Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Get Your Game Out of My Game: An Article of Over Analyzing

So here we have the latest article from IGN that is written simply because someone needed to meet a deadline. I'm a fan of IGN. Watch and read it daily. But... articles like this really bug me. What's the point? This is more a blogpost, not a published article.

Games within games? Seriously? Did this person "really" not enjoy a game as much because they had to pick up a newspaper to get a trophy or achievement? Get real.

Developers have to put things like this in or a reviewer, such as ones from IGN, maybe even this article writer, with complain that there's not enough to do in a game. Whine whine, bitch bitch. Nothing a game development company does is good enough, there's always someone to complain. It's too bad articles like this are masked as professional writing.


America's been invaded by North Korea. Mothers are being executed in front of their children, ball parks are used as mass graves for the millions of dead, and neighbors are turning on one another. In a desperate gamble to save California, my small group of rebels are on a journey west to steal some much-needed fuel. But a group of Americans have stopped us. They don't care who wins this war, they just want to set their own laws and would just as soon kill us as a member of the invading army. They've taken one of our own hostage. Things are about to go bad. And they do -- shots are fired, chaos ensues. And I miss it all.

On the periphery of Kaos Studios' emotionally charged story are a series of collectible newspapers. Finding these glowing items offers up some additional backstory on the invasion. And it ruins Homefront.

While this grand drama plays out in Homefront, I found myself time and time again wandering away from the darkest moments in search of newspapers. Sure, I'd hear things happening, but often miss out, because I just had to collect things. I don't even care about Achievements/Trophies, but the newspapers in Homefront are often so obvious (and pulsating), they're hard to miss. And once I'd found a few, I wanted more. So much so that I often ran around firefights scrounging for newspapers instead of engaging in Homefront. I thought print was dead.

This is not a unique situation. More and more, developers are becoming eager to make games out of their games. It would be easy (and fun) to blame Microsoft for this situation. After all, the introduction of Achievements with the Xbox 360's launch in 2005 shifted some development focus. A common question at preview events became, "What are the Achievements like in this game?" Some reviews even criticized games for having unimaginative or unfair Achievements (*shake fist at Final Fantasy XI*).Gamers paid attention, so it seemed important. And a focus on "good" Achievements began to sap the energy devoted towards creating great gameplay.

Despite leaving fingerprints at the scene of the crime, Microsoft isn't the culprit here. Achievements (later joined by Sony's Trophy system) are just a part of the symptom of a larger cultural shift. A few weeks ago I was invited to a seminar to discuss "the gamification of health care." I'd rather we were discussing the availability of health care, not ways to amplify usage through gimmicks. Everything is turning into a game. Even IGN has launched its own meta game, My IGN, that rewards users points for activity. I, uh, mean, that's the one instance where it's, like, totally cool and stuff.

Video games, seemingly not game enough, are having these meta activities wrapped around them. We're not satisfied with sitting back and enjoying an engrossing story or interesting gameplay mechanics -- we need a macro game built around this. It might be Trophies. It might be collectibles. It might be a rewards system that exists outside the game itself. But it has to be something. Otherwise, why even bother playing these games? For the game itself? Oh, please.

EA attempted a macro game around its sports titles a few years back. Just owning NBA Live got you a bonus when you bought the next version of Madden. Wrapping all of your EA Sports purchases into one bio obviously didn't push the needle -- otherwise, EA wouldn't have nixed the program. Ubisoft is making a similar go of it with UPlay. They create a handful of unique goals for each game, which earn you points you can spend to unlock special items in future games. Think of it as a little Achievement moon orbiting around the larger sum of Microsoft Achievements. Not only am I now having to worry about netting those 50 or so Achievements/Trophies from the primary game, now I have an additional subset to pursue while ignoring the actual point of playing a video game -- to escape reality and relax.

The game within the game does the most damage when player emotions are involved. Developers are striving to make narrative games a form of art, to be superior even to film, but the game is holding them back. As Richard Rouse, Narrative Director at Ubisoft, discussed in his GDC 2011 panel "Making Games Moral," morality systems in video games break down when your progress to good or evil is visibly measured. In other words, meters are bad for stories.

