Meaningful Actions.

I like Chess, I would even go as far as to say I think it is a mechanically perfect game. The strength of Chess is that there are no redundant actions, there are no actions without consequences. Achieving a checkmate is not only dependant on the final move but on every preceding move, right back to the opening. Any change in that sequence of moves by either player will result in a radically different outcome.

Every move in Chess is meaningful because every move irreversibly changes the state of the game world and which subsequent moves are possible; all actions have consequences.

Redundant actions are those that are not meaningful, those for which there are no consequences, such actions are literally a waste of time, as nothing is gained from performing them.

The concept, that every action should be meaningful and have consequences, is one that has seemingly been abandoned, or at the very least greatly diminished, in recent years. Often for the purposes of increasing accessibility or pacing, and usually in games that feature some degree of authored narrative.

Consider Far Cry 2, the mechanic of respawning hostiles at checkpoints is implemented to prevent the world from ever becoming safe and thus damaging its representation of a country in the grip of civil war, yet the mechanic causes some actions to become redundant, meaningless. The core mechanic of the first person shooter genre is that of shooting hostile characters. This usually requires a degree of skill and comes at the cost of some form of ammunition. Even ignoring the cultural connotations of the act killing a hostile character is rich with mechanical meaning. They will no longer be around to threaten the player in the future, which leads to a change in the play style of the player over time, as areas of the game world shift from hostility to safety. Additionally the expenditure of ammunition is meaningful, as the quantity of ammunition used in killing one hostile will cause changes in the manner in which subsequent hostiles can be dealt with.

Upon encountering a hostile checkpoints in Far Cry 2 both elements of meaning inherent in that core shooting mechanic become redundant.

Respawning enemies prevent a change in future behaviour as areas do not become less hostile over time. The act of killing does not change the overall state of the game world or the future play style of the player, therefore in this sense the act of killing itself is rendered largely meaningless, there are  no long term consequences. It is in fact more beneficial to avoid enemies as it is to kill them, especially as time is very rarely a factor. The decision to engage these hostile in direct combat is a redundant one. Ammunition can be recovered from the bodies of dead hostiles, so the actual expenditure of ammunition is only meaningful when more is expended that is recovered a  generally rare occurrence, made even more so because some checkpoints contain stockpiles of ammunition.

In a strictly mechanical sense the act of attacking checkpoints in Far Cry 2 is meaningless beyond the immediate short term.  It’s possible that this was an intentional inclusion designed to be representative of a country in the grip of civil war where death is largely meaningless.  I’m willing to give Ubisoft Montreal the benefit of the doubt given the various subtexts at work in Far Cry 2, however this doesn’t excuse the dozens of other games that also include redundant and meaningless game mechanics.

The infinitely respawning hostiles in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, when killing a hundred hostiles has no consequence the act of killing itself becomes meaningless; war can be won simply by continuous forward motion. Dialogue trees in Mass Effect or Fallout 3, when two different options lead to the same outcome the choice between them is meaningless. Vita Chambers in BioShock, when you are eternally reborn any actions taken to mitigate health lose are meaningless.

These mechanics were implemented because they served to increase tension, constrain options or improve pacing, in short they were included to help maintain a specific aesthetic experience; often a narrative focused one. Yet it’s worth noting that almost all the examples I’ve cited have been criticised for in some way being unrealistic. The expectation is that actions have consequences, that choices are meaningful, when this fails to occur the artificiality is made painfully obvious.

Narrative plots are built around the immutability of fate, events occur in a specific manner for dramatic purpose. If an event is included in the plot it serves a purpose, even red herrings exist serve the purpose of being a red herring; nothing is wasted, nothing is redundant.

Games are built around providing choices and feeding back the consequences of those choices. Choices are included if they have some consequence that influence the developing act of play. If choices are included that don’t have consequences they are redundant  and a waste of time on the player of both player and designer.

In order to be meaningful narratives and games depend on the portrayal of both actions and consequences.

All too often when games seek to include some form of narrative the inflexible nature of heavily plotted stories is given prominence over the flexible nature of gameplay choices. As in the examples cited this can lead to redundant choices being included simply because choices must exist in a game but the focus on the plot means those choices cannot have consequences that might move the narrative away from what has been prescribed by the original author.

