Previous month:
July 2012
Next month:
September 2012

August 2012

Me, my avatar, and the space between

Wei shen

We often cite interactivity as the defining characteristic of narrative games. It’s what most clearly separates the medium from its storytelling brethren in Theater and Film. When the good folks at Naughty Dog want us to know what will make The Last of Us special, they say it will unfold like a playable movie. When David Cage talks about his forthcoming game Beyond: Two Souls, he cites the importance of the player controlling both the protagonist and the powerful specter that accompanies her.

Cinematic and dramaturgical influences on such games are obvious, but the presence of a controllable avatar distinguishes games from other media, regardless of how much (Mass Effect 3 - eight alternate endings) or little (Shadow of the Colossus - one definitive ending) the player actually impacts the story.

Manipulating a character with mad skills through a virtual world has never lost its charm for me, but these days I find myself less interested in rolling a character or navigating choose-your-own-adventure narrative trees. Lately I’m drawn to authored characters like Jackie Estacado (The Darkness), Cole Phelps (L.A. Noire), and, most recently, Wei Shen (Sleeping Dogs).

These games hand me a controller, but not full control. I maneuver constructed characters through game worlds, but never fully command them. I relate to them as avatars who respond to my base choices (walk, run, eat, sleep, fight, flee), but I never fully identify with them. I can’t subordinate them to my will, but I’m with them, and I often feel I am them . Wei Shen may do things I don’t like, but until I press “W” he does nothing at all. He essentially ceases to exist. When I give him life, he springs to action and operates by his own rules. Under such conditions, it’s worth asking who is controlling whom.

I’m drawn to these characters and their stories, but I’m more interested by the space between us. This unique space between player and avatar - often dissonant, sometimes disturbingly so - informs my experience playing these games and impacts that experience more subtly than simple interactivity might suggest.

Breaking-Bad-tv-53Protagonists with “issues” are all the rage, especially on TV. The four best dramas of the last decade - The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad - all feature deeply flawed central characters who sometimes do very bad things. It’s easy to observe that video games have yet to mine the depths of a Don Draper or a Walter White, but games are less equipped to explore characters in the ways serial dramas do.

What games can do is expose a layer of meaning that doesn’t exist in traditional media. This layer is generated by interactivity that implicates the player/viewer/actor in ways that extend beyond what’s possible in a sender-receiver relationship, ala film and television.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Early on in Sleeping Dogs, Wei Shen meets a beautiful Club hostess named Tiffany. She flirts with Wei, and the game offers the player a chance to sing karaoke with her.

As it does throughout, Sleeping Dogs communicates on several channels at once. In-game, Tiffany represents a means for Wei to infiltrate the Triad via the club’s VIP room. From a player perspective, she’s one of several “girlfriend options,” familiar to anyone who’s played GTA or other similar open-world games. And on a purely ludic level, Tiffany is the conduit to a karaoke mini-game the player may return to play any time.

All these functions trivialize Tiffany - as a minor plot device; as a "collectible”; as the key to an unlockable mini-game - and gamers who’ve met variations of Tiffany in GTA, Saints Row, etc. are unlikely to give her a second thought. Date her, have fun, get her number in your cell phone, and move on to the next girl and the next mission. This is what Wei Shen does in Sleeping Dogs.

Several hours and at least two girlfriend options later, Wei Shen meets a man named Calvin waiting for him outside his apartment. The man informs Wei that Tiffany has been cheating on him.

Calvin: I’ve got some bad news for you. You know Tiffany? From the club? She’s been stepping out. Seeing Longfinger Chau on the side.
Wei: What? There’s no way.
Calvin: Listen, man. I overheard her talking on the payphone outside her place. I guess she’s keeping him off her cell.

And so begins a mission called "Red-Handed Tiffany." The player must locate the payphone Tiffany has been using, bug the handset, and listen in on her conversation with another man. With proof in hand, Wei Shen segues to a mission called “Following Tiffany” and finally confronts her:

Wei: Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?
Tiffany: Oh! So the big Triad gangster is mad now? Only the big Triad gangster can sleep with other people?… You think you can fool around on me and I don’t care?
Wei: She didn’t mean anything to me. That was just part of work.
Tiffany: Work? You think I’m an idiot? You think you can go around jumping into other girls whenever you feel like it? Well, what’s good for yang is good for yin.
Wei: Okay, okay. Look, I’m sorry, alright? I never meant for you to get hurt.
Tiffany: Hah! Some excuse. So you going to dump her now? Stay loyal to me? Or do I have to go find another man to keep me warm?
Wei: Let me see what I can do.
Tiffany: You know… I thought you were different. I guess not. Goodbye. (She walks away)

Suddenly, “player” takes on unexpected connotations. Tiffany justifiably accuses Wei Shen (and me) of blithely playing the field while expecting her to be available whenever Wei (or I) wants to see her. Sleeping Dogs turns the tables on player and avatar. Watching Tiffany sadly walk away, I was struck by the hard reality that I was no less guilty of hypocrisy than Wei Shen. I sought other girlfriends when the options presented themselves, and I bugged the payphone, eager to test her fidelity.

