Two steps forward…

With each consecutive hardware generation it takes time to achieve what was possible at the end of the previous generation. New hardware requires new software techniques and often a return to first principles. The initial move from sprite based to polygon based games saw a marked increase in the spatial complexity of environments but was accompanied by a dramatic decrease in the size and number of objects that could exist within those environments. This clearest example of this can be seen when comparing Doom and Quake, two games separated by three years and an entire dimension. It wouldn’t be until five years later that the release of Serious Sam saw a return to the sprawling environments and hundreds of enemies that Doom boasted.

Twenty years ago I was playing a game that allowed me to explore thousands of square miles of virtual terrain. I was driving snowmobiles down mountains in order to meet one of over thirty non-player characters each with their own personality and skills which I would hopefully convince them to use in the fight against the invading forces of General Masters. This was Midwinter, prequel to the game I still  consider my favourite game of all time, Midwinter II: Flames Of Freedom.

Since then, with each hardware generation, the scale of the environments in which I’ve been able to play has decreased. Only recently has the  trend started to reverse and I have been able to have a similar experience to that I had twenty years ago. Far Cry 2 is the nearest I’ve come to recapturing that experience of first playing Midwinter, yet even though Far Cry 2 shows a significant increase in graphical fidelity over Midwinter the range of options available to me, the possibility space of the game, feels reduced.

It would be extremely narrow minded of me to ignore the impact the increase in technology has had on my reaction to the game, or to underestimate how the subtle changes in available mechanics have altered the dynamics. Despite these advancements in both technology and design it’s still difficult to ignore the feeling that somehow I’m playing a version of the same game I played twenty years ago and that the core experience has changed little in that time.

Twenty years of technological advancement, several hardware generations all so I can have essentially the same experience available on my Atari ST. I can’t help but wonder if that time has really been put to the best use.

This is not the only example I can think of where a recent titles has felt like it could have been created years previously. Last year saw the release of Left 4 Dead, a major factor in its appeal is the ability to face off against hordes of zombies alongside three companions.  Four players together fighting off dozens of mindless enemies, it’s a fantasy that holds a lot of appeal. Yet that sense of four players against overwhelming odds, is an experience I can distinctly remember having eight years ago. Alongside three friends I faced down hundreds of enemies in the twisted ancient Egyptian setting of Serious Sam. The sheer number of enemies that game is able to thrown at the player is absurd, the final level is subtitled “Infinite Bodycount” and I honestly wonder how much of that is hyperbole.

The mechanics of Left 4 Dead could have been implemented seven years earlier in Serious Sam or even fifteen years earlier in Doom. The graphical fidelity of such an implementation would be much lower, but would the experience itself be that much different?

Of course it’s not only technology that has changed in that time. Those seven years have allowed artists, sound designers and level designers to hone their craft to the extent that even if Left 4 Dead or something similar had appeared earlier it would not possess the same level of craft. It takes time to learn and apply the techniques of filmic art direction and indirect training that make Left 4 Dead the holistic experience that it is.

This still doesn’t completely lessen the sensation that twenty years of technological advancement have done little for the actual design of games, and that is  a wasted opportunity. Commercial video games are approaching their fortieth anniversary and with the first few years of each hardware generation spent trying to recreate the experiences that were possible before it’s little wonder that it can feel like video games have had trouble growing up in that period.

The Perma-death interview.

A large part of what fascinates me about games is the subjective nature of the play experience itself, the notion that no two people will have the same experience even within a heavily scripted game. Recently Australian blogger Ben Abraham has been gaining attention for his decision to partake in an “iron man” play through of Far Cry 2, no reloading when his character dies the game is over. The manner in which this player imposed boundary altered his play experience is something I’m particularly interested in. Fortunately Ben was kind enough to answer some questions I had:

1. In your own words, what prompted your decisions to play Far Cry 2 in this fashion?

I think the initial desire was to impose a new way of playing Far Cry 2 that would lead to more of those fun moments where it feels like something is really hanging in the balance – where the outcome is hinged upon my performance. I thought that perhaps by imposing a limit of a single life, it would add more drama and weight to my actions and performance in the game and ultimately provide me with a more satisfying experience.

In that sense it was for entirely selfish, experiential reasons – I wanted to enjoy and continue enjoying Far Cry 2 having played it a lot already.

2. Having completed Far Cry 2 previously, can you describe some of the ways in which permadeath changed the way you approach the game? Have you noticed yourself doing things differently when you played it under normal conditions?

I guess the approach I took reflected my desire to have a fun experience, and so I took it very seriously and played it quite safe at first. When the initial sense of tension and danger wore off I experimented a bit more, deliberately courted danger a little bit. When playing normally however I probably strode right up to danger and punched it in the face, trusting luck and skill to get me by, but by prioritizing my survival I became much more reserved and cautious. Kinda boring, really.

Practical things that changed how I played included picking safe options, and utilizing all the points on my “How To Kill People More Effectively” strategy. Basically any time there was a dangerous option and a boring safe option, I took the safe one.

