Friday, 31 October 2014

Michele Dachss: Part One

In a lot of games that boast, or are famous for, emergent narrative, the emergent narrative often constitutes raw action. I'm thinking of stories about a car chase in Grand Theft Auto, or a fight with a dragon in Skyrim. These things are specific to individual players, so I think they have value, in the sense that they illustrate something videogames are uniquely equipped to do, but the narratives, no matter how emergent, are still base. A shootout in a game, no matter how spontaneous or individuated, is still a shootout.

In Far Cry 2, emergent narrative, in my experience at least, is propagated not by reflexes in combat scenes, but by imagination - it provokes me to invent and embellish relationships between myself and the in-game characters.

Watching the films of Claude Fasbinder or Jean-Luc Godard, I often worry that minimal characterisation - sparse dialogue - is used not to create more complex or interpretative characters, but simply because the writer/director is unable to pen an effective script. Not bothering with narrative density, and then insisting that "that's the point", seems to me a kind of cop-out, like a lie used to make the director's work seem more impressive, simply because it is hard to comprehend.

But in Far Cry 2, the absence of characterisation felt like a legitimate decision. The relationship I developed, at least in my head, between myself and Michele Dachss, another mercenary that I happened upon in-game, would simply not have been possible (or at least would not have been as powerful) had the writers given either my character or her's a lot of back story. I was allowed to share some brief dialogue and non-dialogue scenes with her, but it was more about when they occurred and where than what was actually said.

I met Michele when I rescued her from a militia camp, where she was being interrogated, and having read up on Far Cry 2's randomisation system, I was aware that she hadn't been placed there deliberately by the developers. I could have been rescuing any of the game's NPCs. That it happened to be Michele lent our relationship a kind of spontaneity, a genuineness. As when I meet new people in real-life, I had happened upon her. Our meeting wasn't contrived in order to help Far Cry 2 make some kind of point - it just occurred. It reminded me of something Jake Solomon, director on XCOM, had once told me, that the reason emergent narrative speaks to people so much is because it's more representative of reality, which is governed by chaos and happenstance. Unless you believe in God, or fate, or karma, your experience of living is understood as a sequence of chance events. Nothing is pre-determined. You have no destiny. If you bump into someone at a party and go on to become good friends, it is coincidence. This happened to me and Michele. Far Cry 2 had randomly decided to place her in my mission and our relationship began, not because a creator had deigned it to, but because we merely stumbled into each other. Instantly, it felt more real than the scripted relationships I've had with characters in other games. Even Skyrim assigns your companions from a small, select pool, and anyone playing the game can, at any time, go find and befriend one or all of them. The fact that, for some Far Cry 2 players, Michele might not have appeared at all, let alone at such a critical point in the game, made her more valuable to me. She was, not wanting to sound patriarchal or possessive, "mine".

She started to help me out on missions. The structure of Far Cry 2 goes like this: someone gives you an objective and you can either go straight to it or to meet up with a buddy (in my case Michele) who will explain a different way to go about things.

At first, I would go to meet Michelle not so much because I was interested in her, but because I wanted to see how these alternate mission paths would play out. It was only later, after her and I had been through something, that I started visiting her at the start of every mission by default, because it felt like we had somehow grown close. I think that's a neat marriage of narrative with the implicit, content-curious behaviour of a videogame player. It's acceptable - intelligent, even - that Far Cry 2 ingratiated me towards Michele by presenting her, foremost, as a gameplay device. I'm turned off by the idea that I should spend time with a character merely because she or he is interesting, like, say Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite. The majority of the time, these characters aren't interesting; they're simply components of the game that developers have worked on for a long time and now insist you imbibe, in order to do their efforts justice. Far Cry 2 was honest with me. It didn't say "go see Michele, she'll give you some of her back story." It said "this character will elongate the game and make your mission - your ludic experience - more complex." Though I might be loathed to admit it, the developers on Far Cry 2 are aware that one of the primary reasons I'm playing their game is to shoot, drive, and otherwise indulge in the mechanics. Introducing Michele to me as an integral part of THAT experience, rather than the narrative one, felt unpatronising.

It was after a couple of missions together that Michele started to appear elsewhere in my game. I'd visit one of the safe houses, used to restock ammunition and save the game, and she'd be there, hanging out. Often, this would be before her and I were about to set off on some job together, before we were about to go out and kill a lot of people and probably get killed ourselves. It felt as if she was at the safe house to take a breather, relax, prepare herself for the imminent violence. I was too, in a way - as a player I was intrinsically aware that a) my death would only be temporary and b) I enjoyed rather than feared the violence. But still, I was preparing. I was collecting guns and saving my game so I'd have a better chance at victory, and wouldn't lose so much progress if I failed. Here we both were, gearing up, in our respective ways. That created a link, a link that was strengthened by one of my favourite mechanics in Far Cry 2: the time lapses.

