Up, Down, Left, Right – Volume Two Preview

And now for something completely different.

I’ve already worked on one slice of the action to get you hungry for the full thing.

Note: Most of the formatting has been removed converting to HTML but the full thing will support HDMI, 1080p and all the delicious formatting perfectionism that you’re used to from me.

1.1 BLANK SLATES

“Game designers think that players can project themselves onto empty shell characters. I think this is a huge mistake.”– David Cage (Director of Heavy Rain, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy)

Video-games are the only interactive medium to ever grace the world. They just so happen to be filled with designers who think that interactivity itself is a problem and that we should all aspire to be more ‘cinematic’. David Cage created a video-game that felt like lightning in a bottle but in retrospect turned out to be one of the biggest game design mistakes of the 21st century. Unfortunately, the game press went wild and it seemed the whole community agreed that it was a great game.

 

The problem I have with Heavy Rain is that is doesn’t empathize with the player or allow him to care in the slightest. It asks you to care then force feeds you character relationships which should serve as your narrative motivation. More important, it doesn’t respect your interactivity. The choices you take and the characters you grown into don’t matter in the end because David Cage wanted to tell you a story whether you liked it or not. For example, one of the characters you play is Scott Shelby and he just so happens to be the Origami Killer. For the whole of the game you’re given moral choices on how to approach situations and you’re allowed to read your character’s thoughts for guidance.

 

Except Scott never ever thinks about the murdering he’s done or the vile crimes he’s committed. This feels way too lazy and it’s hammered home by some selfish design later on when you investigate a typewriter repair shop and the camera cuts away for a second before coming back to show a murdered bloke. The game takes away your control so it can, forgive the language, bullshit you into believing that you actually have control over Scott’s character.

 

Heavy Rain is a flawed, flawed game right from its plot-hole ridden story, poor character development and absolutely reckless disregard for the player. It comes to the point where the player pretty much has nothing to do but push buttons and listen to terrible voice acting enact the terrible script. This is not a video-game but rather something aspiring to be a video-game. David Cage himself said he takes pride in reaching a “cinematic level of narrative” as if we weren’t capable of that already or perhaps we’re below the cinematic level. He sets us back years of storytelling development all to tell a terrible story.

 

All of these problems come inherent when you shove the player into a pre-determined character who already has relationships and motives and things he cares about. It’s hard to identify with this in a game such as Red Dead Redemption when the game asks you to care about your cowboy’s family and he’s doing it for the “Love of his wife” when you don’t even find out your wife’s name until half-way through the game.

 

Blank slates are player characters that are usually voiceless and have no tied elements that restrict the player’s identity. They allow the player to project his mindset and self upon the player protagonist and act in this world as if it were his own. A lot, and I do mean a lot, of people don’t like this they think it’s lazy writing or it’s just lazy design. What happens instead is that people fail to understand why games such as Half-Life 2 and BioShock are so immensely powerful – because they’re personal – and this lack of understanding leads to the direction the industry is headed in.

 

Far Cry 2 was a game about you. It was about finding your own way in the world, planning emergently and taking the time to actually think about complex morality. Playing it on a permanent death runthrough, you die then you restart the whole game, allows you to question the rules of the game further. It makes you double-take with your thoughts and the lack of a voice and personality allows players to immerse themselves into this world and the characters around it. Far Cry 2 is about being stuck on an island and trying to rescue ‘your girlfriend’. The problem here is that we’re asked to care about characters that we don’t know.

 

Blank slates found in Half-Life 2, New Vegas, BioShock and many others allow players to ease into the world and act out on their own interests rather than (for example) David Cage’s. A lot of people think New Vegas isn’t a blank slate example given it calls you a Courier and throws amnesia in your face and never tells you exactly who you are. That’s a good thing, it means the player himself is the character and he creates the legacy and not the designer who lays it all out and points at the player and says “This is who you are!” because self-definition is more important than having to be labeled, introspection is more powerful than retrospection with pre-determined elements.