3. Do you think this type of play through is something you could imagine doing for a game you had never played before?

I don’t think so. Far Cry 2 is quite forgiving of your mistakes in the sense that if you ‘die’ with a rescue buddy around, you get a second chance. That’s one of the reasons I thought it would be feasible for an ordinary non-uber player like myself to complete Far Cry 2 without ever dying.

4. Is there something specific to the design of Far Cry 2 that makes it more suitable to this type of play through than other games? Do you think Far Cry 2 was a good choice for what you were intending to do, and if so why?

I think the buddy rescue system is one of the best ways of dealing with the problem of lost and wasted game-time that you get by forcing players to reload and try parts of a game again – and I do think that it is a loss. Jesper Juul talks about ‘time lost’ as a punishment in a talk from GDC earlier this year.

5. You have been describing the events that took place from a first person perspective (With a notable exception), and as a connected narrative, is there an explicit reason for this approach to the presentation of your experience?

Part of the attraction to the “one life” approach was that it made everything in the game more meaningful to the story – that is, never ever was an action ‘wasted’ because I died and had to start over. I had also hoped that it would add weight to every action, even insignificant ones, but as it turns out, it’s not quite that straightforward.

I wanted to write from a first person perspective because of a couple of reasons – firstly I was (and still am) increasingly bored with straight essay style writing about games. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the good ones, and they’ll certainly always have their place, but more and more I’m finding myself attracted to the kind of games criticism that involves some application of creativity of expression. I’m a bit of a desperate fan of Kieron Gillen’s somewhat controversial New Games Journalism style of writing because it doesn’t just give permission to a writer to be creative, it demands it. I think a lot of people mis-read it back in the day and took it as meaning that was the only way you were meant to write about games, but it’s not meant to be so constrictive – it’s just another tool in the critic’s toolbox.

I also thought that the first person perspective would let me describe how I was feeling while playing it, and as the whole point of the exercise was to change the experience, keep it new and interesting, that seemed the logical choice.

6. The concept of adding additional rules to a game is not a new one: “Iron Man” runs, “Speed Runs”, various approaches have been adopted when playing Thief: The Dark Project: “Ghosting” etc. From your own perspective why do you feel your play through has garnered so much attention? How much of it do you feel is because of the way your have presented your experience? Do you feel people are more interested in the story of your play through, or the concept of what you are doing itself?

I think Kieron Gillen when he linked to the story in RPS’ Sunday Papers hit the nail on the head when he said he wished he’d thought of it. Like you say, self imposing additional rules and constraints isn’t new, but the idea of writing about them is still not done particularly often, and almost never with a view to how it changes the experience.

So in that respect I think it’s the concept that made people sit up and take notice. Whether they stuck around and enjoyed the story, I can’t be sure, but if it’s any indication comments have dropped off slightly in the later episodes while pageviews are still holding steady at somewhere around 100 a day.

When thinking about whether people are explicitly interested in the story, the question I’ve got to ask is “What really is the permanent death story?” Is it the experience that I, the player, have in the game? Or is it the story I construct with blog posts and pictures as it’s received by readers of the blog (and eventually, in the PDF novelization)? From my vantage point as both player and reader of the story, I know that there are a lot of things that happened in the game that get cut from the written story because they either make it too long and boring, compromising the quality of the narrative, or they’re nearly impossible to convey to a reader.

How does one write about the feeling of boating down a river under the cover of darkness as the moon slides behind trees? How do you convince a reader that you really were imagining the feel of the breeze in your face, and the feel of being immersed in this environment? Does the reader even care whether or not I was engaged at this particular point or not? How do I convince a reader that the idea of a soldier who I already shot, but who was still staggering around, was going to burn to death mildly horrified me? The fact that it horrified me in a videogame at all is still amazing to me because videogames suck at making me feel anything other than a desire to collect shit or blow stuff up.

I think it’s in trying to convey these sorts of experiences and personal reactions that I draw the most inspiration from NGJ. Not that Permanent Death is even an NGJ piece, it’s not quite personal enough and it often borders on the edge of being Fan Fiction, so I guess there’s that.

7. Permanence is an unusual term to use when discussing any video game, after all isn’t every decision you make permanent? You can return, change your actions and play out the consequences of that alerted decision but that doesn’t remove the fact that at some point you did make that initial decision?

When writing my thesis last year, I downloaded a single-life speed run of Halo 2 completed on Legendary difficulty. I watched it religiously – I watched all two and a half hours of it through more than once. I think what was so attractive and mesmerising about it was that it seemed to me like this is how Halo 2 was meant to be played.

In terms of making sense within the overarching narrative and fiction, this was how Master Chief would have done it. Any time you die, you mess up and you fail to live up to the chief’s standard, so you have to repeat a section until you get it right. Why do we not see the inherent weirdness in this? I think we have this ingrained, rote-learned blindness to the fundamental strangeness of videogame narratives. We do not experience the real world in anything remotely like the way we experience the events in a videogame.

Obviously, there are lots of good reasons for some of this – if it weren’t possible to fail then where would the challenge in the game come from? I think there are some great alternatives just waiting to be discovered, but so far all we do boils down to retconning the story on-the-fly. Ideally, every game would be perfectly set at that optimum level of difficulty that made it just hard enough to stay interesting, but not hard enough that you ever die and have to repeat any sections. I think most games err on the side of un-boring and go for just a little too hard. Which is fine, but it’s hardly a perfect system.

