I joked on Twitter that Life Is Strange has taught me that twenty-something male critics sure have some deeply held opinions on the speech patterns of teenage girls. It’s the default criticism of this game, “the dialogue is bad”, like “the level design is good” it’s a meaningless criticism when not expanded upon.
My first time through Episode 1 “Chrysalis” I didn’t register there was anything remarkable about the dialogue, there was too many other little touches in the animation and character design that drew me into the world Dontnod had created. Even now, after replaying the first episode, I can see the cracks but I’m still not convinced that the dialogue is unequivocally awful; if anything it’s awkward and clumsy in a way that feels representative of characters who are still emotionally and psychologically struggling with their own identity.
The biggest thing that stands out is the way characters simply say too much, with flat assertions of emotion used in place of subtly or implication; it’s a case of telling rather than showing that gets better as the episode goes on, and is fortunately largely non-existent in later episodes. A large reason for this is due to the reliance on Max’s internal monologue which is trying to both convey information to the player and build up a picture of her character. During her voiceovers there is a confusion between Max as narrator and Max as character, she talks about subjects that should be familiar to her as if she is experiencing them for the first time; it’s the “As you know…” trope as internal monologue.
As part of this desire to explain the world to the player every character use overly specific language with repeated uses of Max Caulfield’s full name in what are contextually framed as informal circumstances. Proper nouns are used in their complete form rather than being replaced with a more natural shorthand and relying on the audience to make the connection. Nobody would say “Blackwell Academy” every time, when “Blackwell” provides exactly the same information in a less forced manner and “school” is even more natural, though potentially less likely to be used by eighteen year olds as it carries associations of childhood.
A lot of the problems with the overly didactic dialogue choices are lessened in the subsequent episodes as Dontnod appear to grow more comfortable with the player’s place in the world and more confident in their own ability to present information indirectly.
For all its missteps in dialogue and distracting lip-syncing mishaps, so much of Life Is Strange feels human and honest in a way that few games have. I was never a teenage girl and I don’t know how different that experience is to my own but large parts of Life Is Strange were uncomfortably evocative of the anxiety I suffered from about sixteen to twenty five.
Something I can speak to is being an eighteen year old, and a particularly snarky and awkward one at that. Eighteen years olds are weird, and really fucking irritating. I’m thoroughly unconvinced by anybody who thinks they were anything but a self-absorbed asshole at eighteen. Everything is important when you’re eighteen, except the things you don’t care about which are all trivial bullshit. Everybody is having more sex than you. Is more popular than you. Is more self-assured than you. Being eighteen, nineteen, practically anything up to twenty five is just a permanent state of imposter syndrome; a state some never escape from.
It’s far from rare for teenagers to have screwed up perceptions about the relative worth of knowing certain things. Being able to name your idols feels important and mature, it’s a way to show you have tastes and care about something in a deeper, less childish way. I remember doing just that in my first year at University, knowing who John Carmack or Doug Church were if others in my Game Programming class didn’t made me feel special, superior. I’d judge others based on what books they’d read or what music they listened too. I genuinely once decreed that “I could never be friends with somebody who hadn’t read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy“. The media I consumed then, the things I cared about, felt so important that they were definitive, I simply couldn’t comprehend associating with people who didn’t share those very specific tastes.
I don’t have much direct interaction with people in their early twenties but I do live in a University city and am often in pubs or coffee shops where students gather and so much of their conversation is littered with particular words or turns of phrase that seem to fill the role of punctuation. I say this about students but I know it’s true of myself. I find I’ve got a casual speaking vocabulary that’s essentially thirty words and they include anachronisms like “doozy” and “moron” that as far as I remember weren’t even fashionable or popular in my own lifetime; I’ve no idea where I’ve picked them up.
I self identified as a geek growing up and I understood terms like “preppy” and “jock” and applied them, despite both of those labels coming exclusively from television and having a heritage in a culture that I was not a part of. I’m sure if I’d ever heard the term “hipster” when I was eighteen I’d have delighted in using it whenever I had the chance. Labels are really fucking important when you’re developing your own identity and worldview, and labels that have some degree of cultural cachet, either by dint of their use in pop culture or by older (but not old) people, are even more important.
There are few betters ways to highlight your own maturity than to mimic what is presented to you as mature.
It was only when I reached my late twenties that I realised how obsessed I had been with the notion of maturity; an obsession clung to most fiercely by those who exhibit it least.
I don’t know how I’d react in Max’s place, but I’ve experienced some (fortunately minor) traumatic events in my life and “acting normally” was one of the only ways I could find to keep going. Emotional autopilot, you keep up your expected cultural performance as you always have because it’s the one thing that’s remained constant.
If I ever gained the power to rewind time there’s a lot I’d want to change but I know what eighteen year old me would have done. Rewinding time is an awkward teenager’s ultimate superpower, even if I could have saved the world I’d more than likely have used it just as much to avoid looking uncool.
Spoiler warning for the ending of Catherine.
Catherine, Atlus’s 2011\12 visual novel puzzle game amalgamation is a game I’ve seen cited as “one of the most sexist” games made and another example of “the weird Japanese and their games about sex”. I don’t have much interested getting into the racism and ethnocentrism of that second comment, but the idea that Catherine is sexist is something I’ve struggled with. It was one of my favourite games of 2012 but the reasons for that are uncomfortable.
There’s a bunch of fairly obvious reasons why Catherine can be considered sexist: objectification; heteronormative representations; and transphobia are just a few of the valid criticisms… Put like that I wonder where I can really go with this argument, so I’ll just stick with my personal experience.
The basic concepts of the relationships portrayed in Catherine rely on played out tropes: the “shrew”; the “infantilised seductress”; and the “commitment-phobic man”. As common as those tropes are in contemporary fiction it’s rare, at least in my experience, for the underlying cultural factors behind the trope of the “commitment-phobic man” to be examined.
I’m in my early thirties, in a long-term relationship that I’ve no desire to see end. However I’ve strong feelings about marriage and having children, in both instances I am decidedly uninterested. All those are facts about my current life experience and Vincent is the only character I’ve even inhabited in a video game that has represented any of those facets of my own psychology.
