Smelling The Ashen Roses

If you hold the ‘X’ button on your controller while playing Arkane Studio’s Dishonored, (or ‘F’ on a keyboard, if you’re a purist), Corvo the magical assassin will sheathe his sword and drop his spell-casting hand from view. In-fiction, this is supposed to draw less attention to Corvo, as he presumably tucks his arsenal away neatly inside a breast pocket and whistles an innocent tune. In reality, this feature was surely included by the developers to make it easy for players to remove any distractions from the screen, admire the obvious labour that went in to crafting the world of Dunwall, and let them take beautiful, beautiful screenshots.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As much as video games are about story and challenge and mechanics and player growth, with today’s graphics engines they have also become artistic showrooms. Particularly in first-person games, vast amounts of effort are spent by teams of artists to create fully realized worlds, a process that blends architecture, digital painting and sculpture, character design and animation, and countless other professions.

Recent forays into the use of procedurally-generated content have had mixed results at best, and although the promise of infinite worlds built by algorithms instead of a team of artists is tempting for developers, the joy of seeing the fingerprints of intelligent design in a game, in appreciating the gestalt of a product shaped by humans with a directed vision, is hard to beat for the player.

Though the alleys, rooms, and rooftops they create often serve as static arenas for rote combat, and though it can be easy to rush through them in a blur of steel and blood, it’s worth pausing occasionally to enjoy the scattered dioramas of deliberately placed assets. Admire the richly painted textures, the stray light beams and cobwebs and bushes and dust motes and goblets that were placed with deliberate care, before you pull out your poisoned-tipped crossbow, behead a startled guard, and get blood all over the clean marble floors. Do you know how much mopping it takes to get blood off of marble?

Thursday’s Child

G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday  was subtitled A Nightmare, because it follows a man struggling to navigate a world absent reason and logic in seeming isolation. Infiltrating a secretive network of anarchists, over the course of the story he gradually comes to realize that his co-conspirators and supposed enemies are in fact allies incognito, each equally afraid and convinced of their own solitude as he. His true enemy’s greatest weapon is deception, empowered only by the collective willingness of those who would fight for good to accept a lie without question.

Over a hundred years after its publication, political discussion has become similarly nightmarish, with those holding innocuous views ostracized and segregated through a deliberate attempt to make opposing opinions dangerous and shameful to hold. Rarely can discussion on a subject be left to the realm of facts and logic. Economic policy is quickly entangled with questions of sexism, so that anyone who argues against government intervention in a free market can be labelled a heartless sexist. Environmental issues are bizarrely conflated with racial concerns, so that one can’t argue against extreme environmental policies them without navigating the murky waters of race relations. Matters of immigration policy are tinged with concerns of homophobia, so that those who advocate for open borders can label as homophobic anyone who doesn’t immediately capitulate.

The goal in inserting emotional issues into unrelated political debate is to provide a powerful weapon to those whose side is otherwise inadequately armed with reason, and to shame into silence anyone who might dare disagree. They attach an unwarranted and unjust social stigma to uncontroversial opinions, and in doing so intimidate people who may share the same opinions to remain silent, lest they be similarly shamed. The result is that people feel too afraid of being labelled a sexist, racist, homophobe, or worse, to discuss pragmatic issues like economics, the environment, or immigration, and withhold valid criticisms. As fewer and fewer people speak in opposition, as dissent weakens, the false perception that more and more people agree grows in its place.

This imbalance produces a society where discussion of important ideas and topics that affect our lives in very real and immediate ways is silenced for fear of public recrimination, and faulty ideas are allowed to spread unchecked. Like The Man Who Was Thursday, people are reluctant to voice their opinion for fear of horrific consequences from their peers, and a false illusion of a much greater conformity is maintained. It’s important to recognize when unrelated issues are conflated for political gain, and to be willing to stand against this practice. The discussion of big ideas should be free from the fear of undeserved reproach from those who unfairly frame and structure the issues.

