Thursday, March 29, 2012


Really? Really? I JUST went over this, guy, and you're giving me a reason to do it again?

People will believe "assassin in identifiable hood jumps off buildings and lands in hay carts", but they wouldn't believe "woman does things". That's what they're telling me. The white-clad, hooded, weapon-shrouded super-assassin is MORE BELIEVABLE than a woman in the same position.

I'm done. I'm done with everything.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Realism as a tool for agendas: a discussion of hypocrisy.

100% accurate depiction of actual real events (this is actual period art by the way).
As you know if you've been following this blog for any length of time, I'm a fan of realism. Not only do I find it more aesthetically pleasing than less grounded graphical representations, I also know that it provides psychological benefits in terms of connecting to sensory experience and unconscious reactions. Realism helps people get into a work and suspend their disbelief more easily; it helps them bridge the gap between "this isn't real" and "what if this was real" more easily. Realism has many benefits and in most cases I cannot fault a product or work for attempting to adhere to it.

Today I'd like to talk about realism as a tool for agendas. I'd like to talk about "half-realism", where something isn't done because "that's not realistic" when in other cases unrealism is allowed to slide cleanly. I'd like to talk about cases where objectionable opinions are defended by value of "realism" when "realism" isn't brought up anywhere else in the work.

Let's talk about Team Ico's "The Last Guardian", for example.

"Crazy fun fact: The Last Guardian was originally supposed to have a small female lead, however Ueda felt the little girl wouldn't have as good of a grip as a boy to climb the massive Trico. He also mentioned that girls wear skirts..."

Team Ico is one of the most respected "artgame" names in the game industry. Its works are emotionally evocative and aesthetically challenging while still remaining conceptually very simple. It pains me, therefore, to have to raise criticism against them, and yet I absolutely feel obligated to do so: this is ridiculous. The idea that a girl having less stamina because "that's realistic" in a game like The Last Guardian is just so irrelevant to anything that the idea of it being considered as an actual reason for grown adults making a decision just boggles my mind. These people, who ostensibly take the game industry very seriously and take their games very seriously, came to the conclusion that "we can't have a female characters because girls are weak and puny and it would break the audience's suspension of disbelief to say otherwise".

I liked Shadow of the Colossus because, among other things, it was realistic in certain fields. The way your character moved, the way you had limited stamina with which to climb the titular creatures, and even the way your horse handled created a believable atmosphere and added more weight to the basic concept of "climb up creature, stab it in weak spot". If the climb had been effortless, there wouldn't be any real sense of struggling or tension, it would just be a puzzle game. Those realistic elements helped convey how difficult the battle was meant to be for the protagonist while still being a detached, electronic medium. But SotC wasn't totally realistic by any stretch of the imagination. There's no explanation for, say, why the protagonist is so durable: he can get smashed by a club fifty times his size or fall off a giant the size of a skyscraper and, in many cases, shrug it off. He's got also got infinite arrows, if we're going to nitpick. So SotC is realistic in some fields, and unrealistic in others. That's fine.

The problem with Ueda's explanation regarding The Last Guardian is that while realism has benefits, you can't justify it's usage out of thin air. You either have to have it all the time, and thus make it totally consistent as a package, or you have to connect it to some benefit that its use provides. In SotC "realism" exists to make the climb more exhilarating, more emotionally charged and more difficult for the player. It's not absolutely realistic by any means, but the ways in which is is realistic exist for a reason. Games like Demon's Souls are the same way - the realistic parts are there for a reason, and the reason is a combination of aesthetic value and fantasy scaling (grounded base elements make outlandish fantasy elements feel more important). Realism is rarely put into place for its own sake, it's there to do something. It's a tool used by artists to create an effect.

It's difficult to assess this based on the short response Ueda gave, but I can see two potential reasons for what he means when he says that "the little girl wouldn't have had as good of a grip as a boy" in regards to The Last Guardian. The first possibility is that he thinks the audience wouldn't accept it: their suspension of disbelief would break if this little girl was able to climb onto an animal, but wouldn't if it was a little boy. Personally, I don't think people care; I mean, maybe that's just me, but when I'm watching a giant cat griffin or whatever with a little girl on its back, I'm not going to focus on the little girl.

The second possibility is...well, it's sexism, to put it bluntly. I can't even say that it's simply adherence to realism, because there are other things inherent in the gameplay construct that aren't realistic. And I don't mean "there's magic" or "there's a giant animal" or "it's a fantasy world", because those are things that can behave "realistically", or at least "consistently", based on the rules established by the setting. No, I mean things like health, resilience, and so on, which are intentionally kept unrealistic. I haven't really seen enough of the game to make this judgment, because it's not out yet, but going by previous Team Ico games "absolute realism" is not their concern.

I think the reason Ueda says he cares about realism regarding this particular case is because some people will accept realism as an end in and of itself. The benefits provided by realism are fairly well established (albeit often misunderstood) so when realism is offered as an explanation, sometimes that's enough. It's why Harry Plinkett's analysis of the Star Wars prequels is founded largely in things being unrealistic: they feel floaty, fake, and artificial. Those are things that turn people off. When a person says they're doing something to be "realistic", it's assumed they're trying to engage the parts of your brain that respond well to realistic content. Realism, by itself, is generally a good thing.

This, unfortunately, means that realism can be a good cover for misogyny. Nature, as it happens, is unfair: it's an objective fact that men build muscle easier than women, and there's no getting around it (though it's actually not as big a gap as many people assume). Women can be muscular, yes, but it takes more work than it takes for men. Nature did not build us equally. The choice to represent that in a game is almost always unnecessary unless you're playing an incredibly detailed and incredibly realistic game that also takes every other facet of reality into account. Again, realism is a tool, and it is applied to areas where it can provide a benefit. When games like FATAL throw out exaggerated versions of this inequality by giving huge penalties in strength to female characters, it's quite obvious a cover for misogyny, not an attempt to evoke the benefits that realism provides. It's so selective, and so surrounded by non-realism, that it cannot be a legitimate adherence to reality.

