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?

Communicating Intent.

My previous post was vague and though some of that was intended to promote comment and discussion, I feel I may have been unintentionally cryptic in both the post itself and my comments. It was not my aim to imply any order of worth to each of the forms of media mentioned, and I also feel it was remiss of me to not mention some other forms.

Since I made my initial post Corvus Elrod has presented his own take on my position which is at once divergent from my own and highly interesting in its own right.

As for the comments , I thank you all for adding you voice to the discussion. A few people seemed to have seen the direction in which I was going, most specifically moromete, SR, and Roger Travis.

Dan Bruno and Chris brought up something I found quite amusing, they mentioned how sports games in particular are representations of the sports themselves. This is true, but the sports they represent are games, and the explorative nature is true of the game itself and therefore true of the virtual recreation of the game.

That covered, I now offer an elaboration and clarification of my original post.

The defining feature of any media, any art form, is the means by which it communicates meaning.

A work of literature can represent an idea or concept, it can even explore that idea from several different and conflicting perspectives. In addition we can explore the work by researching the life of the author and the cultural and historical context in which it was written. Literature has the capacity to present representations and allow exploration. These elements are its function, they are what it does. This is separate from its form, separate from its means of communicating meaning

All works of literature regardless of purpose or quality use written language to communicate their intent. The method by which they represent, or allow exploration, is by describing concepts and events through the medium of the written word. Their form is descriptive.

The function of music is often the same as that of literature, to communicate a particular concept or idea; even if that idea is as straightforward as evoking  joy. Through the selection of particular notes, and melodies, played with particular instruments music can express complex ideas and evoke powerful emotions through association and allusion. The form of music is expressive.

Much of what is true for literature and music is also true for other media, other art forms. Their function is to communicate meaning and this can be done through representation or exploration. External to the works themselves the manner in which we approach them can be an exploration. The differences between literature, music, film and games is the form they take. The means by which their function is realised.

Film uses a combination of many different elements to create a representation of an idea or event. Dialogue, action, set design, lighting, cinematography these are just a selection of  aspects of film. They combine to create a portrayal of an event that communicates meaning. However realistic or plausible the event is, and even if the footage is of an actual event, the choices made regarding editing and musical accompaniment transform it from an actual event to a subjective representation of an event. The form of film is representative.

Like film, games use a combination of different elements to create a representation of an idea or event. Unlike film they allow interaction with that event, they allow you to potentially change the outcome of that event, thereby altering the context and the meaning that might be communicated. They allow an exploration of possibilities within a bounded context. Games are systems of rules, when we play we are exploring the possibilities that exist within the logical and physical world defined by those rules. The form of games is explorative.

The central concept of both The Art of War and Rome: Total War is an examination the different levels of military strategy. The former is a work of literature, the means by which it communicates its intent is through description of certain tenants of warfare. The latter is a game, the means by which it communicates its intent is by providing you with agency within a simulated environment. You are given the means to explore the effects of your choices and to develop strategies and gain an understanding of the underlying tenants of successfully waging war.

A particular concept or theme is not exclusively tied to presentation in one form. Honor is not a concept that can only be portrayed by literature. Each medium uses a different form to present its central theme, its core idea.

That is a fundamental difference. The same concepts and themes can be examined by any and all media but the manner in which they are presented, the form they take, is inherently different. This difference in form leads to different aspects being highlighted or given prominence in different media. The rules and traditional that are applicable for one form of media do not always translate to another form.

The difference.

  • Literature is descriptive.
  • Films are representative.
  • Games are explorative.

That’s a fundamental difference.

Expansion and clarification can be found here.

A matter of appearance.

When Fable was released a big deal was made of the technology (that Lionhead had previously created for Black & White) that caused your protagonist to change their appearance based on your actions. “Evil” actions cause your character to develop dark skin, glowing red eyes and eventually horns. Whereas “Good” actions lead to a glowing complexion, fair hair, and eventually a halo.

