Recently, rumors started circulating that Bethesda may be considering the city of Boston, Massachusetts, as the primary setting for the next Fallout game, theoretically the 4th numbered sequel. Though this rumor hasn’t been confirmed, and is contrary to earlier statements, but it seems plausible. Not only was The City on a Hill obliquely referenced in Fallout 3 via the mysterious civilization known as The Commonwealth (and “The Institute”, theoretically a scientific society emerging from MIT), but considering Bethesda’s familiarity with the Eastern seaboard, it makes sense for them to set the game in a location that’s within their geographic wheelhouse.
Last week I proffered an editorial argument about the aspects of the Fallout series that are uniquely Western, my conclusion being that setting games on the East Coast carries with it a loss of identity for what makes Fallout so refreshing in a genre quickly becoming inundated with rivals, rehashes, and pretenders.
It seemed a rather fruitful topic, and I was delighted to see so much feedback from Fallout Fans. After all, this is “The Dialogue Tree”, not “The Screed Reeds” or the “Mahogany Monologues”, and in the end I like to get a conversation going above all else!
Big shout out to No Mutants Allowed, by the way. I’ve teased them in the past, but honestly, that site is still the BEST (and longest running) place to get Fallout news, features, and intelligent discussion for Fallout fans.
But to make my opinion clear, I did like Fallout 3, especially at first.
Like many longtime fans of the series, that initial gameplay trailer gave me withdrawal symptoms I didn’t even know I had; when I popped that disc into my tray late 2008, I went through an almost Jet-induced Fallout frenzy, playing it at all hours of the night for two weeks straight while losing plenty of sleep in the process.
But as with my eyelids on the subsequent workdays, the magic of the game didn’t hold up over time. Or at least not like it had with the originals. Hence my prior diatribe was as much a search for what exactly it was that made them (and in my opinion, New Vegas) superior as it was a pronouncement of the Western influences I think may be the cause.
Also, I admit a main beef I have with Boston specifically is, as a “cradle of American history” there’s an almost certain chance we’ll see the Enclave again. After defeating them twice (thrice if you count Broken Steel separately), it’s past time to let the faction die already.
However, just because Fallout 3 has tarnished, doesn’t make it terrible. It has plenty of material worth exploring in future sequels, I just don’t think this means the Western stories must die out to make way for them. If anything, I’m of the mind that there are now two different Fallout series at this point; one focused on the East, one the West, both equally valid . . . but then, I’m getting ahead of myself.
For what I’m discussing today is nothing short of pure, unadulterated (but hopefully still informed) speculation! The time-honored tradition of fans everywhere! Looking at something we enjoy far too much and saying, “What if this were to happen next?”
So in this spirit, I’m going to hop into my rebuilt Chrysalis Highwayman here, and take a virtual road trip through a post-nuclear America!
We’re searching for spots that not only could be viable venues for the series, but should be. Locations that for whatever reason, call it fate, call it karma, but for whatever reason (Ray), are places where setting the next Fallout just makes sense.
I’ve got plenty of energy cells in the tank, some Sugar Bombs to munch on, and the radio’s picking up songs from the 1950′s for some reason. Well, the motor’s running- so hop in and Away. We. Go!
Yes, yes, I know. I just spent a whole article saying western states are the heart of Fallout. But aside from the plot considerations I alluded to, there’s a major reason why the Boston rumor has as much credibility as it does.
Not only is the Northeast mostly untapped in the Fallout world, but considering the popularity of the game (and the supposed “lackluster” success of New Vegas) a direct, linear progression from Fallout 3 makes so much sense from a sales perspective that Bethesda would have to be pretty dumb to not follow up with Fallout: New Fan Service. Say what you will about their abilities as game designers – lord knows I have – they’re damn smart businessmen.
It seems that’s what happens when you dump all your points into Barter and Luck!
My argument for New York as opposed to Boston is simple: why settle for the opening act, when you’re really waiting for the headlining band? Like John Lennon said, New York City IS the Rome of the modern world, and there’s little reason this status would’ve changed by the time the bombs fell, so it seems inevitable that a Fallout game will get here eventually. If there’s going to be (ideally) alternating locations for the Fallout series, some in the East and some in the West, let’s just get to the Manhattan Project everyone’s expecting!
Without Kurt Russell on your side, there’s really no way to escape from New York. So why fight it?
Plus, there’s a solid (and practical, as I’m sure it saved available memory) level design concept of Fallout 3‘s D.C. ruins – the collapsed architecture meant much of the area had to be navigated through Metro tunnels – which could be used again in the Big Apple’s vast network of subways and sewers. Not to mention the potential for local flavor and the film references certain to be involved. Off the top of my head you’ve got: Ghoulish remnants of the Mafia, a Raider occupied Wall Street, riffs on The Warriors, King Kong, among various movies, and those giant mutated sewer gators we keep hearing about!
There is a serious issue though. A demolished New York is simply overdone, not just in pop culture, but specifically in gaming. Post-apocalyptic (or near enough for government work) versions of the city that never sleeps are EVERYWHERE. Crysis 2, Spider-Man Web of Shadows, [PROTOTYPE](both 1 and 2), Infamous, and even early levels in Modern Warfare 3; I’ve seen the crumbling skyscrapers of Manhattan so many times that I could tell the level modelers where to place the rubble.
Right there, next to where Will Smith is standing in that movie that’s basically Fallout: New York, but with Vamp- er, nocturnal Super Mutants.
On the other hand, this familiarity could be a strength. That sense of loss that came from watching American history so thoroughly wiped out in Fallout 3, well, we’ve seen New York suffer from so many Godzilla Threshold attacks over the years that the fictional concept is as redundant as putting a blindfold on Helen Keller; the emotional baggage might be lessened, is my point. But then, after that thing with the DC Metro ads, Bethesda might be more cautious making a game featuring a virtual New York filled with collapsed skyscrapers (for what should be obvious reasons).
So, to mitigate that PR damage, let’s just take everything I said about New York, drive across a tottering G.W. Bridge and settle for New Jersey, shall we? It’s not like this is the first time anyone’s done so.
Actually, if the plot centers on a G.E.C.K. gone wrong, where a “Garden of Eden” in the Garden State mutates out of control? That’s not too bad; it could even steal some of the thunder from The Last of Us. You also get literal Jersey Devils of course, and we get to see the cast of The Jersey Shore mutate further thanks to radiation . . .
Are we sure they haven’t already been exposed to a strain of FEV that turns their skin orange instead of green?
Heck, if the world map were large enough you could easily do both, with Manhattan being a central “D.C. Ruins Rubble-zone” to a surrounding “Capital Wasteland” consisting of Newark and the other Four Burroughs. Meanwhile the DLC gets set in Atlantic City for a Sierra Madre-like gambling den, Albany for some upstate action, and if you head up the coastline, oh hey, look at that! Boston.
New York City New Jersey! Neo New Knickerbockerton?
The combined New York/New Jersey region is still missing the “Western” aspect – you could crash that Freighter from Fallout 2 into Staten Island to transplant some of it, *cough*lost-plot-thread-just-waiting-to-be-used*cough* – but the same goes for Boston. Similarly, both locales have roughly equivalent amounts of history to draw plot seeds from. New York is just bigger, and could be better as a result, especially if you tied in Boston as DLC, covering both.
Besides, setting Fallout 4 in the city The Dodgers ditched would allow for Fallouts 3 and 4 to mirror Fallouts 1 and 2 in terms of geographic relocation trends (just heading north and a bit east). And if the next game IS set in Boston, do you honestly think there won’t be DLC in NYC? I’m just advocating for a reversal of the inexorable progression, really.
Anyway, we’ve dallied in the Gotham long enough. We’re not trying to be Batman here.
Time to drive on south, visit our friends in Megaton for a spell – looks like Moira opened up a coffee shop, it’s called Grind Zero (bah-dum-psh!) – and keep on rambling on.
Continuing southerly down the I-95, we turn west before we hit Ghoul infested Florida (and that’s what is was before the war). After a spending the night in a decaying Nuka-Cola factory in Atlanta, we continue west along the I-20 for a spell, turning south once more as we hit that curvy, ladylike river, Missus Ippi.
Picking a particular point in The South to use is tricky. While Fallout 3 was set in Washington, D.C., meaning it was on the southern side of the Mason-Dixon line, Columbia isn’t really representative of what most conceive of as “The South”. To differentiate it further, you have to make like Inception and go deeper. So, like in Live and Let Die, we go from one “New” to another, from the York to the Orleans!
Unlike other parts of “The South”, the outsider’s (read: Northerner’s) image of Louisiana isn’t all racism and hillbillies in a bog filled with as much Southern animosity as moonshine. Thanks to N’awlins, it’s also wild parties, delicious spicy food, Dixieland Jazz, and outrageously revealing costumes on loose women enjoying the aforementioned. There’s plenty of potential for diverse locations – deep marshes filled irradiated swamp water juxtaposed against the flaring laser-lights of a neo french quarter – new monsters – giant, exploding, mutant craw fish, (and Gators again) – and even a new currency – Mardi Gras beads of course!
Cajun and Creole culture would make fine replacements for that “unique personality” of the Southwest I mentioned last time, while the Voodoo traditions supply the requisite “kooky mysticism”. Voodoo in Fallout would be especially interesting, thanks to all the “zombies” walking around in the form of Ghouls. Of course, there’s the touchy issue of post-Katrina New Orleans being used as virtual site of total devastation, but A) it was done already in Infamous 2, and B) Fallout 3 showed a completely destroyed Washington D.C. – once you do that, what more you could do to offend people, I mean seriously.
The major problem is Point Lookout, which already covered much of this ground (er, marsh), right down to the steamboats and inbred antagonists. While setting a complete game here and embracing the entirety of the region’s diversity would offset this, it still seems like more time should pass before people would regard a Fallout: Swamp Thing as anything other than a greatly expanded side story. However, that seems to be the popular opinion of New Vegas, so I guess it really comes down to how it’s handled. It would just have to have one hell of a plot to convince Bethesda, methinks.
Curse you Point Lookout! You’ve ruining my dreams of a Nuclear powered airboat chase with my Witch Doctor Ghoul sidekick! Again!
So with the chances of a swampland mystery dashed against the hard reality of marketable differentiation, it’s time to Go West My Boy! Go west!
Driving along in the Highwayman, we continue out of the deltas and the marshes along the I-10, dodging gunfire from drunken ghouls after skipping out on a bar tab.
It isn’t long before we head right in to where the stars at night, are big and bright . . .
Deep in the (Big) Heart of Texas!
Yeah, Texas. Where the West meets the South. The home of all George Strait’s exes would make a perfect setting for Fallout. You not only get the intensely independent (often aggressive) patriotism of the state, but also keep the Western desert culture, too. However it comes with a unique Texan twang mixed in to it all.
I’m imagining Raider sniper fire from abandoned oil derricks while I herd Brahmin in a Ten Gallon hat here. Bighorner (or hell, Super Mutant) rodeos. Former Caesar’s Legion members putting their Big-5 Armor to use and actually playing football! Still to the death of course – this is Texas, they take football seriously.
Besides, the place just feels right, you know?
Plus, any game set here could reestablish the Desert Rangers, the coolest faction from New Vegas (originally from Fallout‘s progenitor, Wasteland), as an independent burgeoning power thanks to Tycho, a ranger from the original Fallout, having been this way before.
Restyle the helmet to have more cowboy, and you’re pretty much done on design for what would become the iconic armor for the game.
In fact, the Lone Star State makes so MUCH inherent sense for a Fallout that it’s been done! The best left forgotten Brotherhood of Steel was in Texas, exploring the cities of Carbon and Los Ybanez. However, even considering the game is non-canon (due to non-quality), a revisit to the area without heading into the panhandle would prevent crossover conflict.
Even ignoring BoS, there are still a couple concerns that give me pause. First, as the saying goes, everything’s bigger here, and I’m primarily referring to the landscape. To do any Texan game properly, you’d either need an immense overworld map, which would certainly cause memory usage concerns, or you’d have to pick a core city to center it around, which would lose the appeal of such a large expanse. If you go with the logical latter option though, which single city do you pick when they all have excellent concepts imbedded into them?
San Antonio works if for no reason than having the Alamo (probably a Brotherhood base), you could easily spin the “Keep Austin Weird” ad campaign into a literal plot involving mad genetic science, and Dallas/Fort Worth could work as it has the largest metropolitan infrastructure. But if I had to choose one city, it’s Houston. Not only does nearby Trinity Bay allows for pleasantly warm radioactive swimming, but because (as many point out) of the NASA connection – a plot centered around the nascent space program of the Old World has so many possibilities that it would be a shame to skip it.
A bunch of whacked out cultists were able get this thing up and running (or they just stole it from the Enclave), what happens when a dictator finds a fleet of them?
Still, the bigger issue I see with Texas is one of long term storytelling. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a proponent of endings – definitive conclusions create potency – and this goes for Fallout as well. Somewhere down the long and lonesome road, the journeys of our Chosen Vault Dwelling Wanderers should end.
But how? And more importantly for this article, where?
Well, consider the (as of New Vegas) continuing Eastward expansion of the NCR and the theoretical Westward expansion of the Lyon-led East Coast Brotherhood of Steel; you have the perfect setup for an ultimate conclusion between the two factions – or three if you factor in Walking Texan Desert Rangers. THAT conflict sure would make for an interesting ultimate battle now wouldn’t it? Especially since they’re all (pretty much) “good” factions, creating a maximum moral quandary factor rather than an obvious choice of siding between the “flawed, but mostly decent guys” and the “indisputably not-nice puppy kickers”.
The logical site of this theoretical end war to determine the fate of Fallout forever would be in the middle of the slowly rebuilding nation, and the natural spot considering all of the other factors would be . . . ring-a-ding-ding, baby! Texas.
If you’re like me, you just popped a huge nerd boner thinking about this.
So while I DO want to see a game in the state of Big Hair and Bigger Guns, I also don’t want it to be just yet, since it doesn’t just make sense for a Fallout game, so much as it does for the Last Fallout Game.
Until then, it’s probably best to heed Will Ferrel’s advice, and not mess with Texas.
With grandiose dreams still fresh in the mind, let’s hop back into the Highwayman and head due north.
After putting some down some miles while munching on some Gecko meat we bagged near Witchtown, Kansas, where they’ve been burning folks at the stake, one of those giant, hundred-mile wide cyclones I’ve heard so much about heads our way out of ‘braska (is it carrying a farm house with it?)
Looks like we have to head west yet again, slowly chugging along steep hills on the I-70 (come on baby, hold together!) until the hills stop having eyes and become damned mountains, and we arrive at . . .
Rocky Mountain High! Colorado! (and its subsequent Springs)
Walkin’ in a Nuclear Winter Wonderland!
Colorado as a setting for the next Fallout is all about practicality, really.
If there’s a spot that assuredly survived World War 3 intact, it’s the NORAD base built under Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs. The installation is ripe for a different take on what happens when old-world government endures (as opposed to The Enclave’s turn to genocide), and when you mull over the fact that they could still have access to a nuclear arsenal, well, that’s a whole plot right there! Also, Nikola Tesla once had a lab in Colorado Springs. Who’s to say you can’t find an old Deathray design but actually build it now that the tech has caught up to his vision?
But wait, there’s more!
Most of the other major cities and sites of Colorado, including Colorado Springs, Boulder and Denver, have quite a bit of the design work done already! The state was to have been heavily featured in the original Fallout 3, otherwise known by the codename Van Buren, after all, and much of the pre-production work was finished by Black Isle Studios before its untimely cancellation.
While many major ideas ended up in New Vegas (including Caesar’s Legion), there’s still quite a lot of interesting stuff yet to be culled from both Van Buren and even Tactics (which is non-canon) – including Vault Zero, the center for the Vault-Tec Corporation – that can be given a fair shake now.
Additionally, there’s the behemoth in the room: setting Fallout 4 in Colorado would not only allow for a visual change of pace – other than Operation Anchorage we’ve yet to see serious snowfall, radioactive or otherwise – but presumably the next game Bethesda makes uses Skyrim‘s engine, so why not use its assets? They could save a lot of time and effort (read: money) in the art department by cobbling together another mountainous wintery region out of the one they just made! Thus leaving them more time to focus on more important stuff, like game balance, bugs, and good endings!
“No, it’s not a Frost troll. It’s totally, erhm, a Sasquatch. Yeah that’s it. The nuclear bombs woke up the sasquatches.” – They can be as lazy as my ‘shopping skills!
As with Louisiana, the problem with Colorado is contrast from previous games. While buffeting the player with blizzards would be (mostly) unique to Fallout, it’s not like anyone’s forgetting Skyrim any time soon. On top of that, many of the better concepts that could be used – a pristine military installation with access to gobs of the Pre-War tech, and active nuclear missiles silos – were touched upon in Old World Blues and The Lonesome Road respectively.
So unfortunately, despite the practicality, we’re going to have to head on out of the Centennial State. If only we can get the danged engine to turn on this blasted Highwayman!
Come on, ignite. You can do it. You can do it. . . there it goes!
Uh-oh. Even though I got the damn thing to start, it looks like we’re running out of fuel. We’ll never make it to Seattle in this situation!
With the mutagenic coffee supply turning all the bohemians into Bone-Hooligans, it’s fascinating layout next to Puget Sound, and it’s native tribe, “Hawks by the Sea”, Seattle would have been a perfect spot to end this road trip!
Considering our dire straits though – we’re going to have to try to coast down the mountains while dodging leftover NCR landmines in the road – I’m heading toward someplace closer.
Someplace even better.
Where it all Began.
This is a test. This is only a test. Of the end of the world as we know it. Original Photograph by Jack Aeby and found Here
Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.
Without any hyperbole (but with bold text) – if there’s one location a Fallout game absolutely needs to be set in, it’s here.
Not already including Los Alamos, and the greater Santa Fe region it’s within proximity of, is such a massive oversight to this series that it’s mind-boggling that it hasn’t already been done!
Except it almost was. In Van Buren. Oh.
Yup, the one location that makes all the sense in the world for Fallout, a place that would fit the Southwestern themes established by the first two games in the series because it’s in the Southwest . . . just had to be in the numbered game that got cancelled!
As with Colorado, this means a lot of salvageable ideas can still be used. Stuff like the The Reservation, home to a Ghoulish breeding program. Like Mesa Verde. Like Tribal “Goddess” Hecate and her deathly daughters.
The blonde’s not one of those ladies, I just thought there should be a break in the text. And a blonde.
Aside from being the perfect location for poetic license and for getting to cherry pick the best of the rest from Van Buren, the region has caravans loads of creative potential!
The “even-before-the-war” radiation could justify all sorts of highly “evolved” mutant monsters. A little ways south lies Albuquerque, home to catchy Weird Al songs and a minor league team, The Isotopes, just waiting to be turned into a roving raider gang. There’s also the Navajo presence – did they reclaim their ancestral lands when the American Empire fell?
When you toss DLC into the mix, the ideas get richer than Tenpenny. Colorado’s near enough to take the best ideas from that location, and enjoy them here. Further south lies Mexico proper, specifically Ciudad Juárez, a wretched hive of scum and villainy even today, a perfect New New Reno tomorrow. Lest we forget, there’s Roswell, along with the ever mysterious Area 51 and the possibility of delving into the extraterrestrial elements of the Fallout universe without needing to be a joke.
Then there’s the fact that New Mexico allows for definite continuity from New Vegas, which had a much more open ending than Fallout 3. Who won the War for Vegas? House? The NCR? The Legion? Did the Courier usurp Ulysses’ (himself a member of Hecate’s original tribe) control and nuke everybody? All of those questions can be resolved, expanded upon, or rewritten – but only if the next game is set relatively close by, like in Santa Fe.
Inquiring minds want to know! What happened to these militaristic jerkwads? Right now, we have to ask King Dork himself on his Tumblr.
At the end of the day though, it’s only fitting that Fallout, a twisted bit of Americana based on 1940’s and 50’s conceptions of atomic science still naive to the horror they were building, should go to the exact place where this terrible discovery began.
There’s symmetry in that. Beauty, even.
But then, these are all just my speculative hopes and wishes for a series I obviously love like the desert that was my home. Sure, New Mexico lets the Western tradition of Fallout continue, while also progressing along an ambling eastward trail, but it does make sense to set other games in the East. If only so they can slowly amble West.
While I still insist New York is the better choice, Boston won’t be awful if (and when) it happens. I’m not too keen on the Institute’s miniaturized robotics technology so much more advanced than what the rest of the games’ universe exhibits – it’s more cyber punk than atom punk – maybe Bethesda can even make it work. Unlikely perhaps, but there’s still bound to be some good to come out of it too.
Synthetic citizens dressed as tribals throwing Nuka-Cola off the deck of USS Constitution, maybe?
As for me? Well, the Highwayman’s now a scrap heap ditched into a bomb crater. The fuel cells ran dry while I was coasting my way to Santa Fe, and the steering locked up while I headed toward the radioactive pit. Had to bail fast. Twas quite the explosion though.
Looks like I’ll be walking back home now.
I’ll need some traveling music to pass the time while I pass the miles though. There’s a long road ahead of me, even longer than this article.
If I’m to be shot by some raiders while on it, I’d rather it be while I’m whistling.
I know I promised to write about sex last time, but if there’s anything I’ve been forced to learn through the most lovely of tortures we like to call dating, it’s that teasing things out can build up the excitement, and hopefully lead to a bigger payoff in the end. Besides, sex in gaming, like a Texan, is such a large and loaded concept that it’s been tough how best to tackle it without turning it into a small novel or getting shot in the process.
So with an interest in (relative) brevity in mind, I’m going to talk about something completely different, and that’s going to be Fallout.
Please stand by.
A couple months ago I took the train up to Portland, Oregon, in a desperate attempt to find . . . something.
While ostensibly the trip was about joining my sister on her summer road trip through the Pacific Northwest to get some family bonding in before adulthood separated us yet again, I also needed to remove the despairing Los Angeles smog from my lungs and clear my head. All while enjoying some of the fine company and coffee the region has to offer, of course.
So I’m bouncing north along the rails of a Starlight Express coach car when I find myself falling in love. Not with any of my fellow passengers, charming as they were. No, I’m falling head over heels in love with the countryside that hurtles slowly past my window.
The train moves quickly of course. But the grand majesty of the seemingly endless mountains, hairy with pines and redwoods, the sheer size of them causes the pastoral beauty to linger; the ant looks long at the man when he trundles past. Yet, as humbled and awed by the rolling, endless ranges as I am, and despite this being my first northerly wander past the meridian of San Francisco, everything is strangely familiar.
I was here once before, just not really.
Klamath Falls, Modoc, Redding; I passed through or near all these cities, and I know the names by heart. Despite the fact that I’d never been to them and for the vast majority of the American populace, they’re inconsequential points on a map rarely examined. Why? Because of Fallout 2 of course. This patchwork of peaks I passed through, it’s the setting for what many still consider to be the great American CRPG (other than perhaps Planescape Torment, though I’d argue that it works best as a complicated adventure game).
Yup, that’s the map screen I remember.
It’s a happy disillusionment to see that these places are real and alive and beautiful, instead of being the bombed out shells of a desolate post-nuclear ruin that was my only prior envisioning. A silly thought, I know. But my initial impressions of these places was so linked to the game and the truth so disparate it was something of a shock.
I’ve been through most of the Southwestern states and seen most of the major sites – the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Four Corners – and having crisscrossed the Mojave more than a few times, I’m more accustomed to the vast expanses of the desert with their scattered brush than looming mountains and lush green trees. Wide ranges of near lifelessness baked and bleached by the sun, this was my backyard. On some level, that’s what I must have thought this place would resemble as well.
Isn’t that truly what the wastes of Fallout are? Desert rampant? Desert overgrown? Desert unleashed by nuclear fire upon all the green we take for granted?
Promo art for Fallout 3 set in future Virginia. Or a forgotten Arizona rest stop today.
The next thought hits me like a plasma rifle critical to my brain’s combat inhibitor. These particular wheres of the games, these cyclopean deserts wrought from annihilation, are so inseparable as to be fundamental. At its core, Fallout isn’t so much science fiction as it is a Western.
Sure, on the surface Fallout seems like sci-fi and is thus defined by its unique technology. Technology derived from the McCarthy-era fifties, a time of atomic science that barely understood the effects of radiation. Of computer science that couldn’t fathom miniaturization. Of the unchecked optimism of The Jetsons dashed against the Cold War thermonuclear horror of The Day After and Them!
If taken at face value, the physical setting of any particular game wouldn’t seem to matter so much as the retro robots, archaically advanced laser pistols, or giant fire-breathing mutant ants. You could theoretically put a Fallout game in England, Tokyo, or Brazil if that’s all that mattered. I’ve heard such arguments before.
But to do so would be to miss the point more than your Facebook friend who thinks articles by The Onion are real.
All the hallmarks of the Western are there. Thirstily wandering along at a calculated pace in the waste, sleeping under the stars in the wilderness, taking the role of the unknown gunman who wanders into town to solves everyone’s problems with a hail of gunfire before drifting out like a tumbleweed, the reintroduction of tribal culture set apart from homesteaders on the fringes of societies where law is thin and it’s best to travel with a gun on your belt even if you’d prefer never to use it. Arguably (and that’s exactly what I’m doing) this gameplay is as important, if not more important than the tools used or enemies fought.
More than most games, Fallout captures the nature of rugged individualism idolized in the Westerns of old. It’s a tale of the frontier. Only it’s a new frontier built atop a forgotten history.
Let’s be frank as Horrigan. This was made rather explicit in Fallout 3. If you missed this, you missed the point.
Not only is every Fallout set in the U.S., but 3 of the 5 officially recognized Fallout games (no one cares about BoS [Brotherhood of Steel], as it was a PoS) take place in familiar Western settings. The first was set in Southern California, with some bleed through into Mexico and Arizona. The second, as my travels reminded me, in the Northern California region bleeding through to Southern Oregon and Western Nevada. New Vegas, well that one should be obvious.
The two that weren’t, Fallout 3 and Tactics, are also the two most controversial amongst hardcore Fallout fans, and I think it’s because (aside from the fact that they marked major gameplay departures) they lacked a bit of this Western magic.
Because the wild west isn’t just about big open spaces and lawlessness. You can do that anywhere thanks to the atomic fire provided by Fallout‘s backstory. No, it’s also about the culture of unique spirituality and quirky insanity that thrives in the Southwest of the U.S. like nowhere else.
The type of insanity that makes bringing a golf club to a gunfight seem like a good idea.
The desert is a hard place, and it breeds hardy people. For the folks who live in the Southwest, a place already closer to the end of the world out there than most of America, what would the nuclear war that kicks off the Fallout series truly change, culturally?
Moreover, deserts (in general) create an understanding of existential emptiness not found elsewhere down the other back roads and dirt trails of the United States. Separating yourself from society in the woods or the swamps and you’re still surrounded by life and nature and all the noise they bring. Do so in Sonora and, well, there’s simply less. You connect to the stars in the sky and to the immense enveloping darkness without end upon nightfall, and little else (hope you brought a blanket by the way, it gets cold fast).
There’s an ineffable quality to this region where Native traditions still have sway. A sense of the mystic, of being closer to earth. It often attracts a type that’s a breed apart.
Not just in the types of folks who want to sing Kumbaya with coyotes on a vision quest, but also often the types who live off the grid, and ones who might be bit odd or off their rockers. Essentially, the types who make up most of the supporting cast in the Fallout games.
But again, there’s a desert difference. These folks are often more willing to connect to a stranger, to listen and nod rather than rave. The paranoia and bonkers bred in the desert is simply more Art Bell than Glenn Beck.
The Tribals of Fallout 2 and the New Vegas expansion Honest Hearts highlighted a slowly resurrecting kooky mysticism in the Fallout games pretty directly. Something that’s based again, primarily on local culture in the Southwest
This is a primary reason, apart from mere physical location, that Fallout 3 and Tactics are so different from the other three Western games.
They lack a certain sincerity. A light touch of affection to the often cynical portrayals of the small town wasteland oddballs that the series derives a lot of its humor from. A sense of humor that I add, is as vital to the series as the decaying Atom Punk decorum, the retro-future tech or the gunslinging gameplay. It’s an irreverent silliness that’s incredibly necessary, as it prevents the sheer weight of the dying world the games exist in from becoming completely overbearing.
It’s not that the Eastern Fallouts weren’t funny or that they were bad, it’s just that they were missing this certain extra . . . something. In the case of Tactics, it was probably because most of the RPG was stripped out of it. But for Fallout 3, it really truly comes down to location, location, location.
Climbing through the ruins of Los Angeles in Fallout 1, it’s difficult to feel too bad. L.A.’s a city of impermanence that centers around vacuous cults of personality and vanity, and The Boneyard, a settlement replacing it, features a religious order that worships an unseen “Master” who attempts to create “physical perfection” with the Super Mutants while having no singular identity of his own. The joke is obvious – nothing has really changed.
