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.

Imagination anyone?

When most people are enjoying a work of fiction, they usually interpret it as a virtual world. When people are observing a fictional work from an analytical point of view, it is obvious that this is not the case. A fictional film is seen by many as a window into a different world with similiar mechanics to our own, when really it only provides vague snippets of audio-visual info. The mechanics of the fictional world are merely the educated imaginings of the audience. Imaginings that are educated by the knowledge of our own world.

For instance, if a character gets angry, the audience has to guess the stimuli for their aggression. The audience guesses by looking at other elements and crosschecks them with probable causes. Without knowledge of anger, the audience has no hope of determining the reason for this anger. Imagination is where the mechanics come from, the story is actually executed in the viewer’s head. Sympathy comes into play when the audience needs to choose from the separate stimuli for aggression. The audience either has to sympathize with  the character or apply a generalized archetype, the choice depending on how well the character is portrayed or ‘fleshed out’. The french film Welcome to the Sticks (Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis) puts the audience’s ignorance to good use. As the characters are slowly portrayed, the audience’s understanding changes and is almost synchronized with that of the protagonist’s.

The elements of fiction displayed in a Venn Diagram.

Of course, it isn’t all the responsibility of the audience in order to figure out the events in the story. It is the job of the cinematographer to provide hints by employing techniques of editing. the Kuleshov Effect demonstrates this idea. It is the job of the author to present ideas in a way that hints the reader, maybe using metaphor or implicit declaration.

Games are a bit sketchy in their method of portrayal. I have still yet to play a game that uses irony in it’s story. There is no widely accepted technique or viewpoint as to how imagination is utilized in games. Imagination and reasoning are already employed in game-play, but it is rarely used as a means of story-telling.

Most games (now-a-days) construct narrative methods with the goal of delivering as much as information as possible in the most explicit and comprehensive way. So that the player’s cognition can be wasted on other things like: solving puzzles, killing badies and grinding for more level-ups. Most of the time these game-mechanics have little effect on how the player perceives the fictional world. That’s why I refer to games like Call of Duty as being films (poor cinematography by the way) with combat game-play attached. But recently there have been a few hopeful titles; Bulletstorm, Portal 2 and LA Noire.

The front cover of the game M.U.L.E.

Quite a few old games utilize imagination for story-telling, because at the time they simply did not have the rendering power to tell the whole story aesthetically. M.U.L.E. for instance, conveys its premise through the consequences of the player’s actions. When the player figures out the premise, it is a “Eureka” moment. Another example is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where most of the settings are described in dialogue. The actual spatial aspects of the game are merely shells of a larger picture made by the player’s mind. The social aspects of game-play are micro views of large scale trends that the player calculates.

The failings with many games is that they attempt to tell the story without regard to its impact on the player. I seriously doubt that games can tell powerful stories if they only use the story as a fictional justification of the game-play. Considerations for implicit narrative aren’t required to create a powerful experience, but they are required to make a compelling story and provoke emotions that are actually relevant to the story.

Interesting links relating to story-telling:

Finding Games True Voice – Frictional Games Development Blog

Realm Of New Fictions – Huge Entity

The Deaths Of Game Narrative – Gamasutra(Darby McDevitt)

Transcending Prejudice Part 1

Currently, I’m attending Secondary School and two separate mathematics classes. More often than most of the time a student questions the practical value of a mathematical concept.

“When will I ever use Quartic Equations in my future art career?”,”Why would I ever need to know how to factorize an already pointless function?” or “The hell is a boxplot? and when will I ever use it?”

Practical Use =/= Practical Benefit

I’ve never seen much of a practical use to understanding these concepts either, other than software engineering and programming. Programming clearly puts mathematical thinking to practical use. What is practical? Why adore practicality? Why go to school and study if your only reason for being there is practical benefit? There is a practical benefit to studying mathematics, like there is a practical benefit to physical exercise. Both physical exercise and understanding mathematics maintain the functionality of the machine.

There is no practical use for running around a circuit for 5 minutes. When you are doing so you’re not transporting anything, you’re not completing a task and you’re actually wasting a lot of precious energy. Although you are not employing this process as a means of fulfilling a task, you are fulfilling a basic practical need through the process. The practical benefit of exercise is to maintain your body.