Though this serves to highlight how the game is reacting to the your actions it is a brute force approach to moralising, I’ve recently started to wonder if there is another, subtler, way to use this technology.

If you’ll permit me to digress a little. I’ve noticed that when I’m attracted to somebody, or even simply when I get to know somebody, I start to see them differently. I think I start to see them more as I believe them to be, than maybe they actually are. To me they take on a more idealised form. This might be unique to me but I suspect that is not the case as Shakespeare seemed well aware of this particular phenomenon:

But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit;

We are blind to the minor blemishes and mistakes of those we care about.

With this in mind what would a character interaction focused game feel like if, as we got to know characters better, those we associated favourably with gradually changed to become more idealised, less imperfect, and those we disagreed with gradually became more blemished and flawed.

The effect would need to be subtle so as not to become too obvious and distracting. Also care would obviously need to be taken to ensure that there was no implicit message regarding the perceived worth of attractive people. The best way to handle such a system might be in a game that allowed the player to customise their own avatar. The choices made at that stage would be treated as the player’s baseline for what is attractive, or what they are comfortable with. I suspect given the option players would choose to make an idealised version of themselves. Therefore friends, maybe even potential lovers, would gradually grow to look similar to the character much as family members do while enemies would grow to look different.

Over time would there be positive feedback loops where players were more inclined to act favourably towards their friends because they were becoming more attractive in their eyes, and more aggressively towards their enemies because they were becoming more different? What would happen if somebody new was introduced who conformed to the player’s idea of attractive? Would they be welcomed immediately or treated like any other stranger?

If such dynamics did occur what would they say about the player? If the machinations of the game were laid bare after the fact could such a game work to engage the player and make them question their own biases?

I can’t see you.

The demo for F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was released yesterday and though I enjoy it for a variety of reasons there’s one element that stands out, something I’d not expected.

Due to either a design decision or a bug (regardless of which, the fan reaction means it may well be changed) it’s impossible to play in fullscreen on a monitor with a 4:3 or 16:10 aspect ratio. The game is locked to 16:9 resulting in a letterbox effect on my monitor, with black bars taking up the top and bottom sixths of the screen. Curiously I never actually noticed this consciously until at least five minutes into the demo, and even then I never found it to be a significant problem, in fact the exact opposite.

This letterboxing together with the Metroid Prime style “on-visor” HUD combined to focus my attention into the centre of the screen and triggered a mild sense of claustrophobia; akin to wearing a full face helmet. In hindsight it seemed to act a lot like the vignetting effect Valve implemented in Left 4 Dead. Together these two sensations greatly increased the tension of the scripted horror sequences.

Corvus Elrod has spoken about the limitations of the first person perspective and how it is hardly a realistic representation of the way we see the world. I agree with his assessment, the current method used for first person cameras is inherently limited and unrealistic. However I see this a major part of its success and appeal. The restricted field of view makes for an increased level of tension.

It’s commonly accepted that what you don’t see is more frightening that what you do, and with such restricted vision there’s a lot you cannot see. This lack of information regarding what you are facing, and where it is in relation to you, can lead to an enjoyable unpleasant experience. It should come as no surprise that the game which popularised the first person perspective, Doom, is one often praised for its ability to provoke scares.

I’m surprised there are not more games that make use of the potential of the first person perspective to create compellingly tense or frightening experiences. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the rare exceptions, it’s use of a limited first person perspective is responsible for one of the most memorably frightening moments I’ve had in any game. During an investigation of the Marsh Refinery in the town of Innsmouth I found myself being pursued and then directly chased by a Shoggoth. As it bore down on me, squeezing its bulk through the corridor I needed to keep moving forward, closing and bolting doors behind me in an attempt to slow it’s progress. Though I was fascinated by the concept of the Shoggoth and how it would be depicted in motion I never once turned around. If I had stopped to look I wouldn’t have been able to get away before it caught me; so I never stopped. I was compelling to keep moving forward.

