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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.


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

‘Playing by the Rules’

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Last Monday, a group of Swiss researchers published a report which analysed the adherence of 20 recent first and third person shooters to the International Humanitarian Law (AKA the conventions of war crimes), which has made a fair splash in the gaming press, making it all the way to the BBC.  However, after a quick read through, the study possess a number of key flaws in its finding and methods, as well as evidence that it was lacking in depth. There were some interesting points, however they are bogged down in such a mess of poorly thought out points, that I figured a quick criticism of the report might prove interesting. So without further adieu…

If  someone was to publish a review which criticised films or novels for featuring war crimes occurring, they would be laughed out of the media. Many of our most powerful movies utilise war crimes for some of their most moving scenes and novels have been touching on this touchy subject matter for many years now.  However, this report justifies video games as a subject, by claiming that the interactivity can lead players to accept the action on screen as being permissable without as much critical thinking as people apply to the passive mediums. Although the claim that interactivity reduces critical thinking as compared to film or books is questionable, the core concept that games may be presenting war crimes in a positive light doesn’t seem too far-fetched, considering the general machismo and bloodlust that is celebrated by many titles.

Keeping this in mind, it’s frustrating that so many of the study’s points are based around passive elements in games. For example, the study lists a sequence in 24: The Game where Jack Bauer shoots a captured terrorist in the head after interrogating him, clearly violating the act which prevents the mistreatment of prisoners.  The report lists it as a ‘Strong’ violation, meaning that it has a high chance of influencing the player. However, this particular incident occurs… in a cutscene! The player is completely passive during this sequence, which is functionally identical to the television series of 24.  Including non interactive sequences in study is in my opinion disingenuous, due to the focus of the report really being on the nature of war crimes in interactivity, as the report dismisses the effects of war crimes in a passive medium in its ‘Aims’ section.  A large amount of the report’s complaints center around non interactive sections in these games, which undermines the strength of the report.

Furthermore, the study is curious in the way it chooses to deal with war crimes committed by the opposition in video games.  I personally believe that the presentation of war crimes committed by the enemies in game would cause people to turn away from such actions, as they’re usually not only presented as being evil acts, but the acts are committed by people with whom the player usually cannot sympathise.  Many of the reports findings are however based upon acts that are not committed by the player, again ignoring the interactive nature of games and merely calling out things which are presented to the player.  From the civilians being slaughtered in the opening sequence of Call of Duty 4, to the american prisoner being tortured in the beginning of Call of Duty 5, I would argue that witnessing either of these acts would desensitize players to the acts mentioned. I certainly disagree with the assertion that “it is not reccomendable to include such scenes [as the] killing [of] what are apparently look like civilians in video games, as it sends the wrong message to players”.

However, the report does finally get its act together and talks about games in which the player is allowed and even encouraged to commit war crimes. Possibly the best example was Battlefield: Bad Company in which the game actively encourages the player to blow chunks into peoples homes and provides rewards for players who pillage valuables from civilians, a clear violation of International Humanitarian Law.  The report also was correct in pointing out the number of games which allow the player to kill their opposition in ways which cause ‘superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering’, such as using a flamethrower in World at War. It could be argued (quite validly) that the use of flamethrowers is historically accurate and therefore appropriate, however the report agues that any exposure to such acts is negatively influencing players perceptions of battlefield practices.  Although I personally disagree that allowing players to commit these war crimes will belittle the acts in their minds, however I have no evidence for that. Both of the games attempt to justify the occurence of war crimes, however it is conceivably possible that encouraging the player to commit such acts would desensitize players to the horror of such war crimes.

Another of the study’s repeated tropes is criticising games which allow players to kill enemies who’re wounded or who surrender. Although I can sort of agree that allowing players to shoot surrendering enemies reinforces the writer’s contention, they repeatedly bring up the ability of players in World at War to shoot downed enemies as being a violation of the equivalent IHR of the time, which stated that one shouldn’t ‘to kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at his discretion’. However, in Call of Duty games enemies who’re left on the ground will attack the player if they’re left alive, clearly making the targets valid in terms of that clause.

Let's face it, the plot of COD4 is hardly that complex

In fact, a lack of reasearch into the respective titles is one of the report’s greatest flaws. It undermines the credibility of many of the findings, some of which are heavily dependant on the context in which they occur. Probably the most grievous example is in the assertion that in Call of Duty 4, Cpt. Price kills Al-Asad in a certain mission, while simultaneously claiming that Al-Asad is the character the player occupies in the opening sequence. As anyone who’s played through the whole sequence would know, the player dies at the end of the introduction sequence to the game, pretty clearly demonstrating  a lack of understanding about what actually occurs in these titles.

Is Snake a War Criminal? Only you can decide!

This lack of understanding about games further manifested itself in the commentary of Metal Gear Solid 4, where the ability kill civilians ‘without reprimand’ in the second act’s final sequence. However, should a player call a certain character on the Codec following such an act, he will be reprimanded by his CO. Also the report failed to mention the game’s focus on non-lethality (something they praised in a different title) as well as ignoring the games many themes regarding the prevention of war crimes through the ‘Sons of the Patriots’ system.  They also misunderstand the nature of PMC’s in the title, assuming for some reason that the game’s many conflict zones are linked.

This man on the other hand, is underacknowledged as a bastard

An odd point in the report was the section covering Far Cry 2, in which the only reported violation was allowing players to shoot ‘at a church’, an act which goes ‘unpunished’. Although the report acknowledges that ‘it may be assumed that the attacks are not directed at the church’ the report clearly dropped the ball here. The incident mentioned is that the player is saving civilians from a militia and is ambushed inside a church where they may shoot at soldiers with small arms. Players defending themselves from assailants inside a church cannot constitute ‘excessive destruction’ which leads to a ‘violation of the principal of proportionality’. Further frustration in this section arose from the fact that the report did overlook the elements of Far Cry 2 in which the player was forced to carry out war crimes, from the destruction of civilian medicine to pillaging to destruction of culturally significant civilian structures. In a game where the player’s war crimes are one of the central narrative themes, to consider only the church incident is disappointing.

Lastly, I’ll provide you with a few of the reports recommendations to video games in the future, which are, in a word, bollocks.

‘the message of the scenes should never be that everything is allowed, or that it’s up to the player to decide what is right and wrong’, recommends the report in regards to scenes which allow any degree of player choice. The idea that player’s shouldn’t be allowed to decide what it morally allowable in a game is offensive, plain and simple. The core of our medium’s artistic ability casually discarded, not even receiving a whole sentence to itself.

Furthermore, the report also ‘reccomend[s] to game developers to avoid creating scenarios that easily lead to violations of the IHL, such as the so called ticking bomb scenario’. Again, this left me speechless. The report does have some valid points, (such as rewarding the player for looting, as opposed to simply using that as a tool to characterise the ‘Bad Company’) as well as identifying a number of ways to implement penalty systems in games for players who choose not to adhere to IHL (although too often these are simply game over screens), however the good points become lost in a mess of non-interactivity and misunderstandings.

No more 'ticking bomb' scenarios?!

Look out for a post analysing the narratives of Ken Lavine by Saturday, exams are over and the blog is back.

PS: In reading the piece, I stumbled across the fabulous word ‘parashooters’ so perhaps some of the quotes which I found offensive are more the result of non-native english skills as opposed to intent.

Written by Aonshix

November 25, 2009 at 8:12 pm