Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Lie Of Fiction, And Morality In Games

I've written a lot about "believability" in the last two years, and for a lot of different reasons: equal representation, immersion, mechanical variability, even the possibility of using interactive mediums for educational purposes. While I've written about a lot of different aspects of "believability" and what it means, there's one major thing that I feel is still important to address: the base concept. I'll put this as directly as possible.

1) Fiction Is A Lie

2) Immersion Requires Truth

3) Your Brain Cares About Fiction Because It Subconsciously Thinks It's True

These three statements are the foundation of why "believability" as a concept is important. It's why we care about "canon" or why we get invested in characters or why we get upset when things are "spoiled" or "ruined". Fiction is a lie, but it's a lie we care about. People can make up any story they want about Star Wars, inventing their own arcs and characters as they go along, but they still got upset when Lucas "ruined everything". Sure, Lucas' stuff had the special effects budget and all, but it's not more "real" than your version - it just has a bigger budget. Individual "fanons" or "headcanons" are just as real as Lucas' canon, in the sense that they're all lies that have been made up. And yet people get angry, because that's how the lie works: your brain sees it as a form of reality.

All the reasons we care about stories - all the pathos and drama and emotion - are related to the fact that at some level our brains treat these stories as being "not stories". In many cases this manifests in subconscious reactions, which is something I've emphasized in the past with regards to design. Things like realistic armor and weapons can make the impact of combat feel more "real" and therefore more dangerous, whereas cartoony designs make it feel less so. Tricking people's brains into accepting a false reality has many different facets - the way people behave, the way things develop, the way objects feel and look. Heck, it was about 90% of RedLetterMedia's review of Star Wars. People don't care about accuracy and consistency for no reason, they care about it because it's part of the emotional evocation process.

Let's take this in a different direction: "why do we care about villainy". People often defend doing bad things in games (or drawing pleasure from bad things in movies) because it doesn't hurt anyone. That's true. The ones and zeroes that have been assembled into "characters" are programmed to say things like "ow" and "stop it" when you attack them, but there's no consciousness there. Or, in a movie, the actor/actress is told to scream and cry, but they're not really being hurt. It's the simulation of pain and suffering, yes, but really there's nothing going on.

But then why do people enjoy it?

The simplest answer is that even though we know it's false, the simulacra of life are there to convince our brains that on some level it isn't. This is why we put so much effort into creating "humans" in games who scream and bleed even though the same job could be done by silent, untextured models like these guys. The reason we bother making the lie of fiction convincing is because that's how it hooks up to our brain and produces all those feelings and emotions. We know we can't be hurt by a work of fiction, yet there's an entire genre of games and movies designed to provoke horror and fear. We know fictional characters aren't real, yet works of fiction constantly attempt (and often succeed) to make us care about the characters and what happens to them.

"You're all the real bad guys" says Booker, gunning down another thousand citizens.
The duality of cruelty is that even though "it's not real" is invoked as a defense, if it was OVERTLY "not real" people wouldn't care about it as much. The simulation of cruelty and dominance and power is what gets people excited because it's plugging into a primal part of masculine identity. Masculinity wants to be stronger, it wants to be better, it wants more influence. The defining trait of masculinity is competitiveness and a desire for superiority; this is the core of "power fantasy" as a concept, and why works that play into that concept are so commonplace. People want to be Indiana Jones or James Bond or Batman not because they think it would be interesting and nuanced to be an archaeologist or a spy or a vigilante, they want to be those people because they KICK ASS and everyone thinks they're awesome. That's why they're "escapist": because in a competitive masculine-structured society, the greatest escape is being better than everyone else and not having to put up with their shit.

In Reservoir Dogs, one of the most memorable characters (in an admittedly small lineup) is Mr. Blonde. Mr. Blonde is in some ways the epitome of "power fantasy" and in other ways he's not. Most people were disgusted by Mr. Blonde's horrendous behavior, as was ostensibly intended. This includes Michael Madsen, the actor who played him, who almost couldn't complete this scene after the cop ad-libbed the line about having a family. It was so upsetting to him that even though he knew it was fake and nobody was getting hurt, he was still emotionally moved to the point that he almost couldn't continue the scene:

I dunno, you play somebody who’s psychopathic or who’s violent, you try to draw the line somewhere. I mean, I don’t really believe in killing children or women! You have to be…playing a bad guy’s one thing, but turning it too far in the wrong direction doesn’t make me happy. [src]

And yet there's plenty of people who see Mr. Blonde as the apex of masculinity, with good reason: he's calm, he's in control, he holds power over others. While everyone else is freaking out, Mr. Blonde is as cool as a cucumber, and isn't disgusted by things that normal people would be. By the standards of power fantasy, Mr. Blonde is the coolest dude ever. The fact that he's immoral might turn away some, but for others it makes him all the more enticing - he doesn't even give a shit what anyone thinks of him. He is a badass. And yet all the things that make him "badass" are supposed to be part of his depiction as a morally repugnant piece of shit.

