Saturday, July 10, 2010

Justifying Systems

When I hear people describe something as "gamey", usually they're not paying a compliment. It's an odd way to bag on a game when you think about it, and I can't think of an analogy in any other medium, except maybe comics. Sometimes, such as in the upcoming Bulletstorm or last year's Borderlands, gamey qualities are designed into the experience. These are games where brightly colored messanges, numbers, or loot drops burst forth from enemy corpses, like a violent Peggle, in a manner that has no bearing on realism and is only comparable to what's been seen before in other games including slot machines and such. Hence, "gamey". These effects are there to heighten the sensory pleasures resulting from the basic actions available to the player.

In most cases, though, games described as "gamey" in the negative sense are the ones where insufficient effort went into integrating certain game systems with the aesthetics and fiction of the gameworld. When a game expects the player to blindly accept why something works a certain way, simply because that's how the thing works in other previous games, I think the game threatens to become gamey-in-a-bad-way. Something about the experience of such games feels grating on the senses, as for every instant you begin to feel immersed while playing, something about the design shoves you back from the brink and reminds you that you're just sitting there on your couch playing a game. I think one of the responsibilities of narrative design as a discipline is to find meaningful ways of justifying game systems within the gameworld, in order to avoid that gamey feeling where it's not supposed to belong, and I'd like to talk more about that here.

In Mass Effect 2, still my favorite game so far this year (next to Super Street Fighter IV), the game goes to extremely elaborate lengths to justify why you get to do the things you get to do at the beginning of pretty much every Western role-playing game, such as defining your character's appearance and proficiencies. The game opens with this completely wild and apocalyptic sci-fi explanation of how come a character introduced in the previous game now has to start over from scratch. It's the BioWare equivalent of the scene at the beginning of every Metroid game where Samus inevitably loses all her power-ups, or when Death shows up five minutes into a Castlevania to shake down the foppish hero for his cloak and rapier (I guess to fill us with latent righteous rage from all those times the big kids stole our lunch money and knocked the binders from our hands). But you know what? That opening scene in Mass Effect 2 worked really well overall. It showed you the people behind this game weren't asleep at the wheel, that they'd thought of a way to meet your expectations for story continuity as well as your expectations going into a new sci-fi role-playing game. They didn't just throw the conventional character-creation screen at you without any reason. Compare this with the approach taken by White Knight Chronicles 2, a Japanese role-playing game whose solution to story continuity is to prevent you from playing unless you've finished the previous game. Imagine if they checked for your past Harry Potter ticket stubs when standing in line to see the latest one.

Games sometimes go too far to justify everything about them. A friend and I would often debate whether Assassin's Creed was guilty of this, as an example. The heads-up display, interface, and even the loading screens of that game were heavily explained away in the sci-fi metastory of a guy stuck in an evil MRI device that tapped into latent memories of his dark-ages ancestors. I told him I liked what they were going for, while he felt the game was trying way too hard, to the point where aspects of the user interface became highly distracting to him while he was playing, because they felt so contrived. According to my friend, the game didn't need to justify why button prompt tips appeared onscreen or why you had a map -- these are things we as game players accept without question. And he's probably right. Even still, I felt Assassin's Creed had its heart in the right place trying to marry these types of interface conventions in a game set a thousand years ago. If the sci-fi elements of the story were handled more gracefully, for instance as a big metaworld reveal later in the game foreshadowed only by the interface, I think it could have all come together in an amazing way. We would have experienced the revelation that certain conventions we just accepted as game players were in fact connected to the story in a meaningful way. Instead, the game frontloads exposition about why you have a health bar and a map, which sags the pace of the story and distracts from what was interesting about the game -- namely, the cities you could run around in.

A game is not responsible to justify every little system or gameplay contrivance to the player, because as players we're willing to accept a lot of things at face value without any explanation. At the same time, I think we appreciate it when game systems are gracefully explained and justified. So, the narrative design process involves looking for opportunities to integrate aspects of game systems design into the gameworld in a way that makes sense and is interesting to the player without being disruptive.

