Monday, June 21, 2010

The Best Disguise

Author and journalist Tom Bissell recently had his book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter published. In concert, Michael Abbott recorded a fantastic interview with Bissell. It's one of Michael's best and I highly recommend giving it a listen. I have Bissell's book on my desk, but haven't had a chance to dive into it yet (the fantastic Darwin's Bastards occupies my limited reading time at the moment). Hopefully the topics addressed in their conversation are borne from sections of the book though, as Tom has an interesting perspective on a number of subjects.

One such subject, and this ties into this series on perception, is how game systems are presented to the player. As games have modernized, certain games have attempted to disguise or justify familiar gameplay tropes within the game's fiction. Bioshock explained the game's checkpoint system via the Vita-Changes that rebuild the protagonist from his stored DNA should he be killed. Most likely, you completed Bioshock not with the original protagonist, but with his umpteenth clone.

Bissell praises the Disguise, referring to Jon Blow's claims that the needs of a game's narrative (progress with good pacing) and the needs of a game's challenge (hold the player back until some goal is achieved) are inherently opposed. By cleverly utilizing this concealment of game systems, it's possible to ameliorate or even exploit this conflict. Portal and Dead Space are cited for their superb execution in this regard.

I cannot disgree with that either. The narrative setup in Portal allows the challenges to make complete sense while still leaving room for GLaDOS' excellent characterization. Dead Space makes the entire game's HUD endogenous, greatly closing the gap between what the player is meant to experience and what the protagonist is. Elsewhere he praises Mirror's Edge for other reasons, but I imagine its minimal use of unjustified gameplay tropes contributes to its acknowledgement.

He decries the coffee thermos collectables in Alan Wake, a condemnation I wholly agree with. Rather than attempting to integrate that collectible into the game's fiction (which is doubly absurd considering there already was a different collectible that did fit into the game's fiction), the thermoses exist exclusively to provide supposed challenge and give the player "more to do." Poor use of the Disguise like this reeks of design-by-committee: "(Game X) had collectibles and it did well, so we need to find a way to add collectibles to our game."

The conversation on this topic is great, but it does fail to acknowledge one thing I feel it should. Bissell speaks at length about "games," but most of the time, he's really referring just to single player, story-based games. There's no problem with this, of course, but I hope his book either calls this out or discusses other types of games.

That omission is notable because the Disguise can apply equally to multiplayer or games not based on story. There's no question the aesthetic and characters of Team Fortress 2 give the game much more appeal than the generic soldiers of the original Team Fortress. The promotional comic for the free Solider vs. Demoman update is more compelling than the entire narrative of a good chunk of games. But TF2 doesn't use the Disguise just for charm and personality.

As each class in TF2 has dramatically different abilities, being able to recognize them quickly based on silhouette alone is very important. By creating unique characters for each TF2 class, their highly readable silhouettes are reinforced by the fiction. As each character literally has a unique voice, their barks are immediately recognizable. In most modern-day military shooters, every "Tango down" sounds exactly the same. But there's no difficulty telling the difference between the Demoman belting out "Medic!" in Scottish brogue and the Heavy's thick Russian cries. These are just a few examples. Valve elegantly utilizes the Disguise to present information about the TF2 classes without needing to explicitly explain anything.

It's also the case that a great many games don't need the Disguise. Games where story isn't important shouldn't care about justifying their gameplay. Mario needs to find stars because ... I guess it helps save Princess Peach, who has inevitably been kidnapped again. But really, the stars exist because it's a serviceable objective in the challenge to navigate fantastical and dizzying environments. No more is needed and even that thin veneer could probably be lost without doing much harm to the experience.

It is really about being clear on what you're trying to make. As critics and consumers of games, we ought not to tolerate brain-dead artificialities that exist only to provide "challenge" while doing great harm to a game's story. Conversely though, we shouldn't condemn a game for lacking these things if that game is built to be about the challenge and the narrative is, at best, a little colour. The Disguise can be a powerful thing and those developers that know how to utilize it correctly have produced some of the engaging, immersive games seen to date. But perhaps the important aspect of the Disguise is knowing when to use it. Rather than timidly flitting between both sides, having the clarity to know when such things are necessary would demonstrate the focus necessary for a project to have a shot at being great.

Don't forget, read the book and listen to the interview. Both are definitely worth your time.

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