A simple game of cops and robbers.
Would Michael Madsen play Mr. Blonde for fun? If there was a Mr. Blonde simulator, would Michael Madsen enjoy playing it just to enjoy himself (as opposed to "for purposes of telling a story")? Most likely he wouldn't. He states that "playing a bad guy's one thing", which suggests that the reason he's normally okay with it is BECAUSE he's certain that the character is being represented as a repugnant villain and not a good guy. Yet even despite this, despite knowing that this character would be hated and despised, he still almost couldn't stand it. Madsen played the role because it was part of the story, but he found the character to be repugnant - he didn't consider playing the role "escapist".

What's interesting to me is that his logic is almost the opposite of the earlier statement of cruelty in games being okay. Madsen justifies playing a bad guy BECAUSE it is a "bad guy"; not because it's fun or cool, but because he thinks it's important that characters like this are shown to be awful, villainous people. By contrast, the "cruelty is okay" logic suggests that you can do whatever you want to do in fiction without being criticized for it, no matter what sort of acts you're emulating or carrying out or how it's depicted. As long as you don't do it in real life, nobody's allowed to criticize you. Yet Madsen is disgusted by these actions even when he knows it's not real, because instead of being kept separate from reality, it acts as a mirror for it.

Games and movies are allowed to depict awful things because they're not real and nobody's getting hurt, but at the same time there's still a level of "expected response". James Bond in the 1960s was an overt misogynist who would kiss women against their will; that wouldn't fly today, and it'd seem creepy and weird to most audiences. A game that allowed the player to do the same without consequence would seem pretty suspect, too. Yet there's plenty of games and movies where murdering hundreds of people - justifiably or otherwise - is treated as being normal and expected, and doesn't compromise the moral integrity of the murderer. Wei Shen still gets to be a cool undercover cop in Sleeping Dogs even when he's driving at 75mph down the sidewalk. Nobody calls him out on being a sociopath. Nathan Drake gets to quip and snark after every kill (and enemies eagerly continue to charge directly at him rather than running away), and he's still clearly meant to be likable. Two of the only protagonists that are actually treated like awful people for doing these sorts of things are Kane and Lynch, and their game received an overall negative response largely because of that characterization.

Do violent video games cause people to murder in real life? I don't think so. I don't think they CAUSE it. Are they RELATED? Sure. The same desires fuel both fake-murder and real-murder; desire for power, for supremacy, for apex masculinity. Obviously it's better to have fake-murder than real-murder, but that misses out on an important issue, which is that there are ways for people to be absolute pieces of shit without actually killing people. Maybe video games don't cause real-life violence. Do they factor into harassment, or misogyny, or rape threats? Does the culture that thrives on the victory of the strong over the weak - of the badass motherfucker over the pussy faggot - REALLY have nothing to do with these things? When people are saying things like "sexism is integral to the fighting game community", or physically threatening people who criticize their culture, or taking films like Red Dawn and Olympus Has Fallen to heart...is this completely unrelated to the violent media that these cultures are centering around?

Ask yourself this: what separates a game or a movie from propaganda? Does anything? Would you care so much about "being badass" if it hadn't been rigorously established as an ideal by the culture you've been immersed in since your birth? As much as people are willing to give leeway to people's morality in the past, they sure don't apply much thought to it in the present. Nothing's changed. You're still a product of your culture, if you allow yourself to be. Question why you think these things are acceptable.

Honestly I should've just posted this picture and that's it, that's the entire article.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Character Design, Revisisted

"Sejuani's lightly-armored, skin-flaunting, fleshy apparel didn't mesh with the idea of a dominating, ice warrior. Now heavily armored atop Bristle, this visual rework clearly conveys the core of our concept for the champion. She's powerful, capable of conquering the Freljord and leading the Winter's Claw to victory." (src)

Yeah, I feel pretty good about this.

Two additional reminders of how to do good character design:

It's that easy.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

KISS: 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand

Keep ISimple, Stupid:
A concise analysis of 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand

There is a simple question that games do not ask often enough. That question is "what does this have to do with reality?" When violence is part of a world of fiction first and foremost, it becomes alienated from the audience's experience. Yet it is inaccurate to say that "violence" is not part of ALL audience's lives, or that it is impossible to connect the audience to the violence they are seeing. Many who live in the so-called "first world" still experience random and brutal violence as part and parcel of their daily lives.

