Wednesday, June 23, 2010

You Don't Have to Say It

I felt very fortunate to have attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo last week, same as I've felt every single other year at the show since it started in 1995. The main difference in my experience this year was that I really only saw just the one game I came there to demonstrate, so I spent mornings and nights catching up online on everything I missed. And looking back on all those many great-looking games that were shown, the one I wish I could have seen if I could pick just one is Journey, from the makers of Flower -- primarily because that game is pursuing a goal I happen to care about very much, which, as creative director Jenova Chen puts it, is to "tell a story without using any language" (source). Wordless storytelling is a minimal and powerful technique that's well explored and understood in other media, ranging from all-ages movies like WALL-E to blood-soaked manga like Lone Wolf and Cub, yet in mainstream games it's gone out of vogue due to our industry's focus on technology and content storage. After all, why would we remove words from our games when our storage media let us cram in more words than ever? Jenova Chen and team at least recognize that this isn't a rhetorical question. Wordless storytelling won't be a first for Journey (Chen's already done it very well with Flower), so I'd like to talk about other cases where this has worked well in the past, and why. I'm not advocating for it as a path most games should take, but then again if more games would just shut up, it wouldn't be the worst thing.

When I think of great wordless stories in games, the first example I think of is the 1987 arcade classic, Double Dragon. On the surface its story seems like the worst kind of gaming cliché: a pretty girl is kidnapped, so her boyfriend takes matters into his own hands by beating to blink-away-death everyone who stands between him and her (video). The difference with Double Dragon, as in all great things, is in the details: One of the thugs in the opening scene is wearing a yellow jump suit and carrying a machine gun; there's a tricked-out Trans Am in the protagonist's garage, and the building he emerges from bears the name "English Tear". These details gave the world a sense of depth for its time, inviting interesting questions. Double Dragon is one of many games where you're supposed to save the girl. But it's the first such game that made me wonder why she got kidnapped in the first place. It's the first action game I ever read anything into. These guys didn't kidnap this girl because she was pretty. They did it to get back at you for something.

There's more to Double Dragon. You can play the game simultaneously with another player, and if the two of you survive to the end, the grand twist is that the two of you must end up fighting each other to win the heart of the girl you were working together to rescue. There are no words used to express any of this (except a poorly translated you-win screen at the very end), yet it conveyed a complex relationship -- a good old fashioned love triangle, in an action game whose story was delivered without any language. The mechanics of Double Dragon were incredibly satisfying to me in their day, but it was the story, with its perfect expository scene and great endgame sequence, that makes the experience of it unforgettable for me. I've appreciated the power of wordless storytelling in games ever since then.

Other games even before Double Dragon's time were doing similar stuff. Several years prior, Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner created an amazing computer game in Karateka, considered the first game with cutscenes in it. Karateka has a similar rescue-the-girl premise as Double Dragon, and likewise went to surprising lengths at building up its characters in what was a relatively simple game. The difference for me was that Double Dragon's story connected the player to the inciting incident of the story -- we see a girl take a hard hit and get hauled off moments before our character emerges, whereas in Karateka, our hero shows up in a separate scene after we see the fair princess get locked up in a cell. We don't empathize with the Karateka protagonist as quickly as we do in Double Dragon because there's less of an implied connection between the player character and the girl, and less of a sense of urgency to get her before something terrible happens. Nevertheless, Karateka and Double Dragon were the '80s equivalent of blockbuster action games, and they pushed the envelope in terms of cinematic storytelling in the medium. The reason they didn't rely on words, I guess, must be at least partly due to the technical constraint that there was no easy way they could have. But by having to give exposition and establish a setting and a mission without being able to use any words, these games delivered story in a far more elegant way than most modern games do. I think those techniques absolutely are extensible to today's games and could be used to tell the sorts of deeper, longer stories that today's players expect.

Elegant storytelling is conservative storytelling. Scenes should be enriched with as much subtextual meaning as possible before words are used to give any of it away. The more space and time needed to establish characters, places, and motives, the more the story runs the risk of becoming bloated and getting in the way of the gameplay. I don't mean to overgeneralize, mind you, since some of my favorite narrative experiences in games -- from Ultima V to Metal Gear Solid to Planescape: Torment to Fire Emblem -- happen to be very, very wordy. But I have a deep respect for games that can immerse me into the experience without having to talk me into why I should care.

