full of battle droids holding Obi-Wan and Anakin at gunpoint were sliced through without even a brief pause for peril or danger. Many people will defend this aspect as being "rule of cool" or some similar concept, but there's absolutely no room for drama here - it's a dolled-up version of shooting fish in a barrel, and its only value is as some sort of revenge or power fantasy.

No Fear, Risk (-/+): This is a scenario where a character is technically in danger, but continues to quip and snark nonetheless, or charges out into the open with both guns blazing. In a fairly balanced game, this character is either lucky or dead. In a non-interactive medium, their death will generally either be a comical waste or a dramatic reveal. "Risk" naturally, can come in several forms - from sudden death in combat to "cursing the author for totally killing that dude off" - but the end result is the same: a disconnect between what's happening and how the individual treats it.

I should clarify that when I say "no fear" I mean that there is no acknowledgment of the risk of death. The individual proceeds as though combat was a game, and they're generally surprised if they're severely hurt (as is the audience, more often than not). A character who acknowledges the threat of death but chooses to ignore it is not the same as a character who treats death as something that "happens to other people".

Fear, No Risk (+/-): This sort of character can be a coward, a self-preservationist, or perhaps even a grimly determined soldier - but they're also not in any danger, regardless of their response to the situation. This is a difficult one to judge; on the one hand, they're displaying believable responses towards combat and the risks it entails, but on the other hand they're not going to be exposed to it for meta-reasons. They might be a protagonist, a title character, or a viewpoint character - for whatever reason, it's obvious they're just not going to die. However, depending on how the situation is handled, a "Fear, No Risk" character can suggest at the possibility of that death happening anyways. In addition, the character in such a case doesn't know that they're not going to die, so maintaining the illusion of risk can be a major factor in whether something is plausible or not.

On the other hand, "Fear, No Risk" can also lead to melodrama if there is a gameplay/story (or action scene/story) mismatch. A character who takes a billion hits in gameplay can be afraid of a man with a pistol in a cutscene. This creates a sense of false drama, where what should be a trivial obstacle is made into a dramatic issue because they're ignoring the thousands of wounds the character has already shrugged off.

Fear, Risk (+/+): The most believable combination, with a match-up of character risk and character reaction. These are characters who could die at any moment and who know it. Their reactions may vary, from cowardice to resignation to defiance, but the drama of the series comes from not only their reactions to a perilous situation, but also the fact that it could actually happen and they're not arbitrarily protected by the plot. Therefore, their sacrifice (though still fictional) has much more emotional attachment to it. Their reactions are made more poignant because, for them, the risk is present and plausible.

Now let's take these concepts and apply them to some existing franchises.

Warhammer 40,000: Because of the grand scale of the setting, all four points are touched upon. "No Risk" is generally reserved for protagonists and book characters (like the main characters of Dawn of War 2), while "No Fear" is generally much more ubiquitous, applying to a broader group. It's probably best to look at it faction-by-faction:
Necrons: No Fear, No Risk. The Necrons have no real humanizing elements to them - they're an unstoppable force that can briefly be delayed, but never fully countered. They're not meant to be sympathetic, they're meant to be boogeymen. The same can be applied to the Tyranids, who may suffer defeats, but whose hivemind status means that the loss of individuals is unimportant.
Orks: No Fear, Risk. Not a huge amount of risk, mind you, but an ork can still die. Orks also happen to lack any fear of death as a racial trait, so while they might get shot or blown up, they don't really care. This is why they're the "comedy race": because they're operating under the same combat rules as everyone else, but the consequences don't matter to them.
Space Marines: Varies. The Space Marines are among the most schizophrenic factions due to their varying levels of power. Protagonist Space Marines are generally "no fear, no risk", while lower-level space marines are "no fear, risk". I pointed out DoW2 because that gap exists: the main characters can be resurrected, but the helmeted generic space marines that serve as their squad members are just sort of left where they die.
Imperial Guard: Fear, Risk. The IG are the "normal human" faction, and as such have the most human response. The IG are thrown into countless unwinnable battles, and their soldiers know it. Thus, the IG are the most "serious" faction, because there is consequence to their decisions and actions. This is in contrast to the Orks, who are more physically powerful and also do not care about losing. A few special characters might fall under "no risk", but the average guardsman is definitely expendable and aware of it.

Berserk: Berserk is a grim, bloody manga - but it still manages to have a cast of characters who are largely immune to death (though they can still be harmed). Therefore, it is "Fear, No Risk" for the protagonists (at best) and "Fear, Risk" for everyone else. Soldiers are slaughtered en masse by monsters or demons or each other, but while the main characters can be pushed to their limits, it's pretty clear that none of them are going to die off unless it's in a major climactic scene. Still, one thing I appreciate about Berserk is that it manages to make the soldiers' deaths horrific and disgusting enough that the "risk" and "fear" are both warranted.

Dragon Age: Dragon Age would like to be "Fear, Risk" judging by the focus on mature concepts and themes - blood, betrayal, death, foul sorceries, and so on. However, it comes out as "No Fear, No Risk" because the game centers on a team of protagonists who can't be killed outside of very specific player choices (no risk) and have conversations like this or like this (no fear). The snarky quips prevent any feeling of trepidation or fear, and never forces players to leave their comfort zones. In exchange, the game offers us romance subplots straight out of a Joss Whedon flick. It's almost impossible for me to take it seriously, because the "seriousness" of the setting primarily comes from blood and gore, not from any real logical framework. Most of this analysis applies to Mass Effect as well, with the semi-exception of the final mission of ME2 (a partial-Fear, partial-Risk situation).

Metal Gear Solid: While MGS generally maintains an action movie mentality, MGS4 features a lot more of Snake getting hurt and mutilated by things in an attempt to gain sympathy for his character. This creates a "Fear, No Risk" situation: he gets shot a million times in gameplay and barely cares, but then he gets stabbed in a cutscene and "oh no he's hurt badly what do we do". The characters try to act like things are super-serious, but the fact that you can heal up in gameplay by eating a ration sort of undoes the pathos of the situation. The guards, on the other hand, are "No Fear, Risk" - they can die easily, but with the exception of the militia in MGS4, they'll charge at you despite the odds. You can blame mind control and nanomachines for this, but you'd think they'd at least try to regroup or reorganize or something instead of continually charging at the guy who's mowing them all down.

Heavy Rain: A "Fear, No Risk" situation for some characters, a "Fear, Risk" situation for others. Finding out which characters have risk and which don't is a matter of experimentation, but on the first playthrough most people will treat it as though every character is equally at risk, which makes it a partial "Fear, Risk" masquerading as a full version.

Bleach: The ratio of "people looking shocked at some major wound" to "good-guy deaths" is currently hovering somewhere around 500,000 to none, so Bleach is a pretty solid "Fear, No Risk" situation. This does not apply to the main character, Ichigo, who doesn't really care about the potential for dying, and thus is solidly in the "No Fear, No Risk" category. This is meant to make him seem more powerful and courageous. Whether or not it works is arguable.

Every Superhero Comic: "Oh no, [x character] is dead!" If [x character] is a main character, resurrect him or her after a short period of mourning. If [x character] is a minor character, leave them dead so you can illustrate how totally awesome whoever killed them was. Rinse and repeat as needed.  A "Fear, No Risk" scenario because of the reactions of the characters in-universe.

To Sum Up:
1) Whether combat is "serious" or "lighthearted" is based on potential for death and reactions to death.
2) A situation where neither fear nor risk is present is an exercise in "rule of cool" at best.
3) A situation where risk is present, but fear is not, is an awkward setup that suspends disbelief regarding the character's personality unless some explanation is offered.
4) A situation where fear is present, but risk is not, will vary depending on how obvious it is that the character is not going to die.
5) A situation where both fear and risk are present matches up the best in terms of conveying drama and the potential for death, because both the meta-universe and the character acknowledge danger.