I don't like when TV shows, like Breaking Bad, use these as a functional or stylistic device. When I watch something, I know I'm not seeing events unfold in real-time, so it's artificial and condescending to remind me that hours, days, weeks are passing. Likewise, I don't find the type of visual abstraction associated with time lapsing, the sped up footage, usually of a road or cityscape, particularly exciting. But in Far Cry 2, time lapses, which occurred whenever I saved my game, provided a gap in my character's and Michele's lives that I could fill with my imagination. The save point in the safe house was a bed, and activating it brought up my character's wristwatch, which I could turn in order to set an alarm for him to "wake up" later in the day. The situation, then, was thus: Michele and I were both in this building, mentally preparing for what might be the last day of our lives. There was a bed in the corner and a long period of time where we would have nothing to do. Having been through a lot of drama together, and now facing possible death (not for ME, but for her and the current incarnation of my avatar) it seemed plausible to imagine that during that time lapse, Michele and my character would sleep together. Sure enough, once the time lapse cutscene ended, she'd still be in the safe house, reclined on a chair, looking positively post-coital. That was detail enough for me to assume that, in the interim, she and my character had had sex - by withholding details of her or my character's sexuality, or, to a broader extent, personality, and then demonstrating that there was a period of time where I, as a player, was absent and not in control, Far Cry 2 opened the door to this kind of narrative conjecture. I should add that the sexual narrative I created in my own head would have still existed had Michelle been replaced by one of the male NPCs - the characterisation in Far Cry 2 is so loose that I could easily have visualised my character as homosexual. It's rare that any media that plays on these tropes, the tropes of sparing dialogue and unrevealing characters, inspires from me this kind of input, but Far Cry 2 is balanced thus:

The emotional closeness you feel to your buddy is chiefly born from the action scenes you share together, but also, there are expertly placed, expertly understated scenes of physical closeness. These are the moments, like when you save the game, where your perspective shifts from what you can see to what you can imagine. Far Cry 2 threw my character and Michele together, put them through hell and then left them alone in a room. My personal imaginings aside, that seems like a conventional structure for a romance narrative -characters meet, share time together then consummate their affections. The fact all of this happened either randomly or because I'd made a decision to engage with Far Cry 2's systems (i.e. the elongated missions awarded for visiting Michelle and using the safe house to save) rather than its pretensions of narrative, was testament to the fact that the game was able to marry concrete, plausible story with individuated, unpredictable gameplay. It was emergent narrative in its purest form: an actual story, about two people, rather than an anecdote about some violence or some action.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Notes on Far Cry 2

A few things I've noticed while playing Far Cry 2, and what I think about them.

  • The "Statistics" menu on the pause screen is pretty exhaustive - days passed in game, bullets fired, upgrades purchased. But it doesn't have a total of how many people you've killed. I think this is to stop killing from becoming a kind of aspiration, like something you're trying to achieve or obtain. It means you can't boast about how many people you've murdered. Also, it helps keep up the pretense and the realism. It's hard to get absorbed by John Marston's regretful cowboy act when you can hit start and see he's killed 500 people or whatever.
  • The way guns deteriorate is to stop you getting too attached to them. You might have a preferred model, but the fact you have to keep switching it out means you never lose sight of the fact that this is a tool, exterior to you and your body. I've written before how guns in Call of Duty feel like a natural extension of your character, rather than something he's holding. Having you repeatedly drop and pick up guns in Far Cry 2 puts subtle emphasis on the fact that your character is not simply A Gun and that he is consciously choosing to kill, as in, he is actively picking up weapons in order to commit murders, rather than start every mission with one attached to his hands.
  • Your objective in many missions is to artificially prolong the in-game conflict. When a foreign special forces team arrives to intervene, you destroy their supplies, forcing them to retreat. Likewise, you destroy a plant manufacturing a remedy for Malaria, meaning that the side creating it cannot use it to curry favour with the local populace and gain the upper hand. Just as you, the player, profits from Far Cry 2's violence, i.e. you get more time with the game and more "fun" from playing it, your character does also - he's a mercenary who wants the war to continue for as long as possible, since it keeps him in work. You are both interested in extending this war, for your individual gain: the player gets more missions; the character gets more money. As Patrick Lindsey has written, this is a game that, rather than use violence as a way to discuss themes of politics or pacifism, is simply ABOUT violence. The violence you commit begets more violence, and so on. Your objective is to be violent.
  • When you enter an area containing game-essential NPCs, like a mission collection point, your character automatically puts away his gun - your hands become empty. However, when you enter a town that is under ceasefire, your character holds the gun up, keeping it pointed away from people but still present - still on-screen. It would have been simpler for the animators to use the same "guns away" animation for when you enter the ceasefire towns, but I think they opted to keep your gun visible since it implies the fragility of the peace deal that the warring factions have negotiated. Your gun isn't in use, but it's still present, and you can, if you like, aim it and fire it. You walk through these areas both armed and unarmed, both at war and not at war. It's a comfortable visual marker for the political instability of your location. 
  • Your enemies have fantastic dialogue, either calling you out or hurriedly talking among themselves about what they should do, where you might be hiding, etc. I rarely hear anything repeat - it's as if every guard is unique. Creeping up on one location, I heard a man saying "this feels wrong, this feels so wrong. I want to go home. I just want to go home." Part of my objective was to kill him. I felt absolutely awful. 
  • More to follow. 