But it doesn’t end there. Being an open world game, Sleeping Dogs lets me choose what happens next. In a virtual environment with no real-world consequences, I’m free to respond to Tiffany’s rejection of Wei/me any way I want, as is any player who completes the mission. Observe the behavior of this player (whom I don’t know) in the same situation. (Watch for 60 secs.)

Intriguing, eh? I want to know what went through this player's mind in the pivotal moment of decision. I want to know what made him consider it, and what made him stop.

This space between player and avatar (and more importantly, what emerges there) is rich with possibilities games have only begun to explore. Of course, it's possible for players to disengage from reflection or deliberation and simply blow through a game like Sleeping Dogs without thinking about ethics, narrative, or dissonance. If fact, maybe jettisoning those concerns is just another useful function of a sandbox game that doesn't insist on such deliberation to "beat the game."

But the Tiffany missions (and other parts of the game) suggest its developers targeted that space between me and Wei Shen, inviting reflection and even reconsideration of how narrative games provoke us to think, feel, and choose. It models a kind of interactivity that mingles opposites: control and chaos, resonance and dissonance. Perhaps the real success of Sleeping Dogs - unlike GTA IV or L.A. Noire - is that it makes that space a place I want to be.

Why we JRPG


Modern games deftly conceal their complexity. Developers apply extraordinary expertise rounding edges off the spiky systems that underlie most games. We routinely praise games like the Mass Effect and Civilization series for balancing depth and accessibility, offering players a degree of control that makes them feel powerful, but not overwhelmed. Games that fail to strike this balance are typically described as awkward, difficult, or vaguely “old-school.”

The problem with this design approach is that it tends to sacrifice a kind of complexity many of us value. Too often ‘accessible’ translates as ‘easier.’ Such an approach may offer a safe landing for new and casual players, but for those of us who recall a prior console era populated with more intricate titles, it can be hard to find the kind of satisfaction we used to feel playing mainstream console games.

That’s why many of us play JRPGs. Despite all the ways developers have conspired to kill the genre - the formulaic design rut, the narrative clichés, the calcification of once-innovative franchises - we continue to seek out these offbeat games, finding meaning in the experiences they deliver. Sometimes that meaning arrives via characters and storytelling - JRPGs have long explored narrative spaces ignored by other genres - but more often it comes through the systems at the core of an expertly designed JRPG.

A good JRPG (any well-designed RPG, for that matter) envelops a player in a unified ecosystem that weaves together rules, mechanics, and storytelling such that each informs the other in the player’s mind. In other words, everything should feel interconnected and deliver meaning in the sphere of the game. When I’m determining my tactics in a real-time battle, my position, buffs, skills, spells, inventory, etc. all factor into outcomes, constrained by the game’s rules. Nothing new here.

But a great game plugs me into a super-system that adds momentum, stakes, and narrative consequences to those actions. I make this move here and now, not simply because I judge it optimal, but also because the relationship I’ve cultivated with my battle partner has made this move possible.

I care on multiple levels at once. Yes, I want to know how the story comes out, but in the big picture that’s only a small part of what’s in it for me. I play JRPGs for essentially the same reasons my uncle tinkers with cars in his garage. It’s not about where you drive the car; it’s about making that motor purr the way you want.

    “If you can’t drive a stick shift, you don’t know how to drive.”
    –My uncle Larry teaching me to drive his truck, circa 1982.

StephSmallThe more a game exposes its systems to me, the more possibilities I see to fully invest myself in that experience. Many of these systems could be simplified or automated, but I often don’t want that. I like to lift the hood and work on the motor myself. I want to drive my own way and feel the engine propelling me.

This is what the best JRPGs do. They let us feel the power and responsiveness of their systems, and they give us fun-to-use tools to access those systems. Complexity is a welcome trait in a game that encourages me to skillfully exploit its systems. For many of us, this is the real allure of gaming across genres. It’s why assiduously avoiding “spoilers” has never really made sense to me.

Lest anyone doubt the possibility of a new JRPG doing all the things I’ve described, along comes Xenoblade Chronicles, the best pure RPG of this generation. Tom Chick calls it “a landmark achievement in the genre,” and he’s right. Better than any game I can think of, Xenoblade Chronicles embraces its systemic elements and enables players to leverage them in fun, consequential ways.

60+ hours in, the game continues to astonish me with its conciseness and vision. No grinding, no superfluous subplots, no drippy sentimentality. Director Tetsuya Takahashi has fashioned a JRPG that preserves what serious players love about the genre and jettisons the stuff JRPG detractors hate. By focusing on relationships (character to character, and characters to world) he has found a way to render narrative from a level-up system. More importantly, he has created a world that, literally, conveys the values his game explores.

Others have reviewed Xenoblade Chronicles more meticulously, and I encourage you to read them. If you decide to play the game, I’ll offer one bit of advice: grab the Dolphin emulator, rip the game from your Wii disc, and play it on your computer in HD bliss. Xenoblade is a beautiful game with a vast world that beckons you to explore it, but the Wii’s limited resolution does it no favors. Do yourself a favor and run it through Dolphin if you can. Xenoblade Chronicles deserves the best visual treatment you can give it. A community-driven HD retexture project is also underway.

Tomorrow another ambitious JRPG arrives in North America, conceived by another veteran designer: Hironobu Sakaguchi’s The Last Story. I look forward to my first peak under the hood.