Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Narrative Recognition

The narrative of a game should exist only to make the act of playing feel more meaningful, by giving context to the game's systems and scenarios. Even a simple narrative implementation can make a game feel more significant. The simplest and best example I can think of is Space Invaders, the iconic 1978 arcade game whose entire narrative is so conservative, it's limited to the two words of its title. The high concept of defending Earth from evil aliens combined with those expressive-yet-abstract shapes encroaching toward the bottom of the screen to create what's probably the world's first "epic" videogame. But if you took Space Invaders and changed only the name, maybe to something more literal like "Shoot the Sprites", the high stakes wouldn't have been there and players' imaginations wouldn't have run wild from it. The mechanics would have still been great for their time, but I think the narrative is what brought them to life. Space Invaders isn't a typical example of a game narrative, though there's at least some fictional context there, whereas a lot of games have none. It's OK for a game to have little to no narrative, it just better have some truly outstanding mechanics. Tetris might not have needed narrative, but Myst and Puzzle Quest did.

For these and other games that choose to provide the player with a fictional context, one of the best techniques they can use to draw the player into the experience in a profound and memorable way is to anticipate the player's emotions and expectations about the play experience itself, and recognize them at appropriate times through narrative feedback. 'Narrative recognition' is the shortest term I could come up with to describe this simple and practical technique. It does require some daring on a writer's and designer's part, though like everything else we do to avoid mediocrity, it's worth chancing. Today, as many games have grown more literal in their presentations, the minimum requirement for the player's imagination has diminished. However, for anyone responsible for crafting game content, the ability to imagine what's going on inside the player's head at any given time, and use this to spark the player's own imagination, continues to be key. Autoaim systems and other adaptive-difficulty tricks can make up for players' skill differentials, but I'm referring to the skill of interpreting a player's feelings beyond those of pleasure or frustration, which cannot be gauged as easily as how many health packs he's used or how many headshots he's scored. This is a skill that can only be cultivated from playing a lot of games, observing a lot of players playing games, or preferably both. And I think it's essential to crafting well paced experiences in a certain tone, especially if wit or humor is integral to that tone.

Think of a game that felt deeply personal to you. I bet you're either thinking of an incredibly time-consuming or competitive game with social elements like World of Warcraft or Counter-Strike, or the sort of game I'm writing about here -- the kind that recognized your expectations as a player and fed them back to you in a surprising, insightful way. The feeling you get from this is the videogame equivalent of meeting someone with the same favorite band as you.

Sometimes you're lucky to get this feeling early on in a game, such as in Half-Life 2, when in the opening scene, a professor is hammering you with exposition, leaving you free to explore his office... where you'll more than likely knock over one of his computer monitors, causing him to interrupt his speech and chew you out for not paying attention. It's a great little moment. The designers knew you were gonna screw around in there, and placed that little trap for you. In almost every shooter before Half-Life 2, you can bunnyhop like a moron in the middle of even the gravest of monologues. But in Half-Life 2, this opening scene informs you that you have a real presence in this world beyond just the presence of your guns. The rest of the game didn't have such moments in it but the placement of this very first one was important to quickly immersing the player in a world rich with detail, and setting an expectation for bits of comic relief amid all the sci-fi seriousness.

There are dozens of other examples, though on some level it's surprising there aren't more. In Uncharted 2, relatively early on there's a sequence in which you're introduced to the grenade-throwing mechanics. Nate Drake is well-positioned behind cover as a bunch of thugs bear down on him. Fortunately, a box of grenades happens to be in arm's reach. So of course Drake, speaking for the player, quips something like "well isn't this convenient", referring to the unlimited grenade box while acknowledging the cliché, subverting it, and turning it into one of the game's great self-referential moments. Without that little bit of nudging-and-winking dialogue, the scene would have been just another grenade-throwing tutorial.

Minor cases like that can be surprisingly poignant. In the classic SNES role-playing game Chrono Trigger, someone at some point makes the joke about how the protagonist doesn't talk much, a profound moment that for the first time points the spotlight at the silent-protagonist trope common to so many games. This same joke then appeared seemingly in almost every other game with a silent protagonist (including Half-Life 2), so it lost its impact after the umpteenth time, but the first few times it was great.

On the other hand, Saints Row does a brilliant job of subverting the silent protagonist cliché by having the protagonist blurt out some sort of ultra-offensive Silent Bob-style one-liner when you least expect it, just when the story has convinced you to start taking it seriously. It's legitimately funny stuff.

