August 8, 2008


When fiction attempts some thematic or metaphorical relevance, it's disappointing when the execution is incomplete or incompetent. If the point is not made well then the audience and critics risk reading meaning into what originally had none, or speaking about the fiction's ambition without conviction. These failures occur in every medium but I feel as though video games have a higher proportion of them. I'm talking about games that have no trouble introducing themes but never deliver the payoff. Good ideas that never coalesce into a thesis and so their inclusion comes off as scattershot; a clumsy seasoning instead of a careful foundation.

Some games are able to pull this off, no question, but I think you still see a lot of these missed opportunities. It's an easier process, I would assume, for games that rely heavily or exclusively on cutscenes or other passive media to tell the story, since the narrative rarely interacts with the game proper. Narrative concerns like subtext and metaphor probably come dead last at crunch time. If the story wraps up at all, the conclusion usually owes more to the convolutions of the plot rather than the purity of the theme. It reveals the last piece of the puzzle, reveals the last straw man hiding inside the series of Russian dolls and then has the player fight it.

Either that, or gameplay, when push comes to shove, will take precedence over narrative. The endgame administers the final exam on mechanics and subtext is a secondary priority. This segregation of gameplay and story into two different estates can cause issues of incompatibility to arise, especially when the story intends to progress to where narrative themes dictate the chain of events and the fates of the characters. It's hard to write about determinism or fatalism in an interactive medium. Hard to do stories about how different ideologies interact within a competitive micro-ecology. Hit Self-Destruct is evidently in its high school English phase, so let me use a played-out and familiar example. The boys kill Simon in Lord of the Flies because he represents one thing and the boys and the island represent another. There's simply no way for Simon to survive in that environment. It is dishonest to pretend otherwise: if Simon lives the story dies. Gamers don't expect that honesty. In the Lord of the Flies video game, players want the power to save Simon, headshot all the other boys and ride a motorcycle.

For an example of thematic disappointment, here's Deus Ex: Invisible War, which is about as far as you can get from Lord of the Flies.

The strongest point Invisible War could have made was about humanity. The game takes place in a future heavily dependent on invasive and intractable biotechnology. A faction called the Omar modify themselves beyond simple humanity. They're outfitted with hi-tech and permanent exoskeletons and form a collective consciousness. One character refuses to sleep because he knows the Omar will come and induct him surgically into their ranks.

The game also explores how far actual humans will go in the pursuit of power and advancement before betraying their conscience and each other. The conservative Templars are so single-minded in their opposition to technological enhancement that they become out-and-out killers; murdering sympathisers and collaborators in the interests of preserving human purity. Even the more level-headed of the factions will abduct and execute the main character's colleagues and friends in the hope of coercing him.

The contradiction of Invisible War is that this game, predicated on freedom of choice, is constantly leasing the player's autonomy to NPC factions. For an ostensibly free agent, the player character is always following the orders of a higher institution. This is territory better explored in Bioshock, but its presence here is no less intriguing.

The recurring theme gains prominence when the player, late in the game, meets the character J.C. Denton. Here, as an unfamiliar NPC, Denton has merged with an AI program and is coldly advocating the unwilling draft of the entire race into some kind of a social networking nightmare; linking all human minds together with his own, and he and the AI monitor their needs and administer treatment accordingly. Denton came about this theory after a 20-year isolation and apparently more of the AI remains than his own mind. He demonstrates no human characteristics, no rebelliousness, no compassion (not that he ever had much to begin with.) As Denton was the player character in the first Deus Ex, he was the most human character in the entire Deus Ex canon. Now, he no longer bears any resemblance to the player's original experiences. The transformation is sobering.

As the game escalates, the time seems absolutely right for an acknowledgment or prioritising of the question of the player character Alex's human potential. Alex has been revealed to be less than human, something of an ad hoc genetic experiment created to approximate technologically superior models. The game is perfectly poised to say or prove something about humanity at the denouement, and to make the endgame all about that. About contrasting Alex against all these other characters with their eroding or absent human credentials (one character previously thought to be real turns out to be a computer program, come on, it's not a reach) and asking whether he and the player can be the one to remember and affirm their own humanity. Deus Ex is not prone to emotional displays, which is exactly what would make the reversal so striking.

The theme is crying out to be realised, for a unifying theory that never arrives. It should be connecting the dots, should be crystallising its purpose, but at its finish, Invisible War has only the last link in its hands when it should be holding the whole chain, and then lets it slip from its fingers.

What about our future? While it might be easier to preserve thematic arcs in cutscenes, I think things are likely to improve as games move away from them. Narratives are becoming more sophisticated in delivery and closely integrated with gameplay mechanics and direct experience. That trend is going to force designers to stop thinking of story as cutscenes whose script and production can be outsourced. It will also, I hope, make them smarter in choosing the things they want to talk about.

The release of the original Deus Ex was delayed six months so Ion Storm could, amongst other things, write endings for disappearing characters. I hope that's the way we're going.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it possible that the desire to offer multiple endings makes it difficult to present a satisfying conclusion?