Climbing through the ruins of Washington D.C. in Fallout 3 on the other hand, it’s difficult not get depressed. As you sift through a sacked Smithsonian and notice that the Lincoln Memorial’s head has been decapitated by slave traders? Seeing the loss of all this American History, the loss of our cultural identity – it hurts.
Oh, but we did get a giant robot parody of Optimus Prime! Who ruined any challenge the ending sequence might have had. Eh . . . fair trade?
This then, is why the setting of a Fallout matters most of all. Attachment and cultural significance. When you have too much history attached, it becomes horrible to see it dashed to pieces.
The two genres most dominant in Fallout – Post-Apocalypse and Western – are rather the same thing in a lot of ways. The frontier life is almost indistinguishable from living in a shattered civilization, apart from the technology available. Fallout is simply a Western epic but with lasers, and a well made one at that (unlike certain Favreau helmed projects).
But while the Frontier Westerns are about the freedom of new lands and the promise of a new life found within wild borders, post-apocalyptic tales most often dwell in the anarchy of old lands and the slow death of the last among them. Fallout, in attempting to be the post-apocalypse with a sense of humor, had to find a way to coexist between these two extremes. It’s through the Southwestern setting, and all that came with it, that I feel Fallout found its true identity, it’s true balance.
The heart of the desert, a place centered on the nothingness of empty space and the total freedom the player has to choose in this void. There is no major history to decay, for the place is timeless; there is no culture to lose, for the people are ongoing.
Because again, Fallout isn’t simply about being sad about an apocalypse, it’s also about reveling in it. Laughing at it. Screwing with it. Not actually feeling at all bad that the world ended up dead-ending.
It was Zombieland before there was Zombieland. Only it also had lasers, giant mutant lizards, nuclear explosions and a Doctor Who cameo (and even zombies, sort of). Way before that was cool.
It’s badass. It’s American. It’s a Western.
So basically, if you thought Fallout 3 was better than New Vegas, you’re categorically wrong about what this series is.
But of course, Bethesda Game Studios is based in well, Bethesda, Maryland. With their East Coast perspective there’s a good chance they’ll do something dumb like set the next Fallout in Boston or something.
Westerns don’t work in Beantown Bethesda! Who ever heard of such a thing? (Ok, there’s Copper I guess, but that’s it, right?)
In the off chance there is justice in the universe, they’ll realize that aside from diction coaches and anyone who hates the New England Patriots, few would really want to see a decimated downtown Boston. As with Washington D.C., it’s one of the centers of American history. Watching that get wiped out isn’t particularly conducive to having a good time.
If that happens, they’re going to need alternates. Which I’ll be more than happy to provide. Maybe.
Until then, this is Mr. New Vegas, and each and every one of you is wonderful in your own special way.
Of the many previews that emerged from this year’s E3 to generate hype, one that didn’t inspire much outrage or concern was the one for the upcoming Farcry 3.
In just under two minutes, this (decidedly NSFW) trailer promises an adventure that will play out as Apocalypse Now if it were directed by Rob Zombie. A harrowing, but thrilling escapade through the island jungles of the South Pacific that will sate your blood lust, your wanderlust, and perhaps just your lust; a woman riding our male protagonist in vicious ecstasy from his perspective is one of the first images in its scant running time.
It’s a glorious incitement to mayhem, madness and murder. Almost (but not quite) subliminal commands of “EAT”, “KILL”, “HUNT”, and “F&CK”, flash across the screen. The woman who our hero has been sleeping with insists that “. . . every man you fight deserves to have his life taken from him” and a deranged loon with a mohawk yells at you to shoot him in the heart.
You know, just another violent video game. Just another ad for one. Nothing special.
Of the many comments to be uttered by industry insiders during this year’s E3, Warren Spector’s seem to be the most appropriate when addressing the particular brand of gladiatorial spectacle the Farcry 3 trailer advocates.
The ultraviolence has to stop. We have to stop loving it. I just don’t believe in the effects argument at all, but I do believe that we are fetishizing violence, and now in some cases actually combining it with an adolescent approach to sexuality. I just think it’s in bad taste. Ultimately I think it will cause us trouble.
A guy who looks like everyone’s dad offering almost paternal advice? I’ll play mom in this situation and insist that maybe we should listen to him for once.
Spector said a lot of other wise things (read ‘em here) but on the point of violence, I couldn’t agree more.
As I pontificated at length the other day, gaming revels in the obvious and the blunt. The “Ultra-violence” Spector’s alluding to is simply the primary expression of this bluntness. He eloquently nails the point better than I could have – gaming is in love with far too much violence, and it’s becoming sickening.
It would be simple enough to leave the issue at that. But merely stating that there is problem without an attempt at providing a possible solution seems a bit pointless, so let’s delve!
How has gaming come to this point? How is it that no one sees a problem other than a minority of folks like Spector? More importantly, how do you reverse the trend?
Calibrating the Scales
In the real world, violent acts have a weight. When a soldier, police officer, or even gang member is killed, it causes others to react. We mourn, we weep, we rage. Revenge is taken; sometimes justly, and all too often wrongfully.
Violence in our day to day reality is heavy. It has mass. Gravity. It leaves a lasting impression on all it touches and is one of the great human ills that we bemoan as much as we adhere to it. Yet it is also core to our understanding of reality; it defines us as much as romance, creativity, and achievement, and holds our interest hostage when it occurs around us as much as anything.
There was never an epic written that wasn’t filled with the atrocities of war and deftly courageous strikes against the monstrous.
The Cyclops blinded – Violence in antiquity.
While real-world rage is impactful, the weight given to fictitious portrayals of violence spans quite a wide spectrum. Often it is as weighty as it is in reality; when Oedipus pulls out his eyes it is a major moment that changes not only himself, but everyone in the play with him. Other times it is as light as a feather; when Arnold and company mow down fifty men at the start of Predator, the violence is over the top and filled with jest.
Unlike all other media though, video game violence has mostly stuck to this latter measure. Video game violence, as a whole, is consistently light. Svelte even.
The reason this has come to pass is actually pretty easy to identify. It has to do with the process of games themselves.
Even the most placid video games are about action. From a literary sense, they are about verbs – the doing of things – and they enable and empower players to commit verb actions great and small. You run, you jump, you fly, you shoot, you talk, you die.
Video games and verbing – Adventure games made this nature obvious.
Naturally, these actions lead to outcomes – reactions. Standard cause and effect, really. It’s simply thanks to our morbid curiosity that the violent verbs and their similar outcomes are continually the most compelling and gratifying, and it’s quite natural that game developers give their audience what they want.
It’s for this reason I think, that most don’t see a problem at all. Gamers want to play at war and death, and so the developers provide them war and death; there’s a demand, the developers supply it. The issue here isn’t that developers are providing a bunch of bloodletting verbs to gamers. I’m certainly not advocating that we need to stop them.
No, the issue is that the weight given the violence is simply too light, too often. That when you make violence too unsubstantial in a medium that uses it almost exclusively, the medium itself begins to lack substance.
The Weight of Violence in Gaming only makes sense on the Moon.
Playing through the recent Max Payne 3, I was struck at just how ludicrously high the kill count was. Over the course of the game you kill roughly a thousand foes – a number so high that Max would be considered a war criminal by any reasonable legal definition – and it doesn’t seem unnatural at all except upon reflection. Actually, the game itself comments on this a few times; Max points out more than once that he expected only to find a couple dozen thugs in a given situation, not armies.
Slaying so many people doesn’t feel weird in the moment though, primarily because Max uses modern weapons (various firearms) and killing any individual with our current weaponry is unnervingly efficient. If any single thug could absorb a thousand bullets without enough body armor to stop a tank shell, it would feel unrealistic in a completely different direction. Since the game is constantly trying to present a challenge to the player, the primary method to accomplish this is to increase the number of opponents, and thus the weight of any individual act of violence is quite light.
Max Payne shooting six gangsters in as many seconds – Featherweight Violence in modern times.
Such airy acts of aggression are problematic only because the rest of the story is trying to be taken seriously. Max’s world is supposed to be realistic depiction of our own, yet the incredible number of kills creates something those who like fancy five-dollar words call a ludonarrative dissonance, or essentially, the gap between our reality and a game’s reality that we must jump to stay immersed in the game. Again, this is mitigated somewhat in Max Payne 3 by the fact that at least the world reacts as you’d think it would – both the world and Max himself think him a monster, and it’s a key point of the game that is explored, though perhaps not explored enough.
When the player character isn’t a murder-machine like Payne or Kratos, but is supposedly non-violent or a more humane “everyman” type, this dissonance gap can get wide enough to break immersion like a rabbit in the hands of Lenny Small. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves famously starts with it’s charming protagonist monologuing about how he doesn’t want to kill anybody on his quest to find treasure. Then the rest of the game consists of him killing six hundred mercs, some of whom were probably decent enough folks, and our “everyman” Nathan Drake comes off not only as a sociopath, but a hypocritical one.
Of course, many games increase the gravity of their grave-making by using less lethal arms or featuring more resilient foes. Fighting games and brawlers like my beloved Final Fight feature much heavier violence than a modern shooter primarily because most of your attacks aren’t lethal. You simply beat people up to remove them as a threat, in what I like to call “The Fight Club Effect”.
The Fight Club Effect – When by taking out a scene showing violence, the violence that is implied is made stronger. Derived from a scene where David Fincher removed much of the filmed beating of Jared Leto’s character, only showing the horrified reactions of onlookers, and everyone was much more disturbed.
When someone is killed while death is at a premium as high as gasoline, it can then be made a major plot point rather than just one more body hitting the floor. The first-person brawler Xenoclash runs with this, and the recent Batman: Arkham [Insert Location Subtype] games get a lot of mileage out of it as well. When someone dies in these games, it means something; the violence is weighty.
On the other end of the spectrum are the enemies that are just damned difficult to kill, usually bosses. When you finally topple a mountain of a monster after a two hour ordeal, narrowly avoiding being swatted like a fly all the while, it’s not simply one moment surrounded by a multitude but an achievement worth taking time to consider. Shadow of the Colossus was based entirely on this premise; the only creatures you must kill are the 16 colossi (gargantuan beasts worthy of their name), and every single time you slay one of them it’s important, potent, and building towards an increasing doom as massive as the titular beasts.
Wander stabbing a Colossus – Heavyweight violence in modern gaming.
While at first it might seem the simple division lies in the arms given to the player – that light violence would be unavoidable given the context of modern weaponry and the need to keep a game’s action challenging, and heavy violence occurs only by decreasing the player’s strength or increasing their foe’s girth – that really isn’t the case. There’s another factor, far more important than the other two. One that can be used more often than it is: choice.
In the linked interview above, Spector cites himself, pointing out that his often violent Deus Ex (which used modern and futuristic weaponry) managed to keep the sensation that killing someone was a hefty act. He insists this was accomplished by making sure the result was bloody and lingering. Certainly, making sure bodies stick around to remind players of what they’ve done helps increase the sensation that the tussle and tumult was effectual, it gives an act of murder continuity if nothing else.
But that isn’t actually as important as the real reason Desus Ex‘s violence had weight. The primary reason the game was so remarkable at the time was that violence wasn’t necessary to get through the adventure. The player almost always had a way to get through the game without hurting a single living soul, at least not permanently.
Primarily this was accomplished with the use of stealth (and its cousin, the tranquilizer dart). In 1998, game developers seemed to realize what they learned playing “hide and seek” as children: that sometimes avoiding enemies could be just as exciting as conquering them. Thief: The Dark Project, Metal Gear Solid, and Tenchu: Silent Assassins all came out that year, and all had different takes on how or why your characters were choosing not to slay, but to skulk.
Snake avoiding guards – Stealth as nonviolence in gaming.
So is that the answer? That in order to increase the weight of violence in any game that allows it, in order to increase it’s importance, that these games must also include stealth, tougher enemies, and limited means to kill those set against the player? Each technique certainly adds a little bit of weight overall, so it stands to reason that all of them together would work like gangbusters!
All these factors are apparent in this gameplay trailer for Naughty Dog’s forthcoming and highly anticipated The Last of Us. The men that confront Joel and Ellie are dangerous, they use sneaky tactics to avoid and surprise them, and the very limited amount of ammunition prevents an endless slaughter from occurring. The violence seen is also quite disconcerting indeed.
The Last of Us is championing blended gameplay to give the player more choices in general, but it seems to be effective at making “heavy violence” as well. However, watching one sequence seems a bit misleading if you’re considering the overall sense of the game. The Last of Us is listed as “Survival/Action-Adventure” not Stealth, and my guess is that by the end we’ll have brutally killed rather than simply avoided so many enemy survivors and fungal zombies that it will fall into Max Payne territory again.
Repetition decreases weight – The first time you choke a man to death will be troubling. The tenth time? The twentieth? By forty, you’ll nonchalantly eat Cheetos over an enemy’s death gurgle.
This reminder, that too much repetitive violence can undo the potential impact of all the individual weight gaining elements, makes the combination strategy seem impotent by itself. It’s missing something. A real “third option” that increases the potential impact of every single slaying in a game.
Perhaps I’m going about this all wrong. Violence in games is actually an effect, a result of player actions. Maybe if we look at the cause of this effect, a true third option will appear.
For that, we have to get to the root of it all: conflict.
New Year’s Conflict Resolutions
Fiction is about conflict, and most stories are about how the characters resolve conflict in one manner or another. In video games the how, the choice, is left up to the player. If you look at gaming verbs and subsequently, violence, as a result of conflict resolution strategy choices, a distinct dichotomy begins to reveal itself.
As I see it, there are two primary factors on how to resolve conflict. You either engage with it or you disengage from it, and you do so either openly and directly – you confront it – or you try to find a non-confrontational means of resolving the situation – you don’t confront it. Engagement and confrontation are the two axes that seem the most pertinent, and so I’m going to go with them for now.
Killing foes is an aggressive, confrontational, and engaging way to resolve conflict. If you slay those who stand against you, they aren’t going to be causing anymore conflict now are they? It is also the primary method seen in video games, and is what leads to a maximum of violence. We’re going to use Kratos as our avatar of confrontational engagement as a means to resolve conflict.
“Hello. My name is Kratos. I resolve conflict by killing all who would stand before me in fits of insolent rage.”
Stealth, likewise, is a way to resolve conflict. It is a non-confrontational method – you actively avoid those who would stop you – but it is also an engaging method – usually you work towards ends to resolve the conflict overall. Solid Snake will be our avatar here, mostly because I already have him pictured up above.
The other two means are far less apparent, especially in gaming, but they do exist.
The first is non-confrontational disengagement, or essentially a denial of the the conflict entirely. In actual gameplay terms this is the result that occurs when you say no to a quest offered, or more visibly, when you run away from enemies. Since that’s the case, I think we’ll use Edward the “Spoony” Bard from Final Fantasy IV, as he actually had the ability to hide from enemies in battle.
Oh Edward! Who are you fooling? You don’t choose fight, you choose flee!
Now, just because non-confrontational disengagement seems like the coward’s way out (and it often is), doesn’t mean interesting gameplay can’t stem from it. Survival horror existed on this as a means of conflict resolution back when it emphasized the “survival” and wasn’t just another excuse to shoot scary monsters. Every time you ran away from zombies or hunters in Resident Evil, you were disengaging from conflict, and it’s a major part of what made the monsters and the situation you found yourself in so dang scary.
Likewise, in RPGs that emphasize a lot of player choice, like Skyrim, the ability to say “no” is often important in of itself. It’s a major part of what can really make a game excellent from a player empowerment perspective. Sequence breaking in games like Super Metroid is a perfect example of a powerful denial of given options, for example.
Of course, for denial to work the developers have to design a system that doesn’t require the player to always make a specific choice, either by offering other options themselves or by ensuring that the the game won’t break should this occur. In other words, it’s more work from their end. There are tons of examples of player denial simply being refused by the game developers, and making this choice non-existent.
Look at the Colonel from the NES Rambo game guilt tripping the player into playing! What if I’d rather spend the game rotting in prison, eh?
Also, running away isn’t exactly heroic. It’s rare that denial is something the player wants to do, and is something that generally only exists as something they need to do in order to survive and bide time until they confront the problems facing them. I’ve heard similar complaints about stealth games too, as it seems like sneaking around is a not only slow and boring but non-confrontational.
So is it confrontation that makes the first option of engagement, the violent one, so darn appealing?
Perhaps not, as the last of the four options, confrontational disengagement – or convincing the other parties to stand down – isn’t used nearly so often. Mediation is much rarer than premeditated murder.
Aside from the general verb of “Speech”, “Mediation” seems a good descriptor of any time you can convince an NPC to stop aggression or to assist in an endeavor. In fact, for the purposes of illustration, that’s exactly what I’m going to use, the Final Fantasy Tactics Mediator class.
I’m pretty sure the silly hats distract opponents through laughter. Just long enough to let these folks get a word in edgewise.
This is the realm of diplomacy, persuasion, and conversation. Where the goal is to be present and confront the the problem directly (without stealth or cowardice) but also to try and find a peaceful means to end the tumult (without violent engagement). The Gandhi approach, essentially. It’s at least as capable of increasing the weight of violence in a game as sneaking is for exactly the same reason – it offers the choice to not be violent!
That’s really the heart of the matter. For violence to truly have weight, the option for it not to exist needs to be present, quite similarly to how the Fight Club Effect works actually. In fact I’d say on a certain level, it’s more powerful; in Metal Gear and Splinter Cell games, I find that not killing my opponents when I know I can provides a distinct assurance of my mastery of the situation.
However, while stealth (the method to allow for the nonviolence in those games) is seen as a fun, active way of accomplishing this goal, mediation and negotiation aren’t. As already mentioned, they are the least used methods of conflict resolution in gaming.
Why? Well, there are a few primary reasons. First, it’s really hard to pull off properly, requiring a lot of extra effort and a design that allows for it, just like the to denial option. Mediation and speech don’t just exist as a natural opposite reaction to a choice as denial often is though, they need to be intentionally inserted at the outset of a game’s development. Hence more planning, more time, and more budget.
Secondly, I think it’s because the concept ends up with often less than spectacular reactions. Developers know that gamers want to see active results for the actions they use in games. Enemies backing off or standing down is a sort of a huge anti-result in some people’s minds, basically.
But that’s really a problem with presentation. A hostage negotiator gets a big result when they’re successful; they’re congratulated on saving a whole bunch of lives along with the rest of the cops. Likewise, Gandhi toppled an empire without ever firing a bullet or sneaking into Britain’s secret military installations and blowing them up from the inside, and he’s been heralded as a hero and an inspiration throughout history for it. It’s totally possible to give the player positive feedback for this strategy with a little effort, and one easy example is to get enemies to join your cause, as seen in many “Tactics” games such as La Pucelle (though that can lead to other silliness).
Oh, and before I forget, here’s a handy dandy chart I’ve made to illustrate the whole “Square of Conflict” idea:
Behold! Six minutes of time spent in MS Paint!
The other primary reason I think mediation and negotiation aren’t used as often in video games is both simpler to explain and harder to fix: I don’t think developers know how to make it fun, or more specifically, they see it as a passive choice when an active one would be preferable. Combat is active. Stealth is active. Even fleeing is active. Talking? Well, that’s just not as sexy as the alternatives on an activity scale, right?
This gets back to what I was saying in my last article, if developers knew how to make a game about talking to folks as fun as one where you shoot them instead, they would do it a lot more often than they do currently. However, solving this problem would go a long way to adding to the variance of nuance gaming often lacks, so I see it as completely worthy challenge to attempt.
While I have some ideas on how to make speech systems better, it will require another article at least as long as this one to get into. So that will be tabled for another day. Besides, there’s another problem, another hurdle to jump over before I could even get there: how do you get foes to listen to the player?
I mean, the types of foes in a game predicate your options when dealing with them, and to even begin to talk one down, you’d have to be able to get them to listen first. That’s pretty tough to do when their first response to spotting the player is to start firing bullets isn’t it?
So, yeah Pig Cop, I was wondering if we could both put down our guns and talk about, you know, stuff. Bands we both like. The girls that have broken our hearts. The Matrix. No? OK then. Shooting you in the face it is!
Well, for that, I also have a possible solution, and it comes from all that time I spent in Skyrim (and all the recent time I’ve been spending with Fallout: New Vegas).
Yielding to the Power of The open palm
There’s a moment in Max Payne 3, where after you slaughter about thirty enemies, one of the smarter foes towards the rear simply gives up. He puts up his hands and says, “Yeah, OK, you win guy. Please don’t shoot me.” This single moment ended up being a LOT more memorable what I had been doing just seconds prior – killing all his mates.
Similarly, in my review for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I mentioned as a minor grievance that enemies would often yield to the player when their health was low, but then if the player gave them mercy (and I often tried), would get up and attack you yet again in a suicidal exhibition of absolutely zero common sense. This was later patched so that they would flee, thankfully, but the concept of yielding still left an indelible impression on me. One that Max Payne 3 brought back to the forefront of my mind.
Because in Skyrim, the player could do it too.
In both the Elder Scrolls and Fallout games put out by Bethesda, the player has the ability to simply put their weapon away and try to yield to foes. That’s great! Why, it’s exactly the kind of opening you would need to engage in conversation with hostile forces and attempt a confrontational, yet non-violent approach, right?
Wrong. It’s a really terrible choice for the player to take in either game. Mostly due to the fact that enemies either won’t attempt it at all unless you’re specifically dealing with city guards, and they won’t stop attacking to enter the speech mode until they just kill you, while you stand there, hoping that the Markarth guards would please stop stabbing me! I didn’t mean to steal that apple! I swear!
I seem to recall the guards delivered warnings better in Oblivion, though they still exhibited some rather “aggressive” devotion to their upholding the law in other ways.
The problem arises in the game not being able to determine the player’s intent. Sure, you could have put away your sword or your gun in order to yield to authority, or maybe you just accidentally hit the sheathe button in your haste to bring up the inventory screen. The game doesn’t know in that single moment, so it seems Bethesda’s solution was to put you on a timer: you have to both sheathe your weapon and stand absolutely still for about twenty to thirty seconds before the guards recognize what you’re trying to do.
In that time, you’re likely dead. This issue might be the problem I think other developers have with this possibility. The only thing they’re seeing is a player being inactive, in a neutral state, and NPCs are already predisposed to act one way or another to this state (attack, talk to, ignore, etc.)
What’s needed is an active ability. Something the player has to choose to do that conveys the intent of non-aggression. Thankfully, there is one quite obvious technique, and it’s appeared in a game I missed and only recently started playing.
In Ubisoft’s I AM Alive, a post-apocalyptic survival/climbing game very much inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (and which will probably be the only comparative game to The Last of Us as a result), the unnamed protagonist (well so far, I’m not finished so maybe his name comes up later) encounters many different types of other survivors of “The Event” which wiped out civilization. When these survivors are threatening him and you don’t draw your weapon, he automatically puts his hands up and utters phrases where he tries to reason with them.
Seen here with the very first enemy on your very depressing adventure.
Now, the “Open Palm Peace Technique”, as I’m calling it, doesn’t really work well for my purposes in I AM Alive. First, it’s an automatic thing, still a default neutral as opposed to an active ability. Secondly, it’s rather functionally useless. Enemies that don’t want to fight won’t do it regardless, and enemies that do, well, they’re still going to kill you unless you act violently to dissuade them. It’s just a really a nice animation polish from a functional perspective.
However, in combination with the “sheath” action functionality exhibited in the Bethesda games, I think we might have something here.
Imagine for a moment, a new open world Action-RPG. One where you build your character to be a diplomatic type. Since Fallout established this as a viable character option way back when, we’ll say it’s the next in that series.
You come across a roving gang. According to your reputation meter, they’re pissed off at you, but not so much that they should attack you on sight. You have business with their leader though, and they have quests you read about on the internet that you think are interesting. So you simply walk up to them, and you press and hold the “sheathe” button.
Your character’s hands go up, and they draw, but don’t fire. They walk toward you, suspicious, questioning. This lets you tell them your purpose, and they disarm you, but let you in. Eventually, thanks to being able to simply get in the door, you’ll do those quests, you’ll rule the gang. Currently, you’d have had to reload a save, snuck in, or simply ignored the possibility.
Preventing a reload on a game that takes FOREVER to load anyway gives this idea the Vault Boy Thumb of Approval.
In the gaming world I see, this technique is used in dozens of different ways. Perhaps you’ve ventured into dangerous territory unknowingly, and the enemies are simply too tough, so you yield and they let you live sans some of your cash. Perhaps you’ve got to deal with a hostage situation and you need to approach the thug pointing a gun at a girl’s head, so palms raised, you get near him just enough for his guard to drop, and you tackle him, saving her life where other actions would have failed. Perhaps you can do it with a weapon drawn and it acts as a warning, letting fearful enemies know they have a chance at living through the encounter, and their resolve breaks as they run away.
In the world I see, this “Active Yield” technique is used in different types of games, not just RPGS. It allows developers an obvious non-violent option on a very basic level. It allows for characters like Nathan Drake to actually be the decent guy he says he is.
In the world I see, the player always has a choice, for choice is always gaming’s greatest asset and a player’s greatest tool. This choice, it gives violence weight, and games can begin to try for more meaningful experiences with this weight. They can tell more nuanced tales, where a front might be false, and death need not be so ever-present all the time.
In the world I s- OK, wait. Now I’m starting to sound like Tyler Durden aren’t I?
Next I’ll be talking about leather clothes you’ll wear for the rest of your life, and other anarchistic BS.
That’s the Fight Club effect for you. It always makes you ramble on about dreams of glory.
Anyway, it’s an idea. One that I’m open and willing to negotiate on. After all, I should probably practice what I preach, right?
Outside the Waikiki Motel the palm trees sway with the showers under a sky filled with dread. Inside, a man takes off his shirt. He’s washing the blood off his face and cleaning the bullet hole in his arm. The scars on his back are visible during the procedure. They reveal a history of violence longer than most will ever know.
One wound however, is too precise to be anything other than self-inflicted. The fresher, still healing cut on the back of his bald head. The one covered by a simple band-aid, which makes this man appear to be the most dedicated Marcellus Wallace cosplayer in the world.
As he redresses in a smart business suit and crimson tie, a superfluity of nuns slowly walks from a school bus in the storm, their habits blowing wildly like the trees. But their high-heeled boots with far too much leather and far too many laces betray their facade. As do their prison tattoos, and the high ordinance weaponry they draw from seemingly nowhere. Suddenly, the “nuns” throw away the habits to reveal leather miniskirts, lace, and catsuits you can only wish your wife would be daring enough wear on your birthday.
A heavy metal guitar riff growls in the background as the nuns open fire, launching an RPG at the 2nd floor of the motel and ruining some poor clerk’s day. Our bald business attired gentleman, Agent 47, has snuck behind his attackers though, and silently eliminates one after another. Then, for no apparent reason, he draws his two silver plated heavy caliber pistols and opens fire.
Half a melee and a half a gunfight is the result. 47 is stabbed with butterfly knives. Women are used as human shields. Hands are stomped. Faces are punched. Noses are broken.
And she just signed a contract with Revlon too!
All of this is depicted in loving, caring, perfect action cinematography with fits of slow motion to highlight the blood spray or silhouette the characters in cool poses. In the end, only one is left standing.
47 leaves this scene of burning wreckage and death. He closes the trunk to his car, which is now filled with enough weaponry to be the prop department for a Commando remake, and drives off. Even while that angry electric guitar groans yet again.
These events are what make up the now infamous Hitman: Absolutiontrailer.
Whether reading through it above or watching it again, it’s in many ways just your average “gritty” action scene. Nuns walk in, Hitman walks out, lots of bullets fly, etc. Everything in it is well animated and well choreographed and well done from a production standpoint. It’s slicker than an oil spill on an iceberg in that regard.
I mean, it’s part of the Hitman franchise after all. What were you expecting? Hugs and chocolate covered puppies?
It’s really easy to say the problem is due to the violence portrayed. Or the fact that women are shown getting beaten to a pulp even while the camera angles to be as focused on their no-no zones as time allows. Or that showing religious figures both giving and receiving such cold furor is a bit sacrilegious and disrespectful.
Those are all the reasons most were huffing and puffing at this.
But all of them ring hollow to me. There’s something else at play here, and it’s a much bigger problem than all that noise. So let’s delve, shall we?
Sex, Guns & Lack of Soul.
First off, it’s not the violence. Neither I, nor any gamer of any duration can find fault with a violent video game. If we did, we wouldn’t play them. I loved the recent Max Payne 3 for example, and it had more gruesome head shots than a New Jersey modeling agency. Violence in video games is the norm, and every gamer accepts that, or isn’t one.
