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.