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Thursday, September 16, 2004

Narrative Games Part Two: The Revenge of Hitler's Power-Armor!

Welcome back to part two of our two part series on video games as narratives. You'll recall from Tuesday that I argued that video games now constitute a form of storytelling that resembles in spirit the oral traditions of pre-literate societies. Yet, the essential question remains: how are these stories being told?

It's a valid question since, despite their resemblance to oral stories, video games remain drastically different. For starters, games are not inherently social experiences. They can be quite social, but even games like "Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games" or MMORPGs that provide considerable room for socializing are not inherently social. One does not have to be social to play the game in the same sense that listening to a storyteller inherently involves interaction with another human being. So, despite the similarities between the new and the old, the technology of video games fundamentally alters the experience.

Obviously, this difference means that games must somehow adapt. They must find some way to alter themselves to fit their audience without actually having the benefit of a live human. In this way, then, games are like a fusion of static-narratives like movies and novels, and dynamic-narratives like oral storytelling. Well, to think about this issue, let's think about three specific games: Halo, Max Payne, and Half-Life.

This summer I was played my way through the rather popular game Halo, and so can actually say something about it. Halo is what's called a "First-Person Shooter" game, meaning that your perspective is essentially within the eyes of the game character and you... well... shoot things. Now, Halo tells a story that can be roughly summed up as, "Starfaring humanity is getting its ass kicked by a multi-species collection of religious whackos. One human ship, plus whackos, stumbles across an abandoned alien installation of enormous power, fight over it, accidentally release a nearly-unstoppable enemy, and blow up aforementioned alien installation."

As a side note: This game is remarkable because the name "Halo" actually refers to the structure of the installation. Specifically, it's a ringworld of the type described by Larry Niven. Of course, Niven's ringworld is itself only a variation on the earlier Dyson Sphere named after its popularizer Freeman J. Dyson, who is currently emeritus faculty at Princeton University. I bring this up partly because it's neat that game makers are starting to incorporate actual science fiction concepts into their work. However, I'd like to advise the programmers of a critical fact: if the ringworld isn't centered on a star, as Niven proposed, and doesn't have a system of mirrors in its center, it would be a very goddamn dark place to live. If you're going to use actual sci-fi material, at least try to do it right.

Now, first off, we can say that the content of this game is clearly more story-like than something like "Pong." Yet, how is the story told? Well, it's told using three specific modes. First, the player's actions move the plot along. As the player completes objectives and affects the gameworld new events occur. The outcome of battles depends on you, thus making the player the star of their own war movie. Secondly, game characters "talk" to you, essentially revealing bits of the story as you act. This may seem similar to the first storytelling mode, but it's really quite distinct. In the first mode, a particular scene might go differently each time someone plays it: your enemies won't behave the exact same way, and the fight won't unfold identically. Thus, this mode is relatively dynamic and flexible. The second mode, Narration or information given in-game by characters, however, is scripted- it's the same every time. Finally, in the third mode the story is told through what are called "cut-scenes," or animated-movie like sequences that are beyond the ability of the player to affect.

In thinking about these three modes we can see that the first two display a significant resemblance to oral storytelling. The narration from game characters provides an over-arching structure, while player actions provide the details. Thus, while the player is made aware of their role in a story with a definite direction, they also have an influence in its precise unfolding. The cut-scenes, however, are interesting in that they show a reliance on an earlier mode of storytelling. Cut-scenes are essentially little mini-movies, and as accustomed as we are to passively absorbing stories from the page and screen, their presence more or less represents the intrusion of a familiar form of storytelling. It is as though the programmers realize that they are developing a medium for stories, but are at a loss for how to use it without falling back on earlier understandings.

We can compare this approach to that taken in another popular game, the unfortunately-named Max Payne. Max Payne is the story of an undercover police officer whose family is murdered and who is blamed for the death of his superior. He launches a one-man crusade for vengeance in the streets of New York. And no, I'm not getting any kick-backs from the gaming industry for this drivel. Bite me.

On a more technical level, Max Payne is a "Third-person shooter." This means that while the game action primarily involves shooting things, like Halo, the player's perspective is as an observer behind the character they control, unlike Halo. What's interesting about this is that it has two effects on the storytelling. First, a third-person perspective is less immersive. Think about it: in our daily lives, and in our dreams, we do not really see ourselves, we simply look out of our own eyes. Therefore, being able to see oneself effectively pulls the player away from their character. The third-person perspective limits the ability of the player to empathize and identify with their game character. Secondly, this perspective fits the game experience more smoothly into an existing storytelling schema: that of a movie. We have all learned to accept and cheer for movie heroes, even though they are not us. Does the third-person perspective in a game not activate those same skills and emotions? However, that it becomes an interactive movie does not alter the fact that we are aware that we are being told a story by another, or watching the story of another, rather than taking part in our own story.