8. In reference to the previous question, would the decision to play Far Cry 2 again after this play through mitigate the decisions you made? Is that your intent, to never play Far Cry 2 again, and therefore make this your definitive play through?

I definitely intend to play Far Cry 2 again in the future, so no, the series of events in-game that became ‘Permanent Death’ are in no way meant to be the (or even just my) definitive Far Cry 2 story-experience. For starters, they are a fantastically more boring sequence of events than I have had in even other games of Far Cry 2, so it would be doing the game a disservice to leave it at that.

I don’t think playing again would diminish the permadeath story, either. There will always be the written record that roughly equates to that in-game series of events so I don’t think it would be impacted by playing again – or even by someone else attempting the same (or similar) thing.

9. How do you feel about the fact that there is no way to prove you have actually done anything you’ve described? Have you ever considered that there is no way in which the game can confirm that you in fact have not died? Is there such a means of recording this information that I have missed?

It’s interesting, I’ve been thinking recently about what I would do if I died right before the end of the game in a brain-meltingly stupid way, by shooting myself in the face with a grenade launcher, for example. If I was tantalisingly close to the end and messed up I know I would be tempted to lie about it and just keep playing as if nothing happened – after all how would anyone know? As far as the written Permadeath story goes, it’s whatever I say it is, right?

I guess there is no way of proving that I really did all the things I said I did, except to take me at my word. I don’t know if I’d want to there to be a way of proving what I said I did was what really happened, either. I wonder if it would limit the things I could do with the written story – as in, I couldn’t get away with as much ‘sexing up’ of the story as I have so far. I’ll freely admit that I’ve added in all sorts of stuff to make the written story more readable – like adding in some imaginary reasons for why I did the things I did in game.

It’s quite boring to just say “And then I shot some dude because it feels good to click my mouse and have the little man fall over” so I often invent a motivation for the character. I think it comes back to the question of ‘What is the Permanent Death story?’, because if you’re being truly honest, there aren’t any reasons for why we do a lot of what we do in games. Why do we shoot enemy soldiers? Because we’re told we should? Are we even explicitly told that most of the time? It’s certainly not because we are afraid of dying ourselves, as would be the case in a real combat situation. So is it fair game to pretend that’s why I was doing it in the game? I think for the sake of making an interesting written story, it is.

10. Do you think if there was an Achievement for completing the game without dying (Well until the very end), this is something you would have attempted for no other reason that obtaining that Achievement? What about if there was a scoreboard recording the total play time before death, would you be interested in trying to beat the “scores” of others?

I think if there were an achievement for it I wouldn’t need to do the Permanent Death ‘experiment’/story. I’m not very interested in achievements so I may have never bothered with it, but then I may have just to get some additional replay out of the game. Who’s to say?

Actually, I take that first bit back – I may still have done the permadeath play through because it’s important to note that anyone who finishes the game already does never die – because any “narrative branch” of the story that leads to the players death, gets pruned off when they die. Your loading the game eliminates the series of events between that save and your previous death from the Far Cry 2 history and your character goes on none-the-wiser. You may know and remember, but as far as the story is concerned, no one else does because it never happened. Now, the difference with permanent death is that there are no pruned branches.

I’m not really a competitive player, so scoreboards hold next to no interest for me. If you want to play Left 4 Dead with me though, I totally love cooperation and I daresay I work harder at a game when it’s for a cooperative goal than when it’s for a competitive reason.

11. Personally where do you fall on the ludology vs. narratology debate? How do you feel your personal opinions have influenced the decisions you have made during your play through?

I think the ludology/narratology debate is worn out and as Ian Bogost says in his DiGRA keynote, even the question of whether it’s one or the other presupposes a formalist approach to the ontology of games. Realistically, my opinions on whether games are play versus narrative only really matters when thinking about games as stories or games as playgrounds and any other time of the day I’m quite happy to let games be whatever they want to be.

Bogost characterises the Ludology/Naratology debate as “a formalist rather than functionalist approach to the study of games” and by arguing over what games are we end up ignoring what games mean already.

12. A number of other people joined you in your permadeath play through at the start, I believe none of them are still playing having already died. Do you think there is anything about the way you have approached your play through that has helped you to stay alive?

I think it’s more sheer bloody-mindedness that’s kept me going. Michel McBride got bored and quit, and if you’re an experienced player it’s not that hard to stay alive on normal. A reader who started up his own blog was playing along too, but on the hardest difficulty and he didn’t last very long. For me, it’s turned into an endurance test, rather than a skill test.

Multi-level decision making.

At any moment during a game players are liable to be thinking about events in multiple timeframes at once. Performing tasks that are over in seconds, in order to achieve goals that are over in minutes as a means of completing missions that may take hours.

The lowest level of actions occur on the Immediate layer, these are the second to second decisions made in the heat of combat, during a conversation, or while climbing a wall. When and where to shoot, which dialogue line to select, which handhold to reach for. These events are the Encounters, over in seconds and repeated dozens of times during the course of the game. The narrative strength of actions in this layer is best served through directly embedded content. Animation cycles, dialogue lines, and the options available to the player all serves as vectors for narrative meaning.

