Monthly Archives: June 2015

Another Life

I’m me. That’s pretty obvious. I’m a biracial guy in my mid-twenties who lives in New York. I’ve had my own relatively interesting life, but at the end of the day it’s mine. Barring some crazy The Matrix or Total Recall-esque invention, I’m only ever going to live my life. It’s the only experience I’ll get.

Well, outside of certain kinds of fiction. Fiction offers a window into someone else’s life. The thing is, it’s hard to really make someone experience that life. Doesn’t matter how expertly crafted the movie is, at the end of the day you’re watching someone else’s life, not experiencing it first hand. You’ve no actual involvement.

Books can be a little better, as can let you actually into a character’s mind. Something like Ulysses is an exercise in empathy. There’s very little actual plot to the story, rather the catharsis and enjoyment of the story comes from being someone else. I got to spend a day in the head of an Irish man in his thirties in 1904. It was weird, somewhat long, but a completely new experience. Few books can really make you feel like you are someone else, let alone at this level.

So ‘normal’ narrative isn’t really that good at giving you another life. But video games are. Video games are an experiential medium, rather than being a spectator, in a good game the player experiences the narrative. In The Last of Us I got to be a father trying to protect his daughter. Hopefully, I’ll never have to carry my daughter through a crowd of zombie-esque people, but the game gave me that experience. And because I ended up so invested in the action — after all, I was the one trying to protect her — the ensuing story progression was that much more visceral. I got to be Joel.

It’s part of what makes action games like Halo or Uncharted such fun. You’re not vicariously taking part of the action, like when watching Bruce Willis Die Hard his way through Nakatomi Plaza, instead you get to be the action hero. Halo has you fighting off aliens while Uncharted 2 lets you run across the rooftops escaping from an attack helicopter. The player gets to be the action hero.

But it’s not all fireworks and zombies. Papers Please has the player as an immigration officer in a country that’s not unlike a Cold War USSR. Gameplay centers around making sure travelers have the right documents to cross over, and then rejecting or allowing them. This means double checking stamps and forms with a precision that gave me too many flashbacks to my time as a temp at a law firm. There are some choices too, like whether you help the resistance or if you’ll let the old lady with the sob story over even though everything’s not quite in order. But the strongest aspect of Papers Please is the experience. Suddenly I found myself caring a lot more for immigration officers at the airport, since for a few hours at a time I’d gotten to be them. I wasn’t just told their story, I got to live it for a while.

It’s fun to be someone else for a while, to not just be told someone else’s story, but to actually experience it. When games give you choices (from small ones like how best to get through a group of guards in Uncharted to major ones in Mass Effect where which squad member you assign to a task risks their death), they let you take an active part in the narrative. Storytelling then stops being a spectator sport and lets the audience be a part of it.

So yeah. Games are a fantastic method of telling stories.

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Linear Versus Open World

E3 was this week, which means most major video game companies were showing off the upcoming games they have lined up. There’s a lot to be excited for: Star Wars Battlefront looks great, Dishonored 2 is getting Emily Kaldwin as a protagonist, Kingdom Hearts 3 is finally in development. But me being me, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and the glorious gameplay demo they showed off is what I cared about most.

The game looks great, showing again why Naughty Dog is one of the best in the industry. Telling too is the discussion surrounding the game The Uncharted games, like the more recent The Last of Us, is incredibly narrative focused. More so than role-playing games — traditionally the story based game — Naughty Dog’s recent slew of action adventure games have been all about the story. Furthermore, the games are very linear. Where Final Fantasy VII had side quests, Uncharted keeps going in one direction. You’re basically playing through a movie.

It’s a direction that Neil Druckmann, A Thief’s End’s creative director, deeply believes in, even if that’s not where many other major studios are going. There’s a tendency towards the open world, where games put players in a massive world for them to explore. Bungie left Halo, a very linear shooter, to make Destiny, something that looks a lot more like an RPG with hints of an open-world. Ubisoft’s flagship Assassin’s Creed series lets players roam the ancient world, finding their own fun and pursuing optional objectives. The player doesn’t have to have Ezio continue pursing the Borgias, instead they can recruit more assassins or collect money to improve equipment. Unlike Uncharted, they aren’t forced along a single, linear path.

This is arguably one of the great potentiality of games. Players can do whatever they want and craft their own narrative out of a sandbox. Rather than being shepherded along a preset path, players can strike out and find their adventures. Games, after all, let the consumer have a lot more interaction with the story than a movie or book. Letting players explore takes full advantage of the medium.

But it doesn’t always work narratively. Pacing is incredibly important when telling a story. The audience can’t get bored halfway through or even distracted from the central core. I think this is where open world games come up short. I enjoy the Assassin’s Creed games for what they are: relatively mindless adventure games with some great conspiracy theory set dressings. But more often than not I get waylaid by exploring or doing side-missions and going after treasure. It remains fun enough, but they don’t exactly bring me in closer to the main character’s arc. I couldn’t care less about what Ezio was up to in Turkey, it was more fun to explore Constantinople.

Naughty Dog is instead opting to bring players into a narrative and let them experience it first hand. Games can let you live as someone else and experience things you usually don’t. What Uncharted and The Last of Us do so well is let players live a different life. The Last of Us had me feel like a father, Uncharted 2 let me be an action hero. More than that, though, these are characters we care about. By keeping the narrative and the action zeroed in, the players isn’t allowed to be distracted by side quests. Rather, the character and story remain front and center and with them a genuine emotional experience.

