Lewis Denby has written an interesting piece for his column over at GameSetWatch about the way in which we engage with games and more specifically the nature of embodying player characters. The article came about after he attended and contributed to a discussion on video game narrative held by Kieron Gillen at GameCamp in London a few weeks ago. Lewis spoke of how he tried to explore ‘context as narrative’ in his two Half-Life 2 mods Post Script and Nestlings; both of which were inspired by thechineseroom’s Dear Esther.
These mods feature limited or reduced interactivity, doing away with traditional game-y elements in favour of a more exploratory and discovery based experience, largely comprised of wandering around piecing together various story segments. Within minutes Lewis was met with suggestions that this approach to gameplay was akin to viewing a gallery which he was reluctant to agree with and considering that Korsakovia – thechineseroom’s subsequent offering – was littered with misplaced game-y elements, which only served to get in the way of the otherwise unsettling but intriguing narrative, I share his sentiments.
In his article he writes:
“Is that all these games are? Are they really nothing more than a digital realisation of yourself, walking through an art exhibit?”
Lewis supposes that although we can be totally immersed in a good film, we arguably don’t imagine that we’re there personally. He makes the distinction that games bridge that gap; that we can be participants and witnesses within these virtual worlds rather than disconnected spectators without. This however, doesn’t address the issue of moving through a virtual space, listening and observing just as somebody would through a gallery. The aforementioned game-y elements in traditional games – obstacles, hazards, puzzles, enemies – are usually nothing more than dogsbody work; meaningless drudgery there to busy you en route to the next story piece. Of course, some games do implement interactivity in meaningful ways, whether it’s being told to pick up that can or going to work in your pants in Every Day the Same Dream. Lewis concludes that the one thing that makes even the stripped back Dear Esthers, Post Scripts and Nestlings’ of this world different, is our ability to roleplay.
Now, I’ve been stewing on this since I read Denby’s article and while I agree with him, I find roleplaying in a game a difficult idea to entertain when most of our actions are so limited, especially considering the recent release of Jason Rohrer’s free-form Sleep Is Death. The less we can do in a game, the less opportunity there is to author our own actions, which I’d argue is the most fundamental aspect of roleplaying; yet I’ve no qualms in saying that we do indeed roleplay at the height of our experiences. We all know games aren’t totally free, we know they have limitations and we temper our expectations accordingly, so whether a game allows us to realise our crazed machinations, like in Dwarf Fortress, or merely throw stuff about and blow shit up, like in Half-Life 2, it has to sustain our suspension of disbelief because if that falters then we’re back to playing a game again rather than saving the world. Here I think, lies the crux of the matter. If we’re immersed for long enough, that is, our suspension of disbelief is sustained, it is then I believe we start to roleplay, possibly without realising it. There are a great many ways that our perfectly formed bubble can be burst however, from clunky controls to a punishing difficulty spike, from an artificial game limitation such as an invisible boundary to an implausible plot twist, from the odd jarring animation to a bum script line.
As I’m sure some of you know, I couldn’t get into GTA IV. It seemed that each and every time I sat down to play it there was something ready to piss me off. An inept drive camera, an awful cover system, woeful grenade throwing, odd controls that required finger gymnastics to change weapons as I ran, a map without street names, sporadic car spawning and despawning. There were a number of missions, however, which turned me into an apoplectic mess. One great example was an early mission where I had to take out a gang that was situated in a pretty open spot, set back from the road. I thought it would make sense to use the sniper rifle I’d acquired so I set about searching for rooftop access on the surrounding buildings in order to find a suitable sniper position. Every single building was totally inaccessible. I even pushed dumpsters underneath the hanging fire escape ladders to climb up, but the ladders were just there for show and could not be used, so the only solution was to go in there with my balls in my back pocket, guns a blazing, as per usual.
