April 29, 2009

Chaos Theory

As long as there's a Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I am able to plan a day like this: Rod Humble lecture, visit to Alcatraz, Jason Rohrer lecture. That was my Tuesday at GDC. Sometimes you need to take a break from games for a while and go to a prison.

Alcatraz used to be a pretty grim scene. Tour highlights include the spot where the suicidal leapt into the ocean and dashed their brains on the rocks, and the hallway where inmates and guards shot and killed one another. The floor tiles are still marred from grenade blasts. A place like this commands a certain solemnity. There should be a threshold of decorum here. Overly cheery tour guides who use the words "cell house", "recreation yard" and "all that good stuff" in the same sentence might be slightly over that line. An Alcatraz gift shop that sells The Rock on DVD is probably over that line. The former inmate who sits miserably in the middle of that gift shop trying to sign copies of his memoir, looking like the loneliest old man in the world, that's borderline. Wandering around the island pointing out how similar everything is to video games... definitely over the line.

For instance, take the audio tour of the Alcatraz cell house. The tour designers have carved out a linear route through the building, and for twenty minutes, you listen to a voice directing you to hit your marks while also trying to communicate the history of Alcatraz. "Turn left," it says, "take five steps forward, look at cell 32, look to your right, turn right -- turn left -- turn left immediately!" It's like the worst kind of scripted video game, which sacrifices any illusion of meaningful interactivity or autonomy in favour of brusquely ushering you down a narrative corridor.

It's sort of a gruff and impatient voice. Games are never that rude. Games prefer to pretend that the player's in charge, but ultimately the game can always seize back control through a cutscene or locked camera. In Alcatraz, I enjoy a much greater freedom of movement -- ironically -- so to make sure I stay focused on the subject at hand, maybe the tour designers feels that they need to be mean to me.

The tour's use of art assets is particularly cost-effective. Every individual object in the cell house is deliberately placed to convey a specific story point. The only furnished cells, with folded laundry on the bed and watercolours on the wall, were not arranged like that for decoration but to specifically inform you about the prisoners' amenities. When you see the cell with a hole in the wall, it's because you're about to hear about that escape attempt. The only cells that you can walk into are the ones that are dark, empty and intended to evoke panic attacks in the claustrophobic. If it's unique, it has a purpose; the rest of the environment is generic texture.

Besides the narration, the audio tape incorporates short monologues by both prisoners and guards. These recordings, of people who are probably long since dead, function as historical artefacts and ad hoc recurring characters. They convey important plot details or, for colour, the mundanities of Alcatraz living. Alcatraz has audio diaries.

The Alcatraz tour is an unbroken one-way circuit, dictated by the guidance of a husky narrator. The fatal flaw is that you never have to obey the narrator's instruction. A video game might kill the player or throw up an invisible wall; in the Alcatraz cell house you can head off in any direction that you like. That's similar, in theory, to the open worlds of Grand Theft Auto and Fallout: games with a main quest by which completion is measured, but a plethora of side content that players can explore at their leisure.

In Grand Theft Auto, you can opt out of the main quest for as long as you like. In Alcatraz, however, unless you actively pause the tape, or if you misunderstand the instructions, then it doesn't realise and the narration will continue. It doesn't have a contingency plan for the tourist getting lost. You can wander off the set, forget your lines, and the tour is not aware enough to recognise your transgression. Bad scripting.

The tour is a single-player experience. You might be surrounded by other people, but you do not interact with them and as soon as you strap on your headphones, you're isolated in your own instance of the tour. It speaks directly to you, and as it's telling you about the echoes of raucous New Year's Eve parties that carried across the bay to drive the prisoners insane, you forget about the people around you. Although you can grief the other players if you want, and impose yourself upon their experience in ways unintended by the designers. For example, catch someone's eye, say "this tour's pretty stupid, isn't it?" and then make out in the warden's office.

The tour, like all single-player games, is actually a shared experience. The author, or the game, is never talking solely to you. It's related this same spiel to thousands of others and will continue to do so long after your horrible death. For all the effect that it pretends you have on the world, everyone else has already taken their turn at being the hero. When Bastila says she loves you, she doesn't mean you. The Alcatraz cell house tour is what it would be like if the ghosts of previous players started showing up in your single-player game. You're all moving down an identical path, but all out of sync and scattered around the location at different points in the chronology. The Wikipedia page on Alcatraz claims that the prison is famously haunted. They probably don't mean like this.

I returned my headphones and tape to the disaffected teenage tour guide minding the exit, and I thought about asking him if he realised, you know, the similarities the last twenty minutes have to level design theory, and social dynamics in MMOs, and non-linear open worlds, and all that good stuff? But if he doesn't know already, someday he'll play Half-Life 2, and he'll see for himself.

[Photos thanks to Siorna McFarlane.]


Nels Anderson said...

I'm curious about who designed that Alcatraz tour, including dressing the cells. The audio wasn't there last time I was on Alcatraz, about a decade ago, and I think all the cells were empty with the artifacts in cases. I wonder if it was just NPS employees or if some external company was brought in. Hmmm ...

Duncan said...

Oh, weird. I guess they've steadily been trying to modernize it. Next step: 3D glasses?

Sophia said...

Actually, your description of a guided audio tour reminds me more of an MMO than a single-player game -- sometimes I find that, perversely, the designers' attempts to make me feel immersed in the game by sticking my character's name into dialogue ends up throwing me out of the illusion, since I know perfectly well how many millions of characters and alt-characters have aided the dwarves in their time of utmost peril or whatever before me, mostly because they're lined up behind me to get into the instance.