Falling Through the Screen, Part III: “You mute lunatic.”

Note: This post is a week late because I suck. As a consolation prize, there are many more words in it.

[Part I: Introductory blithering]
[Part II: Personal history and adventure games]

It might seem like a hard leap from adventure gaming to first-person shooters, but for me it actually felt like a fairly natural progression. I was still new enough to games at that point that I had the advantage of being open to everything, and mostly unhampered by preconceived notions about what I liked and didn’t like – I knew I wasn’t fond of the 2D sidescrollers that my friends had grown up with, but I ate up just about everything else.

I never really stopped playing point-and-click adventure games – I’ve played several of Myst’s sequels and I’ve tracked down old copies of Zork: Grand Inquisitor and Starship Titanic – but as the production of adventure games started to slow down, my focus shifted toward FPSs, which were plentiful. I now think that two things in particular made the shift easy:

  • The first-person POV. Most of the adventure games I had loved were also first person, so an FPS didn’t feel all that different; there was just more shooting. In fact, given that the FPS environments were rendered in 3D as opposed to the frequently static screens of the adventure games, I recall feeling that FPSs afforded me a degree of freedom in the exploration of a gamespace that I had been missing before. This was made even more significant when coupled with:
  • The story. I should disclaim this by noting that at least in early FPSs, the story was flimsy at best; recall John Carmack’s quote in the previous post in this series. But again, I was new to shooters, and my standards had yet to be developed. What I remember is the same sense of immersion that I felt in my favorite adventure games–I was there, I was part of the events unfolding on screen, both because of the POV and my own sense of agency in causing those events to happen. This meant that even a flimsy story pulled me in and engaged me.

It’s worth noting at this point what a first-person POV actually means and does. The fact that you never – or rarely – actually see  the protagonist in a FP game means that the protagonist can and often does function as a blank template for the player, an empty vessel into which they can pour themselves. In the blankest version of this blank template, the protagonist becomes the player rather than the player becoming the protagonist –  there is simply not enough of a character there for the player to adopt, and so it makes more sense for the player to cognitively insert themselves into the game (note: I’m not coming up with any specific examples of this because I can’t actually think of any; this purely functions as an ideal type against which to measure what I’m going to talk about next).

This is where story becomes a complicating factor. Because the more complex the story, the more profoundly embedded the protagonist is within that story, and the less “blank” the protagonist can be. I recall playing Doom and Wolfenstein 3D as a child (they are actually my earliest memories of playing an FPS) and though those games possessed a story, it wasn’t a very complicated one, nor was it told in any kind of rich detail. The protagonists were therefore about as blank as one could get (despite the little damage-displaying graphic at the bottom of the HUD in Doom). The polar opposite of this is a game like Bioshock, where the identity, characterization, and history of the protagonist are crucial not only to an understanding of the events of the game, but to the course that those events take.

This presents an interesting tension: to what degree should the protagonist of an FPS be left blank for the player? How does blankness conflict with storytelling? How does trying to include a richer characterization of the protagonist help or hinder the way in which a game is telling a story? For instance: should an FPS protagonist talk? A classic example of this is Gordon Freeman, the perennially silent protagonist of the Half Life games (full disclosure: these are probably my favorite games of all time ever) . Gordon started out silent in the first game in the franchise because (I gather) that was simply what was done at the time, but as the Half Life story has become deeper and richer in the sequels – which includes the introduction of vividly memorable secondary characters – Valve seems to be aware of the interesting problem that a silent protagonist presents in the midst of extensive character interaction and dialogue. “Man of few words, aren’t you?” Alyx Vance says in Half Life 2 on meeting Gordon for the first time, and this feels like a wink from Valve itself – Yes, we know this is sort of weird. But we’re going with it anyway. Other examples of this same self-awareness – also from Valve – can be found in Portal 2, where, in an initial scene, the hapless AI Wheatley attempts to get the protagonist Chell to say “apple” in order to gauge her level of post-hibernation brain damage. The button that the player must press for “apple” is actually the jump button, which of course results in Chell jumping instead of talking and a running joke about Chell being mentally deranged (later on in the game, the villain GLaDOS refers to Chell as a “mute lunatic”).

The tension between a silent, blank template protagonist and a richly-told story in an FPS becomes even more significant given that, in my opinion, stories in games are best and most effectively told through a first-person perspective. The reason for this actually gets back at the reasoning behind the quote from Tom Bissell from the first post in this series: that interactivity sabotages storytelling. I took issue with this at the time, because I think it’s important to note that not all interactivity is created equal – or at least identical –  and not all immersion requires the same kind of interactivity.

