Sunday, 31 January 2010

Game's stories suck, don't they?

Well bugger me, I got a mention in Rock Paper Shotgun's sunday papers. That's cool. Actually, that's brilliant. I was convinced this blog was going to have a readership of two: me and my mum.

A way down the comments, a charming lad by the name of Dracko posted this:
"lol whining about spoilers like an infant pretending video games have plots worth a damn"
Which is nice.

Much as I don't really recall whining like an infant, and most of my ire was directed at television based spoilers, well, that's the net ain't it? Rough with the smooth and all that jazz.

But it got me to thinking, he's right isn't he? They do suck. Our best stuff, our most potent moments, just don't even come close to film, let alone novels. You can wave the death of Aerith in Roger Ebert's face and you wont get anywhere beside the civil courts. Metal Gear Solid is a joke, Baldur's Gate nothing new, Mass Effect a pile of cliches. I've not actually gotten round to playing Planescape so maybe that's our great white hope, but one is not a very big number.

You might already be sensing a "yes, but" coming here, so I'll just be out with it. Yes, but what the hell are you comparing them to? Of course Mass Effect can't stand up to Heart of Darkness or a Hitchcock, but that's because film and books already hold the field and are writing all the rules.

Apples and Oranges and NOT A BLOODY FRUIT

I should put my cards on the table. I love video games that focus on story. This blog was going to be called "Video Games and Stories" before I was arrested by the banality police. Much of the criticism ranged at game narrative is one hundred percent correct. We're swimming in a sea of juvenile bullshit that would make the most hardened of creative writing tutors give up on humanity. But like I said, the comparison favours established forms in that it asks: is your text compelling like X or Y, is it nuanced like A is, does it do C like B? We're working with a ruleset that doesn't apply to us. Of course nothing we've done is anything like a good novel, because a novel works like a novel and a game works like a game. No, I've never had the same experience with a game as I have with a book, but if I could, why would I play games at all?

Mass Effect is a good paradigm. They're making a film of it, which is a massively stupid idea considering its such by-the-books hollywood sci-fi action fare. What made me love Mass Effect was that it let me be a hollywood action hero. That was new, that was fresh. It was so good to be the Captain of the Enterprise rather than Unkillable Errand Man. I genuinely felt like a rogue hero, doing it my way and flying off into the sunset. The hero punching out the tiresome bureaucrat is a film cliche, but actually doing it mid cutscene is a thrilling thing. And by "being an action hero" I don't mean controlling one outside of cutscenes a la Final Fantasy. Mass Effect gives you a limited scope of action, but its enough to generate a feeling of narrative control.

We're facing quite a few problems when we talk about games. This may be because they're such a young medium, or that we lack a robust critical structure, but I don't think so. It may just be because video games are actually incredibly complex. The world doesn't have a shortage of good storytellers, so why should stories in games be so bad? Perhaps because writing well for games specifically is a difficult task. When the player becomes a figure in the narrative, how can you account for what they're willing to take in, what they're willing to sit through? How do you balance forging a tight tale and taking away player control, how do you tie the story to mechanics and experience? GTA IV is a prime offender when it comes to failing to make the story feel part of what the player is doing. The narrative winds all over the place without focus and from early on I was left wondering "why am I even doing these things?"

To Make a Digital Omelet from scratch, first you must Create the Digital Universe

If you'll forgive the digression, I was sat in a creative writing lecture two years ago; my university makes you do a third subject in your first year and I figured I may was well do something I'd enjoy. The lecturer was chatting about how wide your studies could be and mentioned video games. He said that he didn't consider them art because "fallen leaves off a tree may be beautiful, but they're random, not art. I think it's the element of the random that makes video games a problem". We shouldn't dismiss the guy on one sentence in a lecture not about games, but I remember thinking at the time that it was missing something. Game designers don't just make the falling leaves, that's just the end result. They make the rules that make them fall and settle that way in the first place, or make them fall at all. When you have to work hard just to get your universe to follow Newton's law, you're fighting a different battle than most. Even a film maker can rely on things falling down.

What I'm getting at here isn't the difficulty of modeling physics but that part of creating a video game is creating a gamespace. This might be what makes them different from traditional games like Chess. Can you imagine if every time you moved a text box popped up telling a little story about the pawn bravely defying all the odds and taking down a Knight. Board games tend to frame a gamespace and let the rules do the rest. Video games usually go a bit further. This is one of those difficulties I was referring to earlier, caused by our problematic points of comparison. Evidently every word in a book(barring the non narrative bits) are the story, its constituent cells. Every frame of film is an organic part of the whole.