Max Payne does innovate, though, by making very limited use of cut-scenes (though they are decidedly cinematic) and relying in their stead on a type of hybrid storytelling. The plot, and a substantial amount of characterization, takes place through still-panel images, drawn like comic books complete with speech bubbles. As the panels are displayed actors give voice to the characters, generating the story with sound effects and intonation. In a sense this blending of written storytelling and movie-like effects is just a recycling of two existing forms of narration, yet the actual blend creates something unique and interesting. It shows a reliance on existing forms, but at the same time demonstrates a willingness and a desire to move beyond them. Additionally, accessing these narrative panels is often, though not entirely, the result of a conscious choice on the part of the player. They can decide whether or not to access these materials as they become available. Certainly this does not provide the player with control over the outcome, but it does add a certain sense of ownership over the story. This game represents an intermediate or exploratory step in the evolution of gaming narration.

All that being said, it really doesn't help that the story-telling in Max Payne feels like a middle schooler's version of Film Noir. I mean, c'mon guys, "The police sirens screeched like a bi-polar choir?" Lay off the metaphors and analogies for, oh, say, ten seconds and you might get some actual plot in there.

Finally we come to the ubiquitous classic Half-Life. I refer to it as ubiquitous because it is one of the most popular first-person shooters of all time, and has spawned more add-ons and player-projects than any other piece of software I am aware of (gotta love that qualifier, eh?). The plot of Half-Life is summarized by the developers as follows:

Deep in the bowels of the Black Mesa Federal Research Facility, a decommissioned missile base, a top secret project is underway. A portal has been opened to another dimension, and human science has never seen anything like the world on the other side.

You are Gordon Freeman, a young research associate in the Anomalous Materials Laboratory. You have limited security clearance and no real idea of just how dangerous your job has become, until the morning you are sent alone into the Test Chamber to analyze of a strange crystalline specimen. A routine analysis, they tell you. Until something goes wrong.

Is it sabotage? An accident? Or is it something you did? All you hear is screaming; all you see is spacetime shattering. The next thing you know, the entire Black Mesa Facility is a nightmare zone, with sirens wailing and scientists fleeing in terror from the things their co-workers have become.

Hordes of creatures from the far side of the portal are pouring through rifts in the local fabric of reality. Monsters are everywhere. Madness rules. You head for the surface, but the usual routes are impassable- closed off by the disaster, infested with headcrabs and houndeyes and increasingly larger and hungrier creatures.

As Gordon Freeman, you must enlist the help of traumatized scientists and trigger-happy security guards to get through high-security zones, sneaking and fighting your way through ruined missile silos and Cold War cafeterias, through darkened airducts and subterranean railways. When you finally come in sight of the surface, you realize that the inhuman monsters aren't your only enemies- for the government has sent in ruthless troops and stealthy assassins. Their orders seem to be that when it comes to the Black Mesa, nothing gets out alive... and especially not you.

When even your own species turns against you, maybe you'll be glad to see another portal beckoning. But then again, on Earth you have allies; while on the far side of the portal, nothing at all is familiar except the sense of danger.

Save the Earth? Well, maybe. But that's a pretty low priority compared to saving your own skin.

Amazingly, this information is largely unavailable within the game. Rather than TELL you all this, the game allows you to piece things together on your own. As the game progresses you, the player, are gradually exposed to more and more areas and events that make the happenings at Black Mesa more apparent. You learn that the accident may not have been an accident at all, that gruesome experiments with alien creatures have been occurring for some time, that the aliens themselves may be intelligent, sentient, and organized. This is an impressive use of the capabilities of the video game genre to tell a story. Half-Life also distinguishes itself as the only game of these three without cut-scenes of any sort. Beyond that, your character, Gordon Freeman, never speaks. Seriously, not once. By not permitting the character to speak, or be seen by the player, an immersive quality is preserved. The player forgets that Gordon is a character- they instead become Gordon, and take his successes and failures as their own. The story does not need cut-scenes to flash the plot in your face, instead the plot is advanced fluidly as a part of the game itself. One plays this game in the same way that one plays life- by simply doing it. In this way, then, Half-Life achieves what the other games do not- it makes a break with earlier modes of storytelling and relies on the participation of the player in a synthesized world to produce a story, and an experience of that story. In the words of my old high school english teacher the programmers, "Show you, rather than tell you."

Half-Life is, of course, not perfect. To provide its story much must be left to the player to discern. Further, the amount of flexibility left open to the player is relatively small. Half-Life is a gaming experience that has been described as being "on rails," in that you must go through the same areas in the same order. Yet, still, in exchange for this rigidity we get a story that takes advantage of the capabilities of the computer instead of fights against them. The player doesn't learn about the character, the player becomes the character, and Gordon's story becomes your story.

So, what is the state of video storytelling? Uncertain. Moves have been made in the direction of real innovation, just as others cling to old, trusted forms of narration. Yet, amidst all this, the potential for something new and different is plain. Time, experience, and increasing sophistication can only bring new and unique storytelling experiences to computers everywhere.

With language came the epic poem, with writing came the novel, with movies came brilliant imagery...

We can only wait with eagerness to see what this new medium will bring to enrich the human experience.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

actual science fiction conceptsAs opposed to, um, fictional science fiction concepts?

Friday, September 17, 2004 8:03:00 PM  

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