I don't know Ueda. I can't judge him based on a two-sentence answer. Hell, maybe it's not even him alone, maybe it's an entire committee or design team that's the problem. But it basically sounds like he's a misogynist, even if it's on a very minor level. His belief that "girls don't have enough stamina to be effective" overrides the other things that he's willing to let slide in realism terms, and that's not okay. He could just say "well, just like health or damage, let's just say we don't care about realism in this case", but he didn't. Why didn't he? Because he didn't want to. He had his own reason for not wanting a female character, and I'm not privy to that reason is. The reason, let me assure you, is not "realism" or its benefits.

There's nothing wrong with unrealistic stuff - you're not going to get the benefits of realism, but it allows for greater artistic expression sometimes. Divergence from realism, however, puts control in the artist's hands, and thus lays the blame at the artist's feet. When you can't count on "realism" as an answer (i.e. "it's the premade system's fault, it's not like I made reality or anything!"), all you're left with is "it's that way because the creator wanted it that way". There isn't a female protagonist in The Last Guardian because the developers didn't want a female protagonist. End of sentence. In fact, if they'd never considered it at all, it wouldn't have been that bad. It would have just been assumed that the role was designed for a male character and it would have been justified by artistic choice. Bringing the possibility up in an interview specifically to provide bad reasons for why you didn't do it is basically the worst way this could have been handled, because it's hypocritical. You don't care about realism most of the time, but now you do. That's not okay.

Go Real or Go Home
Now me, I love realism. I'd like things to be realistic all the time. But realism can be abused, because it's a tool. People who don't care about realism can invoke it to give their subjective opinion greater appeal; take a character like Saber and you'll find people citing realism both to attack her ("she's wearing a dress on the battlefield and she's not wearing a helmet") and defend her ("she's wearing armor, armor doesn't have to be totally covering all the time"). Ultimately what it turns into is an attempt to back up opinions you'd hold anyways: "I like/don't like x, but let me cite realism to give my opinion some extra support".

Realism, though, is the means by which we represent utility. There is no utility without realism, or at least consistency, because "utility" by its very nature is a response to conditions. It's cold, you put on a warm coat, that's utility. You're in danger, you put on armor, that's utility. It's an attempt to accomplish something based on a consistent system, and "the system" that we use most often for reference is reality. If you don't care about reality most of the time, why do you start caring when a character wears a chainmail bikini or high heels? Because it bothers you for another reason - it offends your sensibilities, or it makes you feel objectified, or you dislike the aesthetic, or maybe you just dislike women wearing revealing clothing. It's not "realism", it's whatever other reason you have for disliking it. Realism is just there because people accept that as a reason. It has its benefits, but if you want to use "realism" or even "believability" as an argument, you have to understand what those benefits are.

Intent is offensive, not content. "Why", not "How", they're dressed.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Character Agency

One of the most basic and fundamental aspects of writing a character is making them feel like a person, and not simply a collection of traits. The most direct way to accomplish this is to get into their mindset and have them make decisions that make sense for their personalities. Their values, ego, and understanding of the world and its rules should all come together to form a coherent decision-making process, and the various aspects of their character should reflect that process. Characters should possess a sense of agency and ego, which is to say that they should be making decisions "themselves" based on their own desires and ideas. This concept forms the foundation of my objections to artificial character designs and to overly-orchestrated events. Now I'm going to direct it towards character writing and actions as part of constructing a logical world - to create a setting where things make sense, rather than being the most convenient or appealing for the audience.

Childrens' brains respond to pain in others.
We, the audience, connect with characters based on things like empathy, sympathy, and pathos. We respond to their pain and agony as well as their happiness and success. When a work has successfully engaged us, we laud the heroic and gregarious, despise the wretched and wicked, cheer victories and mourn defeats. The things that we use to judge and interact with people in real life are used by fiction writers to evoke those strong emotions and thus create a connection or bond between the audience and the work. The most well-written characters have depth and logic to them, allowing us to understand their perspective even if we disagree with it. The complex web of cause-and-effect  helps us, the audience, stop thinking of them as "characters" and start thinking of them as "people". To truly connect with them, to evoke that empathy, we need to be able to let ourselves fall into the intentional delusion that these are real people who are worthy of an emotional response, and to make that happen characters need to behave, act, and display emotions like real people do.

The problem with a poorly written character is that the reasons we like characters are based on those emotional responses, which rely on the suspension of disbelief with regards to them being not real. The value of those emotional responses comes from our social instincts and mechanisms. Praise feels good in real life not just because you've received praise, but because someone has praised you. It adds to your self-worth because your character and your life have been supported by someone else, and while not everyone cares about that, it's a pretty general part of societal interaction. The idea of other people having a consciousness of their own is central to things like empathy; it feels good to help someone because there is "someone" to help. You can't just go through the motions and expect the same reaction when you haven't actually done anything, can you?

Part of the reason that this is accepted is because of a willing, even forced, suspension of disbelief. People want the outcome of a shallow, sycophantic relationship because it feels good even though it doesn't actually mean anything. "Romance" in video games is nothing like romance in real life because you're almost always choosing 1 of 3 preset answers and you know one of them is the right one. There's no real potential for failure or even incompatibility because they have to make it easy for the player to "win" the "game" of romantic dialogue. Yet some people enjoy them anyways because it's "easier". There's no fear of rejection or potential loss of self-esteem; if a character is marked as being a romance option, there is a guaranteed way to make him or her fall in love with you, and all you have to do is find the right things to say to make it happen. In real life, this would be an abhorrent mindset to propagate because it reduces other human beings into, essentially, "goals" to achieve. Oh wait, that's already a thing and it is totally awful. The idea of romance being "choose the right options and get guaranteed results" is so ridiculous that its appeal is questionable at best and offensive at worst. Game romances try to mask their shallowness with prose, but it's obvious that the characters are all so easy to impress that their only useful purpose as part of a narrative is to indulge and tittilate  the player.