Vincent is uncertain, fearful and troubled by thoughts of “what might be” because he’s a product of a society that holds up Catherine not as a person in her own right but an object for men to strive toward; she’s the beautiful woman as status symbol, her “capture” a validation of a man’s masculinity and success. It’s a horrible, insidious cultural force and one men are suffocated by practically from birth. At the same time we are also bombarded with messages about the importance of being a husband and a father, again reinforced by the notions of such things as markers of masculinity and success.
Throughout ours teens and twenties these messages are all but impossible to ignore, unsurprising given that so much media created for men in that age range is generally horrible, being based around the concepts of “sex as a competition” and the importance of being an “alpha male”.
By the time we reach our thirties we’re expected to have adopted one of those frequently contradictory mindsets and have “settled down”, either to a life of marriage and children, or one of “sexual conquests” and bachelorhood.
But life doesn’t really work like that, by the time I reached my late twenties I saw all the bullshit cultural messaging for what it was, but with so few alternative representations to relate to I felt stuck. Vincent at the start of Catherine reminded me powerfully of what that felt like. His friends all made their decisions and went down one of the two opposing paths of masculinity (though its notable that those two paths didn’t bring happiness and success, instead the truth was messy and complicated as it is wont to be) but he didn’t really know who he was or what he wanted.
As I played Catherine I strove to be honest at every juncture, I tried to be polite to Catherine without leading her on, and where I was granted the option I tried to be honest with Katherine, and yet still found myself justifying lying to her: “It’s the best thing for her.” “Nothing really happened so there’s nothing to tell her.” I was sucumbing to all the cultural programming I had become so convinced I’d seen through.
In the end despite maintaining that I wasn’t interested I opened the sexy photos from Catherine and complimented her on them, again justifying that behaviour was easy: “I’m just being polite”. “I shouldn’t shame her for being comfortable with her sexuality.”
The truth was that despite my protestations I was, and still am, infected by the toxic notions of beautiful women as status symbols, and frankly I wanted to be successful, I wanted Catherine to like me because that made me feel good, but I didn’t want to abandon Katherine either.
In the end the game revealed that Catherine was a succubus, and that given my actions I would end up with her in the underworld, an outcome I had been convinced I wouldn’t get because I was just being a “nice guy”. I felt cheated somewhat, Catherine hadn’t been real and all my actions had been essentially for nothing; no matter what the game said I felt like I’d got the bad ending.
Of course Catherine wasn’t really who she appeared to be, the notion of this perfect sexual fantasy object who will appear from nowhere and fill your life with excitement and mark you out as a successful masculine man is a myth. But it’s a myth that’s insidious and omnipresent, it’s practically everywhere you look in contemporary western culture. Being beautiful is a mark of success for women and possessing that beautiful object is a mark of success for men.
Catherine was a myth and secretly chasing that myth, while desperately telling myself otherwise, led nowhere. My final moments with Catherine were unsettling because in those moments I realised how strongly the cultural messages of masculinity still exist inside my own mind despite what I might tell myself.
Catherine is sexist, you could almost says it’s sexism incarnate. It’s an embodiment of the conflicting and contradictory cultural messages men are bombarded with and it helped me realised how much sway they still hold over me.
Catherine is a mirror held up to my own prejudices and beliefs, because Vincent is exactly as sexist as I am, and that’s a hard thing to admit.
Guest Post, written by: Caitlin Moore.
I don’t play shooters. We had GoldenEye when I was a kid but I only ever played against my brother and I’ve mostly avoided them since. I was initially drawn to Destiny despite this for a couple reasons. Partly it’s a function of dating a guy who is writing a book which examines the level design of a section of Halo in detail. I have sat through multiple lectures about its combat design, the way the game forces you to be clever about which weapons you use, the different behaviours the enemies exhibit, etc, etc, ad nauseum (lest anyone think this is a gendered thing let it be known that I have subjected him to treatises on the finer points of Harvest Moon more than once). The point is that I now have an intellectual appreciation for Halo and other shooters that I used to dismiss out of hand.
One of the reasons Destiny is the first shooter I’ve tried since then is that I tend to panic when shot at, particularly if I can’t find the shooter; I feel overwhelmed when enemies get close and in first person I struggle to keep track of what is out of sight. In Destiny this is less of a problem. The enemies shoot relatively slow, highly visible projectiles and as long as I stay far enough away, or keep my back to the wall, I can keep an eye on everyone who is trying to kill me and avoid their efforts. While some of the enemies like to get in close, like the Dregs of the Fallen or the Thralls of the Hive, Destiny gives me a way to manage them in the form of the melee attack. I have been playing as a Warlock, which particularly helps as her melee attack shoves enemies backwards when it doesn’t kill them, granting me some breathing room. Spacial awareness is still an issue for me but here one of the major complaints about Destiny actually works in my favour; if I have to return to an area over and over again then eventually I will memorise where the best cover is and I can avoid the corners I know I’ve been trapped in before.
There are other aspects of the gameplay that I know exist in other games but that I am only discovering for the first time with Destiny. The biggest thrill for me has been my gradual mastery of timing. I had heard people talk about how powerful games can make you feel but there is almost no comparison between the intellectual satisfaction I have experienced when mastering an RPG and the sheer pleasure of taking down waves of enemies, the joy of staggering a Thrall long enough to reload before hitting the melee button as he jumps toward you, or the gratification of popping out of cover just as your health refills to take down the last enemy in one shot. As I’ve played and my confidence in my abilities has grown I’ve become more aggressive, actively chasing down unshielded Captains or standing in the open to line up a precision shot on a Vandal as he fires at me. When this works, or I make it through a gruelling Darkness section, I feel invincible in a way few other games have ever managed. When it doesn’t? I go back to playing cautiously until my confidence returns.