Above this there is the Tactical layer, the longer term minute to minute decisions made in the execution of plans. Which particular enemies to engage, which NPCs to talk to, which wall to scale. These are the Objectives, and can be defined either explicitly by the game, or implicitly by the players themselves. Variation in these Objectives and the levels in which they take place can be used to provide narrative.

Operating above both of these there is often, but not always,  a Strategic layer, actions on this layer occur over a much longer term, possibly hours. They include, which missions to accept, which character upgrades to select, which tools to equip. They can be either explicitly defined as Quests chains, or often they are not defined at all the goal of the Strategic layer simply being to reach the end of the game. This layer is best used to define the narrative context for actions that occur on the lower layers.

  • The Immediate layer is Reactive.
  • The Strategic layer is Proactive.
  • The Tactical layer is both.

Though some traits can be associated with each layer,  the boundaries between them are fairly permeable. The goals of the Immediate and Tactical layer are often elements of those defined on the Strategic layer. Strategic goals lead to the creation of multiple Tactical goals, and multiple Immediate goals will be needed to fulfil a specific Tactical goal.

If the Strategic goal is to get to a specific location, it might require engaging in combat with several groups of enemies. This leads to the creation of Tactical goals concerned with how to deal with each enemy group and in what order. These Tactical goals in turn lead to the creation of Immediate goals, when to shoot, where to move. Successful completion of the Strategic goal requires successful completion of the Tactical and Immediate goals that stem from it.

In this way it can be seen that actions on the Strategic layer directly influence those on the lower layers.

Layers

Plans trickle down from higher layers to lower ones. Immediate actions are defined, their scope is limited by decisions made on the Tactical layer. Where you are and which tools you have at your disposal are based on decisions made at the Tactical layer, which in turn are influenced by decisions made on the Strategic layer. If a particular character upgrade has not been obtained on it will not be available.

This flow of influence does not only occur in one directions. Actions and their consequences trickle upwards. Events that occur in the Immediate layer change the Tactical status of the world, new routes are located, items are found. Events on the Tactical layer in turn affect the options available in the Strategic layer. Meaningful actions are ones that send ripples out beyond the layer in which they occur and affect decisions made on all layers: actions on the Immediate layer that leads to consequences on the Tactical and Strategic layers.

In ludic terms each layer has some degree of repetition, as there are only so many valid actions that can be performed at any given time. The repetition is mitigated most on the Strategic layer because the goals are long term, any repetition that does exist occurs over the course of several hours making it difficult to ascertain any patterns in the type of actions being performed.

On the Immediate layer the sense of repetition can be the strongest, as often the core mechanics of a game only allow for a few options. However at this layer the direct connection between action and outcome serves to lesson the impact of the repetition, as the consequences of actions on this layer are often the most directly stimulating, the blood spurts of a successful headshot, the ding of a loot pickup, the fluid animation of a character clambering over a ledge. Each one a little endorphin kick that keeps us engaged; if anybody is in doubt I point you to the immediate feedback presented in a game like Diablo.

The biggest problem with repetition comes on the Tactical layer. Action games suffer the most on this layer. Consider Far Cry 2, the actual combat mechanics and the options available to players in combat can be quite engaging (The Immediate layer is well designed). The ability to select which missions to attempt and in which order lessens the restrictive sense of repetition on the Strategic layer. However regardless of which mission the player selects and for whom, the short term goals required to complete each are usually very similar, if not identical: go here kill, these people\find this item, get back to here. The execution of these individual Tactical goals on the Immediate layer might be entertaining but that does little to cover up the fact that players are basically doing exactly the same thing during each mission. This is not helped by a lack of narrative feedback regarding the overarching consequences of actions. Assassinating a Police chief might be contextualised differently to the assassination of a Warlord but the narrative feedback from each event is not differentiated enough to mask the underlying repetition.

Because Tactical goals can take minutes to an hour to complete they occur over too short a timeframe for their patterns to be lost in the noise of all the other decisions, yet at too long a timeframe for that endorphin kick to keep players engaged. It’s here that a strong narrative context can keep players engaged in performing what are mechanic very similar actions.

Halo: Combat Evolved is another prime example of a game that suffers on the Immediate layer. Those “thirty seconds of fun”are, at least for me, some of the most pleasurable in gaming, but there can be no denying that on the Tactical layer the game is little more than a sequence of goals of the form: “Kill these hostiles.”

With their focus on Immediate and Tactical actions, action games are geared to a shorter play session, that serves to mitigate their repetitive nature. Plans are often completed within seconds or minutes, so players are given more points at which they are “free” to quit because they have no plans remaining to complete. Under these circumstances it’s little surprise that action game stories are fairly perfunctory, serving only to cover up the core mechanical repetition and provide a loose context for who, where and why.