That actions have consequences and thus carry meaning is something we all learn in childhood. So when presented with a choice its naturally expect there to be a consequence, otherwise why be given the choice at all?

The future of narrative games is not based around more directly authored experiences but around narratives that make use of the fundamental nature of games to present choices that have consequences, and to ensure that those consequences contain both a mechanical and a narrative component.

Despite some first steps made in this direction, Masq being a particularly interesting if limited example, there is still some way to go. Until then maybe it’s time those interested in narrative in games start to look for guidance from Chess as much as Chaucer.

Blowing in the wind…

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Flower.

“It’s like running barefoot through a meadow!”

That was my initial impression of Flower formed after a minute of play. It feels as true now as it did then. Flower is an instantly gratifying experience based on very simply concepts, the pleasure of flight and the sensation of bringing something to life. In a recent interview conducted by Michael Abbott, thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen described it as the “anti-Grand Theft Auto” a goal at which it succeeds admirably.

At the heart of Flower is a means of progression that involves quite simply doing whatever is the most pleasurable thing you can at any moment. Movement inside the game is controlled by physical movement of the SIXAXIS. Simply moving the controller around in a fashion mimicking flight is loaded with the the potential to amuse and entertain in much the same way spreading your arms and pretending to fly around the room is; who hasn’t tried that when they’ve thought nobody could see them?

Soaring across the world you soon realise that flying past a closed flower causes it to burst open with a sound and visual effect that is at once subtle yet pleasing, it’s an action that is clearly good because everything about the aesthetic experience reinforces its positive nature. Automatically you try and find the next closed flower so you can experience that sensation again.

After you’ve found and opened a few flowers the camera pulls back and you witness a rush of colour into the world – a similar effect used in de Blob and Prince Of Persia – this eruption of colour is clearly a welcome event and one you want to witness again. Therefore just as with the first flower you open, you want to have that sensation again, your immediate desire is to bring more colour to the environment. How do you do that? By flying around and finding more flowers of course, by doing the only things you can do, which also happen to be the things you most want to do.

This is the basic formula for the first few stages of the game, what you want to do and what you need to do are in sync and so without really considering your actions, you do what is required. Until something goes wrong …

When it happens it feels like the worst thing that could happen, not only because it clearly looks unpleasant, not only because you feel you’ve caused it; though some part of you realises it was inevitable. It’s the worst thing that could happen because for the first time you don’t really understand what you’ve got to do anymore. So you just keep flying because, despite the loss of colour and lack of purpose, that is still something that feels like a positive act.

The next stage is jarring and actively unpleasant, it requires a degree of precision not found previously and though you cannot die, the shock of failure stings because the effect it is so different from what you’ve come to expect; it’s a diminishing experience not a rewarding one.  You don’t want to carry on because this stage is not like those that came before it’s hostile and dark, and sad.

I nearly stopped playing at this point, I was no longer comfortable, it felt wrong and I didn’t want to be there. Flower had provided me with a mechanic that was inherently pleasurable and then taken it away in a manner that made me long for its return. It had succeed in showing me something I liked and then taken it away right before my eyes. In the space of a few seconds it had successfully conveyed a sense of destruction and loss that the more explicit Fallout 3 had required dozens of hours to evoke. All I wanted was to return everything to the way it was before. Once again the one thing I needed to do, find a way to restore the world to its former beauty, was exactly what I needed to do.

Pushing through to the next stage can feel like a chore, for every minor victory you gain the world around you remains a forbidding, dark place. Once you reach that final stage it dawns on you what you have to do, and everything from there to the conclusion seems to go in a rush of flight and colour. Filled with a sense of righteous indignation you soar through the streets crashing into anything that doesn’t belong. The music building as you get nearer and nearer to the centre of the city, the crescendo of sound echoing the beating of your heart as you rush headlong for the tangled mass of blackened metal, bursting it apart and allowing the colour to flood back in.

Flower is a simple game with a simple premise, it is also a game that so many others can learn from. It doesn’t need explicit objectives, or a map screen, or a voice in your ear urging you in a specific direction. It ensures you do what is required by making what is necessary exactly what you want to be doing.