While it's easy to pick on romances for being cliche and hackneyed and over-simplified, the truth is that there's a lot of bad characters out there who basically give their protagonists a free pass for everything they do. This, too, is part of indulgence: why would the player hang out with anyone but yes-men who make them feel good about anything? Why would they brook discontent or disagreement when they could far more easily find characters who are willing to tell them how great they are, how smart they are, how capable they are, how important they are, etc.? Sometimes it's just out of programming convenience, but fantasies are fantasies, after all - you can't honestly say that most of these characters aren't just there to make the player feel good with empty praise.

What I'd like to do with this article is examine the ways in which characters are written to either be subservient or independent - to kowtow to the player-character, or to express their own egos and their own agency. I'm also going to look at why the former is generally bad for a work and the latter is generally good.

Alyx Vance: "Everything You Do Is Right"
The video blog Errant Signal did a great job with its Half-Life 2 analysis in showing how Alyx Vance, largely lauded as being a progressive female character for a video game, has basically no real sense of agency or character on her own. She's there to support the player, and that's almost her entire role. Yes, she has little bits of character development here and there, but compared to what she should be given her circumstances, she's basically an empty husk. Her decisions never waver, her resolve never sways, her values and ego never get in the way of "do what Gordon says". She is not a person, she is a follower. She exists to tell the player character how great he is, to riff off him, and to do everything he says. The little things they changed - her visual design, her personality - don't affect the overall issue that Alyx Vance exists as an empty puppet to laud the player without regard for their actions or their capabilities.

Half the problem with the setup is that Gordon is a silent protagonist. This is a concept that works well in Half-Life's scenario, where "survival" is the only goal and your actions speak louder than your words. There's no assumptions made about your character or your values; even the scientists who ask you to go to Xen acknowledge that you have no reason to do this except securing your own safety. The scenario becomes an utterly embarrassing one in HL2 where everyone's talking at Gordon, making assumptions about his personality, and responding to him like he's an actual person - and he doesn't say anything back. Despite the praise for his at-the-time unorthodox background, Gordon is a non-character; in the initial release of HL1, it was pretty difficult to even find out what he looked like (later releases put him right on the cover). Yet despite this, Alyx has to fall in love with him, because that's what the developers think (or know) the player wants to happen. How can this be the product of believable decision-making? How can this ostensibly empowered female character fall in love with a person based on nothing more than "he kills a bunch of combine" and have that be okay? She doesn't act like a person any more than a cliche two-dimensional love interest does; she's there to support Gordon. She has no agency, or at least no justifiable/explainable agency.

The funny thing about Alyx is that she's sort of treated as this icon of feminist empowerment - she's not "slutty" or "loose" or whatever other terms people use when they want to express disgust at scantily-clad or libidinous women. She's spunky, tomboyish, modestly-dressed and modestly-endowed. However, as I've made clear in the past, the actual problem with sexist characters isn't what they are, it's why they are. Sexy female characters aren't bad because they're "unrealistic", they're bad because the reason they're sexy is because the author and audience want to objectify them (unless you're trying to say that women who dress sexily are evil, in which case you're pretty awful yourself). The reasoning behind Alyx's design is easily identified as "player gratification", which is the same reason that people hate sexy, sycophantic sidekicks to begin with. People hate those types of characters because they (and by extension, other women) are painted as only existing to praise and support a man, without any ego or values of their own. These characters don't feel or act like people, which becomes reprehensible when you connect it to the idea that that's what women should be, or even are.

Yet Alyx changes a few minor details, and suddenly she's okay, even praiseworthy. The core formula remains intact, but instead of a busty airhead, it's a smart, cute, attainable young woman who dresses nicely and makes awkwardly adorable little comments like "zombine lol'. It appeals to a different audience by assuaging their guilt about whether or not such a character is sexist: "no, it's okay, even though she praises everything you do she doesn't dress like a whore!" The dressing is different, but the concept is the same. I could even draw a comparison to Gordon's status as a character - he's a supposed scientist who does everything that standard cliche space marines do and never has to do anything related to science, but people love him because he's "so different" than the generic military protagonist. The standards are so low for new content that he gets away with it, even though you could put a marine in his place and have the game remain exactly the same.

And they did.

Fenris: "I Don't Mind If You Represent Everything That I Hate"
Here's another solid example of a character who feels less like a person and more like a thrall: Dragon Age 2's Fenris. DA2 didn't have deep characters, but it had reliable characters (in terms of adhering to their single gimmick trait). Fenris is an elf who hates mages. That's it, that's his character, that's everything important about him and his decision-making process. Whenever he opens his mouth he's reminding you that he hates mages. When it's time for the player to make a choice, Fenris pipes up to remind you that he hates mages, and he supports a course of action that would see mages dead. His entire character and story are based around him hating mages, just hating them so much that his otherwise generic design is essentially held together by that single aspect of his personality.

You know who else you can have in your party? Mages. You can even have a blood mage in your party, who other mages think are too dangerous to be around. You can BE a mage yourself. Bizarrely, Fenris doesn't care about those mages. Oh, sure, he'll whine a bit, but a character who's meant to be a dangerous mage-hating vigilante seems content to throw out sarcastic quips and bellyache. Though that's not totally fair because there is a scene at the end where Fenris can turn on you if your trust with him isn't high enough - but that's one scene. That's one whole scene in this entire game where he'll be like "Hey wait, I hate mages, and you're siding with the mages! I should probably murder you to death instead of tolerating our totally opposed agendas."

It's never really made clear why he's willing to put his mage-killing death spree on hold for the player-character. Yeah, the PC vaguely helps him, but that's not really enough to justify what's basically servitude. I mean, do you see what's happening here? Fenris is recognizing his role as "Not The PC". He's saying "well, I have my own agenda, but you're the PC, and thus (for no reason) you're the boss." He doesn't owe a blood-debt to Hawke, he doesn't have some implicit reason to trust Hawke, and he doesn't really have any justification for not pursuing his own agenda. Hawke's just a guy or gal who did a job for him and now they're palling around, and that's enough for this blood-crazed mage-hating murderer to be like "eh maybe I don't feel like murdering mages today".

