Wednesday, 9 June 2010

I'm Not a Puppet, I'm a Real Boy

One contradiction present within videogames is that of providing the player with more "freedom" in their actions yet limiting their inputs to a pre-determined set of functions. For example, in my previous blog entry I focused on Red Dead Redemption, a game that offers undeniable scope in its vast Western environment yet constrains the player to a handful of ways in which they can interact with it. Red Dead Redemption is a game that took a team of hundreds, five years to produce yet the game repeats a limited set of mechanics to push the player through the narrative. Riding horses, shooting guns and lassoing criminals are all accepted forms of interaction in Red Dead, programmed onto the game controller for the players disposal. Other, more abstract forms of interacting with the game world however are not performable as the development team could not afford to devote a specific button on the controller to the sole action of "laughing" for example. When I saw a drunk redneck stumble off a balcony due to his intoxicated state I wished to laugh at him in the game in order to highlight his stupidity, perhaps provoking a fight, however I didn't have the option to laugh, so I shot him instead. This is a quick and dirty example of my limited ability to interact with the game world in Red Dead Redemption.

Some games try to offer these abstract interactions, albeit with limited success. Fable for example, a game stuffed with British humour, allows the player to perform a number of contextual actions with the use of the D-Pad. Laughing, shouting, kissing and farting are all options available to the player when interacting with the games NPC (non playable character) population. Unfortunately it's not just the ability to perform such an immature function that allows the player to be immersed into the games simulacra, it is the way the simulation responds. Yet again a quick and dirty example: I am talking to a key character who is giving me a quest, she is relying on my courage and skill to save the entire world that she holds so dear to her heart, yet for the past 3 minutes I have been releasing a continuous burst of audibly horrific farts. Why is she still giving me such responsibility? Surely she would have turned and walked away, identifying me as the socially inept retard that I am. But no, the games inability to respond correctly to such non linear interactions highlights the games simulation. I realise I have spent the last 3 minutes virtually farting, thus causing me to turn off my Xbox in self disgust.

Some genres focus solely on the idea of non linear interactions however, the point and click adventure. Take for example a game that I have been playing recently, Machinarium. This is an independent game created by seven Czechoslovakians funded by their own personal savings. When contrasted with the likes of Red Dead Redemption it seems illogical that it should offer a wider array of experiences. But it does. Machinarium follows the exploits of a robot after he is exiled from his home city, it is up to the player to guide the robot (Josef) back into the city and to overthrow a gang of evil robots known as the Brotherhood. The games control scheme lies solely on the mouse. You click on objects to interact with them. You can raise and lower Josef's height if necessary and must solve constant puzzles in order to continue. Here the audience's pleasure doesn't come from the visceral nature of shooting an outlaw off of his horse ala Red Dead, but rather with the cerebral nature of the games structure, forcing you to think logically and carefully about how to navigate through the game. The control schemes ambiguity is what makes it so entertaining. Of course this brief summary is not quick nor dirty enough, so let me fix that:

I am locked in a prison cell with a depressed looking robot. The cell is small, with a toilet, a light, a small hole in the wall and green moss covering the walls. I engage in a conversation with the melancholy robot, emitting a series of beeps and boops, both equally indecipherable. A thought bubble emits from the head of the robot, a spliff contained within. So now I have my task, i must get my friend a spliff, for what purpose I don't really know. I rip off a piece of toilet roll and store it in my chest, this will obviously form the exterior skin of my narcotic creation. I raise Josef up and scoop some green moss from the cell wall, storing it within myself. Now at first I thought this was it, I tried to combine the two items to form the spliff that would allow me to progress, Josef shook his head in a defiant fashion. What had I missed? I then placed the moss on the cell light, frying it into a brownish subtance, this was it. I was able to combine the two items which I selflessly gave to the robot. In his delight at smoking such a beautifully crafted item his arm fell off. I picked it up and stored it in my chest, it's safe to say the arm would come in handy later. I then went on to break out of the cell

This is just one example that highlights how the game allows you to interact so extensively with the game world, more so than most big budget releases. It's alright spending the time and resources building such huge, detailed environments, but if you can't interact with them what's the point.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Rockstar Redeemed... Kind Of

When video games were first created, they were structured around the player advancing to higher levels which in turn increased the difficulty, eventually forcing the player to abandon his progress and accept defeat, only to try again another day. This system would keep early gamers coming back time after time to drop more money into a never ending series of challenges. However, upon gaming growing from the leaderboard centric experiences of old to the blockbuster experiences of today something had to be added, a narrative.

