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.


  1. It's also a problem of quicktime events. They killed a friend WITHOUT your control. If it had happened in a battle scene, and you had to take risks to save them, it might've been different.

    I recently had this conversation in terms of tabletop games. We had been getting our asses kicked a lot, and people were frustrated. But those moments make triumph greater.

    I do have trouble with videogames as interactive story though, I tend to think of them differently.

    1. I think that is one of the major advantages tabletop games game over single-player videogames, that you can't just load a previous save when things go bad. And a DM can make up stuff on the fly, thereby allowing for more divergent storylines.

      But I think a larger barrier for videogames is the conflation of what players "want" and what will make for a good experience. Good DMs learn that just giving their players really epic loot and letting them breeze through everything isn't going to provide a compelling experience in the long run. I'm not convinced that the videogame industry has internalized this yet.

      The validity of quicktime events as a gameplay mechanic is a whole other discussion. Personally I think they CAN work, and I like their implementation in the Mass Effect series because they involve a mouseclick rather than a specific keypress and are often used to present split-second decisions with no "right" choice (though in this case, letting my friend die probably was the "wrong" choice). Most importantly, you never have to retry anything because you messed up a QTE.

      but I agree that plot-changing events should absolutely be able to happen during gameplay (which is not something that Mass Effect attempts). Escort missions wouldn't be frustrating if, instead of having to retry the mission, that character was simply dead now.

    2. Well - yeah - Tabletop will always be a different beast, sharing in the story with a person who can react is way better than sharing someone else's story which you are now getting consequences for.

      One of my issues is that I do not ever like a game that isn't turn-based - because snap decisions are anathema to the way I like to experience games. I do not like to play competative Star Craft, and really only play with friends around my skill level, and against bots.

      So - I recently have been introduced to a selection of gameplay elements that the Tabletop industry has began to enjoy. They are events that are basically "bad bonuses". Things that build up as bonuses, but hurt you in the long run. A good example of this is Don't Rest Your Head (pulling out a good review of this game will never hurt), a game where only by making decisions about how much you will hurt yourself can you manage to win, of course, when you're winning the most you're also most likely to lose. This is really awesome, since it means that a player will harm themselves in the long run in order to do better.

      KoToR seems to kind of understand this - almost. Rewarding the player for falling to the Dark Side is AWESOME. Giving that choice a valid method of play, and giving a satisfying ending however makes things slightly less awesome, because then it just makes playing Light harder and more annoying, without the "good ending" reward. But those kind of choices are really cool - and likely should be a focus in this area. I know a lot of games where I have seen people (and in one case personally) decided to go back, and replay in order to get a different ending, since, I felt like the ending I got was awesome, but I could do better.

      I think the real problem is not presenting negative emotions, it's about giving valid/easier choices that are lesser.

  2. Don't Rest Your Head looks really clever. I like when games help you when you're about to lose, rather than when you're already winning.

    I definitely hear what you're saying about KotOR. The first Fable game had a choice at the end where you could be evil and get a really badass sword (which was kind of irrelevant because the game was over), but then the expansion totally ruined this by adding an equally powerful 'good' sword if you turned down the evil sword, making the dilemma completely pointless. Similarly BioShock lets you murder little girls for extra ADAM, or you can let them go and get rewarded with extra ADAM! That's the problem with most moral choices in games, that the developers don't have the balls to actually follow through and punish you in any way (in terms of abilities or storyline).

    Tabletop games do a good job of intertwining gameplay and narrative, and I think the main thing holding videogames back in that area is that developers are afraid to do anything bad to the player in gameplay terms. They have bad stuff happen in only a story context, which only makes the narrative feel more disjointed from the gameplay.

    In a tabletop game (or any multiplayer game), I'm worried that my actions will lead to bad things happening to my character, which makes me invested in the narrative. In single-player videogames, which are allegedly narrative-focused, I know from experience that the only negative thing that will happen as a result of my actions is that I will have to replay the mission, so the experience feels akin to fumbling with a DVD remote to get the next scene to play.

    1. Video Games have been even worse at conveying story in multiplayer games than in single player. And I think there is a good reason for that.

      People were promised 16 endings for Mass Effect 3, they got either 1 or 3 depending on how you look at it. I would have felt cheated with *only* 16.