Contrast this with games that acknowledge that the PC is basically "just a regular person" and in which party members have their own agendas. These characters possess agency and opinions beyond "worship player-character, kill all their enemies", and they join up with you because they think you'll help advance their cause or their agenda. When the player is obviously taking actions that are counter-productive to what they want to accomplish, they do something about it. Here's some examples:

In Baldur's Gate, Dynaheir and Edwin were diametrically opposed, and would attack each other unless you specifically arranged a scenario in which it was too difficult for them to do so. Their hatred of each other was almost always more important than their trust for you, because they knew each other better than they knew you. Why would you not try to kill your mortal enemy just because some guy you met half an hour ago was like "hold on I think we should all be friends"? Similar setups occur with Viconia & Keldorn in BG2 and with Alistair and Loghain in Dragon Age: Origins. They're so unwilling to tolerate each other that they do the logical thing and either leave or attack.

In Fallout: New Vegas, Boone will not support or accept the Legion, ever. If you support the Legion, or act against the NCR, he will leave, or he will attack you. Since his defining backstory-related character traits are his hatred of the Legion for taking away his wife and unborn child, this makes perfect sense for him. He's willing to trust your judgment with certain other affairs that he's less invested in, but his hatred of the Legion is so important to him that the idea of him being okay with helping them just doesn't make sense - so it's not allowed in the game. FO3 had similar concepts, but it was based around the karma system and not at all about factional loyalty (which didn't really exist in FO3).

In Jagged Alliance 2, every mercenary had characters that they liked and disliked. While they were all fairly professional about it (after all, it's their jobs), they still obviously had their differences with their fellow soldiers. If you treated mercenaries poorly (getting a lot of them killed and not recovering their bodies), mercenaries would abandon you or refuse to work for you. In Jagged Alliance - Back In Action, relationship issues were escalated to outright refusal to work with hated characters.

Now, obviously, even these characters are kind of limited. Programming and dialogue restrictions mean that they're not totally perfect or flawless, but the idea of them actually making decisions based on their own values first and protagonist-centric loyalty second (if at all) is simultaneously incredibly basic and yet at the same time impressive for video-game writing. Something that I brought up during my analysis of Final Fantasy XI was the idea that the different races in the game's setting banded together into two distinct groups because of shared principles, yet they had internal conflict and strife that helped to separate them and maintain that they were their own sovereign entities. Character conflicts do the same thing: they remind you that this is a person who has voluntarily agreed to accompany you, not a servant or a slave or a thrall.

Binary Domain: Justifying Leadership & Collaboration
When I picked up Sega's third-person-shooter Binary Domain, one of the first things I noticed was the concept of "trust levels". You're playing an American operative who's part of a multi-national strike force aiming to arrest a Japanese roboticist who represents a threat to the world at large. It's stated early and often that the different groups involved have different stakes and different goals, and your relationship with the other characters starts off somewhat abrasive. While you're the de-facto leader (because you're the PC, of course), other characters are quick to reassert their own authority and decision-making, and constantly trying to establish dominance is likely to displease or anger them, which leads to them being less willing to follow your decisions. Instead, you have to focus on your shared goal, try to bond with them as people, and generally impress them with sound strategic thinking in order to get them to trust you enough to take your suggestions and accept you as a leader. While this doesn't pan out as much as it feels like it ought to, there are parts in the game where characters will do things differently depending on whether or not you've proven yourself to be a trustworthy individual, or even just proven to be a good friend.

What this does for me, as a player, is remind me that these characters are meant to be people. They're not mindless subordinates who'll do whatever I say, they're supposed to be characters with their own values, agendas, and most importantly their own egos. They aren't just going to accept everything I say as the gospel and act on it immediately, they're going to have their own priorities and viewpoints about what they do. If I build up their trust, that affects their judgment: "What do I think is best" versus "Well, this guy has proven that he's intelligent and capable, maybe I should listen to him". They weigh their options and, if you've  proven yourself, they decide that you're the best. It's not a pre-made statement, and it's not totally ironclad either - if you start acting like a jerk, making mistakes, and shooting them in the back, their opinions will drop back down.

A crucial part of this is that Binary Domain's story is based a shared goal: every operative wants to accomplish the mission for the safety of the world (or their own nation, at least). Issues of ego or trust come from individual issues, but their goal is ultimately the same even if they disagree in their methods and perspectives. The game has provided a target for you to work towards together. Mass Effect 2 was the same way - you were recruiting the best of the best to take down the Collectors, and your shared motivation was "survival as a race" even though the mission in question was most likely suicide. In games like Baldur's Gate, where you're really on your own personal quest and nobody else has a reason to care about it, there has to be some indication that your party members recognize this. They have their own reasons to help you, but it's because you're a friend or an employer, not necessarily because they care about what you're doing.

Reminder: that's my brother plotting to kill my baby daughter.
Crusader Kings 2: A Wrench In The Works
So far I've talked about agency from a storytelling perspective, with a focus on making characters who feel like real people, who can be empathized with, etc. But what about from a gameplay perspective? What about the concept that managing people with their own desires makes for a much more complex game than one in which everyone absolutely obeys every order you give?

One of the things I loved about Crusader Kings 2 in comparison to many other games is that every vassal has their own opinion of you and of each other. There's very little absolute obedience: your authority as a ruler is held in place by your legal bindings and by your relationship with the people you rule over. If your vassals hate you enough, they'll rebel - and you draw most of your troops from their lands, so for each one that rebels your ability to fight them is reduced. Different politics, cultures, and goals all come into play to form a network of interpersonal relationships, from the simplest personality traits ("I'm brave, and I despise you for being a coward") to the loftiest ambitions ("I could be next in line for the throne, but you're in my way"). In some cases, past friendship will be enough to keep things smooth even when troubles arise; in others, a lord will decide that his own ambitions are too important to let your relationship stand in the way. There are no guarantees that people will behave one way or another, only influences.