Likewise, unrepentant pubescent ideations of women and how their naughty bits are used in gaming’s bytes isn’t new either, nor the complaints about this state of affairs. Plenty of ink has been spilled talking about Lara Croft’s unrealistic proportions, the skimpy costumes of fighting femme fatales, and how Princess Peach is the face of the distressed damsel cliche and the worst woman in gaming – at least as far as role models go.
It’s the eyes. Those vacant, dead eyes, that haunt me.
While this trailer certainly doesn’t do anything to push gaming into a more progressive path, I can’t honestly say it’s any worse than many of the countless acts of horror I’ve experienced in the digital space. Targeting this trailer and IO Interactive (the Danish developers who made the game) seems capricious at best. What makes this particular moment of stripper-attired women getting punched in the face and murdered any worse than say, all the times gamers have actually done that exact thing in Mortal Kombat?
(Besides, I’m going to address both violence and sex specifically as I go on with this series, as there are far better candidates to highlight both.)
So is it the religious depiction then? Is it that this trailer shows nuns choking out a man dressed in his Sunday best with their rosaries?
Well, that doesn’t work either. Not really. Games have more than once put religion to task (see the plots of Final Fantasy Tactics, the Assassin’s Creed series, The Order in Silent Hill and many, many, more), and the Hitman series in particular has used religious themes pretty constantly since the first sequel, when Agent 47 lived in a monastery and waxed pathetic about whether or not he had a soul to damn.
I seem to recall using sexually deviant Bishops as weapons of influence in Medieval: Total War too. Hell, that game let you call crusades against even your Catholic enemies if you corrupted the church enough and yet, no controversy.
Nope, that really doesn’t seem too likely either. Dang. I really thought we had something there too.
Actually, I think the issue isn’t that the trailer is showing religion poorly, but that it simply lacks soul, fittingly enough.
It’s violent, sure, but not in an appealing way. The acts themselves are staid, practiced, almost mechanical. It shows women in skimpy outfits, yeah, but any lust gained dies as quickly as they do.
In fact, the segment runs a gamut of emotions within its scant span and it’s hard to tell what, if anything, its point is on an emotional level. Neither 47 or these women are good people. They’re all cold blooded assassins and this isn’t a personal fight at all; given the situation this is sort of like watching two different buskers compete for the same passerby’s dime. Yet there’s a moment where 47 seems to absolve one of the dead nuns of her sins because . . . why exactly? Does that even mean anything?
This trailer is as much defined by what it doesn’t contain as what it does. There’s no joy in it, no purpose, no message other than “our game will let you kill these people.” It’s soulless to the point of nihilism and as confused as most who promote such a philosophy.
The Hitman trailer beleefs in nothink, Lebowski!
If there’s something to be bothered by, it’s probably this lack of heart. Not what’s actually depicted in the trailer, but what was in the minds of those that made it. Because whoever made this seems to think shoving a bunch of semi-sexualized violence drowning in incoherence at gamers is not only fine, but that we’re actually going to get excited by it.
It’s really not the violence or the weirdly fetishistic way it’s portrayed that’s the problem, it’s the incoherence. The mentality behind such presumptuous laziness reeks of deep cynicism. But then perhaps that’s to be expected.
This is video game marketing we’re talking about, after all.
The same types of marketers that have consistently painted gaming poorly through insane plans that everyone shakes their heads at, those of the Acclaim brood, are the types that made this nonsense. And while I understand the adman’s plight – it’s got to be tough to be the guy trying to sell Explosionfest 2013: Revenge of the Nipple Baring Harlot these days when gamers have been ripping out spines out for a couple decades – there is a point in the race to the lowest common denominator these folks are always running where the spectators have just had enough.
Maybe that’s what we’re really angry at then? Maybe we just don’t like exploitative, misleading ads in our gaming anymore?
But being angry at someone in marketing for focusing only on the sleaze or misrepresenting a product in their favor is useless. That would be like yelling at fire for being hot. They’re pretty much the cross breed of scorpions and politicians; you know they’re going to lie to you, but it’s just their nature.
Plus, this trailer isn’t really lying about anything. While the games are focused more on sneaking around than blood ballets, the Hitman franchise is about coldly murdering people for money, it does feature women wearing “slutty version of X” Halloween costumes, and as already mentioned, isn’t exactly respectful when handling religious themes. That’s pretty much the series in a nutshell, actually.
Well that, and the whole “cloned killing machine who occasionally runs into copies of himself” thing. But you know, minor details.
No, it’s not that the trailer is lying to us.
If anything, it’s telling far too much truth.
The truth is, we gamers, while certainly being okay with actually playing a bunch of violent video games, don’t want to be seen as the type who want to play them. On a certain level, we know we should be ashamed for enjoying our murder-simulators that do nothing but empower our collective, rampaging id. But that’s just it, they empower our rampaging id! A very compelling form of pleasure is derived from this.
But any activity that consistently lets you get away with mass murder, even fictional mass murder, can’t be seen as socially acceptable. All gamers know this at heart, and yet games are tolerated just fine. Perhaps we just don’t want the nastier parts of our pastime so bluntly shoved back in our faces because it releases angst that our toys are going to be seen for what they often are – monstrous.
Hmm. Now we’re onto something! This feels nearly correct.
From this context, the problem is that this trailer doesn’t lie enough. It’s not justifying the headshots with heroism like Halo, it’s not pretending that these women are dressed in revealing leather for any reason other than provocation, like say, Samus’ Zero-suit. It’s ignoring all the usual fibs, handing us our darkest desires publicly and without any reassuring deceit, like a singing telegram courier delivering porno to your office.
And just like the telegram girl from Clue, gamers cried foul and shot the messenger.
“Video games still like to indulge our basest fantasiesss- BANG!”
This seems as valid a reason as any for most to truly be outraged. The response felt a little too big, a little too defensive, for it to merely be another cry of sexist representations (especially with that Tomb Raider trailer taking that thunder). But then, why was I disturbed?
I certainly have no problem freely admitting to liking violent video games. I did it just a moment ago, and am doing it again now! And after the supreme court took the gamer’s side last year and protected gaming under the 1st Amendment, I’m certainly not afraid of another threat that games are going to get banned or anything.
No, for me it’s something else entirely.
For me, what this trailer and the others like it makes impossible to ignore is that publishers think gamers are fine with a very limited subject matter – that of adolescent spectacle – and that we’ll be perfectly fine receiving that forever (since we seem to like it so much) in an eternal feedback loop.
In part, this situation is quite accurate. Again, we do like these types of games.
As I see it though, if gamers remain gamers for a long enough time (and the stats prove that they are), they often mature in their tastes and want different things. But if that feedback loop stays constant and is the only thing publishers regard, those who want new content that explores different ideas get ignored. For myself, it’s not how this is presented, but what is getting lost in the process.
The primary reason I fear this is because I’m familiar with a similar situation, one that occurred in another medium entirely. A time when circumstances forced the artists in the field to drastically limit the spectrum of material they could present, and now the medium itself is stuck with the limited scope they’ve been caught in for a century.
I’m speaking of course, about comic books.
Because comparing one medium that often caters to the adolescent desires to another one has never been done before!
In the Ghetto . . . the Cultural Ghetto
Let’s make a brief stop in the land of American comic book history!
Specifically how the American comic book fell into a very narrow mode of expression, superhero power fantasies, and how once it fell in it hasn’t been able to get out. I’ll try not to get too sidetracked here so I’m not going to get too deeply into this, but the gist of it is as follows:
Way back when, comics (and subsequently, comic books) were about everything. Sure, there were spandex wearing steroid abusing superheroes for young boys, but there were also romance comics for girls, true-life detective stories for grown ups, horror comics for teenagers, and well, pretty much a wide array of comics for a wide range of readers.
But then, mostly due to the Red Scare, a quack’s book called Seduction of the Innocent, and the original Columbine-level fear mongering over “teenage delinquency”, a vast movement was enacted.
Comic books were banned and even burned (pretty horrifying considering this occurred right after World War 2), and there was a major threat that the entire medium was about to be legislated into oblivion. So the comic book makers took their only way out: submitting to a Draconian code of censored blandness that allowed very little expression other than a few staples like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (the latter pair only after heavy revision).
All of this was chronicled in The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hadju. If you’re interested, it’s a highly engaging read that I heartily recommend. Or, if you’re pressed for time, here’s Zach Weiner covering basically the same stuff.
Since then comic books, which used to be read by millions of Americans a year, have lived in a comparatively niche market where if a book gets a tenth of that readership, it’s a success. Thankfully the recent superhero movie explosion and the internet have given the medium much more exposure, but it’s had little effect on the demographics of comic book readers, at least for hard copies (web comics are doing pretty well). If you go into a comic book store today, who do you find there? Mostly older men who liked the tights and laser vision explosions as much now as they did when they were ten (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
When superheroes became the only acceptable norm they’re the only thing that got published; the only fans that were cultivated were those that liked said superheroes, and now the industry is drowning in them. While there certainly are comics that don’t focus on capes, cowls or exaggerated physiques – in fact, there are MANY phenomenal stories, like Sandman, Love & Rockets and anything by Brian K. Vaughn – casual readers only get introduced to these works through a chain of folks that begins with someone who loves superhero fare. The other genres that used to get published (romance, horror, crime), only exist in tiny amounts and reach limited audiences.
If you ever read Alan Moore or Ed Brubaker and liked it, you have guys like this to thank.
When a medium, any medium, gets caught in a limited space that it can’t break out of and exists only to supplicate those that have already bought into it, for all intents and purposes it’s in a cultural ghetto. While thankfully video games aren’t going down this path due to legal restriction, the far nastier reality that this trailer and E3 in general were reinforcing is that they could end up falling into the same situation anyway, but willingly.
Video games, at least the big name games (and thus the majority of the audience), that focus on only the guns and the explosions and the breasts are reaching for the low hanging fruits of subject matter. The fear I have, and what I’m suspecting is the underlying cause of some of the angst here, is that this will never change. Primarily because these games have been proven to make money in the past, and for the big companies that make them it’s considered too great a financial risk to try anything different, which if you’re going for Call of Duty numbers, seems unfortunately true.
Often, it feels like that video games are already stuck in this exact situation, or something akin to it. The scope of subject matter that dominates the majority of “serious” gaming is broader than just one thing like superheroes, but not by much, and the demographics are almost as limited: teenage boys get “gritty” shooters featuring soldiers and gangsters, children receive shiny happy family friendly fun (mostly provided by Nintendo), competitive gamers have fighters and Starcraft. Many of the genres that targeted other demographics, as with the comic book industry, are either tiny and all but dead, or are constantly being forced to fit within the mold of more popular action game audiences; stealth, survival horror, and RPGs all come to mind on that last point.
Resident Evil 4 – shooting the fear found in horror games right in the face!
But then, I like superheroes just fine, and I like my gory action games and my bouncy Mario games just fine too. There’s nothing inherently wrong with blood and guts and boobs, and if it sells, well, it sells. Even if the majority of games are set in the limited purview of endless permutations on murder, they’re usually still fun.
If gaming is falling in, or already is in, the same limited scope as comic books, it doesn’t seem like it matters much if we enjoy it right?
Besides, potentially interesting subject material for adults or women that aren’t just interested in farming on Facebook isn’t ignored entirely. The Sims, Civilization, and simulations in general, are focused on these populations (for at least one example). While there may not be a plethora of genres that target an older set, and neither the quantity nor hype of the existing contributions here match the levels of action games, a few do exist for the folks who want alternatives.
So what’s the big problem? Why am I harshing the vibe? And how did we get here when I was talking about the Hitman trailer?
If Youth is wasted on the Young then perhaps its time to grow up?
I worry about potential, really.
Individually, a game like Hitman: Absolution isn’t a problem. Nor are it’s bizarre BDSM Nun punching ads. I’ve certainly enjoyed the Hitman games in the past, and assuming Absolution matches the quality of the last one, will probably enjoy it as well.
There’s definitely a space for games about such material in the broad spectrum of the medium, just as there’s a space for John Ringo’s PALADIN OF SHADOWS in literature.
Damn, he even looks like your average video game protagonist.
If collectively, the entire gaming industry was to focus solely on stuff like Hitman – if the spectrum were totally narrowed – there would be a problem. But that’s just a paranoid fear that occasionally likes to creep up in the back of my mind. It’s not the reality.
And yet the main defense I constantly see whenever people get riled up over events such as this one is that “gaming is still in it’s infancy”. That while such and such action – in this case, Square-Enix’s marketing team’s poor foresight and cynicism – is deplorable, all we gamers need to do is wait a bit longer and we’ll see that in a few years, we’ll look back on this moment and laugh. Just like we did at early 3D gaming’s hilarious attempts to make “sexy” women with only six polygons and a blow up doll for reference.
Gahhh! Maybe we should be worried that someone is getting turned on by those dead nuns after all. For a moment, this was someone’s idea of a beautiful woman.
My concerns over gaming ghettoization flare up whenever I hear this argument these days, because I’m only left with one thought: How long do we keep waiting?
Popular gaming has been around since the late seventies if you count Pong and Pac-Man – that’s almost forty years! “Gaming is still in its infancy” at this point, seems an apologist’s line. One robbed of power due to the sheer amount of time the medium’s been around.
I’ve grown up with video games, but often, it seems they refuse to grow up with me. This ridiculous trailer has been yet another reminder of this fact, and it’s about the five hundredth time I’ve been reminded. I, and I assume others like me, always hoped that games were going to diversify into more thoughtful territories than where they were when I was a kid . . . but they simply aren’t doing that.
You are tearing me apart . . . video game industry?
Wait. Despite this article going on far too long, I don’t want to end this on a down note like that! Besides, I’m still looking for solution. Now if only I could find the question . . .
First, I’ll admit that hope can easily be found when you look around a bit. The medium is broader than the gross generalizations from before.
Being able to fund “oddball” demands like “humor” and “nuanced characterization” are partly behind the big Kickstarter Craze that’s been going on lately (even if most of the benefit is going toward reboots). Indie gaming is continuing unabated, and adventure games have seen a resurgence thanks to Telltale. These are definitely good things.
Then there’s Sony, the one big name publisher that seems to get why focusing on a limited scope is bad. Maybe it’s because they also make movies – the film industry, despite having treacle like Battleship, also produces many interesting films across a wide swath of concepts – but Sony has been funding all sorts of diverse game projects that obviously attempt to reach different audiences.
Quantic Dream’s explorations into “Interactive drama” wouldn’t work without Sony’s coffers, and thatgamecompany has been able to put out some really unique content like Flower and Journey thanks to them. Lest I forget, they also fund Team Ico, and proud we are of all their achievements. So it’s not like there aren’t some real attempts at diversification being made.
Even if there’s a glaring problem.
Namely that such attempts at differentiation are usually met chilly receptions on the sales floor. Even success stories like Heavy Rain, which pushed 2 million copies, don’t compare to action shooters like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves at 5 million, and most go the way of Psychonauts – critically loved but totally forgotten by the public at large. Certainly, none approach Call of Duty‘s numbers, which to quote the Sagan, get into “billions and billions” of dollars.
And to quote the Kotick, “Papa like those numbers! You hear that Radical! Papa like THOSE numbers! Not your mere millions.”
Solving this problem – figuring out how to make gamers want to buy Psychonauts over Battlefield – well that’s a billion dollar conundrum in of itself, isn’t it?
But it’s perhaps the solution I’m seeking as well. The fear that gaming will narrow its scope, the angst that we’re ashamed of playing morally bankrupt games, the lack of diversified growth; all can be abated if more well crafted, non exploitative games are produced!
Solutions may lie in the Slight and the Subtle.
However, there’s at least one Catch-22. Interesting alternative games are often made by smaller devs, but they usually can’t measure up to the production quality of the AAA action games; not everyone has the dedication or time to make Fez after all. But it’s also difficult to convince gamers who want the most out of their hardware to settle for something that looks like it was made by a first year art student, especially if the rest of the content is going to try for the unfamiliar.
And if Activision knew how to make, say, a romance game that captured the hearts of teen girls and moms everywhere, even if it was still basically as dumb as most of their games – if they could make Fifty Shades of Grey essentially – they would, wouldn’t they? The stats certainly prove that women play more games than ever before, and from a business standpoint, it sounds reasonable to pursue them. There’s lots of money to be made by appealing to demographics other than simply teenage boys, Nintendo proved that with the Wii, so why don’t they do it (or even something better)?
The obvious conclusion is that the major developers and publishers, in addition to being afraid of risking low sales in more nuanced genres like drama or romance rather than big, obvious, sure thing shooters, don’t know how to make such games. At least not in ways that remain as engaging throughout as a Modern Warfare or an Assassin’s Creed. Heck, maybe no one knows how to do this, because my bet is that if they could, they would.
No really. How?
Any game about romance, politics, comedy or any alternative focus needs to be at least as fun as the games about capping Nazi skulls if it’s going to compete, obviously.
Less obvious is the sheer how of that. It’s a bit tough to imagine the EXCITING GAMEPLAY of The Importance of Being Earnest: The Play: The Game that’s going to get Johhny Halo to pick it up at the store over Master Chief. That’s the challenge here – to make wordplay as fun as gunplay, manipulation as enthralling as strangulation, love more exciting than war.
Like a two year old smashing pots together because they’re bored, most major game developers are content to stick to the obvious ways of garnering attention – death, sex, spectacle – but maybe I’ve misjudged it as intentional when it’s simply due to inadequacy? Perhaps it’s because that’s all they know how to do. Maybe gaming really is in it’s infancy, at least in a “language development” sense.
For as I said once before in a review, “Most games are written with violence as a book is with words, and the thesaurus is getting quite thick indeed.” The corollary seems true to me now as well. Subtlety is a language games simply lack.
In order for gaming to grow up, to reach it’s full potential, it’s a language worth learning.
As Tycho of Penny Arcade said about this very same nonsense I’m covering now, “the answer is always more art”. If there’s an actionable response to the inanities brought up with this year’s E3, it will lie in making more, not less, and I suspect that the art is going to lie in the realm of the understated, the inferred, and the nuanced.
The way to prevent more Hitman Absolution debacles isn’t to decry them, to fear them or shout at them, it’s to give the alternatives just as much power and weight. The way to do that, is to make the indistinct verbs of life, the ones games don’t usually focus on, as fun as the blatant ones.
Comedy. Drama. Romance. These are the realms that get ignored in games when we focus on killsplosions, and these are the realms where a mastery of the subtle is paramount.
Because you’re never going to make the rampaging Hulk that is the gaming industry to pour vast resources at these “alternative” game genres as they are – there’s simply not enough profit in it. But if you can make them better? If you can make them more fun? Most importantly, more profitable than the latest shooter?
Well, then you find that the Hulk will stop his rampage.
Perhaps because it’s an overcast July 4th here in my corner of usually beautiful and overly hot southern California, but it seems a perfect day to take a step back.
To look at something important to gamers young and old, hardcore and casual. I’m of course talking about E3 (or the Electronic Entertainment Expo for the unfamiliar), and how this year is most likely going to go down in history, at least for myself, as the worst ever.
When you go . . . Downtown!
Arriving in downtown Los Angeles much later than I intended on the blisteringly hot last day of E3, I was excited.
I walked past the frenzied bazaar of tents promoting energy drinks that rests outside the entrance to the convention center. I skipped the bible thumpers shouting from the curb that proclaimed all going into this gaming Gomorrah sinners in need of redemption. I walked past the first of many noises such a congregation always brings, and out of the blazing summer heat.
Once safely tucked into the outer edges of the center’s interior, my pulse began to race. I think it’s my borrowed badge – one from a friend still enough in the industry to get badges – that causes it. It reminds me of how it all began almost a decade ago.
Way back when, my then girlfriend’s dad worked at [REDACTED]. While skilled at his job, he bore no love of gaming and had no interest to participate in the chaos and tumult of what is easily the industry’s biggest and most important spectacle. As I was an interested party in these affairs and my birthday was around the same time (and still is as both are seemingly annual events) I was given his badge to go in his stead.
That first E3, where I broke my big trade show cherry, was a big one. It was 2004, the year Nintendo revealed what would eventually be their portable behemoth DS to confusion and hesitation of the crowd. Where I got to play what would be the final version of Resident Evil 4 to my delight. Where I got to be one of the few who got to play Starcraft: Ghost (on the Gamecube no less) before it became as ethereal as its subtitle.
I wasn’t afraid o’ no Ghost, but Blizzard apparently was.
The sense of illicit activity that comes with heading into E3 on a borrowed badge is palpable. Even now as it was then. Of course it’s silly too.
As long as you have a valid badge, both the name on it roughly corresponds to preconceived gender notions about your sex, you wear business casual attire, and with my tried and true advantage of being a white male wearing a look of exhausted resignation on my face in an industry where that’s describes the average programmer, what are the door guards to do? Especially since badge trading for out of town friends and clients is as much a tradition in the industry as the Expo itself?
Perhaps all this nervous energy was a flashback to that earlier time. When the carnival lights of this media frenzy brought with it the promise of hope for fans such as myself; a sneak peek at the future! Before several years within the industry at [REDACTED] pulled the caul from my eyes and showed me the much more mundane man behind the curtain, and E3 just became a headache machine. An anniversary in a failing marriage.
But perhaps it was more than that, this feeling of excitement. I hadn’t been actively avoiding industry news, but I missed the press conferences this year, and only watched a scant few trailers friends had suggested. I was going into this E3 in the dark; a bit more unguarded, a bit naked.
Well, of expectations I mean.
Generally, the cops of Southern California aren’t too keen on gamers giving a public “Protip” on where they can find their secret warp whistles.
(Photo by Jim Grant for the OB Rag)
So I crossed the threshold into the recycled air that hangs in the cavernous dark of the trade show floor with at least a couple butterflies in my stomach, and proceeded to surf the wave of the crowd onto the shores of publishers and developers.
After hours of wandering into booth after booth, dodging bored models in cosplay varying between almost fetishized and definitely fetishized, chatting up a few old friends still within the industry, and actually managing to play a few games or watch a few devs take us on guided tours in soundproofed antechambers, the butterflies proceed to commit seppuku and die.
The only thought ringing through my mind while I entered the Sony booth for the third time hoping to find something that doesn’t reek of the desperation of their Super Smash Bros. clone is that quote from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica . . .
All of this has happened before, and will happen again.
Thanks for living up to your name, Creepy Old Robot Dude!
Yes, E3 turned out to be the same as it ever was. Everywhere you turn, hype men shout to the rafters and run tournaments, contests and giveaways; the clamor and noise-Noise-NOISE continues unabated against a backdrop of neon explosions on high definition screens. Usually there’s something that catches the eye, games whose very existence promote the potential of the medium, but this year “retread” seemed the key word for the majority.
“Realistic” military shooters that skimp on the realism, “wacky” Japanese titles with clinically proscribed levity, unnecessary online multiplayer integration in single player franchises, murder-death-kill after murder-death-kill and always against appropriately simplistic “bad guys” who are simple to hate as long as you aren’t thinking much about it, and even easier to slay en masse.
Even Nintendo, often the exemplar of gaming innovation, didn’t bring much new to the table. HD graphics, a secondary screen in a controller, and a solid digital delivery strategy are all good for the Wii U, but they’re just refinements on old ideas (Current console tech, Dreamcast’s VMU, and Playstation Online/Xbox Live storefronts respectively). They had no new IPs. Heck, they didn’t even have much to show in the way of updated old IPs.
Originality and novelty that sparked the imagination could be found amongst this maze of the mundane, but in amounts as scarce as water on Arrakis and seemingly as elusive as Carmen Sandiego.
Hmmm, I knew that woman in the red get up looked suspicious. After her! She’s getting away with an industry’s novel premises!
E3 2012 was quickly becoming the definition of banal before my eyes. Maybe it was because there wasn’t a “megaton” announcement, or maybe it was because it was the last day of the event and all of the show goers were spent after a week of parties and pitches. Whatever the reason, I didn’t seem to be alone; talking to others on the floor or while waiting in lines proved that few seemed terribly impressed.
As I was preparing to leave bored and perhaps a bit saddened by this turn of events, something happened in that Sony booth.
While waiting to get my hands on the genuinely intriguing looking Papo & Yo, one of the few games around that at least seems to be trying for, well, not a totally original concept, but at least a lesser used older trend (fanciful puzzle-platforming) set against a lesser used backdrop (the poverty of South America) with a juxtaposition of the two via “magical reality” techniques, a trailer played on Sony’s ginormous screen that draws my attention. Thanks to my ignorance of the media deluge, I beheld it for the first time and with fresh eyes.
Aside from Watchdogs, it’s the trailer people talked about this year. You know the one. The Hitman: Absolution trailer where Agent 47 kills a bunch of leather clad battle nuns using their terrible sensory perception and the marketing team’s poor taste to his advantage.
It’s completely ridiculous, to be sure. A glorified, overdone, flash of immature sexuality, wanton violence for the sake of it, with perhaps a nasty undertone of sexualizing that very same violence. And from a series that always promotes the opposite – sneaky infiltration where perceptual invisibility is the highest value – to boot.
But it wasn’t shocking.
That’s the real problem. Not the revealing leather or the bloody brutality. No, it’s that the marked jump from violence! to violence AND sex! seemed the only “new idea” introduced at this year’s E3 by several developers, and it isn’t a new idea at all.
Ignorance or Apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care.
Frankly, the Hitman trailer’s idiocy is as boring and disheartening as the lackluster showing of Nintendo’s new console and both Microsoft and Sony’s announcements of stuff that no one particularly seems to care about and aren’t new consoles. As discussed by these three bearded gentlemen, this year’s E3 could easily be called “quiet”.
But then, there’s a difference between “quiet”, and brooding malevolence isn’t there?
While “bored regurgitation” is still my go-to description of what E3 2012 amounted to, there’s something else, something almost sinister that’s hanging in the peripherals of my perception on this show. Something akin to smelling spoiled food in the fridge, but not knowing if it’s the milk, the meat, or the cheese.
It was in this state that I left the proceedings, a splinter of fear and loathing burrowing its way through my skull as I walked back to my car. Famished as I was, I procured a couple of downtown’s famous bacon wrapped hotdogs, but even they couldn’t quite wash the distaste from my mouth.
And these comforting flavor bombs are usually what turns any trip to downtown into a fond memory.
Maybe it’s just that for a moment I actually got excited about the possibility that the show can grant a gamer, only to see that hope dashed against the rocky coast of creative stagnation, but I think there’s something more, and that the Hitman: Absolution trailer is part of it.
If taken alone, it would have been a mere trifling example of a presumptive marketing department. Something to whine about and then forget quickly once something promising came along, as Penny Arcade pointed out. But that’s just the thing: it wasn’t alone.
There’s also the Farcry 3 trailers that incite the player to violence and sex like a barbarian preparing his horde to march. There’s also that Tomb Raider trailer that got a bit rapey. There’s also the Assassin’s Creed 3 trailers (including one that hit today) which push a streak of American jingoism as strong as a Michael Bay film written by John Milius.
“Refusing to learn history” is a tad ironic considering this series is historical fiction.
Together, this collection of reveals about the upcoming future of gaming made a grim reminder of the medium’s present. Because these trailers represent not only the soon-to-release, but also the current mindset of the industry. It’s a mindset that seems focused on the disturbing and terrible, on bodies hitting the floor and getting stripped to their skin, on aggressive actions and sexuality for the sake of it rather than to make any sort of actual point.
Taken as a whole, the message was an appeal to base instincts and debauchery. Charming titles like Quantum Conundrum, Papo & Yo and the of course those lovable Nintendo stalwarts were there, but not only did most seemed as rote as their bloodier counterparts, but they were drowned by the sheer volume of this focus. A focus that seems the exact opposite of why I used to love this goofy glut of gaming glitz, for it strides headlong into regression.
That’s the gnawing fear at my center whenever I think of this year’s E3. That for as many steps forward as the medium’s taken, it’s beginning to backslide into something I don’t think it should be. Worse, that we as gamers are not only going to let this happen, but that we want it to.
Hmm. It appears I have begun to sing the doom song.
Yes, yes, I know. I’m perhaps going too far with my prognostications of gaming being doomed into an infantile corner of the cultural landscape. That much of this has blown over already and isn’t relevant now that a month has about passed.
Besides, this is the part where I’m either supposed to make some sort of argument where I defend the medium or analyze what everything “really means” or at least get into the history of it all. You know, something useful.
But it’s the 4th of July! A day where we Americans celebrate the birth of our nation (as put forth by The Simpsons) “by blowing up a small part of it.” I have things to attend to, and so likely, do you. Even if for our international readership that doesn’t include explosions, public denouncements of those tea-loving Brits, and at least six or seven mandatory viewings of The Patriot, Independence Day, or anything else directed by Roland Emmerich.
I like the part where the main characters are all played by Australians or British actors, how no one seems particularly interested in keeping to facts about the era, or even modern sensibilities of respect as seen by this flag touching the ground. Truly, it is the most American of films . . . directed by a German.