Of course you’ll play Flower why wouldn’t you? It’s exactly what you want to do, even if maybe you don’t know it yet.

What a Waste.

There comes a moment in Fallout 3 where, standing staring around at the skeletal trees and blasted earth, you realise all the mounds of rock you’ve been climbing over were once buildings; offices, apartment blocks maybe even shops and schools. In that moment you can see in your mind what that alternate history version of Washington D.C. might have looked like. A blink and it’s lost, everything is again sickly yellow and brown, blasted, broken, and irradiated.

I was wrong

Fallout 3 is neither “teeming with life” nor “harmless”, it’s a true wasteland. It’s strange, when I made my original comments I’d already spent several hours exploring the world but somehow it hadn’t clicked exactly how terrible everything was. I could obviously see that nothing was particularly pleasant but still there were people scraping out a life and it felt like there was always something to see only a short walk away.

How many people once called this home?

At some point the revelation hit me, and it was an entirely mundane action that provoked it. In order to get a better idea of where I was and where I was going I started to climb a hill. It was a simple thing really; I wanted to get to high ground so I could get a better view of the world. An entirely plausible natural thing to do when you’re outside. Standing on the top of that crumbling masonry, looking out at the rising sun for a moment I realised what I was actually seeing. Those four houses clustered around that crossroad surrounded by low hills? That’s meant to be a town? That’s not a town,  it’s barely a dozen houses…

… That’s not a town, it’s a fraction of a suburban neighbourhood. Those aren’t low hills they’re the remains of the rest of that neighbourhood. What freak chance spared those few houses I’ll never know but as some of the last buildings left intact of course they drew what few survivors there were to them; humans crave other human contact. That’s not a town, it was never meant to be a town, but right now it’s the closest anybody here has got.

It was so easy upon entering the world of Fallout 3 to simply accept that yes this is a post apocalyptic wasteland. It’s an intellectual acceptance, a theory, and as such easy to dismiss when presented with the grim reality. Within the first few hours the logical questions begin to surface. If this is a wasteland then why are so many of the buildings intact? Why are there so many people still alive? Why is there so much food around? All perfectly valid questions, on face value a surprising amount of civilization seems to have survived relatively intact. It’s only when you stop and consider what the world must have looked like before the bombs fell that you realise how utterly wrong everything now is.

There seem to be a lot of buildings around but before the war there would have been hundreds, thousands. The people? There was likely a time when you’d not be able to move without bumping into dozens of  men, women and children. That food? Almost all of it is tinned or heavily processed so laden with salts and preservatives it was was probably barely edible when it was made let alone now.

Maybe this is what the experience of Fallout 3 is meant to be like? Having finally left Vault 101 at nineteen you have no idea what to expect, why wouldn’t you just accept the world as it is. It’s different from the world you know but you’ve seen little to tell you what the world was like before. You know in your head that there was some sort of war, but what does that really mean? Maybe things have always been this bad or something close to it?

“This seemed like such a nice place.”

Rapture, the USG Ishimura, the Von Braun, we are so accustom to visiting worlds that have been destroyed, or are fated to be destroyed within minutes of our arrival that it’s difficult to associate what they are now with what they might have been. I can’t remember seeing what it was like on Sera prior to the start of Gears Of War, so how am I supposed to care about what it has become? There’s barely enough time or opportunity in the game to tell the narrative it has, let alone convince me that the world is somehow worth fighting for.

Only by spending hours in its world could I reach the point of realisation that Fallout 3 provoked, where I understood the reality of the situation with my heart and not merely my head. I needed to explore that environment and its inhabitants thoroughly before I could grasp the full horror of their situation on anything more than an intellectual level.

The war torn African nation of Far Cry 2 is a brutal, hostile place, that much is obvious within minutes of your arrival. I just wonder if that depiction is very far removed from how a lot of people in the west see Africa? Are depictions of the tragic, dehumanising, effects of war that powerful when common perception is often“well that’s what it’s like there anyway”? I very much doubt that’s an accurate portrayal of life in sub-saharan country, but I have little first hand knowledge, no foundation on which to base a comparison. I accept the Africa of Far Cry 2 as an inhospitable place but it rarely feels like something has been lost.