Then there's Max Payne, in which the hero once dreams he's a killer inside a videogame, in one of the game's most surreal and memorable moments. This too became a tired idea as more and more games fed you the line about how "this isn't a game", hoping you'd never heard it before. No More Heroes gets it right, by breaking the fourth wall on several occasions towards the end, conceding its own ridiculousness in moments that drive the game's self-effacing charm through the roof. 'This is a game' is No More Heroes' message, delivered playfully and perversely, at the height of the player's investment in the story.

Narrative recognition doesn't require breaking the fourth wall. Another one of my favorite examples is in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in the excellent Dark Brotherhood quest line, where you've decided to become a contract killer and work among a surly bunch of assassins who don't take kindly to newcomers. Just as you finally grow to like them and earn their respect, you receive a secret mission to kill them all. It's timed perfectly. You kill scores of things in this game but none are tougher to put down than those guys in the assassin's guild, because the designers made you work for their affection, made you feel attached to them, and only then asked that you turn on them -- a move that's made less despicable knowing that you're all following the same strict code of conduct.

There are simpler and cleaner examples than this. In the original Halo, the option to invert the controls for looking up and down is couched as part of a diagnostics test at the beginning of the game, when you're learning about your special armor. A lesser game would have thrown this option into a menu and not integrated it into the narrative. But the makers of Halo figured correctly that the last thing a guy like me would expect was a fictional justification for inverting the Y-axis on my controller. All I expected was to be bored by a tutorial.

What do all these games have in common? They have in common these crafted moments designed to anticipate exactly what the audience is feeling about the game at a particular time, and feed back on those feelings, sometimes merely by acknowledging them. I know you're frustrated. I know you've done this before. I know you don't think you care about these characters. These types of concessions can have a real impact. Narrative reversals are integral to storytelling -- I'm referring specifically to when the game narrative is used to reference the act of playing, not the story itself. Such acts of recognition are at the center of effective game narrative. They're among the most meaningful ways for a game to communicate with a player. One of the best feelings in life is getting what you want without having to ask -- at a restaurant, at work, in a relationship, you name it. Games have the ability to provide this exhilarating feeling using narrative techniques.

Characters and gameworlds that tend to correctly guess at the player's feelings and feed back on them are the best kinds. They're typically bound to games that don't break when you push at their boundaries, as when you knock over that monitor in Half-Life 2, realizing you can knock over all sorts of shit throughout the entire game. Games like that let you explore the upper limits of the constraints of their rules. In last year's Demon's Souls, one of the first characters you meet in that oppressive and bleak gameworld is a cynical ghost of a man who's given up trying to escape. He more or less calls you a fool for attempting to do better. It's straight-up reverse psychology, and it's fantastic. Here's a game that knows it's challenging. Why shouldn't the world have characters in it who've become frustrated by those challenges? Not only does it fit the fiction, it affirms the player's own first impressions about the game. That ghost is a pretty sympathetic character. But then, if you want to kill him for being such a noob, you can go right ahead and do that too, says Demon's Souls. That game covers its bases, which is partly why its audience likes it so much. Those who gave it a chance tend to make a deep connection with it, because its designers knew you were going to have to fight for every inch in that game, and anticipated and fed back on the range of emotions you'd feel along the way.

Most games with a narrative component can and should have moments like the ones I've mentioned here, because their designers ought to be concerned with what gives their game its distinct tone, as well as the likeliest emotional dispositions with which their players will approach any given scenario. This happens when designers think of players as individuals rather than as groups. When games speak to you on a personal level, when you experience one of those rare but great moments of recognition and reflection while playing, that's not coming from some guy following up on data from a focus test or gunning for the sci-fi shooter market. Instead, it's coming from someone trying to reach you, with the confidence -- the presumptuous authorial arrogance -- that he knows what you must be thinking at a certain time. How dare he? And yet he really is speaking to you in that moment, through his game.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Proper Villainy

Considering how many games exist for the promise of bringing you exciting action and adventure, it's a shame how few of them have memorable villains. Like a good story in general, a proper villain can help motivate a player to push his way through a game, past the difficulty spikes and through the inevitable rough patches, by adding meaning and context to the game mechanics as well as the promise of more variety and surprises. There are a few reasons why villains are hard to do in games, but games like Portal, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Final Fantasy VII, System Shock II, or even Super Mario Bros. and Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! are evidence of why investing in a proper villain is worth it.

