Metacritical

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Posts Tagged ‘Bioshock

Shocking Discourse the Second

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Hello and welcome to the slightly (yet not egregiously) late second installment of ‘Shocking Discourse‘, part of a larger series  of posts regarding narrative trends of the last decade.  Today I’ll be discussing the rise of optional story content, which is another overt trend from the latter half of the decade.   In Levine’s games, optional narrative content is  essentially manifested through ‘Audio Logs’, which in both of the ‘Shock’ games are recorded remnants of the relevant society which has since undergone some cataclysmic disaster. These audio logs generally center around a few characters and are interspersed throughout the game, with most characters having arbitrarily gone to the same places that the player later visits throughout the game. For many people this technique has stood out like a sore thumb, for Levine hasn’t as of yet created a society where the use of the audio diaries seems believable.  A prime example of this is in the second half of System Shock 2, where a particular character who is attempting to escape the Von Braun seems to be taking an awful lot of time to leave meticulous audio diaries for the now brain dead population of the ship to listen to.  Bioshock runs into similar issues regarding believability when one of the characters starts to talk about her plans for assassinating Andrew Ryan in her audio diaries, which is a silly thing to do. [ERRATA: My memory has just conjured up the image of the player looting this audio log from the woman’s strung up corpse, so perhaps the game was being self aware here]. This particular element in the ‘Shock’ games has always relied on the player’s ability to suspend their disbelief, which is a shame, seeing as how little this is generally required in Levine’s games (which often seem to have the most coherent and thought out settings).

Ze Needle is Not Optional

Despite the lack of believability behind the technique however, none can argue with it’s myriad benefits, greatest of which being the ability of the player to choose whether they wish to indulge in this side of the narrative or not. Few audio logs in both games contain any essential gameplay information, instead being used to flesh out the world around the player by creating ‘human’ stories (which a world filled with splicers or hybrids intrinsically lacks). They serve to remind the player of what the war ravaged setting the now occupy used to be, as well as providing back story on the cataclysmic event which brought down the  society.  Audio logs also encourage the player to create their own pacing, giving players who wish for a lower tempo experience an excuse to just stand around for a little while, listening to logs.  Finally audio logs also serve as an effective reward for exploration. The same players who feel the need to explore an environment to learn as much as they can about are also the same sort of players who enjoy narrative, so rewarding exploration with narrative such as audio logs is a very effective technique for encouraging players to get the most out of a setting. This also places some audio logs out-of-the-way of the sort of gamer who merely wishes to breeze through a game’s linear path shooting things, by removing the perceived obligation of the player’s behalf to listen to these logs.

How does it feel, to exist only as an Audio Log?

As I mentioned earlier, (before losing my train of thought) adoption of this facet of optional narrative didn’t really become popular until after the release of Bioshock, after which audio logs seem to be the norm rather than the exception.  Far Cry 2, Dead Space, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Borderlands and even the legendary Halo franchise picked them up in its latest entry: ‘Odious Tea’.  The widespread adoption of the techniques can be largely attributed to two factors:

  • The success of Bioshock both critically and financially, which has led to many games which feature design which is heavily derivative of the title (and by extension, System Shock 2). Of recent titles, Dead Space seems most guilty of this, although theories have been put forward that it was designed to be a ‘consolised reimagining’ of System Shock from the very beginning, which might allow it to be classified as an homage in some respects.
  • Secondly and most importantly, game narratives in mainstream titles have become increasingly complex over the last decade. If one looks even the story of the original Halo and compares it to the dumb narrative of current times, Gears of War, it’s pretty easy to seem that tales have actually become more complex, when even the most basic (and garish) of tales now aspires to (slightly) loftier goals thematically.  While the Gears level game narrative has not yet grown complex enough to warrant the use of optional narratives, narratives that are a step up have become complex enough that many players no longer wish to experience the narrative in its entirity. In order to then cater to both the audiences which desire more from game stories and the (dare I say it) more casual players whom merely wish to ‘shoot some shit’  designers have been forced to integrate systems into games where story content is made optional, such as the inclusion of audio logs.

This is not to say that Audio Logs are the only form of ‘optional narrative’ that have risen among the decade or that the idea of optional narrative was invented by Mr. Levine. As in the last article, he has merely popularised a form of it. Probably the most prolific example of optional narrative from before System Shock 2 was the original Metal Gear Solid, where players can essentially access audio logs at will via the Codec. The only real functional difference between the two techniques is that Audio Logs don’t stop the game (allowing the player more control over pacing) and cannot include the protagonist as a participant in the audio.  The latest Prince of Persia also includes a system for optional narrative advancement, by allowing the player to talk to Elika at his own discretion, turning Elika into a walking two way audio log from a functional perspective.   By using Elika and the Prince as their own vessels for their optional characterisation, Prince of Persia manages to avoid the suspense of disbelief that’s required for most audio logs and definitely the Codec from MGS.  Although on the same note, both Far Cry 2 and Arkham Asylum both manage to integrate their audio logs meaningfully into the world, by making them either interviews or threats intended to be sent to someone.

