Friday, March 16, 2012

Negative Emotions

 (This essay contains vague spoilers for the Mass Effect series, but I will try to keep them extremely vague because I hate spoilers and Bruce Willis is your father)

As soon as the final sequences began to unfold in Mass Effect 1, I knew there was something special and groundbreaking about this series. For perhaps the first time in a videogame, I was completely invested in the narrative in a way that I have not been in any film or book. It wasn't that I really wanted to win the game, I literally felt like I needed to complete my mission for the sake of the galaxy. In truth I could have loaded a save had things gone awry, but somehow that thought was shunted from my mind by the game's narrative.

I'm not the first to point this out, but narrative in games is more than just the "plot" and cutscenes and dialogue, it's inextricably intertwined with everything the player does and experiences. Every ladder the player climbs and every henchman the player guns down is adding to the story that the player experiences, whether the developers intend it or not. The problem is that we (both the developers and the players) are focusing on the wrong things.

Near the conclusion of Mass Effect 3, something happened that opened my eyes to a problem endemic to our medium. Through my own negligence (I was eating fish sticks), I allowed one of my Avatar's most trusted friends to be brutally executed during a quick-time event. My initial reaction was anger, shock, horror and guilt, and I immediately considered exiting the game and replaying that sequence. Then it hit me: I and every other gamer I know has been trained to consume games in a way that is antithetical to real drama. My friend had just been gunned down in front of me and I had had the opportunity to save them, and the emotions I should have been feeling were anger, shock, horror and guilt, yet I was automatically annoyed at the game and automatically considering a reset.

The problem is that, for a long time now, games have been too good to us. I don't mean this in terms of their difficulty, I mean that games have almost universally been trying to evoke positive emotions in us: excitement, curiosity, power, satisfaction. It's gotten so pervasive that whenever we feel a negative emotion during play, we instinctively attribute it to some flaw in the design. Plenty of games try to evoke negative emotions during cutscenes and through dialogue (sadness, hopelessness, regret), but because they aren't echoed in the game's mechanics, they come across as hollow. Why is the movie The Road so much more depressing than the also post-apocalyptic game Gears of War? Because Gears of War is really about shooting things. The same themes of loss and despair are present in the "story," but they aren't being evoked via gameplay, which creates a disconnect with the protagonists. I'm not here to bash Gears of War, I actually really like its game mechanics, this is a problem with virtually every videogame I've ever played. Even most "art" games fail to effectively tie their themes to their core mechanics, though some do manage to effectively evoke boredom.

Some games have successfully evoked feelings of fear and helplessness, which is why I think the horror genre has been so effective (until recent years when they started giving us sufficient firepower and frequent enough savepoints to mostly eliminate these negative feelings). Silent Hill wasn't scary because of its graphics or music, it was scary because its presentational elements complemented its game mechanics to evoke a sense of dread and confusion.

Unfortunately we haven't stumbled upon the formulas for evoking most of the negative emotions utilized in other media, and I don't imagine that figuring out how to make the player feel unhappy during play is at the top of most developers' priorities, yet I believe that the substantial resources being put towards voice actors, character models and writing are mostly going to be in vain until we start to figure out the gameplay side. Though these things look nice in a trailer and help game stories look superficially more like film stories, they are ultimately red herrings distracting us from the real barrier standing in the way of artistic (and entertainment) aspiration.

There is one negative emotion players have accepted over the years: Frustration (though this too is slowly being expunged). Gamers are willing to replay the same section many times over in order to achieve victory. The frustration of defeat serves a purpose since it makes success all the sweeter, and the possibility of failure is necessary in most games, even if the player never actually sees a "game over" or "retry" screen. The problem is that we have grown so accustomed to retrying things, we feel entitled to it. Yet this convention of retrying everything until success has become gaming's life-support system; it is the only type of punishment we seem to be okay with, yet it is ultimately one of the primary things that is holding game narrative back.

Imagine a game of Romeo & Juliet. Failing to stop Romeo from imbibing the poison, the player laments that he will have to replay the whole mission. Or, alternatively, Romeo croaks in the final cutscene, and the player wonders what the point was of retrying the final bossfight with Paris so many times if Romeo was just going to die anyway.

I fervently believe that games can be high art (whatever that means), and that they can attain dramatic weight, but this can't be effectively achieved by laying a story overtop a set of mechanics, no matter how good the story, acting and dialogue might be. In order for a game's narrative to properly draw in the player, the dialogue and thematic elements have to be mirrored in the gameplay. (And vice versa; Bastion does a good job of entwining gameplay and story by having the narrator comment on everything you do, making you feel more like the protagonist rather than an unwanted or vestigial houseguest.) Because good drama requires at least some negative emotion, this means not being afraid to make the player, and not just the protagonist, unhappy, and it also means we the players need to be okay with that. Otherwise we may as well be playing Bejewled with scenes from Goodfellas interspersed between levels.

So what did I think of Mass Effect 3? I absolutely loved it. The series is a firm favorite of mine, and like all good Sci-Fi (but unlike any other games to date) it made me question many things about my own moral code. But unlike Sci-Fi in other media, it also forced me to face my own hypocracy and biases on a few issues. Why did I want to try and give the Krogan race a second chance, yet I did not show the Rachni the same courtesy in ME1? I think it's because the Rachni are creepy and look like bugs. I'm fairly certain I am a specist.

I do feel that one major opportunity was missed however. After a certain fleet was decimated due to some ethically-questionable choices on my part, it left behind a debris field. Like many other such fields scattered throughout the war-torn galaxy, I scanned it looking for raw materials. Sadly there were none present. Only afterwards did I realize what I was doing. Causing the near-annihilation of an entire race and then looting their corpses through sheer force of habit would have been a moment that married story and gameplay perfectly.