Being told how something is or used to be can only ever give you a concept, an idea. Unless and until you actually experience it that concept has little emotional weight  If you’ve never seen the world at its best, its most vibrant, how are you supposed to care about it at its most desolate and hostile?

Don’t worry, it won’t hurt you.

Far Cry 2 is a desolate wasteland all but devoid of life. The few souls you do meet are all out for themselves. Most are content to shoot first and not bother with the questions. The few “buddies” you do acquire are little better, each is out to get what they can from you and the rest of the country and damn the consequences.

Fallout 3 is teeming with life, you can barely travel fifty yards without finding something of interest, a burnt out shopping complex overrun by cannibalistic bandits, a town of decrepit brickwork and corrugated iron. You’re actions will cause you to make friends, and enemies, and there are plenty of people who simply don’t care what you do.

Maybe it’s just my own perceptions but those two descriptions feel the wrong way round. Far Cry 2 is set in a war torn African nation, Fallout 3 in the area around Washington D.C. two hundred years after a nuclear war. For the former to be all but empty and the latter to be packed with things to do and people to interact with doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with me.

There’s a map of the Capital Wastelands on the wall in my front room (Yeah I know, you don’t have to tell me how big a geek I am, especially as it’s sitting above a map of Liberty City), and looking at it I realised there is an incredible wealth of content in the game world. Though clearly a credit to the talent of Bethesda this cornucopia of places and people seems at odds with the fiction of the world. Two hundred years after an apocalyptic nuclear war and there are hundreds of people alive and computers that not only still function but which have somehow retained all their data? Compared to this the fictional Leboa-Sako and Bowa Seko regions of Far Cry 2 are positively spartan.

"Don't worry boy, there's bound to be something over the next hill."

The world of Fallout 3 is designed to ensure that you are never lacking for something to do or somewhere to go. For all its carefully designed locations and quests it can feel like the world is only there because you are. People have their own routines but there’s always a suspicion that if you weren’t looking they’d stand around waiting for you. Of course in this respect Far Cry 2 is little different, of the dozens of mercenaries in country it seems you are the only one capable of actually getting anything done, to the extent that often people seem to be waiting solely for a chance to ask something of you.

I’ve talked before about how I’ve often been left to walk across what felt like miles of empty country in order to find a specific location in Far Cry 2. In these moments the sense of isolation, of being lost in a hostile environment is pronounced. Yet exploring the Capital Wastelands I never feel anything approaching that sensation. Yet it seems to be exactly the emotions such a post-apocalyptic wasteland should evoke. I’ve become engaged in the search for my father, I’ve saved people from a life of slavery or worse at the hands of Super Mutants and nearly died trying to swim across a radioactive river. But I have never once felt at risk, if things become too dangerous I might die but I’d appear again (Thanks to the Autosave) either at the entrance to the area I am in, or just outside the last town I visited. Usually though even that break in gameflow isn’t necessary, provided I can get out of the immediate area I am free to fast-travel to safety in an instant.

The Capital Wasteland is designed to be entertaining but not threatening, everywhere you look there is something to find, something to do and never any real risk. The sickly yellow sky, pools of radioactive water and assorted mutants might look threatening but like the scares of an amusement park ghost train they are ultimately harmless. Bethesda seem to constantly hold back from making the post apocalyptic wastes more than a background. The sense of threat, of hostility of being dumped alone in an uncaring world is never one that is toyed with.

Far Cry 2‘s world is strangely lacking in content, with seemingly only three tiny “cities” in the entire country and a population that is either outright hostile or selfishly demanding of your help. Despite all this it succeeds in reinforcing the notion that this is a world that doesn’t want you in it. You are not the centre of attention you are an annoyance to be eradicated; Africa doesn’t care whether you live or die, though I have the feeling it might prefer the latter.

In the press and the gaming community at large Fallout 3 is praised for its wealth of content and Far Cry 2 berated for its overt hostility. Thematic consistency it seems is not that important. For all the talk of immersion and realism it seems gamers still want games that provide for them, that make them the centre of the action, the pivotal agent in the events of the world, the nexus around which everything is focused.