Talking freely with friends, family, and coworkers about matters both controversial and pedestrian, poisoned rhetoric removed, is important and rewarding. Often you’ll discover that, like Thursday and his co-conspirators, your enemies turn out to be allies engaged in the same fight as you.

Occupy Oceania

The ‘Occupy’ protests of late 2011 gave the world many gifts, from delightful up-twinkles and rockin’ drum circles to the creepy cult-like chanting of human microphones. Though the tents have long since been discarded and the cardboard and sharpie placards recycled, the memories linger. Out of months of news stories and heated debate, perhaps the most persistent trope to emerge and haunt us to this day is that of the divide between the 1% and the 99%.

The concept of the 1% grew out of a Vanity Fair article published in the spring of 2011. ‘1% of the people’, wrote Joseph E Stiglitz, ‘take nearly a quarter of the nation’s income.’ From this rather banal drawing of an arbitrary line through an ascending list grew a drumbeat amongst protestors that ‘the 1%’ were a unified entity to be feared and resented. Far from being an arbitrarily chosen group of people sharing only a single attribute, the 1% were a malicious lot, responsible for all manner of evils that plague the world still. Once a certain threshold of wealth was achieved, it seemed, a person would ascend out of the quagmire of noble poverty in which ‘the 99%’ were forced to wallow, and join the hallowed and secretive ranks of the wealthy. (Every time 100 babies are born, is a new member allowed in? If some lucky person wins the lottery, do those on the list below get shuffled down? Is the member on the lowest rung, who suddenly finds himself only in the top 1.000001% kicked back out into the barren wasteland of ‘the 99%’?)

wealthinequality012915
I didn’t use this image without permission. I ‘occupied’ it. That said, can we agree that cannibalism is wrong?

The 1% were a vague, nebulous enemy, and therefore perfect scapegoats. All manner of evil characteristics were attributed to them. As wealth implies greed, greed implies callousness and a lack of caring for one’s fellow man. Success, it is reasoned, can only come at the expense of all those who rank below them on the ordered list that exists only in the imagination of the mob. The wealthy must be evil, having committed the sin of possessing wealth.

It is obviously ludicrous to cast ‘the 1%’ as a unified, organized group. In any data set there will always be 1% of the total that lies above the rest on some scale. 1% of the population makes some proportion of income compared to the remainder 99%. So does 2%. Or 7%. 17% Or 0.0065%. Why choose 1% as the crucial divide? Why even limit the pool to North Americans (Although including the rest of the world would place a sizeable chunk of the entire continent of North American solidly in the 1%)? There’s nothing magic or significant about the notion that income exists on a scale, and the only reason that 1% was chosen for the Occupy Wall St rallying cry was that it’s an enticingly simple statistic, something crucial when firing up a mob.

The chant of ‘We are the 99%’ is seductive not just for its catchy rhythm and militant tempo, but because it assures the chant-er that they are on the side of good, and part of a larger group. A group made up of 99% of the population is so inclusive as to be virtually meaningless, but this too is part of the siren call. Because the definition of ‘1%’ and ’99%’ are so precise in number but vague in meaning, anyone can convince themselves that someone, somewhere, must be in the group above them, which safely pushes them into the virtuous 99% below. Therefore everyone can claim membership in the side of good. There’s no nagging doubt that they might be on the wrong side, because there will always be someone better off somewhere, to play the role of villain.

SONY DSC
Think there are 100 people in this picture? Could get awkward for one of them…

The irony is that ‘the 99%’ portray themselves as the underdogs, a disadvantaged minority, while having enough clout in a democracy to push through any manner of public policy they want, regardless of its morality or virtue. This is a windfall for politicians, as ‘income inequality’ is a completely invented problem that will never be ‘solved’, but is easy to sell to voters. People will always make different amounts of money, and resent those who make more. Income inequality is a persistent malady that can only be addressed through government intervention, usually in the form of a new tax. It would seem that politicians have yet to discover a problem for which the solution isn’t a new tax or regulation.

Five years later, this catchphrase is still regularly trotted out, and because it’s become so common, we’ve forgotten to question it. Be wary of any political platform which references ‘the 1%’. Dividing the world into ‘Us vs Them’ is old political hat, propaganda that has been used for centuries. The 99% vs 1% angle is a hip new spin for the 21st century, but as despicable as the practice has always been.