In comparison a high level strategy game (An accurate genre name if ever there was one) like Civilization IV relies almost entirely on actions playing out on the Tactical and Strategic layers. This leads to a long term investment as players keep playing in order to see the consequences of actions, the beloved\cursed “one more turn” syndrome. Goals at these layers are well served by a more “hands off” approach to narrative, as players will be less likely to baulk at the lack of direct feedback on the Immediate layer, when they have played a greater part in the selection of the Tactical goals that led to those Immediate actions.

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.

Continuous Meaning.

As has been discussed previously it makes no sense to analyse a game mechanic devoid of the context in  which it occurs. At an abstract level Jump is a mechanic that exists in many games from Super Mario Galaxy to Mirror’s Edge or Far Cry 2. The context within which each mechanic is performed is what imbues an otherwise similar action with a different meaning. The Jump mechanic in Mirror’s Edge is not possessed of the same layers of meaning as the Jump mechanic in Far Cry 2. Neither is a Jump performed at one point in Far Cry 2 as meaningful as a Jump performed at another point; the circumstances surrounding the mechanic have changed.

The specific context in which a mechanic exists is always in flux, previous actions influence the context of future actions.

If I am standing in the desert in a far corner of the world with nobody in sight then Jump has a decidedly different meaning than it would if I was in the middle of a frantic fire fight in the capital city.

It’s natural to expect that the more meaningful a mechanic, the more obvious, and potentially dramatic, the reaction it provokes. If I am alone and I start to Jump the action is not very meaningful at all, so little to no response is expected. If I am in combat in an object rich environment and I Jump the action is rich with meaning. Consequently I respect the world to response in an equally meaningful manner; enemies will change their attack patterns, objects will move if I knock them over, I will land on other objects if my Jump enables me to reach them.

The same actions performed in different contexts should lead to different, but contextually appropriately responses.

Some mechanics are, by their very nature, more inherently meaningful than others. Shoot, is a mechanic full of cultural and psychological implications that imbue it with much richer layers of meaning than those associated with Jump. However if I Shoot when standing alone in the middle of the desert I still expect to elicit very little response, despite Shoot being more symbolically meaningful. This is because a lot of the meaning associated with Shoot is dependant on there being other objects around to act upon. Shoot is inherently more meaningful than Jump but only in certain circumstances. Shooting when in combat in the middle of a city is an action where a dramatic response is expected.

The meaning of a particular mechanic is governed not only by the inherent symbolism and cultural associations of that action (Shooting is symbolically and culturally more meaningful than Jumping) but also the specific context in which each action occurs.

An example of this can be seen in a very specific manner in Mirror’s Edge. The movement options available are highly dependant on the current speed at which you are moving, which is turn is influenced by the previous moves you have performed. No action occurs in isolation as every previous action has some influence on the current context and therefore your range of possible actions and the potential responses to them.

Because all actions alter the state of the game world in some fashion, the context of future actions is determined by the previous actions that led to the current state of the game world. This means all actions that alter the context of the game world, in affect any and all actions, are meaningful as they have an impact on future actions.

All actions are meaningful if they alter the context of future actions.

Contextual Specification – Examples.

Through unintentional irony, L.B Jeffries has helped me prove my assertion that:  “Abstract concept can be powerful but are difficult to appreciate without specific examples.” I’d like to claim that I had intended for my previous post to be overly abstract so as to prove a point, but unfortunately it was merely the result of poor editing. Therefore I’m going to continue with some specific examples of embedded and emergent boundaries and their effects on the experience of play.

The overarching context of Far Cry 2 is that of being a mercenary in a war torn African nation. The embedded boundaries of the game present this fictional setting, imposing limits on both logical and physical exploration; where the player is free to go and the actions they are free to take. A part of these embedded boundaries are the mechanics handling the implementation of the buddy system. This includes not only the logical rules explaining buddy behaviour and interaction but also the textures, models, animations and audio lines related to each buddy. All of these are elements embedded in the game, crafted by the designers and artists; immutable. Though different players can meet and interact with different buddy characters the rules governing those interactions and the assets used to present them are selected from a predefined range of possibilities.

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The road less traveled…

When I play Far Cry 2 I am bringing, often unintentionally, a set of subjective emergent boundaries with me. My interactions with the character of Nasreen Davar might have relied on the predefined rules and assets that are embedded elements of the game, however my reaction to her was influenced heavily by my own perceptions and beliefs. My personal play experience was still within the confines of that defined by the embedded boundaries (as is the experience of everybody who plays the game), but the specifics of that experience were further shaped by the emergent boundaries I had erected. The motivations I assigned to Nasreen and other characters was not something hardwired into the mechanics of the game, it was an emergent conceit born of my interpretation of the provided fictional context.

Nowhere in the game rules is there anything that explicitly defines a scene of implied rape, however during my time that particular portion of the game it was something I was very conscious of. Nasreen had been contextualised as a female mercenary and through interactions with me had been deemed by the game, and myself, to be my buddy. When she was taken away the embedded boundaries restricted the actions that were available to rescuing her or escaping on my own, but my  own emergent boundaries restricted those two options even further to the singular activity of ensuring she was safe.

The emergent boundaries served to reinforce the embedded boundaries.