If this is the Audio Log of the future...

Hope for the future of optional narrative content: MOAR. Also, I feel that writers will need to find a way to integrate optional content into the main narrative in a way that is more meaningful than many games manage, lest audio content become filler and increasingly irrelevant to the main story. Optional narrative must add the game’s main tale, not introduce its own. If it’s not adding to the main narrative in some way, it generally detracts by diluting the players attention from the more important content.

Tomorrow: Showing instead of telling a story.

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Written by Aonshix

December 13, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Shocking Discourse

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As the first decade of the 21st millenium draws to a close, it’s only natural that one should look back upon the decade’s trends, the good and the bad, in an attempt to foretell which direction the medium is headed. While I’ve started hearing many podcasts bemoan the rise of quicktime events (or Q T E’s for people in the know) and argue over the benefits that motion control has brought to the industry, sadly the decade’s narrative trends have received comparatively little airtime, so I figured I’d bash out a few hundred words so that I might feel better about this perceived injustice. As sharply perceptive reader’s of this post’s title may have guessed, in these next few days I shall be discussing the adoption of Ken Levine’s narrative stylings, especially in the latter half of the decade.  Needless to say there will be spoilers, this time for; System Shock 2, Bioshock, Prince of Persia (2008), Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Far Cry 2, the Metal Gear series and finally anything created by the seminal Fumito Ueda.

Popularised by the groundbreaking System Shock 2 in 1999, Ken Levine’s narratives are easily characterised through certain repeated themes and presentation methods, both of which have seeped into writing industry wide. For this series, I’ll be focussing on three core tenants which are central to his narratives: Themes of Control, Optional Story Content and a Mystery Other.

Control

Atlas, Fontaine, Tenenbaum, SHODAN, The Many. Ignoring approximately 20 minutes worth of gameplay, the player finds himself being controlled by disembodied figures for the entirety of Levine’s more promintent titles: System Shock 2 and Bioshock. In both of these games, the player/protagonist are provided with little motive of their own, existing by and large as homunculi who exist only to carry out the will of more interesting and verbally empowered characters. Both of these games take great care to present the player with sophisticated moral dilemmas (“Is it right to carry out the genocide of ‘The Many’, despite the grave threat it poses to both the protagonist and the Human race?”) yet make a point of not providing the player any choice in which answer they choose. In order to complete System Shock 2, The Many must die. In Bioshock, both Atlas and Ryan share the same grisly fate regardless of the player’s feelings on the matter.  There is simply progression or a lack thereof, although that progression is guilt ridden for many. In both titles, Levine exploits these feelings of guilt or anguish to create many of the piece’s most powerful moments.

Sentience born from zeros and ones. Hurts the mind to contemplate.

Levine broke this ground in 1999, however it wasn’t until he retread this theme of powerlessness in 2007’s posterchild; Bioshock, for it to really propagate out to other developers, with titles such as Far Cry 2 and Prince of Persia arriving the following year, both with this theme of powerlessness at the core of both narrative experiences.  Indeed the season’s hottest hit, Modern Warfare 2 utilises the same themes in it’s now infamous ‘No Russian’ level, which while garish in its execution does elicit feelings of helplessness within the player as they’re constrained by the game to a single answer; to watch/participate in the slaughter to assist with the US’s counterterrorism operation. Although the narrative clearly establishes the alternative option that would be available to the protagonist (to kill the terrorists and jeopardise the Russo-American relationship in the long term) the game mechanics prevent the player from making this moral choice, conflicting with the narrative which presents it.  Themes of  control were hardly invented by Mr. Levine, however it is extremely simple to chart the proliferation of his particular take on this concept throughout the last decade.

Much like the 2008-2009 movement towards themes of control in ‘The West’, a similar movement occurred among Japanese designers in the early to mid part of this decade, with titles such as Metal Gear Solid 2/3, or Shadow of the Colossus. Despite very similar thematic concerns in these titles as compared to the type popularised by Levine however, both of these games handle the issue differently in that while the player is technically constrained by the gameplay mechanics from giving a certain answer to the game’s moral predicaments, the games also feature protagonists who are complicit in the actions which the player is forced to make under the game’s mechanics.  In all of the western titles I’ve mentioned above (even Prince of Persia, although I’ve seen arguments to the contrary) the conflict is between the player’s morality and the gameplay systems, while in the eastern titles the conflict occurs first between the player and the protagonist and subsequently  with the mechanics of the title. To spell it out with exposition, in Far Cry 2 the player finds his wishes to not destroy civilian medicine supplies at odds with the games mechanics, which provide no method of advancement other than defiling the game’s ambiguous African state. In Shadow of the Colossus however, the player’s desire not to slaughter the colossi is at odds with Wander’s desire to bring back the woman he loves and the intrinsically controlling gameplay mechanics serve to reinforce the themes of attachment that Wander feels, instead of highlighting the inability of the player to change his surroundings as in the western titles mentioned.