What I love about this concept is that it makes the game feel more alive. It's not just me and a few other computer players, it's a world full of people each exerting their own political force upon the world. Every character's actions change the game, and while many characters' actions are going to be inconsequential in the long run, their tiny ripples can still have effects much later on. Diplomacy and social interaction turn from a largely irrelevant sideshow, providing entertaining diversion from the main game, to an actual tangible part of the game mechanics. Whether you attempt to make everyone happy, accomplish a specific goal, or try to roleplay your character is going to have an effect on the game world and on your overall success.

Let's set up a hypothetical game concept. You're playing as a character leading a party of adventurers on a quest. Each character has their own reason for being on the quest; you're the de-facto leader, but by no means are you guaranteed to hold that spot. Every action you take on this quest, and every decision you make, is going to have ramifications in the eyes of your companions. Their differing priorities will guarantee that you can't make them all happy all of the time, and in addition your actions will have effects on the world.  Do you burn down a village just to ensure that there are no witnesses to an event? Do you go out of your way to rescue a convoy even though it could compromise your mission? Do you abandon a party member to ensure the success of the operation? Even if a party member seems to be on your side, can you really trust them? Suddenly what you do in gameplay affects the narrative, and at the same time the choices you make as part of the narrative make the game easier or harder.

This concept requires a necessary level of difficulty, as well, because there need to be actual stakes. Games like Mass Effect seem afraid to have "wrong choices": you can just shoot your way past any enemy because nobody wants the game to stop after 30+ hours because they messed up. In order to make the gameplay and narrative connect, the stakes need to be equal in both. There's no point making a "hard decision" when you can come out of either one just as easily - failure needs to be a very real possibility to turn decision-making from an abstract "pick your movie" concept to an actual element of gameplay.

With Crusader Kings 2, that was part of the game. A rebellion at the wrong time could totally lose the game for you - your weakness would be exploited by your neighbors if you had bad relations with them, and your country would be forcibly taken from you through invasion. Every decision mattered because every one could be a game-loser. With linear or semi-linear narratives, the game has an end-point, and you (as the player) are almost financially obliged to reach it if you want to: I paid the money, I deserve to see all the movies. CK2, on the other hand, is "see how far you can get": each playthrough of the game is a short, self-contained story, and you're not guaranteed to succeed by any means. The always-present option of total failure tempers and influences your decisions because now those decisions can actually mean something.

This is the same thing I've said a thousand times before: write characters like they're people. Make them take actions that people would take, make them dress like people would dress, make them respond like people would respond. "People" covers such a wide and broad spectrum of possibilities that it's a cheap, shallow excuse to say that the results of those decisions are "boring" or "uninteresting". People are great. Real life, as it turns out, is full of people. People are interesting to interact with, and that interaction produces all sorts of emotions - positive and negative. The unreliability of that interaction is what makes it interesting, and you know that when you've legitimately earned someone's respect, that's something to be proud of.

There's no point talking to a doll. Dolls aren't people. If you pull a doll's string and the doll says you're great, that doesn't mean anything. Of course, even a well-written fictional character is still a "doll" in some respect, but there's a huge difference between a believable character offering a personality-justified opinion in response to your actions and a barely-developed character praising you for some generic action that you had to take anyways. The more like a "person" a character is, the more legitimate their words should feel.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Orchestrated Story and the Emergent Narrative

The issue of games being "about gameplay alone" versus games being a vehicle for moving and developing a narrative is nothing new. Since the earliest days of gaming, there have been attempts to use backstories for context and emotional attachment beyond simply completing mechanical objectives. The preexisting mediums of film and literature provided the foundation for game stories in the form of largely non-interactive narratives attached to a "game" concept: backstories, cutscenes, dialogue, etc. Games can do more than that. I've talked a lot about the concept of an Emergent Narrative, or a narrative that results naturally from the events that transpire during gameplay. Yet when discussing game stories, the tendency of gamers seems to always be to focus on uninteractive stories, as though only they have the qualities necessary to be taken seriously. So what's the difference? How does one, which relies on developing scenarios through gameplay, differ from the other, which ignores gameplay in favor of a pre-built story arc?

First off, let's define the term "narrative". Narratives are sequences of events in which characters interact with each other and with their surroundings. Characters are shaped by events, and set events into motion. The  qualities and depth of a given character is what allows us to identify with them, to take them seriously within the narrative, and to suspend our disbelief about the fictitious nature of the enterprise. Similarly, the events must be logical and coherently arranged in order to preserve our understanding of the faux-reality of the situation. In short, narratives are "events" acted on by, and acting on, "characters".

Obviously, however, a narrative is not usually just a retelling of events. There are always genre-related tricks to enliven those events and to make them more real, more memorable, and more artistic. In literature, this is called prose. In film, this is called cinematography. In games...well, there isn't really an equivalent, because traditionally we'd just use the things from literature and film. The fact is that "games" as a whole have not really embraced the idea that you can use the interactive, naturally developing events of "gameplay" as a way to tell a story, rather than simply a distraction from it. Our idea of "game story" is a movie or book attached to gameplay, with maybe some minor thematic connection between the two. The actual "interactive" games - the grand strategies, the city builders, the old-school RPGs - are disregarded because they're too "low-content" in terms of...prose and cinematography.

As it stands now, there are three major types of game story.

The linear narrative does not pretend to offer choice. It does not make "the story" a part of the game so much as it makes it a setting for the game. Characters from the "story" certainly intersect with characters from "the game", but they are not one and the same. A character who dies in the "game" is not dead in the story, because the story cannot allow for that sort of malleability. The story exists in a separate dimension from the game. You play the game to have fun and enjoy the gameplay; you watch the story to get invested in the events, and never shall the two meet. In some severe cases they may even operate on radically different rules: a normal wound in gameplay becomes a severe wound in a cutscene, etc. The story's effect on the game, at most, is to provide some context for the actions and create emotional attachment. The game's effect on the story, at most, is to serve as an obstacle to create some sense of achievement or "earning your ending".