A further example of this form of reinforcement can be seen in the way that Far Cry 2 handled physical movement. Though a lot of the country is reachable by road there are various checkpoints on these roads that when approached will cause you to get be fired upon by the mercenaries guarding them. In the abstract: “certain locations on the map have clusters of respawning objects based around them.” As with my previous examples this abstract concept could apply to many situations, however in this case the locations are contextualised as checkpoints and the respawning objects as hostile mercenaries.

Far Cry 2‘s world is one at war, knowing this I came to the game with certain assumptions, certain emergent boundaries. One of which was that as the primary means of travel roads would be guarded and therefore dangerous. Entering the world I naturally tested this assumption, and finding it to be accurate I made it a point to avoid roads as much as possible. Doing so I found I was not attacked as frequently and I would often find diamonds, tapes, and alternate routes to important locations that I would have missed had I not gone off the beaten track.

The context of the game caused me to make certain assumptions, which were reinforced by the mechanics of the game, leading to a change in my play experience.

Emergent behaviours are ones influenced more by players own emergent boundaries than the embedded boundaries provided by the game.

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That’ll be expensive… Or not…

This process of reinforcement is not always the case however, consider Grand Theft Auto IV. The context of the game is that of a Serbian immigrant, Niko Bellic, arriving in America ostensibly to meet his successful cousin Roman. It’s clear from the moment you meet him that Roman is not exactly living the “American Dream” and money is a problem. Throughout the game the need for money is brought up as a motivation on numerous occasions often being the driving reason for Niko’s willing participation in criminal activities. For each of these activities Niko is rewarded with a resource which is contextualised as money, specifically American dollars. These are all embedded elements of the game.

Understanding the concept of money, and having a fair idea of how much a dollar is worth on average I was willing to accept being paid certain amounts for certain tasks. However within what felt like an unnaturally short period of time I had earned enough to buy a much better apartment than my current safe house, and live a significantly more affluent lifestyle. Despite this the game still made a point of encouraging me to take on missions to earn money.  The embedded boundaries of the game were in conflict with the emergent boundaries formed from my understanding of the concept of money and the relative worth of the dollar.

My emergent boundaries were undermining the embedded boundaries, there was a conflict, a dissonance between what the game was explicitly telling me was important and what it was implying was important.

I stopped caring about money as a motivation, and subsequently stopped caring about Niko Bellic as a character because his stated motivations were transparent falsehoods, he clearly didn’t need the money.

Contextual Specification.

When it comes to the creation of the common ground in which play occurs, the boundaries themselves can either be embedded or emergent.

Embedded boundaries are those defined prior to, and separate from, the act of play itself. They are the rules of the game and the narrative overlaid on those rules. These elements define what is possible and provide an underlying context.

Emergent boundaries are those that exist only during play, they include the actions of the player (though these are limited by the embedded rules), and the perceptions and biases the player brings to the narrative.

The embedded boundaries define the range of possible actions and motivations, the emergent boundaries define the precise actions and the motivations assigned to them by the player. Embedded boundaries provide the scope, emergent boundaries the specific shape.

Emergent boundaries are unique to each player and each play session, emergent boundaries form the fabula out of the entire possibility space of the game and its associated narrative. It is not possible for a designer to control these emergent boundaries they can only use the embedded boundaries to shape and influence the possible form of each player’s fabula.

The rules through which a designer controls and regulates the player’s interaction with a game directly influence the play experience but without context such abstract rules are meaningless. They can define what is possible but they cannot influence the meaning a player takes from a game. In order for rules to convey an emotion or idea, they need some narrative assigned to them.

The rules establish what actions are possible, the verbs, adverbs and nouns available to the player and their interactions. The narrative provides a fictional explanation for these actions as well as providing concrete instances of the nouns. The concept that “on contact blue objects remove red objects ” is a rule but the notion that “blue objects are water” and “red objects are blood” is part of the narrative. Additional elements of narrative can be layered on top leading to the concept that “water cleans blood”. The rules of the game have not changed from the original interaction of blue and red objects but now the action of using blue objects on red objects has been imbued with a much richer meaning.

The more narrative elements that are used to define the context the more specific the game becomes, and more pared down the range of potential meanings. The number of games that feature blue objects and red objects is huge, when the interaction between them is define the number of games that still fit that definition is reduced, this process of specification continues with each additional layer of narrative that is added.

Consider the the rule that “grey objects change their properties over time” this is a valid dynamic that is true of many objects, even now you are likely adding a context to that relationship to better understand it. If I contextualise “grey objects” as “weapons” then the range of valid possible examples are limited, though the relationship could still describe many situations from a weapon that can only function under certain circumstances, such as the “Hammer Of Dawn” from Gears Of War, to weapons that degrade in usability over time, such as those in Far Cry 2.

This process of specification is what takes a game from a collection of mechanics and dynamics to an experience with the potential to engage and enthrall. The embedded boundaries put in place by the designer can only take this specification so far. At that point the emergent boundaries defined by the player take it from the contextualised actions of the game itself to the unique personal experience of play.

Abstract concepts can be powerful but are difficult to appreciate without specific examples. In a game with little narrative context players will assign their own. They will personify game objects and assign motivations to their actions, becoming confused and frustrated if future actions do not fit these self assigned motivations.