For example, that game Journey evidently takes inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus, which is a relatively more recent example of a game that delivered most of its story, including its own very strong expository scene, using very little language at all (video). And somewhere in between these two cases was Super Metroid, one of my favorite 16-bit games, which features an amazing endgame sequence that's rich with action and emotion yet goes over without so much as a word (video).

I happen to think players generally deserve more credit than most games give them, both in their capacity to learn and use complex overlapping systems and in their capacity to infer meaning. Occasionally there's a game like Braid or like Myst that invites players to explore with barely a word of explanation, and such games have a way of capturing fiercely loyal audiences. Because absolutely everyone, young and old, likes to feel smart. Conversely, absolutely no one, young or old, likes feeling condescended to. And so, games that express silent confidence in the player's ability to pull details out of the scene pay their players a great compliment by giving them the benefit of the doubt that they'll understand what's going on even though there isn't on-the-nose dialogue there to explain everything away.

Of my written work that's been published, most has been published online, with too little regard for length. Having hard constraints -- whether it's for an author working in print or a game developer limited by time or technology -- can bring about good practices that come undone when those same constraints disappear. Then it takes years for games like Journey to come around to reintroduce old ideas for a new generation. But you know? Works for me.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Knowing vs. Growing Protagonists

In recent years more and more games have made me feel like an actor who doesn't know his lines in the middle of a performance. The set dressing changes but the experience is the same: For a while, everything is happening according to the script, until we reach the point where I start screwing up my part. Pregnant pauses and awkwardness ensue. Failure in highly scripted games feels almost embarrassing, like failing to solve a simple puzzle, because the star's performance as the hero/soldier in these games isn't even intended to be challenging.

I think all this is a byproduct of what happens when games are chiefly designed to fulfill a particular power fantasy for the largest number of players, even at the expense of giving those players the ability to relate to the situation. There's an inherent dissonance to playing a realistic-looking game as a highly experienced character of some sort -- a spy or a supersoldier or whoever -- when you yourself don't know how to perform actions that should be second nature for the protagonist character. And judging by the trends, mainstream retail gaming's answer is to reduce difficulty, automate, and front-load lots of contrived training in order to ease you in. This feels like formula. So what does it take to provide a genuinely different and affecting experience in a mainstream game at this point? I think the answer is closely linked to the design of the protagonist character, and his or her persona, abilities, and relationship to the world of the game.

It used to be more common for games to ramp the player's abilities. Classic games like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda demonstrated how compelling it is to start off as a character with great potential but limited ability and gradually gain access to a wider variety of powerful moves. This achieves a few things: It gives the player incentives to continue exploring, knowing that the next cool ability may be right around the next corner; it allows for intricate level designs that make the much-maligned concept of backtracking seem palatable if the player is later able to traverse areas in surprising new ways and faster than before; and it provides a natural ramp for a game's challenge and difficulty, by allowing early encounters to be simple and later encounters to be tougher and more complex. I love games that have these qualities, whether they're Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Metroid Prime or Batman: Arkham Asylum. But it seems to me they're less common now than they used to be. I don't think this is because this type of structure became unpopular. I think it's because the pursuit of realism in games (or rather the idea of "superficial authenticity") became relatively more popular.

If you're a supersoldier or a spy, you're what I'd call a "knowing protagonist", someone who's been training your whole life for this mission of a lifetime you're about to go on. The world of that mission does not support the idea that you'd somehow gain an incredible new ability during the mission, since you're already at the height of your prowess. You might find an experimental weapon or some cool new gadgets, and you might ride on vehicles or have to go through a level without killing anybody or something. But the pressure's squarely on the level design and possibly the story rather than on the ramp-up of player abilities to keep you engrossed. On the other hand, if you're somebody like Link, a kid with humble origins but a lot of potential, you start off with nowhere to go but up and you're what I'd call a "growing protagonist". As well, having a gameworld that's more imaginative than real opens up opportunities for Link or others like him to grow in power in a dramatic way.

