Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Of dialog wheels and player-characterization

As part of the run-up and subsequent write-up of my talk on Mass Effect, I've been doing a lot of thinking on the relationship between gaming, narrative, and the status of the "player character." I just read a great post by Greg Rucka on Mass Effect 2, and it hits on so much of what I've been mulling over, and what's currently keeping the Mass Effect series from jumping the barrier between an excellent game and a great work.

First, consider the dialog-wheel. The dialog system is not just a handy way to handle choice structures on an xbox controller, it also expands your storytelling capacity. By selecting only the general gist of your response, and letting your fully voiced Shepard speak for him/herself, you get much more immersive conversations. Longer speeches and exchanges can be made, Shepard can reveal details about the world or his/her background that the player wasn't party to, or shoot an uncooperative criminal in the face. (It makes it a lot easier to be a jerk, as well.) You cede some of your direct control over the character in order to create a more interesting experience. So, while you can decide some of the parameters of Shepard's backstory and psych profile, and you can make the decisions that Shepard takes, there's a slight remove between you and "your" Shepard.

But, and this is what Rucka's analysis really brings out, once you cede any amount of control to the designer/storyteller "the onus is on the storyteller and not the player to fulfill the demands of the character’s journey." And I wish they did more towards that end. Shepard is, perhaps necessarily, the least-defined member of the Normandy's crew. Lots of people will have lots of impressions of what their Shepard will say and do. What the voice actors do is already amazing if you think about all the different variables they're juggling. So I can understand the lack of customized dialog for and reacting to the different choices and personalities you make. But that's not an excuse.

 Mass Effect drives me up the theoretical wall because there are so many things it does so well, it makes us wish it could do the rest, and finally give us something that we could put up on the mantelpiece and point to when asked about why we game. It raises so much potential, so many possibilities, sets our minds racing about the possible ethical quandaries we could be faced with until we realize sadly that, no, the game doesn't actually figure that in. A lot of issues that initially seemed very important were basically hand-waved once you're given a ship and bad guys to point it at. You get precious few chances to express what's really going on with your character.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Academic Flashback: Lovecraftian Media Theory

I didn't read a lot of "respectable" literature when I was younger, but I read a ton of mindbending science-fiction. The short stories of Philip K. Dick were a favorite in high school, and I started reading H.P. Lovecraft in eighth grade. I feel that labeling something with a genre is a lazy way to ignore a work's literary merits; I maintain that Kurt Vonnegut, William S. Burroughs, and certain works of Thomas Pynchon belong on Sci-Fi bookshelves. Looking back, I may try a little too hard to bring respectability to the things I loved, but who doesn't?

This essay was published in the most recent Monochrom anthology, and was the first thing I sent them after meeting them in 2007, a slightly modified version of a final paper for a media theory class with Thomas Y. Levin. Unfortunately, it's formatted in the book as a sort of fake-handwriting on crumpled paper, making it nigh-unreadable.  A couple of people had asked me to put this up after hearing I had written about media in Lovecraft's stories, so I figured I'd put it up here. It's a bit long for blog-reading, but if you're willing to wade through the academese, there's a couple of decent insights here and there...

Imperfect Vessels: The Treatment of Media in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cosmic Horror
“Kittler's book[Gramophone, Film, Typewriter] is great. I consider it a branch of occult media studies, or at least weird media studies, in the sense that I feel like if H.P. Lovecraft were writing media theory, he'd come up with something like this…”
    --found among the Microsound mailing list archives, Feb 6th, 2003

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Games and Learning, part 1

The late 1980s computer game Hidden Agenda at first glance, doesn't seem very interesting. The graphics are archaic by modern standards, the interface often confusing. The game always ends after a set amount of time.Yet within all those constraints lies a fascinating, endlessly replayable game. The basics of the story is thus: You are the president of a post-revolutionary Latin American country, that had just overthrown an unpopular dictator through a broad-front effort. Now, the task is to create a new order that balances the economic and political demands of the many domestic and foreign powers you are beholden to, without letting the country fall into civil war or worse, losing power. As you make difficult decisions, you often find your actions misrepresented by foreign press and your enemies bankrolled by one or the other Cold War powers. You often find your ambitious  farming co-ops ravaged by your own army. You will likely face at least one coup attempt during your term. Being re-elected is an ambiguous victory, since it often requires rigging the democracy you're trying to establish.

Hidden Agenda is a great game because it teaches players about the (regrettably limited) decision-space of Latin American leaders during the Cold War, not by lecturing them about their Anglo pretensions, but by letting them take on the role themselves. In fact, Foreign Service Officers from the US were sometimes asked to play the game before rotating to Latin America, to better understand the people they were working with. I don't think enough ostensibly "educational" games make use of this approach.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

I'm Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite blog on the Citadel.

Today at around 3pm in San Francisco I'm speaking on the issue of romance in narrative games; specifically, interspecies romance in the Mass Effect series. Yes, it's kind of a weird topic. But if it weren't, it would be out of place at Arse Elektronika, Monochrom's crazy celebration of sex, technology, and all the intersections thereof. This year's topic being "Space Racy," it seemed like the perfect topic. Mass Effect not only takes place out there in space, but games can best be understood critically as reactive spaces for action. There's some really interesting stuff in how Bioware constructs its romances, especially in Mass Effect 2. There's a lot to unpack, but hopefully I can cover it all in 45 minutes.

Anyway, if you're in the area, AE's "conference for brainy pervs" is happening at Parisoma, ostensibly at 3 but possibly later (people tend to run over time.)