In honor of the blind hope this day brings to every red, white, and blue blooded American, what I’m going to do is initiate a small series to see if I can’t find some opportunity amid so much catastrophe. Besides, this E3 left me feeling very hesitant toward wanting to be a gamer for a lot of complicated reasons that each probably deserve examination. Not only would I rather not give up something I’ve spent the better part of my life being invested in, but perhaps, with such analysis, I can get to the root of the problem or see if there’s even a problem at all.
Perhaps there are even some solutions to be found.
But that’s for tomorrow and the next day and hope. For today, I lament the state of my favorite pastime as much as I celebrate the birth of my nation.
I suppose this year’s E3 was like the end of a relationship for me. That last time you meet with someone where it’s just not working out, but neither of you want to admit it. Where you’re reminded of why you loved as much as why you can’t anymore.
All I can hope is that this “breakup” will help me to grow just a little more mature and wise. Because if I’m correct in my concerns, then the only mature thing to be seen in gaming is going to be the warning on the cover; the only wisdom, a trait in the next RPG.
I love achievements. My Gamerscore is only a paltry 12,790 points but I’m always looking out to accumulate more. I’m a subscriber to xbox360achievements.org and frequently plan my gaming time around garnering new achievements for my profile. Surprisingly overall achievement chasing is not at all detrimental to my enjoyment of gaming, although many have touted achievements, trophies and gamer scores as having a negative impact on the way gamers play, think about and feel about games. They have been compared to carrots on sticks, leading the player through a game without ever giving real satisfaction, or even worse giving satisfaction for the wrong reasons. Some people play games they actually hate just to collect a few easy points to bolster their score, a practice which I find baffling. Somehow I can’t quite correlate a hardcore gamer with 100,000G by his name with Hannah Montana and High School Musical sitting in his games History. To each their own, I guess.
But achievements, far from being an omen of gaming Ragnarok (okay, no one has actually said it’s that bad but a bit of hyperbole never hurt anyone) can actually accentuate and even complement good games and make them better. The problem is, achievements call for good design in themselves and it is only in recent years that developers have realised that “Kill 10,000 of These” is not a fun way to play. The Gears of War series is particularly guilty of this, requiring multiple playthroughs and an estimated 400 hours of total game time for the achievement “Seriously”, which requires you to… kill 10,000 people in ranked matches. How about that.
400 hours of this. Sounds fun.
With a bit of thought and forward planning, however, developers can increase the replayability of their games without slipping into repetitive, mundane tasks which run the risk of boring the player into never buying one of their games ever again.
everything fits in a box
Achievements are easily categorised into distinct types which call for particular player behaviours, and balancing these correctly is critical to ensuring continued player engagement. The most basic and easiest to unlock are progression achievements – some games are generous enough to give you one simply as a thank you for purchasing their game (such as Heavy Rain’s “Interactive Drama – Thank You for supporting Interactive Drama”). Usually awarded at the end of chapters or difficult puzzles and boss fights, by completing the game from start to finish the player can earn all progression achievements.
Following progression are the collection achievements – find all of these trinkets and get some points in return. Titles such as Fez and Tomb Raider, generally more puzzle oriented games, feature more of these than your average shooter but even Gears of War had three incremental achievements for collecting COG tags. This requires exploration and scrutiny on the part of the player, encouraging them to spend longer in the environments lovingly crafted by the devs. Guides for these achievements tend to undermine their efforts, but the principle is there.
Third, and generally more difficult than progression and collection, are the skill achievements – achievements for headshots, speed runs and completing the game on the hardest mode all fall into this category. The player must demonstrate aptitude at the game, not simply muddling through and lucking out. It’s important that the tasks involved aren’t too laborious or repetitive, such as Mass Effect 2’s “Brawler” achievement (shoot 20 enemies while they are knocked back by a punch) as the focus is then moved to the quantity rather than the quality of play, and the task quickly becomes tiresome. These achievements require more work than the others and for the player to actively seek them out, although it’s entirely possible to accidentally unlock headshot achievements, because everyone loves a good headshot.
It’s not just about getting the right mixture of these three achievement types, however. It’s also about implementing them in the way which best suits the game in question – if Minecraft XBLA asked you to create a building with 5000 blocks in it, the creativity element of the game is immediately undermined. Instead it encourages you to explore the world and build new, more exciting things like Nether portals, which in themselves require you to dig deep for diamond before locating lava and water falls to mine Obsidian. My favourite example of a game driven well by achievements is Eternal Sonata, which also happens to be my favourite game flat out.
Eternal Sonata is the only game I have completed all the achievements for. It’s a real time turn based JRPG set in the dying dreams of Frederic Chopin, and I loved every crazy second. Collecting the achievements was a monumental effort, requiring hours of forward thinking, several hand drawn maps and a lot of notes. It took me nearly 200 hours in total, the last 50 being covered within a 72 hour timeframe. It was also the most fun I had in 2011 while unemployed, because the achievements were exciting to work towards. 13 of the 22 were simple progression achievements – completing chapters and gaining party levels respectively, usually with a nasty boss at the end of each. 2 were collection based – score pieces and EZI items – and the rest were a combination of skill and exploration based achievements, given for finding hidden dungeons and defeating the incredibly powerful enemies within, or using riddles to lure out the pirates and then find their hidden treasure.
By hunting these achievements out, I found myself led to the most exciting and challenging areas of the game, areas that I might otherwise have missed. But! Is this bad game design? The potential to wander past the game’s best features? Not exactly. The achievements are well integrated with the gameplay, and the decision to use them as a driving force for the player allowed the developers to avoid anvil sized hints within a game built on mystery and revelation. The player is actively rewarded with hidden game content for seeking achievements – it’s no longer an arbitrary set of numbers, but an enhanced game experience.
Without achievements, I would never have known I could murder this lovely lady twice.
You’re doing it wrong
It’s very easy to get it wrong, though. While Mass Effect is by far my favourite game series of all time, the achievements for the first game bordered on insane. Being a squad based third person shooter RPG, six of the achievements are based on having certain crew members in your squad for the entire duration of the game. As you can only have two people in your squad at any one time, this immediately mandates three complete playthroughs – every side mission, every assignment, with the relative squad member in tow. It doesn’t help that the game’s scale makes it very easy to not find all of the missions. The rest of the achievements are monotonous number based “Use X 150 times,” which require re-rolling as the character class which possesses the relevant move type or weapon. No matter how much you love Mass Effect, the achievements are a complete chore and bring nothing to the game whatsoever – an opportunity missed given the game is so broad in scope and has so many working variables.
Other design errors when it comes to achievement implementation include putting multiplayer achievements in what are primarily single player games – Fable II is incredibly guilty of this. With awful co-op and achievements which required having more than four friends who owned the game to exchange exclusive in-game world items, any attempt to earn a few G results in an okay game suddenly becoming awful. Sure, I’ll shoot fifty Gargoyles no problem, but I’m not playing doll swapsies over xboxLive, which very few of my friends who play this game even have. Because it’s a single player game. Which should not require xboxLive to complete. It’s not Call of Modern Battlefield.
Luckily Bioware didn’t make any Mass Effect 3 achievements exclusive to multiplayer. Unluckily, this was pretty much the only thing they did right.
It’s also possible for an achievement-crazed player to ruin a game for themselves through over-exposure. BioShock is one of the few first person shooters I was willing to suffer, wooed as I was by its beauty and pseudo-philosophy. Enamoured as I was, I decided to do an achievement run based on the enjoyment I garnered from my Eternal Sonata experience. Several hours later, as I snapped the last of the required photographs and found the final hidden Power to the People station, I found myself absolutely nauseated. Three achievements short of completion, I turned BioShock off because I has completely overdone it. Even thinking about it makes me feel a bit queasy – thanks to my obsessive, completionist nature I am literally sick of BioShock, one of the best games ever made. Following this experience I toned down my hunting and returned to playing games without thinking too hard about what I could be unlocking.
But this was a case of poor judgement on the part of me, the player, rather than anything to do with the achievement design. In a moment of madness I cared too much about finding everything, about doing everything, and it was to the detriment of my gaming experience. It’s in moments like these that achievement-oriented gamers need to be reminded that their Gamerscore doesn’t mean anything and that they run the risk of turning a fun experience into a chore – and turning one’s hobby into work is a risky business indeed.
When handled appropriately, achievements are a welcome addition to the gaming world. They challenge those who want more from their games, they give us extra milestones and visible rewards for our efforts. No one knows that I’ve completed Kingdom Hearts in its entirety, collecting every item and finding all the Trinities, but they would if it had been on the xbox360 or PS3. So it’s bragging rights too, and there is something nice about having added competitiveness in the gaming world for those who want to engage in it. It’s fun to compare scores, see what others have managed, ask them to give you tips or even just tell you about the experience. But all of this is very dependent on the achievements themselves actually being worthwhile. If no thought has been put into them, and if there isn’t a good progression : collection : skill ratio, it all begins to fall apart. Players get bored, completionists get frustrated, and there’s an opportunity missed by developers in terms of engaging customers with their product for longer. A bit of good design beyond the game will go a long way.
One, house Magnavox, entering into the untamed wilderness with their host of Odysseys, the other, house Atari, had stolen the fire of tennis and ignited the imagination with Pong, the progenitor of gaming nobility. The first battles over who would control this new land raged between these houses and others joining the hurly burly, until a great flood of Pong clones swept the market clean, leaving few standing.
Invaders from the East
Atari, now sworn to their lords Warner, was a troubled house. There was no reason after the flood of ’77 to continue on as they had, Pong was dead from exposure and gaming was proving an inhospitable place. They released their 2600 with the shiniest of new armor and it’s great host of games to duel with house Fairchild, only to find the battleground a field of apathy and consumer doubt.
Then they came from the east, and none were prepared.
Well, mostly. This guy had been ready since hearing Orson Wells on the radio.
Space Invaders, a native of the Arcade wildlands of Japan, quickly found dominance in similar surroundings to the west. A brutal combatant that struck down all contenders and riding on a zeitgeist fueled by Star Wars, its legend of a nation running out of currency to pay it homage ensured the survival of the Arcade warrior ethos in its native land. A legacy that continues even in the modern era.
Such success caused the lands of gaming to remain fertile. It was more than just endless Pong, and the people rejoiced in the fresh novelty of alien blasting. It also caused the Western Lords to take notice.
Winning its duel with Fairchild, Atari realized they needed a champion to rally the populace to their cause. Space Invaders had unseated their own Arcade warriors, Asteroids and Missile Command, claiming this potential title in direct combat. Lords of House Atari, ever cunning, made a pact withSpace Invaders‘ Clan Taito; their champion would fight for them as part of their 2600 host!
With this leader at the front, the 2600 reached dominance and it’s goal; as the age turned, Atari occupied the throne of the gaming king, lord over both console and arcade!
It was heralded across the lands with a catchy little ditty.
Yet as the king is crowned, so too are rival blades unsheathed. Other claimants to this throne arose, from houses old and new, ready to strike back.
Rivals Emerge as the Golden Arcade Age Dawns
House Magnavox returned with the Odyssey², House Coleco with their ColecoVision, and House Mattel – new to the land of video – with the Intellivision. All pursued Atari’s crown.
It would not be a rule of peace, but one filled with battle and combat (which was a game actually).
These houses sought their own heroes to aid them in their campaigns or used magics to entice men to their cause. Odyssey² enthralled with its voice. ColecoVision rode atop the great beast Donkey Kong, itself an Arcade giant from Clan Nintendo. Intellivision had overflowing coffers provided by house Mattel, and was the fairest of them all with the best graphics and sound of the time.
Atari retained the throne against such contenders, but did so with an iron fist. Proclaiming their liege cruel, unkind, and unjust (and unable to properly retain them), several knights broke away from house Atari to form the mercenary band Activision. Working for no one but themselves, these sellswords let their adventurous explorer Ser Harry roam amongst all houses that would pay them coin.
Activision began its history of plunder from the very start. Pitfall Harry wasn’t in the jungle to catalog wildlife after all.
Meanwhile, the wild arcades grew unchecked. Men came from far and wide to witness the wonders contained within.
Beasts roamed this country, from the great Centipede to the smallest toad. Knights errant fought for the hands of ladies and committed to the noble Joust. Creatures from beyond the stars brought their sinister foes with them, and the mythical sprite Q*bert could be seen hopping along, merrily warbling his hopping song.
To wander into the arcade was to be assaulted with noise and glamor, all with the aim of plucking the quarters from your purse. Every sight seen was a novelty, and to make a game strong was to make a game new. The only law was survival, and this brought forth great innovation along every conceivable path from gamesmiths hoping to test their mettle in this bazaar.
In these shadowed halls magic sparked and crackled.
It was in this wilderness that the eastern clans found their home. Clan Sega flew in with Zaxxon from the stars, Clan Konami had their Frogger leap and Time Pilot soar. Some struck out alone whilst others, like Clan Taito, formed pacts with western hedge knights such as Midway in order to guide them along the shores of the foreign west. As with Clan Nintendo, many served the noble western houses in the console war for the home as retainers.
Yet there was one rough beast borne from this house of flash that slouched amongst them all, devouring quarters and spirits alike. It’s coming brought a pestilence with it and it foretold of both bounty and doom. It became the center, a golden idol to the masses, but it could not hold; things fell apart.
The Plague of Pac-Man Fever
Behold the Destroyer! He comes for thee!
Clan Namco’s finest wizard, Toru Iwatani, conjured and formed his ravenous beast, Pac-Man, releasing it with the turn of the age into 1980. No sooner had it been born than it was cast out and alone in its native Japan, where the Invaders from Space held the populace’s imagination captive. Thus it was that Clan Namco, through Ser Midway, unleashed this misshapen orphan upon the west, and with it, disease.
“Pac-Man fever” swept throughout the land. No constitution was strong enough to resist it, no potion or tincture could cure it. The only hope was to feed this horror your silver even as he fed on the spirits of the damned.
Such virulence claimed many as the creature flew everywhere. He appeared on the televised scrying screens as an animated puppet, and parents were quick to ward their children against such a beast by flying the Pac-Man sigil on their children’s shirts and pails. Confused and terrified bards sung of this blight, hoping they too would not be consumed.
It’s true form is revealed when the glammer is dispelled.
Yet it was also a formidable beast. If it could be tamed, brought to battle in the war for the console? Pac-Man would surely make a powerful ally.
But it would take a madman to stare such a creature in the unending maw it called a mouth, and try to ride it. It would take even greater influence to convince Clan Namco to leash their coin gobbling terror.
There was only one who fit both bills.
The Madness of King Atari
Seeking to use this horrible beast against its foes, Atari drained vast reserves of its treasury to spawn a legion of Pac-Men. However, these were ugly, horrid, little nibblers unable to match their sire’s menace with the populace, who remained drawn to their golden idol in its arcade home. It was a great loss of coin to the Atari monarchy, yet it was just the first in a string of ill fortunes and mad edicts.
The tool of the gamesmith, the home computer, had been too costly at the start of the gaming age, but as time wore on the steel of these forges, the microprocessor, grew cheap and plentiful. Thus did House Commodore, House Apple, and House Tandy seeking their own glory, enter their own war to allow knowledge of computer crafting into the halls of men. Atari, seeing a potential threat, began warring on this new front by raising yet another division.
House Commodore struck back, announcing a bounty on any of the king’s men and proclaiming its Commodore 64 would do for the common man anything Atari could, but more. In this rebuke, their criers even went so far as to target the children:
The true price of teaching a child BASIC before entering school? Wedgies.
Twas was no mere jest, for as Turing had foreseen, the computer was to become the tool of men in a great age to come. This magic was now at the fingertips of the common man, and as all first year wizards learn to summon homunculi from the netherrealms, so to did the common man summon games in numbers uncountable.
Worse still, the renegades that had formed Activision had inadvertently sparked revolution. Gamesmiths from across the newly built kingdom fled to new lords or turned to mercenary work to sustain themselves. Thus arose another flood in the market as with the Pong clones before, but of cheap games bearing no allegiance to King Atari, and paying no tithes to the crown.
Beset by all sides by enemies real or imagined, King Atari poured the treasury into one last gambit. Allying itself with the gentle creature from space, E.T., Atari attempted their previous folly. As with Pac-Man, they bred and raised a host of ill considered hell-spawn so vast they could overrun any foe, and yet so disgusting, vile, and horrible that no one would dare approach.
The E.T. horde died in the field from starvation, having conquered no foes. With the last of their coin spent, Atari saw to the grim task of funeral rites for their pitiful creatures even as their kingdom crumbled to dust. The mass grave in the wastes still exists to this day, a testament to Atari’s hubris.
Out in no man’s land you’ll find the carcass no crow dares touch: E.T. on the 2600.
It was the final blow, and as E.T. went the way of Fairchild and perished without honor, so too did Atari. Worse, when Atari buckled under, so too did console gaming as a whole. Such was the grip of their mighty empire: it controlled the fate of the land itself.
The console market flooded with the carcasses of dead Atari games, and the blight stretched on to ruin the land. House Magnavox fell soon after, followed swiftly after by House Coleco. House Mattel retreated back to it’s native Toyland, abandoning their Intellivison host to this plague. The criers and sloganeers removed gaming sigils and words from their heraldry, the merchants and traders would not barter or allow gaming wares to be sold within their shops, declaring again that it had all been a passing fad.
The console was dead. The war had turned to plague and none dared enter these lands video. It was vile. Cursed. Haunted.
Some crones still that on a moonlit night you can see these former giants of gaming greatness rise up as ghosts and dance to their oblivion song.
The rattle of bones accompanies their bloops and bleeps as they sing the dirge of “Market Over-saturation”.
This age of console gaming entered darkness with a crash heard ’round the world, but a few managed to survive.
The Activision Mercenaries fled to find work in the lands of the PC, where House Commodore fought its own battles. Gaming was but a small front in this land, but would sustain this band and encourage others to join in. Including Activision’s eventual arch-rival, Electronic Arts.
The Arcade Clans, owing no allegiance during the consoleflict, returned to their wild lands where they thrived and fought amongst themselves. There was no King, there were no thrones, and all were free to rise and fall where they stood. For them, the Golden Age was just beginning.
It was out of this wild, untamed wilderness that the next House would rise to fill the vacant throne.
They would come from the East, as the Space Invaders had before.
They would come with a champion, as they had learned from Atari’s example.
They would forge a Kingdom that could not fall to floods and would build a wall against such a scourge.
It would be a Kingdom of merriment. A Kingdom of absolute power. A Kingdom of heroes.
Tell me, O muse, of that time long ago when there were no video games.
When the people did not gather in the halls of the arcade where a round of happiness was bought a quarter at a time, but the pool hall where a beer cost the same if it was cheap, or so the old men say.
When there was no other thing for the fan to talk of than the harsh realities of the lying politicos or what it was that Kirk did on his great ship that sailed among the stars, or so the slightly younger than old, but still old men say.
When there was nothing to do with a television at home other than to actually watch whatever happened to be on at the time, and a personal computer had something to do with Olympian hammers, or so the younger than the older men, who were themselves younger than the olderest men (but not quite as young as the eldest men who snort at such things) might say?
Tell me by Jove! Or by phone, O muse, I know not where to find a “jove”. Phone is probably easier, actually.
What I’m saying, O muse, is that you should probably call me. I need the guidance for the histories I am about to recall.
What? Oh fine. I’ll pay your blasted $3.99 per minute, O muse!
Yokoi above, nothing’s cheap these days, is it?
The Before Time. The Long, long ago.
Yes, it be true. There was a time, gentle reader, when there were no electronic devices you could pull from your pocket to tell you where to go, who starred in Silver Spoons (it was Ricky Schroder), or hurl raging fowl at swine. There was no internet. There were no video games.
It was a dark time, to be sure. A world alight with chaos and torment for those who would take the sacred mantles “geek” and “nerd”. These officers of the obsessed and maesters of the mind had to make do with what the technology of the time could afford them.
An early version of Mario Kart, according to the tomes without crowd citation.
Ah, but there was a spark. A light in the dark. As Prometheus stole fire from the gods, so to did Alan Turing.
His fire was that of the algorithm. That of computation. That of the machine.
His fire – an enigma to all at first – was the computer.
The fire in the great oldland hammerhalls that forged the first computer were still hot when the first truth of its purpose emerged. From the mind of the master himself no less, came the idea of the first game. A computational recreation of the courtly classic: chess.
A crude first attempt to be sure, but as the computer rose from the dreams of men and into what was still an archaic, analog reality, so too did its gaming brethren.
Tennis for Two.
Mouse in the Maze.
The first men master fire . . . ing lasers at each other in spaceships.
Embers in the darkness, these experiments sent minds turning and ideas burning.
Gaming as mental sport, so long kept to the scholarly pursuits of the tabletop generals who sent armies of tin or castles of stone upon each other, was finding new hearths to alight. Some swore off technological advance, entering into the ascetic realm of casting runes under elder’s halls whilst speaking the tongues of Gygax in order to keep the old ways, but this was a minority. For the rest of gaming, change was coming.
But as the fates would have it, the revolution was to come most prominently on familiar screen of television. This was where the true battles lay. It was this already sacred venue where heroes would rise, the fans would find both solace and sorrow, and a king would come to rule.
The King who would sit upon a Throne of Games.
The First Age of Consoles
It was a farseer and an epic that started it.
Nolan Bushnell, a lordly engineering wizard in his own time, delighted with the visions of the future foretold in Spacewar! and turned the idea into his own: Computer Space. However, the seed planted could find no purchase. Right at the start, the midway maestro’s machine was cast aside in the unfriendly territory of beer halls and amusement parlors where it had hoped to catch the imagination.
Perhaps the common folk could not see beyond the fair Maiden extolling the virtues of such a device? Perhaps they thought her witch-born? It was the seventies after all.
As Computer Space withered, along came the first true pilgrims from Kingdoms Corporate. Fealty sworn to Magnavox in exchange for resource, Lord Baer had been like the sturdiness of his namesake, surviving a long winter of almost a decade of development to found his legacy. A journey so long as this led to a namesake found in the tales of antiquity: The Odyssey.
Attached to the scryer’s screen known as “TV”, The Odyssey avoided Bushnell’s first folly. Carried into the home, complicated controls and mechanics could be learned over time and with study. Drunkards had little patience for anything beyond pinball, it seems.
And yet, The Odyssey also stoke fears in the common man, of uncertainty and reticence. Many thought it was only for screens bearing the name Magnavox as well, and did not consider it at all. Riders were dispatched immediately from the Magnavox Halls carrying new decrees to correct this ill knowledge, and to further entice those unsure of this supposed “future of entertainment” as anything but a dullard’s novelty:
But in the time that passed between mass hesitance and clarification for the Odyssey, the first blood was shed!
Bushnell, now humbled from his failure but sure that this was the path prophecy foretold, had set an apprentice to match the Odyssey’s recreation of tennis. Supposedly it was to learn and refine the art that would become gamecraft, yet it was perhaps theft all the same. Proud of his apprentice’s work and under a new name of Eastern origin – Atari – Bushnell released the game, and it proved true.
Pong was the first of these new “television games” to strike true in the hearts of the populace, spreading intrigue and want not known before like wildfire.
Pong soared to success and soon appeared in taverns across the land, Computer Space was quickly forgotten (even by Bushnell) in the wake of such sweet triumph. A version for home use – similar in form to the Odyssey – proved equally as loved amongst the populace. But no sooner had Pong reared its head upon the minds (and coin purses) of the populace, than did other factions seeking opportunity.
Truly it must have been a dark age to have found such as this to be more captivating than snooker or ale! But perhaps it was the lack of the witch woman? It was a simpler time.
Competitors sailed for this land of plenty, all staking fortunes on two lines of paddle and one dot of ball. Proclaiming neither the Baer’s proud history of hard work to forge the game or Bushnell’s cunning to sell it unto itself, a host of imitators arose. Magnavox soon unleashed it’s papered hounds upon all, and Knights of the Lawsuit fought for their lord’s coin.
Indictments rung throughout the land; the higher authorities would have to judge these men traveling a trail unblazed.
But the door had been opened, and lawyers’ threats would take too long to stop the flow of errant corporations and would be lords fighting for gold and glory from rushing in. Games flew off shelves in droves for home use, new arcade machines were appearing everywhere and it was war amongst all who provided the “electronic games of the future” as Magnavox had intoned them to be. The battles raged primarily on the twin fronts of the rechristened “arcades” of penny slot fame and at home on the televisual screens.
The first home of gaming, the computer, saw the beginnings of what was soon to come in the earliest of Text Adventures at this time, yet the high cost of the mainframes required as platforms limited availability (and profit) severely. The “PC” was a chaotic region of wizened dueling amongst coding craftsman, and didn’t catch the imagination of those outside this programming caste. If the common man was awestruck by Pong, they were decidedly cravens to the fearsome Wumpus.
Yet all as it was, was not to be. Almost as soon as this battle of game makers had begun in earnest, it was over.
Like every land rush before and since, those that had come for gold rather than homestead didn’t build foundation, but dug out the earth from underneath their own feet: the market for games crashed in the year of our Lord Vader, 1977.
“Don’t be be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. It is insignificant next to the power of the force (of the the free market)!
Childe Faire to the Flooded Market Came
The problem was Pong.
Or more specifically, its numerous imitators and hangers on. Most every upstart company had been as blind as Homer, not seeing the potential future of the medium and simply kept up with the “fad”. Continually making copies and variants of smacking balls around was no matter to them. They knew of the hula hoop, and how quickly these things could fade. Best to sell as much as you could and steel away quietly in the night.
Magnavox itself committed this sin! The Odyssey had too many heirs without a hold of the populace firmly staked, nor a dominant claim to a rightful successor. Lord Baer, for his part, removed himself to begin work on something that would be next “hula hoop“.
Truly, it was an attack of the clones as foul as the eventual heir of that title. But they were clones of Pong not of Fett.
So it came to pass, that in ’77, the merchants, owing few allegiances and burdened by bales of paddle ball, released their horde of clones at trifling shavings on the copper. Pong and its misbegotten multitudes were everywhere, for less than cheap. Without a true and righteous internet to take an accurate account, one imagines that for a brief moment, Pong clones were used in place of insulation, and perhaps even as a new form of currency.
“Trading a Coleco Telstar for Needed Foodstuffs“, A wood print from the time period.
With so many games already sold, many of these false lords fell when it came time to buy the next. There was no need for “another Pong in the house after all. The loss hurt all of the lords seeking to control gamingdom; some retreated back to their holds to lick their wounds and begin the battle afresh when opportunity next grinned.
Only Atari and Magnavox could withstand the Pong-Clone glut flood. Magnavox in part to some small swearing of fealty (and royalties) from Atari.
It is in disasters that tragedy often strikes the frail and the young. Proving this true here was the Fairchild Channel F. Living up to the name of the lands from whence it came, The Channel F was quite fair, boasting a then powerful microprocessor and more features than its foes already on the field. Yet it was quite young, and Fairchild semiconductor couldn’t handle such a sudden downturn of fortunes so soon after starting.
Yet, while the Fairchild was mortally wounded by rushing headlong into a turning tide, it hadn’t been without gallant genius. In truth, it had heralded the next wave of home console technology; were it not for the crash, Channel F might have proven a valiant foe to ignoble Atari, still above water due to early victories against the Odyssey and continued stocks from the Arcade Halls, though their Bushman’s hold over either was far from absolute.
Sighting this potential foe early, Atari prepared for a siege. Thinking deterrent the best answer, they had begun building their own Channel F. It too, would have removable “cartridges” to allow games independent of the console itself. It too would have more colors, and a microprocessor. But it would also require more support than Atari could bring to bear.
Low on coin to finish such an undertaking, Bushnell and Atari turned without, pledging their lands and bannermen to High Lords of the Old Media, The Brothers Warner.
Known to their nurse and dearest lady Dot as both merry and mad by turns.
Granted nobility of lineage, a needed purse, and new strategy, Atari weathered the crashing storm and was prepared to strike! To seize the Throne of gaming and crown itself king! Few contenders seemed prepared to withstand the fresh march of their 2600 and it’s vast host.
Yet even as they released their gilded force upon the land, set to conquer, the waters proved weighty upon the people. There was tepid interest from the common man so soon after the flood of Pong. Video games, even reinforced with new steel chips forged at the micro level, might still starve and fade into nothing should another crash come without the love of the people.
Gaming needed a champion. Gaming needed the face of true knights the men and women could see and rally behind. Gaming needed heroes, not dots and bricks resembling things that might have been tanks – it needed a face.
What it got, was an invasion.
Possibly from space.
But that is a tale for the ‘morrow. When this historie continues anon, and we enter the the first half of the golden age of gaming: the Age of the First (Pac)Men.
