Monday, February 2, 2009

The Game Made Me Do It

*** Coletta Factor: Spoileresque discussion of Far Cry 2, Bioshock, Prince of Persia below***

No, I'm not talking about the moral hysteria periodically visited on the medium whenever some malfeasant decides that simulation mitigates their wrongdoing. Listen, old people: I don't think that 12-year-olds should be playing GTA either, but I don't think that their doing so is going to lead to a life of bank heists or jetpack abuse. I consider myself beyond outrage when it comes to Victorian panic, but it turns out I'm still capable of shock: last week, I heard a video-games expert on the BBC suggest a correlation between the rise of video-game enthusiasm and suicide in middle-age women.

I'm talking about the things you do in the games themselves. We often operate under the assumption that games realize their storytelling potential as a interactive medium when they give the player full control with regard to the important decisions in the story. But one thing that struck me as I've been thinking over my favorite narratives of the last year is that these stories are most compelling when they force you into actions you'd rather not commit.

In Far Cry 2 the game tells you: go to this town, and hold a machete to the throat of some low-level functionary so he gives up some information. And then kill him. Or it says: go to this town, murder a bunch of guards, and destroy this shipment of malaria medicine. Things of this nature. The rationale for all this destruction gets progressively fuzzy as you move through the game. But the moral queasiness you feel as you walk down the path that the mission-structure sets out in front of you is one of the most compelling aspects of the game.

Quite a few games have traded on this productive friction between the demands of the game-structure and the player's sense of choice. The most compelling narrative moment in Bioshock doesn't emerge from the vaunted moral decision; it comes when you face Andrew Ryan and learn that the player's obedience to the rules of the game-world is slavery. The only memorable aspect of Prince of Persia's narrative is its conclusion, where the game compels you to undo everything you've accomplished and betray your consort in order to finish the story. GTAIV progressively humiliates the player's desire to shape their protagonist's character and destiny by sending the player on a program of senseless murder that leads to his ruin.

Some might think that this friction between the player and the game is a sign that the design has gone horribly wrong. One can feel especially betrayed when the game-mechanics suggest a level of control over the shape of the whole experience that is lacking in the narrative elements. (its open-world, coerced-narrative) But it appeals to me. I think the deliberate friction evident in these scenarios is an audacious response to a central problem with narrative in games.

The problem is this: on one hand, games traffick in empowerment. From the perspective of gameplay, the fundamental goal of game-design is to give the player a feeling of agency, a sense of power that grows as the player masters the rules of the game-world. It's agency that makes games fun. This is the core value proposition that games offer w/r/t non-interactive media-- games have this unique capacity to make the player feel like an active participant in the creation of something grand: a picaresque fantasy adventure, a rock concert, a war epic.

But the omnipotence of empowerment presents difficulties when it comes to making meaningful narratives. If the mechanics always tell the story of the player's glorious triumph over the world, how is it possible to craft a story that embraces the full range of dynamics available to mature narrative: failure, regret, chance, tragedy? Narrative thrives on conflict, ambiguity, and irresolution, values that are difficult to realize within the triumphalist script laid out by the gameplay.

And this is why I admire games like Far Cry 2 so much: their narrative elements make the player feel uneasy about their thirst for power. Realizing that fun is at any rate indispensable, they decide to make power itself problematic. Far Cry 2 knows that it feels like a colonialist power trip, and it doesn't shy away from the unflattering aspects of murder; if you're paying attention it subtly leads you to some unsettling conclusions about the behavior it forces on you in the name of fun.

And the thing is, I think it's more interesting to be unsettled by your behavior than spend all your time heeding your better angels. For me, moral choice is usually boring. I can't help it: given the choice, I attempt to be a good person, and the comfort of making the virtuous decisions makes for an uninteresting narrative. Fallout 3 is an excellent game, but there's nary an interesting decision to be made in it, because the choice for unstinting heroism is always on the table.

So perverse as it might sound, I'm going to plead for less choice in video games. It's a paradox: by limiting the player's discretion, you can expand the narrative possibilities of the medium. Coercion can create a kind of emotional heft that you can't achieve within the confines of the empowerment-myth. When I play games like Far Cry 2, Braid, and Shadow of the Colossus, I'm convinced turning the myth against itself may be the way to go.