In my head the descriptions I had read of the creature and the faint blurred glimpses I had caught of it earlier – when my wavering sanity permitted – caused me to form a horrific image of what was bare feet away, ready to devour me if I slowed for even a moment.

The very fact I couldn’t see what form the Shoggoth had taken and exactly how close it was meant I was constantly on edge. A greater freedom to manipulate the camera or a wider field of view would have lessened that tunnel vision like sense of focus and allowed the less horrific reality of the situation to disperse and release the vice like grip the game had on me for those moments.

Even outside of the horror genre the tension that can be evoked by restricting the camera is a powerful tool. I’ve talked before about how I feel Mirror’s Edge is at it’s best when you are being chased. A big part of that is the inherent restrictions of the first person camera. You cannot see what is chasing you and that leaves your imagination free to make up all sorts of terrible threats that may or may not be accurate. A third person camera for these sections might have served to make the navigation and jumping themselves easier but would also have increased the likelihood of catching a glimpse of your pursuers, taking away that sense of tension.

That very sense of not being fully informed about the threats that surround you is at the core of good horror games. The shape in the shadows you can’t quite make out, that sound of undeterminable source; tension, suspense, fear, rely on not having complete information.

Knowledge is power and only when we are powerless can we feel truly frightened or horrified.

I can’t see you.

The demo for F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was released yesterday and though I enjoy it for a variety of reasons there’s one element that stands out, something I’d not expected.

Due to either a design decision or a bug (and regardless of which, the fan reaction means it’ll likely be changed) it’s impossible to play in full screen on a monitor with a 4:3 or 16:10 aspect ratio. The game is locked to 16:9 resulting in a letterbox effect on my monitor, with black bars taking up the top and bottom sixths of the screen. Curiously I never actually noticed this consciously until at least five minutes into the demo, and even then I never found it to be a significant problem, in fact I found the exact opposite.

This letterboxing together with the Metroid Prime style “on-visor” HUD combined to focus my attention into the centre of the screen and cause a mild sense of claustrophobia; akin to wearing a full face helmet. In hindsight it seemed to act a lot like the vignetting effect Valve implemented in Left 4 Dead. Together these two sensations greatly increased the tension of the scripted horror sequences.

Corvus Elrod has spoken about the limitations of the first person perspective and how it is hardly a realistic representation of the way we see the world. I agree with his assessment, the current method used for first person cameras is inherently limited and unrealistic. However I see this a major part of its success and appeal. The restricted field of view makes for an increased level of tension.

It’s commonly accepted that what you don’t see is more frightening that what you do, and with such restricted vision there ‘s a lot you cannot see. This lack of information regarding what you are facing and where it is in relation to you can lead to an enjoyable unpleasant experience. It’s should come as no surprise that the game which popularised the first person perspective, Doom, is one often praised for it’s ability to provoke scares.

I’m surprised there are not more games that make use of the potential of the first person perspective to create compellingly tense or frightening experiences. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the rare exceptions, it’s use of a limited first person perspective is responsible for one of the most memorably frightening moments I’ve had in any game. During an investigation of the Marsh Refinery in the town of Innsmouth I found myself being pursued and then directly chased by a Shoggoth. As it bore down on me, squeezing it’s bulk through the corridor I needed to keep moving forward, closing and bolting doors behind me in an attempt to slow it’s progress. Though I was fascinated by the concept of the Shoggoth and how it would be depicted in motion I never once turned around. If I had stopped to look I wouldn’t have been able to get away before it caught me; so I never stopped. I was compelling to keep moving forward.

In my head the descriptions I had read of the creature and the faint blurred glimpses I had caught of it earlier, when my wavering sanity permitted, caused me to form a horriffic of what was bare feet away, ready to devour me if I slowed for even a moment.