For the last month or so, I’ve been talking about how terrible endings are in video games. Over the course of two articles, one focusing on a decent variety of problems, the other exploring a single issue in depth, I think I managed to at least identify what the five biggest issues are. Unfortunately I don’t feel either article explains that most important of all questions, the “why” of it, adequately. Additionally, as someone who prefers being proactive it bothers me that neither offers a remedy to such common maladies.
Personally, I find this dissatisfying. Sure it can be fun to commit to some deep analysis, but if you aren’t offering some sort of solution you might as well be a latter day Thomas Aquinas counting angels on a pinhead. Or in this case, I suppose its extra lives on a pixel?
So . . . what IS the reason why most games have terrible endings? Why do developers act like it’s OK to deny denouement, or end at all? Why don’t they think investing time into making a satisfying climax is important?
Well if you ask the developers, they might just point out that the reason lies in gamers themselves.
Or, to quote the digital Lee Carvallo . . .
“Would you like to continue? You have Selected ‘No’.”
Folks in the gaming industry were, early on, seemingly blind to why any given trend in design was good or bad. The whole dynamic was about as basic as it got. Some people made games (developers), and some people bought games (gamers), and nary was there a question by the makers as to why the buyers bought.
It didn’t seem like much of a problem for gamers. People bought whatever seemed the most fun (nebulous as that may be), had the best graphics, or simply appealed to a particular interest of theirs. Or if they were younger like I was, bought into the corporate hype that led to the console wars.
From the development side of things, there was conjecture about what people bought or made a given game objectively “better”, but it was mostly opinion without consensus. Studios had their own internal methods and numbers but were also in heated competition, so it was difficult to separate blustering self promotion from the truth in order to determine real quality. In 1992, was Mortal Kombat a better game than Street Fighter 2? Today, most would probably agree it wasn’t, but if you were looking at what put more kids in arcades (at least in the States), the market might beg to differ.
Without any objective data available to everyone, it’s pretty hard to go on anything other than sales figures after all. But then, that’s not really accurate. Data was available, it’s just that there wasn’t effort put into obtaining it.
Data is pretty awkward on dates though. It’s hard to fault the industry for not pursuing him. Wait a minute . . .
It was only with the slowly earned acceptance of gaming through the nineties that serious academic study of game design began to blossom post millennium. Nowadays, analyses of player behavior and psychology are becoming increasingly common. Even better, while data and the derived metrics (good band name?) from it are often collected individually, much more is shared at places like GDC to more developers; everyone gets access to information that can make gaming better as a whole!
As with your average H.P. Lovecraft protagonist however, knowledge comes at a price. In this case, additional information that has a grim bearing, for all signs continue to unfortunately indicate that most gamers – the core group of people paying for games and making the industry function at all – don’t finish games. We’re talking the vast majority here, somewhere in the realm of 80-90 percent.
Unfortunately, going into why gamers don’t finish their games is its own overly convoluted issue that I’m probably not even qualified to tackle – I finish games after all (you kind of have to when you review them). Though that might make an interesting topic, I’m trying to stick with just the development side of endings for now. As far as I’m concerned, the fact that this key piece of information is common knowledge amongst game developers is critical all by its lonesome.
The road to Development Hell is paved with Practical Considerations
Simply from a business perspective, this statistic removes incentive for good endings with the folks at the top. Or so it can be deduced. Producers are more obligated to get the game finished, and above them are people who probably care more about return on investment than profundity. How can it be justified to either party that more time or money is needed for a quality conclusion that most won’t see? Especially if it means missing an important release date?
Prime examples of this phenomena include Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords, where developer Obsidian Entertainment was forced to wrap every wayward plot thread in a single overbearing conversation, before just sort of stopping. Why? To hit the Christmas shopping season. Dark Void is another: the plot jumps ahead halfway through the 2nd act and into an underwhelming boss battle from nowhere, leading to a haphazard and dissatisfying ending. Why? Well, the game had been in development a LONG time, and it had to get finished and sold at some point, right?
Of course, then there’s everyone’s favorite punching bag in this regard, Halo 2.
To be fair, at least Bungie has apologized for this one.
Pushing out games before they’re fully cooked is naturally a problem, but it’s compounded by the resultant effect of another common datum: players need to be hooked quickly or they usually won’t buy a game at all. Which makes perfect sense really. Why would anyone stick with any story if it doesn’t capture interest in a reasonable length of time?
Films have a “10 Minute Rule” for this reason, and game developers do try to learn from their Hollywood cousins in this regard. One of the few areas of games that gets focus tested to hell and back is the opening, and many a game has spent excess time and effort making sure the opening will keep the player invested for the rest of it, or at least enough to make a purchase. This is something easily justified to the folks holding the purse strings it seems.
By itself, focusing on a solid start is a good thing; you can’t expect your audience to necessarily wait for your game to grow its beard. “Don’t worry, it gets better in Season 3″ is an excuse that requires a lot of trust, and in gaming the equivalent of “At least get through the tutorial level” can go to some extremes that defy logic. It’s an uncertain proposition for the player, and until a beard fills in all you’re left with is a bad teenage mustache.
Besides, sometimes the beard is ill suited for its host.
This only becomes a problem when there’s an obvious lack elsewhere in the game. When the opening is hammered on by the team to be made great, but subsequent levels or features obviously can’t live up to the standard it sets. It’s essentially the logic why many fans get angry by the inclusion of Multiplayer in otherwise single player games: it draws resources away from the intended focus.
Prioritizing resources (time and staff) for openings is exacerbated by the process of making games, which is heavily based on iteration and often as sloppy as Augustus Gloop. Game development has roots in software development after all, and is prone to one of its main problems: creeping. For the uninitiated, feature creep (or scope creep) occurs because games are made in a series of of iterative “builds” – software drafts essentially – and developers, clients, and producers keep adding new features (such as a level, or new attacks) beyond the initial plan during production. It “creeps” due to the nature of the work; as games need several iterations anyway, why not toss in a new idea or two each time?
This approach is a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand, it can lead to enjoyable improvements and polish and there are many games made better for it. On the other, it can cause priorities to shift mid-project and tasks to go unfinished, extra delays (see Duke Nukem Forever), and even cancellations (too many examples to list).
Even with projects that aren’t mortally wounded in this process it can still lead to a bloated, unwieldy game with too much stuff in it. While seemingly benign, this can lead to players not finishing their games and thus reinforce that problem. This particular issue even has a nickname, the “second refrigerator syndrome“.
As we all know, fridges are a problem in entertainment as of late.
Individually, each of these issues is a minor threat to a developer making a fabulous finish, but it’s when they start combining that they become some kind of terrible terminus Voltron.
Here’s a hypothetical situation that I’m betting happens all too often: a team spends most of their time making sure the fundamentals of the game work, then when that’s done spends even more time ensuring the opening is solid while a few designers with less to do get sidetracked with extraneous stuff they keep adding before running headlong into a deadline they can’t slide on. Uh oh! The team is forced to make a mad dash to get original priorities accomplished on one end and cut out the fat on the other and one thing (possibly of many) that isn’t up to the snuff is the ending!
It’s easy to see how any single aspect to a game, including an ending, can get devalued in these situations, especially if you then toss on the apathy that the persnickety little “no one finishes your game” factoid surely adds. The priority is finishing the project, not ensuring the project has a good finish.
What scares me though, is that the practical realities over the history of game development mean that this is accepted as the norm. At this point, I wonder if the average dev team wonders why they should we care about making a good ending at all.
Yes. Why indeed?
This might be a bit of a tangent . . . but I’ll try to make it brief.
The Journey only matters most if they play “Don’t stop believin”
“It’s the Journey that matters, not the destination.” and similar phrases were thrown out in defense of Mass Effect 3‘s lackluster finish. In fact I’d say this quote, and the basic philosophy behind it, is the primo defense for crummy video game conclusions over the years. To me, this sounds like the talk of an apologist.
While there is merit in this philosophy as a way to look at life as it’s probably better not to dwell on that destination, I’m willing to shave my head bald and pull a Lex Luthor when regarding entertainment:
Entertainment isn’t life. It may be a reflection of life, but it isn’t life itself (at least not until MMOs gain sentience). In fact one of the key fundamental points of difference between entertainment and life is that that the destination matters as much as the journey.
To say that it doesn’t just reeks of an alarming acceptance of laziness and a blatant ignorance of prior precedent. I seriously doubt there would be soccer riots if endings (in that case, to championship games) didn’t matter. The same goes for storytelling in general: just think about the number of stories you’ve personally read, watched, or been told that hinge on a twist ending, a reveal that gives context, or a punchline that makes the joke work.
Or not work, as the case may be.
Consider for a moment, the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend, a favorite of mine. A tense and harrowing tale of a man struggling to survive alone past a vampiric apocalypse, it’s smart and well written. A great read that I highly recommend, along with much of Matheson’s body of work (you can skip 7 Steps to Midnight though, blech).
However, if you quit reading before the conclusion you’ll miss out on an ending that isn’t so much a twist in terms of plot, but of perspective. It’s an end that not only gives the entire story its true meaning, but justifies the story’s title. Stopping before the end results in a loss of importance in general, and a severe lack of understanding about why the story works at all.
I could go on: The Lord of the Rings‘ ending gives the story much of its poignancy. Night of the Living Dead (the original) ends in a state of dark irony that turns it into social commentary more than at any other point. Ditto Memento, and obviously any mystery story, or story that has any sort of moral.
Especially any story with a moral.
” . . . and then the Lion ate the mouse because, you know, LION!” “Then why did the mouse free him?” “It was dumb I guess?” “That’s STUPID!”
For many stories to have value, meaning, or applicability, the finale needs to be as good as all that came before. Running out of gas at journey’s end might mean you cross the finish line, but rarely does it result in first place. I don’t think The Lord of the Rings would have caught on as it did without the sad facts of Frodo only being saved from his prior mercy and the Shire being rent asunder; these inured it to the zeitgeist of the time (hippies) in a way that earlier forays into fantasy simply didn’t, and thus propelled it forward to what it is today.
I put at the start of this trilogy of articles a little aphorism I made up (as far as I know), “Without art in the ending, a game ends up without art.” That is my response to why developers should care about their endings. Even if they have practical reasons why they don’t, I really hope that game developers don’t believe that endings don’t matter. Because they do. A lot.
I’m sure the voyage was lovely, but it’s not exactly what defines the Titanic now is it?
Perhaps I’m being too alarmist. It’s difficult to believe that developers don’t realize such basic concepts. It’s just that the situation is so damn common in gaming that it seems like some grand apathy has taken hold, some large, collective blockage. To be honest, I’m grasping at straws a bit trying to figure out what it is, and perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to even try and peg this down so simply.
But if that’s the case, then I best make myself a fool all the way through, and lay bare a few possible solutions to this problem . . .
A preliminary plan for progress perhaps?
It’s easy to say that most problems that arise during development (beyond just poor endings) are due to bad management. I’m sure that’s actually true in many cases. A simple solution is to just as easily issue a command like, “Hey Devs! Learn to schedule!”
Another simple solution is to promote the auteur. To pitch creative heads like some sort of Nietzschean Übermensch who will wrangle their teams in with a dictatorial fiat, force producers to acquiesce to their delays and to make sure their games are so engaging that all of the players see them through to the end no matter what! But there’s the problematic case study of Peter Molyneux: an auteur in control whose games still feature ALL of the problems listed above!
Which he then acknowledges while overselling the next one. Oy vey.
However these don’t seem very “actionable” pieces of advice vague as they are. Besides, I promote the auteur all the damn time. Also, both of these suggestions only cover narrow aspects to an issue that needs solutions to cover a wider range of problems.
Keeping in mind that this is from someone with limited industry experience (which admittedly makes this rather presumptuous) I still hope that what I’ve deduced about might be useful. So I offer three ideas that might help. One on the part of developers, another on the part of gamers, and one that’s an alteration to an industry wide standard.
Developers: Don’t save the end for last! Put it as close to the start as possible.
All the cool ancient symbols representing the infinite cycle of the cosmos start with the end, so should you!
At it’s core, this idea is simple: a team moves the implementation of the ending of their game up in the timetable, and spends the same amount of time polishing it as they would polish the beginning of the game. Basically, get the beginning and ending of your game done first, then take care of the middle parts. The idea is that if you have to start cutting stuff out and scale back, at the very least the ending is there and it’s something you’re happy with.
Primarily this is meant to prevent KotOR 2 situations from happening, but it also has a bonus of limiting feature creep. Adding a new ideas or piece of content either can’t affect the ending at all, or it means re-doing the ending to accommodate the new feature(s) which automatically makes implementing them carry more tangible weight.
Oh, and there’s another reason it could be useful too. If done early enough, it gives the team a chance to consider the ending more fully to help prevent the nasty problem of “if only we had gone a different path.”
You do not want Captain Hindsight and his pals Shoulda, Woulda, and Coulda paying your conscience a visit later.
Now I realize that this is still a very obvious concept, but I’m wording it very generally on top of it all. But it kind of has to be if it’s going to fit into anyone’s style.
There are as many methodologies and management styles when it comes to game development as there are freckles on an island of gingers. A brief tour of Gamasutra, a website mostly focused on the development and business sides of game production reveals this within minutes. If you counted every story that boils down to “Our game proved successful and my team uses X practice, therefore it is THE BEST practice!”, you’d run out of digits within as many pages.
Despite such diversity though, I am left with an impression that most if not all the biggest obstacles developers face mid project tend to result in the same problem: losing their focus. Feature creep alone is that problem writ large. Unfortunately any solution I offer is going to have to be a bit vague for maximum applicability, and it’s going to have to try and take focus loss into account.
I think this idea might do just that. Tackling the ending early when the team is still in full stride and hasn’t entered the death march many dev teams describe the final crunch of a project to be, might help to avoid the (sometimes inevitable) loss of focus to come. Still, that’s a problem that probably comes from poor management or scheduling, so perhaps this is just a naive hope and something everyone already knows (or does) anyway. Any developers who end up reading this, I’d love to hear if the idea has any merit or is as obvious as I fear it might be.
But of course, the problem with endings doesn’t just lie in the domain of the developers who make them, for if anything that nasty statistic reveals that it’s as much the players fault as anyone . . .
Gamers: Don’t give up! Finish your games!
Mike Haggar never says die. Neither should you!
Seriously, I can think of no worse statistic for a creator than one that reveals that the vast majority of your audience simply won’t get to the end of the game, even when they like the rest of it! Why try to make something meaningful if the attempt will be futile? Such a question is starting to haunt developers who would like to make something meaningful, and it’s hard to say their medium is capable of allowing for such profundity if no one’s willing to commit to it.
But the other real reason it’s important that gamers finish there games comes down to feedback. Apart from whatever a game developer can collect themselves, what players think about a game is rather limited, especially regarding endings. Either because players don’t finish them or are jaded from past examples, no one really complains about crummy endings specifically. Or at least, they didn’t.
I’ve said it before, but for this reason alone the Mass Effect 3 controversy is important. Not only does it show that people care about the narrative to a game, but it’s generating information for BioWare (and everyone else) about what does and doesn’t work for a game’s ending in a way that silence never could. While most may be obvious – don’t introduce major plot elements during the resolution – some of it isn’t or is wholly relegated to interactive storytelling – player choice is mostly illusory, but an ending that breaks the illusion without making it a key to the narrative (such as BioShock) comes off dissatisfying.
After Mass Effect 3, the days of saying the player matters without meaning it may be at an end.
My theory is that the relationship between players not finishing games and games having bad endings is directly proportional. If you consider the fan reaction to ME3 when in light of data on player behavior from ME2 that says about half the players finished the game (far above the average ten percent) I’d say the theory holds some water. If it does, then the one thing players can do to make endings better is to simply see their games through to the end.
But then, gamers not finishing games is generally a response to the game themselves. I said earlier that delving into this why might be beyond my scope, and so it remains . . . unless I become grossly reductive with the facts. So let’s try that!
I’m going to make some big assumptions and boil ending impotence down to one core problem in relation to two different factors: gamer uncertainty over difficulty (being too hard for them) and how how long games are (no knowing how much time needs to be invested).
What’s great about such reductionism is that it has an equally reductive solution!
Industry: Games need Running Times and Skill Ratings!
Not quite the run time I meant.
Think about this for a second. When you go to pick up a book, you immediately know how long it might take you simply by looking at its thickness and weight. A glance at its pages tells you more: if the font size is small it will take more time than if large, scanning the first page will give a sense of the type of language the author uses. Within seconds, a potential reader can get a decent estimate of how much time the book is going to take them.
A similar bit of info is available for films: running times. It’s something you see on the back of the DVD and most theaters have the length listed at the box office. Similarly, if you go to a ski slope you’ll find skill rating given for how challenging a particular course can be. Tours through museums tell you how long it’s probably going to take to wander through with the group. The list goes on, but the message is the same: the measure of the commitment expected is itself expected.
At least in literally everything other than a video game, which have no declarations (definite or otherwise) in regards to finite time. A game like Xenoblade Chronicles could engulf literal weeks, Portal 2, a handful of hours, but both take up the same amount of shelf space at the store. Ideally, a game review covers this, but there are often inaccuracies, a lack of consensus, and unless a game is particularly long or short, the chance it isn’t mentioned at all because it doesn’t matter in the qualitative analysis of the game’s other aspects.
The same uncertainty lies with difficulty. What’s “normal” for Ninja Gaiden Sigma is sailor swearing hard for Halo 2, and then there are games without difficulty settings! Half-Life 2, Dark Souls and L.A. Noire all lack that option, and all are astoundingly different in terms of challenge. Again, reviews could help warn against notable examples, but difficulty is highly subjective measure to begin with, and the lack of consensus makes the issue moot.
From a consumer standpoint it makes no sense that such uncertainty exists for such basic information. Uncertainty is a commitment killer! I’ve seen friends lose interest in RPGs that were too long when nearly at the end, or give up on challenging games right after they’ve cleared the last major hurdle because they just didn’t know if they were going to have to put up with ten more minutes or twelve more hours. Everyone’s more willing to see things through when they know how long something takes!
Just ask Romeo! It’s easy to commit to forever when forever won’t be that long!
This is an issue of product labeling if you ask me, and that is the only viable solution I see: better labeling. Just as there is content information in the form of ESRB Ratings (and its international equivalents), there should be estimate of average running times and perhaps simple notations on expected skill to finish a game. It needs to be from an objective source and on the danged box for it to be truly useful.
Of course I already foresee some problematic questions arising. “How does Multiplayer factor in since it can extend the length indefinitely?” and “How do you gauge the skill level required on a game that offers multiple difficulty selections?” spring to mind. Then there’s the arbitrary nature of rating anything, but at least it’s no worse than the systems in place for content.
It’s a better solution than listening to inconsistent reviewers or the bias from a publisher’s marketing department. They always have the same answer: the difficulty and length are “just right” (and infinitely replayable until the sequel). Not only do I think the benefits from such a system would outweigh the obstacles and the alternatives, but I honestly think it will help with the main issue of players not finishing their games. Eliminate some of the uncertainty and you promote completion rates overall, which in turn promotes better endings overall, and you don’t have to initiate some industry wide trend toward making all games as easy as the last Pajama Sam adventure.
Besides, this last idea must have at least some merit, one website has already jumped on board. It’s just something that should be official and universal as far as I’m concerned.
And now the conclusion!
So there you have it. A last look at a problem that perhaps I alone care about, and three ideas that could help to alleviate it. It sure took a while, didn’t it?
Pretty much what I expect anyone who read all of that to look like right about now.
Yeah, I’m going to have to work more on the whole brevity thing. But if you did make it this far, why not respond in the comments below?
Are endings as problematic for you as they are for me? Does the fault lie more with the players, developers, or producers? Do any of these solutions have merit? Do you have any of your own? What is the airspeed velocity of a migrating swallow?
It’s a topic I’m definitely interested in (obviously) and would love to hear other opinions on, but for now, I think I’ve said all I can on it. Like the Master Sword at the end of Link to the Past, I intend to put this topic away . . .
Of course in gaming, forever just means “until the sequel.”
Video games are brutal. I’m not talking at all about the violence or gore present today in most AAA titles, because that’s pretty old hat as far as I’m concerned. Isaac Clarke’s death sequences? Bloody but not frightening. Gears of War’s chainsaw attack? Certainly not child’s play but I’m hardly quaking in my boots here. Incinerating foes to death with my bare (plasmid-enhanced) hand in BioShock? Yeah the corpses are quite gross but please, I’ve seen the underbelly of Reddit. There’s nothing in terms of violence that video games are going to scare me with. I’ve got my own imagination on hand to do that.
What makes video games brutal is often their most basic premise. If you think too long and too hard about exactly what it is you’re doing, a creeping sensation starts to prickle the back of your mind. If you put yourself in the shoes of your avatar, would you be so gung-ho, would you even be capable of walking out of the front door? I considered for a while some of my favourite games, and realised that even though none of them are horror games they still strike a chord of fear deep inside of me. More to the point, they don’t seem to faze their main protagonists, who just carry on their daily lives of turmoil without as much as a peep.
This is a pretty admirable perspective given that in the modern Western world most of us have therapists and even more are on some sort of medication simply due to the fact that we are miserable and dissatisfied with our mediocre lives. Here we are, griping over deadlines and worrying about the environment every time we start our car when all the while our heroes and idols blitz through their respective universes leaving nothing but a trail of corpses laced with hope behind them.
Naturally, spoilers follow below for the games concerned. This week, it’s Kingdom Hearts and Minecraft.
Kingdom Hearts is the ultimate kids’ game, right? It’s Disney meets Final Fantasy meets My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (okay, one of those came ten years later but the message is still essentially the same). It’s bright, it’s bouncy, and the enemies are cute, cartoony creatures who look just as likely to hug you as to kill you. People make and sell plushie toys of Kingdom Hearts’ main antagonists – the Heartless – so really, how scary could this game be?
Look at this little guy. See how cute and fluffy he is? Eat your heart out… oh wait, that’s exactly what he’ll do to you.
I’m honestly not kidding with that caption. This game has an ESRB rating of E for Everyone. That means that someone played this game and missed the fact that the Heartless kill people and eat their hearts. That’s not suitable for anyone. But they look pretty cute I guess so perhaps we can let that slide – younger kids aren’t going to be having nightmares about these little guys, not unless they’re like me and lie awake at night thinking away too hard about just about everything except things that matter. Okay, so the idea behind the main enemies is pretty grim, but it’s handled quite delicately – you only ever see one person killed by a Heartless, and the rest are dealt with off camera.
Let’s take a look instead at our protagonist. His name is Sora, he’s fourteen years old and his hair is huge. This is a Final Fantasy game too, remember? Sora lives a pretty idyllic life on the Destiny Islands, a small beach getaway just a short boat trip from his hometown. He spends his days playing Blitzball, having sword fights and racing his best friend Riku down the beach. Normal kid stuff. He has a crush on his friend Kairi and is entering that awkward teenage phase where his knees are too knobbly and he can’t grow a decent mustache. He’s idealistic and naïve, and perhaps that’s why things in Kingdom Hearts go down the way they do: he simply can’t comprehend the magnitude of how terrible things get.
He’s a chipper kinda feller.
It’s important to note that the Destiny Island isn’t just a game hub or a tutorial level. It’s an entire world in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. People live, grow and die there. You even meet Sora’s mother, so this isn’t a sturdy orphan boy we’re talking about here. He grew up like you and I did. He has a home, and he has people who he loves. And once you’ve finished up your day on the beach, his home is destroyed and its inhabitants murdered by those cute, fluffy creatures I mentioned just a few paragraphs ago. Sora, Riku and Kairi are the sole survivors and are scattered across an apparently infinite universe of segregated “worlds” which don’t have much of a relation to our real understanding of the universe. Sora wakes up in a place called Traverse Town, a world for the lost and the homeless.
Think for a few moments about what your response would be to such a scenario. Not just your friends and family but your entire home planet is gone. You wake up on a world that until now you didn’t even know existed. It’s a world specifically for people who have nowhere else to go. You probably aren’t even in your own universe anymore. What would you honestly do?
That’s right. You’d curl up and you’d cry like a baby. You’d mourn, and sob, and wouldn’t eat for at least a week. You’d go into shock, denial, and suffer a grief like no other. The human mind isn’t really designed to cope with such suffering, not on this scale. Sure, some people have actually managed it – history is just a long story of suffering, right? – but the magnitude of tragedy and loss Kingdom Hearts portrays not three hours into the story is just monumental.
I guess friendship isn’t magic anymore.
So Sora is a little bit bummed about it. He knows Kairi and Riku are still out there somewhere and immediately sets about trying to find them. He doesn’t stop to think about his parents, or the other kids who he played with on the beach – Selphie, Tidus and Wakka – and how they’re not only dead but they had their hearts wrenched from their bodies and devoured by Cutesy McCuddles. Perhaps he doesn’t want to think about it, that’s a pretty legitimate response. He begins to make a few questionable life choices, like joining up with an oversized talking duck and dog duo who ask him to fly away in their space ship with them.
This footage is from Kingdom Hearts 2, which just serves to show the long term effects of Sora’s emotional devastation and his refusal to deal with it.
Sora’s resolve throughout the game is nothing short of its own form of insanity. He is betrayed by his best friend Riku despite the fact they ultimately have the same goal (locating Kairi) and he shrugs this frustration off even after the two battle near enough to the death, multiple times. You begin to wonder, as Sora jets between Disney Worlds with no abandon, whether the inside of his ship is wallpapered with Keep Calm and Carry On posters. Okay, if he collapsed on the floor into a twitching puddle of heartbroken limbs the game would end on an even bigger downer note than it already does, but if I had had his level of resolve at the age of fourteen high school wouldn’t have been even half as traumatizing.
Somehow, Sora’s naivety, his selflessness and his capacity to trust and love without a second thought (traits which would get you flattened in the real world) keep him totally grounded throughout the most devastating experience of his life. Okay, I’m a cynic and I find his relentless optimism pretty grating, but I bet he’s never even considered ringing the Samaritans.
Minecraft is a game upon which I have made many solid friendships. Building and inhabiting a community from scratch together, gathering materials and food and fending off enemies is just something that builds camaraderie. Minecraft in multiplayer is about a team effort to survive, to create, and to share. Or, if you like the Hunger Games, to build arenas in which you battle to the death. No matter the scenario though, Minecraft multiplayer is a very social experience. It only gets traumatic when you decide to go it alone… as Steve.
When you start a new Minecraft game you are dropped into an auto-generated world formed of thousands upon thousands of blocks. No two Minecraft maps are the same; that’s what makes the game so appealing. You destroy blocks to create items, for example destroying and collecting wood allows you to build a crafting table, upon which you can place items to make spades, swords and pick axes. Once you’re kitted out (an experienced player will be ready to rumble in two minutes flat) you find the nearest mountain or quarry and get mining. As well as the many, many pieces of cobblestone you will collect, rarer items like coal and iron can be discovered and used to provide head and metal instruments. This goes on all the way up to the rarest ore of all, diamond, which is coveted amongst players on multiplayer servers.
But this isn’t multiplayer, this is single player, and you are Steve and you are alone. Forever. Okay, there’s some sheep and pigs around which provide wool and meat for you. Some cows to milk, some chickens to give you eggs. There are also villages, full of mute, mindless people with honking huge noses and giant iron golems stationed at every gate to protect them from the hostile mobs. Oh, didn’t I mention that? You’d better build yourself a house quickly because the minute the sun comes down, out come the zombies, the skeletons, the spiders… and the Creepers.
Sssssooo nice to meet you, Sssssteve.
These creatures will shoots, bite and explode you without mercy. So you get building – after all, survival is the name of the game (really, it’s called Survival Mode) and you hole up inside a house made of 12 planks of wood and a flimsy wooden door and you huddle in there all night, starving all the while. If you survive your first night, your odds are looking pretty good. You have a long, long future ahead of you, toiling away in the mines all day, growing your own wheat and capturing animals to farm them before slaughter. It’s like the Swiss Family Robinson except you are alone, forever, and ever.
So you toil away because the only other option is death; you sink hours into building yourself a paradise. Perhaps you’re the giving sort, and you build the local villagers a few more houses, not that you’ll get any thanks for it. As time goes by you accumulate some petty riches that aren’t worth much except as tools and armour, your house gets bigger and you might even start making bookshelves, maps and enchanting tables. Yeah, so long as you keep making new stuff, the haunting loneliness is kept at bay. You build a bed and sleep the nights away; soon even the hostile mobs are a rare sight.
Then one day you see an Enderman.
Hey. Hey he’s kind of like you. He’s wandering the world picking up blocks and putting them down again with a distinct sense of melancholy permeating his every step. Perhaps if you just go over and say hello, at last, this mysterious creature will be the companion you’ve desired all along.
Oh. Did I forget to mention that if you look straight into the eyes of an Enderman he will instantly try to kill you? My bad. Did you really think this game was about to become victorious and uplifting?
