deus ex (machina)

Deus Ex Machina is a literary device whereby a seemingly unsolved problem is resolved by a new character, event, ability or object.

Deus Ex is a videogame whereby the player character resolves issues that were seemingly inextricable. So in the case of Deus Ex, the player character is the deus ex machina.

This ties in a lot to Warren Spector’s design philosophy. Stories that aren’t just told to the audience, but told with the audience. The game is called Deus Ex, because it is a deus ex machina that is missing a machine(or the closest human equivalent).

The essence of RPGs Part 1

There are three RPGs I will be looking at; Deus Ex, Mass Effect and The Witcher. All three of these use very similiar design concepts. These games aren’t exactly hardcore turn-based RPGs, they are modern Action RPGs. Deus Ex, Mass Effect and The Witcher use the essence of Role Playing Games to modify the strategies applied to action scenarios. The way that they do this also has a metaphoric effect on the narrative.

Temporary Preemptive Nouns

Many Role Playing Games have variety in the enemies they include. Different enemies require different nouns for the player to use against them. The three games I’ve chosen also expect the player to preemptively determine what enemies they are going to face, so that they can load up on the right equipment. Whether that equipment be; potions, blade coatings, suits, ammo-types, temporary weapon upgrades or certain bits of armour.

Deus Ex has enemies spanning from opinionated terrorists to automated machinery. The preemptive choices of weaponry are made according to how “human” the enemies are. It is suggested that; human beings are subjected to non-lethal means of dispatch. Of course in Deus Ex the player can choose whether to kill the terrorists or not, but it is still dependent on what the player sees the enemy as. Does the player see the NSF as blood-thirsty terrorists or humane freedom-fighters. It is also a comment on the theme of trans-humanism, because the player can choose to use either bullets or EMP to take down an augmented enemy.

Permanent Adjectives (Part 2)

Hedonism and Meaning

In many elitist circles, people tend to classify what is art and what is not. Most of the time in these circles, the conclusion is drawn that anything made for the expressed purpose of either stimulating feelings of adrenaline or sexual arousing the viewer is not art, because these feelings usually do not produce memorable experiences. The genres they are referring to have derogatory terms; pulp-horror, dumb-action, torture-porn.

I must admit I’m not fond of this hedonistic entertainment either, but not for the same reasons. When a fictional experience is designed solely as an emotion-driven experience, the narration of the story takes higher priority than the story itself. This usually results in the story becoming unbelievable, over-dramatized or stretched. I’m not saying that these kinds of works are bad, I’m just saying that it is not my cup of tea. Whereas these elitists wouldn’t even recognize it as tea at all.

I have noticed that this phenomena doesn’t just pertain to dumb-action, it occurs in almost any genre, regardless of which emotion it prescribes. Whether it be happiness, love, sadness, anger or even nostalgia, the over-abundance of such emotions usually leads to stories without meaning, stories that aren’t believable or shallow stories that don’t discuss themes thoroughly. For example; soap operas like Neighbours, fantasy romance books like Twilight or overstretched dramas like Lost.

Unfortunately, there are also consequences when the story is written without intent for effect. Although these stories can enlighten the audience with a thorough and in-depth discussion, the emotional value of these stories are not as high and can be less holistic. Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic seems to be written for believability and contemplation. The individual contexts that are in the game are very well constructed. Each planet has its own unique social, political and economic virtues, as well as some intriguing conflicts as a result. But Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic is also quite dry at times and most of the dialogues are plain information dumps. This is probably intended to suit the Jedi ideal of emotional neutrality and self-control.

A truly great story needs to have symbiotic balance between story mechanics and narrative effect. Mass Effect 2 does so quite masterfully (except for its combat game-play). The story/strategy structure of Mass Effect 2 is designed in a way that facilitates intellectual contemplation and emotional involvement. Here is a flowchart that sums up the story:

The synopsis of Mass Effect 2.

Blue indicates the general strategy from the perspective of a robot. Black is the story in relation to the long-term strategy. And Red is the emotional effect of the story and strategy. Not only is Mass Effect 2‘s emotive impact holistically considered and realized, but the storyline is quite believable and the economic decisions made by the player make sense from a robot’s perspective. As far as I am concerned that’s a recipe for a damn good dramatic game.