The very fact I couldn’t see what form the Shoggoth had taken and exactly how close it was meant I was constantly on edge. A greater freedom to manipulate the camera or a wider field of view would have lessened that almost tunnel vision like sense of focus and allowed the less horrific reality of the situation to disperse and release the vice like grip the game had on me for those moments.

Even outside of the horror genre the tension that can be evoked by restricting the camera is a powerful tool. I’ve talked beforeabout how I feel Mirror’s Edge is at it’s best when you are being chased. A big part of that is the inherent restrictions of the first person camera. You cannot see what is chasing you and that leaves your imagination free to make up all sorts of terrible threats that may or may not be accurate. A third person camera for these sections might have served to make the navigation and jumping themselves easier but would also have increased the likelihood of catching a glimpse of your pursuers, taking away that sense of tension.

That very sense of not being fully informed about the threats that surround you is at the core of good horror games. The shape in the shadows you can’t quite make out, that sound who’s source you can’t determine. Tension, suspense, fear, rely on not having complete information.

Knowledge is power and only when we are powerless can we feel truly frightened or horrified.

Life on the Edge.

Mirror’s Edge feels like a game made specifically for me. I’ve worked in offices, shopping centres, and warehouses and am now being asked to exploring highly stylised but authentic recreations of such spaces, using my new abilities to gain a mastery over these environments that I could never hope to achieve in my day to day life. It even borrows a move (the running slide) from Far Cry 2, which is fortunate as I’ve been attempting it in every game since. A few hours play and I had started to look at the world in a different way, no longer did I see window ledges, pipes, or rooftops. I saw paths, escape routes, leaps of Faith.

There’s even a subtle sense of the Looking Glass Studios aesthetic in the game mechanics: application of a limited set of tools to turn the environment to your advantage. In this case the parkour abilities of runner Faith instead of the elemental arrows of master thief Garrett.

Mirror’s Edge is at its best when being pursued. The pounding of your feet on the ground, the rush of the wind as you leap between buildings, the kinaesthetics are outstanding. There are times where all the elements gel and you are able to lose myself in its core fantasy…

Barging through a door I see the rooftops, a patchwork of stark white and grey metal spreading out ahead of me. I’m giddy, a child again, but the police are closing, they are armed I’m not. None of that matters, up here I have the power, this is my playground. I sprint to the right and leap off, tucking in my legs at the last moment I land with a roll on the building opposite. Moving again, losing no time, sliding under the pipes I need to get over that fence, how? There, that wall, that air conditioning unit. Two steps up the latter I turn, spring across to the wall then off again. Up and over the fence. I hit the ground hard, a stumble. Bullets chew the floor around me, but I’m still moving. Arms pumping heart pounding, a gap in the roof. No time to think about it I angle towards the wall my momentum taking me up and along over the gap…

Sorry forgot where I was for a minute…

Extreme Window Cleaning didn't really catch on.

Unfortunately such pure moments of sensation don’t last. Much too frequently you are faced with a jump or other obstacle that slows you down, that seems for a moment impossible to pass.  A section that will inevitably lead to trial and error and death, repeated, unpleasant and rarely educational death.

At the heart of both those moments of total engagement and those of controller-snapping frustration lies a control system and movement list that is at once straightforward, intuitive and barely explained.

Beyond standard first person analog movement and camera controls there are only three buttons required for navigation of the environment; up, down and a 180 degree turn. Combinations of these are all that’s required to pull off even the most complex sequence of jumps and climbs. It’s context sensitive yet strangely intuitive. The simplicity of control strengthens the connection between you and Faith. Up is always up. Standing still it’s a simple jump, moving forward at speed it becomes a leap. Running towards a wall it’s a climb. Fast enough and you’ll take several steps up the wall before grabbing the top, too slow and you’ll clamber up and hang there.

