Thursday, January 22, 2009

Within Constraints: Little Sisters and the Perception of Video Games

I was intending to write a post about Democracy 2 today. It's a game I think I may love, but I need just a little more time to be sure. It's not a game that's easy to love, but if you like seriously hardcore simulation games, there's a demo available for download. Instead of talking about Democracy, it's time for an obligatory Bioshock post. I think there's some covenant all game bloggers have to write at least one Bioshock post, so it's time for me to make quota.

This was actually born out of a post by Michael Clarkson at Discount Thoughts. This started as a comment, but then I realized it would be a bit presumptuous to leave a six paragraph exposition as a "comment." If you opted not to follow that link, the summary is that he feels the abhorrence of harvesting the Little Sisters is muted by the rather tame animation and aftermath of the act itself.

I agree that abstract presentation of harvesting the Little Sisters decreases the act's moral gravitas, but the decision to make it more muted was not a creative or artistic decision. It was driven almost entirely by the external forces Michael describes briefly. A public company like Take 2 would never submit to the negative press a game featuring the systematic murder of children would garner. And I really don't think those groups that seek to "regulate" (read: censor) games need any more ammunition, valid or not.

The evolution of the characters that became the Little Sisters is actually quite interesting. Originally they were basically just the sea slugs seen at the end of the harvest animation. Quickly realizing there would be little empathy with such creatures, the character design underwent a lot of iteration. At one point it was sort of a fuzzy squirrel-ish thing. Eventually the team settled on the creepy little girl design, which managed to be both unsettling and empathetic. Listening to Ken and other members of the 2K Boston team talk about it, it's pretty clear they went as far as they could, but wish they could have gone farther. The decision to make these characters little girls was obviously tremendously important, as I can't imagine too many players would be torn up laying these guys to waste:

(Courtesy of the Art of Bioshock pdf from 2K, available here if you're interested)

I played Bioshock through twice, once saving the Little Sisters and once harvesting them. I will say that the moment I actually felt most remorseful about the harvesting decision was in the scene in Tenenbaum's lab/sanctuary just after the encounter with Ryan. If you've been saving the Little Sisters, the room is well lit, with blocks, teddies and other toys scattering the floor. Upon seeing you, the Little Sisters seem happy and cheerful, shyly coming up to you and saying things like, "Thanks, mister."

If you've been harvesting the Little Sisters, the scene is far darker. No toys, poor light and far fewer girls. The few that are there cower as far away from you as possible, and whisper as you walk by: "It's him, he's the one who hurts us." I haven't seen too many people write about this distinction; it's possible it had a greater effect on me than most. But I felt genuine remorse and disgust when walking through that room.

It's unfortunate that Bioshock has so few encounters with NPCs that aren't utterly deranged, as I think scenes like that can convey a lot of the same emotion that a graphic harvesting scene would. Unlike a scene that features the brutal slaying of a child, horrified reactions by NPCs are also feasible in a big commercial game.

And honestly, I'm not convinced that a more graphic scene would be that offputting for some players. Repetition greatly decreases the impact of a decision like that. The first few times, it would be quite horrific, but even the most graphic of scenes lose their impact the tenth or fifteenth time. Scenes that are different, where your countenance as a monster is mirrored in the reactions from different NPCs, would have a more lasting impact.

Other games have tried to do the same, but often, immoral decisions just make the NPCs hostile. It's far easier for a player to justify violence against those characters, since the NPCs became violent first. I think it's far more resonant to have NPCs cowering in fear and revulsion than simply setting all the "good guys" against the player.

I'd like to see more games do interesting things with morally questionable decisions, but given that the main form of interaction in many games is combat, the consequence of immoral behaviour seems rather shallow when it's just more combat (and if there's XP to gain, it's actually a reward). A few games have done great with the "violence begets violence" angle (e.g. Far Cry 2), but I've never seen that matched up well with a system that provided meaningful moral decisions.

For good or ill, public perception of the medium has an impact on decisions we make about our games. Achieving the aesthetic goals we intended within these constraints in going to be increasingly important if video games as a medium are going to continue to evolve. I am absolutely, positively not saying we should self-censor. But when we encounter things that are simply impossible to get past a publisher, it's time to be a bit more creative instead of just toning things down. Hopefully one day we'll have the latitude film does (and even that's not carte blanche), but until then, we can't refuse to address certain things because it's contentious. We just have to find different ways of doing so.