Linear narratives, quite honestly, should not even really be considered "game stories". They are certainly stories, but they are irrelevant to their games. A linear story is like watching a movie, but being periodically interrupted by gameplay. In fact, that's exactly 100% what it is. Yes, there's some sense of achievement from earning "the movie" instead of just getting right to it, but that's still what it is. You play the game, and then when you're done messing around with whatever it is you're doing, you go back to watching the movie. It doesn't matter at all what you DID in the game, because you're not watching a game, you're watching a movie.

In simple terms, there's nothing wrong with a linear narrative, but it's getting absolutely no mileage out of the fact that it's a game. There's no interactivity between the player and the story, it's a movie. Obviously there are some very good linear storylines, but they must be analyzed as movies, based on the cinematography present in their cutscenes, the development of characters, etc. You can't even think of it as being part of a "good game", because you cannot look at the "game" parts of the product to judge the whole. There is no "whole". There are two separate, distinct parts. The movie part of a game is a movie, and thus must be judged by its cinematography and its storytelling capabilities (PLEASE WATCH THIS) (AND THIS TOO WHILE YOU'RE AT IT). Things like "fun" and "engaging" stop being important in a critical sense, and things like "writing quality", "character development", and "use of camera" start being important. Meanwhile, the "gameplay" parts of the game must also be judged on their own merits: it doesn't make sense to excuse bad gameplay in a game with a good story, because that's a movie with badly-made interruptions.

If either part of a linear game is bad, or at least if a player doesn't like part of it, it's going to be noticeable because you often cannot have one without the other. Bioware's Jennifer Hepler received a lot of negative attention - a LOT of negative attention - for saying that gameplay was her least favorite part of playing games, and that there should be an option to skip combat as per the ability to skip cutscenes. The ostensible reason she received this negative attention was that gameplay is considered an intrinsic part of the game experience, or at the very least it's something they're not going to ship the game without. Some games, like Deadly Premonition, weren't even supposed to have combat, and yet it was added due to genre expectations. Despite this, there are games that have no combat, and focus entirely on dialogue and decision-making; they're called interactive fiction, or visual novels, and they tend to have better choice-making than most computer-RPGs because that's their primary selling point.

Here's why I don't like the idea that "combat should be skippable". It's not because I feel that combat as it currently exists should be preserved or treasured. It's not because stories in games are a bad idea. It's not because I'm trying to say that people who like x element of a game shouldn't be allowed to. It's because it draws so much attention to how meaningless the combat is without trying to fix that issue. The concept is that "gameplay is irrelevant to a game's story", and relatedly that "combat in a story-centric game is often terrible". And you know what? It's true, at least for Bioware games and their ilk. If you skipped the gameplay in Dragon Age or Mass Effect or even KOTOR you would lose nothing because nothing important happens during gameplay. The people you kill don't matter, the potential for death doesn't exist, the objectives you accomplish are handwaved in cutscenes anyways. The reason it would be okay to skip gameplay is because you did nothing of value. The story is never affected, because that would provide too many variables. The only reason to play the game is if you're having fun with it, and if you're not it's just a big old roadblock between you and the next part of the movie.

One game that sort of messes with that concept of "cutscenes as movies" is Half Life 2. HL2 was well-known for "not having cutscenes", or rather having cutscenes where the player-character is the camera. These were cutscenes, okay? Let's get that out of the way. That's what they were. Characters went through their motions and said their lines and nothing the player did matter, you could be standing stock-still or jumping around like an idiot and it wouldn't ever matter. At the same time it robbed the game of the advantages of an actual controllable camera, such as interesting angles and perspectives, by strapping said camera to the boring, flat angle of "a guy looking briefly at the characters talking before resuming knocking plants off shelves" or, in some cases, "a guy looking around because he's been stuck in one spot". Bioshock had much the same problem; it's worth noting that in the most memorable scene of the game, the game itself took control away from you for dramatic and cinematographic effect.

With a linear story, there's still obviously the issue that gameplay doesn't matter; for purposes of the story, the gameplay doesn't even have to exist, and vice versa. Yet you can still find enjoyable experiences in terms of game story - you just have to judge them as a movie and not as "a game cutscene". Unfortunately, by that comparison, most game stories fall short of what would be considered a "good movie". I've heard many people suggest that a game story is different than a movie's story because movies don't offer interactivity, and thus writing for a movie is not the same as writing for a game or writing a novel. So let's talk about that, shall we?

A branching game story is a movie, but sometimes you get to choose which movie you're watching. That's it! I don't even feel like I should get more in-depth than that. Actual movies have had branching paths or multiple endings. Books certainly have as well; there's an entire GENRE of the concept. The fact of the matter is that, while the player is no longer wholly excluded from the story, the gameplay is still totally irrelevant, and nothing that happens during gameplay matters. While many of these games are praised for offering relatively good choices (such as the Witcher 2), the fact of the matter is that the "game" part still doesn't really matter. The story exists over here, and the gameplay exists over here.

Branching exists because dialogue and cutscenes are pre-made. Game developers make triggers, and then they attach dialogue and events to those triggers. If you reach x point, you are given choices y and z, which manifest themselves as cutscenes. And the thing is, that's sort of how they have to be. Writing can't be systematically created, it has to be written (for the most part - you can do a LOT with procedural content, but you can't totally replicate human speech patterns). If you want movie-level design, as most game developers do, then you have to make a movie and staple it to your game. The amount of crafting and care that people expect out of a game's story is based on movies. Movies are the standard by which cutscenes are judged, because cutscenes are movies, so it's basically expected that if you're going to have a dedicated story and not a bare-bones skeletal story you need to have movies to accompany it.

