Thursday, October 11, 2012

Challenges, Breakthroughs, and Observations in Games as Literature

Hey there, Hi there, Ho there, Internet, today I'm pretending to be that one Simpsons character everyone was supposed to dislike but kind of grew fond of anyways for some reason.*

*Tom's exposure to The Simpsons is minimal at best and he has almost no clue what he's talking about.

So for the last few weeks, in my lifetime pursuit of learning Old English, I've been writing all my notes in the fu├żorc rune set, though only as a direct substitution, not a full translation (New letters, same words). Mostly I just want to get familiar enough with the characters so I can start reading and then that's another hurdle taken care of. So far things are going better than expected and I'm really starting to get a handle on some of the odder ones (Like F, F, and O, o, which give me no end of trouble for some reason). As a direct side-effect of course, this means that all my spirals are starting to look like this:

You can only imagine the kind of looks and questions I've been getting from the people who sit next to me.

Not content to be only really esoteric, I've also been mildly obsessed over this painting for the last three or four days

Painted by the almost-unfortunately-named Kees von Dongen in 1919, it's a very stylized portrait of a flapper, complete with gaudy makeup and thick-as-mud eyeliner, presumably after a night of hard partying based on her overcoat, slouch, and bored/tired posture. For any art snobs that might pass by, I am totally aware that this is actually kind of a very popular piece to the point where me saying I like it is kind of like someone saying they just discovered this awesome band called "[Insert Popular Band]" (indeed, when I saw it last week I realized I'd seen it before, somewhere else) but whatever, I'm a sucker for big eyes.

What? Oh right, Topic this week.

Challenges, Breakthroughs, and Observations in Games as Literature

It's a weird thing, telling people that you're trying to specialize the focus of your study into the storytelling of video games. Some people don't believe me or else don't believe that my chosen direction could have any merit at all, this usually happens when the predominant experience tends to be limited to Mario and Call of Duty. Some people, most people, are generally supportive but don't have a clue what to do with the information; they're not sure what a normal literature major does all the time, what in the name of Jesus does a lit major who studies games do? Sometimes though, very rarely, I'll come across someone interested in game design or with a collection of retro games they've really dived into and it's those random, unlikely encounters that usually result in some of the best conversations. It's unfortunately uncommon for me to be able to have a frank, informed discussion about things like Mechanics-as-Metaphor and the power (and pitfalls) of choice, especially in academia which is doubly unfortunate because that's the perfect place for it. That's kind of why I latch on to webshows like Extra Credits, they give me stuff to think about insofar as game narrative and design and I can, and regularly do, use them as a sort of jumping-off point for my own personal investigations. The effect is kind of like one of the chipmunks teaching a college-level course but hey, it works. 

He may seem a bit stiff now but Professor Chipmunk was a real party animal in his college days. I immediately felt bad for telling that joke.
One interesting discovery I've had was actually hiding in plain sight; play old games. Seriously, it's not just for feeling smug about having played the "Classics" while your friends boot up Super Smash Bros anymore, Games as old as, say, the N64 backwards were necessarily simpler in their design. They had to be, the very real problem of limited storage space and processing power combined with the lack of any sort of larger gamer lexicon like we have today ( The concept of 'leveling up' for instance) meant that game designers needed to keep things relatively simple in order to convey gameplay concepts as quickly and efficiently as possible. The original Super Mario Bros. for instance had no kind of introductory narrative besides maybe what you could glean from the box art (Run into walls! possibly shoot fireballs!) and, if you had one, whatever they could fit into the game manual (again, if you had one, which I normally did not), and that's if you even decided to read it. So let's take a look at the very first screen of gameplay in Super Mario Bros:

The bushes are just recolored clouds, by the way. Took me like fifteen years to realize this.
Pretty sparse, right? You've got some basic UI elements, some scenery, but really nothing else. Boooooorrriiiiiing. Note however that you start all the way on the left side, Mario is facing right and the right side of the screen is more densely populated with stuff, this is the game literally pointing you in the right direction through it's design; it compels you to move forward because obviously that's where the interesting stuff is. 

So let's move right a little bit:


So you move right, you go exploring, and suddenly you've got two or three new concepts thrown at you at once. The first thing that'll catch your eye is the glowing '?' blocks because, well, they're glowing and pretty and animated. Before you can try to figure out what those are though, you'll notice that the angry mushroom is coming right at you like some crazy fool with nothing to lose and you have a split-second decision to make which, ideally, results in you jumping on his head and getting points (Yay!) 

Now we've established that jumping is a thing you can do and a thing you're rewarded for, so maybe we can use it to get at whatever's in those ? blocks? You try jumping on them and nothing happens, though the view from up here is fantastic. After some more spastic jumping you discover that hitting them from underneath will get you more coins and so more points (Yay!)

Then something unexpected happens.

Note that the original Mario Mushrooms were yellow and red, not red and white like we see today.  Not sure why they changed it except to make it look more like a real mushroom

Another Mushroom? What the hell is that? The last one tried to kill me but this one's moving away so...I guess chase it?

When you hit that ? block a mushroom pops out and then suddenly it's another split-second action in the works because if you're not careful, this new thing, whatever it is, might get away before you can jump on it! When it appears, it's also moving to the right, reinforcing that right is the direction you're supposed to be going. Because it came from the same container your points came from, it's a safe assumption that it probably won't kill you (probably) so of course, you chase it down, resulting in:

Go ahead, play the sound
Whoa! Now I'm big!

