Friday, February 29, 2008

Oh, Blogosphere: Cruel Cold Mistress

It's really a fascinating place, this thing we call the blogosphere. Millions of people shouting into a void, wanting to be read, heard, respected. Everyone is writing, but how many are reading? How many times have you read some random blog? Have you ever seen Matthias and Jenni's "Discovery of the Big USA", or salivated over the recipes and pictures at Cinnamonda? Have you checked out the creations of Margot and friends over at un-BLOG-evable? There's only two posts at KittenLove.com, but, seriously, could one need any more? Ben's short blog starts off with a truly humorous story. "The Awsome [sic] Me and My Not So Awsome [sic] Family", mobile blog posting's flood pictures,... SalmonTorpedo.

Each one of these represents an individual voice, spoken in solitude somewhere. The posts are messages in bottles, tossed into the vast sea. Sometimes the posts speak to a specific group of people, sometimes they speak to the nameless, faceless 'you'.

How do we determine who is heard and whose voice sinks beneath the weight of the millions of other messages in millions of other bottles? What capricious fate decides who among the clamoring masses will be read? I imagine that it is by the same standards that the rest of the web is held to: frequent and interesting updates. However, there is so much out there that most never get their chance to petition the many, the thousand-faced adjudicator of the internet's fickle attention.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Storytelling and Internal Narratives

A few days ago I entertained myself by posing the following question:

Can a game's story only exist in the spaces where the player does not have control?

At first it seems like a simple no would suffice, the easy refutation being any Bioware game with branching storylines. But it isn't that simple. Even in a game with hundreds of different dialog trees and multiple endings, even in an open world like Oblivion where the player can choose what order she wishes to play the story elements in, even in massively multiplayer games the story is still decided by the game developer. The player only gets to choose which of the predetermined stories will be played out. Even if in Oblivion I choose to play through the Thieves guild quests and only then attempt the main story, I do not get to decide the order of the guild quests, nor do I get to make up new ones.

Which opens up the question: What constitutes "story" in games? The assumption put forward above is that the story is only the backbone elements of the game, the skeletal structure that the gamer fleshes out with her actions. Joining the Thieves guild and stealing the Elder Scroll is "story", but is the rest of it merely to be discarded? "Rhys joined the Thieves guild and progressed through ranks, ultimately stealing the Elder Scroll and becoming the Gray Fox" is not a satisfying narrative. "The Imperial Guard's footfalls echoed past Rhys's hiding place as he came to examine the overturned pitcher. She held her breath against the stone room's dry silence as he tipped his head one way and then the other, sniffing the air slightly. When he turned to leave, he would almost assuredly see her, but she doubted that she could kill him fast enough to avoid alerting the others. He snorted, eyes squinting against the darkness, and bent to pick up the pitcher. Rhys tightened her grip on her long thin blade." Is more like what can be called story.

But such an experience is not translatable, and is not recorded anywhere. The action takes place entirely in the player's own internal narrative. There is something in the nature of this internal dialog that bars retelling; we have all had the experience of trying to relate a specific fight or escape to someone else and only finding frustration when they are not as amused as we are. It cannot be understood in the same way that the player sees it, even if the other person is familiar with the game and the mechanics.

Though the question is an interesting thought experiment, it is also, in a way, one of the fundamental questions within the gaming world. Gamers understand this dialog between game story and internal narrative, between player actions and a developer's frame. Whether explicit or subconscious, we experience this every time we enter into a game world. It's the reason we take actions that are completely extraneous to the advancement of the game's narrative, like when we plug an extra few rounds into the corpse of an especially difficult enemy, or when we /dance with an innkeeper in WoW. This is why we game. And yet the very thing that we understand is specific only to gaming, the thing that sets gaming apart from all other forms of storytelling, cannot be understood by those that do not play. And so, when an outsider examines a game story they see only the skeletal outline that the developers set down. We can hardly fault the general opinion that game stories are derivative and cliche (of course there are exceptions to the rule, but it's a fair judgment to make of the majority of games).

So the answer to the original question is indeed a simple no, but in the examination we are faced with a number of other problems: What constitutes story? What is it about a player's internal narrative that makes it so difficult to retell effectively? How can we, as gamers, advance understanding of this dialog between game and player (a truly amazing occurrence, if you think about it)?

In answering these questions we can redefine how we think about games and how we play games. As we come to understand that intermediary space, where that complex dialog plays out between our story and the game's story, we can change the way we build games, the way stories are told in games. That is the most exciting element of game development right now: in games we have a storytelling medium that is unlike anything we have seen before, that involves a more direct audience participation then has ever been possible. The importance of audience participation, the primacy and necessity of it, is potentially the first new category of representation since Aristotle's Poetics. All the elements of storytelling used in every other medium were laid out in his scientific prose almost 2400 years ago. It's true, things have been done with those elements that Aristotle never would have dreamt of, works that have fundamentally changed the human condition, but none of them have brought a new aspect into the mix. Until gaming. This is not to say that gaming trumps all preceding modes of storytelling, such a claim would be ridiculous. It remains to be seen whether any good can actually come of this new development. It remains to be seen if we can figure out how this new element even works. It is exciting enough that these questions can even be asked.

The internal narrative that is written as each of us plays a game is the breaking open of a new space, a new way of thinking about storytelling. We shall see as gaming advances what fruit that new space can bear, and how it will affect the act of representation on a wider scale. I must say it's an exciting experience to enter into such uncharted territory.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Game Time, People!