Just like physical exercise, there is no practical use for contemplating and solving a matrix. When you are doing so you’re not designing a bridge, you’re not calculating a profit margin and you are wasting quite a bit of energy and time.

Mathematical understanding is not a tool.

So what is the Practical Benefit?

Part 2…

Internal Conflict

Portraying internal conflict in games using game-play is tricky, especially when it is the protagonist’s problem. A significant majority of games imply the player to be the protagonist and as a result, games are more about empathy than they are about sympathy. Many games attempt to portray internal conflict by representing the conflict in a metaphysical form, usually involving combat game-play or any general player vs. evil game-play scenario. This technique fails in many ways;

  • If the player is assumed to be the protagonist than this method only portrays a struggle, when usually an internal conflict is the result of choices and complacency. This method could work if the protagonist is suffering from an addiction and trying to fight against it.
  • An example of internal conflict is the balance between needs and wants. It’s something where the conflict is resolved by supplementing both sides, not by providing a simplistic black and white protocol and going to the extreme left or right (in this case it can be catastrophic; choosing wants could cause you to die of hunger, whereas choosing needs can cause you to lead life without a soul and in constant regret.)
  • If the player’s actions are regarded as acts of the protagonist, than this method only allows players to assume the role of one part of the protagonist’s thought process. (eg. you are confidence and your enemy is paranoia.) Which is kind of contradictory of the game’s empathetic nature. When you are trying to overcome your paranoia, you aren’t thinking about eradicating it, you are thinking about reasoning with it.

This technique does have an advantage:

  • By portraying the internal conflict metaphysically it delivers a sense of urgency and pressure, which you would feel even if there is no immediate urgency to solve the problem.

If you ask me, the best way to portray the protagonist’s internal conflict is with puzzles. With puzzles, the player is expected to resolve a problem in a way that satisfies all elements whilst also utilizing all elements. When we plan to utilize only one element, we disregard the need for the other elements and what they are needed for. When we fail at satisfying all elements, it’s because we fall victim to the security of one element. For example, when a singer goes to an audition too confident, their performance can be executed well, but their interview can be seen by the judges as egotistic or cocky. When a singer goes to an audition too paranoid they might not get to perform at all, even if the interview goes well.

An Example Design:

In Portal, anything in the test chamber that prevents you from falling to your death can be portrayed metaphorically as a need. Anything in the test chamber that takes a non-continuous form can be portrayed as either a want or a resource in general. Any element that requires a resource to function can be portrayed as investment (the Aperture Science High Voltage Super Colliding Super Button). Any element of the puzzle that requires portals in order to function can portrayed as either a responsibility or a task.

This example is rather crude, a puzzle game specifically designed for the purpose of portraying internal conflict would be rather interesting though.

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

Game Idea #3: Schizophrenia

This one is really simple, I don’t think I’ll need a large wall of text to describe this one.

The player is a voice inside someone’s head, the objective is to stop the host from taking medication or seeking medical assistance. Your objective is to perpetuate your existence, but this can abstracted away from the player by making the player think that he/she is serving a different purpose. Say for example, the player might be a humble stranger that stepped into a fight to save a child (when really the child actually saved himself). Or maybe, the player’s continued existence improves that characters success in life, this option would still work even if the player is aware of the situation.

The reason why I think that this would be a good idea is that the player’s goals are actually being implemented as a story device and that the pursuit of the player’s goals augment the portrayal of schizophrenia. A lot of games that I’ve seen don’t give the player’s goals and motives implementation in the story. Most of the time the player is merely executing the will of a protagonist, with his/her own goals that are not on the same level as the player’s.

For example, in a game like Halo, the player’s motive would probably not be to kill the covenant and save humanity, but to have fun in executing the demands of the plot and game-play. In a multi-player game, the player’s motive might be to pwn some squeaky voiced 13 year-olds, rather than to actually complete the objective assigned to the character with clinical accuracy.

In order for this idea to work, there needs to be a strong emotional connection between the player and the schizophrenic character. This way their actions actually have genuine motivation behind them.