A tale on its own terms – Part II

June 15, 2017

I’m proud of modern gaming and its ability to tell real stories. This is why I feel it is important to approach these tales on their own terms: to settle yourself within the shell created by the story’s plot and look at the point it demonstrates within.

This “Part II” post is in truth the third part of a sequence that began here talking mostly about Star Wars. Despite appearances, not everything in life is about blowing up the Death Star. There are lessons to be learned: per my abuse of Shakespeare’s quote on brevity, the “point” is the soul of the story, and the “plot,” genre, setting, and million-dollar-budget special effects are the limbs and outward flourishes. Getting stuck on blowing up the Death Star is foolish when an important lesson about family is waiting for you.

This is particularly relevant to videogames, where, among other things, the player might personally be trying to blow things up. Videogames are more than just entertainment (games are culture), and the example from my last post, Paul Gresty and The Frankenstein Wars, was the “Part I” to set up today’s “Part II.” It was a story about second-class citizens (stitched-together Frankensteinian soldiers), with the added hook that you the first-class general could become one of them. This should be chilling.

Let’s start a bit earlier than that.

I used to think it a shame we couldn’t program things like “personality” on top of Doom. These games were little more than straightforward violence when they came out. However, as I’ve mentioned before, this changed when technology advanced and games like Looking Glass Studios’ Thief (fan site here) became possible. As the latter creators discussed in their “making-of” material, they had many ways of transmitting little packets of information to the player, like written notes and overheard conversations. These weren’t possible in a Doom world of grunting monsters and painted-texture walls.

I was proud for stealthy games. Years later, I came to be proud for horror games: not only could a game tell a story, it could tell a story that affected you. I developed a larger library of horror games than I would have expected, given that I made it all the way through the 80’s and 90’s without owning a single horror movie. And games have only advanced since then.

So they can affect you, but what does this say about getting real meaning? If Star Wars has messages for us, what about the next super-horrifying first-person shooter? I like this section of interview with Ken Levine from the development of Bioshock, which can be found within the Cult of Rapture’s podcast section:

“I always think there are three ways that gamers deal with games that have a lot of story in them. There’s the way that a lot of gamers deal with them, which is like ‘Dude, where’s the next thing I’m gonna shoot, you know?’ And that’s cool and we totally support that, you know, people want to play the game and, like ‘Oh, Ryan, he’s the bad guy I guess, he’s this, you know, dude.’
“Then you have the people who want to listen to what he says, and get the vibe of what he says, and say ‘Oh, he’s trying to kill me because X, Y, and Z’ where the first type of gamer would just be like ‘Oh, this dude’s my enemy and I want to kill him. And he wants to kill me.’
“And then you have that third level kind of gamer who really wants to find every audio diary, and analyse every ghost sequence, and look at every scene in the world, visual scene, read every poster, read all the story text that comes (we have a whole encyclopedia as it were in the game of all the objects), think about all the connections between all the characters. And we really support all those levels. There’s a huge amount of depth of story, an almost novelistic depth of story in the game if you really want to get into it. But also if you just want to get in there and shoot, you know, that’s cool too, but I think especially the people listening to this podcast might be interested in some more of the deeper aspects of the story, and it’s there in spades.”

That’s one thing. Notice how well it overlaps with Jonathan Blow’s speech titled “Design Reboot” (which I keep linking with the lovely animation of choice quotes by Superbrothers):

“Why do people play games? . . .
“1. Games can provide entertainment/fantasy/escapism. . . .
“2. Meaningful artistic expression. . . .
“3. A means of exploring the universe.

Ken Levine’s first level of gamer deals only with Jonathan Blow’s first point of gaming. The first level of gamer needs nothing other than Doom, needs to do nothing more than blow up the Death Star.

Which is not as good a thing as Ken Levine implies.

I’ve argued before about morality in game design. Jonathan Blow is also known for saying:

“When millions of people buy our game, we are pumping a (mental) substance into the (mental) environment. This is a public mental health issue. We have the power to shape humanity. How will we use it?”

Notice what happens when we go above Ken Levine’s first level, up to where “people want to listen to what [the villain] says”:

Luke Skywalker listens to the Emperor on the Death Star and you understand the conflict now: in truth, it comes down to how your family problems are losing you all of your friends. The player in Bioshock listens to Andrew Ryan and you understand the interplay of power, corruption, freedom, and tyranny. (Jonathan Blow criticized the latter’s success, but at least they tried.) In The Frankenstein Wars, the “villain” is the sibling: care to understand your sibling any?

It makes it all the more clear why we need games like The Frankenstein Wars: the player of Doom kills hordes of enemy soldiers, but have you ever considered being the one to send soldiers to their death? Is it a justifiable cause that makes you do it, or is it pride?

What about being sent to war yourself? What about becoming the expendable grunt that will be slaughtered with hyper-realistic 3-D-modeled armament?

What if life and death mattered to you?

Which brings me to a final point in gaming that makes me proud. One would think that big-budget explosions and hyper-realistic weaponry meant the death of real storytelling; obviously we would all be distracted by the explosions. But in today’s world of gaming the storytellers continue to make the push. There were stealth games, there was the horror genre, and now . . . there’s the “walking simulator.”

This term was coined for Dear Esther, by thechineseroom. By labeling it with the joke-that’s-also-serious of “walking simulator,” it’s made clear that there’s nothing to do in the ordinary sense: the entire experience is immersion. You absolutely and without a doubt cannot play these games and expect surface-level escapist excitement to sustain you.

So gaming is getting us about as far as possible as it can from Ken Levine’s first level of gamer; or, at least, the independent game developers are. And even Bioshock had a real point to convey, even if it had its flaws.

If Star Wars still speaks to us beneath the special effects, it’s good that videogames — which have become one of the biggest sources of media for public consumption these days — are just as capable in their own ways. The viewers just need to understand that the story is there at all, that when they get beyond their opinions about the outer shell — the plot — they might gather an important point that makes their life all the better.

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