      There is a good theory that games design is giving people methods of interacting with a world, and every time you give someone access to a "move", you give some sort of narrative weight to that move. So - if there are 10 rules for fighting people, and no rules for talking to people - the only way you can exert your will over the story is to fight people.

      Video games have it doubly rough - as they have none of the wiggle room that tabletop exists in. If the game is doing something you don't want in a tabletop - you modify a few things, and then POOF, the story changes.

      Ok - bear with me a few minutes - I am going to get back to negative emotions.

      In a video game - firstly - you are constrained to what the designer a) thought of b) wants. As you act - you may only encounter the story through the medium of the mechanics as moderated by the designer. What's the difference between the games Icewind Dale and Planescape Torment? Same mechanics, same designers, same system, same graphics, same engine. The difference is one of attention to detail, time, and effort. Those things ended up being huge. The designers put a lot of time into generating things that were cool. And *damn* were they cool. Icewind Dale was good too - but there was less to do. I didn't spend hours reading dialouge trees, I spent hours mowing down Frost Giants, and pausing, saving, and reseting or cheating if I got hurt. Since, cheating just became the easiest thing to do in order to play the game - since I would just die a lot and see the game over screen. In fact, one could argue that fixing that problem was the entire core of Planescape Torment.

    2. ((Comment got cut off for being too long))

      Ok - now to spiral back from negative Emotions again, and back to story - to where I can bring this to a nice close.

      As you play games - you encounter the story the Designers want, moderated a little by some of your choices. Therefore, some form of designer detached choice model that makes things like Power Gaming impossible, as well as making dialouge interesting, so that the story bits are the rewards you're looking for first. I actually think that Cut Scenes should be completely gotten rid of - since it brings the player (not the character) out of the story. If everything is time where you have agency - then every moment you are invested (but still - fuck quicktime - fuck it hard).

      Now - if investment in story becomes a thing - then you're cooking with gas. Then you're allowed to give negative emotions to players. Also - HIDING these things is an awesome plan. If you hide your bad options from the player, then it looks a little better. For example "did Arieth die because she had to, or did she die because I made a mistake?", that's a big important question - and it should be asked for every big problem. And the answer should be both of them - that way the players AREN'T going to reset for every death, since the players don't WANT to have to go through with that sort of pain.

      Nearby - is games like Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines: The Subtitleing. Bloodlines has this really cool area where you're looking for a group of invisible information dealers. In a sewer. Full of evil abominations. FUCKIN' A! First - you are going through the place, and you see the writings of a guy who has been attacked by evil, JUST BEFORE EVIL ATTACKS YOU! Then you see these things more and more! And they actually do three things in the story:
      1) Explain what happened to the Nosferatu, and what is up ahead, and why all this bullshit is happening to you
      2) Break up the information gathering/clue finding/puzzles section. It's like three hours of wandering around, finding clues, doing puzzles, and exploring. Punctuated by fights with zombies. Evil zombies warped and twisted by the ravings of a madman.
      3) Establish a game-path. "Did I go this way before? Is it the right way? Hm.... no zombies... likely the wrong way". To make it even better - since the evil is sending them out from where you're going, by following them - you get where you're going.

      This is a pretty good example of gameplay/story meshing really well. The sort of thing that video games want (it also wants other things, some of which Bloodlines did well - but others it did badly). Torment also did well as making the story the thing you're interested in, with the gameplay being interesting and involved in that, and the bits working together.

    3. ((And a third, because I am longwinded))

      Now - tabletop games have begun to figure out that Video Games are the place to go for simple things like dungeon crawls and linear stories. Usually Video Game Designers are better writers than we are, and so on. And therefore they've started to work on generative story, and also having people invest in story as the primary part of the game. Things like Burning Wheel do this. These games are really different than more traditional ones, since rather than making a story, then telling it, they tell a story by making it. The stories are completly made up as you go - everything is notesfree, and characters all define what they're looking for - and so that happens, but in different ways - and desires change, and so on. This is really what is making negative emotions allowable in more tabletops - as in - say D&D - negative emotions are having the same issues. D&D now has "here is how many magic items you have" and "here is what happens when you die, and how long it takes to come back to life". These things have always been there, but also are things I belive involved in the same problem

      So - I guess the short version of this is:
      Cut scenes suck
      Gameplay needs to be the story - and new ideas need to come from gameplay
      Investment in the story before investment in the gameplay is important
      I think this thing is fucking huge.

