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Narrative Narcisism: F.E.A.R

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Long time no update, is what someone might complain if they actually read this blog. However, I sort of see it as a blessing to you all, in that I’m forcing less of my drivel down your throats. However, if you do read for some ungodly reason,  sorry for the unexplained absence, I turned 18 and a bunch of stuff happened 😦 . Also I didn’t feel terribly inspired by some games, most notably Crysis, which had less visual storytelling than I remembered. Also, the pc port of SF4 happened, which has been sucking my time away like a vacuum sucks all remaining oxygen. However, one of the caveats of turning 18 is material consumerism, resulting in my obtaining of this here EEE pc on which I shall blog more regularly in the future, during the commute and various other down times.

But enough of that, how does Monolith’s 2005 release FEAR (First Encounter Assault Recon) tell a story? Well, read on and you can find out 😛

  1. Ambient Narrative

This is the term I shall hopefully coin to describe all of the incidental/environmental devices that FEAR uses to expand upon the core narrative that players experience. Throughout the game players encounter three types of this ‘Ambient Narrative’ namely Televisions, Answering Machines and ALIENWARE Laptops (Seriously, the oddest product lament. All the bad guys use alienware? Good job :P). The laptops are the least interesting, as they really just prompt your radio operator to make a quip or expand upon the story a little, which while optional storytelling is nice in a game, environmental prompts for speech have been there since Duke Nukem and are thus hardly notable. Also these never feel very incidental, there’s always an air of artificiality surrounding the top secret and relevant ALIENWARE laptops lying around.

fear-20090803-202256

Better is the ‘Answering machine’ technique, basically an opportunity for the player to practice some voyeurism. Each phone provides about 30 seconds of audio and it’s a great idea, providing the players with both a different perspective on what happens but also increases the player’s immersion by reminding the player there are people in this world that aren’t your SS esque enemy. However the execution of this is flawed, in that the vast majority of of these messages simply aren’t interesting. None of them are funny or engaging, all of them really seem to merely reiterate the events happening around you instead of providing any new information. For example, after gunning your way through 40-50 replicant soldiers in a particular office building, you come across a phone with which a person made a call 3 hours ago saying ‘The phones and lights have been cut off, I have no idea what’s happening’. These things should either make the player more involved in some way or provide more information to the player, neither of which the writing accomplishes. It’s a good idea and seems far more naturalistic than the laptop idea and overall does good things for player immersion. Making them optional was a good decision.

fear-20090803-200946

The best of these ambient narrative is the news reports you hear from incidental televisions. For some reason in these power-less buildings of FEAR, the emergency power grid is also wired up to these televisions, which is odd. These things self activate and are generally placed in little ‘goody’ rooms which possess no threat to the player, yet the televisions provide something for the player to be engaged with while they go about the menial (however satisfying) task of picking up ammo and health. The news reports are also better than the other two elements for reasons other than their placement, in that they’re interesting. News reports are by nature interesting and in FEAR are a good way to give information to the player that he could never otherwise get, such as the wider picture or government response to what’s happening. The writing for these could be considerably better, as at times it sort of dips into the same sort of ‘retell the player what they’ve already witnessed without any embellishment’. There was great potential for these news reports to do really clever things, such as playing with the extent of the players and medias relative knowledge., which could have been good satire. More reference to how organizations and the world were reacting to the events of the game might have been more interesting than what was implemented however. Also, these provide the best immersion to the player, as they not only reinforce that the world is wider than the corridor you’re shooting in, but also that someone would want to watch that.

Staring contest.

Staring contest.

  1. Physicality Revisited

One of FEARS greatest immersion techniques is it’s Half Life -esque recalcitrance to leave the protagonists perspective, a feat especially impressive considering the supernatural content. It’s the very physical elements (such as the time you get thrown out of the window) are both memorable and immersive, tying the player’s experiences to the protagonist. The game could easily have gone into a Resident Evil 5 type of detachment with the character, which would have invariably made the character’s reaction to the ridiculousness of the world alienating and unimmersive. From the way that the player’s vision is directed when he performs a sliding kick to the little hand actions the player performs when he disembarks from a helicopter. The physicality of the game only applies to it’s narrative however (and sliding kicks), as during the game play there s almost no physicality. Doors swing open without any interaction via the protagonist, and ammo is picked up without the protagonist moving a muscle. The great use of physicality in the game’s narrative elements just make the lack of them in the gameplay feel quite odd. But the immersion generated in the story via these elements is really well done and impressively creates player interest and attachment in a narrative which is all in all disinteresting and fairly bland.

Not the physicality I want!!11!

Not the physicality I want!!11!

Well, that’s a blog post. Look for one soon (this week, I swear), possibly discussing narrative elements in Oblivion or complaining about the techniques used to enforce linearity in FEAR. Thanks for reading and sorry for the delay, Aon.

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Written by Aonshix

August 3, 2009 at 10:21 pm

Narrative Narcissism: Far Cry 2

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Far cry 2 (2008) hardly had a remarkable story. Having played through the game twice within the last year, even I, the narrative narcissist can barely remember the particulars of that story. The twist is largely forgettable and the plot really devolves into ‘You’re a bad man in Africa, which is full of bad people’. However, I laud this came for some of it’s narrative techniques and going with the theme of this feature, I figure I better analyse three of ’em for y’all.  In the interest of keeping the post under 1000 words however, I shall refrain from mentioning the ability to select your own character and how that changes the narrative, an element which I’ll explore in it’s own post later on.  However, I hope you guys can enjoy some words on some other topics, quite likely related to this Video Game.

As Usual, Spoiler Warning For Far Cry 2 (and maybe Mass Effect)

1.) Divergent Narrative

Fundamentally this is a good idea. Having the player’s choices affect the narrative is one of the big hurdles the games industry faces today, in whether to change the characters within that narrative (ala any game with a binary morality system) or whether to try and change the narrative itself, as Far Cry 2 does.  The former is certainly alot simpler to do, especially badly, as can be seen by the glut of games which feature a morality system lately. The majority of these systems have very little effect outside specific abilities open to only the good or evil side respectively. In Mass Effect, was there any huge change to how people reacted to me when I went evil as opposed to being a paragon? Almost none. Sure, I lost an optional sex scene with one of the women, but another was still open to me. No character ever openly disagreed with my choices and none were proactive in getting their opinions being heard. They all just bottled up their views and emotions inside, which created an experience where ultimately the good/evil juxtaposition is not very much of a juxtaposition at all. Although they did nail the decision making process, which is what Far Cry 2 lead develepor Clint Hocking believes that the medium should focus on HERE.

Why is Mass Effect so easy to ramble about?

Why is Mass Effect so easy to ramble about?

Anyways, back to what Far Cry 2 did (I said I’d keep it under 1000 words ><). It seamlessly varied tha narrative according to player choice. Big Tick.  However the process is flawed in a number of ways, which range from poor design choices, to realistic design choices to poor implementation.

The narrative divergence is a binary one. Now I’m not sure whether it might be unrealistic to expect any more form a game, considering the amount of time these things take to make, however the ‘You now have an option to shoot two guys, choose who lives’ is an extremely obvious mechanic breaking one’s immersion in the world. It can still be well implemented (See GTA4) however in Far Cry 2 it isn’t. Twice I’ve played through this game and I still couldn’t tell the factions apart. AFR and UFLL off the top of My head, yet all I know is that one faction has a red banner and another yellow. The leaders with which you interact were largely faceless, with no interesting personality traits. They were completely interchangeable, even past the point where one betrays you, followed by the other.  The militiamen from both factions were also identical, meaning that when the choice to elevate one faction over another came about, the decision was hard not because I cared about the both or the choice had implications for the narrative or my character but was instead difficult due to my apathy.

Far Cry 2 has few SS online, So this is unrelated, atmospheric

Far Cry 2 has few SS online, So this is unrelated, atmospheric

This is in contrast to a choice earlier in the game where you must choose to defend either your crazed gunmen friends or the drug dealing, people smuggling church. This is an example of a good narrative divergence, forcing you to choose between two options that mean something to you. Having taken each path once however, I must say that I’m unimpressed with the resolution of these events. While it’s fine for both options to hem in the narrative and basically have the same outcome, it’d be a lot nicer if they were referenced in any way alter on or really made the narrative diverge for any more than 5 minutes.  It’s a nice choice and well done, but comes off arbitrary and gratuitous as it’s not woven into the later narrative. The same goes for the killing of leaders later on, they’re isolated elements with no real effect on the narrative OR gameplay. At least Bioware defiantly have the latter under the belts.

2.) Physicality

One thing Far Cry 2 does exceptionally well is immerse you into it’s world and this is in no small part due to the intense physicality of the game. In Half Life 2  you might feel relief when you run over a medpak and hear the little ‘Doo-Do’ noise, but it in no way compares to the relief you feel once you’ve pulled a bullet out of your body with tweezers, or readjusted your  dislocated arm with a sickening crunch (if only because you don’t have to see it any more). Seeing your characters hands clutching onto the sides of the cars he rides, even physically holding the map, the game’s physicality roots you in the gritty world of Africa and never lets go. It also does wonder towards differentiating (nx^n-1?) Far Cry 2 from the glut of generic shooter characters out there at the moment. No power armour here, and the intense physicality of the game enforces it.

However, the game also puts it’s technique to great use in a few instances for character building. Going by the narrative and dialog,  the Far Cry 2 protagonist is quite characterless, apart from being amoral and a bit obsessed with the Jackal. Apart from this, the characterization is mostly accomplished through the player, how he chooses to complete missions and which choices he makes. However, the first time the protagonist, who is in every other instance synonymous with the player, sticks a machete to someones throat and forces them back is shocking. The mild manner player cannot expect this sudden ferocity on behalf of the protagonist, this crack in the protagonists patience that life in ‘hell on earth’ Africa has caused. There are several instances of subtle choices like this, that greatly improve the players empathy and general care for the protagonist, a tool which should be utilised more often in games where the player and the protagonist are very close. ( I’ll write more about physicality later on, alas I’m already over my word budget with one topic to go.)

c.) Player Choice

Ok this one’s going to be short due to space constraints, (despite being the most interesting). The narrative in Far Cry 2 revolves around the twisted actions of the protagonist and the length’s he’ll go to in order to catch the Jackal, who’s no longer seeming quite so evil by comparison.  This is at the core of everything that happens in the story and is the climax in it’s entirety. What makes it so effective however, is that the player is never forced into any of it. Every mission in the game is optional, and the storyline will only progress when the player makes it do, by choosing to engage in clearly amoral missions (such as blowing up medicine or food). The player essential makes the same decision we blame the protagonist for making; to pursue the Jackal at all costs. The player at any time can decide to stop the chase, deciding that the cost is too great. However, the only way to do this is to turn off the game, so maybe it’s not the most feasible of options. Really, the player is only given the illusion of choice relating to committing the atrocities, however it’s this illusion that makes the player feel so guilty at the stories conclusion, which calls the player out on these choices.

It’s a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense, that the PLAYERS fatal flaw of not being able to give up on completing the mission (or the game) ends in his demise.

There’s alot more I’ll write on Far Cry 2 in the future, as it’s an extremely interesting game once you get over the narrative’s face value.  For the moment though, I’ll leave you to contemplate the game’s Physicality, Divergent Narrative and the role of Player Choice when playing the Anti Hero.  Next weeks column will be on Crysis, so stay tuned!

For all its flaws, still the most interesting game of 2008.

For all it's flaws, still the most interesting game of 2008.

Written by Aonshix

June 25, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Narrative Narcissism; Half Life

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Below is the first in what will be an ongoing series of posts in which I analyse the storytelling techniques of various games told through the first person. Because I know I could ramble on forever and be extremely verbose about this topic, I’m going to impose a limit of three points per game in order to keep the articles concise and relevant. Also, it will force me to cherry pick my points about each game, as I highlight what it does uniquely from the rest of the industry or how it spins a certain technique. Also, the series is a critique of narrative techniques and not the tales themselves, so I shall show no hesitation in praising Far Cry 2’s narrative techniques (where deserved) above that of say… Bioshock. For the first week I though I’d have a crack at the techniques of Half Life (as a series, as the series has stuck to the same techniques pretty tightly since 1999, although some have become more/less prominent) which is famous for it’s ‘never lose control’ style of storytelling, which I’ll be talking about in a minute, along with a few other points which aren’t quite as in your face, but just as important. So, without further ado, I present you with my 3 bullet points 😛

Free download place, Eh?

HL2 has some psychadelic menus...

A.) Continuous control, or how to let players ruin your lovely story

While never losing control  may seem like a great idea for immersion, it works only in theory. With few exceptions in the series, plot elements consist largely of a few people talking in a room and the reality of gating players into a small arena such as this comes over as more transparent than letterboxing in cut scenes. While players may become annoyed with the overt loss of control in cut scenes, they become infinitely more frustrated when the established rules of the world are compromised by the necessity of gating. All thoughout Half Life 2, as soon as you enter a room which has a plot element in it, expect every door to be locked. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were not for the fact that one of these doors is going to need to open in order to let the player out of the room. So the doors must become inexplicably locked,  while appearing open able in order to maintain the illusions of realism later in the scene. This same problem is displayed in the interactive elements of the scenes which are placed into the narrative either to force the player to pay attention to what’s going on (shouldn’t be necessary) or just as a tip of the hat to the fact we’re playing a video game here. Whatever the reason, many scenes in the Half Life series contain switches, which must be pushed for a rocket to launch or activate a teleport. Something of the like.  These objects are inexplicably inert to player interaction until their moment’s appear in the narrative and they’re suddenly needed. The arbitrary nature of their binary states breaks immersion and frustrates players, and to what end? So that the narrative can be awkwardly held up by all the NPC’s waiting for the player to perform some gratuitous task? This is a systematic problem in the Half Life games, where the protagonists Gordon Freeman never speaks and this the player/Gordon cannot take any initiative in the plot, resulting in a number of situations where arbitrary civilians must explain to the PHD bearing Doctor Freeman that he must press the button. I’m all for player interaction in narrative scenes, however situations where everything has to wait upon player action should be avoided, NPC actions as well as dialog should be prepared as backup to keep the narrative flowing if the player does not progress it,  in order to maintain the illusion of intelligence among the denizens of a virtual world.

Both the HEV suit and this energy recharge are examples of gratuitous interactivity, although the latter does serve as a tutorial at least

Both the HEV suit and this energy recharge are examples of gratuitous interactivity, although the latter does serve as a tutorial at least

B.) The Trueman show, Dr. Freeman edition

(props if you get the title ^^)

What Half Life did does very well however, is create continuous narratives. While the ability to pass time appears in the most sophisticated of narratives and should be lauded when accomplished, Half Life revolutionized the first person genre with continuous narrative in 1999 and to this date, nothing has done it better. From the moment Gordon stepped into work in the first chapter of Half Life to the launching of the rocket in Episode Two, there has not been a single piece of plot ellipsis, not a moment Gordon has experienced without the players control.  This technique is incredibly effective in creating player empathy and association with Dr. Freeman, who we might not otherwise associate with, being an emotionless mute (or the player, depending on how you interpret the series) the continuous narrative does wonders in  the genre, where there is no reason that the player should ever be removed from the narrative of the protagonist.  Of course, many stories do not have the benefit of just being able to stick the player in a time capsule for 20 years without shattering the illusion of reality, so they are forced to adopt the old black screen fade out. While this is in itself an awful detriment to immersion it can be done in ways which lessen the problems associated with it, however that’ll be discussed when I showcase a game like COD. For the moment all you need to know is that continuous narrative is the best thing to happen for first person narrative since Duke Nukem, revolutionising a previously level based system.

Before Half Life, every FPS ended levels with this sort of screen. Broke immersion in whatever narrative Doom had (it was there, I swear it)

Before Half Life, every FPS ended levels with this sort of screen. Broke immersion in whatever narrative Doom had (it was there, I swear it)

C.) Foreshadowing, I love it

Another element that half life accomplished very well was foreshadowing and attracting player attention, where a game such as Crysis might feels the need to remove the players control in order to foreshadow, Half-Life merely attempts to direct the players eyes to the event they’re supposed to be witnessing adding an almost skill based element to the narrative. In a way it’s like a good theme in a book or play, it can be hinted at and implied but as soon as you say it out aloud, the magic is gone. (An example might be Hedda’s pregnancy in Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler). Half life utilises a variety of techniques to accomplish this, from the hallmark ‘flight of crows’ technique to more subtle techniques involving lines and geometry.

The crows fly in such a way as to guide the players eyes to the Hunter, as foreshadowing

Light is another commonly used tool in any game designer’s repertoire, utilising the base human instinct to not only look towards but to head towards sources of light. Although this is used in half life, this technique is better documented in valve’s co-op shooter Left 4 Dead with the headlights at the end of the alley in No Mercy being a memorable example. Attracting the player’s attention with techniques such as these is one of the half life series’s many accomplishments in regards to cinematic narrative, as  it’s common sense that a player who discovers such an plot element himself would associate more with it than could ever be true if he were shown it fulfilling one of the core pillars of interactive narrative, player attachment.

Players eyes are drawn towards the end of the alley with the light. A rather over example of this technique

Players eyes are drawn towards the end of the alley with the light. A rather over example of this technique

And there we have it! Now the clear omission in this article is the nature of Gordon Freeman as a mute, however I intend to devote an entire article that particular issue, so look forward to that. I’m going to attempt to update the blog 3 or so times a week and maybe launch some new features (when I think of them), so please come back and take a look, if  analysis of video games and verbosity in general takes your fancy at all.

Written by Aonshix

June 14, 2009 at 12:51 pm