Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Games - A Call For Games To Take Their Fantasy More Seriously

Most gamers out there will already be aware of Michael Thomsen's withering assessment of the hundred-hour fantasy game, Dark Souls, wherein he questioned whether a game of such length could ever be a worthwhile endeavour when the time (he surmised) could be spent much more effectively elsewhere. As happens far too often when members of the older generations write about video games, Thomsen quickly descends into judgmentalism, his thesis proving little more sophisticated than a suggestion games are not as worthy of a person's time as other activities or media.

It's tempting to write a full rebuttal, but Edge Magazine's Jason Killingsworth (if ever there were a more appropriate name...) got there first and did a better, more extensive job than I ever could. It's worth a read if you have a considerable amount of time on your hands, which you probably do if you're a Dark Souls fan. I kid, I kid! For all Thomsen's righteous indignation, one criticism he levelled did ring true and is something which has been bothering me for a while: gaming's continuing disregard for building consistent internal logic into its worlds and gameplay systems.
Apologies if that's the most pretentious sentence you've read so far this year. It's a difficult point to phrase more elegantly, though, so I'll use Thomsen's quote to illuminate my point:
In more than twice the time it would take to read Tolstoy's historical fiction, Dark Souls leaves one's head overflowing with useless junk like the difference in attack stats between a Great Axe with a fire bonus versus a Great Axe with a divine bonus. These bits of occult nonsense don't have an internal logic. In one early section, you'll fight a pair of gargoyles who live perched high up on a bell tower in a castle. These gargoyles, you discover, are especially vulnerable to lightning damage. Why a creature that lives on the medieval equivalent of a lightning rod should be vulnerable to lightning damage is not explained. Every victory in the game is built on a similarly dumbfounding bit of nonlogic.
Disregarding the needless invocation of Tolstoy, Thomsen actually makes a very solid point about how little care many games seem to put into the internal consistencies of a game world and the demands it makes of the player. There's nothing wrong with fantasy, but few games seem to recognise the genre as more than a set of Tolkien-esque aesthetics. Fantasy writers for books, movies and television are notorious for going to ridiculous lengths to define every variable in the worlds they create, from class systems and royal hierarchies to the co-existence of different species and the sometimes anarchic effect magic can have on all those rules. Fantasy works best when the authors fill in every nook and cranny so intricately that the worlds seem as real and lived-in as our own. Only, you know, with dragons and that.

The lack of internal consistency in Dark Souls, as Thomsen describes, is a serious problem throughout gaming. In his rebuttal, Jason Killingsworth suggests this is excusable because it is akin to a game inviting the player to learn a kind of language unique to the experience, aka determining an enemy's weak point and using the appropriate bonus effect against it. This argument falls down on the fact that language relies on internal consistency more than any other human endeavour: if grammar, syntax and conjugation were defined by the illogical rules making up the foundations of many games, composing a single sentence would be an act of brain-destroying difficulty. Sometimes this incoherence can involve an enemy inhabiting a location completely nonsensical relative to their physical weaknesses, as detailed above, or it can be that their weakness simply appears entirely an entirely random choice.

You can see this in many different games, spanning all genres. It isn't just a matter of some games not thinking through their mechanics well enough, either: in everything from gameplay to world design, there's a noticeable lack of coherence in the way many games send messages to the player. I recently reviewed The Last Story for Nintendo Wii, a game which features many of the cited issues in all aspects of its design. One of the most startling is the design of a castle which plays an important part in the game. I'll avoid important spoilers, but at one point the lead character manages to attend a royal event in the castle's ballroom. It's all very lavish and impressive, until you realise that the ballroom doesn't actually have a front entrance.

It's the room in the castle hosting the game's most vital ceremonial event, yet the only entrance is a tiny, narrow staircase behind the royal throne. Not only that, but to reach that point from the entrance, you have to climb a flight of stairs, make your way around the balcony, cross an exterior bridge to the opposite side of the castle, then locate the most innocuous of little staircases, more suited for allowing servants quick access between floors than ferrying dignitaries for a royal reception. Myriad other questions are raised about the design of the castle if you think about its layout for more than a minute. Many would argue that I'm nitpicking, but what does it say about the gaming medium's ability to tell worthwhile stories and build cohesive worlds if the developers are not even willing to consider such a fundamental absence of logic in a game's layout?