  3. I think I mostly agree with everything you just said. I strongly agree with the four-point summary.

    I wasn't meaning to suggest that multiplayer videogames provide a superior narrative experience. They do not (see F.E.A.R. 3). But I think that the one area in which the do succeed brilliantly is that everything is permanent. When Mufasa dies, Simba can't just reload the last save, otherwise all drama is lost. This is were single-player games really drop the ball. Sure Mufasa can die in a cutscene, but then it's not really Simba's fault because Simba is the player, and the player wasn't given a chance to save him.

    I think the root problem is that players' desire to be told a good story is conflicting with their desire to succeed at the game. At some level you have to be willing to punish the player for their mistakes, and those punishments have to be permanent either because they can't (easily) go back, or because you've involved them in such a compelling narrative that they don't want to go back. Preferably both, though I think gamers are currently in a mindset that makes the latter difficult.

    I agree that hiding aspects of your system is important. The internet makes it difficult, and I can understand why fans are bothered that there are only 3 really similar endings (though a
    I agree that 16 still wouldn't make it "your" story), but I played through it before reading about the endings, and for me everything wrapped up in a satisfying fashion that gave me a sufficient feeling of agency.

    I've noticed that a lot of the decisions in Mass Effect don't really have the impact they convey. If you redo most of the choices, it sort of breaks the illusion. I think people were analyzing the ending more than the other branching paths because it was somehow supposed to be a culmination of all the choices up to that point. People weren't really pissed because it's a bad ending (it's better than most videogame endings), but because it failed to validate all of the choices they had made up to that point, the hard truth being that all of those choices DON'T matter in the long run because it's a freaking videogame.

    Planescape and Bloodlines definitely do some narrative stuff really well. I haven't gotten to the part you described it Bloodlines, but it sounds awesome. I recently played through the original Deus Ex and I really really liked it and the way it handles narrative, but it makes me sad how developers actually seem to be moving backwards in a lot of ways narratively. It's all well and good that a game should be easy enough for more casual players to enjoy it, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't make them mad, sad, frustrated or otherwise unhappy since these are the emotions good fiction is built on.

    And you can't have your cake and it it too by just confining those things to cutscenes (which do totally suck btw).

    1. The section in Bloodlines I talked about can be frustrating if you're bad at keeping maps in your head - like say me - but it is a really well designed section. Also - PLAY BLOODLINES.

      I think the real meat of the problem is then - how does one invest players in their own choices. How do you make the system work so players want the story and not the game? Also - which is more important?

      I do like the idea of mixing and matching required deaths - and especially making deaths have IMPACT on the game. For example, if Aereith dies - the game goes one direction, and if it doesn't it goes another. So - if the decisions have a strong (and possibly positive) effect, then really, it's not gaming the system to make them live. I think that might be the core here... maybe.

      In other news - I think my stupidly long three-part comment got turned into a two-part stupidly long comment, and a lot of content got removed - irksome.

  4. I actually got all three parts in my inbox, Blogger's just crazy apparently.

    I think players are always going to care more about gameplay than whatever story happens out of their control. Therefore I think that for a player to really care about any particular story element, it has to be weaved into the gameplay in some way. (Though as you point out, a specific event doesn't necessarily have to be avoidable as long as the game gives enough of an overall impression of control so that you're a little unsure.)

    There are plenty of story elements that do get integrated with gameplay, like when you get a new weapon or ally, or you reach a safe haven, etc. The problem I see, and the reason I keep harping on negative emotion, is that developers rarely attempt to do negative things to players in gameplay terms aside from the usual "retry the mission." Rarely can you do something that ends up losing you a weapon item or ally, for example.

    Games that have really made me laugh did so partially though gameplay (e.g. Monkey Island). If a game wants to scare me, it should implement gameplay mechanics that are scary (which has been done effectively in many games). Logically then, if a game wants to make me sad or angry, it should contain at least some game mechanics that make me sad or angry. I can thing of almost no examples where this was done intentionally, and I've never really even heard anyone bring it up, which is why I think it's such a major roadblock.