What are the narrative benefits of an FPS (note: for the purposes of this discussion I’m discounting multiplayer/co-op, but that’s worth a post all on its own)? The most obvious one, to me, is pacing – when the story unfolds from a single fixed perspective, it’s easier to adhere to traditional narrative arcs, as well as easier to design gameplay that leads the single player on a relatively straight course through the action and story. Moreover, the actions of the player and the action unfolding in dialogue and cutscenes can be more easily brought into line with each other than they can in (for example) a sandbox game, since what a player is able to do at any given point in the game can be more easily constrained without detracting from the fun of the game itself. So it’s easier to construct both a consistent and evenly paced narrative, and a consistent protagonist – if you want to go as far as constructing a protagonist at all.

I should note at this point that third person games also work pretty much exactly like this; Enslaved: Odyssey to the West remains one of my favorite games, and a lot of that lies in the strength and pacing of its story (especially since the gameplay is a bit lackluster in parts). Infamous and Assassin’s Creed also spring to mind, as does the Tomb Raider franchise. The interesting difference lies, I think, in the ability of a third-person game to construct a fully realized protagonist who exists apart from the player – which has its obvious positives, but which I’ve also found to detract somewhat from both feelings of immersion and agency. When I’m playing a third-person game, I’m guiding the protagonist through the action… but I’m not really making things happen. I don’t feel as though the choices I’m making are really mine. It’s still a highly rewarding narrative experience when done well, but it feels more like watching a movie than roleplay.

But I want to get back to the question of choices and interactivity. Tom Bissell said that interactivity sabotages storytelling, but as I said above, I want to point out that there isn’t only one kind of interactivity. In his article on interactivity and narrative in games, Eric Zimmerman1 lays out multiple different “modes” of interactivity, all of which function differently in the context of a game. “Cognitive interactivity”, which is the mode that we normally associate with books, clearly works and works quite well, as anyone who has ever been utterly immersed in a text can attest to. “Explicit interactivity” involves action and choices, and is more the mode that we associate with games. I’d like to take this typology a step further and introduce the idea that one can have degrees of one or more modes of interactivity with any given medium – only one of which, “explicit interactivity”, can be determined by the creator of the medium in question. A sandbox game clearly allows for a high degree of explicit interactivity, in addition to the other modes. An FPS also allows for explicit interactivity, but it may allow for less; the path on which a player moves through the game may be highly constrained, with many “choices” not accompanied by any alternative options aside from simple inactivity (which frequently results in the death or failure of the protagonist and a halting point in the game). But while the FPS allows for a lesser degree of explicit interactivity, it allows for a more profound sensation of explicit interactivity because of the degree of immersion it includes – the player will ideally feel that they are doing things that matter a great deal to the game’s plot and narrative, which will also be more robustly constructed and powerfully paced – leading to a greater degree of cognitive interactivity. This sensation is increased when the player’s actions actually do have a functional impact on the course of the plot, as in “moral choice” games like Bioshock.

In short, it isn’t that interactivity is an enemy of narrative. It’s that different kinds and degrees of interactivity help or hinder certain kinds of storytelling.

For my money, very few game companies out there are doing this as well as Valve does. I’ve already mentioned that the Half Life games are probably my favorites of all time; my other favorites include Portal and its sequel, which – in addition to featuring some of the most creative and finely-crafted gameplay I’ve ever come across – also tell a rich story in a completely engrossing manner. The original Portal probably does this better than Portal 2, though the sequel is a very fine game in its own right; I still recall the feeling of going into Portal completely fresh, exploring the first few puzzle chambers, and then beginning to encounter the creeping sensation of loneliness and dread and wrongness that pervades the rest of the game. It’s one of the funniest and most joyful games I’ve ever played; it’s also one of the darkest and most emotionally disturbing. The joy is due to the gameplay and the level design, but the sheer emotional impact is due to the immersive power of the story and the skill with which the story is told.

The point is that it’s a total package – one isn’t sacrificed in favor of the other; done well, they work together to create something that shoots above and beyond the norm. Portal wouldn’t be Portal without its story. It needs its story. Fortunately its creators knew that.

But this leaves open a discussion of sandbox games, several of which have been incredibly ambitious when it comes to storytelling. Have these ambitions borne fruit? I think yes and no. I’ll talk more about this next weekend (assuming I don’t have to postpone again). See you then.

1 “Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline”. Pp 154-164 in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, published by MIT press, 2004.

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