Friday, 10 October 2014

Alien Isolation and in-game technology

In science-fiction, especially science-fiction games, technology is often a kind of magic. A more cynical writer might say writers use technology as a deus ex machina, the way sorcery is used in Harry Potter or The Force in Star Wars. If the writers of a videogame need to quickly move the story from level A to level B, then fuck it, use some technical sounding MacGuffin.

Technology is also a mechanical shorthand. Developers have a patronising attitude towards players. They seem to assume people will lose patience for, or interest in a game if the action, whatever form it takes, stops. In Destiny, for example, rather than actually hack computers themselves, players can simply tap square and have their robotic pal, Ghost, do it for them automatically while they dedicate their energies to more important things, like shooting and jumping. You could maybe bring budgets into this discussion as well. Why spend time building a hacking mini-game when you can just make a simple animation of, say, Ghost casting his scanning beam on a computer, and then feed back to the player with some quickly recorded lines of expository dialogue?

As in real-life, technology in games is used to save time and cut costs - to allow both the player and the developer opportunity to focus on things they deem more important.

This representation creates a vacuum, an absence of meaning. When your interactions with the game world are distilled to a mere button press, at which point either a robotic companion or an animation of your character's hands does everything for you, it's hard to feel physically part of that game world. Also, you don't gain any knowledge of how the game world works. Things simply "happen," while you gaze blithely on, ignorant of whatever mechanisms and rules are supposed to be governing your fictional environment.

I've written before how Metro tries to countermand this, how it takes the time to explain what machines are for, why they're needed and how they work. A generator does not simply come to life when you press one of its buttons - you have to charge it first. Likewise, a gas mask won't work indefinitely. The filter has to be changed and the visor, if it gets dirty, must be either cleaned or replaced. These are small details but they make you much more connected to the game, essentially because you're informed that the game world operates on physical laws that you yourself are familiar with. You've had to recharge your phone. You've had to clean something because it got stained.

 Alien Isolation has an almost fetishistic interest in the way machines work. When I spoke with creative director Al Hope, he described the aesthetic of the original film as pessimistic. It's a miserable view of the future, where technology, often, is a hindrance rather than a help. Think of the uncooperative messages from the Nostromo's computer, MOTHER, or, as an extreme example, the murderous intent of Ash, the android. This is technology that doesn't work. The readouts on the navigation systems are indecipherable; everything is activated by pressing a series of buttons, inputting a sequence of keycards. Far removed from the slick, magical technology in fluff like CSI, in the Alien universe, everything has circuity and a mechanism. Like the human body, which operates on biological laws, this technology is susceptible to failure.

And so, in Alien Isolation, a lot of your time is spent repairing, rebooting or reconfiguring computers and machines. Nothing is ever so simple as pressing a button. If you want to use an elevator, you have to find its power source and use a wrench to crank it back to life. If you're trying to establish communications with another ship, you have to program Sevastopol, the station you're on, to move into the correct position then power up the comms array and tune the output to the right frequency. These processes take literally hours of game time. Before you can interface with Sevastopol's mainframe, APOLLO, you have to climb down to it, disengage some safety locks so your companion, Samuels, can hack it, climb down again, bring it online by activating two generators, manually turn on its servers, disengage its security protocols then physically climb inside it. This takes around four hours, or more, of the game. This is technology that seems to be actively working against you.

That gives the game world character. As well as providing the player with several tactile, mechanical interactions, the process of getting APOLLO online infers a kind of roughness - an unfinished quality - to Sevastopol station. Read some of the in-game logs and you can learn that, before the events of the game begin, Sevastopol is in the process of being decommissioned. Also, the company that owns it, Seegson, is in dire financial trouble and attempting to earn back some faith from its shareholders by pushing as far into space as possible, ahead of everyone else. Sevastopol is a cheap, cut-corners kind of place, an office which still runs on Windows 98. The amount of time it takes to complete any kind of engineering work, to make something happen, as simple as opening a locked door, is unbearable. The technology in the game makes you acutely aware of several things. First, the game world, this shabby, dingy, thrown together failed space colony, this dreary future. Second, your character's ability - she's an engineer and, despite all the faulty wiring, she can still get things done, she's capable. Thirdly, and contrary to the previous point, it makes you aware how vulnerable you are, how desperate your situation is. If you could simply open locks using some technological spell, you would feel as if you had dominion over this world and, by proxy, power over your enemy, the alien. You'd also feel as if you could easily escape - the threat of the pursuing creature would diminish, greatly, if every room could be unbolted using something like JACK from Gears of War.

Technology is a character in Isolation, insofar as it has a complex relationship to the player. It's essential - you need your tools and the station's various emergency protocols and computers to survive - but it's also a detriment. The best characters in literature are conflicted, duplicitous. Sevastopol station, and the technology therein, are both friend and foe. Ignoring the idea that technology in other sci-fi games is essentially superglue for various plot strands, it's normally used for positive and creative mechanical feedback, as a way for developers to contextualise their wilder ideas and gift them as tools to the player. Think of the weapons in something like Resistance or Dead Space, absurd, spectacular things, designed to give players a sense of variety and visual spectacle. They do nothing to question the value of technology, to characterise the futuristic game world beyond "pretty cool, huh?" In stories where technology is supposed to be an enemy, such as Resistance, where the apocalypse has been caused by the synthesis of the "Chimera virus", it's contradictory to then inform players that technology is their answer. Again, it represents a lack of engagement with the game's fiction, on behalf of the writers. It shows that technology is used blindly, to justify ludic ideas. Also, that despite chest-beating about dystopian narratives or, in Dead Space's case, the novels of Arthur Clarke and Isaac Isimov, the developers are uninterested in questioning technology, one of the main characters in their game.

