Saturday, 27 April 2013

Hanging out with Jenny

When games ask me to bond with an NPC it's usually through like, killing or something. Look at Infinite. The crux of that game is Booker and Elizabeth's relationship, but for the most part, it's a relationship only explored through violence, or at least, action. Aside from Battleship Bay, they don't get much down time together. She throws you guns but you don't really talk.

I love The Darkness because it lets you kind of enjoy an NPC's company. When you're sat down in front of To Kill a Mockingbird with Jenny, it's not because she serves some mechanical, ludic purpose - it's because you want to be with her. Her value to you isn't in what she can provide gameplay wise. Your relationship to her isn't being explored or defined through killing and action; to put it coldly, she's a story device, not a gameplay one.

Games tend to conflate gameplay conceits with character beats. NPCs are defined with action instead of words. Writers (patronisingly) assume that the only time we take an interest in NPCs is if they provide some tangible gameplay benefit. To be fair, that's often the truth. I look at the fan favouritism around Lydia from Skyrim or Charon from Fallout, and feel like the only reason people care for them is because they carried their bags or helped them kill a boss. With their half-cooked, repeating dialogue, those two, unlike Jenny, aren't people I'd want to hang out with.

This is going to sound a bit drippy, but it felt like she was really my girlfriend. Going round to her flat, sharing some conversation and a kiss then cosying up to watch a film - these are things I've done with real women. A real woman has never thrown me a shotgun in the middle of a gunfight.

If writers want to ingratiate NPCs towards me, then recreating life makes short work of that. When Jenny died later, it felt like it was Vicky or Claire or Kayleigh getting shot - it really fucking worked.

And that was just the first time I played it. The second time, I checked out the mailboxes in Jenny's apartment block and found this:

That's my fucking name, in the game. First time I saw it, I thought The Darkness had somehow linked with my PSN account and dropped it in as an easter egg, but when I flipped users and checked again, it was still there.

I lived in Jenny's apartment building.

I completely rewrote the story of The Darkness in my head. Canonically, Jenny's just moved into her new place and Jackie is going round to see her on his birthday. But after I saw that name mailbox, I decided that actually, this was my flat already and Jenny and I had took the decision after being a couple for a while that we would live together.

I was coming home from work, or something, and she was up there unpacking. The second time I opened the door to her, there was my girlfriend in my flat. It felt more plausible than ever.

I hugged her, I kissed her; it was weird when I opened my mouth and Kirk Acevedo's voice came out instead of mine. I was there. The first time I was there in spirit - that cuddle on the sofa was something I remembered. But the second time I was there in spirit and name. It was a total coincidence, but fuck if it didn't make that scene umpteen times more powerful.

But even if you aren't called Edward Smith, Jenny's still a great NPC because she's not just there to serve the game and the player. If anything, she does the opposite. If you take the game of The Darkness as shooting and killing, then she slows that right down. She seems to have a life of her own; she's not just a cog.

I might be over-reading it, but there's a line where she snatches the remote control out of Jackie's hand and says "nuh-uh! My TV, my remote." That's as if to say that not everything is for the player; you don't have providence over this game world. Games often qualify NPCs based on their usefulness to the player. There's a judgmental, possessiveness to that, as if to say, characters are only worthwhile if they serve the player's needs.

But like that remote control, NPCs shouldn't be thought of as things that we can just take and do what we want with. A great game gives them an identity of their own. They don't just stand still until we come and take a quest from them, same as that remote isn't just sitting there waiting for Jackie to deign it useful.

Jenny's a great NPC not just because her dialogue is sharp and her arc is interesting, but because she has a personality that isn't defined by player interaction. She hints at a world, a layer, beyond our eyes - she feels like she exists off-screen. Games are mechanical, computational things but Jenny disguises them. She puts skin on top of the metal.

Because I recognised her, because my name was in the game and because she behaved like I wasn't all she was built for, I fell for Jenny. She's one of the few NPCs who acts like she has a life beyond the player and beyond all the computer game-y running, shooting and killing.