Tomb Raider (2013)

A friend and I position ourselves on opposite ends of a debate over the purpose of video games. One of us argues that the point of video games is to test one’s abilities within an artificial construct, to be challenged and improve, to outplay, outwit, and outfight a worthy opponent. The other argues that video games should tell stories that engage the player, evoke the pathos and catharsis of a greek tragedy, and allow them to experience a world from behind the eyes of an avatar entirely alien to their normal life. The regularly cited Exhibit A for games as narrative is Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider (2013), a game that leads the player through a grand adventure in a way no other medium could.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Launched in the mid 90’s, over the course of nearly 2 decades and a dozen sequels the Tomb Raider series had become tired and creatively exhausted. The on-going plot was bogged down in B-movie tropes, mystical McGuffins and paper-thin villains. As an established and nigh-invincible heroine, Lara Croft’s character had nowhere left to advance, and was the series was stagnating in its own lore. A reboot was due, and Crystal Dynamics hired Rhianna Pratchett and Susanne O’Connor to tackle the particular problem of writing the story for their game.

Plots in video games are tricky things, and must accommodate unpredictable main characters with free will, allow for sections of gameplay and exploring, and try to maintain the classic introduction-rising action-conflict-climax-conclusion story beats across dozens of hours of play. Tomb Raider’s plot succeeded because it was simple and focussed, worked in tandem with the game play, and let the player inhabit a character that melded well with their own experience, making their journey personal and affecting.

The 2013 reboot explored a younger, rookie version of Lara, one free to experience an adventure with fresh eyes, without the burden of a lifetime of grand adventures behind her. The Lara that washed ashore on Yamatai island was vulnerable, fallible, and new to the world of raiding tombs, a far better cipher for the player to control and grow attached to than the jaded Lara. The story still contained tombs, mystical artifacts, and b-movie villains galore, but because Lara had swapped her bravado for far more understandable incredulity and fear, she better  mirrored the player’s own reaction to the events, and their progression through the pacific rim theme-park.

For all the background noise about haunted islands and ancient queens, Tomb Raider’s plot was straightforward, and Lara’s motivations were simple and believable. Lara washed ashore on an island full of things that wanted to kill her. She wanted to stay alive and escape the island, and she wanted her friends to stay alive and escape the island too. Lara has a single, sensible goal throughout the entire story: her own survival. There was no pretence of saving the world or avenging fallen comrades, and this narrow focus helped to reinforce in the player why they were continuing to face and overcome the challenges they were presented.

Interspersed between bombastic set pieces, Tomb Raider’s combat mirrored Lara’s progression as an adventurer, her growth from a bewildered victim to a hero. Starting off wounded and confused, washed ashore into a world entirely new to her, Lara was only armed with weak bows and hand tools, and much of the combat relied on stealth and cautious attacks from the shadows. As she began to understand her situation and gain a footing on the island Lara gained new and more powerful weapons, and battles became more visceral and varied, leading to a scene wherein Lara first acquired a grenade launcher, and revelled in the advantage this finally gave her over her tormentors. The changes in gameplay kept the experience fresh and lively throughout a 12-20 hour campaign, and kept pace with Lara’s evolution.

2015’s Rise Of The Tomb Raider returned Lara to her action hero roots, and the story to convoluted, double-crossing, moustache twirling blandness. Characters were introduced, betrayed, abducted, sacrificed and killed before the player had a chance to grow attached to them. Plot points changed Lara’s motivations completely within the span of single cutscenes, and left the player questioning her actions. The combat was meatier, but without any compelling goal to fight for, it quickly became a repetitive slog. Lara was back to killing unfortunate enemies in cold blood, for the sake of some artifact that may or may not exist. Lara could have turned around and gone home at any point, removing herself from danger, but chose to risk life and limb for questionable purposes. The plot pushed Lara forward, but kept the player at arm’s length. Video games exist on a spectrum between art and sport, and more than just finding a balance between the two, must find a way for each to support the other. Like a debate, it can’t work if only one side is present, and it’s most fun when both sides pay attention to the other.