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Narrative Contracts

Early on in Borderlands 2 the player encounters a fence of electricity in between them and their goal. Claptrap, the voice over the radio, tells you there’s a fusebox on the other side and that if you run fast enough, you won’t take damage from the fence. Your objective changes, now saying to run into the forcefield. So you do, and it deals damage to your shield and pushes you back. Claptrap suggests you do it again, he says you weren’t running fast enough. Seeing as this is a video game and voices-over-the-radio are seldom wrong, and your objective once again tells you to run into it. You do, and the same thing happens.

Undeterred, Claptrap tells you to try again, only for you to once again be electrocuted and pushed back. He then starts to make another suggestion for how to run through it when another voice on the radio comes in and tells you to just shoot the fusebox. And to ignore any advice Claptrap gives you.

It’s a funny moment, in no small part because the player is used to games and objectives being helpful. Borderlands 2 is effectively using the tropes of the medium itself to screw with you. It’s like a betrayal by the game, a really funny one. But it also serves to highlight the contract between a player and a game.

See, when it comes to entertainment there’s this sort of unspoken agreement. The movie’s arc will come to a head and resolution, the book’s narrative will conclude in some way, this essay will make a point at the end that warrants the five minutes you spend reading it. In video games, completing objectives will both advance the plot and progress the player. When the voice on the radio gives you an objective, you do it.

Which is what makes that gag in Borderlands 2 so great. These narrative contracts are vital to maintaining reader interest and telling a good story, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in breaking them. Community, for example, plays fast and loose with the expected promise that a tv show doesn’t know it’s a tv show. There’s something a little unsettling when a character in a tv show refers to ‘seasons’ or seems acutely aware that it’s a show.

Yet in the series finale a couple weeks ago, the characters envisioning how they’d want the Season Seven of their friendship to play out give us a unique look into each character’s psyche. That each scenario is introduced by a truncated version of the show’s opening only further draws the viewer in. What’s key is that the breaking of the rules service both story and humor.

For another example it’s hard not to mention Ulysses. The James Joyce novel eschews much in the way of the plot that’s expected of it. Bits of stories are started and continued, but nothing is ever truly resolved as the modernist novel captures the wandering minds and lives of a fairly average day in 1904 Dublin. Had the book instead followed a more traditional structure, we wouldn’t have one of the greatest books ever. More importantly, it wouldn’t have felt half as realistic and emotionally true to life as it does.

But if we’re talking about books breaking narrative contracts, nothing quite beats Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. In an increasingly frustrating fashion, the narrator tells the reader that he, as the storyteller, could do anything he wanted, like set the titular Jacques and his master off on a great adventure. But he doesn’t. Instead the book is one of unmet expectations, where the reader neither gets to hear the true story of Jacques’ loves or is even given a proper ending to the book — rather the reader is given three to choose from. But as an exercise in playing with narrative, it excels.

All this to say that rules are meant to be broken. That said, rules have to be broken right, like in Community or Ulysses. Because unless you’re Denis Diderot, there’s not much point in doing it just to prove a point. Or if you want to screw with your player.

Now I’ve just gotta finish Borderlands 2.

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Cold War Relevance

Alright. Quick one today because it’s my birthday and I have plans.

I talk a lot about science fiction and how often it works as a way to commentate on current events and what not. Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to look at the interplay of fiction when it’s something that happened in the past (See: Gojira). The Cold War too, which was also when modern science fiction began to really take shape, has great influence on the stories of its time.

Ray Bradbury opens his short story “The Last Night of The World” with a simple question: “What would you do if you knew that this was the last night of the world?” The answer isn’t wild revelry, rather the husband and wife at the center await the upcoming end with simple acceptance, living the last night of the world as if it were any other night.

Published in early 1951, the short story tries to capture the mindset of people who have been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation for two decades. In Bradbury’s view, these people are powerless to change anything about their fate, and thus they feel that they have no recourse but to accept the end of the world. There’s little concern for a matter of how the world ends, it’s just described as like the closing of a book.

By focusing so small Bradbury is able to make implicit statements about those with power. Though the short story lacks actual overt commentary, “The Last Night of The World” is an indictment against the Cold War and the associated political atmosphere. There is an undeniable link in the short story between the end of the world and the actions taken by leaders during the Cold War.From the point of view of the story, the world can only take a certain amount of guns being constantly pointed at each other before the plug is pulled.

In this story, people can adapt to the constant fear of death to the point that when the end finally comes it is not so much greeted as it is all-but-ignored. Humanity can get used to anything, even if it means adjusting to a constant expectation of the end of the world. The end of the world has progressed beyond inevitability; it has become expected.

Compare this to Star Wars, released 26 years later. Written and directed by someone who actually did grow up in the Cold War’s tensions, the movie disagrees vehemently with Bradbury’s message. Luke Skywalker grew up under the Empire, or at least the far reaches of it, and dreams of fighting back. He’s not resigned to his fate, rather, he jumps at the chance to do something about it.

See, Star Wars has to be seen as a piece of Cold War literature. You’ve got the Death Star threatening to destroy an entire planet, reminiscent of the whole nuclear risk thing. A lot of contemporary (American) writings painted the Soviet Union as a faceless, evil, Galactic Empire-esque nation with the United States as the noble underdog espousing a rugged individualism. In light of all this, Luke Skywalker being able to rise up and destroy the Death Star is a statement that, hey, they can win. Not at all unlike how Pacific Rim is a millennial anthem, Star Wars was a generation growing up under the threat of nuclear doom saying that things would get better.

Writer’s Note: Do give “The Last Night of The World” a read, it’s short and findable online. Also, I feel like there’s a connection between the Cold War atmosphere and the idealism of ‘80s movies, but that’s another post for another day.

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