Nels Anderson said...

Absolutely, completely agree. Great post. I too have the same "be the hero" conundrum, but I tried thinking about the character I wanted to play in Fallout 3 and that helped me from immediately selecting the kindest response every time. I usually intend to play the game again not opting for the good choices, but Fallout 3 is the only game I've actually done so in for a long time.

I think there's also some space in giving the player decisions that are all equally sinister, just sinister in different ways. Not sure I've seen that much, at least not done well.

Ben Abraham said...

Won't it be great when a game like Far Cry 2 makes you unsettled about the behaviour that you chose to do? When they can make you do the things you don't want to do without having to force your hand by placing a block in the path of the alternatives... I think when we can do that, we'll have arrived.

Tom Armitage said...

I think this is something we can uniquely do at this point in time; early on in the modern iteration of the videogaming medium, before this becomes too tired. Examining notions of choice and free will is a great thing to do within a game, because they're inherently game-like properties; wrapping a story around them is ideal for an interactive medium. (See also: the IF game Ramses, in which the PC is a surly teenager, who, despite what the player suggests he does, always does what he wants to do anyway). If anything, it's a shame it's taken quite so long to get to this point.

And whilst it's great to see games that are beginning to explore this, I'm still happy to also see linear narratives, abstract mechanics, and other driving factors for games in future. Don't get me wrong: I think you're spot on, and I think the tension between "doing what you're told" and "thinking about what you're doing" is a vast gap that more games could exploit, and in manners quite dissimilar to that of, say, Bioshock.

The really important thing to come for games about choice will be finding new and interesting ways to exploit this theme, beyond big-budget stories about choice expressed through a lack of it.

Gosh, that all sounds quite negative - it's really not! You're describing a really important series of attempts to find out what games really are, and what more they could be - I hope that this is part of what they could be, and not all of it.

Still, it's interesting to see the variety of approaches already on the table. And: glad you're enjoying FC2. Just when I thought I'd adjust to its level of moral queasiness, it ratcheted it up a notch, and that continued for most of the game; given all that, the ending seemed appropriate.

Anonymous said...

I think we need to see both more "freedom" (in the form of meaningful choices) in videogames and also more "structure". I believe that on a deeper human level we need to have both. Freedom for the sake of it is lacking in importance while structure without choice becomes oppresive.

Games need to allow us to choose while also guiding us to the choices which are basically part of what the game is trying to transmit.

Brian said...

Yes. Just, yes.

Life is about choices and their consequences, so are good stories in other media, and so should be good game stories. Forcing a choice you don't want to make allows for the art element of games to surface, in that it makes us confront lives and choices other than the ones we'd make ourselves.

Although it would be a shame to end up with every game's central theme being 'But I didn't have a choice! I was a slave to my circumstances!', you did hit on a big point. Ben's comment brings up a good corollary though: there's also a lot of potential in doing what we thought was the right thing at the time, but having to live with the fact that we've made terrible mistakes.

That's where it gets profound. And incidentally closer to masterpieces in other fields like Citizen Kane, Godfather, Crime and Punishment, etc... introducing real consequences, and true regret.

Steve gaynor said...

It seems strange to equate agency and freedom with omnipotence and boundless empowerment. The fact that the player is able to choose his own role within a gameworld doesn't inherently remove consequence and gravity from the experience. It's not like any game that opts not to force the player's hand down a predestined narrative path instantly becomes Crackdown.

Steve gaynor said...

I mean, to be less terse, I find the "do something objectionable, or stop playing" choice to be pretty uninteresting. It's no different than the choice presented by 'shock' filmmakers, be it Kubrick with Clockwork Orange or Rob Zombie with House of 1000 Corpses-- "either watch the distressing images we put in front of you, or walk out of the theatre. Can you take it?" It's juvenile, it's been done, and I don't really see how it exploits an interactive medium in an interesting way.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@nels: As I said, have this same problem with moral-choice games, I just always find them pretty uninteresting ethically. I think one of the things you're pointing to also is that moral choices in games would be a lot more impactful if the moral aspects were handled much more subtly.

