Teenagers Are Strange.

I joked on Twitter that Life Is Strange has taught me that twenty-something male critics sure have some deeply held opinions on the speech patterns of teenage girls. It’s the default criticism of this game, “the dialogue is bad”, like “the level design is good” it’s a meaningless criticism when not expanded upon.

Having earbuds in creates a cocoon into which nobody can penetrate, a defensive mechanism I've relied on all too frequently.
Having earbuds in creates a cocoon into which nobody can penetrate, a defensive mechanism I’ve relied on all too frequently.

My first time through Episode 1 “Chrysalis” I didn’t register there was anything remarkable about the dialogue, there was too many other little touches in the animation and character design that drew me into the world Dontnod had created. Even now, after replaying the first episode, I can see the cracks but I’m still not convinced that the dialogue is unequivocally awful; if anything it’s awkward and clumsy in a way that feels representative of characters who are still emotionally and psychologically struggling with their own identity.

The biggest thing that stands out is the way characters simply say too much, with flat assertions of emotion used in place of subtly or implication; it’s a case of telling rather than showing that gets better as the episode goes on, and is fortunately largely non-existent in later episodes. A large reason for this is due to the reliance on Max’s internal monologue which is trying to both convey information to the player and build up a picture of her character. During her voiceovers there is a confusion between Max as narrator and Max as character, she talks about subjects that should be familiar to her as if she is experiencing them for the first time; it’s the “As you know…” trope as internal monologue.

As part of this desire to explain the world to the player every character use overly specific language with repeated uses of Max Caulfield’s full name in what are contextually framed as informal circumstances. Proper nouns are used in their complete form rather than being replaced with a more natural shorthand and relying on the audience to make the connection. Nobody would say “Blackwell Academy” every time, when “Blackwell” provides exactly the same information in a less forced manner and “school” is even more natural, though potentially less likely to be used by eighteen year olds as it carries associations of childhood.

A lot of the problems with the overly didactic dialogue choices are lessened in the subsequent episodes as Dontnod appear to grow more comfortable with the player’s place in the world and more confident in their own ability to present information indirectly.

For all its missteps in dialogue and distracting lip-syncing mishaps, so much of Life Is Strange feels human and honest in a way that few games have. I was never a teenage girl and I don’t know how different that experience is to my own but large parts of Life Is Strange were uncomfortably evocative of the anxiety I suffered from about sixteen to twenty five.

Something I can speak to is being an eighteen year old, and a particularly snarky and awkward one at that. Eighteen years olds are weird, and really fucking irritating. I’m thoroughly unconvinced by anybody who thinks they were anything but a self-absorbed asshole at eighteen. Everything is important when you’re eighteen, except the things you don’t care about which are all trivial bullshit. Everybody is having more sex than you. Is more popular than you. Is more self-assured than you. Being eighteen, nineteen, practically anything up to twenty five is just a permanent state of imposter syndrome; a state some never escape from.

It’s far from rare for teenagers to have screwed up perceptions about the relative worth of knowing certain things. Being able to name your idols feels important and mature, it’s a way to show you have tastes and care about something in a deeper, less childish way. I remember doing just that in my first year at University, knowing who John Carmack or Doug Church were if others in my Game Programming class didn’t made me feel special, superior. I’d judge others based on what books they’d read or what music they listened too. I genuinely once decreed that “I could never be friends with somebody who hadn’t read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy“. The media I consumed then, the things I cared about, felt so important that they were definitive, I simply couldn’t comprehend associating with people who didn’t share those very specific tastes.

Music was a huge part of my life when I was eighteen, but I couldn't maintain that I had good taste.
Music was a huge part of my life when I was eighteen, but I can’t maintain that I had good taste.

I don’t have much direct interaction with people in their early twenties but I do live in a University city and am often in pubs or coffee shops where students gather and so much of their conversation is littered with particular words or turns of phrase that seem to fill the role of punctuation. I say this about students but I know it’s true of myself. I find I’ve got a casual speaking vocabulary that’s essentially thirty words and they include anachronisms like “doozy” and “moron” that as far as I remember weren’t even fashionable or popular in my own lifetime; I’ve no idea where I’ve picked them up.