This is an important consideration as player expectation is shaped as much, if not more, by their own perceptions and beliefs as it by any narrative context provided by the game itself.

Whenever any narrative element is layered onto a game mechanic not only does it strip out all other potential meanings it also bring with it a wealth of meaning both explicit or implied. These implied meanings are the most difficult to contend with, as they are part of the emergent boundaries defined by the player and are  often highly subjective.

The entire concept of ludonarrative dissonance exists because the implied context and meaning of abstract game mechanics are not taken into consideration. The embedded narrative context assigned to a specific game mechanic at the low level is in conflict with the narrative context layered onto the game at a higher level. What players have been led to believe about a game mechanic from its basic context with all its implied meaning, is being contradicted by the narrative presented at a higher level. The embedded boundaries of the game are operating in opposition to the emergent boundaries defined by the player; the common ground has broken down. The designer has not taken into consideration the implied meanings and associations that a specific context provokes.

Narrative Context.

On several occasions I’ve recounted events that took place while I was playing a game. I’ve described in detail the actions I took and the consequences of those actions, as well as explaining my motivations and emotional reaction to such events:

Jumping out I threw a Molotov at the pursuing vehicle. The Molotov hit the driver setting him on fire and killing him almost instantly. Ducking behind my dune buggy I drew my silenced MP-5 and after a brief game of cat and mouse around some nearby trees I was able to to finish off the second mercenary with a burst to the chest. While I’d been otherwise occupied the fire from my Molotov had ignited their vehicle and as I watched it started to spread toward mine. I sprinted back in an attempt to reach it and drive away before it too could catch fire. I was forced to turn away at the last moment as, already damaged from the initial crash, it exploded, taking a significant portion of my health with it and leaving me standing in the middle of nowhere.

Despite being an accurate description of the events as I perceived them, none of those things occurred in any discernible, measurable way. What actually happen in that period of time was that I moved my mouse in a specific sequence and pressed certain keys in a specific order in reaction to the changing images on my monitor and sound emitted by my speakers.

Somehow I had become so invested in the fictional context constructed by the game that it overrode my logical faculties. The events occurring within its fictional world temporarily became my own reality.

The described sequence of events, my story of that encounter, is unique to me and it existed in an intangible non-space defined by the feedback systems of the game and my understanding and perception of the context of my actions.

I’ve already discussed the concept of games as systems of communication, and fundamental to effective communication is the establishment of a common ground between all participants. Without a common ground, a shared context, even rudimentary communication is difficult and effective communication is impossible.

This concept of communication is not unique to games. Every work of fiction exists for the audience in this non-space bounded by the intersection of the text itself, ripe as it is with the intent of the author, and the mind of the audience, with all its associated preconceptions and prejudices. The form of this common ground and the story describing an individual’s path through it are unique to each individual and each reading. Though the boundaries of this common ground defined by the text itself are immutable those defined by the audience are inherently subjective and flexible.

When reading a book the reader mentally explores this common ground and through this exploration discovers the intended plot. Although this predefined sequence of events will be identical for every reader their individual emotional connection and response to it will be entirely based on the subjective elements they have brought with them.

The act of reading is the act of discovering each person’s individual subjective story. The process Corvus Elrod describes as the construction of the fabula.

If this description of reading as a process of exploration sounds familiar it should. The act of play is the act of exploring a bounded possibility space. The process of exploration forming a personal story within the common grounded formed by the game itself and our own beliefs and values. The fundamental differences between this form of exploration in a game and in other media is that player action has the capacity to change the landscape of this common ground, this possibility space.

Though the audience of a film, or the reader of a novel, is free to explore the common ground and the boundaries defined by the author, those boundaries are absolute and predefined. Events occur in a specific sequence regardless of any action taken on the part of the audience. We are free to scream at the girl to not go up the stairs because the killer is waiting but we know it will have no affect on the outcome. The aspects of the common ground open to exploration are those related to our interpretation of events and motivations, and our emotional reaction to those events. Such works of fiction allow us to explore ourselves through our reaction to the fictional context.

This is not true of games. The events I  described above were not a predefined sequence of occurrences structured by an author, but an emergent sequence of events caused by a confluence of in game circumstances only some of which were under my control.

Game designers cannot directly affect the experience the player has in the game. Their role is that of influencing and shaping the possible experiences, and designing the context for play. Each player’s fabula is one of an infinite number that exist within the bounded possibility space defined by the mechanics and dynamics of the game and the players own personality. Such works allow us to explore ourselves and also the rules and systems governing the possibility space, the game, itself.

Rules and mechanics exists only in the abstract, though they implicitly provided for exploration and discovery, stripped of all context their ability to convey meaning is greatly reduced. Consider the story described above stripped of context and reduced to the basic mechanical elements:

“Verb”  I “Verb” a “Noun” at the pursuing “Noun”. The “Noun” hit the “Noun” setting him “Adjective” and “Verb” him almost instantly. “Verb” behind my “Noun” I “Verb” my “Noun” and after a brief game of cat and mouse around some nearby “Nouns” I was able to to finish off the second “Noun” with a “Verb” to the “Noun”.

