The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

“Give me a hand…”

I don’t have the time anymore to sink into playing million-dollar blockbuster videogames, but occasionally I’ll watch other people play, as recorded on YouTube. It’s fascinating to see and hear people reacting to things happening onscreen. The closest thing that we had to this before the Internet were DVD-commentary-tracks, and while those have an appealing sense of authority and finality in a director-driven industry, player-commentary Youtube videos are actually perfect for games. What better way to represent games as systems, where all kinds of things can happen depending on what players do, than having hundreds of videos by players taking hundreds of different paths?

This morning I watched James Howell’s multi-part commentary on The Last of Us:

The Last of Us is by Naughty Dog, known for crafting expensive, well-written games that are as fun to watch as they are to play. (Their previous games include a trilogy of treasure-hunting adventures that feel like extended Indiana-Jones movies.) Unlike their earlier work, though, The Last of Us is set in a post-apocalpytic world with zombies, and notably focuses on cooperating with characters the player gets stuck with. This means moving through levels and solving puzzles together, boosting each other up to high ledges, and carrying around planks of wood to span wide gaps.

It’s not particularly ground-breaking or challenging as gameplay, but James argues that these basic actions are used over and over again as a vocabulary for talking about trust. Over the course of the game, the main character Joel has to work with a cast of characters, who he (dis)trusts on varying levels – and it’s expressed in gameplay as he lets some help him and tells others to just stay put.

There’s a whole set of variations, though – it foreshadows betrayal when someone accidentally drops Joel while pulling him up to a ledge, it shows distance and tension when characters forget to boost each other up, and when an initially distrustful pair begins to show cohesion and teamwork as they open gates together and fend off zombie attacks off one another, it’s a glorious feeling.

Characterization by systems! Storytelling in interactivity! There’s so much space to explore here.

Having a vocabulary to explore this in all its subtleties is amazing for another reason, too – I point to Tim’s post about journalism dynamics as Batman vs the Justice League – because many of us don’t know how to talk about freelancing on our own, or being part of a loose collective or even an institution. What does dysfunction feel like? How can you recognize it? It’s hard to spot the warning signs unless you’ve gone through it (and have the battle scars to match). But in these systems of interactivity, between the zombies and the shooting, are safe zones from which to look at and play with this stuff.

9 comments

Argh. The Last of Us is one of many games from this year that I need to play and haven’t yet. (I’m in Tomb Raider right now, and I haven’t even picked up Grand Theft Auto, and yeah.)

But I love the idea of actual cooperative actions with NPCs in a game. It feels like finally, finally we’re getting to a stage in game design that’s more than just competitive/oppositional play. Maybe we’re finally getting to a point where all that processing power we’re able to muster will go toward tasks other than simply processing as many graphical polygons as possible. It can’t come too soon.

Yes! I remember being floored by how the former makers of shooty-blasty-Halo openly name-dropped Journey in making seamless, expressive cooperative play – which is exciting for games but just as exciting for anyone working in online communities.

Nav says…

Love: YouTube as meta-structure for encompassing all the possibilities of open-ended interactive narratives! Such a cool idea. Also love: interactive systems as grammar or vocabulary. Also so cool! I know when we study poetry we often talk about cadence and tone, or sound and emotion (staccato syllables, hard k’s, sibilance etc) – I wonder if we might start to think about the pace of button presses or the ‘flow of motion’ in how you move your hands on a controller as another analytic tool to think through games.

Suggestion: the developer commentaries on Half Life 2 and Portal are sooooo good. One moment that particularly sticks out is how the developers talk about guiding the player’s vision to a bridge across which the Combine are travelling. It both articulates how interactive narratives are crafted, but also how you indirectly build atmosphere (which personally is my favourite in games).

Nav: Totally! So much of modern 3D game design is the language of spaces and movement — and Valve really does a great job of making a lot of that process visible. How do you let the player know where to go? How do you tell a story using set decoration and a player’s progress through a level? [How do you try to make cutscenes, which remove movement control from the player, as non-obtrusive as possible? How do you, if you’re Valve, do away with cutscenes as much as possible?]

It’s a totally different storytelling world, and for all that people tend to talk about film in reference to games, it has much more in common with directing the cinematographer — that is, making the film, being the camera — than it possibly could with sitting in the audience.

(!!) The “pace of button presses” thing sounds like an amazing graph waiting to happen, comparing across games but also within gamers.

So far the the most success I’ve seen in video game narrative has to do with “disguising the rails” – those moments when it feels as though the world of possibility yawns chasm-like in front of you, but you choose the thing which seems most expedient or efficacious and – surprise! – it works. Of course it turns out that’s the only thing you could have done. It seems to work best when you’re in a panic, and your more predictable hindbrain is at the controls.

But it’s very difficult to make any overarching narrative which isn’t, at the core, a Choose Your Own Adventure. Have there been any games which successfully worked more complex and independent “Sims”-like behavior into a narrative arc in a non-superficial way?

Oh man, I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot lately. I remember this keynote by Druckmann (one of the two creative leads of the Naughty Dog A team) where he talks about this interactive-as-storytelling component that’s absent from most games: http://youtu.be/Le6qIz7MjSk

He talks about removing cutscenes and just letting people experience the story in motion – which is super hard to get right as a designer – but it’s more worthwhile and effective in the long run.

Wow, this is fantastic!

I’m not totally, totally ready to give up on cutscenes, but there’s a big difference for me between something like Bioware’s “cutscenes” with branching conversation/interaction prompts and quicktime action interrupts, and something like Final Fantasy (or even Metal Gear Solid?) where once one of those bad boys starts up you just put down your controller and think about getting a sandwich.

That is, cutscenes can be great as a supplement to narrative in-a-space, but most especially when they remain playable in some fashion.

I mean, The Walking Dead is basically one big interactive cutscene with occasional walking around interruptions. And The Walking Dead is fantastic.

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