Canada’s Electoral Reform Charade

In 2015 Justin Trudeau’s Liberals ran on a platform promising to change Canada’s electoral system from a plurality or ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system to … something else. They weren’t terribly specific with what the alternative would be, but they were darned sure it wouldn’t be plurality. Elected with 39.5% of the popular vote, they’re now obligated to provide Canadians with specific details of their plan, and are scrambling to frame their pitch.

To this end, the Government of Canada has begun the charade of staging ‘Electoral Reform Consultations’ in towns and cities across the country. Citizens who attend are, under supervision, divided into small groups, and prompted to discuss amongst themselves topics such as mandatory voting, online voting, lowering the voting age, and finally why first past the post is terrible and all other systems of voting are virtuous and noble and just plain better. Questions are framed to guide discussion to the desired response, time is limited to ensure that no substantive debate actually occurs, and the (Liberal) coordinator presents a small sermon after each discussion to highlight the approved conclusions, and ensure the crowd that ‘consensus’ has been reached. A show is made of collecting notes from each group, and assurances are given that these will be delivered to a committee who will heed their words and present their findings in December. Attendees leave believing a) the government’s preferred choice is the best, b) they came to the same conclusion on their own, and c) they played an integral role in Canadian democracy. It is Orwellian peer-pressure fuelled propaganda at its finest.

1297874296513_original
Democracy isn’t about being cajoled like school children

One wonders why the Liberals would go to the effort of public consultations in this format when there already exists a precise and well-understood mechanism for polling the will of the population, which has worked for humans for millennia and Canadians specifically since 1867: a vote. A referendum on the issue would obtain the opinion of a far greater number of Canadians than their series of small consultations, and voters would be free to express their opinion from within the sanctity of a polling booth, not surrounded by a group of their peers. The Liberal Party is dead set against the idea though, one suspects because this may not produce the answer they want. Referendums are loud, visible and most of all binding. By hosting ‘Consultations’ they are free to entirely ignore any feedback they don’t like, while maintaining the appearance of listening to their constituents.

As Liberals are so fond of inverting election results, let’s consider the result from 2015: 60.5% of Canadians didn’t vote for the party with electoral reform as their platform, and of those who did, it’s entirely unclear what percentage consider electoral reform necessary, and what their preferred alternative would be in such a case. For the Liberals to claim that they have a clear mandate from Canadians is preposterous and entirely self-serving. There are benefits and detriments to any electoral system, and every eligible Canadian deserves a say in the matter, in a manner which respects the importance of the issue. That is a referendum, not orchestrated and choreographed round tables.

7
I’m pretty sure that votes are already counted in FPTP. You just don’t like the totals.

 

Or, if the Liberal party (or even the NDP) is truly so upset at the notion that plurality voting can lead to parties winning without 50% of the vote plus one, perhaps they could make the noble sacrifice of disbanding entirely. Presented with a choice between the two remaining major national parties, Canadians would surely elect one with the majority of votes that they insist is so vital to representative democracy. Although they will make impassioned speeches in town halls about the need for a fair voting system that solves the problem of minority governments and represents the diverse opinions of its people, I doubt they would be happy if their consultations produced this bit of feedback.

Jagged Alliance 2

So proud of the Witcher series is the country of Poland that Prime Minister Donald Tusk famously presented a copy of The Witcher 2 to visiting US President Barack Obama in 2011, in honour of its release. In Poland, The Witcher is a cultural touchstone, and the video game series it spawned redefined what gamers should expect from narrative, gameplay, and world-building in a video game. If there were any justice in the world, Canada would similarly laud Jagged Alliance 2, a tactical, systems-based open-world strategy game developed by Ottawa-based Sir-Tech in 1999. Unfortunately, the world is a cruel and dark place, and JA2 has yet to receive so much as a commemorative stamp, roadside visitor museum, or 3-part tax-payer funded documentary miniseries starring Gordon Pinsent. I’m looking at you, CRTC.

