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)

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

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).

Artistic Games or Interactive Art?

A lot of the things I have been hearing lately about the computer software industry seem to be centred around whether or not interactive mediums are evolving as a successful means of artistic expression. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t and remaining stagnant, but either way there needs to be better clarification as to the differences between artistic games and interactive art.

What I’ve been hearing:

Systemic Emotion – Groping the Elephant

Dead Island Trailer and the Future of Games – Frictional Games

State of the Art: Teenage Wannabe and On the Tyranny of Fun – MetaGame

The Dragon Speech – Chris Crawford

Specific Violence – Fullbright

The Depths of Game Narrative -Darby McDevitt

Some of these articles are saying that games can’t provoke emotion as long as they are only focused on being fun or competitive (The Chris Crawford Speech and the Frictional blog). The MetaGame articles go as far to say that games can’t be art, because of the mere game mechanics of win/lose structures. The other two take no side of this idea, but they do still provide much reflection as to the state of games.

Currently I haven’t established my opinion as to which is more capable of provoking emotion. On one hand, artistic games can use the systematic thinking employed by the actual game to provoke, so far, limited emotional responses. On the other hand, artistic games are usually exposed to exploitation by the players trying to win. When the game mechanics are emphasized too much, the player cares less about the aesthetic part of the game. The characters are valued less for their human values and more for their place in game-play (As was mentioned in Systemic Emotion and The Dragon Speech). Some examples of Artistic Games would be; Mass Effect, Amnesia, Braid and Demon’s Souls.

Interactive Art is where the actual interaction with a piece is what gives it aesthetic value and emotional impact. These kinds of art have the nature of being more powerful, but this might just be because of the elements taken from other seasoned mediums (Heavy Rain for example, owes cinematography most of its success). One of the major drawbacks of this kind of artwork, is that the mainstream gaming audience doesn’t care much about these kinds of works. Many people would rate Heavy Rain as a bad game, because they expected it to be a game. Art works like these don’t have the same kind of engagement level as games, people approach them as games. Therefore they are criticized as games. Some examples of Interactive Art would be: Heavy Rain, Penumbra and Indigo Prophecy.

I don’t know which is more effective, but both kinds have the potential of striking a large variety of pallets. Maybe remaining limited to artistic games might increase the creative innovation, as Salvador Dalí once said;

“You know the worst thing is freedom. Freedom of any kind is the worst for creativity. You know, Dalí spent two months in jail in Spain, and these two months were the most enjoyable and happy in my life. Before my jail period, I was always nervous, anxious. I didn’t know if I should make a drawing, or perhaps make a poem, or go to the movies or the theatre, or catch a girl, or play with the boys. The people put me in jail, and my life became divine. Tremendous!” -Slavador Dalí

Modern Warfare 2 without the Gameplay

In my honest opinion Modern Warfare is a series with a lot of potential in narrative, philosophical and artistic aspects, but it’s combat is emphasized too heavily. The combat game-play is way too cumbersome (mentally) in order for the player to think about the plot or for the developer’s to deliver the plot properly. The “No Russian” level is an exception though, it isn’t made to be fun, it’s made to deliver the plot in a way that portrays the motives of the Ultra Nationalists. Unfortunately it is really poorly executed, this video does it better. Enjoy.