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."