 

Jagged Alliance 2 was one of the last great sprite-based games, released at a time when 3D was starting to hit its stride, and games like Half-Life and System Shock had begun rubbing elbows on store shelves with old-guard 2D games like Planescape: Torment, Baldur’s Gate, and any of a dozen iterations of the Command & Conquer series. While 3D games were busy nailing down concepts like strafing, mouse look and auto-aim, 2D games were taking advantage of established and well-understood paradigms to focus on grander gameplay concepts.

jascreen1

After a brief cinematic hastily sketches out a thin plot, Sir-Tech quite literally dropped the player into their world, rappelling a player-sculpted avatar onto the sun-parched soil of Arulco, a country in civil turmoil. Although ostensibly hired to restore freedom and democracy and honour, the player was truly a for-profit fixer in charge of a hit-squad with one target: Deidranna. The player could grapple with patrolling squadrons and train resistance fighters ’til the cows came home (to be punched repeatedly for cheap XP), the game only ended, the credits only rolled when Deidranna’s heart stopped beating. It was the job of the player to make that happen, in any manner they saw fit, and therein lay the grizzled but beautiful soul of Jagged Alliance 2.

jascreen3

The game wants the player to form a squadron of likeable rascals, to wage a campaign of hit-and-run ambushes across the deserts and forests of Arulco, to meet and join forces with its citizens and explore all its hand-crafted locales. It wants the player to surge, to stumble, to be beaten down and rise in triumph, and experience every minor side quest into which the developers clearly poured hours of toil.

But what if the player doesn’t do what they’re told? What if the player wants to forego the vast majority of the game’s content, ignore practicality and hire a single mercenary, to laboriously sneak him under the cover of darkness past outposts and patrols, into the heart of Deidranna’s compound, to kill her unceremoniously with surgical precision? The game’s systems can and do handle this. Deidranna dies, end scene, roll credits, no lectures or complaints.

Sir-Tech respects the player enough to adhere to their own established rules, no matter how the player tests them. There are no invisible walls that funnel the player down an accepted path, no scripts that have to be triggered in a proper order to advance the plot, no one-way scenery gates that ensure the player experiences the game’s set pieces and speeches. There’s a target hiding somewhere within a country at war, and it’s up to the player to reach it, using only their wits.

jascreen2

There are admittedly scripted events to be found in JA2, some that just play short cutscenes, and others that actually impact the player (Surrendering in battle teleports the cowardly mercenary to a prison facility). New characters are introduced, weapon shops made available, and enemy reactions triggered, but all of these are only little surprises for the player to introduce new challenges, and none hamstring their actions.

 

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-5-22-14-pm

The source code behind Jagged Alliance 2 was released to the internet years ago, and it’s fitting that the instruction set that makes up its intricate systems be laid so bare, like a pocket watch’s mechanical cogs and gears laid out across a workbench for repair. Briefly skimming through some of the files reveals the simple algorithms that govern how bullets ricochet, how corpse decompose over time, or how soldiers react to strange noises. Understanding the rules doesn’t diminish the fun of testing one’s mettle within them though, it only deepens one’s respect for they variety of battles and mouse-gripping stories they can generate. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but at least when your team is pinned down  by .45mm ACP rounds in a corrugated metal shack and your covering sniper has passed out from lack of sleep, you know empirically the game’s enemy are playing fair.

Though the years since its release have seen many attempts at remakes and reboots, none have quite recaptured its magic. Fan-made mods have chaperoned the game onto new operating systems, polished away any rough edges, and added features like cooperative multiplayer and a refined AI. The sprite graphics are as not-beautiful as they ever were, but they let the player read the battlefield quickly and easily, even when shrunk down on higher-resolution monitors. The game has been lovingly preserved for posterity, and deservedly so. People who know strategy games know Jagged Alliance 2, and recognize it importance, even if our politicians think trivial things like the economy or human rights are more deserving of attention.