So I appreciate the measured, nuanced representation of tech in Alien Isolation. I appreciate that it is neither for you nor against you - it's simply a cold collection of parts which have to be correctly manipulated in order to function. As I said in the Metro write-up, that kind of portrayal eliminates a lot of the sex appeal around tech, around weapons. It's the kind of good sense that should halt developers when it comes to writing scenes around a Javelin missle or an orbital missile silo - an attempt to question whether technology really is "cool."

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Watch_Dogs writer's meeting: Feb 14th, 2011

The following is a transcript of a meeting that obviously never happened:

Present at meeting:
A Ubisoft writer [UA]
Another Ubisoft writer [UB]
Ed Smith, albeit in his imagination [ES]

UA: Okay. Glad you could both make it. Hey, Ed, you're looking impeccably handsome today.

UB: As always.

ES: [Sound of cigarette being extinguished] Thanks, guys.

UA: So, let's get down to it. What's Aiden's motivation?

UB: Well, we were thinking that in the first act his niece gets killed, like it's meant to be a revenge hit for something Aiden has done, but she gets killed. Totally fucking killed in the head.

UA: Nice, yeah.

ES: Well, no. I mean, come on that's bullshit.

UB: It is?

ES: Yeah. I mean, if it's in the first act - by which I'm assuming you mean the opening five minutes of the game?

UB: Duh!

[Sound of UA and UB high-fiving]

ES: Well yeah, that's bullshit. You haven't set her up as a character, so no-one will give a fuck if she's killed and you're using her as just like a vector for Aiden's emotional arc. She isn't a character - she's just this functional property that you're deploying, without much thought, to propel your main character. You can't just kill someone off and expect people to give a shit if they don't know her. It's kind of backwards to use the death of someone - especially someone female - as the inciting event.

UA: Ok...well we'll park that-

ES: No, don't park it. Fucking bin it. Fucking bin it, in the bin. Then put the bin in another bin and throw them both into a landfill...on fucking Neptune. It's a shit and awful idea.

UA: Okay, okay. So if the niece is dead-

ES: Fuck me!

UA: then who is Aiden fighting for during the rest of the game? What's at stake?

[5 minute silence as subjects think. Silence interrupted by sound of opening door and anonymous female voice, hereby referred to as AFV]

AFV: Hi. I was just wondering what time you were gonna be finished with this meeting room?

UB: Hey! You're a woman! What do you think of this ide-

[Sound of door slamming. AFV is presumed to have left the room]

UB: Dang it.

[Further silence]

UA: Ok, ok. I got it. So, the niece right?

UB: Yeah.

UA: She was a kid right?

UB: Yeah.

UA: And kids have mothers.

UB: Oh fuck, yeah. Kids have mothers.

UA: Yeah they do. So what if, right, the mother, right is-

UB: Killed also?

UA: Kidnapped by...wait for it...SOME PEOPLE.

UB: Oh my god, yeah, because like...they are pissed off at Aiden for something. Maybe...well, you know how he used to be a criminal? Maybe they want him to be a criminal again and like, kidnap the niece mother, whatever she is, to make him do crime again.

UA: HOLY SHIT. That's super hype.

[Sound of vomiting]

UA: Ed, you ok?

[Sound of vomiting]

UA: Ed?

[Sound of vomiting]

ES: Guys, look, that's a really-

[Sound of vomiting]

ES: That's a really bad idea.

UB: Why?

ES: Because, again, you're just using a woman as a means to characterise and motivate your male character.


ES: Ok, look. Have you read Wetlands?

UB: What platform was it on?

ES: No, it's a book.

UA: Book?

ES; Yeah, you know, a book. One of those know like the strategy guide for Assassin's Creed 2?

UB: Yeah?

ES: Yeah it's a bit like that. Anyway, in this book, there's a character and she's female, okay?

UA: Okay...

ES: And the book is all about her struggle, okay, specifically her struggle to have her feminist outlooks and behaviours accepted by society.

UB: Sorry, what platform was this again?

ES: It's a book. It's not a game or a film - it's a book. You read it.

UA: Oh like Twitter?

ES:...yeah, a bit like Twitter.

[Sound of UA and UB high-fiving]

ES: So, anyway, the point is the woman in Wetlands is a proper female character. She has discernible characteristics, her own struggles and motivations, her own history and drives and sexual-

[Sound of giggling]

ES: desires. Her thoughts and actions aren't dictated by the men in the book. She isn't there simply to enable the author to tell a more exciting story about men. Okay? So that's kind of what we should be going for right?

UA: It is?

ES: Yeah.

UA: Why?