One reason there are so few proper villains in games is implied by the word itself: The concept of villainy is kind of dumb. It's not how the world works. In reality, what happens is that when two people want opposite and mutually-exclusive things, they enter into an antagonistic relationship. Villainy is just an extreme form of antagonism where, most often, either the antagonist's motives are not rational or simply not well-developed. Videogames' misguided attempts at villains usually hinge on grandiose schemes such as destroying the world or other sadistic, evil acts. They're bad guys who overcompensate for their flat desires with huge lifebars. But it's impossible to relate to their motivations so these villains are doomed to obscurity. Instead, a proper antagonist gets under your skin and makes things personal in a way you could understand, even appreciate. Portal's GlaDos, despite being a machine, has the attitude of a spurned lover taking passive-aggressive revenge on a relationship that's slipped from her grasp. In Super Mario Bros., Bowser wants the Princess just as much as you. It's ironic that inhuman characters such as these turn out to be much easier to empathize with than the dime-a-dozen megalomaniacs waiting for you at the end of most games. But that's the key -- if the antagonist is impossible to empathize with, then he's just another villain, and more than likely doesn't have the substance to be memorable as a character.

There's a more-practical reason why it's tough to have a proper antagonist in a game, which is that most games in the action or action adventure genres are designed around kill-or-be-killed scenarios, leaving little room for character development. When they present you with an antagonist character and a combat situation, one of you needs to be defeated and it's not going to be you if you keep trying. So then, either the antagonist is knocked out of the game or you get the cliché of the antagonist escaping just in the nick of time, or even worse, the one where he beats you up in a cutscene after you kick his ass in-game. What many games do to counteract this is they present you with a hodgepodge of disposable antagonists, in the form of different boss characters and such. But the narrative consequence is that the forces of antagonism in the game are diluted. Unless it's Metal Gear Solid, the story likely doesn't make time to develop most of these characters, and the artists and combat designers have to carry the burden of making them interesting when the fiction should be holding up its end of the bargain.

Conversely, the reason why games like Portal, System Shock II, BioShock, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and even Punch-Out!! succeed with their antagonists is that their stories are structured around an ever-present-but-physically-inaccessible antagonist, someone you're always aware of but can't get to until the climax of the game.

If a gameworld cannot support the idea of an ever-present but physically-inaccessible antagonist, then the burden is on the enemy faction to be empathetic, assuming this is compatible with the aesthetic of the gameworld. The enemy faction or factions you're fighting -- the various goons that populate the gameworld and are the predicates of the gameplay -- might as well be interesting. There's really no downside. And giving them empathetic qualities is a good way to make them interesting in most cases. In Geometry Wars, the evasive little green shapes are the best, most memorable enemies in the game because they have an empathetic sense of self-preservation. In Halo, the little Grunts freak out when you kill one of the Elites leading them into battle. In Panzer Dragoon Orta, the hordes of enemies forcing you to dodge a hailstorm of bullets panic as you gun them down, making you think about what it must be like to be on the bad guys' side in a shoot-'em-up. In Plants vs. Zombies, the zombies are sincerely hungry for brains -- you'd want to give them your brains if you didn't need them. Since most traditional games revolve around violent conflict, in these games, the forces of antagonism ought to express empathetic behaviors, even in the strict confines of a combat encounter. It's totally doable and relatively inexpensive in many cases, just the cost of writing and audio in many cases (plus a high premium in scripting, animation, and artificial intelligence for all the shooters out there). Even F.E.A.R.'s genetically cloned supersoldiers in their full body armor show a shred of humanity in their final moments simply by saying "Oh, shit...!" as you strafe around the corner in slow motion with your shotgun drawn.

While memorable antagonists are rare, antagonists are some of the most memorable characters in games. That's because they often present far greater opportunities for character development than protagonists do. Look at games like BioShock and Portal, whose protagonists primarily serve as vessels for the player to immerse themselves into the experience, yet whose antagonists are extremely well-crafted, remarkable characters. Part of why the combination of invisible-protagonist and ever-present-antagonist works so well in these games is that, when the climactic moments of the story crop up, the antagonists' escalating actions feel very personal. And when these highly motivating personal affronts are coming from characters whose own motives you can empathize with on some level -- characters for whom the old "we're not so different, you and I" speech goes without saying -- you're more likely to be playing a game that's going to stick with you after you're finished playing it. Which are the kinds of games I most like and most want to make.