For all the talk of narrative and thematic maturity it seems games are still focused on fulfiling a power fantasy, the most base and narcissistic of all power fantasies, that of being the most important person in the world.

Wasteland Detective.

Warning: Fallout 3 main quest spoilers. Do not read if you don’t want spoilers for “Following in His Footsteps” or “Scientific Pursuits”.

Quests in Role Playing Games can feel very similar. Go to an area, talk to a specific NPC, kill some creatures, find an object and return it to an NPC, add these elements together in different combinations and you’ve got a dozen quests differentiated by a layer of contextual coating. Little in the way of thought is required unless the quest is explicitly a puzzle. Even if a quest is ostensibly a detective story solving the mystery is usually a case of going from point A to point B and talking to the required people at each location before moving on, there’s rarely a need to investigate as everything is presented to you. Maybe you might have to find one specific NPC in a given location, but the chances are the moment you talk to them you’ll know you’ve found the right person. Of course in order to get anything from them you’ll probably have to perform a further quest, and it’s back to the same sequence of actions in a different order.

It’s rare to find a quest where you really have to use your brain and work something out, where you have to make that mental connection between two facts or event in order to work out where to go next. There’s very little requirement to use the “little grey cells”.

I can only remember one instance where such action has been required and I believe it was the result of a bug.

"You're not my Father!"

Playing Fallout 3, I’d completed the first part of the main quest to try and find my missing father and had been told to head to the Galaxy News Radio building. My first attempt to do so ended in a violent death at the hands of a Super Mutant Behemoth so instead of trying again immediately I set about wandering around the outskirts of Washington DC, ostensibly trying to find a different route to the GNR building but in truth just exploring for its own sake. After visiting a number of locations along the banks of the Potomac River I came across Rivet City.

Since I was looking for my father, the majority of the dialogue choices with characters include and option to ask if they have seen him. Taking this tact with Harkness the guard at the entrance to Rivet City I was told that I should talk to a Doctor Li. This I did and within moments of starting a conversation with her she recognised me, having known my father. During the subsequent discussion with her she was able to tell me that my dad had been to Rivet City and had left to return to Project Purity. At this point I was presented with a single dialogue choice stating that I had been to Project Purity and not found anything. It felt a little strange to be presented with this as the only option because as far as I knew I had no idea where Project Purity was. Unable to do anything else I selected that option and was told I should return and look for some Holotapes or other clues as to my father’s current whereabouts. I was able to gain a little more information about the purpose of Project Purity but was unable to find out where it was, as the game seemed to think I had already been there.

Standing there in Rivet City with the knowledge that I had actually been so close to finding my father and not realised it, and that I would now have to work out where exactly Project Purity might be I felt a growing sense of admiration for Fallout 3. I no longer felt like I was simply following the trail of breadcrumbs set out before me in order to find my father but that I had been fortunately enough to come across an old friend of his, through my own actions not by following a prescribed quest and that now I would have to retrace my steps and try and work out where I’d been that might have housed Project Purity.

After some thought I decided upon a possible location. I returned to the Jefferson Memorial and set about exploring in earnest. It turns out I was correct in my deduction and the reason I’d not realised it was the location of Project Purity was because upon first entering the building hours earlier I’d encountered a number of Super Mutants and without the resources to deal with them I’d left before venturing further than the first few rooms. For the following hour or so as I explore the extents of the Jefferson Memorial and Project Purity labs I felt an emotional investment in the storyline that the game had been unable to instill in my before that point. I felt like I was now actively searching for my father and using my brains to deduce where he might be and where he might have gone. After recovering and listening to some of my father’s recordings I was looking forward to trying to location this mysterious Vault 112. I brought up my PipBoy to start planning my searching only to find that the game was now pointing me to a specific location in the Western wastelands, the implication being that somehow without having ever visited that area of the wastelands and with only some vague information to go on I somehow knew exactly where to go. The spell was broken, I was no longer an active participant in the search for my father, I was once again simply along for the ride, following the breadcrumbs laid out for me.

