Because games are about more than headshots

Posts Tagged ‘narrative

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.

Written by Aonshix

December 13, 2009 at 2:33 pm

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

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.


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.


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.

Written by Aonshix

August 3, 2009 at 10:21 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