With that said, who better to make a game commenting on violence than one who was a victim of it? Curtis James Jackson, stage name "50 Cent", is such an individual. On May 24, 2000, Jackson was shot nine times at close range with a 9mm pistol. The bullets hit Jackson's hand, arm, hip, legs, chest, and passed through his left cheek. Miraculously - and I can think of no other word to describe such an event - Jackson survived largely unharmed. The most visible lasting damage is a slur in his voice caused by the cheek injury, something the average viewer probably thinks of as just being part of his "rap persona". After the incident, Jackson wrote in his autobiography: "After I got shot nine times at close range and didn't die, I started to think that I must have a purpose in life... How much more damage could that shell have done? Give me an inch in this direction or that one, and I'm gone".

Jackson in many ways is the real-life stand-in for the video game protagonist - a man who was shot repeatedly and, in an event bordering on self-parody, essentially "walked it off". Who better to make a game that attempts to comment on real violence and real death than someone who has actually been through it? The reason I don't believe this game was really "understood" by its target audience was that unlike games like Spec Ops or Bioshock, the game never grabs you by the lapels and shouts in your face about its message, splattering spittle across your cheek. Instead, the game is itself; the world it presents and the actions it depicts are meant to shock you by what they are, and what they represent, rather than the game coming out and telling you that "you should be disgusted" or "you should be horrified". This endeavor is aided by a protagonist who many gamers instinctively hated - a black, masculine, materialistic rapper, a person that some assumed couldn't tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The number of people who criticize rap for being about "guns and bitches and bling" and ignore rock songs about the same material stands as a testament to the societal effectiveness of this setup.

50 Cent: Blood on the Sand is a game about the title protagonist and his 3 comrades pursuing a diamond-encrusted skull through a war-torn Middle Eastern city as payment for a concert carried out in that same city. Already we are faced with multiple themes: materialism is the primary one, but it's also worth noting that there is a contrast between "the Middle Eastern city that has a huge stadium packed with Fifty Cent's fans" and "the Middle Eastern city that is desolate and destroyed" - in fact, they are one and the same. When we, as First Worlders, imagine a city in the Middle East, do we even ALLOW for the first part to coexist with the second? One is put in mind not of Iraqi battlefields like Fallujah, but instead of American cities, with high-development urban areas as well as battered ghettoes. Fifty Cent is not fighting through a foreign warzone, but instead he is fighting through a lower-class urban area - in America, this would be his home turf (as seen in "50 Cent: Bulletproof").

At several points the theme of "destroyed beauty" comes up in Fifty Cent, whether it's addressing the architectural influences of a palace or statue, or commenting that a bombed-out theatre "must have looked grand in its day". This is not a "war" concept, though - rather, we must keep in mind that this is an extension of Fifty's home, the ghetto. Like his own home, this city's lower-class areas are run-down, desolate, abandoned. Things that were once grand were allowed to fester and rot because they were no longer convenient for society at large to support. After all, the country itself isn't collapsing - the parts of the city where Fifty's concert was seemed intact and thriving. Instead, like a sandy Detroit, this is about a world that's been allowed to collapse because it was undesirable. The hotels, shopping malls, and theatres of this world fell into ruin, crime and poverty for the same reasons that they do in the First World: economic abandonment.

Fifty's enemies, too, are representative of his own familiar world. They are described not as terrorists or freedom fighters or insurgents, but "gangsters" - gangsters clad in different garb and with more control, but gangsters nonetheless. It is not known what spurs these people onwards to try to kill 50 Cent, but then, it's also not known what spurred Darryl Baum to put nine bullets in Curtis James Jackson either. Unlike games about "war", the gangster-on-gangster conflict in Blood on the Sand can be motivated by something as simple-yet-powerful as masculinity and machismo. These gangsters are trying to kill Fifty Cent because they come from a world where life and death are cheap - and if that seems unrealistic, one has but to look at real crime, real gang wars, real murders.

Not that the game is limited to killing gangsters, of course - at one point Fifty encounters an American PMC unit looking to "Get Rich Or Die Tryin'" (to quote one of Fifty's albums). The fact that these fellow Westerners - materialistic, unconcerned with morality - end up as Fifty's enemies stands as a testament to the self-consuming nature of greed. And what is "greed" on the battlefield? What does it mean when people are willing to kill other human beings for money alone? The concepts that games like MGS4 don't even begin to address are brought out in force by Fifty Cent Blood on the Sand.

