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Language of Action

This amusing comparison was posted on Reddit the other day under “Morrowind vs Skyrim vs Dark Souls”:

/slowclap

/slowclap

The implication here is (presumably) that games these days are being dumbed down, or at least are not being made as challenging as their predecessors (Dark Souls aside). This sort of “hand holding” is pretty much the de facto standard in MMOs as well, in the form of highlighting of the questing areas and the like. ¹

To which I say: “Good.”

If there is one particular scenario I despise more than anything else in videogames, it is when I sit down to play one and then can’t. I do not mean that I try and fail and am unable to progress – that part is good! It’s gameplay, it’s doing things, it’s actively engaging my faculties. Rather, I mean when the game is not even allowing me to try anything because I am missing something and don’t even know it. Or maybe I am not missing anything and the game is at fault. Indeed, whenever I get stuck in a game, these are the usual possibilities:

  1. I cannot solve the puzzle.
  2. I missed an invisible quest trigger.
  3. I cannot locate the quest objective.
  4. I do not know where to go next.

In all those scenarios aside from #1, we can entertain the possibility that it is the game designer’s fault. And that’s the problem! Sure, occasionally it is my own damn fault for not reading the quest text correctly or I didn’t pan the camera 110° to the right or whatever. But after 20+ years of playing videogames, I can assure you that my default assumption is not that these designers do everything on purpose. Games are art, but if you set out to evoke a particular emotion with a piece and it generates the exact opposite, we can say that that piece of art failed in its goal. Sometimes mistakes can make a game better (like… Gandhi in Civilization), but an equal or greater amount of time they are simply mistakes.

Things can go too far the other way, of course. In the opening scenes of The Witcher 2, as you approach the ominously empty bridge, you get a prompt telling you which buttons to press to avoid dragon fire. “What dragon? Oh.” Quests in Skyrim which ask you to find the artifact that has been hidden for centuries… and there’s a very visible quest marker that appears directly over it. I can concede that something like this other Reddit picture is too much:

I hated Navi anyway.

I hated Navi anyway.

At the end of the day, though? I am playing videogames to do things. I do not consider walking around a room pressing the Interact button every few steps as doing something. There is a place for games in which the “doing” is figuring out where to go or what to do next. And that place is “Pile of Games I’m (Literally) Not Playing.”

¹ I still remember the river of tears that resulted from WoW adding quest givers to the minimap back in Patch 2.3. Yes, seriously, tears.

Massive Effect

Having completed Torchlight, I decided to move onward to Mass Effect. Why not Skyrim, which is literally burning a hole through my Steam library? As Liam O’Brian might say, the status of my preparations is in doubt. I prefer one meaty title with a helping of indie garnish along the side – with something like Skyrim, I’m getting the impression that I’ll still be eating turkey sandwiches for months later.

About 5 hours into Mass Effect, all I can say is holy shit.

One of the most groundbreaking things occurred in the city after the first “dungeon.” In talking with a receptionist to the Consort, she winked at me.

The Winking Lady of Mass Effect

She also said that, but nevermind.

My incredulity may sound facetious, but I am actually very, very impressed.

See, I have been thinking about the problems with storytelling in videogames for quite some time. How is one supposed to convey subtle nuance in a game? In purely written works, it is somewhat easy to evoke the emotion you want to get across, provided you massage the language a bit. For example, consider the following:

‘Look, I can explain,’ he said.

Lord Vetinari lifted an eyebrow with the care of one who, having found a piece of caterpillar in his salad, raises the rest of the lettuce.

How could someone ever translate that in game form? Nevermind Vetinari’s specific sentiment here, think generally: there is an entire genus of expression that the format is preventing designers from expressing.

Games have some pretty unique qualities that cannot be replicated by other mediums too – Far Cry 2’s plot wouldn’t work without player interaction – but many times it feels as though designers simply give up. Game narratives are written in the language of action because of these restrictions on expression. Why are we always killing 10 [%local_wildlife]? Or killing everything, period? Well, how else are you supposed to convey conflict when reduced to crude avatars with clubs? Even though all games have access to written dialog, at some level we do expect everything to be translated into the language of action. And until the last few years, it was functionally impossible to express more than a rudimentary emotional gesture anyway.

There are pitfalls too, of course. Blink during the wink, and you’ll have missed it. Or, hell, focus on the subtitles and miss it too. It is also arguable about whether games should try and be more like the other mediums, instead of focusing on its own unique strengths.

To that last charge, I say “Watch that scene in FF7 again.” Pay close attention at 1:19. More than the murder itself, it was Sephiroth’s smirk that drove home how irredeemably evil the man was. Without the CG movie we would never have saw it; calling attention to smirk in-game via text would have ruined its subtle gravity. While story can certainly be a crutch to prop up forgettable gameplay, story can also be a pole that vaults a game into the classics.

So, Mass Effect, you have my full attention. I just hope you do a little more winking a little less of this:

Decisions, decisions.