My newfound appreciation for the gameplay wouldn’t have been enough to get me to keep playing Destiny if it weren’t for the story. People have mocked the naming conventions but they fit perfectly with what I think the game is trying to achieve. The lore reaches for the classic fantasy of Earthsea layered underneath the outward appearance of the space fiction of Arthur C. Clark and others. This sounds like it should be unbelievably pretentious but I believe it works if you are willing to delve into the Grimoire. Everything fits seamlessly if you do, with gameplay and story working to reinforce each other. For example the Dregs behave more aggressively in combat than the Vandals or the Captains and of course they would since their second pair of arms have been docked and they have to earn the right to regrow them. I have come across three Fallen Houses so far as I play; the House of Devils, brought low by the death of their Archon early in the game but still swarming the Cosmodrome; the House of Kings, determined after the fall of the House of Devils to take control of an old Warmind that could prove critical to the Guardians; and the House of Exiles, mostly made up of Dregs living among the Hive on the moon, while doing patrol missions there it is possible to thwart attempts by them at raising a mixed army of Fallen and Hive. These Houses each have a different colour scheme and appear at the appropriate points in the story but I only noticed because I had been primed to by the Grimoire; the Hive have similar distinctions although their ranks are made up of different religious sects.
I also want to address some of the complaints about Peter Dinklage’s voice acting. So far I have only reached the moon and it’s possible that it gets markedly worse later in the game but there have been several incredible moments from him. One early on is the first meeting with the Speaker. The Speaker expresses his hope that your Ghost chose his Guardian well and his response is “I did… I’m sure of it”. His uncertainty rings clear, but so does his willingness to put his faith in you. Later, on the moon, you come across a dead Guardian. Your Ghost asks “Where is his Ghost…?”. His sudden fear for himself and horror at what might have happened to his fellow Ghost come through perfectly. Peter Dinklage’s voice acting does a remarkable job of getting across the idea that your Ghost is an independent entity, with his own hopes and fears. The game reinforces this through the Grimoire but these lines exist outside of that, even if you never read a single card you will hear them.
I can’t fault anyone for finding Destiny lacking. My experience with it is by no means the norm, the gameplay that I find so satisfying isn’t new to most and as much as I wish more players would delve into the story I can’t blame those who assume the game itself doesn’t care whether they do or not. This is a shame because Destiny is so much more than it appears at first glance. The enemies have more depth and nuance than the broad banner of “the Darkness” suggests. The brief descriptions on some items hint at a longstanding rivalry between Hunters and Warlocks. While I suspect the Traveller remains a silent, enigmatic orb throughout the game, that my Ghost was born from it makes me inclined to learn more about it. I encourage anyone who plays to take the time to look past the surface to the rich history beneath.
Note: This was originally posted as a comment on the Sparky Clarkson article I link to. As I was writing I realised there was a broader point to be made, so I extended and adapted that comment into this article.
Sparky Clarkson didn’t like Remember Me as much as I did; reading his analysis helped me understand my own feelings and why certain types of cinematic action game have a tendency to feel awkward and dishonest. I believe it’s due to a misguided attempt to hide from players that they are taking actions within a fictionalised virtual world that has its own specific rules and limitations; a focus on cinematic as the end rather than the means.
I agree that the goal of the “cinematic action game” genre is to “engage the player as closely as possible with the characters and their stories” but I don’t think making systems invisible is the only, or even the best, way of achieving this.
To digress slightly, the oft misused and maligned concept of “immersion” is frequently cited as the point at which players “forget they are playing a game”. It is better understood from as a form of holistic completeness and coherence, rather than one of “systemic invisibility”. The player is never going to “forget they are playing a game” to any reasonably measurable degree, the artifice of the real world is too ever present to make that an achievable, or particularly rational, goal; no matter how deeply I am absorbed in a game if my bladder is full my body will relay that information to me urgently and persistently. What is a more useful way to frame immersion is as the presentation to the player of an environment where every action is responded to coherently and consistently so that there are no rough edges to their experience, no jarring edge cases where the implicit or explicit rules of the system break down and the illusion of completeness and wholeness is shattered. This is the “immersion” of the “immersive sim”, games like Thief: The Dark Project or Deus Ex which, no matter the technology used in their construction, are never going to fool anybody into thinking that they “are really there”, but which have a systemic honesty and consistency that makes them feel like complete worlds; where actions have discernible consequences, and it’s easy to get drawn into their constructed environments. This is also why Dark Souls is incredibly immersive despite its third person camera, overly large HUD and onscreen health bars; honesty and consistency.
The cinematic action game genre doesn’t have immersion as one of its goals, instead the means by which they strive to “engage the player as closely as possible” is through ensuring that the player and character frames are always synchronized, that there is minimal drift. The claim that the goal of the cinematic action game genre is that of systemic invisibility is a conflation of intent and methodology. Cinematic action games use the tropes of cinema toward the same ends, but that cinematic mimicry is not the end in itself. The goal, as it is with cinema, is to evoke empathy between audience and subject, between players and characters.
There are genres for which making the systems invisible, either initially or entirely, is a goal however these games are built with a degree of systemic depth and complexity that rewards exploration and experimentation. Cinematic action games rarely share this systemic depth because they are designed to tell a specific story and make the player feel a part of that story for however long it lasts. One of the best means by which this is achieved is through clarity and consistency; the rules and limitations need to be clear and consistent if the player and character frames are to remain aligned. This is why cinematic action games that try to make their systems invisible often fluctuate between two extremes with systems that are either unclear and arbitrary, or unintentionally obvious.
The diegetic navigation overlay of Remember Me is functionally no different to the colour coded signposting of The Last Of Us. Both serve to differentiate usable surfaces from those that, despite being the same size, shape and within a reasonable distance of the character, are not usable. One key difference between The Last Of Us and Remember Me is that the latter never puts you in a position where you have to make a guess as to whether a surface is usable or whether the colouration is just an aesthetic choice and not a usability one. The Last of Us uses yellow in multiple and often conflicting ways: to signify usable surfaces, to draw the eye to points of interest, and as a means of aesthetic colouration associated with military barricades and warning signs. Two identical objects might be highlighted by yellow paint, one is scalable the other is not; because this happens frequently the colouration cannot be trusted and the difference between what is and isn’t usable begins to feel arbitrary. The character knows something you don’t (that one surface is functional the other purely aesthetic) and the notion that you are going through this experience together starts to break down, the frames diverge. This is a problem Remember Me never exhibits because it is absolutely clear at all times what is and isn’t usable, this helps maintain the alignment of player and character frames by constraining valid player actions to those that are relevant within the current context.