So why the fuck do we talk about story and "gameplay", if you'll forgive the term, as if they're two different things?

Why is it when we talk about game narrative we never mention the subtle stuff? Shot framing, music, colour palette, atmosphere. Oh, we bang on about atmosphere, but we never consider it a narrative thing, even though its doing precisely what gaming narrative is meant to, framing the gamespace. To create an atmosphere is to tell a story about a place, about its past and potential.
And more importantly, why do we never talk about what the player actually does? We end up breaking game and story apart because we're coming from films or books. We divide the story part, the words, into one camp. We bring along from film the visual, so in go cutscenes too, but the story remains mostly passive. This is just absurd. First person shooters are texts centered around shooting stuff. When I blast an antlion in the face with a shotgun its as much a plot point as the G-Man's warbling, its just a plot in which the player is a part. Obviously there need to be more structured moments if you want a more focused narrative, and I think it's this that really sets people at odds. Almost all games tell stories, but in different ways. Solium Infernum, Galciv, they tell tales just as much as Final Fantasy.

I'm going to cut this short as I imagine most of you didn't sign up for an essay. Game's stories work differently because they're not supposed to tell a good story, they're meant to make the player part of a good story. To be compelled by something and to be compelled to do something is the distinction. In many ways, and in spite of what I've said, they often don't have to work quite as hard at it. I'd never suck down Halo or Dragon Age as movies, but as games the stories did what they needed to. I found one of my favourite points in game storytelling, in the framing and compelling of player action, came near the end of Call of Duty 4. A loading screen informs you that A Very Bad Thing is going to happen and lots of folks are going to die. Then a timer starts. Excellent. Now I know why I'm shooting dudes, now there's a genuine sense of urgency. From a game not renowned for its storytelling chops it was surprisingly effective(which makes it a shame if reports of the crassness of its sequel ring true.) Games stories don't need to show us a fight, they need to make us understand why we'd want to fight.


Sunday, 24 January 2010

Chill Out, Brah(About the Spoilers)

Consider this a reply to that
Edit: Just to be clear folk, that link contains spoilers for Bioshock specifically, other games if I recall and some literature. Be careful.

If there is one utterance more likely than any other to drive me into rage its "just chill out". It's insulting on several levels. First, it implies that you're some incontinent rage-slave without an adult capacity to control your emotions. Second, it suggests that you're an idiot for feeling the way you do, that if only you chilled out, brah, you'd see there's no fuss here, no reason to get all worked up. Third, and worst of all, it implies that you're really a bit of a square, the kind of person who reads the Daily Mail and tuts at the young folks having fun with their rock and their roll. Cool people are relaxed, cool people don't get angry, they just lean.

But you know what, chill out man? Fuck you. Fuck you and your entire genetic heritage right down to the primordeal ooze.

So what does this have to do with video game spoilers. Well, a strong undertone of Bissel's argument is "just chill out, brah(about the spoilers)." Now, to be fair, I'm being a dick. It's a good argument trying to poke at a slightly more nuanced understanding of why we enjoy games. I'm down with that. To an extent I agree. I was going to bring up the ending of Half-Life episode 2 as a counter example: of a point where spoilers would live up to their name, but then I remembered I'd actually had that spoiled for me, and it was still exceptional. On further inspection, this wasn't an isolated case. The finest moment of Battlestar Galactica comes at the end of the episode 'Revelations'. It is, quite simply, one of the best pieces of television I've ever seen. The Guardian spoiled it for me. How many games, I had to wonder, would really be ruined by knowing their endings, how many times had I genuinely been affected by that final cutscene?

This said I'm going to argue a little that his core argument makes a couple of mistakes.

There's No Time Like the First Time

One of the primary joys of video games is the virgin world, the sense of freshness and possibility, the sheer power of potential experience. Anyone who walks out of vault 101 and doesn't feel some flicker of wanderer's glee at the vast expanse of wasteland before them is dead inside. Bissel talks about the "mere act of revelation" as though the point of revelation was a childish thing, but each point revealed chips away at the games potential whole. As I've written on here before, part of what made Fallout 3 so fantastic was that I knew so little about it going on, that the game constantly brought something fresh to the table, that there was always just that little bit more to discover. A friend of mine felt the need to inform me of a certain interesting points in the wasteland, and couldn't understand why I didn't want him to show me where they were. He couldn't get it into his head that the discovery was the joy, that "mere act of revelation" was a point upon which considerable pleasure was riding. I was at one stage captured. I don't consider that a spoiler. He however, told me precisely when it was going to occur. My reaction was not "what's going on!", but "Oh, this is what he was talking about."