I also distinctly remember one of the closing missions where you have to stop a particular bad guy from making his escape, and after a couple of failed attempts I decided to blow up his speedboat using my trusty rocket propelled grenade launcher before he could get away in it. This didn’t work. Well, it did, in that I hit the speedboat and there was an explosion, and flames, and smoke, but it didn’t stop him. He jumped straight into the burning wreckage and sped off into the sunset, laughing. He was actually laughing inside a raging ball of fire as I failed the mission. Here’s one last example which I quote from a comment I made sometime ago:
“…there’s a mission – Truck Hustle – where you have to steal a truck that’s protected by numerous gangsters/mafia types. From a distance I peppered them all with bullets and grenades, then used my sniper rifle to shoot the truck driver. Simple. Or it would have been if the driver was ‘killable’. See, there was blood all over the interior of the truck but he was still sat there waiting. So I approached, gun cocked and ready for the rat. As I drew in closer, the rat took off in the truck so I grabbed a vehicle to ram the bastard off the road. But I couldn’t ram him off the road; I rammed and rammed but the bastard kept going. So after somehow jamming the truck into some scenery I got out the car and emptied a clip into the driver. Nothing. Still he sat there waiting. What the hell was he waiting for? So I walked around the vehicle puzzled and noticed at the bottom of the screen it said “The truck is escaping. Move to it’s rear to grab on”. I obliged and Niko jumped on in true cinematic fashion. Cue the most painfully artificial and down right gimmicky series of QTEs/context sensitive interactions I’ve had the displeasure of playing. The game forced me to carry out some dick developers movie-director fantasy forgoing all the game’s mechanics I’d been using up to that point. Looking back perhaps they weren’t strictly QTEs, but they were definitely donkey shit.”
Anyway, you get the idea. My own approaches were nigh on futile because more often than not there was only a single way to do any given mission despite there appearing to be many. GTA IV was lauded as some sort of revelatory sandbox experience but the ironically titled Liberty City was a static – and often beautiful – sprawling landmass littered with a number of disproportionately and damningly restrictive missions. Now obviously, I’m one of the odd ones out here because GTA IV is widely regarded as a masterpiece but it was these inconsistencies or snags that undermined my suspension of disbelief, which only distanced me from Niko; a character who I thought was pretty cool and one I was more than willing to roleplay as.
Coming back to the whole gallery thing though. I understand why the idea of games being nothing more than galleries saddens Denby; ‘gallery’ sounds static, impersonal and stuffy. But there, there, and hear, hear: so what if games are like viewing galleries? Do we really need to try and fend off this remark?
My experience with Shadow of the Colossus was shared with my mum, who, after sitting for a few moments to see what I was up to, wouldn’t allow me to play it without her watching. Galloping through cracked canyons and across yawning plains on Agro was every bit as compelling as witnessing – and scaling – the roaming Colossi themselves. Did we care then, that we were merely moving through a virtual space soaking in the sights and sounds? When I was crawling out of a wrecked chopper in a post-nuke haze of red smog and devastation in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare did I care that I was merely moving through a virtual space? Did I care when I was walking the streets of Liberty City at night, watching the garbage trucks go about their business and seeing overhead airplanes blinking in the sky? What about when I sat in the shadows listening to a conversation between aloof guards in Thief: The Dark Project? Or in Ico, when I came across a ruined windmill perched on a breezy plateau?
Of course not.
The moments listed above were spent witnessing something rather than doing and I think that says a lot about the legitimacy of the reductionist gameplay approach which provoked the original gallery comparison. Mike Gust goes into detail exploring the sensual allure of occupying virtual spaces in his Room With A Grue article which touches most of the points raised here. The question is though, was is it roleplay that elevated these moments? Arguably yes. I can’t say I start a game attempting to roleplay, at least I don’t feel like I do, but I certainly play with the hope of being inspired to and even more hope that that inspiration can be sustained. I suppose it entirely depends on the game. Vampire: The Masquearade – Bloodlines for instance, leaves the player character’s personality and identity in your hands and allows you to roleplay your creation in nearly anyway you choose. Dungeon Keeper on the other hand pretty much insisted I be a complete bastard, and I willingly obliged, level after level, thanks to the pitch perfect humour and sterling voicework. Solium Infernum has more recently captured my imagination in a great many ways with its pretty damn epic artwork and tantalising lore, but more noticeably with its heady decision making and underhand tactical edge. All these things do a remarkable job of inspiring roleplay.
When I started thinking of Half-Life 2 and Gordon Freeman, I wondered whether it was at all possible to roleplay as somebody who has never once been seen or heard in the game itself. At the beginning of Half-Life 2, all we have is Valve’s – now trademark – recognition of you as the player and as Gordon Freeman. You’re essentially viewing a gallery, but each moment where a person turns and mutters something to you or you chance a glimpse through the hatch of an interrogation cell door only to have it closed on you, helps put us into Gordon’s hazard suit and see the world through his spectacles, never mind the gun-play and the physics puzzles later on. There was a moment in Episode Two where, after doing some crazy jump in the car, I looked over at Alyx in the passenger seat and she winked at me. In that briefest of fleeting moments I felt like Gordon Freeman, whoever he happens to be.
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Header screenshot selected from a fantastic collection over at GTA4.net