Cinematic action games and other genres that combine multiple forms of play usually divide the environment into spaces that serve one form and those that serve another. Exploration spaces give way to combat spaces or vice versa. The “obvious combat arena” level design is a common problem where certain aspects of the design of combat spaces are so obvious that they are instantly recognisable as such unintentionally foreshadowing the combat encounter to come; the “room full of chest high walls” problem.
Remember Me is no different to other games it its division of space between different forms, one way in which it avoids the “obvious combat space” problem is by simply not attempting to hide it; when you enter a combat space combat begins, there is no ambiguity between the use of spaces and therefore no divergence in awareness between player and character. At several points during The Last of Us you have the opportunity to explore an area that will later become a combat space. You are not made aware of this change in function directly but the differences in the spatial layout and the items available become glaringly obvious indicators that this is not an exploration only space despite what it may portray itself to be. Bricks and bottles only appear as items you can pick up within in a combat space, so the moment you see them you know what’s coming even if that change in state doesn’t trigger until after a cutscene. The shape, size and distribution of cover objects is immediately identifiable and distinctly artificial; even before you are introduced to the game’s combat systems. Instead of making the transitions between exploration and combat invisible The Last of Us makes it obvious in a way that gives the player greater forewarning than the character, creating a gulf between the two, and undercutting the tension created when safe spaces become suddenly hostile. Remember Me avoids this problem because combat spaces are immediately identifiable and combat within them occurs immediately. You, as the player, know something is a combat space the same moment Nilin does.
Games are artificial constructs, they have unique rules and limitations and in order to engage with them, in order to play, those rules need to be clear and consistent; or unclear and inconsistent in ways that the game is designed around. Cinematic action games are build upon a foundation of ensuring the player and character frames remain aligned and that any drift is kept to a minimum. It’s a relationship of trust, trust is built on honesty, and when the boundaries of the simulation are clear the game has to be honest.
Games have their own language, written in health bars, and experience points, and combo meters, systems designed to feed back information to the player with clarity and consistency. To strike out against the artifice of games is an insidious form of cinema envy, one that presumes that the language of cinema is the more developed language and the one toward which games should strive. Cinema is subjective, the camera lies frequently and intentionally; cinema disassembles and ambiguates as a means of eliciting an emotional response. This form of emotional manipulation has its place but when the player is in control, when their actions become those of the character such dishonesty is undesirable, it drives a wedge between the two, pushing the player and character frames apart in potentially irreconcilable ways.
Attempting to hide or obfuscate the boundaries of a virtual world can too often lead to confusion and ambiguity, to a game that feels dishonest. Without clear rules applied honestly players are left to second guess themselves and the game, the convergence of player and character frames that is the goal of the cinematic action game genre breaks down. Why can I climb this piece of yellow bordered scenery but not that one? Did I miss that bandit while exploring or did he only spawn after I opened the door? I don’t have the answers to those questions because The Last of Us is not honest with me about the application of its rules, they are hidden behind cinematic tropes. But I do I know that Nilin will always make that jump and that we both know when a fight’s about to start.
Guest Post, written by: Caitlin Moore.
For me, the most unambiguously happy part of Gone Home was the conclusion of Oscar’s story. This may seem a strange thing to say give the accepted reading of his story (since confirmed by the developers), that he abused his nephew Terrence, the father of both the player and Sam. That isn’t how I read it though.
Oscar’s is the most nebulous story in the game, the one with the least substance, the one that requires the most input from the player. I decided quite early on that he was homosexual. He was so strongly connected to Sam, with the other characters barely acknowledging him, that I couldn’t see any other possibility. Early on, when the game is still teasing you with its ghost story, you find notes from Sam talking about using a Ouija board as well as books about exorcism and possession. She wants to summon Oscar, find out what he wants and lay him to rest. It’s one of the first bonding moments for Sam and Lonnie, the two girls giggling inside their makeshift fort, scaring each other in an excuse to be closer.
The basement contains most of what we know Oscar’s life story, told through newspaper clippings and his own letters. In 1963 his world fell apart. He was rejected by his family and even his attempts to prove that he was willing to change couldn’t bring them back to him. It’s not hard to imagine that the sin he committed was nothing more than being homosexual. Given the way gay people are still treated I was more than willing to believe that Terry’s parents would take him away and refuse to let him see his uncle anymore. Even the letter to Terry, sent in 1972 after the first pride marches began and only a year before homosexuality was taken out of the DSM, speaks to this. Maybe Oscar started to allow himself to think that he wasn’t mentally ill and that his family would welcome him back, a hope clearly dashed by a man who can’t admit that his own daughter is going through anything more than a ‘phase’. On the other hand, it’s possible that Terry never knew why he lost the uncle whose house he had spent much of his childhood in. The time he keeps returning to in his books, the year that he lost his uncle and the country lost a president, could be seen as his attempt to rescue a man and a happiness taken away without explanation.
With the house divided into sections the basement is clearly Oscar’s territory. Except it isn’t anymore. This is where the player witnesses Sam and Lonnie’s relationship start to become serious, where you find (and blushingly discard) evidence of their sexual relationship. This is Sam’s space now.
All of this is depressing. I felt sorry for Oscar, locked alone in his own home, more than any other character. After all they still have their lives to live, any problems they face can still be overcome. That he was so linked to Sam gave me hope for him and the ghost story the game tells is a happy one. Towards the end you come across the secret cupboard the two girls performed the summoning in, the last loose end for Oscar. Where Sam’s love for Lonnie, her acceptance by both Lonnie and herself, is enough to lay Oscar to rest. No matter what else happens, Sam will never find herself alone or unloved.
The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home is a game with a very specific legacy. Beyond simply the referential filing cabinet code, this is a game that strongly evokes the storytelling techniques and style of Looking Glass Studios.
Nearly twenty years ago System Shock was released, allowing players to explore and uncover the fate of Citadel Station and its inhabitant; and witness the birth of the unforgettable SHODAN. At the time convincing interactions between players and human characters was challenging. As a means of sidestepping that problem Citadel Station was depopulated, everybody was either dead or had become horrific monsters incapable of coherent discourse. The events onboard Citadel Station were there to be discovered in what its inhabitants had left behind: scattered audio logs and environmental detritus.