You grow in size, can break the brick blocks (which are actually innocent civilians  by the way) and can get hit one extra time without dying in addition to getting 1000 points, 10 times what any puny coin was ever worth! So definitely pick those up, pick all of those up whenever possible. Let's go right until we have ALL the points!

Now you know how to play Super Mario Bros. and it only took five seconds.

And this process isn't restricted to early-era Nintendo games, either; it can be repeated with any number of classic games with similar results, be it Megaman, Castlevainia, Karnov, or what have you. It's especially useful when done on poorly designed games, picking out the things they should have done and didn't do which tends to be much easier than identifying what they did right, especially with today's games which are getting better and better at blending mechanics in seamlessly. 

So I've been doing a lot of that recently and learning a lot in the process and in that process I've hit a sort of speed bump. If you expect to do anything important with these sorts of findings, you're expected to write an essay, study, dissertation, what-have-you and in this work you're expected to cite your source using MLA format. In books this is simple; page number, maybe line number if it's a poem. In movies just use the timestamp. In games...there really isn't a good, universal metric between them. There simply isn't an MLA format for citing games. How do I cite games? I could do it by stage, it would almost work for games with a discrete level structure like Mario and Megaman but that would definitely break down in games with longer levels or levels where lots of stuff happened. What about games without levels like Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls? You could do it by mission/quest, I suppose but there's a lot, a lot of content in both of those series that isn't connected to any sort of quest or mission. The best solution I've come up with so far is to record an 'Ideal' playthrough, that is where I already know where everything is, just going through the motions, but that would be massively time and resource consuming (recording game footage takes up a LOT of space) and that would be compounded by games with multiple endings or methods of play. Recent release and contemporary owner of approximately 35% of all of my current want, Dishonored, for instance, has two versions of every mission (high and low chaos), each of which can be played in a variety of different ways. As it is, it's essentially impossible to cite down to the moment because moments happen at different times in games. In Mario it can take me five seconds to discover that mushroom or thirty minutes (I don't think the timer actually lasts that long, but still.)

It's a real problem I'm facing and one I look forward to seeing solved as more scholarly articles about games get published from roundabouts. 

Oh, also, this has nothing to do with the topic of video games as literature but dude, check out this Dunmer cosplay:

That there is some finely crafted, custom made Nightingale armor+bow. There is no way that shit didn't cost at least an infinity dollars and half a zillion mer-hours to create. As a point of comparison, here's the in-game model:

The attention to detail is absolutely flooring, I think they actually managed to make it look better than it does in the game. 

Okay, I'm done now, I promise.

One last thing before we wrap up, lemme talk briefly about a really neat trend I've been seeing in games recently (the last five years or so). There's a longstanding idea in Literature that no interpretation of a work is invalid so long as you can find enough evidence to support it. This is how we got things like the Ferris Bueller Fight Club Theory and the notion that some books aren't at all about what they're about.The key word there is 'interpret.' That is, these things are up to interpretation and while logical not necessarily concrete, they're mutable, movable, changeable, formable, combinable, as all interpretations tend to be. Games have been focused for so long on how best to tell players things, evolving from "Not at all" to "Front-loaded tutorial" and now finally to something approaching "Not crap" that we haven't always done a lot of that, especially on the narrative side. Actually, that's being too nice; games have a very bad habit of presenting almost everything at face value or, at the very most, occasionally hiding maybe an extra detail in there in the form of something obvious like a scar, a piece of jewlery, or something else nearing cliche levels. 

There are, however, a few gems out there which not only allow for interpretation, but sometimes require it to just make any sense of the story. Specifically one game I'm thinking of is Lone Survivor, a game which takes such perverse joy in fucking with the player that I am almost constantly questioning what is real while playing through it. Is the player character real? Are the monsters real? Are we insane? If I'm the lone survivor, then who are all these other people? Is the man with the cardboard box on his head a reference?

Is Boxhead the new Pyramid Head? I'll let you decide, Internet. 

The thing is though, it's not that there's an information blackout, really, it's that all the information you get seems disconnected, even contradictory at times and you have to make sense of it, sorting what is probably real from what is probably a hallucination and even the standard rule of "Hallucinations can't hurt you" doesn't apply here because...well, dying doesn't work in Lone Survivor like it does in most games. The game doesn't necessarily require you to interpret it but it certainly strongly invites you to in the sort of passive-aggressive way as if to imply that no one's going to have fun if you don't. It's a box of secrets that wants to be solved and that is really really engaging especially since I have a sneaking suspicion that I still won't have all the answers when I finish the game.

Like I said though, this is part of a trend. Back all the way up to say 2005, games that invited intellectual interpretation were...thin on the ground to say the least. You'd get the occasional masterpiece like Shadow of the Colossus but these were far and few between, often considered niche oddities. In the last five years though we've had Lone Survivor, Bastion, Spec Ops: The Line, Metro 2033, Both Portal games, and a smattering of others that try a little harder in the story department. They're usually Indie Fare which means that they're often passion projects; works of narrative that the creator or creators had a strong emotional connection with and so worked hard to translate into game form. 

I, for one, am intensely excited to see this trend keep growing and keep giving the game industry more things to discuss and me more narratives to dissect. With Spec Ops It's even starting to breach the Triple-A barrier, though that wasn't exactly what I'd call "Successful" financially. 

I used the italics feature a lot in the last three paragraphs. Just an observation.

Anyways, that's all I've got to say about games and Literature at the moment, look forward to more of these posts and perhaps more breakdowns of games as I continue my journey through Retroland!

Thank you, goodnight.

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