And thus we come back to the first theme brought up: materialism. Fifty Cent Blood On The Sand is a game about materialism first and foremost. Fifty's only goal is to retrieve his payment - a diamond-encrusted skull. There is no other greater motive or concept here, no ostensible righteousness to be subverted or undermined. Fifty Cent Blood on the Sand is a game about killing people for money. Do you think this is accidental? Do you think it's unintentional? If so, perhaps you ought to read this:

"A sneak peek of the game shows 50 Cent accepting a diamond-encrusted skull as payment, then the crew is ambushed. "I had seen Blood Diamond and I had some ideas that I wanted to put in (the game)." And in an overseas trip, he read about "an artifact, it was actually a human skull that they placed diamonds in. It actually exists. It's a touch of reality.""

Fifty Cent: BOTS was inspired by Blood Diamond, a movie about conflict diamonds in warzones. And if you think Fifty merely skimmed off the "diamond" concept, perhaps you should consider one of his other works: "Home of the Brave", a movie where he depicts an Iraq War veteran traumatized by killing a civilian. The exploration of PTSD and the consequences of war in that movie extend far beyond the actual "end of violence", a conceit that even "serious" games rarely deign to approach. To assume that Fifty Cent - a victim of actual violence, in real life - doesn't "understand" violence is the conceit of racist, assumptive faux-intellectualism.

Fifty Cent: Blood on the Sand isn't a game about war. Fifty Cent: Blood on the Sand is a game about the ghetto, moved to a location that gamers are more familiar with, one that might actually provoke outrage and disgust. But the theme's the same: it's a game about people with nothing to lose scrabbling, bleeding, and dying for a chance to escape poverty. It's a game about the haves and the have-nots. And it's a game ignored because the entitled gamer media wasn't willing to give its creator the credit he deserves.

Does music affect the perception of a game's tone or concept? Let's find out:

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

KISS: Crusader Kings 2

Keep ISimple, Stupid:
A Concise Analysis of Crusader Kings 2

Crusader Kings 2 is a Grand Strategy game, also known as a "mapgame". In it, you take the role of a medieval noble - anywhere from a count to an emperor - and attempt to lead your dynasty to greatness. In truth, even that descriptor is a bit direct, as the actual game itself plays like a medieval Sims game. But there's a reason why I want to talk about Crusader Kings 2, and that reason is "emergent gameplay". I have talked about this at length in another article, but this is meant to be an easy, simple introduction to both the concept and the game itself.

The mechanics of Crusader Kings 2 are the mechanics of medieval law and economy - or, failing that, a general approximation of the concept. As a ruler, the player (like all other rulers in the game) must manage finances, relationships, and alliances through a system that exists to support "in-universe" decision-making. This is to say that in most cases the kind of decisions the player will make are likely to mirror the decisions the character would be make, and are founded in the same sort of logic. For example, marriages can provide claims to thrones or beneficial inheritances, and these provide the same incentives for arranged marriages that existed in real medieval Europe. This is a scenario lacking in ludonarrative dissonance - there is a very clear relationship between the game's mechanics and the reality it depicts.

Every character in the game has traits. These traits have their origins in the experiences and events that the character has gone through in their life - how they were raised (and by who), what random things befell them, what decisions they've made. Every character, from the lowliest courtier to the highest emperor, has a "story" to them that is generated as you play. They have desires, hopes, flaws and virtues. Every single character in the game is operating with their own agency based on the traits they have. As such, the entire world shapes itself bit by bit as the game progresses - even if you, the player, are on the other side of the world, the wheels are still turning.

Does a kingdom unite or fragment? Does an empire rise or fall? Does a dynasty flourish or crumble? While the player may be focused on answering those questions with regards to their own lands, the fact is that they're being answered in every kingdom, duchy and county. The world is not "created", but shaped by every interaction and event. Every character is potentially important because there is no such thing as a "protagonist" in Crusader Kings 2. There are people. Some of those people have titles. They all have effects on the world.

This is the heart of "emergent gameplay", or in some definitions "emergent narrative". In some games, the things you do in gameplay do not matter at all - it's just a distraction before the next cutscene. In CK2, every decision you make affects the overall scenario; even if it's something as simple as "banishing a vassal to another land" or "executing an enemy", the ongoing gameplay causes these events to spiderweb into a thousand fragmented possibilities. This is at the heart of what makes alternate history so interesting to a lot of people; the idea that any little change or twist could make the world an entirely different place. Grand Strategy games are, more than anything, about constructing a world out of those kinds of twists.

