Anomalous Behavior

This post is about how real life stories amaze us and how games (or more specifically interactive stories) can learn from this.

Amazement is a form of surprise. When we are amazed, we are witnessing something that contradicts our current understanding. So when a real life story amazes us, it is because the anecdote breaks our system. What sets it aside from regular surprise is that the feeling compels us to not only figure out what is going on, but to also explain and comprehend it.

Real life anecdotes break our system, because our simplistic subjective interpretations of the universe can’t explain the phenomena. For example, A Maze’N Things have optical illusions that contradict depth perception and spatial awareness. There are probably some people that manage to perceive space by unconventional means, but everybody else would be amazed by these kinds of illusions.

As I noted before, fictional stories heavily utilize our current understanding of the real world. If a fictional story fails to temporarily change our understanding of the fictional universe, then anomalous behavior will be met with disbelief and the narrative will be met with criticism. The story-teller has to make sure that the audience is fully aware of any differences in the fictional world relative to reality and it would also be wise for the story-teller to cater for different interpretations of the real world. An example of a story taking these measures before beginning, would be The Hurt Locker. In the prelude to The Hurt Locker, the film introduces a character as the protagonist and gives him the same sort of treatment that a protagonist would receive in other stories. The main difference though is that, the “false protagonist” dies in the first scene. This prepares the viewer to accept an atmosphere that lacks safety.

Now, for the part that interactive stories can draw off of. The reason why real life stories are amazing and believable is because, we know(consciously or not) that behavior in our world is governed by rules, not by the arbitrary creations of story-tellers. Observe this quote;

“Einstein argued that there must be simplified explanations of nature, because God is not capricious or arbitrary. No such faith comforts the software engineer.” -Fred Brooks

If a games storyline is dictated by low-level rules that abstract into higher-level order, than they can evoke amazement and possibly change the player’s understanding of the world. If the rules defined, establish emergent order similiar to real life, but not quite the same, than anomalous behavior can occur. The player will not question the realism of the story, because it is not of the artist’s arbitrary creation, but rather the artist’s design. So long as the story that emerges is somewhat comparable to reality. If the fictional world isn’t mechanically similiar enough, than the amount of involvement required from the audience will outweigh the emotional involvement that the story can evoke.

Simulation-based story-telling is not only a way of creating compelling and/or amazing experiences, but is also story-telling that is most parallel to what games are as an art form. The painter defines a piece by how he/she places brushstrokes on a canvas, a musician defines a piece by sequential patterns and a game designer defines an artwork by rules.

I’m not saying that this is the definitive future of video-games, but it is a mighty fine possibility.

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.

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.