Minecraft in single player quickly turns into the grimmest perspective of the universe you can fathom. All Steve really does is survive – eat, sleep, defend himself. Sure, there’s some art and self-expression when it comes to the building, but Sherlock Holmes has this one down: genius needs an audience. The player might take a screenshot or two to show off to their friends but Steve is still stuck in his little beach hut by the sea, or in his tree house miles above an Amazon forest. Eventually he will take a nasty fall and break his neck, or he’ll eat some bad meat and poison himself. One day he’ll get cocky just before an unfortunate run in with an errant Creeper. Minecraft is nothing but the cold inevitability of Steve’s untimely and probably extremely painful death.
But that isn’t all! Oh no. Minecraft, much like Silent Hill, has a couple of Otherworlds. You can access these by building Obsidian portals (Obsidian being a rare block formed when lava and water sources meet) and sacrificing Enderpearls (which are dropped by slain Endermen). You have a choice of places to visit: Hell, or the Nether, which any old Obsidian portal can take you to, and The End… the home of the Endermen, and the Enderdragon. No, you can’t go anywhere that’s actually nice. This is Minecraft, not a package holiday.
Steve is a silent protagonist, so we never really hear how he takes all of this. Mostly he’s an avatar for you, the player, and I hope you’re suitably unnerved by the meaningless of your in-game existence and the inevitability of your death. Just try not to transfer this perspective to real life. It’s not like this fruitless struggle for survival is incredibly applicable to reality, or anything…
Next time, I’ll be continuing in this vein with Commander Shepard, Red, and Mario.
What was that, it’s almost feels like I skipped through time. Like this article isn’t actually it’s own premise, but the continuation of another article, one from the past.
Weird. Anyway . . .
So far we’ve seen how video game endings can fail in a literary sense (denouement), in a literal sense (simply not ending at all) and in an integrity sense (Narrative Hostage taking through DLC). But the canny reader might realize I haven’t mentioned any major problems due to poor game design. Yet anyways, as that’s the can of worms we open today.
Because there is a growing trend in the world of gaming. An idea that has taken root in the hearts of several developers, and is beginning to show up more and more often. Like X-Men with a XX chromosome, it’s a gambit that many have tried, but few have been successful with.
And in order to explore it, I’m going to get into some Mass Effect 3 spoilers because that’s the popular thing to do these days. While this is about the ending of the game it isn’t really about the story, but I figured I’d be fair and put up the warning for the spoiler sensitive among us.
Like the Commander here.
5) Boss Status: MIA
Something that gets my “Dangerous Understanding Disparity” (DUD) Sense tingling is when video game developers say they don’t want to make their video games “too video gamey”. Usually this means some common video game element is removed, most often the HUD. Choices like this aren’t a bad thing, but “too video gamey” is one of those stock phrases that reveals that they might be going against the grain for the sake of it, rather than for specific reasons, like making their game feel more naturalistic.
At first it seemed this behavior only cropped up in devs who would rather be the next Tarantino than Miyamoto. But at least devs with Director’s Chair Envy are trying to fit a particular style, that of cinema. Far worse are the ones imitating choices like minimalistic UI design because it’s trending at GDC one year; making permanent changes based on what’s fashionable usually won’t hold up over time, and can quickly get annoying if too many do it. I don’t know about you, but I still remember early post-millennium media, otherwise known as “Remember how The Matrix had bullet time? WE DO TOO!”
Why do I bring this up?
Well, because Mass Effect 3‘s finale has a problem, and not the nonsense they call a story during its last ten minutes, but a gameplay problem: it’s missing a Final Boss.
Which . . . hold on a minute. I think, yes! It looks like the Mass Effect is only one square away from winning Trite Gaming Trend Bingo! “No Last Boss” fills up a square, and the second had pure health regeneration while the third included “Unnecessary Horde Mode”. Along with the free space granted by Day 1 DLC, it’s only one away! Now all it needs is, let’s see . . . “someone to poorly justify any of the preceding entries”, to win.
What do you say, Director Casey Hudson?
“We had the final fight with the The Illusive Man, but it just felt very video gamey.”
Except . . . does he have a point? I mean, The Illusive Man was supposed to be the final boss? The guy voiced by Martin Sheen who spent most of the second game as a hologram lounging in a leather armchair smoking enough e-cigarettes to keep Space Phillip Morris in business? That Illusive Man?
As much as I hate to admit it, he’s partly right. While the logic isn’t sound at all – video games are “video gamey” – an enigmatic elderly emphysematic, no matter how much he’s betrayed humanity, isn’t going to end up a fitting confrontation for Commander Shepard – a battle hardened veteran whose exploits basically make him space Audie Murphy. Of course this just begs the question: If the Illusive Man is inappropriate as a Final Boss, why not just use someone or something else?
*cough* Harbinger! *cough*
Other than the “too video gamey” response there is no apparent reason, which leads me to believe that Hudson and company have fallen into a trend trap. Buying into a small, but growing belief amongst game developers that bosses, especially final bosses, are passe. Bolstered by a few major games with underwhelming encounters at their end and a few really good games that excluded or subverted the practice, many have begun saying the boss is unnecessary; they’re from a “bygone era“; a dinosaur of old design methods that will soon die off.
Which is completely and utterly wrong, and Mass Effect 3 is the perfect example why.
Unfortunately, to explain why this seemingly trend following thinking is a mistake, I have to get serious. Like Paul Rudd serious. So grab a cup of coffee and and let’s get to work!
Plotting a course over Dangerous Curves
As every upcoming screenwriter/waiter knows, you can define most, if not all, narratives as fitting along a pretty basic structure. Because a picture is worth a thousand words and I’m trying to embrace economical writing (read: being lazy), I present this structure thusly:
More like Captain “Plot-card” AMIRITE?
That red line under Jean Luc’s nose? That’s the dramatic arc of the plot. It represents the flow of a story, the stakes the characters face and the tension and excitement the audience should feel for them all at the same time. As has been proved to me time and again, it’s also applicable to every story ever: in play, book, film or game. When the occasional tale actively subverts it – for example, say a Giant Robot Anime drops the entire resolution – it usually ends predictably: angry and confused audiences.
Now take a look at this little chart over here:
A “Datafficulty”Curve? . . . Eh? OK, I’ll stop now.
This is a classic difficulty curve for a game. The measure of how hard a game is intended to be from the developer’s perspective, starting out easy like boiling water and ending up as difficult as correctly filling out tax forms . . . with boiled water. Notice any similarities?
You should, because the difficulty curve for a game tends to match the same upward slope – with plateaus and short downward shifts – as the 2nd Act (or the Rising Action) of the plot arc. This isn’t some mere coincidence, it’s because they are in fact, the same thing!
Warren Spector called this phenomenon the “2nd Act Problem“, and posits that functionally, most games are really just the second acts of a story, with very simple intros and outros to represent the exposition and resolutions respectively. It’s an assessment I agree with. Truncated outros of poor quality are exactly what I’m talking about when I said games need more denouement in the last article.
I’d also point out one other similarity: tension. Both the dramatic arc and the difficulty curve are fundamentally based on tension. In a non-interactive story the tension’s caused by seeing the characters struggle to succeed, and in games this becomes literal: the tension felt as YOU struggle to succeed. For developers, mastering the difficulty to create proper tension through challenge is a feat unto itself, but necessary to maintain engagement. It’s a tightrope walk to prevent a game from being tediously easy or frustratingly hard.
Implementation isn’t my concern here. Rather, the last major point of convergence between plot and gameplay difficulty is. Though the difficulty curve doesn’t label it as such, it’s obvious both lines terminate in the same all important place: the Climax!
Hitler’s head explodes, the House of Usher Falls, and Jack Nicholson tells Cruise he can’t handle the truth! The climax is the ultimate moment for both narrative and challenge, the final hurdle to our catharsis as audience or test of a player’s mettle. Notably, both result in a release of tension. Everyone everywhere loves a good climax!
Explosive climaxes? Obvious orgasm analogy is obvious.
Now notice on that difficulty curve, how the bumpy rises have a note that says,”peaks occur at boss battles”? Well, if the ultimate peak of difficulty is the climax, and the peaks occur at boss battles . . .
That’s right! The final boss fight IS the climax to a game..
Okay, not literally, but just about. There’s an obvious reason why: the final boss is usually the primary antagonist. It makes perfect sense – both in narrative and gameplay – to pit the player-protagonist against the boss-antagonist. Effectively, they are climax personified.
So why would developers ever want to remove such a key component? As a recent divorcee might tell you, removing the climax from something results in a lot of dissatisfaction and unrelieved tension. More importantly, can you even get rid of such a core concept like a climax?
Those waiters I mentioned before would tell you, no, not really. It’s pretty integral to storytelling. Of course, as many gaming industry fans and insiders will counter, games aren’t stories, not by default anyways, and so they need not follow story telling rules, right?
Well, I’m not so sure about that. . .
The Illusive Boss Always exists
The obvious point is that a great many games don’t have story arc elements such as a climax, and therefore an equivalent “boss”, because they aren’t trying to tell stories at all. Beyond the abstract puzzle games, there are several genres that create experiences without narrative; sports games, racing games and most sims, for example.
From home and city building of The Sims and SimCity to the empire cultivation of Civilization (and other 4X games) the need for a “boss” is redundant as that’s the role filled by the player. Most any genre of game where the object is building things, really. There may be goals in these games, sure, they’re games; but story, and any of its basic elements or structure? Bah!
And yet . . . the emphasis of player power and control has led to the the observation that – as anyone who has locked a sim in a inescapable room will tell you – the player is not only the “boss” in these games, but the antagonist.
An idea made blatant in the diabolically fun sub-genre that Evil Genius calls home.
Of course then there’s the fact that due to a rising difficulty curve all games inherently have a climactic challenge point, even without a plot. Though the climactic challenge point doesn’t necessitate a “boss”, if the point of challenge is a singular object or unified group that can be personified, it might as well be considered one. A functional, or “De Facto” Boss, if you’ll pardon the Legal Latin.
A good example lies in racing games. Exceptions like F-Zero GX and Blur notwithstanding, most racing games don’t feature any plot, or characters that could constitute a traditional “boss”. However, almost all of them do feature progressively tougher to navigate courses as a result of a rising difficulty curve.
Ultimately, they come to a “Widowmaker” track of some kind. Such a climactic course, if memorable enough, arguably counts as a “final boss” of the racing game. A loose definition, perhaps, but I can think of at least one example most would find unobjectionable . . .
If there’s a final boss to Mario Kart, Rainbow Road is it.
This is a slippery argument, but if I keep on it I would posit that due to a climactic challenge point existing, even games without intentions on making narrative end up with at least the 2nd act and climax of a story (what Spector was talking about) and that this implies that all games have narrative. Essentially, the difficulty curve above not only fits within a story structure, it creates one.
If all games have a narrative, then whether or not the audience recognizes it, they come to expect at least some narrative structure to appear throughout. For things like a protagonist (Player Character), a rising struggle (challenge), a climax (boss), and some ability to change the state of their protagonist (winning the game). Should a developer not provide some of these elements officially, players may recognize existing elements as them unofficially.
Hmmm. I wonder if there’s any validity here?
There might be. This idea seems related to what’s being called Emergent Narrative; contrasted to the purposeful story the devs put in, called Embedded Narrative. Simply put, players do what people tend to do and create drama for their games on their own, which I can prove happens with exactly two words: fan fiction. We’re creatures of who thrive on context as much as food and water it seems, with appetites never sated.
Emergent behavior in games, including narrative, is still poorly understood though. A few smart developers like to keep track of stuff like this to keep the player experience in line with their intentions. Developers with less foresight however . . .
Let’s ask Marauder Shields about the unintended consequences of player expectations on narrative, shall we?
Though satirical, the Marauder Shields meme is the direct result of not giving the audience an actual final boss in Mass Effect 3: the players simply made one up. He’s just a regular Marauder, a very common enemy in the game, that happens to be the last enemy the player faces before they reach the game’s Ending-o-tron 5000. Apparently, if a game doesn’t give you a final boss, the players simply say, “Nope. It’s that guy.” and point to whatever fits the best.
In other words, he’s exactly what I said earlier: a de facto Boss. It’s just a more literal (and sarcastic) example.
So if there really isn’t a way for a game to not have at least a climax, and that climax can often be considered a “boss moment”, if I’m right about the de facto Boss essentially, then (ignoring Marauder Shields) doesn’t Mass Effect 3 have one as well? If it does, then what’s the problem?
Well, that involves getting into the nitty gritty complications of the end of Mass Effect 3.
There are no Climaxes or Bosses, only Illusive Men
Mass Effect 3 does in fact have a challenge point climax. The second portion of the 3-part Priority: Earth mission, the game’s finale, is a grueling test of the player’s abilities. It’s one of those “defend a location from incoming waves of enemies” missions; essentially the ending to Halo: Reach, except winnable. It’s intense, exhilarating, and a big relief once you finish it.
Also terrifying thanks to the multitude of Banshee Mini-bosses. I swear, these nasty things are H.R. Giger’s dream date.
Functionally, it’s the defining moment of Mass Effect 3‘s rising action. However it’s neither established nor given validation as the final moment of climactic gameplay. It’s presented as one step in a series and once past it, there’s still another portion of the level (and who knows how much game) left to go!
This setup for further action nullifies a player’s chances of recognizing this as the challenge point climax. If anything, this moment feels like a build up toward a “real” climax, a “real” boss, and probably one just around the corner. Just more rising action.
But for the primary gameplay system of Mass Effect 3 – the cover shooting of bullets at SCARY THINGS – it is the last moment of action, period. Shepard gets injured shortly thereafter, so the rest of the game uses the game’s secondary dynamic – talking to people through passive menu selections – for player interaction while you hobble around. It’s in this state, that a wobbly, concussed Shepard encounters one of his primary antagonists and has a dramatic confrontation.
Guess who it’s with!?
It looks like the years of smoking finally caught up with him. Man, space cancer is nasty.
The Illusive Man of course, as this is obviously the point where the “too gamey” fight was to occur. Due to Shepard’s crippled state there’s no chance for a confrontation like that though; it’s a battle of words over weapons. This actually works out pretty well as a climax . . . for the narrative.
Or should anyways. Whether or not it works is debatable – I think the “DEEP PHILOSOPHICAL CHOICE” that follows negates its impact personally – but what isn’t is that this confrontation doesn’t satisfy as a gameplay climax. No matter how important the dialogue is in Mass Effect, picking menu options and hitting QTE prompts simply can’t match the intensity of firing guns and psychic powers.
The end result is that Mass Effect 3‘s climax is muddled to hell and back. Either there is no gameplay climax at all, or there is, but only in retrospect. The fact that it’s hard to tell is a failure in of itself!
Worse, it’s unnecessary. An official final boss for the player to fight somewhere before, during, or after the confrontation with the Illusive Man would have solved the issue. How?
Well as stated earlier, a final boss creates a clearly defined point of gameplay climax. Besides, Mass Effect 3 isn’t some racing game without characters, it’s an RPG known for them: a de facto boss of any stripe shouldn’t exist. A poorly designed boss like the one at the end of ME2 might have been lame, but that’s still better than Marauder Shields.
Secondly it would keep the two climaxes in sync. Currently, the gameplay climax (wave defense) is occurring twenty minutes before the narrative climax (Illusive Man). This gap creates a disconnect, even if you like both sequences, it feels off.
Syncing the action and story together is perfect example of why bosses, official bosses I mean, exist in the first place. Bosses can act as a nexus between narrative and gameplay, keeping the two in harmony. They’re sort of like a meta-game metronome or . . . a deadly tuning fork maybe?
“Deadly Tuning Fork” on Google image search turned up this gem.
This synchronization gap is bad, but it’s something that does occasionally happen. Ken Levine cited this exact thing as the biggest problem with the end of his game BioShock, for example. It’s notable that in both cases, this seems like it’s also the result of having more than one villain: BioShock has Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine, Mass Effect has the Illusive Man and the Reapers (and/or Harbinger).
The real reason to bring up BioShock (and perhaps for this article), is that I think people didn’t recognize this as the real problem. The confrontation with Fontaine was lame and felt off, and the reaction seemed to be that it would have been better without it at all, that the final boss existed, period. Thus reinforcing the general idea that bosses were unnecessary, and perhaps leading to the current debacle in ME3.
But reading through Levine’s words (and looking at trailers for BioShock Infinite), it seems he thinks the issue wasn’t in having a final boss, just that he didn’t realize that putting the narrative climax so far before the gameplay climax created the sensation of the story dragging on like Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. This is the real lesson I think.
Poor placement leads to poor pacing, and the jumbled, “maybe it has a climax I guess” ending to Mass Effect 3 serves as a cautionary tale of not only why a boss can be used to solve this problem, but also to gameplay/narrative pacing in general. Synchronization is VERY important. Final bosses are tools to keep in sync, why not use them?
While the final boss keeps things in sync, the final boss of N’Sync was obviously Justin Timberlake. Weak point: Britney Spears.
Extant Expectation Effects
Hopefully I’ve been clear as to exactly why a boss is important from a structural standpoint. Certainly this essay is long enough, right?
But there’s one last problem, a big one.
Hudson’s “video gamey” comment, and the subsequent Illusive Man conversation implies a belief that a narrative climax can substitute the gameplay. This belief understands player psychology on about the same level as Dr. Phil understands the mind of a couch cushion.
Leading the player to expect a boss fight and then denying it at the exact point of highest tension, is frustrating to say the least. But if the player trusts the game, it’s like a flirting tease: excitement through denial. You trust catharsis will occur later.
But then you get a mostly cutscene driven conversation when you’re expecting an action packed, adrenaline filled shootout. It’s like getting a copy of The Brothers Karamazov from your spouse instead of sex on your birthday – it might be a great book, but when you were expecting to get laid it simply doesn’t suffice. “Boss Battle Blue Balls”, is the most alliteratively obvious way to describe the state many players find themselves in at the end of ME3, and I think being in this state is a primary reason the subsequent endings fail for many gamers.
BioWare seems oblivious about the effect this expectation has on player psychology in about the same way Peter Venkman fails to recognize what the effect of electroshock therapy has on psychic ability:
“The effect? I’ll tell you what the effect is! It’s pissing me off!” – Mass Effect Fans
To put it another way, BioWare forgot the other main reason a final boss battle is REALLY DAMN IMPORTANT: It relieves the built up tension and anticipation by giving the player an endorphin high. In fact, I’d say one of the primary reasons that gamers have been more accepting of crappy endings in games overall is because beating a final boss can be awesome. Sometimes this Pavlovian response to conquering a final foe is disproportionately important.
That being said, this seems an intentional choice rather than pure miscalculation.
Denying the player a sense of exultation wouldn’t be in line with the somber mood of the rest of the finale. This makes sense, and might have been fine – others have pulled it off – if the mood stuck to the “noble sacrifice” theme. But then, the final sequence continues and the tone shifts to metaphysical pondering, much of which is vague and requires that the player implicitly trust the developers to work in the slightest.
At this point, not only is this trust damaged because of the recent denial, players are also hyper-aware. Boss battles, especially the final climactic kind, require players to identify weaknesses quickly and react swiftly to succeed. Efficient extermination is key; you never know if the evil mastermind is going to pull out some nasty special attack that ends you faster than Fox ended Drive.
Asking the player to explore philosophy calmly and rationally when they’re irritated is a mistake. Trying to pass off a bunch of contrived gibberish, hoping no one asks questions when you’ve put them in the exact state to critically analyze the situation? That’s a “Custer’s Last Stand”/”Let’s invade Russia in Winter” level error in judgement.
Or whatever recent display of assumptive hubris fits, really.
This level of presumption on BioWare/EA’s part, along with other factors, is what’s let to such a strong backlash I think. An outcry so loud that BioWare is actually going to add onto the ending in DLC, to try and “clarify” it.
Good game design is primarily about two things: getting the player to trust you, and making your game illusory enough that the limitations are ignored. At this point, the illusion is shattered, and the trust needs to be repaired. Acknowledging that they really didn’t understand how players would react by trying to make amends is good, but if they couldn’t see the problems (Missing Boss, Tonal shift, Deus Ex Machina) in the first place how can they hope to address them now?
Seriously BioWare, if you had an appropriate boss fight in your game, the ending could’ve been this:
Now go and rest our heroes!
Because THAT is the effect of the boss. To give the player an afterglow so strong that they’re pliable to whatever idea you toss their way. Even genocidal glowing ghosts.
Without that climax . . . well, even if you attempt counseling, you just might have to deal with the reality of divorce.
So for a while now, this here blog at CLR has existed primarily by my own arbitrary and oft nefarious whims. Going solo is obviously the reason why for a whole year, updates were totally haphazard and the blog had a secondary theme of “Mike Haggar being awesome” to which I make no apologies. He totally is.
Lately though, I’ve been making the attempt to try and turn this baby blog around. Put out out more content and provide deeper gaming thought with less politically-based polemic, to try and “grow the beard” to use the parlance of our times. This has resulted in a name change to The Dialogue Tree, and a new man crus- er, I mean mascot: everyone’s favorite Captain Jean Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise.
“Some random blogger in the 21st century thinks I’m important? Yess!”
Yes, I’ve been seeking to build a clubhouse of sorts in this tree of ye olde “dialogue”. By that, I mean I’ve been inviting others to join me in it. Not only to make the place a little less lonely, but also keep with the theme of Dialogue . . . not monologue or soliloquy. Not that “Soliloquy Tree” doesn’t have a nice ring to it.
Unfortunately, no one has shown up. Not even a single response to my mass Craigslist personal ad proved suitable for a fellow writer! Though there may have been some confusion, I mean, how was I supposed to know “WL4W” didn’t mean “Writer looking for writer?”
I mean, come on! This is ridiculous. I’m even offering punch and pie here!
OK, so maybe the punch, is the “punch that comes with truth hitting you square in the brain box”, and I’ve heard the pie is “the humble pie you eat after I break you of your tired misconceptions”, but the sentiment’s the same. Pretty much.
I guess I’ll have to do something drastic. I’ll have to change our entrance policies . . . again!
Alright, so first, let’s throw out the “only Harvard Grads, no Yalies” ruling, then this “no girls allowed” sign. While it does invalidate me as a member of the He-Man Women Hater’s Club, they’ve really gone downhill as of late. Then let’s see, carry the two . . . over the denominator and what’s this?!
More importantly, who’s this? And are they a Yalie? Because I’m still thinking of keeping that restriction!
Why no! It’s none other than Laura Buttrick! Student and author of the blog Press Triangle for Cake, as well as such recent CLR Reviews as this one for Binary Domain, and this one for the latest disappointment from Konami, Silent Hill Downpour.
She wasn’t terribly pleased with either it seems.
Unfortunately, there is one caveat: she’s British. Yes, yes, I know. We Americans shouldn’t hold grudges against our former oppressors. But what’s going to happen when she submits a new article and I’m obliged to perform my patriotic duty as mandated by The Constitution and throw out all the T’s?
Confusion that’s what! Then there are the inevitable British-isms and soon it’s all “lifts” and “trousers” and “flats” no longer fitting their proper definitions; not to mention the nonsense words like “lorry”, what is that?! This is the California Literary Review in case you haven’t heard – can an outsider even begin to comprehend the subtle nuances between the 47 variations of “dude” and half dozen “fer sure”s you need to navigate my posts?
But then, I must ask myself: What Would Picard Do?
Why, he’d probably “Make it so.” After having some nice hot Earl Grey TEA.
Ah yes, “xenophobia”, he would dismiss that claim. Makes sense coming from a Frenchman with a British accent on a Flagship continuing an American naming convention, actually. Fine Picard, you win, Laura is now officially a member of the Grand Order of Stewards of Yon Dialogue Tree of Olde.
*performs Initiation Ritual. NOTE: this takes several days and involves a three pints of egg shell paint, an arboretum, and a goat of indeterminate origin.*
With that done, I now must ask Laura to introduce herself by revealing something embarrassing. To let the folks reading this know that not only is she smart and talented, but a gamer through and through. It’s also the final part of the ritual, and you don’t want to leave the painted goat hanging for too long.
So without further ado . . . Laura Buttrick everybody!
The first video game I ever played was Barbie Riding Club. I still own it, and every so often I’ll reinstall it and take it for another spin, just to see if it was as truly wonderful as I remember. The answer is inexplicably: yes. Yes it is.
The game revolves around caring for horses, taking them on rides around the local trails and racing them on the beach. There’s even a small plot line involving mysterious wild horses which culminates in the first video game ending cut scene I ever saw. It’s a game of huge sentimental value to me, yet it wasn’t until a few years later that I picked up my next one.
Behold! The epic conclusion to Digital Crack for Girls . . . er, Barbie Riding Club.
The typical “gamer story” usually starts with a Nintendo title dominating someone’s childhood until they got a PlayStation or an Xbox, so it’s always fun to pull out the “Barbie Game” anecdote at parties, particularly as games aimed at girls were not particularly successful even with entire developers like Purple Moon focusing their efforts solely on the female market. Like most introverts I found the social demands of childhood made video games a comforting escape, and like most children I spent my playground years playing Pokemon, until they banned the cards and Gameboys from my school.
Childhood gaming is something always regarded with fond nostalgia, not least because our vivid imaginations could fill in the gaps where technology was still lacking. Part of the joy in booting up an old N64 cartridge is in remembering how you once perceived it – cutting edge and somehow eternal. Looking back is almost as rewarding as looking forward.
These days games are more than just a hobby of a mine, although it’s hard to articulate this effectively to anyone who doesn’t play them without sounding like I dedicate my life to being incredibly lazy. Studying video games at University is something that would have been unheard of ten years ago, but thanks to rising support for games as both an art form and an area of academic study, I now spend my days reading and writing about games even more than I do playing them.
I spent a year at Exeter University studying literature, which was time well spent in hindsight as it gave me the opportunity to understand where it was I really wanted to be. The last essay I submitted before I left to pursue Games Production in Lincoln was a critical appraisal of gender in the Tomb Raider games, and I managed to come to the somewhat baffling conclusion that Lara Croft was really a man and that transgendered people should be treated equally (which of course, they should, but I’m still not sure how I managed to rope Lara into it).
Let’s just say that this is not how breasts work if you’re born with them.
Despite this pretty rocky start it was my first step towards doing exactly what I wanted: being really analytical about video games.
Culturally, games are just as important as art, literature and music – I’m not just talking about video games now but games as a collective whole. Leisure time may have been in short supply for most until the last century or so but it hasn’t stopped man from playing. It’s easy to be dismissive about such pleasurable pastimes, to write them off as having no real meaning, until you realize that games need not be only a tool of fun but of meaning making. It’s easy to cite games such as BioShock and Dead Space as critiques of social structures and religion, but even games that do not go out of their way to impress themes upon the player can make a remarkable commentary.
That is what I look for – the threads that weave between the code and the polygons. From the climate in which the game was made, to the people it was made for, from authorial intent to fan interpretation, the world of video games is an untapped foundation of knowledge. There is no such thing as “just a game”.
Sorry. Dunno what happened there for a moment. But yes, I happen to agree with Laura’s sentiments exactly, and want to welcome her to our growing gaming team here at CLR. Be sure to keep a look out for future thoughts and opinions by Laura, and myself, Adam Robert Thomas, right here up the Dialogue Tree.
And just remember:
If you’re too smart to shoot and too brave to flee, You gotta navigate the Dialogue Tree!
“Without art in the ending, a game ends up without art.”
For those that are new, welcome!
For those that have been following this series, now in it’s sixth (I think?) installment, I know it seems like I may have forgotten about it. I hadn’t (mostly), but like certain Canadians, I just didn’t know the best way to finish it. Then we had the recent excitement over Mass Effect 3, and I realized that the main point that had been building to with this series – in fact, the concept I originally wanted to talk about when I started – was more apt than ever. It was a like a kick in the pants to get back to finishing this thing!
But then life decided to get absolutely nuts. The last couple weeks have been an inconceivable mash up of conceivable family issues: a birth, a death, a wedding, and a lawsuit. All within 14 days. Sheesh.
Thankfully, April comes with less insanity and more time to write!
And time to Shepard Shuffle!
If you want to get caught up, you can find each article with the following links matched to their nifty themes! There was the pair concerning TIME and SPACE (in two parts), which were pretty good, but then there’s also MIND and BODY! Yup, definitely five parts before this one! I’m in no way skipping ahead to cover a more pertinent issue.
Anywho, here we are at last: VOID, A.K.A. The End.
Finales. Conclusions. Finishes. Terminations. Whatever you want to call them, video games are usually known for doing them wrong. This is the “void” of which I speak; the thing both game player and game maker seem to dread. This is also what I believe to be holding gaming back from further growth, from truly becoming more meaningful to more people. After all, if nothing matters in the end, why begin in the first place?