And yet, such games advertise themselves based on the ability to make choices and play roles - I mean, that's what an RPG is, right? It's more than just "a numbers-centric system", right? The whole appeal of the genre is the freedom to make choices, to have an influence on the story, to do things. What separates a game from a movie is interactivity, and that's why games like that tout it as a feature. The ability to change your environment, to tell a different story depending on what you do and how you play? That's amazing, isn't it? Plus, the "things you do" can be pretty fun when they include fighting monsters or shooting robots or whatever.

The problem is that games using this sort of hybrid mentality are never as good at what they do as a dedicated platform. When you get down to it, whether it's Dragon Age or Mass Effect or The Witcher or Skyrim or whatever, a "branching-path RPG" is a movie attached to a game that happens to have minor choices with regards to what movie you're watching. You could put the whole thing up on YouTube and then have little annotations for which link you follow (something that people already do) and that would be enough. Nothing about those types of games really relies on the medium of "a game", in the same way that nothing about a linear cutscene relies on the medium of "a game". The gameplay itself is rarely as good as a dedicated gameplay game, either; it's tolerated as an acceptable compromise because "well, I'm also playing it for the story, after all". We change our standards to support the model because that is what we are trained to do.

So if branching doesn't really provide enough real options, what's the alternative? How do we get actual choice - actual important gameplay - out of a game?

The qualities that differentiate emergent stories from linear/branching stories is that the gameplay itself becomes relevant. The things that you do in the game change the story, and in some cases may even DEFINE the story. The game IS the story; if you take out the game, there is no story. The setting provides characters, and the gameplay provides events. Games like Way of the Samurai change dramatically if a character dies, or if an opportunity is missed, or if the player does something other than "proceed at leisure, pick whatever choice you want". The scenario is crafted in such a matter that the player's input is incorporated into the scenario, and the gameplay becomes important because it can change the story. What you do becomes part of the story, not just an irrelevant side note.

However, emergent games are weak in a few fields. Dialogue, for example, is something that cannot be replicated systematically. There are too many minor changes and inconsistencies in people's speech patterns to believably recreate speech through procedural generation. However, this is one of the few things that games cannot do, which allows me to focus on all the things they can do. They can create events by following logical patterns. They can negotiate potential consequences and responses based on a combination of theoretical answers and random chance. They can continue operation after a character has died or otherwise "left the system". They can make things happen, they can assemble a narrative, they can tell a story.

I'll give an example; in fact, this example is why I'm writing this article. Crusader Kings 2, recently released by Paradox Interactive, is a Grand Strategy nobility simulator. The player takes the role of a noble in medieval Europe (anyone from a lowly count to a king) and attempts to expand their realm and continue their dynasty. Crusader Kings 2 is most notable because of the incredible detail to the feudal system and dynastic successions that defined much of the medieval era, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that those two things make up the near-absolute majority of the gameplay.

The events that make up a narrative in Crusader Kings 2 are things like succession crises, civil wars, demesne claims, and holy wars. These things occur entirely naturally; when a ruler dies, their land spreads to their children, who may quibble and fight over their inheritance if they do not have a good relation. The complicated system of marriage-based alliances and inheritance policies leads to the kind of legally-justified wars that defined the medieval era. They're the kind of thing that Shakespeare wrote about all the time. Henry V is about the king of England enforcing his ancestral claim to France, inherited from Edward III, the grandson of Philip IV of France. Richard III is about the titular king using and abusing the laws of succession by essentially murdering and manipulating his way into a legally recognized position of inheritance and making enough allies to back his claims up with force. Macbeth is about the titular character assassinating his liege in such a way that his claim as a kinsman allows him to take the throne, and then becoming brutally obsessed with the idea of wiping out any potential claimants who might seek to take it from him.

These plots, and others like them, are based on the existing legal precedent of the period. They use the laws to form a basis for the characters' actions, in much the same way that we in the present have police dramas, stories about the wrongfully convicted, and so on. In Crusader Kings 2, these events are a normal part of gameplay that must be deal with as part of the interaction between characters. Every vassal and courtier has their own personality traits, their own motivations, their own ambitions, and their own ways of behaving. Every single one is a potential catalyst for an event, either in terms of causing them or being caused by them. A single vassal, if treated poorly, may gather enough support to try to take your throne, or betray you to another country, or cause a civil war by taking up arms against one of your other vassals. That same vassal, treated well, may give you crucial aid during your own war, or they may serve as a worthy tutor to your child and ensure the continuation of your dynasty, or simply support you in diplomatic and social matters. The player, as a ruler, is also called upon to make decisions during the course of the game: which vassal to favor, how to raise their child, whether or not to accept a call-to-arms by an ally, etc. The actions taken in the game influence the game's narrative, and in fact wholly define it. The setting and characters are generated by the game, and the events are a combined result of the game's system and the player's input. That's where the narrative comes from.

In one game, playing as the Duke of Toulouse, I found myself conspiring to acquire the Duchy of Sardinia (through inheritance) by marrying my son to its duchess. To successfully pull this off, however, I would have had to ensure that my heir (i.e. my next player-character) would be the uncontested heir to both my holdings and her holdings. To do this, I essentially had to kill off everyone who was in the way, including some of my own children. Even this proved to not be enough, as my son joined the church after marrying the duchess (thus removing him from the line of succession). Desperate, I assassinated him and had my second son marry the duchess, hoping that he would be able to have a child. However, the duchess chose to rebel against the throne of France, making Sardinia an independent entity - and making me, as a vassal of France, unable to acquire her holdings. The situation spiraled out of control until eventually I was barely able to hold onto my own duchy of Toulouse, having ultimately failed to accomplish anything despite the road of corpses I had made to achieve my ambition.