One problem with stitching a linear narrative upon a non linear experience is that of contradiction. If I the player wish to progress in this non linear game then I must conform to the linearity imposed by the narrative. Another problem brought about by developers having to provide context for the players actions is that of the actions themselves. Think back to Tetris, a game unarguably entertaining, however a narrative simply could not be attached to the games underlying mechanics, to do so would be dumb.

Long renowned as the kings of the non linear experience, Rockstar (creators of the GTA franchise) have consistently struggled with some of the problems brought about by a Narrative. The experience must include the trite increase in difficulty, an established videogame trope, whilst also telling a balanced narrative. For those unaware of the narrative arc as proposed by Todorov, after the climax there must be a sense of equilibrium, a calm indicating that the problems and complications presented within the narrative have been defeated. Obviously this calm doesn't fit with the ramping difficulty previously mentioned.

One (of many) criticism levelled at Rockstar's latest entry into the Grand Theft Auto franchise (GTA IV) was that the protagonist's motives weren't fitting with the themes the game proposed and the ideologies of the character himself. The main protagonist Niko would claim to search for a better life, promoting peace over violence during the games early hours whilst happily accepting tasks which required him to murder hundreds of people for the promise of money. This contradiction (a recurring theme it seems) alienated players from Niko's narrative struggle which undermined many of the things the game aimed to achieve.

So it was Rockstar San Diego's turn to try and repair some of the bad reputation Rockstar North garnered with GTA IV, and how ironic they would attempt to do so with Red Dead Redemption. One element immediately in RDR's favour was that the theme of redemption was ambiguous enough to allow Rockstar the freedom to create solid game mechanics without impeding on the story they are trying to tell.

Red Dead Redemption follows protagonist John Marston, a former gang member who has since started a new life with his wife and son. However, the government aren't keen on letting John forget his former life so easily, blackmailing him into hunting down his former gang members to make the wild west a safer place, under threat that if he declines they will murder his family. This narrative naturally allows for the protagonist to kill many people and accept instruction from others due to the lives of his loved ones hanging in the balance. And so RDR immediately does what GTA IV couldn't, creates a narrative that provides context for the players actions without it feeling forced or implausible.

The main body of the game isn't why i came away so impressed with RDR however. Yes there is the fact that you have to hunt down your former gang members to see your family again, which is entertaining, but what follows is why I believe RDR to be a masterpiece. I mentioned earlier that games do not run the full length of the narrative arc, finishing with the climax rather than the new equilibrium, well RDR changes this. Upon hunting down your former gang members you are reunited with your family and left alone to live out your life on a farm. The theme of redemption doesn't just translate to John's struggle to leave his past life, it also relates to John's struggle to be a good father and husband, and the games final act allows you to do just this. Forgetting the need to keep the difficulty at an all time high, the games final chapter for the most part relaxes the pace whilst challenging you to tender the farm, deliver corn, take your son hunting and herd cattle, all for the benefit of your family. I won't spoil the games final moments but I will say that this is one title which leaves the player feeling ultimately satisfied with the characters and narrative throughout the ENTIRE experience. Not a feat many have accomplished.

Whilst videogames and narrative don't exactly go hand in hand, Rockstar San Diego proved it's not impossible to place a satisfying narrative within a non linear experience. RDR presents a narrative that is both consistent with the game mechanics and one allowed to fully flower come the games final moments, leaving the player speechless once the credits role. Rockstar redeemed then.