Mass Effect 2 isn’t the only game containing this kind of structure. Beyond Good and Evil has a very similiar structure:

The synopsis of Beyond Good and Evil.

Morality and/or Ethics Points

Mass Effect uses Paragon/Renegade points to track and stabilize the character development. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic uses Light/Dark Side points to track and stabilize the story development. Both of these games also use the morality points mechanic to metaphorically describe the story concepts of both games.

The morality points acquired throughout the two games are tracked in an accumulative bar. In Mass Effect the two sides of the scale (Paragon and Renegade) are treated in two exclusive meters. In Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic the two sides are measured in the same meter and the points earned negate each other. If you gain a dark side point, the meter moves down and if you earn a light side point, the meter moves up. This means that in Mass Effect you can choose both sides and that in Star Wars: KOTOR you can only take one side.

The morality meter for Star Wars:KOTOR.

Film critic Roger Ebert once said; “if you can go through ‘every emotional journey available,’ doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.” The morality points feature helps to keep the player’s actions consistent. In both Mass Effect and KOTOR, the player can only perform certain actions if they have acquired enough points. This encourages the player to choose one side and stick to it.

Mass Effect‘s morality points can be used to increase the protagonist’s persuasive skill. Points are gained by either taking aggressive actions or by taking passive actions. Paragon points contribute to the protagonist’s ability to charm, whereas Renegade points contribute to the protagonist’s ability to intimidate. The player isn’t confined to choosing one side, but the game does recommend it. Mass Effect is a game about a charismatic soldier called “Commander Shepard”, who has to summon a group of elite soldiers to help him defeat a major threat. Shepard uses his emotions to inspire those around him to fight by his side, either through intimidation and discipline or through charm and mutual respect.

KOTOR’s morality points can be used to increase the protagonist’s proficiency in the force. Light side points are gained either by being emotionally unaffected by events or by being politically neutral. Dark side points are gained either by getting emotionally involved in matters where ethics are in question or by losing neutrality. Light side points contribute to the player’s ability to utilize the stabilizing power of the force in combat. Dark side points contribute to the player’s ability to utilize the chaotic and dangerous aspects of the force in combat. The player may choose to change sides at any time in the game, but ultimately they are either destined to restore peace or doomed to fall victim to the temptation of chaos and emotion. In Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic, the player has the choice of either ignoring their own personal emotional desires and utilizing that neutrality to remove the unstable elements without bias or blind rage, or embrace the chaotic nature of their emotions and point that chaos in the direction of their enemies.

Portal 2 Review: “Valve now make High Art”

“Science isn’t about why, it’s about why not.” -Cave Johnson

This game is nearly everything games can and should be. Portal 2 is funny, powerful and tells a brilliant story with narrative methods that can only be achieved in games. This game achieves everything that I have been ranting over for the past few months.

Picture of the opening test chamber.

Portal 2 uses every element of traditional game design effectively, space, movement, difficulty, functional and logical level design, agency and the player’s expectations. It uses all of these to convey the plot, the conflicts(internal and external), the personality of the characters and the overall mood of the scene.

This is the only game I have played so far that portrays internal conflict through game-play elements. There are a few games I can think of that I haven’t played that do this, Catherine and Silent Hill. Portal 2 manages to execute this masterfully and also manages to give the player a motive and portray conflict through that. By portraying internal conflicts through game-play elements(space especially) and aesthetics, there is a stronger emotional connection to the characters. Half Life 2: Episode 2 tried to achieve an emotional connection through aesthetics rather than mechanics which jeopardized the emotional impact of the final scene. One of the scenes(can’t disclose or else I will spoil it) in Portal 2 was the most powerful scene I have ever encountered in games(probably not as powerful as Heavy Rain, but I haven’t played that).An example of Portal 2's level design.

It is also a very engrossing and immersive title. In comparison to the first you are not simply imprisoned in a static dead environment, you are stuck in GLaDOS’ claws. Stuck in a dynamic puzzle where the only way out is through wits and cunning. The sound-scape and level-design really convey this idea well and make the player seem small and insignificant. The player might be small in comparison to the environment, but the interactivity of the environment allows the player to feel as though he/she has significant influence on the environment.

Portal 2 is the video-game equivalent of Citizen Kane, it’s built on the tenants of the first Portal whilst giving the ideas more thorough consideration and much better overall production quality. Not to mention this game is really enjoyable.