I'm not saying that there's never any good to be had from a second playthrough, but rather, that the first time, that experience of discovery has a distinct quality to it, a deeply special one. My reaction to Children of Men was a powerful thing, something I can never recapture. Knowing how it ends would neuter it of much of the tension that drives it, much of the emotional weight. There are so many powerful, shocking moments throughout. Any spoilers would have made my first screening like a second. I would have still enjoyed it, but I would have been robbed of the magic that was my first time. When you spoil any work of art for someone, you bring in the boundaries of possible experience, you limit how strong their reactions will be.

Bissel writes: "Knowing these facts beforehand did not take one iota away from... playing Bioshock" Now, is that really a truth apt statement? How can he possibly know that? Surely it would be more accurate to say that he "knew these facts, and still enjoyed bioshock" which is to say something else entirely. I'm a big believer in not telling people they're wrong about their own reactions(because it's colossally stupid) so I'm not arguing that he's wrong when he says it, only that its not something he's ever going to be able to prove. What's more, well, that's him, innit. Going back to my examples of Half-Life and Galactica, yes, I enjoyed those moments, but I think it would be fair to say I'd have enjoyed them more if they hadn't been spoiled. My response to the end of BSG season one was to leap out of my chair. I'd never done this before and haven't since. I'd love to leap out of my chair again one day, and I might have done, if not for the sodding Guardian.

The How and the What.

This appears to be the crux of what Bissel is saying, that we should surrender our simplistic "what" and embrace a more nauanced "how". Only, is that such a safe delineation? Can we really pry those two appart? Surely the how and the what are intertwined for the most part? Isn't a story just the hows of some whats?

Some times, yes, yes of course. Lots of literature is fairly unspoiled by knowing the what. It really is the how of Nineteen Eighty Four that makes it what it is. You can have every plot point of that book explained to you and still not grasp what the text is getting at. If I'm honest, the more I've thought about Bissel's argument, the less I disagree, but it just seems too sweeping, to keen to raise up certain kinds of narrative against others.

However, the what, sometimes, is everything. Remember that bit from Call of Duty 4, the one at the end of the American campaign? The what of that was spoiled by watching zero punctuation. And you know what? It ruined it. Once again my reaction was "oh, that thing is happening" rather than "wait, they can't do that!" Surprise, shock, horror, these are powerful things, immediate things, and I don't think we should dismiss them as "lizard-brain surprise[s]"

I suppose that's what I'm saying here. Don't dismiss the what as irrelvant, as simple or basic. Bissel uses several literary examples and Bioshock, arguably one of our few vaguely literary games. Literature is often a thing of the how. But literature is just one form of art. If we concentrate on it we might loose Stephen King, we'd certainly loose Battlestar Galactica. Most popular art swings between the how and the what, and I think this is how it should be.

I'm goin to spoil that first season ending of Battlestar Galactica now, so if you're a what kinda person, look away.-NO REALLY LOOK AWAY-

Sometimes how doesn't mean a damn. Who pulled the trigger, why they did it, these things are secondary to a titan of a man, who seems so much smaller now, lying in a pool of his own blood, his loved ones screaming in shock, in horror.

I shared that shock, that horror, and it was fantastic.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

All You Need is Love: Preamble

When asking myself "why would you do such a thing" in relation to this blog, I tell myself that its to hone my writing. I have aspirations, you see. One day, if I'm really lucky, I'd like to be good enough to be considered a mediocre writer. That would be grand. The only way you get better at thing is to do it, and here we are.

Only that's not really true. I write this because I want people to read it, don't I. Same for everyone else. There are plenty of drafts sat on my account that I've gotten halfway through and thought "why, why would anyone want to read this?" Good question me. So I had another little think. What do I like to read on the internet? What can I do that hasn't been done far better elsewhere by worthier sorts? Two things sprung to mind. The first is a chronicle of hate. Everybody likes to read reviews of piss poor games. No matter who you are, no one's ever hated that one thing in quite the same way as you. No one can take my passionate loathing of Final Fantasy X-2, none loath it quite like I.

This being said, the internet is already a little saturated with rant-porn. Besides, it isn't good for the soul to spend your time dwelling on how awful this leisure activity you pour so much time and effort into is. The flip side then, is to write about something you love: the kind of moments that keep you coming back to any medium. There's not that much around of that, at least, not too much. So, I'm going to write about things what I love in games. Given some credit where I feel its due.