She has good taste in films, too, and she bought me a birthday cake.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

I've been playing Splinter Cell and it is wonderful

Spurned on by this Jordan Rivas bit on Splinter Cell post 9/11, I downloaded the HD version of the game the other night and have blitzed my way already to level seven, of nine. It's great.

I remember getting this when it came out and hating it. The AI was scrambled; the platforming was janky. They still are, actually, but what I notice now that I didn't notice then is just how effing tight the writing is.

When Ken Levine interviewed Drew Holmes to work on Infinite, he asked one question: "What's the most important thing in videogame writing?" "Brevity," Holmes answered, and the story goes that he was hired on the spot. It might be a contradictory sentiment, but that's what Splinter Cell has: Brevity, in spades.

And in a game about international politics, US government and terrorist plots, that's shocking, frankly. Military and intrigue games these days are fucking turgid - anyone who's waded through the bombast of CoD will know that when it comes to combat drama, games, generally, screw things up.

Splinter Cell doesn't. It's stripped, lean and curt. Fisher and his support staff speak quickly; layers of character are applied in few words. There was a great exchange a few levels back after Wilkes, the NSA's top computer guy, had been shot on the job in Russia. Fisher, on comms to his handler, Lambert, back in Langley asks "what about Wilkes?" clearly wanting to know how Lambert feels about it. "We'll dispatch you another handler as quick as we can." Bang. Perfect. And Fisher says nothing in response. It's pretty cliched, the cold, officious wetworks thing, but at least in Splinter Cell it's handled properly.

Another great moment for that is in the first level. Fisher meets his contact in a burning building. The guy's been shot and dies after spilling the goods. Lambert's on the radio: "Leave the body for the fire, it'll be easier to explain to his family." Excellent.

And then the pacing, the quiet build of it. Level four has you infiltrate the CIA headquarters, meaning you absolutely cannot kill anyone inside. If you do, the mission ends. The Langley halls are dark and shadowed. It's very much a stealth mission; the fifteen or so maintenance men and guards you encounter are meant to be sneaked past.

But that leads into Kalinatek, a Russian office block where bad guys are executing hackers before they can blow the whistle. It's bright, it's lit up, there are guys everywhere. And it presents this change in the story. The levels to that point have all been creeping based with little to no violence at all. But the stakes are up now - the mid-level cutscenes show the crisis you're trying to avert escalating. As things get hotter on an international scale in Splinter Cell, things heat up in-game, too. Before now, the tensions between China and the US existed in hotline calls and secret negotiation talks - now they're on FOX. It's all in the open: At Kalinatek, so are you.

Lights, everywhere; guards, everywhere. This is the first time you're really required to use your gun. I think I played this level right in that I shot my way through. I wasn't discovered, but I killed a lot. It felt necessary. Shit was heading toward the fan. I needed to act.

Post BioShock, we talked a lot about game environment telling game story and Splinter Cell does that so, so subtly. It's not Rapture where narrative is literally painted on the walls. It speaks with light levels, enemies, the size of environments. If it weren't for this preceding CIA mission, Kalinatek is a change you might not notice. Like the CIA building, this global crisis has been unfolding in the dark. Now, at Kalinatek, it's on display.

Splinter Cell is just so...clever. It doesn't rant, it doesn't testify. Everything's done discretely. The writing is as quiet as Fisher himself. It sneaks up on you.

In 2002, the toss up for me was between this and Metal Gear Solid. For some reason, probably because it had tits and ninjas, I went with MGS. Idiot. Kojima is the total antithesis of everything that's right with Splinter Cell. He's obvious, bloated and patronising. He over writes every single scene and beats you round the head with subtext whenever he can.

But then, maybe I wasn't old enough for Splinter Cell. As Rivas explains up there, he didn't see the nuance when he was 12-years-old either.

It's brilliant, it's wonderful. I'll post again on Splinter Cell when I've finished it.