Over at Gamers With Jobs there was a recent forum discussion on how much time people spend gaming. It's an interesting topic, and strikes on something I've often thought about but always believed I was alone in it. There are so many games that are good enough to warrant playthrough that the time one would have to set aside in order to experience them all, especially to play each to completion, is staggering to those of us who are employed or in school or both. But there is a definite, subtle message that seeps from gaming publications, brought on mostly by my own guilt in not having played all of the possible games, that I am somehow less of a gamer for not having played Bioshock or Team Fortress 2. It is well understood that gaming is an expensive hobby (a gaming pc or a decent tv and a 360 running close to $1000 at the entry-level, much more for the better experiences, not to mention the price of games) but the temporal expense of the hobby is less often spoken of. It was a satisfying thread to read, to realize I'm not the only person who can only eke out game time in the cracks between other more pressing activities.

This is coming from a person who spent the last five precious gaming hours sharpening his new knives on mana elementals in Netherstrom.

Though I lament my available game time I have actually spent a lot of my elective hours reading, a ridiculous amount, for some reason. I've continued into Swann's Way, which is invariably fantastic, and I read Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, which is a strange concoction. The poems are focused to a disturbing degree on vice and filth, on death and debauch, but somehow they are beautiful. I also started into the Wordsworth's Leaves of Grass, though as I read it I can only picture an old, naked man dancing in the woods and singing like some strange, bastardized Tom Bombadil.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Language of Games

Shelley and I have been playing Lego Star Wars II on and off for some time now, a level or two at a time. If you haven't played it, you definitely should. It is a brilliant little game with a great sense of humor, though there are some elements that make it feel like a direct-to-pc port, with console focused menus and gamepad oriented controls. Regardless, Shelley and I launched in, puzzlin' and lightsaberin' our way through multiple levels. It was a fascinating experience: she had not played a video game since Super Mario Brothers, and has had to learn to walk all over again.

Gamers take for granted the very specialized unconscious knowledge that we've been taught as the game evolved. Translating the two dimensional swivel of the gamepad joystick into a three dimensional environment viewed on an entirely different angle is not a natural ability. Even the pressing of buttons is a language in itself, as gamers are able to assign virtual motions and actions to specific finger movements, and to change those designations with each game they play. When I switch from Lego Star Wars to Psychonauts, I don't have to look at the controller and reassign my finger motions, I don't even have to think about the controller at all. My physical body is backgrounded by my virtual avatar. If you think about it, it is a pretty amazing thing that the human mind is powerful enough to divest itself from it's own physicality and inhabit a completely virtual or imaginative sphere. We've all been there, when you reenter your body after a particularly engaging session of gaming and realize that you have sat nearly motionless for hours, that your legs hurt and you're starving and it's two in the morning. That was my experience with Civilization IV, and there is not even an avatar in the game to inhabit! I had become pure mind, a hovering brain floating above the world and deciding the fates of millions. The same experience can be had with any truly engaging book, when the book in your hands ceases to exist and all you experience is the image, the voice in your head. Georges Poulet's essay "The Phenomenology of Reading" is an excellent account of that beautiful, terrible loss or sharing of self. Or, for another angle on the idea, read the first two hundred pages of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way. Proust not only speaks to the act of reading as freedom from that physical binding, but his prose itself is entrancing, almost hypnotic, but always beautiful. I just began to reread Swann's Way, and I find that I am endlessly amazed at how the novel is built, his long weaving sentences that parallel the freedom with which it moves through time.

Substitute gaming for reading in either of those works and the feelings don't change. I would be ridiculous to place gaming on the same plane as Proust or any of the other literary geniuses, though that is no sleight against it. I don't know if gaming will ever rise to that capacity, though I do believe that it is a possibility, if tremendously far removed. Such works can only be the product of a singular mind controlling all the aspects, and gaming, like movies, is hamstrung by the fact that you need hundreds of employees and prohibitive production costs. But I digress, that's a talk for another time.

We were originally speaking about Shelley's adventure in Lego Star Wars II, right?

After learning how to move in the game's three dimensional space, the next hurdle that she has had to overcome is the visual language that games use. For Shelley, the screen is like a real area, where all of the items need to be paid attention to, but where individual differences do not distinctly stand out. For me, as soon as we enter into a new area I have, in a split second, mentally tagged each item that is usable, shootable or movable. The jumping lego blocks, the sparkles of the force, the jiggle of items that the developers wanted you to see, each of these stand out to me as if they were outlined in red marker. Any gamer would experience the same thing, because we are unconsciously attuned to those elements, we've been trained to notice things out of place. If you listen to the developer's commentary in the Half Life 2 episodes or in Portal (lovely Portal), they speak very clearly to the tricks that they use to tell the player where to look and what to look for. In some respects this training carries over into the real world. If Shelley asks if I've seen any particular item she's looking for, most of the time I can tell her where it is. As I move about the house part of my brain actively takes catalog of how things look, notices things that are out of place and tags them.

The most fascinating thing in all of this is that all of these processes are acting subconsciously, have become automatic in gamers. It is no surprise that Shelley has some difficulty jumping from platform to platform, I do too in 3D platformers. Not only is that the clearest test of the translation of joystick motion into three-dimensional space, one must also deal with the lack of a real depth of field. Games can simulate a three dimensional environment, but until we have two distinct viewing angles working in concert, as with our natural vision, I will always have difficulty platform jumping in empty space. Shelley has picked up the game surprisingly quickly, the concepts and the mechanics especially. She does amazingly well considering she is operating without the underground processes that gamers and game developers take for granted, the visual and conceptual language that has been in constant development since Asteroids.

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