Take it away, Jesus and band.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Shut up about Mass Effect 2, Damn it!

Seriously the internet, be quiet.

I have faint hopes for ME2. Something along the lines of "this might be the best game ever." I've tried to dull this impulse. I know all too well that this way lies massive disappointment, but I just can't.

*Sigh* It's going to be Oblivion all over again.

How I was looking forward to Oblivion, how I scoured every preview, every tidbit, every tiny morsel thrown from mount Bethesda. I waited so long for it, this sequel to my all time favourite game, I'd bought my first ever gaming PC for it. It was going to be incredible, everything I wanted from a game and more.

And then I played it. And it was good. Wasn't it good? But that's just the thing, I wanted a seminal work of interactive entertainment, an epiphany, not just a good game. I played through it in an odd haze, part willfully turning a blind eye towards the game's flaws, half niggling, cold fear that it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. In was the latter of these two that was the worst. Flaws I can get over, but the constant nervousness that permeated the whole experience was something I couldn't escape. It ruined Oblivion, which is to say, I ruined Oblivion.


I decided after a little reflection that I was going about it all wrong. I'd never ingest this much information about a book or film before getting into it, I'd never come into them with this much baggage. I couldn't help my feelings of excitement, but I'd come into games on my own now. I still read previews, and reviews, but I wouldn't obsess over them, and I certainly wouldn't visit the noxious den that is the gaming forum. I hadn't read a lot about Fallout 3 when it came out, and was certainly a little dubious, but I found it one of the most surprising games I've ever played. I just didn't expect it to be the way it was, which is odd because it really is Oblivion with guns. What made it so special was that it was Oblivion-done right-with guns. It was in many senses the game I wanted TES IV to be, but arrived too late.

This was the paradigm I wanted to settle into. Enough information to aid in an informed choice, but not enough to generate some mad superstructure around the event. It was going well, really, it was.

And then John Walker kicked me in the nuts.

I was still on reviews, hell, the PC Gamer review of Mass Effect lead me into choosing a female Sheppard, probably the best piece of advice about a game ever. I'd bought Arkham Asylum and Left 4 Dead 2 on the back of critical acclaim. Although a bioware game, and though I'd adored Mass Effect, and though I'd only recently played Baldur's Gate 2 and adored that even more, I'd managed to settle into a similar groove concerning Dragon Age to the one I had for Fallout 3. Dubious was I. Expecting the best, but prepared for the not the best. I wanted a review before I bought it. I promptly hoovered up PCG when its Dragon Age review copy came out and gobbled up every word. And man, John Walker liked that game. He starts his review with the game's prologue. He calls it "the RPG of the decade"(which they promptly stuck on the box.)

Wow, thought I. RPG of the decade. Prologue. First Paragraph. Sounds ace.
And that was it. The dam broke, my cynical fortress imploded, crushed by a wave of raw glee. Dragon Age was going to be the shit.

Marx said history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Once again, Dragon Age was really good, but it was not my RPG of the decade. I ruined it with my constant worry. And its a terrible game for that too, so many moments where an actor fluffs a line, where an animation doesn't quite scan or a scene just seems out of place. The game is full of occurrences that pull you out, like sudden jerks of bad hand-writing, moments into which The Fear can burrow. It aggravates me even more that I really appreciate it as a game; that its basically an old school RPG, that it really is bloody hard, that its got a great magic system, that its got genuinely interesting choices. But it wasn't perfect, wasn't seminal.

This isn't John Walker's fault of course, or his review's. That would be absurd. It's an honest one, a good one. He loved he game, what else was he going to write? But I wont risk a repeat on Mass Effect 2, so I won't be reading a review of it, not anywhere.

Even more, I'm trying to avoid all discussion of it, even even more, I'm trying to avoid all whinge, about ME 1 or 2. This is the worst, worse than praise, its the criticism that lodges in my skull, comes racing out at a bad line or loading screen. I started this piece just after dodging a forum post complaining about ME 2 spoilers on the Mass Effect wiki. It was called "oh damn it!", had the offending spoilers in proper spoilers boxes, but for God's sake man I could have clicked on those! Shut up shut up shut up! There's also a large crowd of folk who just didn't think much of Mass Effect or bioware, and say so. Which is fine. Only, do it over there, away from my delicate ears.

Ye know not the harm ye do.

Sunday, 17 January 2010


I'm writing a blog. A blog about video games.

So it goes.