Sunday, February 15, 2009

Your Ammo Upgrade is in Another Castle...

So I just watched The Good The Bad and The Ugly for the first time (I know I know, I'm an uncultured plebeian). It's a near-perfect film, with one of the best musical scores of all time, and it got me thinking about storylines and suspense. At the confrontation at the end of the film, it isn't clear exactly which men are going to walk away from the gunfight. With the level of formula that we have come to expect, a film has to go a long way to achieve this level of uncertainty, where anything might happen.

With games, we have this uncertainty in abundance, and yet we squander it. Sure, I may or may not survive this level, but if I don't, I'm just going to try again until I do. The plot is still going to end the same way. Sure, some games go for multiple endings, and I think this is a step in the right direction, but it always feels a little tacked on. Games like The Sims have plenty of emergence and unpredictability, but they don't feel, to me anyway, like they have much of a plot. When games do have a plot, it always feels separate from the actually gameplay mechanics because I'm almost never concerned with the same things as the protagonist. He's bent on trying to find the princess or save the world, and I'm trying to get that ammo upgrade or make sure I don't run out of lives.

I feel that if a game is going to have a storyline, it needs to match up more closely with the game's mechanics. Players are sad in a very personal way if they permanently lose a good item, so why not make that item a person? Instead, the people in games usually seem totally irrelevant, and are only important when we have to keep their stupid butt alive in an insipid escort mission. If we fail in our task, that should be that. The character is dead. We shouldn't have to play it again because we didn't conform to the plot that the game had in mind. Can you imagine if, in a game of D&D, the DM said "I'm sorry, but you weren't supposed to let that character die. We're going to have to start over from the staircase again. Jim, erase that battle-ax you picked up, you haven't found that yet."

[upcoming spoiler for anyone who knows nothing about Final Fantasy VII yet intends to play it in future; all three of you may wish to leave the room now.]

Many gamers were deeply affected by the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, and I think this is largely due to the fact that she was a good healer. She healed you party. And then she was dead. I don't mean to sound callous here. I just think people are particularly sad about things that are gone if they once contributed to our happiness in some way. I mean, sure it's sad when a random person in Peru is hit by a bus (unless, perhaps, they were a supervillain?), but we are sadder when the person who died personally contributed something to our lives which is now missing, whether it be companionship, snappy dialogue, or in the case of Aeris, nice healing. It would be nice to miss someone for their love, compassion and strength of character, but there's only so much that you can do to make someone care about a 2-inch tall, 32-bit sprite with a bad hairdo.

If a game is going to have a plot that we are supposed to care about, that plot needs to be part of the game and not just something running parallel to it, like a television in another room that someone has neglected to turn off.

We also have the potential to create things which could be virtually spoiler-proof. I can tell you about some awesome thing that happened to me in FarCry (it involved some dangerous serum and a lack of familiarity with the controls), and it doesn't ruin your experience of the game one bit. It's true that we cannot design a branching storyline to accommodate everything that a player might do, which is why we need to work towards making more of the storyline emergent and procedurally generated like the gameplay. You may say that this can't be done, but all I really ask is that the game's plot and dialogue acknowledge its gameplay in some way.

For example, in his recent review of Thief: The Dark Project, Yahtzee expresses how impressed he was when, after hopping back into the shadows after being spotted by a guard, the guard yelled "Don't think you can just hop back into the shadows, boy!" This sort of thing shows that the game is acknowledge you as the protagonist and not merely as the audience. If I'm playing a first-person-shooter and decide to search the level for machine gun ammo before facing the boss because I'm running low, I want one of the characters to say "maybe we should find some more machine gun ammo before we go in there." This makes what I'm doing feel like part of the storyline and not just part of the gameplay.

If we as designers and developers can tap into this power of uncertainty and agency, we can redefine the whole concept of a hero's journey, and potentially reinvent the story. "Are games art?" Psshaw.

(I do believe that games could one day make spoilers obsolete, but to be fair gaming does open up the potential for a whole new type of spoilers, namely "strategy" spoilers, but we'll talk about that one another day.)

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