I self identified as a geek growing up and I understood terms like “preppy” and “jock” and applied them, despite both of those labels coming exclusively from television and having a heritage in a culture that I was not a part of. I’m sure if I’d ever heard the term “hipster” when I was eighteen I’d have delighted in using it whenever I had the chance. Labels are really fucking important when you’re developing your own identity and worldview, and labels that have some degree of cultural cachet, either by dint of their use in pop culture or by older (but not old) people, are even more important.

There are few betters ways to highlight your own maturity than to mimic what is presented to you as mature.

It was only when I reached my late twenties that I realised how obsessed I had been with the notion of maturity; an obsession clung to most fiercely by those who exhibit it least.

I don’t know how I’d react in Max’s place, but I’ve experienced some (fortunately minor) traumatic events in my life and “acting normally” was one of the only ways I could find to keep going. Emotional autopilot, you keep up your expected cultural performance as you always have because it’s the one thing that’s remained constant.

If I ever gained the power to rewind time there’s a lot I’d want to change but I know what eighteen year old me would have done. Rewinding time is an awkward teenager’s ultimate superpower, even if I could have saved the world I’d more than likely have used it just as much to avoid looking uncool.

I am Vincent Brooks.

Spoiler warning for the ending of Catherine.

Catherine, Atlus’s 2011\12 visual novel puzzle game amalgamation is a game I’ve seen cited as “one of the most sexist” games made and another example of “the weird Japanese and their games about sex”. I don’t have much interested getting into the racism and ethnocentrism of that second comment, but the idea that Catherine is sexist is something I’ve struggled with. It was one of my favourite games of 2012 but the reasons for that are uncomfortable.

There’s a bunch of fairly obvious reasons why Catherine can be considered sexist: objectification; heteronormative representations; and transphobia are just a few of the valid criticisms… Put like that I wonder where I can really go with this argument, so I’ll just stick with my personal experience.

The basic concepts of the relationships portrayed in Catherine rely on played out tropes: the “shrew”; the “infantilised seductress”; and the “commitment-phobic man”. As common as those tropes are in contemporary fiction it’s rare, at least in my experience, for the underlying cultural factors behind the trope of the “commitment-phobic man” to be examined.

I’m in my early thirties, in a long-term relationship that I’ve no desire to see end. However I’ve strong feelings about marriage and having children, in both instances I am decidedly uninterested. All those are facts about my current life experience and Vincent is the only character I’ve even inhabited in a video game that has represented any of those facets of my own psychology.

Vincent is uncertain, fearful and troubled by thoughts of “what might be” because he’s a product of a society that holds up Catherine not as a person in her own right but an object for men to strive toward; she’s the beautiful woman as status symbol, her “capture” a validation of a man’s masculinity and success. It’s a horrible, insidious cultural force and one men are suffocated by practically from birth. At the same time we are also bombarded with messages about the importance of being a husband and a father, again reinforced by the notions of such things as markers of masculinity and success.

Throughout ours teens and twenties these messages are all but impossible to ignore, unsurprising given that so much media created for men in that age range is generally horrible, being based around the concepts of “sex as a competition” and the importance of being an “alpha male”.

By the time we reach our thirties we’re expected to have adopted one of those frequently contradictory mindsets and have “settled down”, either to a life of marriage and children, or one of “sexual conquests” and bachelorhood.

But life doesn’t really work like that, by the time I reached my late twenties I saw all the bullshit cultural messaging for what it was, but with so few alternative representations to relate to I felt stuck. Vincent at the start of Catherine reminded me powerfully of what that felt like. His friends all made their decisions and went down one of the two opposing paths of masculinity (though its notable that those two paths didn’t bring happiness and success, instead the truth was messy and complicated as it is wont to be) but he didn’t really know who he was or what he wanted.

As I played Catherine I strove to be honest at every juncture, I tried to be polite to Catherine without leading her on, and where I was granted the option I tried to be honest with Katherine, and yet still found myself justifying lying to her: “It’s the best thing for her.” “Nothing really happened so there’s nothing to tell her.” I was sucumbing to all the cultural programming I had become so convinced I’d seen through.

In the end despite maintaining that I wasn’t interested I opened the sexy photos from Catherine and complimented her on them, again justifying that behaviour was easy: “I’m just being polite”. “I shouldn’t shame her for being comfortable with her sexuality.”

The truth was that despite my protestations I was, and still am, infected by the toxic notions of beautiful women as status symbols, and frankly I wanted to be successful, I wanted Catherine to like me because that made me feel good, but I didn’t want to abandon Katherine either.

In the end the game revealed that Catherine was a succubus, and that given my actions I would end up with her in the underworld, an outcome I had been convinced I wouldn’t get because I was just being a “nice guy”. I felt cheated somewhat, Catherine hadn’t been real and all my actions had been essentially for nothing; no matter what the game said I felt like I’d got the bad ending.

Of course Catherine wasn’t really who she appeared to be, the notion of this perfect sexual fantasy object who will appear from nowhere and fill your life with excitement and mark you out as a successful masculine man is a myth. But it’s a myth that’s insidious and omnipresent, it’s practically everywhere you look in contemporary western culture. Being beautiful is a mark of success for women and possessing that beautiful object is a mark of success for men.

Catherine was a myth and secretly chasing that myth, while desperately telling myself otherwise, led nowhere. My final moments with Catherine were unsettling because in those moments I realised how strongly the cultural messages of masculinity still exist inside my own mind despite what I might tell myself.

Catherine is sexist, you could almost says it’s sexism incarnate. It’s an embodiment of the conflicting and contradictory cultural messages men are bombarded with and it helped me realised how much sway they still hold over me.

Catherine is a mirror held up to my own prejudices and beliefs, because Vincent is exactly as sexist as I am, and that’s a hard thing to admit.

Discovering my Destiny.

Guest Post, written by: Caitlin Moore.

I don’t play shooters. We had GoldenEye when I was a kid but I only ever played against my brother and I’ve mostly avoided them since. I was initially drawn to Destiny despite this for a couple reasons. Partly it’s a function of dating a guy who is writing a book which examines the level design of a section of Halo in detail. I have sat through multiple lectures about its combat design, the way the game forces you to be clever about which weapons you use, the different behaviours the enemies exhibit, etc, etc, ad nauseum (lest anyone think this is a gendered thing let it be known that I have subjected him to treatises on the finer points of Harvest Moon more than once). The point is that I now have an intellectual appreciation for Halo and other shooters that I used to dismiss out of hand.

One of the reasons Destiny is the first shooter I’ve tried since then is that I tend to panic when shot at, particularly if I can’t find the shooter; I feel overwhelmed when enemies get close and in first person I struggle to keep track of what is out of sight. In Destiny this is less of a problem. The enemies shoot relatively slow, highly visible projectiles and as long as I stay far enough away, or keep my back to the wall, I can keep an eye on everyone who is trying to kill me and avoid their efforts. While some of the enemies like to get in close, like the Dregs of the Fallen or the Thralls of the Hive, Destiny gives me a way to manage them in the form of the melee attack. I have been playing as a Warlock, which particularly helps as her melee attack shoves enemies backwards when it doesn’t kill them, granting me some breathing room. Spacial awareness is still an issue for me but here one of the major complaints about Destiny actually works in my favour; if I have to return to an area over and over again then eventually I will memorise where the best cover is and I can avoid the corners I know I’ve been trapped in before.

There are other aspects of the gameplay that I know exist in other games but that I am only discovering for the first time with Destiny. The biggest thrill for me has been my gradual mastery of timing. I had heard people talk about how powerful games can make you feel but there is almost no comparison between the intellectual satisfaction I have experienced when mastering an RPG and the sheer pleasure of taking down waves of enemies, the joy of staggering a Thrall long enough to reload before hitting the melee button as he jumps toward you, or the gratification of popping out of cover just as your health refills to take down the last enemy in one shot. As I’ve played and my confidence in my abilities has grown I’ve become more aggressive, actively chasing down unshielded Captains or standing in the open to line up a precision shot on a Vandal as he fires at me. When this works, or I make it through a gruelling Darkness section, I feel invincible in a way few other games have ever managed. When it doesn’t? I go back to playing cautiously until my confidence returns.

The map looks like it ought to be on yellowed parchment, tucked within the pages of one of John Dee’s notebooks.
The map looks like it ought to be on yellowed parchment, tucked within the pages of one of John Dee’s notebooks.

My newfound appreciation for the gameplay wouldn’t have been enough to get me to keep playing Destiny if it weren’t for the story. People have mocked the naming conventions but they fit perfectly with what I think the game is trying to achieve. The lore reaches for the classic fantasy of Earthsea layered underneath the outward appearance of the space fiction of Arthur C. Clark and others. This sounds like it should be unbelievably pretentious but I believe it works if you are willing to delve into the Grimoire. Everything fits seamlessly if you do, with gameplay and story working to reinforce each other. For example the Dregs behave more aggressively in combat than the Vandals or the Captains and of course they would since their second pair of arms have been docked and they have to earn the right to regrow them. I have come across three Fallen Houses so far as I play; the House of Devils, brought low by the death of their Archon early in the game but still swarming the Cosmodrome; the House of Kings, determined after the fall of the House of Devils to take control of an old Warmind that could prove critical to the Guardians; and the House of Exiles, mostly made up of Dregs living among the Hive on the moon, while doing patrol missions there it is possible to thwart attempts by them at raising a mixed army of Fallen and Hive. These Houses each have a different colour scheme and appear at the appropriate points in the story but I only noticed because I had been primed to by the Grimoire; the Hive have similar distinctions although their ranks are made up of different religious sects.

I also want to address some of the complaints about Peter Dinklage’s voice acting. So far I have only reached the moon and it’s possible that it gets markedly worse later in the game but there have been several incredible moments from him. One early on is the first meeting with the Speaker. The Speaker expresses his hope that your Ghost chose his Guardian well and his response is “I did… I’m sure of it”. His uncertainty rings clear, but so does his willingness to put his faith in you. Later, on the moon, you come across a dead Guardian. Your Ghost asks “Where is his Ghost…?”. His sudden fear for himself and horror at what might have happened to his fellow Ghost come through perfectly. Peter Dinklage’s voice acting does a remarkable job of getting across the idea that your Ghost is an independent entity, with his own hopes and fears. The game reinforces this through the Grimoire but these lines exist outside of that, even if you never read a single card you will hear them.

I can’t fault anyone for finding Destiny lacking. My experience with it is by no means the norm, the gameplay that I find so satisfying isn’t new to most and as much as I wish more players would delve into the story I can’t blame those who assume the game itself doesn’t care whether they do or not. This is a shame because Destiny is so much more than it appears at first glance. The enemies have more depth and nuance than the broad banner of “the Darkness” suggests. The brief descriptions on some items hint at a longstanding rivalry between Hunters and Warlocks. While I suspect the Traveller remains a silent, enigmatic orb throughout the game, that my Ghost was born from it makes me inclined to learn more about it. I encourage anyone who plays to take the time to look past the surface to the rich history beneath.

The role of her life.

In his 2011 GDC presentation, The Identity Bubble – A Design Approach To Character and Story Creation, designer Matthias Worch builds on the work of Gary Fine (From his book Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds), using the conceptual model of frames to examine how players have multiple, often conflicting, internal voices. During play they are at once, people, players and characters, with different motivations operating within each frame.

Games allow us to participate in defining the behaviour of a character, our actions become theirs, our choices influence their behaviour. The player frame takes the lead in defining motivation and performing action. One common occurrence is the imposition of our desires upon the character, as Worch describes it: “This is the reason we play games: the ability to drive the action, to express ourselves, to lead.” As players our desires often lean towards efficiency, we may even strive for optimality when characters in fiction rarely do. When the player and character frames begin to drift apart, when our motivations as players no longer match those of the characters we are playing, we complain about dissonance. Our chosen approach determined within the player frame does not match that supplied by the fictional context within the character frame.

Frequently there is no choice, the game can’t be played in a way that doesn’t foster such dissonance. Even if you try the mechanics of Assassin’s Creed don’t allow for the efficiency it tries to fictionalise as being part of Altair’s character. In such instances, where the only options available are those that contradict the established narrative context, criticisms are justified. Worch’s method for avoiding this drift is to find ways that encourage the alignment of the character and player frames.

A commonality of each of the presented methods is that the character frame should be adjusted to align with the player frame. What of “self-correction”, of playing in a manner that is appropriate to the character; in so far as the abstracted nature of game mechanics allow? What if instead of determining the behaviour of characters based on the our motivations within the player frame we modify our behaviour to better fit the context of the character we are playing?

Tomb Raider 08
Lara isn’t efficient, at least not in the way a large percentage of video game protagonists are; not in the way her previous incarnations were. Lara improvises, she “makes do”, she survives.

Early in my time with Tomb Raider it became clear what the game wasn’t going to do. The narrative is a tale of survival and growth, of overcoming extreme hostility. The mechanics you interact with to progress that narrative are high level abstractions of those concepts rather than attempts at simulation. Tomb Raider is, not a game about survival from a mechanical perspective, there are survival elements though they are heavily abstracted. Tomb Raider is a game about hostility and overcoming that hostility as a means of character growth. This basic conceit is presented and reinforced within the first ten minutes, as a Lara scrambles out of the cave she finds herself in though a variety of Quick Time Events and context sensitive actions.

The manner in which Lara obtains a handgun, and in the process kills for the first time is messy, violent and problematic in several ways. Shortly after that she is confronted by others of the Solarii, the cult like inhabitants of the island. It’s possible to kill them quickly and relatively cleanly, it’s also possible to keep shooting them until they stop moving. Without intending to I made the choice that being highly efficient wasn’t appropriate or necessary. When time slowed down in that first encounter instead of using it to line up precise shots, I fired as soon as the gun was pointed at the Solarii and didn’t stop until he collapsed, then I did the same with his companion; I did what I felt Lara would do.

This is a pattern I repeated throughout, it stopped being a conscious decision almost immediately. I was not directly punished for being inefficient and messy, and the narrative and characterisation did nothing to contradict my behaviour. Initially it had been an experiment to see if I could get away without turning Lara into the “alpha predator of ‘headshot island'” and it was possible, furthermore it felt emotionally resonant in a way I believe being efficiency wouldn’t have.

Throughout the next few hours when confronted with armed hostility I played in an improvisational way, explosive barrels, fire arrows, horrific melee kills; every tool at my disposal combined into a mess of violence. I was mad at the Solarii for what they were doing to my friends and to me, and I took that out on them. Why use one bullet when I can use five? Why use a normal arrow when I can use a flaming one? I scrambled around, dodging attacks, stabbing people in the legs, smashing rocks into faces, screaming, swearing. It was a nightmare of brutality and violence. Once it was all over there was no Nathan Drake like quip just an exhausted sign of regret tinged relief, both from myself and Lara. Neither of us wanted to be doing this much fighting but if we wanted to survive we had little choice.

I had not modified my overriding motivation, I wanted to be entertained, to have a memorable experience, and I was, I did. What I had done was slightly modify my behaviour. To keep the “identity bubble” intact it is necessary to make adjustments to at least one of the three often conflicting frames, to correct for drift. Which frame needs correcting and who performs that correcting does not always need to be the same for every game.

Games are participatory, a shared construct of designer and player. It’s not uncommon to talk of how games should react to player behaviour, taken to an extreme this can become the arrogance of agency, the notion that it is the responsibility of all games to acknowledging and response to our behaviour no matter how unpredictable or contextually inappropriate. If games are about shared authorship don’t we, as players, have a responsibility to ourselves to move beyond “willing suspension of disbelief” into actively maintaining that “suspension of disbelief”?

Tomb Raider is one of the best games I’ve played. The verb is important, as much for what it means for a game as what it means in the context of “acting”, of “role playing”. I implicitly entered into a contract with the game, if it would provide me a consistent structure by which to contextualise my actions I would play within that structure. My behaviour when I was in control of Lara, and her behaviour outside of my control reinforced each other, strengthening both aspects. It required no more effort that playing “cops and robber”, I had a role and I played to that role, the result was an alignment of player and character frames unlike any I’ve experienced.

The polite horror game.

Dead Space: Extraction is a game that knows what it wants to be. Within a series that wears its horror film influences on its sleeve Extraction is the most direct translation of those influences to the video game form. As an on-rails shooter the cinematography and pacing are an obvious point of comparison sharing as they do many of the hallmarks of the horror cinema the game draws from. Though many games make pretensions to having Hollywood  level scripts Extraction is the first game I’ve played in several years that actually felt like it had a script that could be from a film, based as it was around a limited cast of characters and the interactions between them more than on some plot critical MacGuffin. Each character you encounter over the course of the game’s approximately six hour campaign is clearly differentiated by their background, their visual design, their personality and their accent. It presents one of the most authentically diverse casts I’ve seen in a game in a long time, and manages to be a rare example of a game that passes the bechdel test.

Forced together under extreme circumstances the differing motivations of each character begin to reveal themselves and the plot is propelled forward primarily by these reveals and the direct obstacles the characters find in their path. Even the most limited experience of the conventions of horror films will be enough to realise not all of these people are going to make it out alive, and though some tropes become overused the script does manage to leave you guessing as to who exactly is going to make it out alive, if anybody.

Suffice to say some people don’t make it. All of these characters harbour a secret and this is at the heart of what prevents them from devolving entirely into clichés.

While Extraction succeeds on many aesthetic and technical levels it’s notable that the one area where it struggles the most is when it tries to be scary; when it tries to evoke the same emotions as the horror films it aspires to. The unbroken first person perspective, while capable of providing moments of brief tension and some surprisingly effective jump scares, doesn’t allow for the dramatic irony that is successfully exploited throughout horror cinema. While the other Dead Space games use a similarly restricted camera, the ability of the player to control both the camera and the protagonist’s movement actually adds to the suspense; events can occur and threats can arrive from areas not currently within the player’s field of view. Extraction is kinder in it’s presentation, the camera will always turn to direct your view to the current threat and the Necromorphs will limit themselves to attacking from that direction. Only once all threats have been dealt with will the protagonist then turn, allowing subsequent attacks from a different direction.

Only attacking when players can see them is decidedly polite on the part of the Necromorphs an attitude reminiscent of the mooks in an action film who will patient wait for their turn before attacking. As a means of preventing the player from feeling cheated this consistency makes sense, yet it also undermines any attempt to provoke a sense of unease or fear in the player. When you know you are always going to be pointed towards anything threatening there’s no uncertainty yet it’s within the uncertain and the ambiguous that fear grow.

Seeing is not always believing. Extraction does not shy away from presenting situations and encounters that are not always what they seem.

As a game that allows, we could even go so far as to say expects, to be replayed for higher scores and better ratings, there is a further logic to this consistency. To enable players to master each level it makes sense for enemy placement and attack patterns to be consistent and predictable. Yet there might be ways to keep to the optimising requirements of the score chasers while still providing an experience able to provoke fear and unease.

Interestingly some of the the best techniques for doing this are ones I would be reticent to recommend for any other style of game. There are a number of variation but the underlying principle of all of them is to use the fact the player has a limited ability to move the camera against them, to actively work in opposition to player desires and expectations, to intentionally obfuscate and frustrate. The way to make Extraction more frightening is to do the opposite of what the first person perspective is used for in other genres, by reinforcing the already existing separation between protagonist and player. It’s a difficult line to walk, too much frustration and nobody will want to play, but too little about you have a horror game that is only scary because of its context not its content.

  • Instead of only moving the camera once all Necromorphs have been dealt with we could instead link certain camera movements to a timer: face this way for thirty seconds then this way for ten seconds. Under threat from all sides the protagonist would naturally shift their view between each threat instead of focusing only on one to the exclusion of all others leading to them turning away while there are still enemies approaching in order to deal with threats from a different direction. With known threats now approaching from beyond your field of view the threats you can see become not just a problem in their own right but also an obstacle to your ability to deal with the other threats.
  • Foreshadow attacks by allowing players to see threats that the protagonist doesn’t react to. A Necromorph moving fast across part of the screen, clearly a threat but the protagonist turns away before the player can react. It’s still out there and will become a more direct threat at some time, but when, and from which direction?
  • Require the player to use some portion of the to screen perform one action while still engaging in combat on the rest of the screen. This technique is used a few times in the early chapters of the game with the screen split between a combat sequence and a puzzle, but it is abandoned thereafter despite it providing one of the most tense moments of the game.
  • Allow the protagonist to keep moving while under attack, throwing off the ability of the player to aim accurately at the approaching Necromorphs. This is something Extraction does begin to do in the later levels but even then it is used sparingly. Not knowing if you are going to stumble and miss a shot is frustrating and makes the environment itself a threat.

These tweaks, along with variations and combinations of them, could really help to increase the tension of Extraction with only few changes to the core systems and while maintaining the balance between player and protagonist that exists in any game that doesn’t allow the player control over basic movement and world interaction.

There is a lot to enjoy in Dead Space: Extraction, from a plot that actually makes sense, to characters that are relatable without relying entirely on clichés, to more of the superb Dead Space aesthetics and environmental design. With all that going for it, it was sad to find the moment to moment experience failing to reach the highs of tension and fear that it felt like it was striving for. If Extraction had been able to capture the unease and prevasive dread of the original Dead Space, or better yet that of the thematically similar System Shock, I think it would have had a strong claim for the best of the series.

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.

Who are you?

Who is Gordon Freeman?

That is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The elements of his character that can be said to be fixed, are insubstantial and provide little that is definitive. In reality there are a hundred thousand Gordon Freemans, a million. Each person who plays Half-Life has a subtly different interpretation of who Gordon Freeman is yet in each instance he is explicitly not the player; he may be of a different race, a different gender, or may simply have a different name. At the same time it cannot accurately be said that Gordon Freeman is a specific pre-authored character. He is in fact a composite entity who’s authorship is shared between two different individuals separated by a multitude of factors, not least time and physical location.

The precise nature of this shared authorship is unique to the interactive medium however there are some striking similarities to a type of authorship that has been occurring for decades in other media. Let me present another question.

Who is Batman?

I expect everybody reading this has an instant mental image of a specific character. Everybody’s mental depiction of Batman will share some key similarities but the precise nature of that character will be subtly different. Some will be more influenced by the recent work of Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale, others might go back further with a concept of Batman heavily based around the work of Tim Burton and Micheal Keaton, or that of Frank Miller, or Tim Sale and Jeph Leob. Over the years, hundreds of different artists have reinterpreted the character of Bruce Wayne and Batman through the lens of their own tastes and beliefs. Each of these is unique and yet all of them are still identifiably Batman.

Consider how this relates to the original question: Who is Gordon Freeman? There are some fixed elements of Freeman’s character, defined by Marc Laidlaw and Valve Software, the rest is constantly reinterpreted by each player through the lens of their own actions. In one instance Gordon Freeman is cold, methodical and precise, in another he is messy, aggressive and violent.

Much as each writer, or actor, brings their own style to the character of Batman, each player brings their own style to the character of Gordon Freeman.

The specific instance of Gordon Freeman each player experiences exists within the common ground constrained by the boundaries set down by the original creators and those imposed by the actions of the player.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to shared authorship, but even in an otherwise linear game such as Half-Life there is a layer of player interpretation that makes every player’s experience uniquely theirs.

Mechanical Definitions.

At a low enough level all game mechanics are the same, we press a button, move a stick, and something happens. Action and Outcome. Process and Result. Context is what allows us to determine if we are moving a ship through space or a counter across a board context is provided by the narrative of the game.

If a plot is conceptually a “to do list” of events, then the rules of a game define the game’s systemic plot, what actions are possible and when. Using this metaphor game mechanics are the constituent, atomic, elements of a game plot, so what are the constituent elements of a narrative plot? Sentences? Dialogue? Games are often compared to film, and a line of dialogue, an individual frame, these are potentially the atomic elements of film?

As a method of conveying meaning, what is the role of any line of dialogue, any scene?

  1. To move the story forward.
  2. To provide information.
  3. To characterise.

Nothing is wasted. Everything that is present should be important, and everything important should be present. If a character walks a certain way, it should provide information, characterise and move the story forward, or at least two of three. Shouldn’t the same hold for any game mechanic? How do we define a specific game mechanic precisely enough to determine if it meets any of these three criteria?

“Shoot this Grunt” is that the mechanic? Or is the mechanic: “Move yourself in the world so that you are Aiming at this character and press the Fire button”?

If an individual mechanic is to be an atomic element then surely the latter is too complex? It is several discrete actions: Move, Aim and Fire. In Halo: Combat Evolved it requires moving two sticks independently then pulling a trigger. It also has to occur at the correct time. But then so does a line of dialogue, a particular scene. If they occur at the wrong time they make no sense.

Events in the wrong context hold incorrect meaning.

Is it actually sensible to try and examine game mechanics devoid of context? Should a game mechanic be considered an action within a context? Not: “Press this button to increase this number”, which increases some arbitrary number in the underlying simulation of the game but: “Increasing my Strength”? Should it be even more high level, an abstract: “Improve\Change my Character”?

If game mechanics should carry meaning at which level should that meaning exist? Or does it exist at each level? Is meaning implicit in action or is it, as I’ve discussed previously, tied to context? Context might inform whether we are moving a ship through space or a counter across a board, but does the action itself hold meaning free of this context?

Is it the responsible of the narrative context, to move the story forward, provide information and characterise or is it possible for mechanics to do that separate from their context?

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?