ES: Well, because, it'd make a better story. And you know this is one of the largest entertainment companies in the world-

[Sound of UA and UB high-fiving]

ES: and we have kind of a responsibility to firstly drive people's opinions on social issues and secondly to fairly and properly portray women, who, not that this should matter but whatever. comprise more than half of our consumer base.

[Silence for 10 seconds]

UB: Women like children

UA: Yeah and strong manly men

UB: Yeah. So she's kidnapped because of her niece and she has this other kid but she can't do anything about it until Aiden comes and rescues her, yeah?

ES: Guys...

UA: Yeah and let's have it that she eventually kills a guy but she's all like fucked up about it and Aiden can have this totally fucking shit monologue about like "oh my god I failed because she killed someone and that means she isn't pure and virginal and perfect like women should be"

ES: Guys...

UB: Yeah. I mean Ed's right that we have all this money and power and reach and therefore the onus is on us to write credible, pioneering and responsible fiction but I think we should just make this game totally shit. Like not just the writing on its own. Let's make the writing so totally shit that it ends up infecting everything else about the game. You know we can get our systems and gameplay and visual designers to spend years building this amazing, functioning world with good car chases and gun fights and stuff and then just like fucking ruin it with this bullshit script that'll read like someone just shat it out over a weekend or during a long flight while they were fucked up on ludes or some shit.

UA: It'll be like an office prank!

UB: Yeah but on everyone, in the world, who buys the game.

[Sound of UA and UB high-fiving]

ES: This is a joke, yeah?

UA: Hey Ed, listen. You're still immaculately handsome and everyone wants to be like you, but you're fired okay?

UB: Oooh! You went there!

UA: I went there. I smacked him in the dick with my big fired fist.

UB: Too bad!

[Sound of ES standing up. UA and UB beginning to snort and giggle. Sound of hands slapping against hands as UA and UB begin to play slaps. Sound of door opening. ES is presumed to have left the conversation.]

UA: No you're meant to slap *my* hands, not yours.

UB: What?

UA (shouting): Hey! Big tits! Can we get a couple of fucking Americanos in here, like pronto?

[UB snorts]

UB: She totally has big tits.

UA: Totally.

Transcription, and eventually the world, ends. 

Monday, 22 September 2014

How to use a gun: Metro versus Modern Warfare

In his ongoing critical Let's Play of Modern Warfare, Brendan Keogh often describes how the games demonstrate, purposefully, the West's mastery of war through technology. The scenes involving night-vision goggles, laser sights, Predator drones and Javelin missiles are designed, principally, Keogh says, to show the awesome power of modern combat tech, to present, without criticism, the intellectual and industrial might of today's superpowers and how it allows them to more effectively destroy nations.

To take that further, I think the "feel" of weapons, specifically guns, in the Modern Warfare games communicates a kind of sleekness, an ease of use. Just like a Predator missile, which can be used to murder entire squads of soldiers with the push of a button, the guns in Modern Warfare are, for the player, incredibly simple to use. There is an aim button, a fire button, a reload button and, in some cases, a button to switch to a secondary fire mode. Ammunition is always provided and you begin each level already equipped with the perfect weapon for your upcoming firefight, for example in the "All Ghillied Up" mission, where you're given a silenced sniper rifle.

The ability to kill, and kill effectively, is handed to you in Modern Warfare. Rarely will you run out of bullets. Rarely, if ever, will you find that your guns are not ideally suited to your situation. These weapons operate flawlessly with just the use of four buttons on your control pad. They feel like a natural extension of your character's arm. In fact, they feel like they are you character's arm. He rarely does anything with his hands except hold and fire a gun. Even tactile actions like planting a bomb or pushing a button are performed instantaneously, invisibly - rather than see yourself reach out and actually press something, the object is simply "activated", as if by telepathy, when you get close to it and press the action button. Guns, immaculately designed, perfectly functioning guns, are all your hands are for in Modern Warfare, and that robs the violence of a lot of its gravity.

Compare that to Metro: Last Light. In the opening level, the first thing you character does is pick up a map and a cigarette lighter from his desk, and you actually see his hands. You're then instructed, via the game's tutorial text, that to use the map you have to press select to get it out of your bag then hold R2 to bring it up to your face. If you're in a dark environment, you can simultaneously hold L2 to hold the lighter up to it, enabling you to better see the compass. Straight away you have a sense of your character's body and of how physical actions actually work. Unlike Modern Warfare, where you can instantaneously produce weapons and explosives with the push of one button, in Metro, the act of fetching something for your equipment is mapped to the controller in a way that represents how it would work in real life. Select to reach into your bag, R2 to look at the item. You don't popcorn spawn items into your hands. The weapons and equipment are exterior to your character, objects that he has to consciously decide to interact with. He is separate from these items.

You then proceed to an armory and are asked to select three different weapons to carry with you on your first mission. It's a minor detail, but structurally it's much more effective than simply handing the player his ideal equipment, Making a conscious decision on what guns to take with you passes some of the responsibility over to you - it makes you complicit in the violence, since any act committed with these guns will be committed because you decided to bring them with you. It also calcifies that sense of guns as exterior objects, as tools you have to choose and physically collect. They don't simply appear in your hands - they don't teleport around with you, wherever you go. Once again, these are external objects. The live in the armory, not on the end of your arms.