WARNING! This is the completion of a series that’s well over 10,000 words already. It’s going to be long.
In The End, it doesn’t really matter . . .
Seriously, if I didn’t already make it clear, most video game endings are garbage. If you’re now being contrary and remembering a game that happened to have a great ending, let me reassure you that is an example of the minority. Most games end like a key party for a cyclist: everything’s done and you’re left alone, awkward, and wondering why you came in the first place.
The only thing “prooved” in most video game endings is that “Japanese Translator” is a job filled by the extremely lazy.
For experienced gamers, this state of affairs is nothing new and there are plenty who have fun making lists of the worst. Heck, in some genres it’s the expected norm instead of being considered a flaw. No one expects Street Fighter to be Sunset Boulevard, or Tetris to be Titus Andronicus; as long as the experience is fun, and there is a way for the game to end, then how well it ends apparently doesn’t matter.
Apathetic expectations like these seem to stem out of the early history of video game storytelling. There was a time, not too long ago, when the “stories” driving any given game could only generously be called trifles. They were mere sketches of ideas meant to give the absolute minimum amount of explanation as to why you were single-handedly taking on the Robots/Orcs/Gang of bad dudes with your Prototype Cyber-Suit/Ancient Magic/Bare fists of beatdown justice.
The expectation became that video games do not necessarily need the story to matter, or even make much sense, as they weren’t about telling stories, but participating in them. Like pornography, the “why” that gets us to the hot, sweaty, action merely needs to be paid lip service and once the climax has been reached, er, final boss is defeated, the game pulls out quickly to prevent leaving any lasting impr- aaaand I think this metaphor’s gone too far.
Although . . . most video game heroes DO hook up at the end of the adventures. Hmmm.
Unfortunately, this “Games as action pornography” view seems the accepted consensus. That gaming has been and will always be about the nature of the verb actions gamers perform, instead of trying to craft a meaningful narrative or create memorable characters. The logic, when carried to the context of endings, seems to be “if the stories in games are trivial and generally suck, why would you expect anything else from the ending?”
Except, here’s the thing. While yes, games are primarily about the doing of things and that will never change (nor should it), the rest of these premises aren’t true, and never have been.
The roots of modern gaming started in two distinct forms: in the arcade and on the PC. While it’s very true that arcade games – and the console games that sought to emulate them – usually didn’t aim for higher narrative concerns, on the PC things were quite different. There, an opposing type of game grew wild, one that concentrated on interesting plots and personalities . . . you know, the “traditional” aspects of storytelling? The ones shared by film, theater, and literature? The aspects that apparently gaming has never focused on before?
Whether with a graphical or text-based interface, adventure games have been around nearly from the start of the medium and are essentially elaborate interactive books, and on occasion, films. Just look at the adventure game sub-genres. They’re the same type found in other narrative mediums – mystery, comedy, horror – which are based on the intended emotive content for the audience, versus the genres of action games – shooting, fighting, racing – which pertain to the verbs you perform during them. These games not only explicitly contain a focus on narrative expectations, but as with any book or film, it’s their primary selling point!
Now I’m not saying adventure games were all epic dramas that touched the soul since there were plenty that focused on touching other parts entirely, but the belief that gaming has never been about telling stories is ignoring quite a lot of gaming history to the contrary. Of course, this skewed account makes sense statistically. While always finding an audience, Space Quest fans never outnumbered the army of Sonic the Hedgehog loyalists; I get that the bias trends toward the guys with Geneses, not the dudes using DOS.
A totally accurate visual representation of late eighties/early nineties gamer subgroups, I’m sure.
But the history of the situation doesn’t really matter anymore since games are no longer as segregated when it comes to narrative focus. When it comes to narrative, games have blended, crossbred and fused; pretty much every action game has a story far expanded than its eighties equivalent, and mechanics that used to be the purview of Adventure games and RPGs are popping up in countless other genres. Look no further than the popularity of progressive leveling in modern online shooters, for example.
Heck, if Uncharted didn’t have charming characters like Nathan Drake, would it be worth playing at all? It really doesn’t have cover shooting mechanics better than those found in similar games. Why, it’s almost as if an action game’s main point of differentiation is that it has compelling characters and plot?!
Sure, there are still games out there that ignore the importance of the plot – see Duke Nukem Forever, and Ms. ‘Splosion Man for examples from last year – but these days I’d say gonzo gaming is the exception, not the rule. Though the slow evolution has made it difficult to see, gaming has grown along every avenue, including narrative expectations. Players want even the most gruesome action game experience to have a story these days; you can’t just give them “Kill all the dudes” and be done with it.
Sure, “Kill all the divine dudes” is the plot in a nutshell, but God of War is also a modern Greek Tragedy with a better story than (and arguably the inspiration for) both Clash and Wrath of the Titans. That may not be saying much though.
Then there’s the nature of gaming itself, since as most moms addicted to Farmville can attest, even the simplest games have the ability to enthrall. The remarkable ability of games to – through the act of playing them alone – grant new experiences in a direct manner can be profound. In fact, immersive gameplay can make it very easy to ignore the oft cliched stories a lot of games contain, even making them seem better than they actually are.
Actually, this might explain why gamers accept weaker narratives, but to me, it’s the exact reason why we shouldn’t. Aside from the simple ethic that, if you’re going to tell a story, do it well, just think of the possibility of profundity gaming has. Why wouldn’t you want the narratives to match the immersive nature of the medium?
The point I’m trying to make is that yes, the storytelling of a game is important, and is in fact as important as any other quality a game may contain. While I understand that the slow creep of this importance has caused many to devalue it, I disagree with those who insist it not be taken in consideration with reviews, no matter how logical the arguments against this practice may be.
Which leads back to endings. Though many realize that an ending can make or break a story in a game (proven by science!), it seems just as many still hold to the apathetic old ways, and don’t see a problem. Worse, some offer flip suggestions seemingly made only to frustrate fans who want the quality of narrative to improve.
It’s a state of affairs that needs changing, especially if gaming is ever going move forward as an art form. After all, if you simply accept trite pablum, what do you think you’ll end up getting?
Unfortunately, I’m merely critic and commentator. Aside from making sure narrative qualities are factored into a review whilst hoping others follow suit, I am powerless. My ability to eloquently hurl words at something has never been able to fix a real problem it seems.
That only ever worked in Mischief Makers! Even then, it was only on that one boss.
About the only thing I can do is point the problems out . . . so let’s do just that, shall we?
Thanks to severe anti-social tendencies, I’ve seen far too many game endings make me wish for game overs. The following are the worst trends in them! Some are old, some are relatively new, but all are terrible!
It’s a little feature I like to call . . .
End Errors – Game
Oh, and yeah, I’m going to be talking about endings so you best be prepared. If you know what I mean.
1) Denouewhat? I don’t Speak Spanish!
What is “Denouement”? Aside from a word most English speakers probably mispronounce?
Simply put, it’s the “falling action”; which isn’t a skydiving gunfight but the stuff that happens during the resolution to a story; the thing after the subtle metaphor for story-orgasm we call the climax on plot diagrams. It’s the part where Anthony Micheal Hall writes the essay via monologue, or where the transsexual crushing mayor hugs his daughter after kicking a handicapable mob boss out a skyscraper. This is also apparently a concept that is as alien to game developers as a sense of shame is to furries, since it’s missing or mishandled in approximately 90% of games.
Seriously, the vast majority of game endings contain lackluster or simply lacking denouement. From a literary perspective, it’s easily the medium’s most prevalent problem. This also happens to occur in the two endings for Dark Souls, which makes for a perfect example of what I’m talking about, and ties back into the title of the article, so yeah, that’s good.
At the start of your masochistic adventure through Lordran, you’re presented with an intro narrated by Lady Galadriel if she smoked three packs a day. It explains the primary conflict of Dark Souls: undead roam the land and the magical fire that ensures humanity’s providence has burnt out, and the God that protected it gone mad. You play as an accursed undead, lighting small bonfires of salvation and defeating monsters, demons, and deities for the next fifteen to fifty hours (depending on how much you grind) until you confront the the daft God Gwynn and rekindle the “Fire of Lords”, which apparently means you get a minute long cutscene showing your character explode like napalm.
The unsatisfying yet succinct ending of Dark Souls in a single image. But hey, it’s better than the original Syndicate.
Notice the disparity? Dark Souls is a game you’re probably spending a week or two of more or less constant play on to see it through to the end. Yet when you get past the final climactic hurdle, you simply get a confusing explosion that doesn’t reveal whether or not you solved the primary conflict of the game, and credits! There’s even an alternate ending that only an extremely rebellious and inquisitive player (or tester) would find, but while it does offer a more definite resolution – you become Lord Skeletor of the Lip-less Dinosaur Snakes – it’s even shorter!
Such brevity in the terminus isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Star Wars‘ has the quick “Everybody gets Medals except Chewbacca” ending and is plenty satisfying; once Marla Singer is told that it’s been a very strange time in Tyler Durden’s life, it’s explosion-penis-credits! If falling action falls rapidly, it has the possibility of working. But a minute or two span is a pretty tight hindrance on tying up loose ends or resolving a story, and it’s rare that this is enough time in a two hour film, let alone a twenty hour game.
Even then, the issue here isn’t that this happens occasionally, it’s that this is the dominant methodology for game endings! Unless they do it during the credits, and some do, most games spend a scant few minutes (or far, far less) showing what happens to our characters past escaping the exploding base. As it’s rare for developers to fit in an appropriate scenario within such limited constraints, why do they keep doing it?
Tradition and poor planning seem the likely culprits. Ending a game on a “STAGE CLEAR” screen while level statistics and a spot to enter your initials pops up (S.E.X. of course) has roots in the arcade games of old. However, back then the main limit on an arcade game wasn’t time, but money; with enough quarters any arcade cabinet could be defeated, and usually within a couple hours. Proportionately, a minute long ending for an hour long game really isn’t that bad, especially since few arcade games dealt with deeper concepts than punches, explosions, and talking aquatic mammals.
Although I could simply not understand the “deep symbolism” of the Dolphin fighter pilot of Aero Fighters 2. But then, who can?
Proportions are a big part of this. A single screen is fine for a single screen game like Tetris. If you’re playing a month long RPG that loves to lift ideas out of Tolkien though, the ending might as well do likewise and spend some time wrapping things up. Besides, if an ending has any sort of weight or meaning, I say listen to The Cranberries: you’re going to have to let it linger. How else can it be effective for the player?
The best, or at least most recent, example of a lengthy falling action sequence is the ranching portion of Red Dead Redemption. Of course, RDR is one of the few games critics like myself love to point to when talking about great endings in video games, but lo and behold, it’s also one of the few that understands how to use denouement for effect!
Funny how that works out, isn’t it?
As to the other cause – poor planning – well that simply has to do with budgeting your time properly. Unfortunately I have little faith in game developers on this score. Because humanity. Also, “Making Games is hard“.
2) Cliffhangers to Nowhere
While I would love to really dig into deconstructing the digital dearth of denouement (and perhaps one day I will), I also want to get to the other issues. Such as gaming’s overuse of cliffhangers and other sequel-centric devices instead of committing to narrative finality.
As game development costs have ballooned over time, so to has the pressure to turn every new game into a franchise. So while in the old days you might get the occasional “The Evil Lord of Ludicrous Evil was pushed back into the Murderrealm . . . BUT FOR HOW LONG?”, the modern equivalent of creating plot threads that can only be handled later or leaving pertinent issues like the main conflict unresolved when you smash cut to credits in order to drum up interest for the sequel seems to show up more and more often. Alliteratively: Crummy Cliffhangers Cause Computer Conclusion Chaos!
Thankfully, the all too literal Stallone vehicle only showed up once, with its ironically conclusive ending: terrible sales.
To be fair, sequel focused development mentality can lead to other issues with endings and stories in general (which I’m getting to). Aside from generally also lacking denouement – the end to Halo 2 is sudden enough to count as a jump scare in a horror flick – cliffhangers specifically carry a unique curse in gaming: if you end your first game on one it usually means there won’t actually be a second.
I swear, I think ending the first game on a cliffhanger is seen as a challenge to the gaming deities (who definitely exist), because they almost never let this act of hubris go unpunished. Among the examples are Too Human, Bionic Commando 2K9 (sequel technically, but also the first entry in a franchise reboot), XIII, Psychonauts, Beyond Good and Evil, Axelay, Clive Barker’s Jericho and the Orson Scott Card double whammy of wasted potential, Advent Rising and Shadow Complex (though Shadow complex was better about this). Often, this ends up actually killing off the studios who make them, or in the case of Silicon Knights and Orson Scott Card, their credibility.
While this is really more advice for developers to avoid some superstitious wrath, the ever increasing number of cliffhangers can also be seen as a minor symptom to a larger problem: the devaluing creative control because sequels must exist, ALWAYS. But then, that frustrating problem may have something to do with it affecting one of my favorite series, Mega Man X. Of course that leads directly into the next issue . . .
3) Endings? We don’t need no stinking ending!
The quick and dirty version is that the creator of the Mega Man series, Keiji Inafune, wanted to end the series after X5, and move on to a subsequent chapter that used the same characters in new (and much darker) ways. So X5 ends with it’s pony tailed breakout character – Zero – dying, and attempts to close the book on the rest. However, Capcom, a company well known for its respectable narrative craft and consistency, just went and made X6 – with Zero alive and well – shortly thereafter.
Why? Because they own it, and they weren’t done rehashing a franchise that at that point was on it’s 14th iteration (36th or higher if you count spin offs). Because money.
I sold my creative integrity for cold hard cash! Ask me how!
Or if you think Mega Man is a juvenile example, it is about SUPER FIGHTING ROBOTS after all, look at BioShock. It’s a game much more notable for its story, but it also had a pair of conclusive endings, one of which (the “good” one) I felt actually added poignancy and meaning to the game in the way only a conclusive ending can. When Irrational Games decided to not pursue a sequel, well that didn’t stop their publisher from forcing another studio to put an uninspired retread that didn’t achieve the first game’s narrative weight out the door!
But hey, it had multiplayer! That makes everything A-OK!
Dripping sarcasm aside, the unfortunate tendency of commercial interests to never let a good narrative reach a fulfilling finale isn’t limited to gaming. Most serialized storytelling falls prey to this problem, especially in comic books. There the writers have gone so far out of their way to never let their franchises die that they’ve frozen time itself.
Which, well that’s the more prevalent issue in gaming, actually. Thus enters: Skyrim.
For all of the positive qualities Skyrim has, and it has many, one of them isn’t an ending. Sure it has an ending. I suppose. You can defeat the antagonistic dragon of doom, Alduin, and save the land of Skyrim. You even get hailed by a procession of other dragons when you do. It’s all very grand.
But the game doesn’t stop. There are no credits that appear, no epilogue that reveals that re-establishing the Thieves Guild caused so and so to do X, or that winning the war for side A was better than for side B for Y reason. Nothing.
You just stand there on a mountain wondering what to do next, knowing that anything you do decide to focus on probably won’t compare to slaying an eternal dragon of time in Valhalla. Little of what you’ve spent the last month or four doing carries much weight, and the main reason you’ll probably stop playing Skyrim is dissatisfied boredom. This unending void drowns the story of any power it might have carried in a sea of the infinite.
(obviously that last sentence is proof that I wanted to be a poet, but found that there’s a lot more money in blogging)
Interestingly, not providing any sort of ending to an individual game is really quite old school, and also something you would see in arcades more than on PC. Pac-Man doesn’t end. Qix doesn’t end. Donkey Kong doesn’t end, even though it has a story that does. Which . . . is exactly like Skyrim, actually.
There are also other disturbing similarities. Personally, I’m surprised Nintendo doesn’t sue.
Not having an ending – either through a game that literally loops like Donkey Kong, in a game that lets you wander its world without wrapping it up, or through the meta concept of a series that can’t die – is the death of narrative. There is no permanence, so no change can occur. If no change can occur, characters cannot grow and the arc becomes meaningless since as any storytelling professor will tell you, all stories are fundamentally about change.
Immortal, unchanging characters and worlds are generally speaking, immature creations. Pac-Man not having an ending is totally acceptable since it was an immature game from a narrative perspective.
But then, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong aren’t trying to tell stories so much as be amusements, possibly metaphors about the obese temporarily escaping their inevitable death by overeating and what happens when a construction worker goes off his medication. Skyrim too, is arguably less concerned with narrative than on creating a tangible world and making it true to life. And life, while it may have occasional adventures, also has no through line, no true narrative arc.
As simulation, it’s totally valid. As narrative, it simply isn’t. But then, Bethesda also had other reasons not to put in an ending . . .
4) D-L-C! Talking ’bout 1-Big-Fee! For the Fin-Al-e! D-L-C! Fin-Al-E!
Bethesda, according to many of their fans, made a huge mistake at end their previous game, Fallout 3. They put the player’s character in a situation that was meant for them to to sacrifice their life, or the life of another character, in order to turn on the game’s overriding plot device, a water treatment plant. While that may sound a bit overblown, in the Fallout world, any working machinery past the technological complexity of a car is a damned miracle, since you know, post apocalypse and all.
Anyway, this ending might have sat well with everybody except for one thing: it had a giant gaping plot hole the size of a Super Mutant right in the center of it. You see, in Fallout 3 you could have different companions, and a few of these characters happened to be immune to the particular hazard that caused this to be a “noble sacrifice” rather than a “slightly annoying walk to a console to flip a switch”. Considering the title of the game, I’ll let you guess what that hazard was.
PROTIP: In fiction, it tends to make you glow and want to destroy mankind. In non-fiction, you just get the depressing baldness and death.
Now, because Bethesda was putting out DLC (downloadable content and something I’ve covered) already, they decided to listen to their complaining fanbase and fix this oversight. Rather than just fixing the plot hole, they changed the actual outcome of ending and made it continue onwards, as you’re character didn’t die after all, and into the never ending game model that they would then use again in Skyrim. Bethesda at least, learned that it’s fans wanted games that weren’t narratives . . . and the precedent was set.
Oh my. That sounds bad! And here I am in the year 2012, thinking gaming was all doing alright, ever progressing toward artistry, when you’re telling me that it all ended in 2009? When both Fallout 3 and the rebooted Prince of Persia received DLCs that either nullified or negated their original endings?
Oh wait. No. Those “destroy artistry” links are from journalists angry at fans wanting to change the end to Mass Effect 3, not Fallout 3. Funny, that.
I mean, I remember liking the end of Diablo 2. Quite a bit actually. It had this enigmatic end: at the closing of a framing device set in an insane asylum, a madman gave the last hope of humanity to its worst enemy. One who proceeded to walk the Earth . . . forever. Powerful stuff.
But then, the developer decided to add on an expansion pack that continued the story for just one more chapter, and turned that evil from the Keyser Soze he seemed to be, into a Saturday morning cartoon villain after a magic MacGuffin at the Worldcave or some such nonsense.
Pictured: Baal from the Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction. Pretty much.
Oh, but where was the outcry that a dangerous precedent had been set then? Hmm?
Alright, I’ll knock off the facetiousness because this actually is a serious issue, just not in the way it’s being covered right this second. Also, to be honest, it’s one I am torn about. As I am of two minds on the current demands by fans to alter the ending to Mass Effect 3.
On the one hand, the ending is terrible. As of right now, early April 2012, the ending is mind bogglingly stupid and my review speaks to this. As does this guy’s thoughtful analysis. As a fan myself, I would love to see a different ending, because I feel what is present is rushed, doesn’t match what I think BioWare is capable of (as proven by the rest of their game), and is also inherently disrespectful of key tenets of the story up to that point.
On the other hand, I liked the ending to Fallout 3 as much as it was. After you, perhaps stupidly, jumped into the room to turn on the machine, you also got . . . surprise! an ENDING. Though not as good as the similar endings to Fallout 1 or 2, it maintained consistency, brought some closure, and let me know I had changed the world. It was a complete narrative for the same reason Skyrim isn’t, and I think the DLC that came out for Fallout 3 did kind of hurt the integrity of the story.
There’s also something to be said about artists being free to make their own decisions -and mistakes – without being forced to conform to the crowd. What an angry mob wants, when it comes to artistic expression anyways, is historically either wrong, bland, or a combination of both.
Unless the mob is composed of cave women and what they want is snu-snu. If that’s wrong, then baby, I don’t wanna be right.
But was I mad at Bethesda for (wait for it) “caving” to whiners? Did it fundamentally hurt the artistic integrity of all games everywhere?
Obviously not! It wasn’t that big a deal. So what’s the difference?
Honestly, the group that was “whining” was smaller. Small enough that the people covering the the announcement of DLC didn’t assign power for the decision making process to their complaints. If it resolved this quibble for fans, fine, but it also did ten other things and THAT was all put in by Bethesda, who retained total creative control in the end. The difference is that the press complaining about the “entitled whiners” now, didn’t realize what was going on then, because otherwise it would have been the same. Right?
I wasn’t kidding earlier when I did say that Fallout 3 – not Mass Effect 3 – set a precedent. A much worse precedent than what the fans of sensible endings for Mass Effect 3 could cause: ending DLC in general. Because that IS happening, and being perpetrated by the worst of all possible companies: Capcom.
I’m baaaaack! I sure hope you like incomplete stories parceled out at exorbitant prices!
See, the things that bothers me about the “retake Mass Effect” movement isn’t that it might pressure creators into changing their story, that’s been around since Scheherazade or Sherlock, pick one. But many of the people asking for changes are so desperate for them that they’re willing to settle for BioWare selling it to them, even though their entire argument is basically that BioWare didn’t deliver an adequately finished story in the first place.
If they’re willing to yield this key bit of power (their buying power) without haggling for a kind of narrative recall, then whether or not BioWare does ANYTHING at all, other publishers now know that if their players are invested in a story that they have them by the quad. As seen in the link above, companies like Capcom are already trying to take advantage of this by selling endings separately from the rest of the game.
This. Practice. Is. Atrocious.
It’s one thing to make a serialized narrative that you pay for in installments; it’s in the format of a serialized narrative. The audience and the show, game, or book know what the score is. It’s another thing entirely to make a non-serialized narrative, cut off the most important part of it, and then ask the audience to pay extra money for what should be and always has been a given, AND on top of the full price!
This almost literal narrative hostage taking isn’t illegal, but damn is it unethical.
Unless you want every game, book, or film to become like the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, then this is one practice that needs to be punched in its 1930′s Chinese gangster face.
Now trusting consumer, you give me another 20% on top of the price already paid, and I give you . . . closure.
See other gaming journalists?! I can spread hyperbolic statements about mob tactics and unfortunate precedents too!
It’s a lot of fun actually, I see why you do it.
5) Who’s the B-
Oh dang it! I’ve gone past the word limit. And I didn’t even get to my major points on Mass Effect 3, or what the MOST important problem in game endings is! But the Truncation squad is at my door, and they issue some hefty fines.
Hey . . . Waitaminute! If you help me out, I can pay the fine and finish this article AND this series in no time!
All I need is *runs calculations* either 500 dollars or fifty more Twitter followers, and I can leverage the pseudo internet status to convince this cop to let me off and finish the article – or just bribe him!
Congratulations for getting this far, you’re patience is legendary, but you’ll need to pay out if you want to see it to the end!
or Adam’s Alliterative Awards Attached Arbitrarily At Awesome And Awful Amusements!
I know this blog’s been missing for a few weeks, er, pretty much all of February. Which is a shame as I was in the middle of this HUGE SERIES chronicling the COREASPECTS of all of gaming using Skyrim and Dark Souls as opposing examples to ENLIGHTEN AND ENTERTAIN, but then . . . stuff happened. Sickness struck me down. Moving took time to organize. There was interpersonal life drama, because LIFE. Plus, while still putting out a few reviews, I also got a tad busy with other projects.
So I cry pardon and say sorry. I will get back to the conclusion of the Skyrim/Dark Souls series, as all good journeys need an ending. But now it’s time for something completely different.
That segue has never been used out of its original context EVER before!
So, award season ended recently with the finish line we like to call the “84th annual Academy Awards” as North Americans (and the Finnish) are well aware. Aside from proving that Billy Crystal’s career is in dire need of carroussel, it wasn’t that eventful. Oscar bait won Oscars. There probably should have been more nominations for “Original Song”. Matt won the pool I think.
But far more importantly, it reminded me that one of the unfortunate requirements to reviewing ANYTHING (and if you suck at reading fine print) is that if you don’t put out some kind of “[ARBITRARY NUMBER] of the [BEST/WORST] from [PREVIOUS YEAR]” list, my life clock starts beeping and I’ll be hunted down like a dog by the lower level thugs in the Digital Reviewer Mafia.
Yes, I did watch Logan’s Run recently, why do you ask?
Since I don’t want a knife in the back from an IGN Intern, let’s take a moment to acknowledge several games that are “so last year” because the first thing any “Best of Year X” list should probably do is be about the year in question. The ground rules are as follows:
Since I couldn’t decide whether to do a “best of” or “worst of” list, this is probably going to be both.
As I don’t generally like the way the rest of the gaming press handles this masturbatory plaudit promotion, I’ll be making up categories as I go.
Oh, and to keep things fair and source-able I’m only going to assign awards to games that reviewed on CLR, and provide a link to each, even though I beat more games that came out than were reviewed.
Like Bloodrayne: Betrayal, which, though I didn’t review it, does win the award for “Best Bloodrayne Game Ever Made” due to not sucking more than it’s protagonist. But that’s so specific that it’s even less important than the rest of the superfluous awards to come.
Valve’s writers, led by Eric Wolpaw and Marc Laidlaw, have been crafting some of the most memorable video game characters ever for the last few years. They’ve done such a good job that when it came down to figuring out the best character of the year, it really meant, “Which Portal 2 character is your favorite?” And really, that comes down to one of two choices: Stephen Merchant as Wheatley and J.K. Simmons as Cave Johnson.
Though Simmons’ Johnson proved more memetic, especially due to the lemon speech, it was Merchant’s cheery, off the cuff, colloquial readings that infuse the Intelligence Dampening Sphere Wheatley with enough personality to carry the entirety of the game. With an upbeat attitude never slowed by ineptitude, Wheatley, “the product of the greatest minds of a generation working together with the express purpose of building the dumbest moron who ever lived”, not only managed to steal the spotlight from GLaDOS and Johnson, but occasionally proved to be touching and inspirational. If the Portal franchise continues, I just hope they head to SPAAAAAACE to pick up Wheatley first.
If Wheatley is an exercise in showing how to make an idiotic character lovable and relatable, Morgan is one of the best examples of making the same archetype seriously force the audience re-examine the validity of eugenics. He isn’t funny or interesting in any way, presents the worst points of humanity, is the least useful member of the team you partner with in Homeront and as his haircut foreshadows, makes the worst decisions possible at all times. In a title that only had two weeks to live, he’s the tumor that tacks on the terrible; if you cut him out, it wouldn’t have made Homefront rise above mediocrity, but at least it wouldn’t have been offensively stupid.
Let’s be honest. Gamers are a fickle bunch, and worse, the gaming press is pretty much a hype machine on steroids that will claim a game is like Jesus riding a dinosaur before it even comes out if the marketing team paid them enough, only for buyers to discover that all too often it’s more like Jim Jones introducing you to his buddy the Kool-Aid Man. Once you get burned by 10/10 ultrahype or under-performing nostalgia it can be pretty tough to ever think ANY upcoming game will bring out your inner Console Warring Fanboy tendencies again.
This cynical mistrust is especially prevalent of sequels or remakes to series that seem to have died out long ago. Often rightly so. Especially if the originals were either really good games, or god forbid, genuinely genre-busing and legitimately historic classics that hold up even today.
So let’s be honest. If you knew what Deus Ex was when Human Revolution was announced, is there any real way you could have moved your expectations past “Concerned, and just hoping it’s not terrible” or “Veeeeery Cautiously Optimistic” if you were having a good day? I know I couldn’t.
So when the game, though by no means perfect, actually turned out to be pretty damn good? Oh man! That right there. That deserves some notice! DX: HR A prequel no one ever asked for, but most of us are glad we got.
On the other hand, there comes a time when a developer or publisher who has built up goodwill with their fans puts out a product that the entire audience turns around and says in a unified voice “No sir! May you have a good day without my company, as I shan’t be ambling into this establishment again!” They then proceed to replace their monocle, don their bowler hat, and stride away with silver-tipped cane in hand.
“Harrumph!” – Gamers.
Which apparently was the case with Dragon Age 2, a game that I actually managed to enjoy quite a bit at the time and still feel that view is accurate for it’s circumstances. You see, I didn’t play Dragon Age: Origins, and walked into DA2 without any real expectations or foreknowledge. Hence, even though it had problems, much of the inherent freshness of a new experience carried me through some of the slower portions of the beginning, and the excellent middle portion served me well enough to stick with it to the end . . . when it just sort of lost steam and fell apart. Completely and quickly. I mean, we’re talking House of Usher speed here folks!