For a little over an hour my investment in the storyline of Fallout 3 was greater than with any other game. My actions and those of my character were in sync: I was actively looking for my father. I was investing my time in the search and getting somewhere, only for the curtain to be  pulled back after all my efforts. The game took my hand and showed me exactly where to go next. All that effort had been meaningless, I would find my father regardless of the effort I put into the search; I just had to follow the trail. I gave up with the main quest at that point, it was clear that the freedom to actually try and find my father wasn’t going to occur, I was going to be guided all the way, destine to follow and never to think for myself. For a time Fallout 3 came so close to the ideal of “being there” that it was able to provide an experience I’ve never had before. Only for it to fall back on the traditional signposting in a desire to ensure I didn’t get lost. Surely part of exploring a place is the potential to get lost, to miss something and find an alternate route for yourself?

Its own reward?

I often wonder what games are trying to say. Playing Fallout 3 I’ve found myself receiving an explicit reward simply for finding a new location. The fact that there might be new items, characters and quests in that location, or that the act of exploration itself might be rewarding isn’t consider a strong enough incentive. The game decides that I need to gain some experience points for the act of exploring.

I appreciate the experience gain but am left wondering what message I am supposed to take from it. Does the game believe that my attention span is such that without a constant stream of reward I will stop playing? That in game rewards are not a compelling enough reason to keep playing? That fun is directly proportional to personal gain?

One clear subtext seems to be that nothing should be its own reward, that exploration is not an end in itself but a means. A lesson potentially learnt from World of Warcraft where everything seems to be a means to an end that never arrives.

A measure of morality.

Apparently I’m a nice guy. At least that’s what my trusty Pip-Boy 3000 (Model A) tells me. I’m glad it does this because I probably wouldn’t have known otherwise, what with people commenting on how nice a person I am or how much of a “goody two shoes” I’ve been. Fallout 3 is giving me a curious sense of déjà vu, I’ve had this experience before.

I was a bit more of an asshole in Mass Effect, but really the galaxy wasn’t going to save itself and the council seemed content to sit around all day talking and never take any action. I think a degree of bluntness was warranted. I was a Renegade, the game reliably informed me of that regardless of my own opinions on my actions. The game was making a judgement call on the kind of person it thought I was.

Dozens of titles have featured similar metrics for portraying good or evil, usually based on a Judeo-Christian view of morality. I appreciate the desire to allow for a range of player behaviours, and using the cultural mores of the western world makes a degree of sense given the perceived audience for such games. I become concerned when the game feels a need to tell me explicitly how good or evil it believes I have been; the issues I have with such systems are two fold.

My first problem is that the interface of the game is usually designed to represent my own knowledge of myself and my status. It describes my mental and physical state, the items I am carrying and any information I have gleamed during the course of the game. In that case shouldn’t the interface be as impartial as possible? In my life I have done things that others have not been happy with. I’ve often been caused to questioned my actions but ultimately the only guide for my morality are the reactions of others and my own conscience . I don’t have an internal meter telling me I’ve shifted 2 points towards the good side of the morality spectrum.

In their own mind I suspect most people consider themselves to be fairly decent, flawed yes, but neither paragons of virtue nor amoral villains. Even people who society as a whole would consider “evil” are likely to have their own motivations for their actions and not consider themselves in the same way others do. Everybody is the hero of their own story, we take the actions we do based on our own sense of morality influenced by our culture, upbringing and belief system.

For a game to offer choices of varying morality and then judge those choices seems counter productive. The relative morality of our choices is ultimately judged by the reactions of society, of the world around us and the people we meet; it is rarely known immediately and exactly.

My second issue is that by making player morality or karma, an interface element encourages an attitude of “playing the gauges” whereby players will make their decisions based not on a sense of role playing or what they view as right or wrong in a given situation but on which option will push them one way or the other on the great morality meter.

Games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect already do a good job presenting a world and a cast of characters who react to your actions based on their own individual personalities do we really need dedicated interface elements telling us how the game itself (and by abstraction the developer) views our actions?

Games are about exploration and what is more powerful than exploring our own personality? This can’t be done on anything more than a surface level if the interface of the game itself is constantly making judgements about what kind of person it thinks we are.