That's a problem with game spaces in general, which are designed to be exactly that - locations designed around the needs of a game, rather than worldly logic. The Resident Evil 2 police station is a classic example, yet while that game wears the ridiculousness of its environment on its sleeve - becoming endearingly hokey in the process - many other game environments are no more effectively designed as logical spaces, even if they try to disguise it through less conspicuously bonkers aesthetics. Half-Life 2 gets a great deal of praise for its world, yet still blocks players' paths with ridiculous obstructions and is laid out in a manner antithetic to any kind of convenient existence, with ridiculous 'puzzles' to clear and irritatingly circuitous routes designed to artificially prolong the player's time in a certain environment. All that is gained as a purpose built game space is immediately lost in creative credibility. Who cares about saving a world so obviously built around a single person, the player, rather than a logical outcome of its inhabitants' existence within their environment?

The same problem exists on a micro level too: why, in Xenoblade Chronicles (a game I love, incidentally), do the requests for rebuilding materials for one important side-quest bear no relation to what is being constructed? Okay, so it would be ludicrous to ask the player to ferry about hundreds of bricks and gallons of cement at a time, but if (for example) the project in question was the building of a house, could the architect at least ask for - say - a certain kind of rock and some kind of adhesive substance, rather than six feathers, three blades of grass and the hide of a mountain wolf?

Here's another: how many games highlight important locations with floating arrows, or circles of light, rather than attempting to communicate with the player through less conspicuous, illusion-breaking means? Again, such a criticism might appear pedantic in the extreme, but it's emblematic of the kind of shortcuts taken by game designers spanning the entire medium. David Lean didn't put a glowing arrow over Omar Sharif's head to mark his character's entrance in Lawrence Of Arabia, he subtly constructed the image to draw the viewer's eye to a certain point on the horizon. Assassin's Creed, on the other hand, lays down glowing cones of light to guide/force the player along a certain path, rather than finding a more appropriate method of direction. Considering how few game spaces are designed to be logical in their own right, the deployment of such techniques is nothing short of shambolic, illustrative of a medium lacking the communication language of the illustrious peers with which it so often demands equal billing.

Fiction works when based around a set of recognisable, relatable rules in logic and presentation. In taking such shortcuts, gaming is underselling its own capacity for telling stories and building worlds, with the medium being more suited to excelling in the latter category than any other. In gameplay terms, tighter design consistency allows more effortless communication with the player, in turn leading to more satisfactory experiences. If an enemy's weak spot has been arbitrarily decided, the player is merely following an order to quickly overcome an obstacle. The success is not theirs. If the enemy's weak spot is a logic extension of their design - shoot a bird in the wings to ground it, for example - then the player is able to gain greater satisfaction from being able to work out and implement the solution for themselves.

The same is true for all areas of design: an environment created solely for the purpose of hosting developer-set tasks will never be as inviting or fulfilling as one where the player feels part of a fully realised world. One of fiction's many pleasures comes from the redeployment of the familiar in exciting new ways: fantasy with its roots in medieval history, for example. If the seams are so obvious as to appear unreal, be it through illusion-breaking methods of signposting or nonsensical architecture, the user's relationship with that world can only operate on the most superficial of levels, as little more than an external participant in a game, rather than explorer of a new world.

This matters less in abstract spaces (hence the mad construction of the Aperture labs being easier to accept in the barebones Portal than its narrative-driven sequel), but even the most far-fetched imaginative space must be defined by a set of rules clear to both designer and player. Whilst Mr. Thomsen's snippiness in his critique of Dark Souls is uncalled for, if games are ever to be taken seriously as a worthwhile cultural endeavour, it is about time they started to take themselves more seriously as well.


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