In the intervening years other methods have been used to deal with the challenge of interacting with other characters. In Thief: The Dark Project and its successors the City was inhabited, instead it was the player’s role as a thief that discouraged and limited the means of interacting with those characters. Gone Home revisits the method employed by the original System Shock to overcome this still challenging problem, though the Greenbriar home is simply empty, rather than filled with dead bodies, the result is the same.
The Greenbriar home is littered with environmental details, the story of what has happened to your family in your absence is told through notes written to friends, and the placement of specific objects in specific places. It’s a game about environmental storytelling and narrative archeology. The story of the Greenbriar family is developed using the same tools that you use to explore the history and events on board Citadel Station.
Sam’s journal entries, uncovered gradually and potentially out of chronological sequence are, in functional terms, audio logs. Their placement and that of the other environmental details within the house is a way of matching physical exploration to temporal exploration, each area of the Greenbriar home that is unlocked, moves you forward in time through the events of the last year. The same mapping of chronology to physical space can be seen very clearly in BioShock 2 (a game which the core member of The Fullbright Company worked on, and one that itself is heavily indebted to the storytelling and design techniques of earlier games like System Shock). Each area of BioShock 2 represents a different stage in the life of Eleanor Lamb, from her birth and early childhood (Ryan Amusements) to her time spent under the care of Grace Holloway (Pauper’s Drop), through her time as a Little Sister and her eventually recovery and the experiments that were performed on her as a teenager (Fontaine Futuristics and Outer Persephone).
In both Gone Home and BioShock 2 (and of course the previous System Shock games before them) the further onward the player explores physically the more recent the narrative elements within the environment become, until the final moments where the past and the present meet, and the two strands of the story merge.
Consider System Shock 2, the closing stages sees you explore the biomass of The Many while listening to the breadcrumb trail of audio logs recorded by Doctor Prefontaine; at this late stage the past (as represented by the audio logs and other environmental details) and the present are barely minutes apart, in fact you arrive just moments after the doctor meets his fate as recorded in his final audio log. The same experience occurs in the attic of the Greenbriar house, the past as narrated by Sam and the present as explored by you as her older sister Kaitlin, are barely moments apart until, discovering the final journal entry, the final gap between past and present is closed the two threads knitting together.
That gap, that space around and between that which is known is at the heart of what gives this form of storytelling its power. Gone Home and System Shock, these are games about space; not simply physical spaces, the Greenbriar house and Citadel Station, but the space between, the things not said. The entire story of what happens is never revealed explicitly, instead you discover isolated moments of it in the form of an audio log or a written note, the space between those pieces and the other pieces of narrative you collect is left for you to fill. The order in which you discover each piece is controlled somewhat through gating and the mapping of physical space to temporal chronology however it is never enforced, you might miss a piece of information or discovering it out of order and this will change your understanding of the space formed by these pieces.
It is narrative by suggestion and inference, there are specific points that are defined but the space between them, the context in which these things occurred is for players to determine, and potentially reevaluate as new information is presented. In Gone Home, you can discover letters from your mother Jan to her friend Carol, discussing Ranger Rick who has just been transferred to work with your mother. You never know explicitly what your mother’s feelings are towards Rick though you can infer them from the suggestions of Carol and other things you discover within the environment; like the perfect evaluation Jan gives him along with the recommendation that his temporary transfer be made permanent. The implication that your mother is having an affair with Rick (in intent if not in deed) is clear, however this is a context that is fluid and open to interpretation and reexamination. One of the strongest indications of there being some form of relationship between Rick and your mother is the discovery of a book of Walt Whitman erotic poetry under her side of the bed within is a bookmark with a handwritten note by Rick. In the context in which these pieces of information are first discovered the inference is that Rick has given this book to your mother, however there is nothing to confirm that the message on the bookmark is referring to this book and not another; in fact given subsequent discoveries about the relationship of Rick to his girlfriend, and that of your parents it’s entirely possible, potentially even more likely, that the bookmark was referring to a different book entirely and that the presence of the book of erotic poetry in your parents room has an entirely different connotation.
This recontextualizing of information based on new insights is far from exclusive to Gone Home, though it is another aspect common to games of the Looking Glass Studios legacy. Early in Thief II: The Metal Age Garrett is asked to break into Shoalsgate Station and plant evidence against a member of the City Watch, when Garrett begins to question the task he is “distracted” by a bag of coins. Over the course of this mission things are learnt about Lieutenant Mosley (the woman who will benefit directly from the smearing of her colleague) that suggest she is not the most effective member of the City Watch when it comes to dealing with the Pagans. Only later will you discover that she is herself a Pagan working for the wood nymph Viktoria and though it is never explicitly explained this knowledge recontextualises the visit of Shoalsgate Station almost entirely. The appeal to Garrett’s avarice and hubris to distract him and ensure his cooperation is the same technique employed by Viktoria in Thief: The Dark Project, and every action you took within Shoalsgate has served to get one of her loyalists into a position where they could eventually assassinate Sheriff Truart. New information has recontextualised something that on the surface seemed like a simply case of internal politics and betrayal.
The techniques employed by The Fullbright Company in Gone Home have a long tradition, that can be see not only in games from Looking Glass Studios itself but also those influenced by them. That these techniques can be used to tell the story of both the horrific events of SHODAN’s birth on Citadel Station to the simply and honest tale of a Greenbriar family in mid-90s Portland, speaks to the strength and latent emotive power of these relatively simple techniques. To the potential that exists within those spaces between.
In his 2011 GDC presentation, The Identity Bubble – A Design Approach To Character and Story Creation, designer Matthias Worch builds on the work of Gary Fine (From his book Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds), using the conceptual model of frames to examine how players have multiple, often conflicting, internal voices. During play they are at once, people, players and characters, with different motivations operating within each frame.
Games allow us to participate in defining the behaviour of a character, our actions become theirs, our choices influence their behaviour. The player frame takes the lead in defining motivation and performing action. One common occurrence is the imposition of our desires upon the character, as Worch describes it: “This is the reason we play games: the ability to drive the action, to express ourselves, to lead.” As players our desires often lean towards efficiency, we may even strive for optimality when characters in fiction rarely do. When the player and character frames begin to drift apart, when our motivations as players no longer match those of the characters we are playing, we complain about dissonance. Our chosen approach determined within the player frame does not match that supplied by the fictional context within the character frame.