The armory selection screen is also interesting. The interface is slick and easy to navigate, but when you scroll over the next weapon, you see it physically appear in the game world - a revolving shelf on the armory counter rolls around, with a loud clank, each time you scroll to the next gun. Once again, you have the impression that these are physical, separate objects, that have to be properly housed and displayed within the environment. They don't exist merely in floating menus, only seen by the player. They are actually there, in front of you and the other, non-playable characters. Again, guns are not just a part of your body. They have properties of their own. The exist externally to you.

The aesthetic of Metro aids this idea of items and weapons as external objects. Set during the aftermath of a global nuclear war, within the Russian subway system, the eponymous metro, there's naturally a focus on resources and equipment. With no natural light available (the surface of the Earth is uninhabitable due to radiation) the citizens of the metro rely on generators and lengths of copper wiring to provide their power. Throughout the game you encounter dozens of jury-rigged human settlements, roughly connected to dwindling sources of electricity and recyclable air. One of the key stealth mechanics, in fact, is shutting down the lights in an area where there are guards, which can be done either by flipping the switches on a fuse box or unscrewing lightbulbs by hand.

You also carry a gas mask. Again, like the map, in order to use it you have to first hold the L1 button and then tap square, a kind of shorthand for getting it from your bag and strapping it to your face. More important is that is uses up air filters, which you must constantly scrounge and replace once they become empty. It can also be damaged, in which case you can see physical cracks on its visor, and dirtied. If you're walking on the surface and fall into a puddle, brown water smears will appear on the outside of the mask. You can rub these off by tapping L1, which makes your character lift his hand and physically wipe the visor.

Then you have the flashlight. Continued use will cause its power to dwindle, but you can recharge it by again going into your bag with L1 and collecting a small, handheld kinetic charger, which you have to pump by repeatedly tapping the R2 button. After a few squeezes, the beam from your flashlight will return to full strength.

These items, components and appliances have actual working mechanisms. You don't simply press an action button, or walk over a new filter, which is then added to your inventory and automatically replaces your old filter once it runs out. You have to physically operate these machines. You have to maintain and manage them. You will see your character's hands reach up and unscrew his old filter, or depress the handle on the portable charger. Once again, you have that sense of equipment being external, of your character being one entity in the game, his guns and items another. It's the opposite of Modern Warfare wherein weapons simply are, simply work. My favourite tool in Metro is the compressed air rifle, which you physically have to pump back full of air after a few shots. Your character unhooks it, holds it sideways and you have to tap R2 to pump it up. With each pump, you hear your character strain a little more, see his arms moving slower, as if, as the canister becomes full, the pumping is more difficult. It's tangible. It doesn't just give your character a more defined physical presence, it it makes the weapon seem exactly as it is - a tool, an object.

And that representation diminishes its mystique, its impressiveness. The guns and technology in Metro are not flawlessly working things which magically appear in the player's hands. They're fallible. They have circuits, pumps and gears. Although, sadly, it never actually happens, you get the impression that the gun you're holding might backfire and explode at any moment, that the clip might fall out or the bolt might catch. In turn, that makes you feel more vulnerable. It makes you feel like this fragile item, be it your lighter, your gas mask or your rifle, is all that is between you and death. When you kill it doesn't feel easy or blithe. It feels like you've had to work for it, like you've had to collect your guns and equipment, carry them around with you in this backpack, maintain them and learn to use them. It makes the act of killing much more deliberate and conscious, since you've had to do all of this work to get to here. You didn't just appear with a perfect gun and start shooting. You went through a multiple step process, of selecting your equipment, carrying your equipment, maintaining your equipment, using your equipment. The violence is committed not by this technology, but by you, using this technology.

That's the fundamental difference. Keogh is right that Modern Warfare repeatedly boasts about today's military technology, but it doesn't do that simply for the sake of spectacle. It also frees the player of responsibility - it's the technology doing the dirty work, not them. In turn, that representation exonerates the Western superpowers. They may be complicit in the killing, but since their technology is so well-oiled, it is doing most of the heavy-lifting. Like the player, who is simply a gun and an ammo meter, Modern Warfare presents today's soldiers as mere carriers for these sophisticated weapons, vectors through which assault rifles and drones operate. It strips away a sense of being there, a sense of cognition or guilt. It suggests that the technology, the supremely powerful technology, is really the perpetrator here. That makes the in-game violence superficial, the real-world violence seem somehow justifiable.

You can support Brendan Keogh's critical Let's Play of Modern Warfare here

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

P.T. and How to Make Horror in Videogames

The best horror games require walkthroughs. By that I mean anything that's so straightforward you can blaze through it unimpeded isn't a horror game - it's an actioner. Horror is about confusion, disorientation, attrition. I'm thinking of Dallas crawling through the Nostromo's unending vents, Danny lost in the Overlook hedge maze. Monsters and jump scares don't make for good horror. You need to create a pervasive sense of wrongness, a kind of inaudible low hum of unease. A friend of mine said he always felt sick when watching The Shining but couldn't work out why until he saw this documentary on the film's set design. It's these kind of subtle abnormalities that really leave a lasting impression, that define a film, a book or a game that will get to its audience and stay with them. You don't throw it in their face. You leave it hanging there, quietly and unmentioned, like a portrait that seems to follow you around the room.