Diagnosis: 9.8/10

Indigo Prophecy’s unique approach to story-telling

Indigo Prophecy is a cult videogame that released in 2005 and is the only game I’ve played that can be classed as a thriller. What I like most about this game is that the entirety of its game-play is dedicated only towards telling the story. Not one iota of game-play is self-sufficient, the game-play relies on the plot to grab the player’s attention. Indigo Prophecy also contains some narrative devices I’ve never encountered before and I’ll discuss them a bit more thoroughly.

A screenshot of Indigo Prophecy.The game isn’t built around the game-play, it is quite the opposite, the game-play is only used to tell the story. The main objective of the game is to prevent the main characters from losing their willpower. If the detective characters lose it, then they will resign and if Lucas (main character) loses it, then he will either turn himself in to the police or commit suicide. Using character development as the key game-play object provides a unique narrative experience. Even though the game-play portrays the characters well, it still portrays the psychological state of the characters through aesthetic elements. When Carla is made tense due to a grim psychic reading, she still tells the player later that she was made tense by it.

The suspicion mechanic is also a notable narrative device, when police are near Lucas and trying to find any sign of criminal behavior the level of suspicion is used as a game-play element. This increases the level of suspense quite dramatically. Of course, like the psychology mechanic, the suspense is still portrayed through aesthetics.

A picture showing interaction between the characters of Indigo Prophecy.If you were to take away the story, aesthetics and characters away from the game and judge it only by game-play, you would get bored very quickly. The game-play is a monotonous sequence of button-mashing and tedious tasks. The game-play are only used as a means of conveying the story and portraying the characters. Unlike most games nowadays, the game isn’t marketed to provide a fun and visceral game-play experience. It is aimed at providing an experience that tells you the story in a way that is immersive and to portray realistic lovable characters that the player can relate to and care about. The characters are not presented merely for practical reasons in game-play (read this).

Lukas breaking out into sobs. D:In previous posts I have spoken of games that place the player in a certain position of authority. I spoke about games where the player executes the will of the protagonist (Half Life), games where the player is the will of the protagonist and the protagonist is the executor (Deus Ex) and games where the player is merely an adviser (Machinarium). In Indigo Prophecy the player is the protagonist’s source of willpower.

Whenever the protagonist is under an immediate level of stress and hardship, the player is responsible for keeping the protagonist on track. There is a moment in game-play where the player needs to press a sequence of buttons quickly enough in order for the character to succeed. These quick time events require good concentration and it causes the player to be as focused as the character. The buttons that need to be pressed also fit with the movement in relation to the player’s viewpoint.

Whenever the protagonist is under physical strain, the player also has to exert physical effort. There are moments when the player has to repeatedly mash buttons in rapid succession, in order for the character to exert physical effort. As you can imagine, this synchronizes how the player is feeling and how the character is feeling as far as strain is concerned.

Whenever Carla (one of the main characters) is in a fearful situation, the player has to control her breathing so she doesn’t panic. Carla happens to be claustrophobic. In one level, Carla goes to an underground police archive in order to retrieve some files. The player has to control her breathing and look for the file at the same time (a tedious task). If the player fails to control Carla’s breathing than she will storm out of the archive and the player will have to start again. The importance of controlling fear is of narrative importance for portraying Carla’s dedication to her work and the importance of monitoring her fear is of metaphoric importance.The metaphor being that; even when we try to focus on an important task to take our minds off of the fear, it doesn’t seem quite possible and actually focusing on the task can actually make the fear worse.

A screenshot from a very eerie scene in Indigo Prophecy.Criticisms (spoilers follow)

This game seems to be more focused on the development of the characters than the development of the back-story. The back-story of Indigo Prophecy is about a conspiracy behind what started civilization and how it is related to a passage between differing worlds. A conspiracy following two conflicting groups that have shaped the world around us, orange clan and purple clan. Indigo Prophecy seemed to introduce these concepts into the game only at the very end, which made the game feel rather rushed.

Maybe the plot was only a way of portraying the changes in characters, this might make the actual lack of back-story portrayal a positive. Maybe this was what David Cage was aiming for when he made this game, this would also explain why the game-play makes the player complete such mundane tasks that don’t relate to the story as a whole (eating, having a shower etc).