What do you all think? Are there others ways to make the player feel the consequences of immoral decisions without being punishing or just rewarding them with more combat encounters?

Thanks again to Michael Clarkson for the great post that got these wheels turning. Discount Thoughts is fantastic and I highly recommend adding it to one's reading list.

Labels: ,

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Taxonomy of Interactive Electronic Recreation

In the last two weeks, I've been thinking a lot about how one would go about categorizing video games. It started with Matthew Gallant's post on this subject and the cognitive boilers were further fueled by Corvus Elrod's post looking to define "game." Throughout both of these discussions, I wished numerous times we could all be in the same room with a whiteboard, so we could just draw a graph of what we actually mean.

This is a a personal bias (or perhaps temporary psychosis brought on by spending too much time writing XML parsers over the last couple of weeks), but I'd much rather have a taxonomy or a graph than a lexical definition. Aligning the terminology just right so that it's properly inclusive without being excessively broad is too much for me. We can say far more about felis catus than we can about mammals at large, or more about music than we can about all performance art. I worry a little that by trying to create a definition that includes all the weird edge cases, we're going to end up talking about things only in very general terms. I'd rather enumerate properties things do or do not possess and work from there.

So I figured up Inkscape and tried to do just that. Don't look for quality here folks, it won't be found. I'm an astonishingly poor graphic artist as it is. This is merely meant to substitute for that whiteboard I would have abused. It's a rough draft, so I'd be happy to hear what you all think of it. Coloured nodes refer to a few call-outs below that I've expanded upon.

"Recreation"- Here I mean to refer to all things not intended for work. I wanted to avoid just a string of terms ("art, entertainment, education, etc.") and Michael Abbott suggested "recreation." While in a lot of contexts is has a less serious connotation, I like the definition given here: "Refreshment of one's mind or body after work through activity that amuses or stimulates." Sparky Clarkson also suggested avocations, which I like.

Interaction Mediated Non-Visually- I don't have any lackluster clip art for this, for obvious reasons. I think this distinction is actually quite important, because I feel if we broaden our notion of video games to include these things, we're forced to exclude a lot of really fundamental things about games. As radio plays are sufficiently distinct from films, so too are these games distinct from video games. Additionally, I'm not convinced of their ability to be anything beyond simple novelties. I'd be delighted to encounter something that would make me reconsider, but for now, these games are not video games. Sorry Dark Room Sex Game and In The Pit.

Video Games- This is why it's difficult to nail down the exact nature of video games: they're not a single set of properties, they're a spectrum. If art, education and entertainment were a Venn diagram, video games exist in the intersections. Complicating things more, it's a very subjective spectrum. The definitions of what is art and what is entertainment differ from person to person.

My claim is that video games are visually mediated interactive software that is some combination of art, education and entertainment. Hopefully that illuminates why I opted for the diagram instead of trying to parse that out.

Again, this is just a rough draft. What do you think of this taxonomy?


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Why I Detest the Cut Scenes in Prince of Persia

It's not the reasons you might think. While the content of the cut scenes in Prince of Persia is a bit ... contentious, it's not the content, but their presentation that I find so problematic. If you haven't played Prince of Persia, these conversations are triggered by the player pressing a button and play out like this (which is even funnier in German). A large portion of the game's story and character development is delivered this way. The problem with these cut scenes is every time you want to watch one, you have to stop playing the game, and worse, there's no reason for this to be necessary. Had the story and the gameplay not been mutually exclusive, I think it would have been much easier for players to engage with, and consequently enjoy, this world that a team of designers and writers worked hard to get you to care about.

By and large, I am not fond of cut scenes in games. I can make an exception for some introductory videos, as they can communicate important things about the game before gameplay begins (e.g. Left 4 Dead's intro is the tutorial1, while the intro for Dawn of War immediately communicates the game's essence and aesthetic). Any cut scene beyond prologue/epilogue is problematic, but at least there's usually a justification for it. The optional mini-cut-scenes in Prince of Persia do not have that justification and could have easily been executed without interrupting gameplay.

The value proposition for normal cut scenes is that in exchange for temporarily not being able to play the game, you'll get to watch an interesting moment. Maybe it's a series of animations too complicated to be available in-game, a dramatic pan that moves the camera in ways the player can't, interactions with the environment the engine can't support or just fancy pre-rendered FMV. The dialog cut scenes in PoP grant none of these things. Every time you press the dialog button to converse with Elika, the game stops completely. You're forced to cease the (admittedly quite fun) platforming gameplay and just watch. And visually, the mini cut scenes are supremely boring. If they were translated into a storyboard, it would consist of two shots: one of the Prince, one of Elika, repeated ad naseum.