 

Another problem people have with the game is that because we never find out who we are then the story itself suffers for it. This is completely wrong as there’s no need to find out who the player character is, he is a vessel to carry us. The same people argue he isn’t a blank slate given it already gives you a life; you were already a Courier, you had a day job and the guy already has a history. That somehow we should care about all this stuff when the game’s story revolves around the player finding his place in the world.

 

Who else had a defined backstory and a day job?

 

Gordon Freeman.

 

He’s been voted the best protagonist of all time and yet he carries no personality. He has a PhD and once had a day job. We know next to nothing about his personal life other than the place he worked in was alright. With New Vegas we actually get to talk to the Courier’s Office folk and learn little tidbits to cure those questions we had earlier but they’re never the focused. Blank slates need a reason to exist, you just can’t drop a character out of the sky, he needs small effects to bring him or her to life so that we may take the reins.

 

People often argue that taking away a player’s voice is going against their interactivity or is just lazy writing. I disagree. Games such as Mass Effect and New Vegas let the player choice what he wants to see while Half-Life 2 and BioShock employ the lack of voice to tell a story. Half-Life 2 removes the voice so the player can feel totally immersed in this world and, as we’ll discuss further in this book, helps Valve re-enforce the themes of slavery through ironic non-interactivity. BioShock actually does something I completely support.

 

I don’t hate characters with voices, I hate characters that are designed to have more of a voice in the narrative or just the general game than me. Cole Phelps is a prime example because in LA Noire the interrogation room (which should be a massive compelling mechanic) is boiled down to three vague dialogue choices. When it works, which isn’t often, it’s chilling and shows what we’re capable of but when it gets ugly it’s because you don’t know what Cole will say. There’s no line of preview or anything to help you when, literally, you end up falsely calling out a grieving widow and accusing her of murdering her husband.

 

BioShock does something different, it eases you into a character with a voice. As you assimilate powers and take in the lore of Rapture and the hell of it all, you become Rapture. The narrative reflects this in its mind-blowing set-piece of a plot twist and, like Half-Life 2, it allows Irrational to re-enforce ideas of non-interactivity. You ease yourself into a pre-determined characters life and it feels so right. The whole ‘voice’ thing doesn’t become literal, but it does in BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den one of the DLC add-ons for a game that made tremendous mistakes (more on that later).

 

The problem is that the community and game developers think that blank slates are poisonous or that players can’t be trusted or that they’re just poor excuses for lazy design. This is completely irrational thinking and it goes against our progression into an industry full of design quirks from talking guys to non-talking guys. I don’t prefer either but I do have respect for both and saying that blank slates do not offer players the chance to express themselves without a player character’s story and relationships getting in the way is completely unfounded.

 

Speaking characters who talks for us rather than for themselves are rare but they work wonderfully. Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, Assassin Creed’s Ezio and even LA Noire’s Cole Phelps from time to time are all good examples of great pre-determined characters that do not abuse interactivity. This doesn’t suggest that the opposite is wrong, this is a medium after all and all means of storytelling are welcome.

 

I say to David Cage that if you think it’s a mistake that we can’t project ourselves on to empty shell characters, then you’ve already been proven wrong but hundreds of stories. Half-Life 2, New Vegas, Fallout 3, Metro 2033, BioShock, BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den, Dead Space, Far Cry 2, Mass Effect 1 & 2 and the Call of Duty series use blank slates to their full potential. They immerse us in the world, carry our choices with higher regard than our player character’s and allow us the explore the world and characters on our own terms rather than on someone elses.

 

Simply put, when done right, blank slate characters can allow for the ultimate in interactivity. So can player characters with already set goals and history, but only when they employ empathy with the player’s place in the world and allow him to lock arms with the player character rather than stand on the sidelines and watch as the guy/gal goes through the narrative with little effect carrying into the player. Games are not an escapist medium like films or literature, they are an expression between player and designer and blank slates can help ease the pain of that relationship.

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