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Mariology, Part One

A new Mario game just came out. Yes, it’s on the Wii U. Yes, it’s phenomenal. But when I look at the game, the truly compelling thing of its design is how it manages to be a homage to so many games in the series at once while still being its own thing. Mario games, more than almost any other series, are a genealogy. They inherit things from themselves. From the previous games, from the contemporary games, from the games that we forgot and the ones we’ll always remember. Mario is constantly reinventing itself, but in doing so, it’s looking at its history every time.

This week I’m going to be looking at Super Mario 3D World, in order to take close notes of what it is that this Mario keeps from his ancestors, what he left behind, and why he’s taken more from some games than from others.

NOT A SMALL WORLD

            The most obvious place to start on the most recent game is with the name. We see a World in there, obviously hearkening back to the SNES classic, Super Mario World. And it’s no accident that the game has that word in its title; there is a lot of Super Mario World here.

Super Mario 3D World (SM3W) abandons the sort of inventory structure for items that the New series has, and instead takes the system from World of giving you a spot to keep an item in your pocket in case of emergencies. One item at a time, cycled when you pick up a new one, that you can call into the playing field at any time. It gives you essentially a nice “break glass in case of” kind of fallback to fix your screw-ups, and it can change the pacing of the levels by bringing in a single item from elsewhere in the game to approach things differently.

Also returning from Super Mario World is a lot of the enemy design philosophy. The SMW Goombas actually appear alongside their more recognizable counterparts, and still stubbornly refuse to die after being hopped on. That carries over to a lot of the enemies in SM3W; there is a difference in philosophy here in that Super Mario 3D World believes in making everything killable, it just might take a few hits.  The feel of the way you handle the enemies on the field is more akin to World or even Super Mario Bros. 2, the other major influence here; enemies can remain as obstacles in many ways after being dealt with.  Other recurring alumni like the Chargin’ Chuck and Pokey appear, albeit with some twists in some cases.

There’s also an emphasis on using powerups and lateral thinking to find hidden aspects of levels that the game shares with its namesake. The three green stars present in every level utilize the same sort of clever obfuscation that the old secret exits in SMW did, and the feel of the levels in general has that same sort of atmosphere of discovery that Super Mario World brought to the series.

THE MIDDLE CHILDREN

            Of course, there’s a fair amount to be taken from Super Mario Bros. 2 in this game as well, despite the fact that Super Mario Bros. 2 wasn’t even a Mario game in Japan on its release. The four character structure from that game has returned, at any rate, and the characters retain their abilities largely as they existed in SMB2.

On top of that, much of the game is owed to Super Mario Bros. 3 as well. When I looked back on Mario 3 in my Retrospection feature on it a few weeks ago, I remarked on how much the modern Mario games borrowed from it, and that’s no different in this entry.  The way the world map is put together is still far more 3 than World, and the varied situational powerups harken back to those days as well.

It gives the game a more sequential feel, a straight 1-2-3 progression that Super Mario World moved away from and the later games in the series nearly abandoned entirely in favor of open ended hub worlds.  The levels are a fusion of end-oriented challenges and exploratory sandboxes, but it’s pretty hard to say that the former isn’t more emphasized.

In this, then, the game retains the New Super Mario Bros. feel of segmented, discrete challenges, rather than explorable worlds. Nintendo seems to move the series toward this kind of pick up and play challenge, and it’s clear from the way the Miiverse is integrated into this game that they want specific levels, segments, and worlds to stick out in people’s minds as they share their experiences.

INTRAGALACTIC

            It’s interesting to see how much of the modern 3D Mario game is derived from the old days rather than the new ones.  With both the Mario Galaxy team and the New Super Mario Bros. team working on games that owe largely more to the old than the new, it leads us to wonder what the legacy of the grand 3D adventures of Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy have left us.

Super Mario 3D World doesn’t owe much to its  pre-Galaxy predecessors, but when it comes to Galaxy, there is more here than meets the eye. I feel like a lot of the meat of the gameplay and the design of the levels themselves evokes Super Mario Galaxy in a very strong way. The way that each new challenge manages to be both completely fresh and reassuringly familiar at the same time, and the way that each level’s challenge becomes almost a game unto itself, these things are more Mario Galaxy than anything.

On top of that, the grandness and love for the experience is present in this game in a way that only Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel exhibited out of the past Mario games.  Like Galaxy, this new Mario knows what it is, and knows just how damn magical of an experience it presents to its players. The vibrant orchestral soundtrack, the pure beauty and joy expressed in each level, and the stark difference in design between levels are all pure Galaxy in the end, and prove that the legacy of the 3D Mario games is expressed here in a significant way.

Super Mario 3D World represents more of a fusion of old and new than it appeared, and its title is well thought out. The design of the Mario series evolves and shifts in new directions and old ones at the same time with each new entry, and no game in the series is more proof of that than this one. Next week, though, I’ll look at the contemporary in the series, New Super Mario Bros. U, and talk about how the pure sidescrollers carry more of the 3D into them than they appear to.

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Theme Party, Culture Edition: Level of Discourse

           One of the earliest mantras that anyone who creates content on the internet comes to adopt is the most hallowed: Never read the comments. Just don’t do it. Ever.  It’ll only make you want to stop what you’re doing and go over to a corner somewhere to cry the day away.

This is perhaps no more true in any other sphere than that of gaming content. We live in a world where David Vonderhaar received death threats for a slight balance adjustment to Call of Duty.  Reviewers are constantly beset on Twitter and in comments by people who are not only in disagreement, but are vehemently angry at the decisions a reviewer made in giving a game a certain score.

There are two central questions here, then.  Firstly, why do we in the gaming community have such a proclivity towards this kind of social diarrhea, and secondly, what can we do to stop it?

