Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Two Kinds of Progress

As I've said before, I think the feature that differentiates video games from regular games and sports is the fact that you do not know the rules of a video game in advance. Not all video games are like this, but the thing that makes video games unique is that you are learning the rules of the game on the fly as you move through the environment and work towards surmounting all the challenges the game throws at you. I think that this dynamic gives long-form video games unique narrative possibilities relative to other, non-participatory forms of art, so I'm going to take a shot at explaining how this is so.

My basic idea is that when the player inhabits the role of a protagonist, there are two kinds of progress that are going on in the course of a game

The first is what I'll call gameplay progress. When you begin a game you usually start off with a meager set of capabilities. You usually begin by familiarizing with the basic play mechanics and controls-- how you hit A to jump and push the left thumbstick to move around and pull the right trigger to whale on a chicken.

The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, the Odyssey and Aeneid of console gaming, set the basic template for gameplay progress by tying your access to new parts of the world to your acquisition and mastery of new skills and rules. In Zelda, for example, you acquire one new skill per dungeon, and then you earn the right to move on to the next chunk of the world by using that skill to reach and defeat the dungeon's boss. (I was playing Phantom Hourglass last spring, and by the time it was over felt this formula had become too rigid and had degenerated into mannerism. Don't get me started on the last few Castlevanias.) By the time you finish, both you and your character are more capable than when you began, because you've learned a bunch of new rules. That's progress.

Alongside gameplay progress-- the narrative of your mastery of new skills and capabilities-- there is also the venerable narrative progress native to storytelling. In a story, progress consists of the way its protagonist matures as he goes through the world and is transformed by his new experiences. Literature provides the standard models for this kind of progress. Telemachus begins the Odyssey as a faint-hearted boy tormented by his mother's suitors and ends the epic by helping to vanquish them and claim his birthright. As Huck Finn goes off on his journey up the Mississippi, he becomes caught between a conscience that tells him that slavery is right, and a heart that tells him it's wrong. By making his way through the hazards of river life and becoming friends with Jim he learns which one he should listen to; the moral drama of the novel comes from watching a good heart win out over a bad conscience. These are classic forms of narrative progress: the development of character that transpires as the protagonist is transformed by experience.

Games have unique expressive capabilities because they can superimpose and juxtapose these two distinct forms of progress in the course of their narratives. Games are great at telling coming-of-age stories because the implicit logic of gameplay already tells a story about the player's development towards maturity. Zelda has a purchase on us that outstrips its narrative sophistication because our identification with Link is different from our relationship to a character in a novel: when we begin the game, we are the powerless boy on an island who must learn about the world in order to live up to our destiny. The reason Half-Life 2 is so compelling is that you begin as a faceless nobody and spend the game becoming the efficacious person-- Gordon Freeman-- that you see reflected in the other character's eyes. Bioshock (putatively) offers the player a choice between becoming powerful and becoming morally corrupt, and this choice has significance because the empowerment you are offered is uniquely your own.

I think games have only begun to exploit the narrative possibilities of the empowerment inherent in gameplay progress. In most games we become good by becoming powerful, and while there is much to love about this story there are so many other potential experiences that can be created by playing these two forms of progress against each other, like Bioshock's Faustian bargain. We've seen a many a gaming Bildungsroman that ends in triumph, but we still haven't seen gaming's The Red and The Black. Life and literature abound in stories about the perils of maturity and the ambiguities inherent in our drive to master the world around us. Games can be too.


Mike R. said...

I see what you're getting at, but the idea of getting new skills and such to act as progress benchmarks isn't unique to video games. Perhaps video games do them better, but you can find that in any sport.

In soccer, you begin learning how to pass and kick. You familiarize yourself with the "controls". Then you start to get fancy with traps, knees, heads, fakeouts, etc. Substitute those for morph ball, bombs, ice beam, and space jump, and there you go.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Insightful post.

I found that Squaresoft’s Vagrant Story excelled in both kinds of progress. I learned new and better strategies even on the second play-through, and its unconventional story moved forward not only with an intricate and very personal plot, but also with the moral development of its characters and its postmodern exploration of classical themes such as guilt, redemption, corruption, and justice.

Gerard D. said...

I found the Medieval games on the PSone to be excellent examples of gameplay progression which, like Zelda, give you a new weapon or skill every fews levels which is often vital to the completion of the next puzzle or enemy

You made the point:
"The reason Half-Life 2 is so compelling is that you begin as a faceless nobody and spend the game becoming the efficacious person-- Gordon Freeman-- that you see reflected in the other character's eyes."

I would disagree as you already enter the world as Gordon Freeman in HL2 and are automatically recognized and respected because of an established history with the ingame characters (from HL1). I found Half Life 2 less about reaching your full potential as a character than being a fulfillment of what is expect by almost all your friends from the opening sequence of the game.

In terms of a sense of narrative empowerment achieved through gameplay progression I feel that this has been classically dealt with in the "big decision" of games where you make key choices which change the course of the narrative. I felt that this was achieved very well in Mass Effect as your gameplay progression, via skill choices, allowed for different paths made which in turn shaped the character of Shepherd within the narrative

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@mike: I think you're basically right that all games involve mastering skills. I guess what I'm getting at is that in a video game it would be like you gained the ability to trap halfway through the second period-- trapping became a valid move in the game at some point in the progress of a match. This makes video games different from sports.

@kyle: I've heard Vagrant Story has a good narrative, I like the Ivalice setting from playing FFXII. RPGs in general and PC RPGs in particular have a good track record of introducing a lot of narrative complexity (When I was playing Planescape:Torment i was like "this narrative ten times better than any console RPG I've ever played), but this complexity often swings free of the basic game mechanics. (When I was writing this I was thinking I should go dust off that copy of KOTOR I've never played, I hear they are well-integrated there.)

@gerard: see above on RPGs like Mass Effect; as for Half-Life 2, I think I agree with you. Narratively, everyone thinks you're this amazing person (Everyone's like, "Holy shit! It's Gordon Freeman!") but in terms of gameplay capabilites you are very underpowered and even vulnerable in those opening sequences. And as you say, you become that powerful badass everyone thinks you are as you move through the game.

Justin Keverne said...

In a game like Half Life 2, it's often not so much about going from being weak and unknown to being powerful and respected, as it is about earning your birthright.

You are treated as a respected character to begin with but it's only by the end of the game that you understand why. Then the game is over. Just when you have stated to earn the respect you were granted at the start the game ends.

Games seem able to teach you to become respected, and to earn the respect you are given but they fail at allowing you to progress beyond that. Rarely can you carry on as a character after you have earned the respected of the world around you.

Humingway said...

Argh, sorry for commenting on an old post before reading the more recent one! This is exactly what I was getting at in my comment on your Foucault post: "eliminating restrictions" allows for more fun, during the course of a game.