This allows you to feel capable and skilled from the very beginning. Within minutes you are being asked to perform tricky manoeuvres and pulling them off with speed and style. Mirror’s Edge succeeds in making you feel skilled very quickly. The downside to this is that the tutorial only provides information on the more basic movements, with little subsequent reinforcement of those lessons. It is easy to forget certain options are available and therefore become frustrated when faced with an obstacle that requires a rarely used part of your movement vocabulary; Faith’s ability to press herself through narrow gaps, or jump backwards from a wall run being the most common culprits.

Besides these moments the only movements required for the majority of the game are variations on jumping, ducking, and wall running. With the need to only think about these base abilities movement at speed quickly becomes instinctive. Almost every obstacle can be overcome with one of these and enough momentum. Here is the core of Mirror’s Edge, conservation of momentum. The need to keep moving; to keep your speed high and carry it through into each subsequent move. It’s a vital concept that is described once early in the game and never expanded upon. There is little education or reinforcement regarding which moves help to conserve momentum and which don’t. This lack of clarity is compounded by the need to approach certain obstacles with a counter intuitive thought process. In order to retain the most momentum there are times where it is better to avoid the obvious path, sprinting around otherwise scalable obstacles because the direct path will slow you down too much.

With every ability available to you from the start the skill comes not from working out the required route but in finding and following a path that allows you to keep moving. It is a game to be played at full speed, every new rooftop analysed in the time it takes to make the leap onto it. The path over, under or around each obstacle selected moments before you reach it, will your momentum take you up over it or do you need to dart around the side? Keep moving, stop and you’re dead. There is barely time to look before you leap and what little you have needs to be spent looking ahead to the next jump. Everything has to be done two moves in advance, no time to look around when you get to the other side, you need to be moving, if you don’t they’ll be on you.

"Don't... Look... Down!"

When you understand the abilities available, how they can be used and combined you find yourself stringing together convoluted routes with little conscious thought. Feet pounding, wind rushing past, the sense of speed, movement and mastery of your environment is incredible.

Fluid movement isn’t the only act required of you in Mirror’s Edge, or more specifically it is but the game seems to go out of its way to imply otherwise. Combat is an option, and often you are advised by you in-ear guide and mentor Mercury to “get ready for a fight” moments before making the jump into an areas with three or more hostile NPCs with a long climb up a pipe your only escape. The obvious impression is that you need to either incapacitate or kill everybody in the immediate area before attempting to climb the pipe. Although direct engagement is an option, and you have a number of ways of shifting the odds in your favour, combat is not one of Mirror’s Edge‘s strengths, and it does itself a disservice by implying otherwise. Especially as a little thought and a fair degree of cunning will allow you to get through each encounter engaging at most two hostiles and occasionally avoiding combat alltogether. Using your superior speed and athleticism, you can play cat and mouse with your pursuers, drawing them away from your escape route long enough for you to make a break for it. This style of avoidance based gameplay again has a distinct Thief vibe to it and feels like a truer fit to the core fantasy of being a free-runner than the timing based disarms and melee combat moves.

That is the core of where Mirror’s Edge falls down, it tries to over extend itself, break out of its own fantasy and be more than it is capable of. It’s a game about being smarter, faster and more capable than your adversaries. It’s not a game about guns, combat or revenge. It’s about fluid movement and mastery of a limited contextual move set. It’s not about getting stuck for nearly half an hour because your forgot some obscure ability it’s likely you were never actually told about in the first place.

When it remembers what it is best at it feels like no other game, but when it tries to be something it’s not or requires you to act in a manner contrary to that which the game mechanics imply is correct it fails. Levels are designed with an eye towards allowing you to pull off impressive moves yet they often require precise alignment that comes at the expense of the very speed required to achieve them successfully. It is a game that rewards mastery while failing to give you the information required to attain it. It is a game best played avoiding confrontation that goes out of its way to force it upon you.

When it works Mirrors Edge can be a joy, when it doesn’t it feels like a chore and there are few worse sins for a work of entertainment to commit.