A classic example of justifying game interface conventions is the original Command & Conquer, with its wonderful installation sequence on down to its robotic female battlefield announcer. Like any PC game of the time, you had to install this one to your hard drive before you could play. But you didn't merely install that game -- due to its amazing animated install sequence, you felt like you were tapping into a sophisticated battle control interface, like something out of the movie War Games. I always felt that Command & Conquer was a first-person game, where you happen to be looking through your character's eyes at his battle interface, and as a fan I was disappointed in how the series seemed to drift further and further away from this direction rather than embracing it.

Another of my favorite cases of this is from Super Mario 64. As the entire concept of controlling a character from a third-person perspective in 3D, plus having to control the camera, was quite new at this point, the game went out of its way to show you that the "camera" was in fact a little flying cameraman character trailing behind Mario the entire time. I think games that go to such lengths to be internally consistent have a tendency to be great.

The real downfall of this type of thinking is when it leads to the destruction of conventions that exist with good reason. When the fiction of the game trumps the game of the game, the result are some of those games that try to do such things as eliminate all interface at the expense of your ability to play. The most surprising example I can think of is The Getaway, a GTA-inspired PS2 game, which has no onscreen heads-up display whatsoever in the name of cinematic realism in spite of being structured like an open-world game. So, in order to navigate the city during your missions, you have to follow your vehicle's turn signals, since there's no minimap much less any sort of GPS. Problem is, your turn signals can be shattered during the game's numerous chase scenes, leaving you completely blind unless you happen to know your way around London for real. I'm pretty sure even the people who live in London don't know their way around that city. At any rate, when the fiction or presentation of a game starts to get in the way of basic usability, they've probably gone too far. The only HUD-free game I've ever played that handled it pretty well was Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.

There's no formula to this stuff. It needs to be handled artfully on a case by case basis that suits the particular game. I'll continue to defend the original Halo as another outstanding example -- I've met a bunch of people who seem to resent the game's popularity and write Halo off as having merely been in the right place at the right time, but as far as I'm concerned it's probably the most influential game of the last 10 years. The Call of Duty series and just about every other shooter owes a debt to Halo for such common ideas as regenerating health and limited capacity for carrying weapons. These ideas in Halo were so well-thought-out that they felt like completely natural parts of the fiction. Much like Gordon Freeman's HEV suit in Half-Life, which was the reason you as a player felt capable of surviving through an insane situation that was killing everyone else around you, in Halo those recharging energy shields of yours are the ultimate key to your success. They're explained early on as an integral component of your one-of-a-kind armor through an excellent Robocop-style first-person diagnostics sequence that even fictionalizes the decision of whether to invert the controls for looking up and down. Five minutes into Halo, I felt completely absorbed in that world. When a game's tutorial can do that, it's off to a good start.

People don't naturally expect for game mechanics to be justified by the fiction and often don't notice or mind when this isn't done, unless it sticks out. Military shooters have appropriated Halo's regenerative health system but applied it to flesh-and-blood characters who we'd expect to die from one or two bullets, and yet nobody seems to mind too much. Regenerating health may not fit the aesthetics of modern military combat, but a a game mechanic, it works, so most of us think nothing of it. But I think there's a danger of stacking too many inexplicable conventions into a game, which causes the game to begin to lose its identity and feel like a bunch of patchwork ideas. Conversely, I think there's a great benefit to artfully ingraining the mechanics, systems, and feedback of the game into the fiction of what's going on in it. In Oddworld Stranger's Wrath, there's this fantastic crossbow weapon that supports different ammo types. Each ammo type is in fact a different little creature (live ammunition, get it?) with its own weird personality that affords what the ammo type does.

What are some of your own favorite or least favorite examples of games justifying their game systems through the fiction? Can you think of other cases where a game was either trying too hard to root its gameplay in the fiction, or didn't try hard enough?