I've written about this before, specifically in regards to Resident Evil and Silent Hill (the games - not the piss poor movies.) The point I wanted to make is that modern horror, for all its spiky monsters, orchestral music and body shock (see Dead Space) is infinitely less effective than those PS1 survival titles. They have an internal puzzle logic that the player isn't familiar with. In Silent Hill's case, the environment physically shifts to confound and wrongfoot. You have an undercurrent of strangeness. Games are built on rules, and when those rules seem to organically and unceremoniously change as you play, that creates an enormous sense of dread.

That brings me to P.T., or Silent Hills, the upcoming game from Metal Gear disastermind Hideo Kojima and Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo Del Toro. I just got finished playing the 40-minute teaser demo and, despite masses of reservations, particularly towards Koj, who wouldn't know subtlety if it broke character and started screaming and pissing in his face, I'm very intrigued. In fact, fuck it, I'm more than intrigued. Inside forty minutes P.T. has done more to advance horror in videogames than an entire decade of over-the-shoulder so-called action/horror games. This game was scary, properly fucking scary. I got an email at one point - some work thing - and it was like Christmas. I was relieved to have an excuse to put the controller down and do something else for a few minutes. That's not hyperbole. I promise I'm not exaggerating to make a statement. My sister was in the room with me as I played and she asked what I thought about it. I said I was dreading it being released, because it would mean playing the whole thing ahead of a review.

There are obvious things about P.T. that are scary, from the Lynchian, screaming, malformed fetus that lives in a sink to the sporadic appearances of "Lisa", a hulking, bloodied ghost figure that malevolently watches the player throughout the game's run time. But what's really important here is that P.T. all takes place in a single corridor. You walk into it, look around a little, perhaps solve one of the game's mind-mangling puzzles (more on those later) then walk out the other end, only to re-appear back where you started. Each time you loop in and out, the corridor changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. Sometimes you'll go back through it and notice that, unlike before, the bathroom door is ajar. Other times you'll round the corner and see Lisa, stood still, gazing back at you. Furniture comes and goes. Writing appears and disappears from the walls. This is an environment that you intrinsically understand - it's a basic L-shape, it's in a fairly standard suburban home, you're forced to walk through it dozens of times - but constantly feel unsure about. P.T. hands the player a seemingly simple task - walk through this corridor - but continually wrongfoots them, not just by making them repeat the task over and over again but by slipping in new and terrifying elements each time.

It's a disorientating twist on videogame logic. The standard structure of a "mission" requires players to get from point A to point B, perhaps ticking off a few secondary objectives along the way. It's concrete and logical - like reaching the top of the Snakes 'n' Ladders board, it makes basic ludic sense. But P.T. casts that asunder. It not only disregards the rudimentary "start here, get here" videogame set-up, it refuses to let the player feel like they've learned something. Walking the same two halls over and over should make the player feel inveterate, bored even, like playing the most common map once again in a multiplayer shooter. Our most important tool in a videogame is knowledge - knowledge of enemy AI, knowledge of systems, knowledge of our own abilities. P.T. undercuts that dynamic, and makes a point of doing so. It asks you to repeat the same "mechanic," i.e. walking through the corridor, but changes that experience each time. It's as if you're playing Mario and every time you hit the jump button he does something different. By constantly changing, P.T. behaves less like a game, a rules-based, computational, decipherable game, and more like our own world, which behaves randomly and is affected by natural forces that aren't instantly obvious to us. That's why P.T. is scary. It doesn't seem to have rules or systems behind it. The logic is loose. Once you start to realise the surreal and myriad ways that these two corridors are changing, you begin to suspect that anything could happen.

And it does. I'm talking specifically about the puzzles here, which are designed on the most lateral, absurd, unlogic I've ever seen a game. One involves running around the corridors in an infinite loop until you find a minuscule hole in the wall, then peering into it and listening to some screams. Another, the last one, can only be solved by making the fetus thing in the sink laugh three times. The game doesn't tell you that that's the solution, nor does it tell you how to make it happen. There are no hints - none at all. It's only through pure coincidence and wandering back and forth for hours on end that the internet has finally come up with some answers, and they're bizarre.

I love this. I love how unapologetic and un-fun and fucking horrible it is. Again, it's anti-videogame. It belies the idea of an answer, a solution, a victory. Things just sort of happen in P.T. And truly, it's the closest I've seen anything come to faithfully depicting what it's like to have a nightmare. That's a trite compliment, often chucked at things like Inland Empire or Eraserhead, but it's really, really true here. In P.T. you're just lost. You're fucking lost. You have no idea how anything works, what to do, where you are. It's not an abstracted, black hole kind of world, it's something from your waking life, and that's what makes it powerful. That's what makes it like a nightmare. You're in this corridor, this formally laid out couple of hallways, but it's gone wrong. It doesn't work the way it should. Nothing works the way it should.