 

 

 

Hide and Seek

2010’s Just Cause 2 is a game of B-movie bravado in a tropical paradise. The player controls Rico, a generic action hero sent to a generic South-Asian island chain to overthrow a generic evil villain. In a bizarre leap of logic, this is achieved by destroying the infrastructure of the native population, a thin but sufficient excuse for lots of bullets, explosions, and fist-fights on nuclear missiles. Combat is bog simple, missions bombastic but linear, and the story was forgotten before the writers were done writing it. What sets Just Cause 2 apart is its gorgeous and expansive scenery that stretches to every horizon, and the unintended brilliance that is the task of trying to clear the island chain of its collectibles.

JC2.png

Like in every open world game, the islands of Panau are littered with machinery to blow up and packages to pick up. Crucially though, the developers of Just Cause 2 made a singular, brilliant decision. They didn’t put these items on the map. The location of villages and bases are shown, but within these areas, the player must search and scrounge for bits destructible scenery and oddly glowing crates. Collecting all of these items in a village crosses it off a list, and displays the percentage of the overall game so far completed.

JC4.png

Clearing the world map and pushing this number to 100 becomes a game of hide and seek writ large, played across time between Rico and the level designer. The player learns tricks to more efficiently clear a village, like skimming the area at night so that silver supply crates show up better against the blackness, or how to most quickly clear out soldiers so they can get to the important task of scavenging, or most importantly, how to think like a level designer.

Health regenerates, so with careful management, the player can roam the jungles of Panau for hours, steadily building progress. The march towards 100% requires zen-like resolve and dedication. Careful time management and deliberate navigation across the map is required as well as the focus and resolve to avoid countless distractions.

JC5.png

Finishing the entire game leaves the player at barely 50% really progress, if they were diligent. Reaching 100% requires the player to explore every acre of Panau, to see and appreciate every last asset placed by the developers, to stroll every beach and climb every mountain peak. To most efficiently travel, the player quickly learns the rhythm of pulling themselves through the air with their grappling hook to build up speed, swooping with their parachute to regain altitude, and repeating that process across the miles of hilly terrain. There is a simple joy in continuous forward motion that Just Cause 2 provides in spades.

JC3.png

This year’s sequel Just Cause 3 ruined all this by ditching the supply crates and adding helpful icons to the map to show the location of all destructible scenery bits, so liberating the Mediterranean island becomes a rote chore. Blowing up satellite dishes and billboards is fun for a short while, but lacks the long-lasting satisfaction of playing the world’s largest easter-egg hunt. Sometimes the most satisfying gameplay is found in systems the designers never intended or understood.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

If you have not yet played The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, read no further, go buy yourself a copy, play it, and come back. This will still be here later, and you’ll be only depriving yourself otherwise.

Please.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Let me tell you a story.

I stumbled across the astronaut completely by accident. I was wandering in the Wisconsin wilderness, admiring the fir trees and strewn boulders, the light rays peeking through the canopy and the crunch of amber duff underfoot. It was just before dusk. I knew vaguely that I had something more important to be doing, but I was content to just wander for a while, to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature.

I briefly looked away at my phone, distracted, and nearly tripped over the control panel embedded in the ground. Had it always been there? It couldn’t have appeared just as I looked away, could it?  Things don’t just appear out of thin air.

The scuffed chrome housing and glowing buttons were in strange mechanical contrast to the wilderness around me. Faintly humming, it stuck awkwardly out of the orange-brown  pine needles like a hitchhiker’s thumb. In hindsight, maybe that was on purpose.

I pushed the buttons, one, two, three, four, an ape poking at a monolith, something he’s never seen before and can barely comprehend, because that’s what you do when confronted with the unknown. That’s how the story goes.

I gave chase to the space man who appeared before me, sprinting past saplings, thin branches whipping my face, and again when he teleported further away in a blinding light. I ran after him, because that’s what you do when something runs away from you.

I marvelled at the ship that erupted from the ground, that sucked me through a wormhole and across the universe, catapulting me through the heavens and dropping me into the inky void of space. There were others. Was this a zoo? A conclave? A cosmic practical joke?

This is where the story ends.