Frequently there is no choice, the game can’t be played in a way that doesn’t foster such dissonance. Even if you try the mechanics of Assassin’s Creed don’t allow for the efficiency it tries to fictionalise as being part of Altair’s character. In such instances, where the only options available are those that contradict the established narrative context, criticisms are justified. Worch’s method for avoiding this drift is to find ways that encourage the alignment of the character and player frames.
A commonality of each of the presented methods is that the character frame should be adjusted to align with the player frame. What of “self-correction”, of playing in a manner that is appropriate to the character; in so far as the abstracted nature of game mechanics allow? What if instead of determining the behaviour of characters based on the our motivations within the player frame we modify our behaviour to better fit the context of the character we are playing?
Early in my time with Tomb Raider it became clear what the game wasn’t going to do. The narrative is a tale of survival and growth, of overcoming extreme hostility. The mechanics you interact with to progress that narrative are high level abstractions of those concepts rather than attempts at simulation. Tomb Raider is, not a game about survival from a mechanical perspective, there are survival elements though they are heavily abstracted. Tomb Raider is a game about hostility and overcoming that hostility as a means of character growth. This basic conceit is presented and reinforced within the first ten minutes, as a Lara scrambles out of the cave she finds herself in though a variety of Quick Time Events and context sensitive actions.
The manner in which Lara obtains a handgun, and in the process kills for the first time is messy, violent and problematic in several ways. Shortly after that she is confronted by others of the Solarii, the cult like inhabitants of the island. It’s possible to kill them quickly and relatively cleanly, it’s also possible to keep shooting them until they stop moving. Without intending to I made the choice that being highly efficient wasn’t appropriate or necessary. When time slowed down in that first encounter instead of using it to line up precise shots, I fired as soon as the gun was pointed at the Solarii and didn’t stop until he collapsed, then I did the same with his companion; I did what I felt Lara would do.
This is a pattern I repeated throughout, it stopped being a conscious decision almost immediately. I was not directly punished for being inefficient and messy, and the narrative and characterisation did nothing to contradict my behaviour. Initially it had been an experiment to see if I could get away without turning Lara into the “alpha predator of ‘headshot island'” and it was possible, furthermore it felt emotionally resonant in a way I believe being efficiency wouldn’t have.
Throughout the next few hours when confronted with armed hostility I played in an improvisational way, explosive barrels, fire arrows, horrific melee kills; every tool at my disposal combined into a mess of violence. I was mad at the Solarii for what they were doing to my friends and to me, and I took that out on them. Why use one bullet when I can use five? Why use a normal arrow when I can use a flaming one? I scrambled around, dodging attacks, stabbing people in the legs, smashing rocks into faces, screaming, swearing. It was a nightmare of brutality and violence. Once it was all over there was no Nathan Drake like quip just an exhausted sign of regret tinged relief, both from myself and Lara. Neither of us wanted to be doing this much fighting but if we wanted to survive we had little choice.
I had not modified my overriding motivation, I wanted to be entertained, to have a memorable experience, and I was, I did. What I had done was slightly modify my behaviour. To keep the “identity bubble” intact it is necessary to make adjustments to at least one of the three often conflicting frames, to correct for drift. Which frame needs correcting and who performs that correcting does not always need to be the same for every game.
Games are participatory, a shared construct of designer and player. It’s not uncommon to talk of how games should react to player behaviour, taken to an extreme this can become the arrogance of agency, the notion that it is the responsibility of all games to acknowledging and response to our behaviour no matter how unpredictable or contextually inappropriate. If games are about shared authorship don’t we, as players, have a responsibility to ourselves to move beyond “willing suspension of disbelief” into actively maintaining that “suspension of disbelief”?
Tomb Raider is one of the best games I’ve played. The verb is important, as much for what it means for a game as what it means in the context of “acting”, of “role playing”. I implicitly entered into a contract with the game, if it would provide me a consistent structure by which to contextualise my actions I would play within that structure. My behaviour when I was in control of Lara, and her behaviour outside of my control reinforced each other, strengthening both aspects. It required no more effort that playing “cops and robber”, I had a role and I played to that role, the result was an alignment of player and character frames unlike any I’ve experienced.
In any simulated system there are boundaries, points at which the model being used breaks down, where player behaviour is no longer accounted for. The most obvious of these are the physical boundaries of the game space, the chasm too wide to cross or the wall too high to climb. To a large extent the methods for dealing with these physical boundaries are well developed and understood; though it’s still not uncommon for the occasional invisible wall to appear blocking progress along what looks like a valid route.
Another form of boundary found within the simulated systems of video games are those between supported player actions and unsupported player actions. In his GDC 2004 lecture (.zip file) on the subject Clint Hocking details three ways in which a game can deal with this type of simulation boundary. They can either “extend the design” by adding additional abilities so as to extend the bounds of the simulation further; “support the failure” by allowing the simulation to break but providing alternate means of progress; or “end the game” with a game over screen or a similarly absolute resolution.
Each of these approaches has its benefits and drawbacks, extending the design offers more possibilities to the player but is little more than a way of moving the goal posts. Supporting failure again serves to provide additional possibilities as success at a given task is no longer the only means of progression, unfortunately supporting all failure states can lead to actions feeling like they have no consequence. Ending the game has the benefit of being the clearest means by which to resolve player action at the boundary but it is also the most artificial and heavy handed.
In a recent article on Dishonored, Robert Yang describes a way in which that game deals with a simulation boundary he encountered within the opening moments. My initial reaction to this criticism was that it seemed petty to criticize what is ostensible a tutorial for limiting player agency for the sake of teaching something. This was narrow-minded of me, Robert is raising an interest point about the manner in which Dishonored handles simulation boundaries, and how that compares to the games it is drawing its design influences from. Instead of softly accounting for any errant behaviour and shepherding players back into the supported space Dishonored instead chooses to set a hard boundary identified in some instances by an explicit game over screen. It’s a choice that, as he points out, runs contrary to the approached traditionally adopted by the “immersive sim”. Instead of extending the design or supporting failure as the likes of Deus Ex and System Shock do Dishonored instead resorts of ending the game when certain boundaries are crossed.