Conclusion (end of spoilers)

This game is a thriller, because it puts the player in a position of responsibility that causes the player to feel the suspense and stress of a scene. It is a thriller, because it is a game built for the genre and not a typical game archetype. It is a cult video game, because it does not appeal to players of a particular gaming genre, it doesn’t even specifically appeal to gamers. Unlike most conventional games, Indigo Prophecy is written first, designed second (which is how it should be). This game is a true work of art, I wouldn’t exactly call it a masterpiece though, but it is good enough considering it’s rather unique nature. When I get a PS3 I’ll get Heavy Rain and dissect that.

Team Fortress 2: Game Adaption of Propaganda

Team Fortress 2 is the only multiplayer game where I can find any narrative meaning. Basically it is a game adaption of Modern Warfare propaganda. It uses a combination of aesthetics, characters and game-play in order to achieve this. The visuals match propaganda of the time perfectly, the characters help display the mentalities of the separate countries and the game-play mechanics help portray how propaganda views the situation. The game is dense in dialogue and tactics and many links between it and propaganda can be spotted.

Aesthetics

The aesthetics of Team Fortress 2 are comical, as it suits the very unrealistic nature of the game-play (anyone who listened to the in-game commentary would know this). No real life battle would have opposing bases in less than a kilometre of each other. The visual style of Team Fortress 2 is based on the illustrative works of Joseph Christian Leyendecker, who happened to illustrate some propaganda. In addition to this style as a base, Valve added a cartoon like effect to the shaders. To the right is an illustration by JC Leyendecker.Weapons of Liberty by Joseph Christian Leyendecker

It combines the visual symbolism of propaganda with the comical nature of cartoons. Although some propaganda posters don’t take war that seriously anyway, so the incorporation of toon shaders is rather appropriate. Almost every visual aspect of Team Fortress 2 is similiar to propaganda of modern warfare. The fonts, the textures, the HUD and even the music is reminiscent of these themes.

The visual symbolism is used to distinguish the classes from one another. Using unrealistic proportions and colours, the game allows the player to distinguish other classes and teams. These are the same differing properties used in propaganda to provoke an emotive response, rather than a logical reflection of war.

Characters

Team Fortress 2 is a class based multiplayer game that separates the way players approach the game depending on what class they choose. Like most other competitive multiplayer games, the gameplay can cause a bit of a stir between players that use different tactics (remember the constant use of the term “noob-toob” in Call of Duty). In Team Fortress 2, the elitism between different players is used as a narrative device, showing the disagreements they have as representation of nationalistic prejudice. This is made most obvious by the soldier’s comments, who always makes fun of the service histories of other characters (like prejudiced retired soldiers would). “This american boot just kicked your ass back to Russia!” The image below is ww1 propaganda from Germany.

This is also the only game I’ve seen where the character’s nationalities are important. Generalizations of the different countries are incorporated into the aesthetics of the characters.A propaganda illustration from Germany before WW1.

Game-play

As I said earlier, this game is hardly realistic. The game is more conceptual than it is realistic, the spies backstab attack kills instantly, heavies can take a substantial amount of damage and the medic heals in a way that doesn’t match realistic medical procedure. Like propaganda it communicates it’s ideas in a rather unrealistic way in order to transmit the idea faster. The medic’s “medi gun” is like some kind of unnatural distributor of healing aura.It is definitely a fun game, but at times it can be really FRUSTRATING; the scout has the ability to be invulnerable for about 8 seconds, the medic has the ability to make a team-mate invulnerable for about 10 seconds and the backstabbing spies are annoying. Provoking negative emotions like frustration via game-play mechanics and provoking positive emotions via surface appearances is a metaphor of what propaganda views of war compared to what war actually is from the respective perspectives of soldiers.

One thing I like about this game is that, because it provokes both negative and positive emotions, the game is really satisfying (a really interesting theory on emotion that you might like to read here). I have never walked away from this game and felt unsatisfied.

Conclusion

The game’s fiction is set in the time just after World War 2. Team Fortress 2 is a game about prejudice, propaganda, rhetoric and toon-like game-play. The combination of toon aesthetics, gore and frustrating game-play might explain why so many TF2 memes are based around extreme slapstick violence (Painis Cupcake and Christian Brutal Sniper for example).