I was dropped back into the forest, mind reeling. Agog. Games don’t do that. They don’t surprise you. They have established, staid precedents they have to follow. You accomplish a series of increasingly challenging tasks and are rewarded with a small cut scene. You follow a series of way-points and unlock a door to the next gated chapter. You combine the items and arrange the mirrors and outsmart the wizard and you reach the next save point. Spaceships stay in space games, zombies stay in zombie games, quaint murder scenes stay in quaint puzzle games. That’s how games are supposed to be. Right?

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter doesn’t play by these rules. I’m not certain the developers even know they should. They shouldn’t. Like a great movie plot twist, it’s always one step ahead of you. Like that astronaut, just when you think you’ve caught up, it jumps away. Leading you down a garden path. In the mines below the Carter house, I knew I’d sussed out the real plot. This was Lovecraftian horror, and I was back in my comfort zone. I know how game makers hide clues in mazes. I was back on sure footing. I arrange the symbols, fight the boss, save the world. I’ve done this a dozen times in a dozen games.

I’ve heard this story before.

I was wrong, and delightedly so.

Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is a movie about magic tricks. To make you understand the wonder of a simple magic trick, it has to show you one. Nolan tells you he is going to fool you, he tells you exactly how he is going to fool you, and then he fools you. The movie is greater than the sum of its parts, because it uses a story about being tricked to make you feel the excitement of being tricked.

Ethan Carter is a game about stories. To make you understand the spell that stories can cast  over us, the power they have to transport us to other worlds, it tells you a series of stories. You see them from a distance, safe, removed.  You learn from them. You’ve outsmarted it, you know what’s going on. You know the story behind the story. Then, just when you think you’ve solved its riddles, when you’re sure you know what kind of game you’re playing and you’ve sorted out what’s really going on, it pulls its master stroke.

From behind your computer screen, mouse in hand, a world away, you’re not really a detective, strolling through a rustic Wisconsin town in a frozen hour of near-dusk.

You’re just another part of the story.

 

Painting a Broader Picture

The proto-steam punk fantasy world of 1998’s Thief is a world of barons, peasants and priests, where ancient magic clashes with new technologies, and gods of old walk the earth, though mankind fools itself into believing otherwise. Though Garrett will eventually come to realize that the pagan Trickster god is anything but mythological, he first encounters him disguised as a man named Constantine. There are clues scattered throughout the game that hint at his true form, in the whispers on the lips of the City’s peasants, in scribblings in journals and scrolls, and perhaps most effectively, in the paintings and works of art that inhabit the homes of Garrett’s targets. From the very first level, the developers of Thief hint at the Trickster’s true self.

ThiefTricksterPainting.png

Hung on walls as seemingly no more than another form of loot, currency with which Garrett will stock up his supplies for his next heist, paintings in the world of Thief do a great job of adding flavour and depth to the nameless world. Low-resolution and grainy, they still break up the world’s repeating textures, and give level designers additional props to make a series of empty boxes feel like a person’s library or study. The drunken owner of the first mission’s castle hangs paintings and portraits without pattern or reason, to conceal his new-money status, to aspire to a level in society beyond his station.

ThiefPaintings1.png

2013’s Dishonored, a descendant of Thief’s lineage, uses art assets in the same fashion, portraying a world beyond the levels’ environment maps and giving the player a glimpse of their enemy from their very first moments in the game. Corvo’s escape from prison takes him through a torture room, above which hangs an oil painting of the Lord Regent, the mastermind of Corvo’s imprisonment, and target of his vengeance. Though they will eventually meet at opposite ends of Corvo’s blade later in the game, this is the player’s first introduction, and the level designers place this painting directly in their path to establish Dishonored’s world and its actors, and to inform the player’s motive.

DishonoredPainting1.png

Paintings, posters, and blueprints also give hints of events and regions beyond Dunwall’s borders, and make the game’s levels feel less like arenas and more like locations.