Although it's a difficult concept to express with words, funneling conflict through a character produces a very different experience to a mechanics based conflict

Despite not being well versed in the Japanese development scene of this decade, I get the feeling that this trend probably can’t be traced back to Ken Levine in any meaningful sense, which makes it all the more intriguing that  both scenes underwent similar thematic periods during this decade. Implicit within this last point is an assertion that control is just an issue which comes naturally to interactive media of a certain age/sophistication and that instead of being an inspiration to fellow designers in this regard, Ken Levine was merely ahead of his time with System Shock 2.  Regardless of the cause of the trend however, the theme of control has been one of the most prevalent of the decade.

My hope for the next decade: First Person Shooters which explore choice in moral decisions in a form more substantial that Bioshock’s meager offerings.

SPOILER ALERT: Choice in Bioshock 2 is no less binary than in the original

Tommorow I talk (another wierd lexical hangup) about audio diaries.

Written by Aonshix

December 12, 2009 at 2:52 am

Who Am I? An exploration of silent protagonists in games

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Are you Gordon Freeman? Or do you merely control Gordon Freeman throughout his improbable escapades? Although it of course varies from title to title, the question of identity (and by extension, immersion and narrative) and the degree to which we are the protagonists in First Person game is one of the most hotly debated issues within the industry. At this point in time more developers seem to be moving towards the ‘player as protagonist view’ within the first person space, as can be seen with the increasing number of games adopting the ‘Silent Protagonist’ approach, such as Clint Hocking’s flawed gem, Far Cry 2 or the critically acclaimed Bioshock, while more heavily characterized protagonists seem to have migrated to the third person perspective, especially after Cliff Bleszinski’s magnum opus; Gears of War. Today’s post will be less opinionated than the majority of my content, instead being focused upon exploring the effects of having mute protagonists, in terms of both narrative/characterization and player immersion within a title.

At the center of the issues surrounding the silent protagonist divide is the question of whether the player is the protagonist in the game. Many designers and consequently many titles take the approach that increased player involvement in the game and the game’s narrative will involve the player more and thus can create more moving experiences, whereas other developers believe that having the player carry out the actions of a well defined character can affect them more, both by creating situations where the player’s interests diverge from the protagonist’s and by creating a more complex narrative.

The idea of ‘Player as Protagonist’ was born out of early RPG’s which gave the player the ability to name their characters and then later customize them. The early games had no dialog, so for all intents and purposes the only expression of the character within the world was player defined, what items to wear, which enemies to fight and the character’s name, the only identity the protagonists given. Due to the minimalist settings (jail, dungeon, wilderness all infested with foes) it was often fairly easy for designers to perfectly align the protagonist’s and the player’s interests, in many of these early cases survival was the only option open to either. Although players were in fact more limited in these early games than in many modern titles, the low fidelity settings made it a lot easier for designers to focus the player’s interests on very simple objectives, while in games with higher fidelity the player expects more options within the world, causing the old model of having the player truly in the world to fall apart.

By and large, designers have had to abandon the ‘Player as Protagonist’ in absolute terms, as the fidelity of modern titles has increased at a much greater rate than the level of interactivity has. However, many developers still adhere to many of the principles of the player protagonist and try to craft an experience which is as catered to player immersion as possible, with the mute protagonist being one of the main techniques still employed by designers such as studios such as 2k Boston, Valve, Retro Studios or the Ubisoft Montreal team.

History aside, what does having a mute protagonist actually do for a game? Well, the most obvious effect of having a mute protagonist is that the player will never be yanked out of the (hopefully) immersive setting by a line which the player doesn’t agree with, whether it be because the protagonist says something that the player disagrees with or merely uses language which the player wouldn’t use. Furthermore, one of the logical extensions of this is that player will begin filling in the conversational gaps where it seems logical to them, whether consciously or unconsciously. This dialog that the player creates will (by it’s nature) always remain consistent with the player’s impression of the protagonist, never resulting in a situation where the player feels put off by his protagonist’s reaction. By virtue of the protagonist having no real personality, the player will just imagine the protagonist to be reacting in the way they think most appropriate, which logically is as immersive as a world can be without reacting to what the player is directly thinking. Player will inevitably also project some of themselves onto the protagonist in this scenario, endearing the protagonist to the player and investing the player further within the world.