PS as I lurk the twitter I saw you got hired recently. congrats!

@Tom: I'm actually with you on this whole point that games are uniquely suited for exploring interesting moral issues like freedom of the will and decision-making and the like.

I should probably say that I don't think this is the only way to go. I think I came off that way, especially towards the end, and proabably exaggerated a little bit for rhetorical purposes.

At any rate, all I meant to say is that the game narratives that have been most interesting to me often involve this element of unfreedom, and I thought it was interesting.

I think you could make a very convincing argument that we should just abandon our customary ideas of narrative if they force us to take choice away from the player.

@steve: I didn't mean to make the argument that giving power to the player necessarily turns every narrative into a Crackdown-style cartoon. All I'm trying to say is that the kind of fun games offer involves this gradual mastery over the world, a progressive conquest of the rules; and it seems to me that this dynamic has tended to steer game narratives towards a set of well-worn heroic tropes.

As you say, maybe antiheroism is just as much a dead end. All I should have said is that I find this route interesting because it's such a divergence from the sort of narratives that dominate the history of games.

and it should be said that games could accommodate a high level of player choice without sacrificing the moral complexity that makes for good narrative. I just have to say that I haven't seen it yet.

addictive games said...

well i hate most of these characters.

Ben Fritz said...

There's nothing wrong with lots of choice if the game makes no attempt to impose a narrative on you, a la The Sims. The problem comes when there's too much choice and it doesn't mesh with the narrative. This is one of many reasons why I have a tough time with Fallout 3. And why GTA 4's sandbox elements mix so poorly with the story-based missions, which I think do accomplish exactly what you're saying.
I think Fable 2 is the first game to somewhat successfully merge player choice with narrative consequences. Though obviously there's a long way to go. In the meantime, our best option is stuff like "Shadow of the Colossus" and "Bioshock" that limit your choices and then make you face consequences. And even when we've figured out how to do Fable a million times better, I hope there will always be room for games that limit player choices and make us face consequences, because deliberative narrative, while not the only thing, is a good thing.

Ludwig K said...

I find myself in complete agreement here. In the way that most gaming narratives are structured, there's almost a forced alignment between the player and the protagonist -- that's why we're fighting nazis and giant space bugs. It's easy for us to pick the same side as the protagonist.

However, in a game like Far Cry 2, your progress is dependent on doing things that make your moral compass spin out of control. If you complete the game, you've essentially let it turn you into a monster. That uneasy feeling is one you wouldn't experience if you had the choice to play nice.

I do think there are cases where this lack of choice (in favor of more compelling and emotionally charged narrative) can backfire, especially if the game does a poor job of justifying your avatar's behavior. The ending of The Darkness is one where you're lead to believe you'll have the last say over Jacky's fate, but it cheaply locks you out of the decision (by locking you in a room!). I felt cheated by that.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@addictive games: This is a good point. To be honest, I'm not sure how much you're supposed to love the characters. As I said before, I think Paul Ferenc is a dick. I'm note even sure you're supposed to like yourself, if that makes any sense. Loved the Jackal tho.

@ben: I haven't played Fable II. I swear I'll get around to whittling down that stack of unplayed games sometime soon. I should say that the failure of more choice-centric games to achieve a good degree of emotional resonance isn't necessarily a insoluble problem. I think it's just that the people who make these games haven't been imaginative enough. Above all I think it would go a long way if designers just committed to forcing the player to make tough and irrevocable decisions.

Grey said...

Hardly perverse. This is more of a breakthrough in interactive narrative. You want us to take your work seriously? Stop destroying your narrative/characters/everything by satiating a player's need for choice. The other media don't do it and we shouldn't either.

Anonymous said...

I really love the narrative in GTAIV especially in the last couple of hours. I found it quite haunting when Niko gets to confront Darko and discovers that his unit was betrayed for a petty $1000. The real kicker moment for me is when I was aiming the gun at the guy and listening the two talk. Darko basically says that Niko is no different as he's killed numerous people over the course of the game for pretty much the same reason $$$. That moment was what sealed GTAIV for me as being a fantastic work of art. The fact that the character actively wants nothing more than to stop the violence and the horror but simply can't due the player's relentltess desire to actually play the game.

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