The benefit of such an approach is that the feedback is clear and unambiguous: this is an unsupported action, refrain from attempting it again. The same hard boundary can be enforced at many different points at the limits of the simulation, any actions that are unaccounted for can be dealt with in the same absolute fashion. A benefit of this approach is that it avoids one of the problems associated with softer boundaries which is that of repetition of behaviour If I perform an unsupported action once, such as jumping on an NPC’s head, it makes sense for this to elicit a response. Consider the Metro Cops in the opening sections of Half-Life 2. When you throw something at them, or otherwise antagonize them, they will push you back and tell you to stop, if you persist they will draw their stun batons and beat you. That is as far as the simulation allows them to go, you can keep throwing things at their head and keep getting beaten for as long as you like nothing further will happen.
When considering the different ways in which games like Deus Ex, Thief and Dishonored deal with simulation boundaries what stands out is that the times at which these games resort either to hard boundaries, or explicitly limiting player behaviour is when players are required to interact with other characters. It comes as little surprise then that the series that relies most on resolving boundary infractions softly is System Shock, where there are no living characters with whom the player can directly interact.
In Dishonored the approach of presenting a hard boundary is exclusively reserved for dealings with NPC’s, specifically those the game has identified as allies. Dishonored is attempting, by means of hard simulation boundaries, to establish an identity for it’s protagonist Corvo Attano. This is why these boundaries are most obvious in the the prologue section (where Corvo is still the Lord Protector and the Empress is still alive), and in the Hound Pits sections between missions. Certain parts of Corvo’s identity are defined, certain parts are not and the way Corvo treats the people deemed to be his allies is part of the former and something the player has little influence over.
Dishonored‘s design metaphor (that of being a supernatural assassin) doesn’t effectively account for Corvo having allies. As an assassin he only really has targets, and characters or objects that are preventing him from reaching those targets. Though appropriate fictionally even the notion of a non-lethal means of dealing with his targets starts to push at the bounds of that design metaphor. In the missions themselves where there are no explicit allies the approach Dishonored takes to simulation boundaries is to support failure. One of the side effects of which, as Clint Hocking describes, is that this serves to makes the game easier, there is almost always an alternate means of performing a required tasks or reaching a specific objective.
Corvo, and by extension the player, is assumed to be acting in the interests of the Loyalists even if they are not shared interests. This leads to the perception that the only meaningful actions are those related to people you are not required to be nice to, these are the only ones where player actions remain largely unrestricted and thus have direct consequences. In Dishonored the way you treat your “friends” is largely irrelevant. You are only judged by how you choose to treat people you don’t need to treat well.
For all that has changed in game design in the thirteen years since System Shock 2, games like it are still using conceptually similar means of dealing with living characters. These hard boundaries and limits on player agency are inelegant and often binary solutions that are jarring when set beside the softer less absolute means by which other forms of player behaviour are handled.
Dead Space: Extraction is a game that knows what it wants to be. Within a series that wears its horror film influences on its sleeve Extraction is the most direct translation of those influences to the video game form. As an on-rails shooter the cinematography and pacing are an obvious point of comparison sharing as they do many of the hallmarks of the horror cinema the game draws from. Though many games make pretensions to having Hollywood level scripts Extraction is the first game I’ve played in several years that actually felt like it had a script that could be from a film, based as it was around a limited cast of characters and the interactions between them more than on some plot critical MacGuffin. Each character you encounter over the course of the game’s approximately six hour campaign is clearly differentiated by their background, their visual design, their personality and their accent. It presents one of the most authentically diverse casts I’ve seen in a game in a long time, and manages to be a rare example of a game that passes the bechdel test.
Forced together under extreme circumstances the differing motivations of each character begin to reveal themselves and the plot is propelled forward primarily by these reveals and the direct obstacles the characters find in their path. Even the most limited experience of the conventions of horror films will be enough to realise not all of these people are going to make it out alive, and though some tropes become overused the script does manage to leave you guessing as to who exactly is going to make it out alive, if anybody.
While Extraction succeeds on many aesthetic and technical levels it’s notable that the one area where it struggles the most is when it tries to be scary; when it tries to evoke the same emotions as the horror films it aspires to. The unbroken first person perspective, while capable of providing moments of brief tension and some surprisingly effective jump scares, doesn’t allow for the dramatic irony that is successfully exploited throughout horror cinema. While the other Dead Space games use a similarly restricted camera, the ability of the player to control both the camera and the protagonist’s movement actually adds to the suspense; events can occur and threats can arrive from areas not currently within the player’s field of view. Extraction is kinder in it’s presentation, the camera will always turn to direct your view to the current threat and the Necromorphs will limit themselves to attacking from that direction. Only once all threats have been dealt with will the protagonist then turn, allowing subsequent attacks from a different direction.
Only attacking when players can see them is decidedly polite on the part of the Necromorphs an attitude reminiscent of the mooks in an action film who will patient wait for their turn before attacking. As a means of preventing the player from feeling cheated this consistency makes sense, yet it also undermines any attempt to provoke a sense of unease or fear in the player. When you know you are always going to be pointed towards anything threatening there’s no uncertainty yet it’s within the uncertain and the ambiguous that fear grow.
As a game that allows, we could even go so far as to say expects, to be replayed for higher scores and better ratings, there is a further logic to this consistency. To enable players to master each level it makes sense for enemy placement and attack patterns to be consistent and predictable. Yet there might be ways to keep to the optimising requirements of the score chasers while still providing an experience able to provoke fear and unease.
Interestingly some of the the best techniques for doing this are ones I would be reticent to recommend for any other style of game. There are a number of variation but the underlying principle of all of them is to use the fact the player has a limited ability to move the camera against them, to actively work in opposition to player desires and expectations, to intentionally obfuscate and frustrate. The way to make Extraction more frightening is to do the opposite of what the first person perspective is used for in other genres, by reinforcing the already existing separation between protagonist and player. It’s a difficult line to walk, too much frustration and nobody will want to play, but too little about you have a horror game that is only scary because of its context not its content.
