In Your Face

You are Lara Croft. Archeology student turned reluctant heroine, your adventures have carried you across the globe and deep into its crust, into an ancient tomb, thousands of years old. Dodging traps and enemies, risking life and limb, you finally stumble into its most sacred chamber, a shrine constructed by a forgotten people, built to house a tome of profound wisdom, whose dusty pages may hold a Rosetta Stone-like key to better understanding the mysteries of humankind’s origins. Time seems to stand still as you approach a glowing marble dias, this far from the outside world the only sound is the dry crackle of a flickering candle. Hesitantly, your fingers tremble as you reach to open the cover of this priceless artifact, this wondrous discovery that has laid buried for aeons.

NEW SKILL MASTERED: FAST HEALER!

Um… yay?

User interfaces in games must walk a fine and thankless line, balancing giving the player enough information that they’re not confused and lost in a new world, and staying out of sight enough to not distract the player from more pertinent in-world information, like where they’re driving, and who’s shooting at them.

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Not Pretty

Games began as text-based affairs, and adopted 2D and 3D graphics and on-screen graphical elements over time. Now they’re predominately solely graphics-based, the best-known and best-selling descending from a lineage that began with Wolfenstein, Doom, and to a lesser but much more profound degree, System Shock (but more on that masterpiece later). Gamers are accustomed to on-screen crosshairs, health meters, and ammo counters lurking in the corners of their vision. As processing power has increased, gameplay has grown more complex, and world markers, crouch indicators, XP tallies, notifications and more have been thrown into the mix.

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Pretty

The problem is that graphics have grown better and better over time as well, to the point where flashy, non-diagetic displays can ugly up a beautiful scene, get between the player and the world they’re exploring, and generally pull them out of the immediate experience. These improvements also mean that there are much better ways to convey information though, like texture or animation changes to indicate the degrading health of the player’s avatar, in-world ammunition displays or maps, or a reliance on physical iron sights for aiming. The ability to completely disable UI elements is becoming a standard option in games, as in Witcher 3 or Far Cry 4. This not only lets the player better appreciate the beauty that the games are capable of rendering, it also forces them to pay more attention to their surroundings, and adds extra challenge, like removing training wheels from a bike.

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Pretty

As reliable and well-worn as on-screen prompts have become, better graphics in games demands more thoughtful and subtle use of UI to feed the player everything they need to know, including a rethinking of just how much UI is needed in the first place. A picture already tells a thousand words, there’s no need to break into the game’s narrative just to add a half-dozen more.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.