If you've got a narrative designed around a single theme there can really only been one conclusion. If it starts off as a tragedy and ends as a comedy it feels artificial.

It is possible to present a game with a unifying theme and multiple endings but those endings would have to be tied to manner in which the whole game was played and not just the final level. A game with a theme of humanity could lead to a conclusion that dealt with the lose of humanity or the reaffirmation of humanity but such conclusions would have to feel like they'd been earned, and reinforced, throughout the course of the entire game. You couldn't do it successful if it relied on one single decision point near the end of the game.

The original Deus Ex fell down in this regard, your particular ending was decided upon minutes prior to the end of the game so even if you had played with one philosophy up to that point you could just change it on a whim and conclude the narrative with a different thematic bent.

The desire to explain when and where the decision points are, means it's rare for games to take all your actions into account; even in something like Knights Of The Old Republic that actively tracks your actions throughout the game.

qrter said...

In that regard The Witcher is more interesting, eventhough it does what the original Fallout games did before - sprinkling all the choices throughout the game, with some small direct response to your actions but most of the outcome is told at the very end of the game.

"If you've got a narrative designed around a single theme there can really only been one conclusion."

This I disagree with. Theme does not dictate conclusion - how you as a writer want to comment on that theme, does. There are always multiple possible endings to a narrative, some might suit the writer's agenda more than others. But why not redirect the focus from 'follow my agenda and learn this' to making the choice and the set-up the agenda.

I think where games are going wrong is that there is little emotional involvement with presented themes - this happens in both Deus Ex games, sometimes you feel like you're in an endless lecture that may be interesting but is also very cerebral and unaffecting.

BioShock does something here, it makes the Little Sisters pitiful, a weak and scared little girl. I would save the Sisters and would even feel a pang of guilt seeing their Big Daddies hulk around, thumping walls, moaning for their lost little protege.

And then you hit the real problem - BioShock makes the player emotionally invest and then can't handle it. The game gives us moral ambiguity but not the software to properly react to this ambiguity - you can eat one (1) Little Sister for free, but if you have seconds, you're OUT! Nevermind if your heart was swayed somewhere between the second and third Sister, you've made your choice without knowing.

Anonymous said...

My point was if the narrative has been designed around the handling of a certain theme a certain way then it needs to carry that through the entire game from introduction to conclusion. Doing otherwise only underminds the theme.

That why I suggested moving towards games that handle all your decisions not just those you make pertaining directly to the endgame. That way each individual choice can contribute to the overall conclusion, and make the particular route of each player consistent with their conclusion.

On the otherhand, I wondered if anybody was going to bring up the Little Sisters. I've never understood how people can seriously bemoan the fact that they can't get away with killing a "few" Little Sisters. Tenenbaum is the moral voice when it comes to them and she makes it very clear from the start that killing any of them is a terrible act. In the end she's the ultimate judge of your actions in Rapture and it's callous to argue you should be allowed "just a couple." It's tantamount to saying: "I should be allowed to murder a few times just to see what it's like."

I'd argue that the real moral ambiguity surrounds not the Little Sisters at all but the Big Daddies.

qrter said...

For me the question with the Little Sisters is not: how many am I allowed to kill - although, interestingly, that seems how the game handles it. The game forces its players to think that way (well, not completely, it depends on the willingness of the player).

I'm saying in a real moral dilemma there is a possibility of redemption, of seeing your own mistakes, of trying to right what is wrong. This does not excuse the previous wrongs, but also does not make one into a psychopath that wants to take over the world (which is what the game seems to indicate).

Frankly, I find it quite rich that I as a player shouldn't be able to change my mind on the issue, but someone like Dr. Tennenbaum, who was one of the main factors in setting up the whole Little Sister project over many, many years and saw what it did to the girls and their families, does get that chance, in fact, she gets to judge me!

At this point I should be fair and say the Ken Levine has stated it was never his intention to create two endings, he was forced to do so by management (which seems strange, though, he was able to get the offscreen killing of little girls through, but not the idea of one ending..?). As far as I am concerned he could've stripped out the whole "do something bad, get more stuff" thing. It would've made the moral choices more honest - do I want to save the Sister because I want to save her, because I think it's the right thing to do. But I guess that's not how gamers think (or how is thought gamers don't think).

I agree with you on the Big Daddies - one of the more chilling parts of BioShock is when you get an inkling of how they are created.

I distinctly remember the queasy feeling I got when the game slowly turned towards the idea of me becoming a Big Daddy. What I thought would happen, was that I would be turned into one of those sad, hulking things and never be able to change back. I'd be a saviour of Rapture, or at least the Sisters, but I'd have to destroy myself, more or less. The idea of going through this dehumanising process made me feel ill, it felt like the most cruel thing that could happen to me.

I only wish the game would've been as cruel as that - it would've been a mean ending, but also meaningful.