    I like the idea that the consequences shouldn't always be clear. Like if you're really good you manage to kill some bad-guy who later turns out to have been a double-agent, so now you're on your own in a later mission. It would be a good way of rewarding skilled players with an alternate ending or whatever while also making the game harder for them, and you could give the noob player who failed to kill the guy the more upbeat outcome.

  5. Okay, I thought of a game that made me feel sad through it's gameplay mechanics. I was playing Medieval II: Total War and had two really awesome generals whom I'd leveled up a bunch through a campaign in Africa. I decided to sail them back home, but their boat was sunk by a storm and they drowned. I was legitimately sad. If they had been given fleshed-out personalities, and the game had punctuated their death with the right music and maybe some last-minute panicked screaming, I think I would have cried. Of course I could have just loaded my game if I'd saved recently, and the fact that I hadn't was kind of annoying, so that's another important issue.

    Everyone always brings up Aerith when talking impactful character death, and I think a big part of that is the fact that she's not only part of your party, but also your best healer. If she was a random NPC I don't think people would give a crap, or at least they wouldn't be hacking the game to bring her back (seriously wtf). Every time you go to that character select screen, you're reminded of her absence.

    Maybe it's selfish to say that people can only be made to care about stuff that affects them personally (and not just the protagonist), but the truth is I don't feel nearly as upset about some disaster overseas as I do when someone I knew dies, so I think that grief and anger have inherently selfish aspects to them. (Wow that got dark fast.)

  6. Anger and grief are about personal lose and closeness. I rarely get connected enough to a character to care. There have been a few times when I do though, but mostly because of moments when they stand out. And by reversing traits, and going against type, you can easily make emotion, or character.

    Example: At one point Kaitlan was playing Metal Gear Solid 2, and we hated Raiden. He was a chump. Later, Snake joined our party. Kaitlan then failed the mission. The next time she played, she hid under the box, and Snake did everything.

    So, at that point, we had seen the character of Snake.

    If the game later had Snake die to a boss early in the fight, and we had to beat it, we'd feel more badass (a negative emotion, since Raiden sucks). But, by establishing traits, then going against them, you build an important base for creating something cool. If Aerith had died in gameplay, and stopping her gameovered you in a few scenes (or - better - gave a mediocre ending) you would have cool choices.

    Your Total War example was cool, because it was about investment. We are invested in Snake, Areith, our generals, and whatnot. By creating that zone, we can now control emotion. The problem then is to either make PLAYERS make easy or hard choices with good and mediocre consequences, or make them have choices which they have consequences for, but not terrible ones (like you excellent double agent example).

    I think people should argue about what the Good Ending is. "I saved Aerith, but Shinra still exists, but without their ability to corrupt mako, therefore, I won!" "Nah dude, the game is only good when you kill Sepiroth!"

  7. I totally I agree. That's one thing I really liked about the Mass Effect endings is all of them have serious downsides, even the one that's hardest to unlock. Most videogame stuff is way too black & white (subtle Peter Molyneux joke, oh snap!). I think it's because like 80% of the time you're trying to save the world, which starts everything with a "success or failure" vibe. It's so commonplace that we complain when those aren't the stakes (see Dragon Age 2).

    That was one thing I liked about Mass Effect 3 though. You're out to save the galaxy from annihilation, and the question is, how much are you willing to sacrifice in order to possibly slightly increase your odds of success by an indeterminate amount? In my case, it was pretty much whatever it took, meaning I consigned at least 2 races(!) to extinction. I could definitely see arguments on the other side, that being a galactic savior doesn't give you license to be a complete douche.

    Mostly though, ambiguity isn't something videogames do very well (see 90% of moral choice system ever). This guy has interesting takes on game stuff
    though personally I'm more of a fan of grey morality than just making the "good" path more difficult, though that's good too.

  8. Really nice rant - been enjoying his videos, they are mostly interesting views of games as art - and I enjoy them.

    Greying morality is I think one of the most important parts of making a game have actual choices, since by pre-judging the character's choices - the designer says what the "real ending" and the "real way to play" is. If the designer doesn't judge the character, then there is actual choice. And that thought on judgement is I think very important.

  9. If you like his stuff, you might enjoy Extra Credits if you aren't already familiar:

    Most web shows don't cause me to occasionally weep openly...