While BioWare would like gamers to make decisions in Mass Effect based on how they feel their characters would act, the truth is that a player tends to make a decision early on that he will play either as Renegade or Paragon. He gets rewards for filling up those meters -- experience points and extra conversation options. Playing the middle ground is a less effective way to advance through Mass Effect 2. You want to fill that meter and, more often than not, your choices are less about facing moral dilemmas and more about fulfilling a game function.

If video games hope to achieve a level of narrative depth found in literature, then the game and the story need to merge more fluidly. Meters might help the masses understand the value of each decision as it happens, but they also dull the emotional impact. Often moral choice in games is simplistic -- be good or be bad -- and the rewards for each are laid out plainly.

One of the best episodes of the original Star Trek series was written by sci-fi master Harlan Ellison. "City on the Edge of Forever" put the crew of the Enterprise on Earth in the 1930s, where Captain Kirk, of course, fell in love with a beautiful lady, Edith. Long story short -- if history remains altered and she is allowed to live, Hitler will end up conquering the world. Kirk's quandary: Save the woman he loves or save the entire world. A powerful dilemma, but the choice is obvious, even to Kirk. He has to let her perish, but that doesn't lessen the agony he feels over the decision.

Now imagine if Kirk had a morality meter and he'd spent the episode offering terse responses to become more Renegade. His choice is no longer just about saving his love or saving the world, but also maintaining the investment he's put in to that Renegade pool. Maybe Kirk knows it is ridiculous to save the girl and let the world burn, but isn't that the Renegade thing to do?

Morality meters and Achievements are an additional force pulling against the choices and emotionally charged moments in games. This doesn't mean that morality choices and Achievements need the boot; it means that keeping these at the top layer of a game modifies the experience in unwelcome ways.

Rockstar's upcoming L.A. Noire is an ingenious detective game with incredible acting, riveting storytelling, and groundbreaking technology that allows gamers to read the faces of real actors. Interrogate a criminal and you must listen to how he speaks, study his face, watch his body language and then determine if he's lying or telling the truth. It feels as if you're a real detective trying to ascertain the truth from criminals. But after each conversation, you're given a score. You're no longer Cole Phelps, detective trying to suss out the truth; you're a gamer trying to guess right and being scored accordingly. It's a stark and unnecessary reminder that you're playing a video game, not experiencing a work of dramatic fiction.

Fortunately, there are some success stories as well. Remedy took its sweet ass time creating Alan Wake, but it managed to properly merge narrative, gameplay, and collectibles into one sensible package. While there's the obnoxious collection element of shooting thermoses you discover, the main collectible are pages from a novel Alan Wake forgot he wrote. Finding these isn't just a cheap Achievement tally. It builds into the game's fiction in a unique way. Everything Wake writes happens. Each page of the manuscript tells of future events, offering harrowing foreshadowing and adding new details to things that have come to pass. The pages are an integral to Wake discovering the truth. Wake would actually look for these pages in a true narrative; they aren't an abstract piece of game thrown in to create a sense of added value.

Better still is the example set by Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain. While it has some gameplay issues, Heavy Rain asks questions of the player and forces decisions that always feel like natural extensions of the scene. You can fail quite often in Heavy Rain, but those failures merely open new paths for you to explore. Often you're tested to make a decision in the heat of the moment, without having a moral compass to consult. In Heavy Rain, the player acts more to the motivations of the lead character (to save his son) than any other game I've ever played. Perhaps that explains why an astounding 72 percent of players finished Heavy Rain.

Collectibles have been around a long time, but the modern narrative in gaming is an emerging art form. The two will have to find a way to coexist. Most games seem to treat the implementation of story, gameplay and the game within the game separately. The result can sometimes be three good separate elements that come at odds with one another. And it's almost always to the detriment of the story. As gamers we're conditioned to be more concerned with collecting/leveling up/earning things than in experiencing a story. We have to break that conditioning, but developers have to help us by making smarter games.

I'm not asking developers to abandon "game" elements for the sake of the narrative, but rather to show that narrative some respect. Don't cower behind the old ideas of game design and don't be blind to the impact the game within the game has on player immersion. The last thing a developer wants is to have an emotionally charged scene missed because the player's busy reading the newspaper.

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