Even that almost meaningless story still relies on some context. The story constructed through the exploration of an entirely context free possibility space is a list of mechanical inputs and outputs. In order for any game to hold meaning, and thus compel us to suspend our disbelief and allow it to become our temporary reality, it requires the effective establishment of a context for actions. The bounded possibility space needs to become a bounded narrative space.

So how does a game designer go about establishing this bounded narrative space, this common ground? How do they maintain effective and meaningful communication?

A Human Reaction.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for the later stages of Far Cry 2.

It could be argued that the power of any work lies in its ability to make us question ourselves and our own beliefs.  This is something games are already capable of, though maybe those responsible don’t even realise it.

In a comment to a recent post by 2K Marin’s Steve Gaynor, Clint Hocking, Creative Director on Far Cry 2, stated his opinion that games need to move beyond “storymaking” to the creation of compelling experiences connected by meaningful human motivations. As can be seen from my subsequent comment this is an area I am very interested in and I find it noteworthy that Clint feels this was an area where Far Cry 2 failed. For me it contained some of the clearest examples of exactly what he is describing.

I’ve talked on several occasions about my reaction to Far Cry 2 and some of the feelings it evoked, though I have been avoiding some of the more specific instances due to a concern over what they might say about me personally. On reflection the name of this blog reflects my intent when starting it, which was to explore games and game design, my reaction to games is a major part of the power of games so to avoid discussing it would be irresponsible.

I first met Nasreen Davar in the Doctor’s Surgery in Mosato Selao after helping Frank Bilders bring a shipment of weapons into the city, and consequently restarting the conflict there. She was the first women I’d met and I’ll be honest she was fairly attractive. After warning me to leave through the back of the surgery I met up with her again in the Marina, where she became a buddy and subsequently saved my life on more than one occasion. Upon the death of Frank Bilders she became my de facto best buddy and throughout the next few hours I remember fighting alongside her on several occasions.

During the closing stages of Act 2 I had just completed a mission when I received a call from Nasreen who was in trouble at the Airfield and needed my assistance. Having experienced the structure of the game I had expected her to call, however in my mind was the thought that I was probably nearing the end of an act and therefore events would likely take a turn for the dramatic. I recalled the fate of Frank Bilders and very quickly concluded that I would not allow that to happen to Nasreen. I stole a jeep and raced to the Airfield, though it only took a few minutes I can clearly remember my feelings as I sped to rescue her. I would not let her die, she was going to be alright, I would get there and anybody who got in the way wouldn’t last long enough to stop me. The sensation I had when I rounded the corner into the Airfield is one that will stay with me possibly forever, I saw Nasreen standing by a vehicle on the middle of the airstrip fighting for her life. I floored the jeep bounced along the track behind the hangers and crashed to a stop barely feet from her. Leaping out I ran to her and managed to finish off the last of her attackers at point blank range. She had not died, I had saved her.

An hour or so later I found myself captured and imprisoned, with Nasreen in the cell next to me.  Waking up I heard her being dragged off, as she passed my cell I heard her shout out that: “You know what they’ll do to me!”

To me the implication was very clear. I wasn’t sure how far the game would be willing to go in it’s portrayal of the brutality of war and suspected it would hold back from going to the places I was considering. However I was not certain and I absolutely did not want to witness it if the game was willing to go that far. Escaping I felt a sense of righteous fury and abandoned all thoughts of leaving on my own. I could not leave her in their hands because I was sure I did know what they’d do to her. The two individuals guarding her cell didn’t stand a chance, and if I’m honest I used far more ammunition putting them down that was in any way necessary. As it turned out the game did not go to the dark places I had feared it might and Nasreen was to my eyes, only superficially harmed.

The emotions Far Cry 2 evoked in me were certainly not what I expected going in and were easily on par with anything I have experienced in film or literature, more so in some sense because they directly influenced my actions. However, and now we come to the part that originally prevented me from discussing these events, I have cause to wonder if the reactions would have been significantly different if my buddy had not been an attractive woman.

I’ve never consider the notion that women are inherently in need of protecting to hold any weight whatsoever, yet I’ve still taken some criticism from my sister because of what could be considered my ingrained sense of benevolent sexism; I’d consider chivalry to be a positive aspect of my character and though I generally hold doors open for anybody I am consciously more aware of doing so for women.

When I first met Nasreen I’ll admit I was surprised at seeing a female mercenary in the game, not because I saw anything wrong with the idea, instead I felt it was, rightly or wrongly, a big deal for a game to feature a women in such a role. Yes I found her attractive, but I never felt in any way she was inherently less capable than any of my previous mercenary buddies because she was a women.

Still I can’t help but wonder, would my reaction have been different if the circumstances that presented themselves had involved a male character? The implications of Nasreen’s line in the prison had such an affect on me because of the associated context of a woman delivering that line in that situation. I don’t know if the same line would be spoken by a male character in that situation or if it would resonate as strongly. I would be interested to know if Clint and the rest of the team at Ubisoft Montreal intentionally considered this aspect and how it would affect the presumed predominately male audience of their game when they made the decision to include female characters?

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.

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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?