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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

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