- Instead of only moving the camera once all Necromorphs have been dealt with we could instead link certain camera movements to a timer: face this way for thirty seconds then this way for ten seconds. Under threat from all sides the protagonist would naturally shift their view between each threat instead of focusing only on one to the exclusion of all others leading to them turning away while there are still enemies approaching in order to deal with threats from a different direction. With known threats now approaching from beyond your field of view the threats you can see become not just a problem in their own right but also an obstacle to your ability to deal with the other threats.
- Foreshadow attacks by allowing players to see threats that the protagonist doesn’t react to. A Necromorph moving fast across part of the screen, clearly a threat but the protagonist turns away before the player can react. It’s still out there and will become a more direct threat at some time, but when, and from which direction?
- Require the player to use some portion of the to screen perform one action while still engaging in combat on the rest of the screen. This technique is used a few times in the early chapters of the game with the screen split between a combat sequence and a puzzle, but it is abandoned thereafter despite it providing one of the most tense moments of the game.
- Allow the protagonist to keep moving while under attack, throwing off the ability of the player to aim accurately at the approaching Necromorphs. This is something Extraction does begin to do in the later levels but even then it is used sparingly. Not knowing if you are going to stumble and miss a shot is frustrating and makes the environment itself a threat.
These tweaks, along with variations and combinations of them, could really help to increase the tension of Extraction with only few changes to the core systems and while maintaining the balance between player and protagonist that exists in any game that doesn’t allow the player control over basic movement and world interaction.
There is a lot to enjoy in Dead Space: Extraction, from a plot that actually makes sense, to characters that are relatable without relying entirely on clichés, to more of the superb Dead Space aesthetics and environmental design. With all that going for it, it was sad to find the moment to moment experience failing to reach the highs of tension and fear that it felt like it was striving for. If Extraction had been able to capture the unease and prevasive dread of the original Dead Space, or better yet that of the thematically similar System Shock, I think it would have had a strong claim for the best of the series.
Games are full of choices, moments where players have the ability to select between two mutually or at least partially exclusive options. They can also frequently present possibilities that are closer to The Magician’s Choice, an illusion of choice if not a choice itself. Both ways of determining future actions have their place, for the moment I want to consider the former, the selection of one of multiple possible actions through an act of decision based on an understanding of the potential consequences.
Such choices can occur across multiple layers, the aesthetic, “Do I wear the green robes or the red robes?”, the narrative “Do I select the aggressive dialogue line or the neutral dialogue line?”, or the mechanical “Do I upgrade Inferno or Cone of Cold?” When considering these choices it makes sense to examine their consequences within the layer in which they occur, if there is no mechanical or narrative difference between wearing green or red robes then it follows that the only criteria that needs to be considered when making that decisions are aesthetic concerns.
Obviously this is not always the case, to blur the separation between these layers choices in the aesthetic and narrative layer are frequently tied to underlying mechanical choices, ensuring that all actions in some way have a mechanical consequence. So the choice between the red robes and the green robes isn’t simply an aesthetic one, the red robes may provide a bonus to Fire Resistance, while the green robes increase Critical Hit chance; the aggressive dialogue line may lead to a fight, while the neutral line offers a new side quest.
Continued progress in a game is linked inextricably to choices made on the mechanical layer, be they clearly defined mechanical choices, or those contextualised as aesthetic or narrative choices. These choices do not necessary need to be complex systemic decisions, nor do they need to have long term consequences, choosing to fire the Shotgun over the Rocket Launcher is still a mechanical choice even if it is a fairly superficial one. With this in mind it is logical to conclude that during play actions taken are determined primarily by their mechanical impact rather than aesthetic or narrative considerations. Examined logically why would anybody make a choice that gave them a mechanical disadvantage? Even when a narrative choice is presented the consequences in a mechanical sense are often indicated, though not always explicitly. Consider Dragon Age II though I may choose to side with the apostate mage Anders in an argument, I am aware that increasing his approval or disapproval has direct mechanical benefits, his abilities will improve in different ways if he becomes a trusted friend or a bitter rival. This is a mechanical choice contextualised by narrative presentation.
Where the interconnectedness of choices across multiple layers becomes noteworthy is when choices are made in one layer that have detrimental effects in the others, specifically when choices are made in the aesthetic or narrative layer that have mechanical consequences. Logically players should never make choices that have detrimental mechanical consequences, it makes no sense to make a game difficult for yourself when that is not your intent. Things are rarely that straightforward, player behaviour, as with all human behaviour, is only rarely logical.
Let’s return to Anders and events that occurred during Dragon Age II. Since I had met him the relationship between the player character Hawke, and Anders had been a pleasant one. There were minor disagreements yes, but a lot of flirting and as a healer Anders had a vital mechanical role in my party. However certain events transpired in Act II, that led me to make a series of decisions that resulted in Anders leaving, for as it turned almost the entire rest of the game. I understood the consequences of making such a choice, and yet I made that decision not based on the mechanical consequences, but the narrative ones. I was no longer comfortable with Anders in my party, or more specifically I felt that regardless of my personal opinion, Hawke now considered him a risk to herself and her family. With Bethany confined to the Circle and unable to join the party, Anders’ departure left me with a single Mage (Merrill) who had no healing abilities. This forced me to rework my strategy and party composition. For the next several hours the mechanical experience of playing was altered dramatically because of an action I took based not on its mechanical presentation but on its narrative one. Everything about playing Dragon Age II that can be said to be uniquely mine, which is to say the experience and the memories I have, was changed by making that decision.
For choices to be meaningful their consequences need to be experienced, games need to be played to be understood. It was only through playing that the full impact of my actions revealed themselves.
Mechanical choices are the glue that tie the different layers of a game together. That does not mean players will, or should, always make decisions based on mechanical consequences exclusively.
It cannot be said with total accuracy that players only see games as dynamic mechanical systems and will make their decisions based exclusively on that basis. To focus design primarily on the mechanics of a game without equal consideration of the impact of the aesthetic, narrative or other contextualising elements at work risks creating a gulf between the design and the act of interacting with that design. The different presentational layers of a game are not engaged with in a vacuum, how choices are presented and responded to across these layers cannot fail to have some influence over the decision making process. What can seem like an ideal choice given the circumstances can easily become an undesirable one because of it’s impact on other layers of the game.