You're in a videogame. But it's gone wrong.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Defeat, exhaustion in Wolfenstein: The New Order

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game about struggle and fatigue. It comes possibly from the studio culture at developer MachineGames, specifically creative director Jens Matthies, who quit his job at Starbreeze to set-up the company and was on the brink of having to sell his house when the game's publication deal finally came through. Matthies and Machine had to fight, hard, to get Wolfenstein made. That experience with strain bleeds into the game's narrative.

It's set up from the beginning. First you're told it's 1946 and the Nazi war machine is expanding at "an astonishing rate." Straight away, something is terribly wrong. The war has lasted a year longer than it's supposed to and, rather than flummox itself on the Russian front, the German army has clearly got its shit together - it's winning, big time. Then you take control and the weapon you have, this American-made sub-machine gun, is puny and quiet. By the time you get to shooting the first bad guys you've seen their super-fast fighter jets, their armoured attack dogs, their giant, stomping robots. You feel instantly outclassed. The German infantry rifle is black and heavy - it fills your vision. The US one is light. It's this clattering pop gun made of wood and tin.

Your commanding officer even instructs you to pilfer any Nazi ordnance. "It's bound to be better than ours," he says. From the go you're on the weaker side, the losing team. Like Matthies, trying to build his studio and stave off bankruptcy, you're in an uphill battle.

B.J. Blazkowicz is a tired character. It's in his eyes when Anya tells him the US has surrendered, in the way he whispers all his threats, barely flinches at physical pain. This guy has been through it all, twice, and he's just running on fumes the whole game. By the climax, when he tells his pals to go ahead and bomb the complex he's infiltrated, with him still inside, you get the impression that he just wants to die. He's crawling, covered in blood, severely wounded, ready to fucking go. He's like Max in Max Payne 3 - he wants to be dead, but he can't commit suicide. The best he can hope for is a glorious end, to go out swinging. He just wants to settle his scores and get his house in order before finally keeling over. Why else would he keep going on these suicide missions?

His comrades are equally exhausted. Look at Fergus, the aforementioned CO. When you meet him again in 1960, he's thin and covered in scars. The first thing he does when he's freed from a Nazi prison is collapse onto his bed, telling B.J. to fuck off, he needs some sleep. He sits in his room, agonising over his age, about being past his best. These aren't valiant, unbending heroes. They're reluctant. They're tired. They're here purely out of obligation and they want it to end.

The sex scenes are great. There is passion between B.J. and Anya, but they also fuck because they need to - they need something to stave off reality. "Sometimes Christmas," says B.J., "sometimes birthdays. Sometimes mayhem, suffering and death. Sometimes you just need to feel something good." It's tragic, that all this mess has seeped into something as joyful as screwing. But those sex scenes aren't anything close to erotic. They're melancholic, desperate. They're just another part of the B.J.'s defiance of Nazi rule.

And there are Tekla and J, two supporting characters who have been defeated by the Nazis in very different ways. J is supposed to be Jimi Hendrix, and he's so completely given up, to the point where he can't even acknowledge there's a war going on. He sits around the resistance HQ dropping acid and playing guitar into some headphones. He's distant, distracted - he's opted out of this struggle because he just can't face it. The bandanna he wears over his face, to cover scars presumably obtained when the Nazis bombed America, is a perfect symbol. He's hiding from the world, from himself, hiding the fact that all this is even going on. He's retreated inside his own head. He talks like it's free-love, liberation, a kind of righteous pacifism, but this is a world where the hippy movement never happened, where the anti-Nazi organisations need all the fighters they can get, and his dialogue comes over like defeatist self-delusion. He makes it sound like he won't fight on moral grounds, but he's just beaten.

Tekla is similar. She talks about fighting as if it's below her, as if her maths and calculations and philosophising about the nature of reality are more important. But you get the sense that she's just trying to find a way to rationalise all this evil. She doesn't sleep - she has these strange ticks and eccentricities. In the game's most saddening scene, she wakes up B.J. to discuss her theory about consciousness and the human spirit, and it all sounds kind of bright and interesting, in a college sort of way. But she keeps going on, rambling and rambling, and you start to feel like she's broken - like her mind has snapped. All her equations, her endless pages of numbers and notes on the predictable nature of reality, seem like a coping mechanism, as if she's trying to decipher some kind of rational, scientific reason behind the Nazi's senseless evil. She can't accept that anything happens randomly, that people do things just because. You get the sense that she's exhausted and baffled by the casual violence of the Nazi regime, that she can't live with the idea that people are just bad, that terrible things happen on a whim. All her ruminating is a way of putting the war into context, of distancing it, saying it's part of some grand scheme that had to happen and eventually will come good. She's trying to nullify the threat - if all these people die, including her, then at least it was for a reason. But she's just going around in circles. She never finds her answers. It's all talk and no result. The painful truth is that the cosmos is not coming to save her.

All this emotion is consolidated into the music on the main menu screen, written by Michael John Gordon. Just listen to it. It's a moaning, distressed, heavy track, oppressive and terrifying and drawn out. It exemplifies the themes of exhaustion and misery that run through both the story of Wolfenstein and its development. Fucking perfect: