An honest illusion.

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.

A disappearing history.

Among the many badly kept secrets of the games industry was the existence of a multiplayer mode for BioWare’s Mass Effect 3. Officially announced recently details are still scarce though what has been revealed is that the co-operative multiplayer mode will connect with the single player game. Co-operative play will increase Galactic Readiness which will in turn impact the outcome of the single player game. There will be ways of increasing Galactic Readiness in the single player game itself alongside other platform specific means, Facebook or XBLA tie in games seem like the most obvious possibilities.

With rare exceptions I think providing additional options for players is to be lauded and as such there’s nothing about this news that has made me question the likelihood of purchasing Mass Effect 3. Of interest is what happens to the experience of playing Mass Effect 3 months or maybe even years after launch. Recently I replayed Mass Effect 2, over eighteen months from its initial release the availability of DLC means that there is now more content, more options, on offer than existed when I originally purchased the game.

It’s an assumption, but I feel a justified one, that eighteen months after the release of Mass Effect 3 notably less people will be playing the co-operative portion that were doing so eighteen days after release. Therefore through the simply act of delaying their purchase of the game, or by deciding to replay a game, players may well find that some of the options available to them for raising Galactic Readiness will not be as viable as they once were.

Thinking further out two or three years from the release of Mass Effect 3 will the servers for the co-operative multiplayer mode still be running? With a likely dwindling player base and no new revenue streams the financial benefits of turning the servers off will be high. This is not uncommon for EA, I cannot play Mercenaries 2: World in Flames because, unable to contact the now offline EA servers, it hangs at the main menu. If somebody wants to play Mass Effect 3 several years after release certain options may not simply be less viable they might not be available at all.

This is already a problem when it comes to multiplayer games, but the growing integration of multiplayer elements with the single player portion of games is creating a new issue. When the two modes, multiplayer and singleplayer, are separate then they are effectively two distinct, albeit similar texts. In time one may text made remain readable, which is to say extant in a playable form, the other not. That is the problem we have right now; I can still play the single player of Halo 2 but not its multiplayer. When the two modes are interconnected as they will be in Mass Effect 3, or as a better example Dark Souls, then it can no longer be treated as two distinct texts rather it is one text with multiple facets. In five years even if I can find or emulate the hardware to make these texts readable, one or more of those facets will still remain unavailable. Through actions beyond my control a game I have purchased will have been altered, instead of the future bringing more content in terms of DLC or Mods, the future will bring less as servers are shutdown and options once available disappear.

As a consumer this is problematic, but as a student or historian of game design this is tragic. Hardware alone already makes the play and study of games older than a decade or two a challenge, but imagine students of game design in the next decade attempting to examine and learn from a game like Dark Souls? How much of what makes that game unique will be lost when players are stripped of the ability to interact with each other?

If this doesn’t seem like a big issue imagine the state of cinema if film students were only able to study films made in the last two decades? Or if English Literature students no longer have the ability to examine the works of Shakespeare or Twain? What might be lost?

The answer is not to abandon multiplayer or avoid attempts to cross-pollinate multiplayer and singleplayer, to do so would be reactionary and narrow minded. A better answer might be for developers and publishers to rely on the community to maintain these games and their servers if it ceases to be financially viable to do so. No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way is nearly ten years old, the official servers for it were shutdown over three years ago, fortunately thanks to the dedication of members of its community it’s still possible to play online. Obviously when it comes to console games, there are factors beyond the control of the developers and publishers that need to be worked out if the severs for certain games are to remain active in some fashion. But isn’t the preservation of gaming history worth solving those issues? If not then we are saying that gaming in all it’s forms does not deserve preservation and I don’t think I have the language skills necessary to describe how angry that idea makes me.

ADDENDUM:

The potential method described to preserve games is one among many, and only deals with a single aspect of the  larger issue of preservation. Though it may well be possible to preserve the ability to play a multiplayer game long after its release, this does nothing to preserve the experience of playing that game at launch, or the time you spent playing it for six straight hours with your best friends. Games exist to be played and the inability to preserve those specific experiences is noteworthy. These are larger problems of preservation and archival, daunting problems that I have no solution for. I’ll admit I avoided dealing with them in order to end on a somewhat positive note, this may have been naive of me.