However, in many cases a silent protagonist is a barrier to immersion. There are quite a few game’s I’ve played which have silent protagonists where the dialog felt awkwardly written, as some poor writer trained in a any other form of narrative had to attempt to learn how to make conversations which only involved one character speaking. There were certainly instances of this in Bioshock, where it seemed entirely to of place for he protagonist to be completely mute considering the events going on around him. Not a single question for Dr. Tenembaum regarding the nature of his mind after the game’s mid-climax. Not a single exclamation of outrage or fear during his tumultuous confrontation with Andrew Ryan? It simply doesn’t ring true to how any person would react given the circumstances and divorces you from the character. While games with less dialog and more action/visual storytelling can often avoid such pitfalls, in more complex, verbose narratives it often becomes very difficult for writers to seamlessly integrate a silent protagonist into the dialog. What works for the minimalistic Far Cry 2 does not work as well in Bioshock. However one has to wonder how a protagonist for Bioshock could even be written and whether an awkward and unbelievable silent protagonist might not merely be the lesser of two evils. Perhaps worse than the moments where your character speaks but doesn’t, are the occasions in these games where character’s monologues to your silent protagonist include reactions to words it’s assumed your character has said. Not only does this detract from immersion since your character has not, in actuality said anything (bringing the oddness of that to the player’s attention), but often the character’s dialog will imply that your character has spoken in a way entirely different from that in the player’s mind, another large blow to player immersion.

Furthermore and possibly a greater handicap, having a silent protagonist forces writers into certain kinds to stories. Silent ‘protagony’ (yet another neologism) prevents writers from being able to create truly involving stories which are focused on interpersonal relationships, for example. Imagine a first person adventure written in the fashion of a Jane Austin novel, which featured a silent protagonist. Unless it was the touching romance of a person afflicted with mutism, the story would be impossibly awkward and very difficult to immerse oneself in. It is pretty much impossible for mute characters to be as complex as characters who have some form of self expression, crafting a narrative which is less interesting. However the video game space has a very long way to go in general towards crafting complex characters, so perhaps this shouldn’t yet be an overriding concern.

Finally silent protagonists prevent writers from creating characters which take the initiative in games. A silent protagonist will always be reactive to something, an order from someone or some event happening. This cramps narratives, making them far more predictable than tales in which the protagonist himself is an unreliable force. It also severely limits the roles in which a player could play in a game, for example, it would be pretty much impossible to tell the story of an lone silent antagonist, such as a rapist or murderer, because if the protagonist was a complete emotional void and didn’t have anyone to order him about there would be no motivation for such acts. Voiced protagonists are the only way to really have a game in which the player is forced to commit acts which they feel uncomfortable with, which is going to be one of the themes over the next decade which I believe will help video games rise into an interesting artistic medium. In games where the protagonist is silent and players have options, they logically cannot act in a way which goes against what they’re comfortable with and I feel that a game where a player was forced into a role they were not comfortable with (like rape, murder or being a member of the Gestapo) would come off as gratuitous and an abuse of linearity on the designer’s behalf. If the player cannot find a legitmate reason to do what they’re doing they won’t which is why situations players would prefer not to be in can only come about as a result of well defined player characters.

But then on the other hand, silent protagonists cannot make one liners, which would be a huge leap forward in the medium’s aspirations to art.

There a number of additional issues surrounding silent protagonists, such as player association with their silent protagonist and how many attributes can be grafted onto a silent protagonist before a disconnect starts to occur with the player, but all of those are firmly within the realm of implementation, not design. The increased difficulty of maintaining player interest in the story is another curious phenomenon that has been noted with a lot of silent protagonist games, particularly the Half Life series and the question of whether so many players would spend their days bunny hopping off Kliener’s head if Gordon interacted with the story somehow is an important one but sadly not one I can rant verbosely on.

This article was inspired by Dead Space: Extraction, where the very strong characterization of almost every character made me wonder about the differences between the well voiced protagonists in Extraction as opposed to the mute protagonist in the original Dead Space. Anyways, that’s my time up. A Beyond Good and Evil post is still on the agenda but has been sidetracked by Okami for the moment, which is my current shine thing. Alongside Dead Space: Extraction, my love for which is now branching off into the irrational. Also, Radiator + Korsokovia are still coming, my interest reignited by this article, particularly for the first chapter of Radiator, which is about relationships with a non silent protagonist, but to be perfectly honest I can’t remember whether he speaks or not, so that part clearly didn’t leave much fo an impression either way. However, that’s more of a mood piece anyways, which silent protagonists are good for.

Don’t worry, it’s over now

Written by Aonshix

October 4, 2009 at 7:22 pm