A protagonist character with humble beginnings doesn't have the natural, superficial appeal of an already-experienced character such as a tough-as-nails supersoldier or an unstoppable assassin. But by starting out strong, these types of characters naturally and severely constrain the internal logic of the gameworlds they inhabit, forcing designers to front-load play mechanics and put all the pressure on level designs and story to keep things interesting. Max Payne, Master Chief, Markus Fenix, and Soap MacTavish all start with the same exact abilities they end with -- the guns change, the scenery changes, the story changes, but the moment-to-moment gameplay basically stays the same the whole time. I love the games these guys are from, too. But their games have influenced two whole generations of similar stuff that seemed to muscle out many of the Links and the Alucards and the Samuses, in favor of more true-to-life and arguably less interesting characters and worlds.

Reality-based games may be a big draw for mainstream developers or publishers, but reality imposes some really awful constraints on games. For instance, how do you teach a player the basic rules when you're also trying to make him believe that he's that badass supersoldier looking tough on the box art? The two goals are almost contradictory and yet almost every action or adventure game faces the challenge of building immersion while teaching the player how to navigate the environment.

Some games manage very clever solutions. I loved playing as a Russian grunt at the beginning of Call of Duty 2, learning to throw potatoes like grenades because grenades were too costly for the Soviets to train with. What a fantastic bit of exposition. Running the training course as the new guy at the beginning of Modern Warfare, while an obvious solution on some level, also worked well to draw players into the experience while making them empathize with the protagonist character -- even a silent protagonist like Soap MacTavish. After all, Soap was going through exactly the same thing as the player -- learning, training, trying to fit in. By the time Modern Warfare 2 came around, Soap was no longer wet behind the ears, so developer Infinity Ward did something brilliant by making him a nonplayer helper character (at least when we first meet him) and once again cast you as someone still learning the ropes.

Batman: Arkham Asylum also did a fantastic job of justifying the player's learning. Batman is a perfect example of a character who should be at the height of his power at the beginning of a story, unless it's his origin story. But in Arkham Asylum, developer Rocksteady Games justifies making him a "growing protagonist" by telling a story of a routine Batman mission that happens to go pretty badly wrong... leading to Batman being physically unprepared for what's to come and having to scrounge up additional tools from the Batmobile, his secret Bat Cave, and so on. Batman's growth is further expressed by his suit becoming more and more tattered over time -- he physically appears more experienced by the end. The moments where Batman gains new powers in the game feel pretty forced from a story perspective, but they enable the open-ended structure and that immensely satisfying feeling of having escalating powers and abilities.

A protagonist character's status in his world at the beginning of a game is the foundation for the internal logic that structures the player's progress. If you start off as a supersoldier, there's not a lot of room to grow. You might succeed against all odds, but no one's going to promote you if you're already Master Chief. Or if two hours into the experience you already have your own team, your own spaceship, and carte blanche to do pretty much whatever in the galaxy as in Mass Effect, then no wonder you're going to wind up feeling a bit let down by the shallow systems governing character progress -- there's no real room to grow, not within the constraints of a "hard science" world where you start out on top. On the other hand, in BioWare's own Knights of the Old Republic, your character dramatically gained power, becoming a Jedi and gaining all its perks at record speed... something that felt almost suspiciously too good to be true until the game's big reveal that completely justified your character's remarkable ability to grow in power. Of course, the role-playing genre tends to heavily revolve around the concept of character progression, but almost any kind of game can use fiction to justify and support progression of the player's abilities and a smooth ramp of the complexity of the game rules.

So, coming back to the question posed at the beginning: How to satisfy the mainstream power fantasy while avoiding the dissonance of having the player's lack of experience with a game collide with the protagonist character's strength and know-how? There's no formulaic answer, of course. But games that work hard at this problem I think tend have tighter internal logic, more empathetic protagonists, and a stronger structure than games that just assume you want to be a supersoldier and that you're OK with a few minutes of obligatory tutorial at the beginning even if it has nothing to do with the plot. Assassin's Creed II is a good recent example, a game that had a ton of natural appeal through its fantasy of becoming a cool-as-ice assassin stalking through the back alleys of rennaissance Italy -- but you had to earn your way into that role, learning the ropes as you went along. I didn't like the first couple of hours of that game as much as the rest (I'll come back to this when I write more about exposition), but I think playing through the "origin story" of Ezio made the brunt of the experience of that game all the more rewarding.

In short, I think it's a good thing for a gameworld to justify the protagonist character's ability to change during the course of the game. If I could make whatever game I wanted, I'd make one with a protagonist character who has a significant capacity to grow throughout the game, as a reflection of the player's own growing familiarity with the game rules.