So, I think I get why if a person was coming to this not only with high expectations, but also with the sense of novelty removed, they just wouldn’t like it very much. Heck, I can’t force myself to get through the game again either, because there’s no drive to discover anymore. Which means that yes, Dragon Age 2 ended up as probably the most disappointing game of the year, for the largest majority of fans (for me personally I’d give it to Bionic Commando Rearmed 2).
Plus the only real contender to this award, Duke Nukem Forever, doesn’t get it because there WERE no expectations since as none of us thought that it would ever exist.
So, it’s not like Fight Night Champion‘s plot is Shakespeare or even a Quinn Martin Production, but you know what? It’s a helluva lot better than nothing. Because for both a sports or fighting games, nothing is what you usually get in this department.
Honestly, is about danged time. I mean, fighting games and sports games have easily the simplest mold for being transferred into a narrative medium (Kung-Fu Flicks & Rocky clones respectively), and conversely are one of the few genres that has real space for telling about inter-character conflict in a more personal way (most of it’s one on one combat/underdog athletes working their way to the championship). Adding a genuine narrative to explain why the two dudes are duking it out not only makes lots of sense, but it has a really high chance to pay off. Up until now, the closest we got was oft overlooked back story, unique character introductions, John Madden commentary and the occasional hilarious ending screen featuring a dancing Gorbachev:
So while it’s not much in the way of true “innovation”, the fact that multiple folks finally realized that people might want to actually have some characterization better than a paragraph written by paranoid schizophrenic tossed onto these two genres is just refreshing, and a trend that I really hope will continue. It’s only truly strange that it took this long to do it any real justice. Not that Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. didn’t try it’s best.
Listen, this isn’t actually badly designed or anything. It’s just ****ing evil.
I mean, Skyrim is a world that already offers enough variety of gameplay (even if much of it’s shallow) to drown a child or Jon Stewart sized man in. If you have self control issues, time-budgeting problems, or an addictive personality it might ensnare you with its glamour and drain you of your precious bodily fluids as it’s cornucopia of content. I’ve barely made it out alive myself, and I leveled up my “Ensnarement Resistance” Stat with TVTropes inoculations.
Point is, a system that dynamically generates content for the player and “guide”s them to unexplored sections of the map that they never really needed to see, throws hints at the player like commercials, or just genuinely creates new missions tailored for their play style could theoretically (and eventually will) mean a game that never ends.
So no. The Radiant Story system in Skyrim isn’t “bad”; it just might end up destroying society. Just as we always expected.
Because seriously, who doesn’t look at pretty boy Enoch’s ass for 12 hours and go, “Man I really want to wear his sweet denim!”, but then realizes that Enoch’s pants don’t have that certain je ne se quois that Lucifer’s jeans have, so you end up debating with yourself which pair of pants to try and order off a Japanese website and inadvertently putting yourself into the strangest spiritual crisis imaginable? One based entirely on jeans.
I have no idea what was going through the developer’s brain with this one, but come on! Angelic product placement for work-wear! It’s sacrilicious!
I was going to put in something about how Activision convinced a whole bunch of folks to pay for Call of Duty ELITE, a service they provided about 80% of its features for free, and then proceeded to lock the service down for almost a month being a PR debacle. Or Homefront‘s complete and utter failure at balloons.
But then I remembered this gem. Or to put in the form of a Friends episode title: The time when THQ’s marketing guy posted an angry tweet that basically confirmed that the entirety of videogame “journalism” is held hostage by publishers who use it as a marketing avenue . . . and when Ross slipped on a Ham Sandwich.
Classy. But then, 2011 wasn’t a good year for video game related marketting jerkwads. Just a good year for watching them crash and burn.
Best Use of Difficulty
Perilous Circumstances + Precise Combat = Excitement! – Dark Souls
Dark Souls is obviously a hard game. It’s a rather well known fact.
What might be less well known is that the actual combat mechanics of Dark Souls are incredibly good. The control scheme takes some getting used to, but once you do you’ll be blocking faster than the chubby friend of a girl being hit on, nimbly dodging danger like you were this guy, while thrusting and parrying as if you were Errol Flynn. You have an incredibly wide array of maneuvers at your disposal and each unique weapon changes the assortment available. It’s a remarkable feat to make a combat system feel this kinetic and strategic all at the same time, yet the folks at From Software pulled it off.
That brutal difficulty? It only makes things better. Because (for the most part) Dark Souls is tough but fair. Most challenges can be overcome with a clever strategy or simply learning how to duel better, and usually, this fluid and complex combat system provides ample opportunity to actually do just that.
If the combat weren’t as enjoyable or interesting, the grating challenge would be unacceptable. But Dark Souls, like Super Meat Boy and others before it, proves that as long as you know what you’re doing, a challenge isn’t the detriment game developers seem to think it is.
Worst Use of Difficulty
Overactive HP Regeneration + Overabundance of Weak Combat = BORING – L.A. Noire
To be fair, the annual winner of this award should always be “every game everywhere that doesn’t let you adjust difficulty”. This year the list includes Dark Souls, Portal 2, this entry, and many, many others. But that’s really a personal pet peeve of mine, and not very specific at that. We need a single entry here, and I choose Rockstar’s last foray into the open world.
Specifically, it’s a good thing L.A. Noire‘s pretty and into new things, because boy howdy is it dull at times. Those times being whenever anyone pulls out a gun.
Seriously, whoever thought it was a good idea to give Cole Phelps a healing factor (as previously discussed) so that he could suck in bullets while he blows out hot air thereby removing much of the threat and excitement of combat, and THEN also decided to include about six combat sequences a chapter should be fired and never allowed to make games again! Oh, wait. That happened.
L.A. Noire could have helped birth a new era of high-budget detective adventure gaming. But big budget games require the common man be as interested as the nerds like me who want to solve mysteries, and they want decent action along with clue-hunting. Not providing the action pretty much kills chances for mystery solving adventure, at least amongst the major producers in the gaming industry (and why some folks are resorting to other methods). This is to speak nothing of the game’s chances of establishing itself as a series that could maintain enough popularity to spawn sequels.
Which means . . .
It looks like Cole Phelps is one detective, that had his case – *dramatic pause while fiddling with shades* – closed?
It seems that as with any awards ceremony, I’m starting to run long.
So, let’s speed this up and get all the technical awards out of the way! As in, “Technically, these games don’t deserve recognition due to the aforementioned ground rules, but I feel like pointing them out anyway.” As with all technical awards, these were handed out last week in the lobby of an inner city Motel 6 by a super model on hard times.
GAME THAT I MISSED, Because Damnit SKYRIM! You stole 2 months of my life!
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
I will avenge you. And/or finally get around to playing you. Some day . . .
Best Game THAT I BEAT (BUT DIDN’T REVIEW FOR SOME REASON)
Outland (Console)/The Binding of Isaac (PC)
Seriously consider checking Outland out. It’s a little platforming adventure game with a tinge of Ikaruga-like enemy attack absorption based around colors. It’s got some fun boss fights, a jungle themed art style, and often ends up a spirit walking head trip. As a downloadable, it’s not terribly expensive and I’d highly recommend giving it a whirl.
Same deal with The Binding of Isaac. Just replace the description with “Disturbing Religious Parable set in Procedurally Generated Zelda Shooter”.
OK, so not the same thing at all. Still good though.
Game(s) That I finally scratched off my Backlog
Mass Effect 1 & 2
This was well documented when I lost a heaping helping of time to the sweet, sweet lull of sci-fi, Commander Shepard and the Normandy’s Galaxy Map music.
Unfortunately, the demo for the upcoming third installment has me more than a little bit worried. The Flanderized council of worried military officials confront the increasingly derpy Shepard at the start and it plays out like a reeeeeally bad piece of fan-fiction. Combined with a lot of the building vitriol over EA’s meddling with the series, and my expectations have been punched in the face like an intergalactic news reporter.
Still, I keep my fingers crossed, and hope that the underwhelming intro, the troubling concerns over DLC, and the fun but needless multiplayer mode aren’t trends toward yet another underwhelming trilogy termination.
That should do it for the majority of the Technical Awards, but we can’t forget the all-important “Honorary Award for Someone Most People Can’t Even Remember”! It’s an award show classic!
Which leads me to . . .
Developer Moment of The Year
When David Gaider eloquently killed a Troll
Let’s all take a moment to remember that while gamers can get worked up about anything and everything, the folks making the games we enjoy are people too, and more than capable of pointing out just how dumb we can be about the things we like to gripe about. David Gaider, head writer on Dragon Age 2 and I attest, the main reason that game is worth playing at all, took a moment in March of last year to do just that.
Take a moment to bow Dave. You’ve earned it.
You done? Good. Now get off the stage, we’ve got to get to the main event!
That’s right folks! It’s the big one; the one that every videogame journalist stakes their reputation for the following year upon. If I blow it, my credibility’s shot until I can re-up with my local distributor. If I nail it, then you’ll have no choice but to pay attention to my incessant ramblings for another twelve months.
Yeah, yeah, I know. How unexpected that the quite obviously best game of the year, based solely off its excellently designed and implemented gameplay, high production values, smart writing and plotting, and clever use of beloved characters gets chosen as the best game of the year!
I mean, come on! It’s like I’m not even trying!
Which is partially true, for while Arkham City is easily the best game of last year, it’s also a sequel to a licensed tie-in of a cultural icon that borrows many genre conventions from itself, but with a stronger focus on improvement rather than innovation or novelty. The critically cynical (read “Art House” and/or “Hipster”) part of me wants to recognize some other game that doesn’t have so much of an advantage. That is just as good in many ways, but either tried for some innovation, or at least wasn’t a sequel.
But looking at the games CLR reviewed last year, only three of them weren’t sequels, reboots, or tie-ins to an extant franchise. Heck, even Catherine, though wildly different from expected gaming conventions in most every way, was a spin-off from the established Persona series. Adding on the filter of “games reviewed by the site” leaves exactly three options, one of those being L.A. Noire, which, as already stated, had the problem of putting the player to sleep whenever the dramatic music kicked in.
So that means there’s really only one true choice to be had . . .
The Best Game of the Year . . . that wasn’t a Prequel, Sequel, tie-in or reboot.
I know what some of you might be thinking; that despite being created by several masters of the medium and being a total blast to play through, Shadows of the Damned is also a crass, rude experience that panders to the lowest common denominator with with its sexist, phallocentric themes. It means I’m having CLR – a site primarily concerned with the highbrow arts of literature, theatre, visual expression, cinema, and ballet – endorse a seven hour supernatural dick joke as the best ORIGINAL game of 2011.
To which I say, it’s really all in how you handle it. I mean, it’s not like the classical world set a precedent for bodily humor about the baser instincts as one of the foundations of theatrical production or anything. Right?
Oh, wait. It totally did. So I’m justified in defending digital demonic dick jokes on the grounds of “artistic integrity” (and that it’s a rather good game)!
Remember kids: if some Greek dudes did it thousands of years ago, then you can defend it as a valid form of expression! Even if you’re talking three foot dongs. Scratch that. Especially if you’re talking three foot dongs.
Which brings us to our conclusion. I hope the winners (and their fans) are happy with the results, and that we all learned something today. Mostly that rushed, ill conceived, best and worst lists are about as meaningful as well-planned, thoughtful best/worst lists: which is to say that they’re all completely arbitrary, and we critics wouldn’t do them other than to meet audience expectations and legal obligations.
NEXT TIME: Either we’re finishing the Dark Souls/Skyrim series, or Mass Effect 3 derails me further. Only the Greek Pantheon knows for sure! I’d ask them for some help, but when you consider that they liked watching dudes walk around with Meter Long Peters, I think I’m going to stay away from them for a while.
Climb On Up and Talk With Me, in The Dialogue Tree!
First things first. Though this blog used to be known as The Metro City Reform Committee, it has been rechristened as “The Dialogue Tree” for reasons that should be obvious: I often leaf behind the roots of my topics and branch out into fruitful discussions that stump those who bough to convention . . . aaaannd I’ll stop with the puns before I get murdered by an angry mob.
Besides, it just sounds nicer doesn’t it? Hopefully it’s more memorable too. I was tired of people saying “Metro Committee? Like some sort of politics thing? Or do you work for the MTA? Both? What’s the best route to get from Landover to Braddock?”
And for those that won’t stop bugging me, HERE! Look at this map. Memorize it. Even if you don’t go to the capital, it’ll help when you play Fallout 3.
So without further ado . . .
LAST TIME I started delving into (as one reader pointed out) matters of the mind, albeit the player’s mind, and how the space of a game world could be used to affect it. This time we’re going to delve into the minds of the NPCs that inhabit our game worlds with us. Or really, into the system we call AI, which really isn’t the same thing as a mind.
At least not yet. But according to every other science fiction story it’s an eventual guarantee that we get machines to think freely.
Though I hope actual science takes its time with this. I’d rather have Data eventually rather than D.A.R.Y.L. now. That kid was so boring he made Michael McKean seem dull.
Like that one episode of The Next Generation where Worf drew in a billion Enterprises from all over the quantum universes, there are so many possibilities with this topic! AI is one of the most complicated subjects in human-cyborg relations other than figuring out how to make sex-bots socially acceptable. It’s also one of the core aspects of electronic entertainment. Something that no complex game, and certainly none with NPCs, would be the same without.
But like the more pessimistic Sci-fi stories that deal with Skynet running amok and killing all of humanity, and as the eponymous TVTropes page suggests, AI is a crapshoot. In the video game industry, this is about as close to literal as a metaphor gets. The quality of AI in video games is probably the least consistent aspect of the medium and is completely different from one game to the next.
For every game that does AI “right”, or at least as well as it can given the time it comes out in, there’s one (if not six) that do it poorly. For every moment of brilliance exhibited by an NPC teammate, there’s an escortee screaming at the player while they jump into a cyberdemon’s firing solution. For every group of enemies that use genuinely brilliant tactics and techniques to outsmart you, there’s an idiotic AI rigging the rules, because like most wives know, sometimes it’s just easier to fake it.
“AI modeled after Sun Tzu’s Art of War” my ass! Unless Sun Tzu knew how to summon armies from Outworld when he was down to his last territory and had no resources, this game cheated more than Bill Clinton at Chub-Con ’96.
So with the wildly disparate quality level of AI from one game to the next, and considering how narrowly defined it can be to fit the specific conditions of any particular game’s ruleset, and the fact that AI in games isn’t really any form of reasoning that could constitute intelligence in the traditional sense, and that the price of tea in China is currently 2 Yuan per pound, can anyone say objectively what qualifies as “good” AI?
Is it a lack of bugs? Is it the complexity of the system? Is it the ability of the AI to generate emergent behavior?
What really matters when it comes to making an NPC feel like they’re lacking that “N”?
What is the Measure of the Mechanical Man’s Mind?
Actually, I don’t think the answer to this question is all that hard to figure out. The most important thing for NPC AI for the average player is that it fulfills the functions of an NPC’s role while – and this here’s the important part – not calling attention to itself. That it doesn’t make me realize that the character Gorle Fitzpatrician isn’t a Drulluvian emissary here to convince the Conine Concord to open their borders, but just a simple Finite State Machine responding lifelessly to the piddling number of actions it’s capable of recognizing.
Like that devil Keyser Soze, AI needs to convince the world that it doesn’t exist.
The game’s AI needs to con me like a Nigerian prince after my social security number in order to facilitate a more noble cause that’s just as illusory: immersion. Immersion, or losing the sense of observing a game from without, really is one of the best things in gaming aside from all of the jet-packs and laser beams. But AI-controlled NPCs are everywhere in most games with a strong single player component, and are even likely to appear in a lot of multiplayer modes these days. Whenever you can see that the AI is obviously buggy or cheating, it breaks the sense of immersion faster than a Kardashian can file for divorce.
So making an NPC’s AI indivisible and invisible is important to making it seem alive, that’s clear. But as long as you don’t see the princess you’re protecting run into walls as often as a crash test dummy, and the enemies keep shooting or sending their armies at you, would you really notice?
In all likelihood . . . probably not. The average player doesn’t really expect much out of a game’s AI other than to not break, as most of the AI and NPCs a player encounters are probably enemies killed within six to sixty seconds of meeting them. As long as they die properly and have some sort of rudimentary ability to attack, it doesn’t really matter if the Nazi zombie has digital dreams.
“It works well enough” seems to be the motto of AI designers and players worldwide, because it’s already difficult enough to get there. If you want proof, look for notable AI developments in gaming over the last few years; aside from Left 4 Dead‘s AI Director in 2008, there haven’t been any huge leaps in the field, and that’s related less to actual NPC AI but more for a metagame system! If you’re looking for notable NPC AI, you might have to go back to F.E.A.R. in 2006 to find a game that went, even slightly, beyond the norm of “GOTO PLAYER. KILL”.
Though that WAS the notable routine for HAL back in 2001.
So is it just about the elimination of bugs that should factor into the quality of the AI then? I mean, as long as the difference engine subroutine I’m calling AI doesn’t break or cheat, it should remain like I said above: inconspicuous and intangible. If it doesn’t matter that it does anything new for most, this should be enough.
Except, it isn’t.
If you Open the role, You need to Open the mind.
You see, one of the reasons I think people are OK with the limited nature of AI in most games (say Call of Duty‘s enemy soldiers) is that the roles the NPCs are performing are themselves quite limited (shoot at the player, attempt to not die occasionally). While the quality of the AI is still a critical issue that can make or break any game that features NPCs, if the roles are narrowly defined or assigned to very simple concepts, the AI doesn’t need to follow suit.
The Zombie game boom could easily be due to laziness on the part of AI planners as much as it’s due to zeitgeist.
This “simple role/simple AI” mentality is what’s at play in Dark Souls. Most of the enemies the player runs into exhibit absolutely no life or intelligence. Until the player enters their range of perception, the enemies in Dark Souls act like Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski and just sort of hang around doing absolutely nothing with their friends that also hang around doing nothing. If they do catch a glimpse of your character, then the beast or knight or statue or whatever charges forward blindly and tries to do to you what time will do to the cast of Jersey Shore and leave you as a corpse that resembles beef jerky.
It’s a very simple system that based upon pathfinding and territory triggers. If you move to a location that an enemy can’t reach they might resort to ranged attacks if they have them, and some might give chase for a while, but if you move far enough away all foes will eventually turn around and re-enter their original “kickin’ it” spot like a borg drone given a sleep command. And this simplicity bordering on brainlessness doesn’t just affect the enemies, for (with a couple exceptions) the friendly NPCs also hang around and won’t move from the spots on the ground they’re apparently nailed to, even when you encounter them in monster filled caves and could probably use their help.
Functionally, the AI system in Dark Souls most resembles Alan Grant’s understanding of the T. Rex – if it moves, go forward and kill it; if you don’t want to be killed, don’t move.
This is further proven by the in-game item for you to throw so monsters can go tromping after it. Of course, it’s Dark Souls, so instead of a flare, it’s a skull.
As I was saying above though, this simple AI doesn’t hurt the experience of Dark Souls much because the roles of the NPCs work with the simplicity instead of against it. Though they’re fresher, most of the characters in the game are brainless zombies, or at least one form of undead or demon. Since the developers are actively going for lifelessness, it ends up justified, if not actively helping the themes of the game. Fundamentally, the AI complexity is matching the complexity of the roles defined for the NPCs, roles which are themselves defined by the story and setting.
However, not every game gets to use this type of zombie justification. Some games want to do more, perhaps because the story and the setting demand it, or maybe because the developers just feel like they want to prove themselves. This is risky, for when the intent of the NPC roles isn’t just “stand around”, but “mimic life”, it raises the standard of quality, or rather, the expectations on the standard quality of the AI; which of course means that it’s all the easier to get disappointed if they don’t meet them.
*CUE COMPARISON TO LAST FILM IN SUPER HERO TRILOGY NOT MEETING EXPECTATIONS DUE TO VILLAIN*
One of these games is of course, Skyrim, where unlike Dark Souls, Bethesda attempts to create complex NPCs that aid in the illusion of a flowing, living world: Skyrim itself. Even though it has a few undead enemies who wander around, the majority of the hundreds of NPC’s in Skyrim fit into a rather wide variety of societal roles. Plus, each NPC is much more complex than even fitting into a single defined role; one woman can be a mother, merchant, and wife all at the same time!
Crafting such an illusion of life is a much more complex and nuanced con than making a dead world. It would take a master artist of either AI design and/or pulling one over on a crowd to create a convincing simulation of life like that! Unfortunately, neither a Noonian Soong nor Harold Hill is Todd Howard or the rest of Bethesda.
They might get up to the level of a Leonard Nimoy or a Lyle Lanley though.
That is to say, the NPC AI of Skyrim, while being vastly superior to that of Dark Souls from a standpoint of depth and complexity, doesn’t really live up to the expectations that either the developers promised or that the audience should expect from it. Primarily because it’s trying to do so much more, it crashes into the uncanny valley like a lead-lined bus full of Realdolls. I’m not exaggerating that much either; stuff like the bucket trick, which technically isn’t a bug but an exploit, just shouldn’t happen in a game shooting for a sense of naturalism.
However, this isn’t to say that nothing is gained from the AI in Skyrim, for it’s led to a realization of what must be one of the most valuable lessons in AI development for the future . . .
For the AI of a Lifetime, Recall, Recall, Recallll.
Bethesda, like many folks in the U.S., is in love with “The Procedural”. However the type of procedural they love isn’t one where after discovering a body David Caruso pulls a pun upon putting on prescription peeper protectors, but procedural generation that allows them to do less work overall. The most relevant case in point: their Radiant AI system that has governed the last two Elder Scrolls games.
Radiant AI is supposed to be an overarching mechanic that allows Bethesda to govern all of the NPCs in Nirn more efficiently. Basically, it attempts to create a generalized system of AI behavior that mimics a hierarchy of needs, so that on a macro level, the devs just plug in a few specifics about an individual character and at a micro level (that is, what the player sees) the NPC will do things you’d expect them to, like going to work during the day, sleeping at night, eating meals et cetera. Additionally, if you commit actions counter to the NPC’s needs, they will react and adapt in sensible ways that realistically portray how people would in any given situation.
It doesn’t exactly work out as planned:
That clip shows off the AI system at both it’s best and it’s worst. In it, several townsfolk are shocked by a dead body in a public square, so they freak out and crowd around, and then the local constabulary comes up to disperse them and investigate the crime. From the Macro level, that’s roughly what should happen.
It’s at the detailed level of what’s going on in real-time, the micro level, where it breaks down. The townsfolk react to the corpse (which is stripped of its clothing) rather slowly, considering the description says it took 20 minutes for them to realize there was a corpse in the middle of their open air market. But worse is probably the “investigation” from the town guards, who ask exactly two questions to the PC. The same PC walking around with both their sword drawn and currently carrying the corpse like it was Weekend at Bernie’s 2!
The guards of Solitude obviously being trained at the Barbrady school of law enforcement.
Obviously, my point is that what works at a macro level doesn’t necessarily work in the micro. It’s one of my primary beefs with procedural generation in general.
Yet in my eyes, this isn’t even the worst problem with propelling the illusion that the little computer people are reasonably intelligent in Skyrim. The inability of NPCs to recognize very specific conditions like this really comes down to development time and planning. If the AI designers at Bethesda had more time or prioritized it more, awkward behavior like this could be eliminated by adding new reaction scripts for the system.
No, to me, the far greater issue is what’s being addressed in this strip from the webcomic Virtual Shackles. Or what I brought up in my review that reader Chris commented on. Or the following clip (especially after the 0:22 mark):
To subvert a Blade Runner quote: Memory! I’m talking about memory! Most of the NPCs in Skyrim, simply don’t have it.
Playing through Skyrim‘s many dungeons you will encounter two distinct forms of missing memory. The first is “Guy Pearce Syndrome” which, as in the above video, is the lack of short-term memory – where guards think an arrow to the head must’ve been their “imagination”. Next is the “Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome” where the fact that no one seems to remember or respect your deeds as you travel throughout the land implies that there’s little in the way of long-term memory.
I find the latter issue to be particularly frustrating, as the game actually does track many of your actions for its Radiant Story mechanic. This results in occasional moments where the game does bring up something from the past, but without a general reputation system working in conjunction, still results in NPCs treating you like garbage; even after you’ve saved their life from a dragon multiple times, and/or are a war hero fighting for their side. It’s especially ridiculous when you consider that Fallout: New Vegas, a game published by Bethesda and using essentially the same engine, used just such a mechanic!
Perhaps it was this obvious oversight, or maybe it was the 113th enemy that forgot an intruder was nearby after walking by a dead companion, but it eventually dawned upon me: memory, or at least the illusion of memory, is the most important part of selling an NPC to the player. For if the characters in a game can’t remember what’s happened days, hours, minutes, or even seconds before the present, then an NPC with a million unique reactions to what the player does will still come off about as intelligent as Dory from Finding Nemo.
The average Skyrim Citizen, in fish form!
Now, again, I’m not going to say that Skyrim‘s AI is the worst thing ever. It’s not. It’s definitely not the best, and doesn’t live up to the reality the rest of the game world presents, but there are plenty of worse examples. Hell, there are some games where the POINT is to deal with idiotic AI.
But it does seem clear to me now, that not figuring out some way of including memory, even if it’s faked or limited, is probably what’s holding back major AI development in the industry. Especially since it’s not impossible to implement as other games have done it before. Heck, the concept is key to the “Digital pet” or “Life Simulation” games like Black & White, Wonder Project J, and Nintendogs.
Which brings me to my conclusion, which might be a solution to the problem. A “Conlution” if you will.
“Facts, not memories. That’s how you investigate.” - Leonard Shelby
Unfortunately, even if you had the time to figure out a methodology to make AIs recognize events in a timeline, you probably still can’t allow them use it. Aside from the fact that NPCs that learn too much would eventually become unbeatable and thus frustrating in a different direction, memory usage limitations (of the software variety, not the theoretical) are probably going to keep the concept in check for quite some time. Especially if the complexity of AI gets back on track and starts keeping pace with graphics development in games.
When we get Deep Blue here to the size of a USB, maybe. Until then, we’re going to have to fake it.
When I mentioned “Guy Pearce Syndrome” above, I was referring to the 2000 film, Memento; a film where Mr. Pearce runs around southern California (I think) trying to solve his wife’s murder. While having anterograde amnesia. That is, he can’t create new memories.
Which is the exact problem that most of Skyrim’s (and many other games) NPC’s seem to have! It’s a rather tough condition to be in, but fortunately for us, Guy Pearce and the screenwriters figured out some clever little solutions.
Namely, photographs – a way of creating facts of the moment.
BAM! Pics ’cause it DID happen!
To create the illusion of short term memory, give the average NPC a limited number of “memory slots” that act like Pearce’s Pictures. When something happens to an NPC that they should remember for a while – say, I dunno, maybe they think they saw an intruder, or they see the dead body of an ally, or their captain gives them a new order – the NPC gets a “snapshot” of the event that can influence or alter behavior. These snapshots can trigger different actions at certain thresholds, like going to find help if too many “fear” or “suspicion” snapshots accumulate, and they fade over time (like the Polaroid in the intro of Memento) so that in actual gameplay this system doesn’t use up all available RAM.
As in the film, the NPC can prioritize certain snapshots over others – say, seeing an ally’s body overrides going to sleep – and if the game features some method of communication between NPCs, then AI can have unique reactions when two of them compare notes about what’s going on. If used cleverly, it could allow for far more complex emergent “reasoning” to develop, like having an NPC in the role of investigator collecting statements from other AI to track the player down. If nothing else, such a system could easily be used to make it so that guards in stealth game recognize when their fellow patrolmen are no longer on their rounds with them.
As for the long-term memory issue? Well, Memento had a solution for that as well:
Tattoos! As most ladies with a tramp stamp know, it’s a reputation system for those who can’t remember what happened last night!
Of course, Shelby’s Solution is just one idea. Something thought up late at night with only a rudimentary understanding of how AI mechanics work. For a problem that doesn’t seem to bother most folks. Though I can’t tell if that’s because they don’t see it, or if the half-decade of stagnation in this area has just made the average gamer give up hope for progress.
But after playing through iteration after iteration of games that utilize more complex NPC roles (stealth games and RPGs probably being the two biggest genres), where the AI never gets noticeably better, I have to try to be proactive here! So if you have any ideas on how developers can create the illusion of memory in a game, why not toss them down below in the comments? Or if you just think I’m off my rocker and this isn’t a problem worth analyzing, well it’s a free space for that as well!
The point is, I’d like to live up to my new title, and get a dialogue going.
Most likely with some form of talkative tree.
So, until next time! When I’ll either conclude, or build up to a conclusion, this now massive series with a discussion of the opposite of the mind, that beautiful thing we call: The Body!