While these concepts cover the larger aspects of CK2 - arranging marriages, declaring war, conquering territory - a huge part of CK2's value, to me, comes from the way it handles interpersonal relationships. Like those other events, CK2 has relatively emergent "interaction"; characters like or dislike each other based on their personalities, and random occurrences may change the way they feel about each other. While the actual interaction is relatively abstracted, the game gives you enough clues to imagine how two given people would interact even if it can't show it in detail. But even beyond that there's something greater, and it has to do with the "world shaping" aspect of the game.

I'd like to share with you a screenshot I took during one of my games. This screenshot, by itself, provokes more emotion in me than any other game I've ever played. I smile every single time I see it. And that seems strange, being so affected by a single paragraph wedged between two portraits, and yet it does, more than a thousand impassioned cutscenes. And here's why: That's my son.  That's not [child x]. That's not [vassal y]. That's my son. Rather, it's my character's son, but CK2 is a game that allows for roleplaying more than almost any other game I can name. It gives you justifications for "game actions" that match up with what a character would actually be doing in a situation. It gives you a set of traits that you can use to guide your general behavior and outlook. And, in this case, that's my son. If I've been playing this game and I've been getting into this character and doing what I think this character would do, it means so much more to me to have that sort of paternal moment where a father and son can truly bond.

And in game terms, it's just some numbers shuffled around. But what covers those numbers gives us context, and with context we can imagine. No, the game does not show us a montage of this father and son running around and getting ice cream and so on, but it gives us enough information about each of them and the relationship they share that it's just as easy to imagine it and more importantly to take this information in and have it affect the way you play the game. Do you think I'd callously marry this son off after this, or do you think I'd look for a wife he's happy with? Because of the lack of ludonarrative dissonance, I can roleplay with relatively few constraints, doing things that make sense for the character to do.

Most games are "story presentations" or "story delivery systems". Crusader Kings 2 is a "story creator". It is a string of narrative events with semi-defined characters who interact with each other in ways based on their personalities. Characters like "the princess who loved her father despite him trying to kill her" or "the strong, capable lesbian queen" stick out more because they are generated naturally as part of a system and fit into the ongoing story-construction. In this case, the fact that the interactions are so "simplified" is actually a benefit - because it's far easier to imagine a scenario where you have basic facts but not detailed reactions. In a game like Mass Effect, for example, everything would be represented directly - tone of voice, response, attitude - but in Crusader Kings you're given some basics about a character and an event for them to respond to. This allows the imagination to actually go to work, rather than shackling it down with "the way things actually are".

Obviously it wouldn't make sense for all games to be like CK2. In many genres it's simply not feasible - this kind of interaction is basically reserved for strategy & management games. But I also want people to know about it as an example of what games are capable of beyond "violence". Is it harder for games to do interaction as a major gameplay mechanic? Yes. Is it impossible? No. It just requires a different approach than the games-as-movies concept that many games seem to favor.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

It's Over.

Comments from Hideo Kojima regarding "Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes".

On Emergent Gaming & Player Choice (from this interview)

Kojima: First of all if you give somebody a mission, and say your mission is to go and rescue this person, already you create some drama there. However if you take that a step further and say give the person the power to decide how they get there, what time they arrive, what kind of path they use to sneak into the base then it creates even more drama and gives them more freedom. So it’s not so much that I’ve been aiming to create an open world game so much as I just want to give players the freedom to do things in a way that feels natural to them...what I want to do is give people the freedom to create their own stories and create something that's very personal to them. That's what I want to accomplish.

On Storytelling In Games (from this source)

Metal Gear Solid 4 had long cutscenes because it needed to close the story and explain everything. For Ground Zeroes, a new method of story telling will be used, and Kojima thinks players will really like it...Kojima said he believes story telling through cinematics has become a bit outdated, and therefore he used a new method of story telling for Ground Zeroes.

On Tone & Seriousness (from this source)

Kojima: Video games as a medium haven't matured very much at all in the last 25 years. It's always about killing aliens and zombies. Not that I don't like those kinds of games... they are fun, but I think games have a long way to go before they can mature. Over the past 25 year I have tried to work with the Metal Gear series to introduce more mature themes, but really it hasn't gotten there yet. Compared to movies and books it still has a long way to go.

On Gameplay Design (from this source)

Kojima: “Up until now Metal Gear has more or less been set on one path. Like you’re set on one rail to get from point A to point B, with a certain amount of freedom between. What I want to do is create a true open world experience. Where the player has all these options available to them and really limitless gameplay. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish with my next project, Ground Zeroes.”