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 things...you 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.