The Prince has a few one-liners that don't halt gameplay. I cannot comprehend why the dialogs with Elika must force the player to watch the same scene over and over. I can't imagine there being a technical reason for it. Cognitively, I don't think there would be a burden caused by playing and listening to the dialog at the same time. If some players did feel overwhelmed, they could simply opt to stand or perform simple actions in the environment while they listen. Plus, missing a conversation can't be that bad, as it's possible to play the entire game without ever watching a single one. Don't get me wrong, I like that they're optional and the player can choose their level of involvement, I just don't understand why the decision has to be between playing and engaging with the story.

There have been some less than favourable reactions to the characters in Prince of Persia and I can't help but wonder if (consciously or subconsciously) this is partially because the player is constantly being punished for wanting to know more about the story. I think most people grow tried of constantly having to halt gameplay and just avoid the optional cut scenes. There was a study linked by Gamasutra not long ago that showed players reacted more favourably to dialog delivered in-game (and to traditional cut scenes, which could still be present in Prince of Persia, whenever a new area is reached or a boss Corrupted is encountered).

I'm quite enjoying the actual gameplay in Prince of Persia, but this issue is significantly impeding my ability to explore the game's story. Why must we be forced to decide between playing the game and learning more about a plot and characters? Especially when having both would have been so easy.

[1] - There's a fantastic article on Left 4 Dead's developer blog about how they created the intro. I highly recommend reading it.

Labels: , ,

Monday, January 5, 2009

Landscape Architecture as Art and What That Means for Games

"Each of you knows the name and genius of him who stands first in the heart and confidence of American artists, the creator of your own and many other city parks. He it is who has been our best adviser and our constant mentor. In the highest sense, he is the planner of the Exposition. Frederick Law Olmsted. An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes. With lawns and banks and forest-covered hills. With mountainsides and ocean views. He should stand where I do tonight."
Daniel Burnham, 1893

Burnham delivered this as part of an address made at Madison Square Garden to an assemblage of his peers in the fine arts (which the event's invitation listed as painting, sculpture and architecture, emphatically not landscape architecture). The event was meant to praise the work of Burnham and others in creating the World's Columbian Exposition. Olmsted was not actually present; he was in Asheville, Virginia at work on the Vanderbilt's palatial estate, Biltmore House. He would have been quite pleased to hear what Burnham had to say, however. Olmsted's career was marked by fervent efforts to see landscape architecture acknowledged as a true high art form, and despite 19th century high society's tendency for grandiloquent and flattering speech, Burnham's words were truly genuine.

I've written about Olmsted before, and in reading about his effort and craft in The Devil in the White City, I hear echoes of 21st century discussions about games and their stature as an "art form". Spencer Greenwood posted about this yesterday and catalyzed me into finally getting this post together. What he put down is excellent and I highly suggest you give it a look. But the truth is, I think both Olmsted and today's advocates of "games == art" have been led astray.

It's nearly impossible to get two people to agree on what is or is not art. Any definition that somehow manages to satisfy both will be bristling with caveats, exceptions and vagaries. Extrapolate that to an entire community and you get, well, the current state of the "games as art" discussion. The definition of art is so toweringly subjective that trying to have a conversation about what it is and isn't will end up bogged down and make little meaningful progress.

Let us stop. Let's stop talking about what is and is not art and let us talk about what is and is not interesting. It's a more useful discussion and for games, it's clearly true they (or at least some of them) are interesting. Let's make this a discussion on our terms, using terms that are useful. The beauty of the Japanese Garden in Jackson Park is not diminished if a few experts (real or supposed) saying it's not "art." Olmsted felt it was art and he spent his life trying to convince others it was so. But I must confess, I feel he might have had more progress demonstrating how his work had depth and complexity. And I think the advocates of games could gain more ground in doing the same.

I realize likely nothing will quell the "are games art" debate, but if we could at least channel more of the conversation toward "Are games interesting? What do they have to say?" it feels like we'd really be making some progress. Maybe even enough progress that someday someone like Daniel Burnham will speak as he did of Olmsted, but of Miyamoto, Wright, Meyer or Schafer. That's a day I would very much like to see.

Labels: ,