HATE CULTURE

            Part of the problem stems from the general culture that we’re cultivating for ourselves in game environments themselves. Take a five minute jaunt onto Xbox Live and see how long you can make it without hearing some kind of racist, homophobic, or sexist epitaph thrown someone’s way.  Jenny Haniver’s excellent blog Not In The Kitchen Anymore is a haunting gallery of the kind of treatment a woman can expect to receive for the audacity of daring to play a video game on the internet. Those of us who aren’t female have it easier, which nonetheless means constant threats, spewed hatred, and unrelenting hostility.

It’s been this way for as long as I can remember.  Penny Arcade wrote a comic regarding the unusually civil online community of Links 2001 in relation to what they were used to.  That comic was written over a decade ago. It’s a shock whenever you wind up in a civil, positive community in a game on the internet. This kind of culture grew up in the Petrie dishes of Counter-Strike, Starcraft, and Quake, but in that primordial soup of many young people bashing their heads into each other competitively, we lost sight of what it meant to try not to make the experience about ruining someone else’s fun.

This carried over into message boards. We imported our behavior from all over the internet, creating toxic forum threads, toxic chatrooms, toxic screennames. It was who we were.  Even now, a response to objections to this kind of behavior will often be “It happens to everyone, grow thicker skin.”  Thicker skin is what got us here in the first place. Our skin got so thick we lost sight of what feeling anything meant. So let’s all take a nice moment to breathe deep and look at ourselves in the mirror.

What the hell is wrong with us?

I’m being very purposeful in my pronoun use here.  It’s “we,” “us,” “our” that I’m talking about because I’m as much a part of this community and hobby as anyone else. I’m proud of that, but Christ, it’s harder and harder to be proud of that every day. Journalist Leigh Alexander often writes and speaks about how she doesn’t feel any inclination to consider herself part of “gaming culture” or a “nerd community,” and I find it pretty difficult to blame her. Our culture is more than a walled garden, it’s a garden with barbed wire fences that’s manned by armed guards.

We’ve created a weird opinion Thunderdome wherein discourse isn’t a dialogue, it’s a fistfight, and whoever punches hardest and drives the other person away crying is the winner. Those that attempt to make measured assessments of matters in the gaming industry are met with verbal punches in response to their thoughts. It’d be like if we all got a chance to kick the President after every State of the Union. Did Roger Ebert get this much hate mail when he didn’t like a movie? I somehow doubt it.

Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek recently gave a TEDx talk on this subject and made it very clear the kind of situation we’re dealing with here. The biggest part of the problem, as Patrick makes very clear, is the difference in volume. Trolls, jerks, haters are all often much louder and more relentless than those with positive voices in the community.

A POSITIVE COUNTERBALANCE

            So what the hell do we do about all of this?  We’re stuck at the bottom of a very deep hole, and anyone with a shovel is generally encouraged to use it to dig deeper rather than trying to dig up.  There are a few satisfying ways to deal with trolls on a personal level; Joysitq’s Jess Conditt runs a stingingly effective Tumblr entiled “Dear Trolls” that acts as a fun conduit for hilarious dismissal of these kinds of attitudes. Patrick himself often uses similarly troll-marginalizing .gifs on his own Tumblr as well.

But these are coping mechanisms, individually hilarious and satisfying ways of highlighting the insanity of so many commenters, but not designed as ways to improve the general level of discourse. Journalists and writers need things like Dear Trolls to keep some semblance of sanity, but that’s as a result of the fact that their jobs by definition involve improving the level of discussion already. What can the rest of us do?

Well, for starters, we can try to make it clear that the kind of unrelenting verbal diarrhea that sprays all over any kind of internet gaming community isn’t acceptable. It needs to stop being a matter of having “thicker skin.” If someone starts throwing balls of poop around, our response needs to be to make them knock it off, not to get a better poop shield.  People need to learn that they’re allowed to have an opinion without it being a personal matter, and that reviewers can differ on that opinion without making it into some kind of blood feud.

Secondly, we need to start being more willing to give glowing feedback. Comment sections are oftentimes a wholly negative affair because negative feelings prompt a response more often than positive ones. So from now on, when I read something online that I like, I’m going to make an effort to say so.  Most comments are civil, and the negative ones are but a loud minority, but nonetheless, creators need to know they have fans. In a perfect world, there’d be some kind of internet task force dedicated to fostering intelligent positivity in comments sections to offset the rampant hatred.

So that’s my two-pronged approach. Eliminate the tolerance of this kind of thing, and foster the opposite.  Is it doable?  I have no idea. I think, by nature, some level of insane vitriol is likely to exist and it’s always going to be more difficult to feel good about something you’ve made than it is to doubt it. But I’m going to try to make it better. We need to try to make it better. It’s the only way we’re going to be able to evolve and move forward.

Theme Party: Repetitive Stress Injury

Difficulty is a strange topic in games.  It’s one of the more polarizing things to bring up in relation to any single experience, and it has a way of sort of stratifying gamers into specific brackets of skill and thirst for challenge.  In recent times especially, extreme difficulty in a game has become something of a back of the box selling point,  with games specifically tailoring their marketing push toward those who wish only for an unholy asswhooping to be delivered to them.

But all difficulty is not created equal, and all forms of flexibility are not an inherently positive modifier.  In Theme Party this week, then, I’ll be taking a break from the narrative analysis that normally shows up here in order to look at what makes extreme difficulty work, and why some experiences produce frustration while others produce ambition and a perfect feeling of accomplishment on success.

So what are the techniques that work?

MAKING IT VARIED

            This is the roguelike answer and the reason why something like Spelunky is so bloody compelling.  As I said in my Spelunky review, this is the concept of difficulty as a shifting thing, where the game is attempting to be something of a trainer for the player.  Whereas Super Mario Bros. 3 commands me to overcome specific challenges, the only challenge Spelunky consistently puts in front of me is the challenge of getting better at Spelunky.

But really, it all comes down to the way we treat death in these games, and the answer to death in the roguelike family is to make the return experience wholly different.  No two levels are the same, and so death ceases to feel like a reversion or an undoing of progress.  Rather, it turns into a shifting thing, and you feel like you’re playing new levels even though technically you’re being made to retread sections of the game you’ve already “completed” in terms of pure numerical progression.

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Variety means sometimes you get frozen in a block of ice while throwing a boomerang.

This is how the permadeath genre gets away with being so extremely harsh when it comes to how it treats loss on death.  A purely linear, preset game like Super Mario Bros. would have a harder time keeping players if you could lose all of your progress the second you were killed.  When the levels are shifting constantly, though, even death creates a new experience, and so the redo on the levels doesn’t feel like a redo, it feels like making progress in a different direction.  The frustration, then, is relieved as a result.  Only the self improvement remains.

The other positive aspect of this technique is that it creates such a strong culture of storytelling behind the experiences each player has in the randomly generated worlds.  Everyone who’s ever played Spelunky or Dungeons of Dredmor has their own war stories and tales of gruesome deaths.  We all have times where we were killed by spikes on 1-1 or didn’t get the item we needed off the bat or a strategy failed spectacularly.  It’s these stories of grandiose failure and death that add so much charm to these games, because everyone’s shared experiences aren’t fully shared.  I can tell you about the time I died in the first level of Super Mario World and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about, but it doesn’t interest you as much because it’s just my own failure to conquer a specific level, the story of which you are already familiar with.  My death on 1-1 of Spelunky, however, grants me the ability to do all of the necessary things for proper storytelling; set a scene, describe the level setup, describe how I was feeling, approaching it, how it was different from other runs, etc.  The game becomes the campfire around which we tell our harrowing ghost stories of runs past.

There are downsides to this sort of difficulty, though.  If you’re the type of person who really wants a feeling of conquering a specific challenge, then it can be frustrating to never get a second chance to take a crack at anything in these games.  The shifting level means whatever killed you or caused your failure is gone in the next run, and it can be hard to capture that feeling of killing a hated foe or overcoming a particularly hard jump.  On top of that, there is always some level of difficulty variation across different instances of the game world; some runs are always going to be harder than others, which means that triumph may be a function of something other than player skill in some cases.  Still, if these flaws are too damaging for you, there are other techiques, such as:

MAKING IT FAST

This is a technique that should honestly be used in tandem with any of the others.  The idea behind making it fast is the concept that once failure has occurred, reintegration into the game’s challenge should be virtually instantaneous.  The perfect example here, then, is Super Meat Boy.

In Super Meat Boy,  the failure of death is felt for only a brief blip before plunging back into the level, and it’s what makes death so much more tolerable in the experience.  The player doesn’t have nearly as much time to get frustrated or lament their failure when they are instantly placed back into the fray after death.  If I miss the baseball on my swing, the best way to feel better is to take another damn swing, and Meat Boy understands this.   Another fantastic example of this in play is Hotline Miami, where the unrelenting pace of the game’s carnage is never really stopped by the player’s death.  Being able to essentially throw your carcass at a challenge over and over again until you brute force it to death is much less painful when the barrier between one life and the next is virtually nonexistent.

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The half a second between progress and regress.

The other upside to this is that in specific titles like Meat Boy and Hotline Miami it can go a long way towards contributing to those games’ general feel of smoothness, responsiveness, and speed.  Super Meat Boy is a game in which you almost never miss a beat in the action; only very very seldomly are there scenarios that are not immediately responsive tests of your ability.  Hotline Miami is the same way; you make a plan, you execute, you fail, all in the span of about eight seconds.  Every one of those eight seconds is a perfect function of your own input. Death is no different, and it really drives home the feeling that you are the absolute master of your own success and failure.  That honing of skill, the demandingness of that level of mechanical responsiveness, is what makes those games work.  Difficulty, then, is what flows naturally from that, and the speed of resumption is what delays the build of frustration from failure.

The downside here is that the experience needs to be one where you’re not going to disorient the player by instantly throwing them back into the mix upon death.  The two games mentioned above feature very static challenges, and you know exactly where you’re going to stand upon respawning.  Dumping a super fast respawn into say, Spelunky would be disorienting because the level would have changed and some new factors would be in play.  Some games may also delay this process naturally by asking the player for some decisions on respawn; again, Spelunky players have the choice between a fast restart of the same type as before, or a slower restart involving returning and perhaps selecting a different starting point.  All of these things may be necessary roadblocks in some experiences, and so the absolute speed of respawn present in Super Meat Boy and Hotline Miami may not be an ideal solution.

MAKING IT SATISFYING

This is the tricky one: the Dark Souls technique.  In this scenario, respawning isn’t an instant reconfrontation of whatever it as that killed you; rather, death sets you back to a checkpoint, which may mean having to retread previous challenges in order to come back to the part that spelled your doom.  Compared to the two techniques above, this may seem like something of a misstep; isn’t frustration the result of having to retread?

Not when it’s done right, and the most obvious example of doing it right is in Dark Souls.  Dark Souls requires the player to respawn at certain bonfire checkpoints on death, which causes all of the enemies in the path and challenges along the way to reset themselves.  What keeps it from being tedious, however, is that oftentimes these challenges remain compelling, and create a sort of hidden metric of progress as you go through.  You may have conquered this set of enemies before, but you took damage then.  Can you do it without getting hit now, in order to have more health for your later challenge?  Perfection of execution is always requested, if not demanded, and as a result the fact that you have to retread parts of the game on death is what makes death meaningful; the challenges never become droll.

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Praise the Sun!

It’s also what makes death something to be afraid of, which is part of the underlying conceptual atmosphere of Dark Souls.   You don’t want to die because you don’t want to go all the way back to that bonfire and deal with all these enemies again, so every new corner is frightening because of the unknown possibility for death.  It keeps you cautious and hesitant because of the cost involved, and Dark Souls is a game that’s at its best when the player is apprehensively stepping at inch at a time through a new area with a shield raised.  This tension eliminates the viability of random redesigns or a superfast respawn/confrontation mechanic for approaching challenges, because without that cost and pain associated with dying, the fear of what’s around the corner wouldn’t be as real.

Of course, the problem with this is that it does fall apart in some instances.  Boss fight runs can be especially tedious when all the player wants to do is take another crack at a difficult fight, and doesn’t care about the trash along the way or what challenge it might present.  The monsters en route to a boss door may be therapeutic to smash after your crushing defeat, but beyond that, they do somewhat damage the player’s ability to quickly return to whatever it is they’re facing.

            Difficulty is a complicated thing, and the above are only a small sample of the various ways to manage it; there are also concepts like varying difficulty settings, adaptive difficulty, forgiving checkpoint/life mechanics, among other things.  The key takeaway here, though, is balance.  Difficulty needs to represent a balance between the player’s frustration at failure and drive and satisfaction regarding success.  The above represent successful strategies for implementing that balance, but ultimately, it’s more up to the player to find the difficulty level that suits them, and the developers to provide variety of experience.  We may all have varying levels of masochism, but in gaming, there’s something for everyone out there.

Theme Party: Silent But Deadly

            I grew up in a time where main characters tended not to have too much to say.  Mario, Link, Samus, Sonic, all of them were more or less too distracted by the whole not getting killed thing to spend too much time opining on the nature of their struggle, and so when I got to games where the protagonists spoke, I was a bit taken aback.  Heaven forbid the character deems to tread upon my own internal monologue with his or her speech.

But really, what is there to be gained by the silent protagonist?  Does it serve a narrative purpose, or is it there just to prevent the writers from having to squeeze more dialogue out?   I’ll be looking today, then, at three approaches to the way protagonists have come to communicate, and the ups and downs of each.  In doing so, I’ll be looking at three games: Chrono Trigger and its mute hero, Final Fantasy VII and its talkative Cloud, and finally, the Mass Effect series and the ever-changable Shepard.

CHRONO: ….

            Chrono Trigger is much beloved for its story, and for good reason.  As a writer, I don’t want to think about all of the narrative gymnastics that had to go into plotting out discrete era stories combined with an overarching narrative that tracks the individual plots and their effects across time. A vast menagerie of characters awaits in every era, and all of them are interesting and memorable.

So where does the almost-titular silent protagonist Crono fit into all of this?  Well, he’s not telling.  Crono is the catalyst for much of the game’s story, but the designers felt it necessary to make him speechless throughout the experience. Why?

The obvious answer is that when a protagonist is silent, the player fills in the gaps.  A silent protagonist enables the player to connect with the main character using their internal voice, without the distraction of the character’s own dialog there to supplant what the player is thinking. The obvious upside to this decision, then, is that you get a more personal vehicle for the player, a character who for all purposes is the player.  Crono does what the player would do, even when he’s not in the player’s control.  He’s a perfect modular hero.

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I’m sure these two have a lot to say to each other.

The downside to all of this, of course, is that Crono doesn’t get much of a character of his own.  We can surmise various aspects of his personality from the way he acts: he’s heroic, he’s selfless, he cares for the members of his party a lot, and he’s a bit silly.  But beyond that, his character is mostly lost in favor of our own insertion.  This, then, places a heavy burden on the strength of the artistic and visual direction to convey Crono’s character through appearance and animation, which in this case, was done successfully.  Crono, like Mario in Super Mario RPG et al, is designed well enough to be able to pick out his personality in a non obtrusive way just through what is conveyed visually.  Less strong art direction might have simply led to him being forgettable (see: Ryu in early Breath of Fire games).

CLOUD: …

            Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud, like most FF protagonists, is quite the talker, on the other hand.  Despite his myriad of personality disorders and general insanity for half of the game, Cloud has quite a lot to say and conveys a fairly identifiable personality for most of the game.  He develops interpersonal relationships with the party in a way that Crono doesn’t, he has a hatred for Sephiroth, and he has an existential quandary that would’ve been impossible without the ability to talk.

The obvious gain here, then, is that Cloud is much more obvious as a character than a silent protagonist and is able to fill a much more active role in the events of the story.  We’re able to sort of neatly observe how the story fits together and how Cloud fits into it because Cloud is a character just like all of the others.

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Hey, lay off, I’m trying to justify your character over here.

What’s lost, though, is that level of connection that we had with Crono as a result of his silence.  We can’t insert ourselves into the narrative via Cloud nearly as well because Cloud has so many of his own hangups and issues in the way.  We control Cloud, but there isn’t a huge amount that makes us connect with Cloud, and so in gaining a more interesting character, we lose a bit of the effectiveness of him as a vehicle for our perspective.  Most Final Fantasy games do this, although some of them utilize techniques to soften the blow (see previous Theme Party entry on why Tidus is a great protagonist along these lines).

Is this a better or worse way to handle things, then?  No, it’s just different.  The writer needs to bear in mind the kind of story he or she is telling.  Chrono Trigger is largely about the exploration and discovery of the situation of various eras, and so having a chatty, savy protagonist would’ve lessened our ability to connect with the feeling of discovery and uncertainty that went along with the time travel odyssey.  But in Final Fantasy VII, we’re more concerned about the plot and the drama of the characters than we are about the setting, so it makes sense to have a talkative character with a huge personal investment.

SHEPARD: I HAVE OTHER QUESTIONS.  I SHOULD GO.

            But what about a middle ground, you ask?  Is there a way to have a protagonist speak and have personality without eliminating their ability to be a vehicle for player perspective?  Bioware thinks so, and their answer has long been a simple one: let the player speak through the protagonist.  And thus, with the advent of Mass Effect, Commander Shepard was born, and we were given the ability to guide his/her dialog according to our whims.

And it worked pretty well, too.  Shepard’s dialog is changeable, but well written, so intelligent players find themselves generating a personality for Shepard themselves through their decisions.  Shepard can be by the book or a loose cannon, kind and understanding or a crazed hardass.

This, then, seems like an obvious upside: the player is able to essentially write the character of Shepard as they go (and indeed, write the entire story of the series).  We can both connect with Shepard as our place to insert ourselves in the story, and resonate with the personality Shepard exhibits and the relationships that grow out of that as a result.  It’s the best of both worlds.  Hooray!

Well, maybe not completely.  The big problem here is that if Shepard can be everyone, Shepard can be no one.  It’s possible to present Shepard in a manic, inconsistent way and the story has to just grit its teeth and bear the fact that Shepard isn’t behaving consistently. Mind you, this is something of a self sabotage by the player, but it creates a lot of narrative legwork for the writers to have to design scenarios with every possible Shepard in mind, even one that is a wacky bipolar Renegon.  I can play mass effect by rolling a d6 for all my dialog choices.

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Admittedly, there’s only one right choice here.

Obviously if I’m doing that kind of thing I’m sort of asking for the story to be messed up, but the problem really comes in when I’m playing a Paragon Shepard, but I feel compelled to pick a Renegade option for one particular decision; Bioware has a habit of making these discrete personalities for Shepard play out in this situation, which means my kind, patient Shepard suddenly becomes a raging lunatic if I decide to be Renegade just this once.  It’s an extremely difficult authorial task and Bioware handles it admirably, but there’s always going to be some level of inconsistency if I’m picking from a wheel of dialog to determine who my character is.

The main point here, then, is that none of these are perfect.  The writer needs to look at the type of game they’re making, and decide how to prioritize certain aspects of the story when it comes to the way the player interacts with the world.  Chrono Trigger is about encountering settings, so we place the player inside a neutral viewing point.  Final Fantasy VII is about interpersonal drama, and so we give the player character a distinct history and personality.  Mass Effect is about creating your own story, and so we give the player character the writing pen and let them loose with it.  All of these work, it’s just a matter of deciding what’s most appropriate.  Silent, talkative, or pieced together by choices, the protagonist’s nature as a story vehicle is a key aspect of the narrative experience.

Theme Party: A Million Spotlights

          In their infancy, Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) were not particularly heavy on the whole story thing.  Looking back at Star Wars Galaxies, Everquest, and their ilk, it was common in the MMO genre for the writing and narrative focus to be placed entirely upon worldbuilding, electing instead to let players make their own stories.

But as time progressed, a more traditional storytelling style broke through and a central question arose: how can we tell a story with the player as the hero when there are so many players?  There is an inherent tension in an MMO between glorifying the player and the number of players, and a number of different approaches have been taken, some of which succeed, and others of which fall short.  In this piece, I’ll be examining what techniques have worked well in MMORPGs when it comes to narratively driven storytelling, and what stories have been lacking due to shortcuts in the writing that ultimately lessen the value of the players’ experience.  Three key examples will drive this analysis: World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.

SAVING THE WORLD ONE RAID AT A TIME

World of Warcraft is, of course, the keystone of the genre in a number of different aspects, but from a narrative perspective, WoW takes an interesting approach to the idea of the role of the player character in the game’s story.  The approach in WoW is largely just to meet the reality of the situation head on in a very simple way: on the global level, every player character is part of a generic set of “adventurers” that are referenced as the ones who kicked in Arthas’s door, shoved their boots up Illidan’s ass, and made Molten Core their training arena.  On a wide level, much of the action in WoW’s story is acknowledged as being the result of the actions of this roving band of coordinated badasses.

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The scenery doesn’t hurt, either.

On a personal level, WoW doesn’t go to huge lengths to approach the player character beyond presenting you with tasks to be complete.  What enables WoW to get away with this, though, is the fact that there are so many tasks to complete in that world that it weaves a kind of self-formed narrative solely out of what it is that you’ve chosen to do out of the enormous amount of choices present.  The fact that I’m Exalted with one faction and haven’t touched another, that I’ve quested in one zone but ignored another, all of these become part of my personal narrative in a way, though it admittedly does not approach the level of personal connectivity that something like The Old Republic achieves through heavy dialogue choice options.

WoW isn’t without it’s flaws on the storytelling front, however.  While the player characters are the ones that really do move the wheels in the story and are the ones on the front lines of the climactic raid content, it’s still almost universally the case that some other kind of hero comes along and does all of the real work, ala Tirion in the end of Wrath of the Lich King or Thrall in Cataclysm.  This kind of usurpation of heroism is a key problem in the genre’s storytelling, and it’s what I’m going to focus heavily on in looking at Guild Wars 2.

THE LEGEND OF SIDEKICK

            One of the things that excited me a lot when I was hearing about Guild Wars 2 pre-release was the idea of the “personal story” that each character would have, a tailored adventure that spoke directly to your own character’s involvement in the world in some kind of almost singleplayer environment.  On release, though, the story was deeply flawed for a number of reasons, chief of which was the way in which the latter portion of the story was presented: the player character is reduced to a sidekick.

The Batman to the player character’s Robin, of course, is the Slyvari Traehearn, some kind of special hero necromancer who-zzzzzzzz.  Who Traehearn is doesn’t matter because he isn’t the player character and so I don’t care why he’s more important than I am in my personal story.  But the personal story is really the story of how Traehearn saves the world; the player character is made his lieutenant and spends the majority of the second half of the personal story running around the world completing errands on Traehearn’s behalf.  I remember at one point in the story I was attacked by assassins of some kind, and afterward, Traehearn assured me that despite the way things looked, it was clearly him the assassins were after.  I wasn’t allowed to even be the subject of my own attempted murder, and it severely cheapened the entire experience.

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Is it? Is it really?

I can understand the dilemma that the writers faced with the personal story; how can we assure that the player character is someone important, without making it so that every single player character the savior of the entire world.  I’m a roleplayer at heart, and I can understand the sort of oddity that would result in making every player the ultimate hero.  But that oddity, I think, would be much easier to mentally write off than the bitterness that results from having my “personal story” wind up being wholly usurped by some kind of Mary Sue hero character.  Even the final mission, the culmination of the entire plot, is a mission to protect Traehearn while he does the actual heroism.

The takeaway here, then, is to keep in mind that some kind of narrative awkwardness that results from the multiplicity of thousands of simultaneous personal stories is still less damaging to the storytelling than marginalizing the player character.  People play these games to be Big Damn Heroes, and putting someone above them in every scenario cheapens that feeling.  Blizzard, again, is susceptible to this as well, though not quite as egregiously.

A NARRATIVE REBORN

An interesting tactic utilized more successfully by Square Enix, then, is just to make everyone the damn hero to the point where you’re explicitly glorifying the playerbase.  A Realm Reborn’s equivalent to the personal story goes to great lengths to illustrate how special your character is, and how special all of the original characters from the game’s 1.0 iteration are in the story.

The “Warriors of Light” are revered by the people and are the stuff of legends, and the idea that you are one of them instantly transcends you beyond even the important plot NPC’s.   Yes, there’s a heavy element of anime-ish Chosen One-ness being slathered onto the player character by the story, but in the current situation, I found it pretty refreshing to actually be acknowledged as the special hero in an MMO.  I haven’t finished the story yet, but it’s been impressive so far, and part of what makes it compelling is the feeling that I actually am the hero and that my deeds are impressive and well-known enough to be noteworthy.

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It’s cool, this kind of thing happens to me a lot.

The individual class quests are a bit more NPC-heavy in their stories, but it’s still noticeable how much effort the game puts into making sure you know just how badass you are.  For a genre that’s largely about self-improvement and the acquisition of accomplishments and trophies, it goes a long a way towards making you feel connected to the experience and proud of the progression your character makes in the plot.

So the bottom line here is that the most important thing for an MMO to avoid when it comes to storytelling is the usurpation of the player’s right to feel awesome about themselves.  It doesn’t have to be an individual glorification of this specific character; even WoW’s acknowledgment of “adventurers” gets the job done and really makes you feel like a contributor to the world’s legend.  There are a lot of things to be done with MMO stories, but the key lesson is this: make the player characters the main characters if you want to avoid the perils of Mary Sue NPCs and lack of connection to the plot.

 

Theme Party: Free at Last

            One of the central tensions that’s arisen as games have grown as a genre is the perceived conflict between player freedom and narrative integrity.  Games have grown from being purely linear affairs of advancing from objective to objective, and have turned into sprawling metropolises, fantastical continents, and entire galaxies for players to explore and conquer.  Player freedom is at an all time high, and liberty in an open world is one of the most demanded experiences in games today.

But what effect does this have on the quality of game narratives?  I wrote last week about the concept of the marriage of story and gameplay, the idea of what many have coined “ludonarrative dissonance”, but what I didn’t get into was the way that giving the player freedom can affect a narrative.  It seems somewhat contradictory to be able to give a player absolute freedom while still expressing a specific story.  So the central question is this: does an increase in player freedom automatically result in a less compelling narrative?

It doesn’t, but it does expose narratives to certain pitfalls, and by examining two sets of games, I’ll illustrate how increases in freedom on their own are not the direct cause of a weakening in the narrative.  The two dangerous flaws that player freedom exposes a story to are both related to dissonance in the game’s directly expressed story and the story that the player makes for themselves: First, there is a problem when a game increases player freedom, but at the same time grants a player a compelling plot objective in the hopes of getting them on track quickly.  Secondly, there’s an issue when the story paints a character one way, but the gameplay allows you to generate a drastically different picture at the same time.

GALAXY QUEST

            For the first storytelling trap, I’m going to look at a pair of science fiction space operas, both of which are Bioware games: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 2.  Both games are somewhat open ended, both give the player freedom, but there is a significant difference between the two when it comes to the urgency of the protagonist’s mission and how that urgency affects the narrative quality of the exercise of the player’s freedom.

Knights of the Old Republic isn’t quite as open as Mass Effect 2.  While you’re able to tackle the given planets in any order, and generally have a large amount of freedom to explore side missions and the like on the planets as you please, there are nonetheless undeniably fewer total destinations than Mass Effect 2 provides.  However, the thing that makes KotOR’s narrative safe from this particular pitfall is that the player’s mission isn’t so pressing that it doesn’t make sense to be doing side tasks along the way.

KotOR asks you to visit various planets in order to find out information about the Star Forge, a tool that a Sith Lord is utilizing in order to generate an unstoppable force with which to conquer the galaxy.   The information you gain is acquired by accessing certain data nodes which allow you to discover information about your antagonist’s aims and past, and discern where the Star Forge is located so that you can travel there and put a stop to him.  This sounds pretty compelling; Malak is up to no good, and it’s pretty damn imminent that you get out there and lightsaber him to death ASAP.

However, the key here is the way that the primary objectives are nested into the planets.   The player goes to Korriban knowing that a node is there, but not knowing where or how to reach it.  This makes the side missions things that are nested into the main story, as they all become part of the overarching narrative of your primary objective.  Getting caught up in other business on the planet may be a little distracting, but it’s all ultimately part of the process of figuring out leads and getting a sense of the planet’s situation so that you’re able to piece together where the ultimate goal is.  You have freedom to go to any planet and do as you please there, but the narrative is mutable enough that once you arrive, almost anything you do is at least tangentially related to achieving your objective on the planet.

So what’s different about Mass Effect 2?  The objectives don’t line up with the options your character has with how to spend his or her time.  Shepard is given an imperative to gather a crew and take the fight to the Collectors, and if he doesn’t get on that right away, more human colonies are going to be swept up into space by the alien kidnappers.

The game, however, gives you the ability to just gallivant off into space and do whatever you want, with almost no direct correlation to your stated objective.  It stretches suspension of disbelief to see cutscenes describing how important it is that you go find all these people and fly through the relay, only to then zap off across the galaxy and spend an hour probing planets for platinum.  The tie between objective and action isn’t universal like KOTOR, and it damages the narrative of the game.  But it’s important to not it’s not the freedom itself that damages the game’s story, it’s the fact that you’re given the freedom to do whatever you want but simultaneously told by the game that no, you really should get on with this saving the galaxy business because people are dying.

So what’s the solution here?  Don’t lay out specific, highly compelling objectives right at the start of a nonlinear, freedom-oriented game.  Rather than telling Shepard how crazily important his mission is and then letting him loose on the galaxy to go fart around probing planets and doing sidequests, tell him that he needs to acquire information about his mission and that the best way to do so would be to start looking for anything suspicious sounding out there in the cosmos.  Either that, or take the Mass Effect 3 route and tie everything into the main goal:  every main quest and side quest increases the galaxy’s war readiness for the fight against the Reapers.

Whatever the story does, just make sure it doesn’t simultaneously give the player an extremely compelling story objective and then suddenly also give you the ability to utterly ignore that objective for 20 hours.   Open world gameplay doesn’t have to mean ignoring the world’s need to saved, it just means the game has to adapt itself to the inevitability of the player’s whims.

I’M WEARING MY PLOT HAT NOW

The other key pitfall that open world games produce is when the game presents a certain image of the protagonist through the story but then simultaneously gives us the ability to act in ways that are drastically at odds with that presented persona.  The most obvious iteration of this is in Grand Theft Auto IV, and here I’m going to show why that game’s portrayal of its protagonist could learn a lot from how Saints Row IV approached virtually an identical issue.

GTA4’s protagonist is a lot of things.  He’s a criminal, a killer, a soldier, and a jaded misanthrope.  What Niko isn’t, however, is a lunatic.  The story presents him as fairly measured and deliberate about his ideals and his objectives, and shows that he’s not without his soft side and humanity.

That sure as hell isn’t what you’d believe from watching the average player get ahold of Niko, though.  In gameplay, the average portrayal of Niko Bellic is a person who enjoys jumping half-wrecked police cars off of ramps while listening to 80’s tunes before he hops out of his car mid-drive in order to arbitrarily hit an old lady with a baseball bat.  Which is what GTA is about for many people; the freedom to just go completely nuts until the military shows up and puts a tank shell in your chest cavity.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  The older GTA games were much the same, and the core gameplay of the series remains mostly unaltered even in GTA V years later.  But what makes Niko’s experience stand out as flawed is the harsh contrast between what he does in cutscenes and what he does once a player gets ahold of him.  It makes the experience dissonant and narratively contradictory, and damages the game’s ability to tell a compelling story.  I don’t believe Niko in the cutscenes after I’ve seen Niko in my gameplay, and it makes it hard to grow attached to Niko’s story when I know that once the mission ends I’m going to go do wheelies down the highway in the oncoming lane.  True, some of the onus could be on me to try to play him in a way that’s more in harmony with his story portrayal, but the game practically begs you to turn Niko into an utter psycho once you’re not constrained by a specific mission by incentivizing the type of lunacy the GTA series became known for.

Saints Row IV has a solution: acknowledge that your player is going to almost inevitably use the first instance of freedom in order to start running rampant through the city, and treat the protagonist as such in the story.  There are a huge amount of references in SRIV to the fact that your player character is a total maniac.  Your various allies are constantly referencing your loose-cannon ways, and the game’s villain even points out that you should get off your high horse because all you did with your position on your planet was fire rockets at homeless people.

It means that the game is aware of what I’m going to do with the freedom it gives me, and just hits that head on in the game’s story.  It made the entire experience feel much more contiguous and less at odds with itself when the game paints two radically different pictures of what’s within a character’s personality.  I suppose it’s possible that one could play a calm, law abiding character in Saints Row and generate the same tension when the story presents you as a homicidal lunatic, but the gameplay is such that the natural result of playing it is not a measured, rational human being, and GTA is no different.  Take a look at LA Noire or Sleeping Dogs to see examples of gameplay guiding you down the path of rational morality in an open world; psychotic behavior is often discouraged by penalties or punishment, causing you to get a sense of the character as a moral person.

So that’s the answer to this question: either paint your character as a psycho in both gameplay and story, or give us compelling reasons to go by the book once freedom has been given to us.  Now, I’m not making the claim that it’s impossible to tell a good story while this dissonance is present; GTA V’s story shapes up very well despite some of the same issues.

My argument is more that a story can be better by attempting these kinds of reconciliations from the get go.  By trying to make the story as presented by cutscene and the story as presented by game line up in a way that makes sense, greater harmony is achieved, and we can dispel the notion that granting the player freedom grants the story a lack of believability.  When the entire game is approached with a narratively-oriented mindset, greater contiguity can be achieved with a little bit of story tweaking.

Theme Party: A More Perfect Union

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS FOR METAL GEAR SOLID 3, SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS, AND PAPERS, PLEASE

The narrative elements of video games are a curiously fluctuating beast.  It’s rare to have this wide a spectrum of variance on the story qualities of a medium; on the one hand, we have games like Heavy Rain or Gone Home that are almost entirely story driven, and on the other, we have games like Geometry Wars or Super Hexagon where the story is virtually non-existent.  I have a hard time thinking of such a strong variance in movies or novels, as it’s rare one would encounter a movie or book that eschews narrative entirely in order to heavily emphasize say, a particular visual element or pure linguistic mastery.  In that respect, gaming is unique; we have the ability to play with story elements and even the level to which the story itself is relevant at all.

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So, when we choose to incorporate them into a work, what do we need in video game stories to create emotional investment and narrative power in a way that is different from that which is available in other mediums?  When looking at a Call of Duty game or Uncharted, we see a lot of cinema’s trappings being stapled onto gameplay concepts.  These are stories that, by and large, gain little from their gaming environment and merely serve as a backdrop or justification for the action that takes place in the interactive environment.

The key difference in our medium is interactivity.  The player character is an insertion of the consumer of the media in a way that is impossible to emulate in movies or television.  Other forms of art ask the viewer or reader to confront the material intellectually, visually, responsively, but it’s rare to find something beyond a video game that asks the consumer to act in a certain way.  A video game is a call to action.  Nothing will move forward unless the player moves it forward.  The player character, then, is both the narrative driver and passenger, and the story can be utilized in such a way as to create an impact that is much more personal to the player by calling them to act in ways that resonate with a certain theme.

For the Theme Party this week, I want to call attention to three games that I feel achieve a perfect merger of story and gameplay, causing the player to feel a deep connection not just with the story as it is presented to her, but with it as she is forced to embody it.  The three games I’ve chosen to this end are Metal Gear Solid 3, Shadow of the Colossus, and Papers, Please.  Through these three games, I intend to examine the power of the gameplay/story merger of a moment, of a scene, and of an entire narrative.

THE SURVIVOR WILL CARRY ON THE FIGHT

The final scene of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is one of the most heart-wrenching stories in gaming.  Snake’s connection with The Boss goes beyond words, and the fact that you’re forced to battle her to the death for the machinations of political entities miles away is a powerful statement to the drive of the Metal Gear saga’s themes about soldiers and the roles they play.

But the key moment here is the one after the boss battle and the dialogue, where Snake is faced with the culmination of his task: kill The Boss, finish the mission.  Metal Gear games are somewhat infamous for their over-reliance on cutscenes, and it would have been easy here to show this moment cinematically, as so many other crucial moments in the series have been shown.  But Hideo Kojima didn’t give us the luxury of the camera this time.

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After the cutscene, the camera pulls out and the player is put back in control, with only one action available, one thing left to do before the game can end: pull the trigger.  The game makes you do it, and makes you the one responsible for The Boss’s death in the end.  With that depression of the Square button and the sickening rumble of the controller, you and Snake both take the Boss’s life, killing the one true hero in the entire game.  This action resonates into future games, with Snake/Big Boss being haunted by it well into Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid 4, and we’re right there with him the whole damn time because we’re the ones that had to do it.  It hurts, and it hurts in a way that never could have come about if we’d just seen Snake do it in a cutscene.  In that one moment, the game pulls you in and makes you take the crucial shot, and that’s why that shot and that death send shockwaves through the series: it’s our fault.

THY NEXT FOE IS…

Shadow of the Colossus takes this idea one step further.  Throughout the game, even with minimal plot or exposition, it becomes more and more dubious what it really is that the objectives of the game are driving the player and the protagonist toward.  Wander’s clothes become shredded, he starts looking haggard, and by the time you’re facing down the final colossus, Wander looks like a complete trainwreck.  He has nothing left but his goal, and he’ll waste away entirely and take all of the Colossi with him if that’s what it takes to accomplish it.

It’s not terribly far off what happens.  In the end, Wander finds himself transformed into a monster not unlike all the ones he slew to reach that point, and the ones who followed him to the forbidden lands of the game’s setting finally manage to create a portal to seal him away.  In the final scene, the monstrous Wander is being slowly sucked away into the portal, but desperately tries to claw his way away from it to his sleeping love on the altar.

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The kicker is that the game makes you do the clawing.  The game is, for all intents and purposes, over; all the colossi are dead, the objectives have been completed, and there’s nothing you can do to change the game’s outcome at that point.  It’s a done deal.

But I’ll be damned if I didn’t claw for that girl on that altar like a motherfucker as I got dragged away into that portal.  I don’t know why I did it, but it didn’t matter.  The game put me into Wander right at the last moment, one more time, and it made me know his futile struggle before being sealed away.  Wander’s desperation became mine, and that entire sequence connected me to the character more than all of the 16 colossi leading up to it.

GLORY TO ARSTOTZKA

                Papers, Please is the ultimate expression of the ideas conveyed in brief scenes in the games above.  Your role in Papers, Please makes it so that the only narrative drive that takes place in the game occurs entirely within the confines of player action.  If you want something to happen, you have to actively make a choice to either do or not do.  Accept or Deny.

It’s a brilliant fusion and it makes the game haunt the player long after they’ve put it down for the day.  I spent a long time after playing it each night just sort of staring off into the darkness, thinking about what it was I’d done.  The consequences weren’t the result of some abstract dialogue choice or something my avatar did in a cutscene.  No, they were things I did with my damned rubber stamp, and every arrest, death, and mistake was all directly on my head and the result of my actions.

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Even outside of that, though, the game forces you to connect to it on a gameplay level.  Your desk gets cluttered, you wind up with junk on it, junk that you start to feel sort of sentimental toward even though you don’t have any real connection to it.  There’s a tactility to everything you have to do that makes it all so much more real, and the game becomes a perfect fusion of gameplay and story.  That man died because I stamped red on his passport.  My family starved because of my actual physical limitations in how fast I could process people.  It’s gripping and haunting and it sticks in your head far more than any choice in a dialog tree or accumulation of Paragon or Renegade points.

So what’s the takeaway here, then?  More games need to start embracing the very thing that makes them what they are: interactivity.  The faster we move away from cutscenes and start moving toward making all of the player’s actions correspond to the player character’s consequences, the sooner we’ll have these kinds of deep emotional ties running through all of our experiences.  That’s not to say that games that don’t participate in this kind of fusion are inferior or wrong; it’s just that those games aren’t truly embracing the unique power of the medium: action.  The final shot, the futile struggle, the rubber stamp, all of these things are representative of the true emotional connection and power that games can have when gameplay and story merge seamlessly.