DishonoredPainting2.png

Like in a good movie, proper set dressing in a video game goes a long way towards establishing a world and its tone, and can be used to subconsciously influence the player’s mood and motivations. Building and dressing a video game level is an art beyond enemy placement and managing chokepoints. High-resolution textures and the latest improvements in graphics engines are wasted without a skilled hand knowing how to best put them to use.

 

 

Allowing the Player to Fail

Five minutes after skipping past the opening credits, last year’s Rise of the Tomb Raider finds Lara Croft leaping heroically across an icy chasm and latching on to a rock face with her climbing pick. It’s a gripping and cinematic moment. Soon after, she exchanges gun fire with guards and tucks and rolls her way through an ancient tomb with practised ease. 20 hours of further gameplay finds her doing the exact same thing, but in a different tomb. Lara has found new weapons, new outfits, new uses for her bow, and unlocked new combat options, but she’s still the same accomplished action hero she’s always been, and ever will be.

TombRaider1.png

In comparison, the opening level of 2013’s Dishonored finds Corvo stumbling awkwardly out of his cell, flailing his sword around (as much a danger to himself as his enemies), and generally lurching around like knock-kneed teenager. This is because the player has been handed the keys to a high-performance vehicle full of mysterious buttons and levers, and left to their own devices to sort out what everything does. There will be plenty of embarrassing crashes, ground gears, and grisly deaths as the player determines how to properly unleash Corvo’s array of talents, but by the end of the adventure they will flit around the gloomy streets and hallways of Dunwall, and distribute sweet vengeance upon its citizenry with bloody panache. The developers of Dishonored created a network of systems (teleportation, slowed time, body possession, and for some reason rodent summoning to name a few) that take time to understand and master, but allow the player to play, experiment, and develop their own style of interacting with the world. By the final mission, Corvo is the player’s expression of themselves as mystical assassin, projected into a dystopian fantasy world through a mouse and keyboard. The developers of Tomb Raider instead created a series of exciting animations for Lara that the player can trigger easily, and sit back and watch from a distance, marvelling at how nimble and athletic Lara must be.

Disohonored2.png

Allowing the player to fail at any point, to make a cool character look silly, takes narrative control out of the hands of the game’s story teller and places it in the hands of the player, who may trip up the game’s learning curve, or break the game’s carefully crafted tone by meandering around the world, poking at its seams. It allows characters who the game tells us are skilled and suave to stub their toes, bump their elbows, and look a fool, but also allows the player the freedom to work in ways the developer never intended. This risk is rewarded by better making the player feel as though they’re inhabiting the main character, growing in ability as the character advances through the story.

MirrorsEdge6.png

Mirror’s Edge similarly allows players to fail spectacularly, to faceplant off of 20-storey buildings or harmlessly waggle their limbs at security guards, who must be amused by, and pitying of, the gangly child in front of them who can’t quite seem to control her own body. Over time though, that gangly child learns to become a wall-hopping cyclone of brutal punishment, of arcing fists and feet that can lash out and dance away in the same moment, that can dispatch a pack of thugs with gleeful, laughing ease once the player learns how to properly control Faith. Without those initial stumbles, the artist that Faith becomes would have no contrast to the amateur she once was.

It’s no coincidence that Tomb Raider is a third-person game and Mirror’s Edge and Dishonored are played from a first-person perspective. The former tells a story about Lara Croft, a defined and established action hero who takes centre screen, and will allow the player tag to along on her adventures, so long as they stand back while she does the cool stuff. Corvo and Faith are vessels for the player to inhabit, a cipher through which they will stumble, struggle, strive, and eventually prevail over evil. The player is the central figure, and the focus of the game is their immediate experience.

A good story requires a character to evolve, to not only affect the world through their actions, but also to be affected by their experiences. Video games cast the player in the central role of their own story, and so must also let the player evolve over time. The vocabulary with which the player interacts with the game must be large enough to let the player fully experience that evolution, even if it lets them stutter. Systems that are complex enough to allow for staggering success as well as abject failure are difficult to create, and pull the reins of control out of the hands of the game’s authors, who may feel they know what’s best for the player. Ultimately though these systems create a much richer and more satisfying game, however painful the opening acts may be.