What this story illustrates is an interweaving of gameplay and narrative. Everything I did in that story - the marriages, the assassinations, the plotting, the scheming - was "gameplay". They were all part of the basic mechanical concept of the game. However, the fact that they were events given context by the characters and setting is what transforms it into a narrative. Each of those characters, my avatar included, had their own personality traits, their own desires, and their own ambitions. My choices were a reflection of my character's traits - he was ambitious, he was cruel, he was a schemer. Obviously I didn't HAVE to play him that way, but I did, because that's what made sense (and if I hadn't played him that way, the game would have eventually changed his traits to reflect my play-style). The events that happened would not have happened in the same way to any other player because they were based on the incredibly webbed-out sequence of events that had gotten me to that point in the first place.

That's my brother, and he's trying to kill my daughter. That's my BROTHER, and he's trying to kill my DAUGHTER.
Again, though, the weakness of emergent gameplay comes up: there was almost no dialogue in this whole affair. There were actions and reactions, negotiations and messages, but no true dialogue. There were events representing dialogue - a marriage proposal, a peace treaty, a goodwill gesture - but the dialogue is not really provided apart from a few key lines ("I gracefully accept your treaty", etc.). There is no prose to the whole affair. Yet at the same time I think the way CK2 handled it made that a strength, rather than a weakness. Your brain is an incredibly adaptive machine, moreso than a computer program. CK2, as a system, handles hard data like probability, logic, and concrete character traits. Your brain can fill in the story, because that's the part that is too "human" for a computer to recreate. When I look at my character's son and see that he's brave, loyal, and ambitious, I can characterize him based on that. When his actions go one way or another, I can rationalize his decisions and his internal struggles. The game gives enough information naturally that I can come to conclusions about who these characters are, how they think, how they feel, and how they're interacting with each other.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Yahtzee's article concerning both tabletop games and his character's backstory in The Old Republic. In that article I criticized Mr. Croshaw for being (a) wrong about tabletop game stories being "entirely made up" and (b) hypocritical about his video game backstory. He accused tabletop games of "making games up out of nothing", which is untrue as the whole point of the rules is to serve as moderation for the story. He claimed that his backstory for TOR was better because it had a grounding influence in the form of the game itself, which turned out to be irrelevant to every detail of his backstory. Nothing about the game supported his backstory; it existed only in his head, and meant nothing "in game".

Crusader Kings 2, and games like it, are examples of stories where the system provides almost everything in terms of events and characters. It's not just limited to developed narratives like the one I offered; any game where a player can say what happened during gameplay is like this. The nature of gameplay as being a largely random state of affairs, rather than a scripted story sequence, allows players to experience things that other players haven't, which allows them to exchange information and have it still be new. I've played Hitman: Blood Money for days and I still hear stories of people finding new and innovative ways to take down their targets that I haven't even thought of, because it's not just "do this, target dies", it's about arranging things based on the tools and resources available to you. The fact that each potential option connects to many other options means that there are an exponentially large number of available choices.

You see, Yahtzee was right about one thing. The structure and enforced reality of a game does add a certain value to its proceedings: you can't just make shit up, things happen in a logical fashion. The story is given merit because it "actually happened" to some extent. However, the example he gave was that of a backstory unconnected to the game's events, because that's all that The Old Republic will let you do. The game lets you "make choices", but they're so incredibly limited - and so much characterization is essentially automated - that it's not a question of you making a character, it's a question of the developers making a character and you get to pick little things for him or her.

Now maybe some of you will say that, within the context of the game's rules, you can still use your imagination. Yahtzee imagined his character's backstory, he imagined his character's motivations, and he made the choices that he thought suited his character. The problem with this is that, unlike Crusader Kings 2, the dialogue is all there in the game. CK2 gives you choices and lets you mentally expand upon them because it doesn't give you much concrete dialogue. TOR gives you choices, yes, but also shows you exactly what your character is saying and how people are responding. The fact that they are giving you so much explicit information about what's happening means that you cannot use your imagination without overriding a huge amount of the data given to you - at which point the game's story becomes a total hindrance, not a guiding set of rules. It's hard to pretend your character is a stoic mercenary when the only "give me money" choice is accompanied by snarking and quipping. You're not "roleplaying", you're selecting a pre-generated character.

It's a lot like the Star Wars prequels and the effect they had on original films: it's better to not know anything, and thus be able to use your imagination, than to know everything about something and have it turn out to be poorly-written and poorly-executed. The stories you made up in your head about things like the Clone Wars, Obi-Wan and Anakin being friends, Anakin distinguishing himself as a great pilot, etc., were probably better than what the actual prequels were, and they didn't cost a dime to imagine. You didn't have to hire any CGI artists or special effects guys or anything, you just filled in the gaps on your own using your brain, and that was good enough for purposes of getting immersed in the story. They gave you the characters and the events, and you (as a viewer) assembled them into a coherent story with your imagination.  Emergent stories work exactly the same way.

The issue is that each type of game needs to play to its strength: if a game is going to be a movie, it should be a REALLY GOOD movie. If a game is going to be an exercise in decision-making, it should cover all the potential details and really let you get into the universe instead of throwing 2 or 3 pathetic options at you that don't mean anything. An orchestrated story is like a concert, whereas an emergent narrative is like an instrument. It's okay if you spend a bunch of money on an instrument and can't play it perfectly the first time, because the process of discovery and putting songs together is part of the experience. It's NOT okay if you spend money on a concert and the musicians are doing the same thing, because the fact that they're professionals and you're paying for a completed product totally changes the product. The quality of the work needs to drastically make up for the lack of interaction.

What I'd like you to take from this article, meandering as it is, is that if you're going to make a game, make it good at what it does. If a game is a movie & gameplay, both of those need to be as good as they can be. If a game is trying to get the player involved in the story, their choices need to be as important as they can be made. This idea of accepting sub-par products because "it's all we can do, that's just what games are!" needs to stop. If you're going to make a story game, make it really good at telling a story. If you're going to make a game for the gameplay, then make it really good. Different philosophies are great. Different types of games are great. Lowering standards because "it's just a game" is why nobody takes the medium seriously.