Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Elder Scrolls: The best experiences are passed on by the survivors

People who don't live with me in an enclosed space may not be aware that Skyrim is only the fifth game in the Elder Scrolls franchise. Everyone remembers Oblivion, and I hope many of you at least remember Morrowind exists, but beyond that we're straying into Old School territory.

A brief history lesson, then: back before the world of Tamriel was inhabited by thousands of carefully-crafted NPCs  and exactly four voice actors, it was inhabited by tens of thousands of soundless cookie-cutter NPCs (Non-Player Characters - the video game version of extras) in a game called Arena. I first encountered Arena when I was a child, clutching a massive fifty Australian dollaridoos and searching desperately for something to fill the gaping void left by completing Ultima Underworld II. Arena looked a bit like Underworld 2, and cost exactly fifty bucks, so I bought it without any further consideration or research. Such is the serendipitous hubris of an 8-year-old consumer.

I'm not sure how close I was to puberty then, but the box art may also have had some impact on my decision.

The game had one feature which was as interesting as it was pointless: the various cities of Tamriel could be traveled to on-foot, but travel times were close to real-time. I tested it once, pointing my brave avatar at the nearest town and putting a brick on the mouse before going to bed. Sure enough, ten hours later I had overshot the town by some distance, but was still nowhere near the next. A truly open world, if by 'world' you mean 'recurring wilderness tileset with the odd generated inn or monster'.

This was to my small mind the beginning of the open-world genre, the significance of which was completely lost on me as I raced against my dad to be the first to assemble the Staff of Chaos and defeat Jagar Tharn, Imperial Battlemage slash antagonist. He'd kidnapped the Emperor (not Patrick Stewart, an earlier Emperor,) something about a ghost woman, and ultimately the same plot as every fantasy adventure ever. Those were simpler times, before gritty anti-heroes were necessary, before gaming's Brown Period, back when you could make the player move, look and fight in first person using only the mouse and not get laughed right out of game development forever.

Fallout 3: partly responsible for gaming's Brown Period.

I missed Daggerfall completely, and was significantly into my difficult teenage years when I got Morrowind. I thought I'd forgotten most of Arena until I got into it, swiftly recalling Dark Elves and those weird snake guys (Argonians) and the various other nuances which have become the hallmarks of the Elder Scrolls setting. Now I could wander the world between towns and there was actual content the entire way! And what content! The first time I ventured into the forest and it started to rain, I swear I could smell the rain falling around me. I got lost and staggered into another town what felt like four hours later (because it was four hours later) with one of my legs held on with a bit of twine and only a broken spoon left of my gear. The experience left me exhausted yet enervated, a rare achievement among even the best games.

The formative, powerful excitement I felt exploring these worlds was matched only by my mightily heaved yawn of disinterest upon playing Oblivion. The world felt like an empty shell stretched over the incoherent chaos of dungeons and NPCs generated on-the-fly. Like most, after I'd shut down my eighty-sixth Oblivion gate I put the game on the shelf and only took it down occasionally to frown at it in disappointment, or loan it to someone I didn't like. Whether this was a fair assessment of the game or not is beside the point - for me, the game failed to live up to Morrowind's high standard. Meanwhile, the world of Tamriel was still growing and developing as it had been since Arena, in ways I wouldn't fully appreciate until I journeyed to the frozen homeland of the Nords.

Shaping these to look vaguely like a vagina will only keep me entertained for so long, Bethesda.

It was while playing Skyrim that I became fascinated with the lore of The Elder Scrolls. I'd spend a fair chunk of time in Morrowind reading the various books scattered throughout the world, or discussing history with assorted NPCs. It was while reading A Brief History of the Empire during my travels in Skyrim that it gradually dawned on me that the history I was reading was also history from my own life. The tale of the brave adventurer assembling the Staff of Chaos and freeing the realm from Jagar Tharn? That wasn't just some story, that happened! It was me! I was there! Back when I was a little kid! It was like I'd opened up a copy of A History of the English Speaking Peoples only to be reminded I'd single-handedly won the Hundred Years War. I read on to learn also of my deeds fulfilling the Nerevarine Prophecy up north in Morrowind, and further about my vital role in ending the Oblivion Crisis (which sounded a lot more exciting than I remembered it). These tales fit seamlessly into the reams of history and folklore spun to shape the world of Tamriel, giving me a particular sense of connection to the setting the like of which I haven't experienced before or since.

Anything about me in there? No? Well, maybe next time.

My father read Lord of the Rings to me when I was a kid, and though it was a powerful experience to see that world realised in Peter Jackson's films, it was static; it was the same story I'd had read to me, only in a different (less effective) medium. The world of Tamriel, unlike Middle Earth, has grown and changed along with me. The dim memories I have of my childhood are of-a-kind with the dim, passed-down tales of Jagar Tharn's treachery, recent enough to be remembered, but distant enough for details to be lost. As much as cinematic games like Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption boast that their worlds “adapt and respond to the player's choices” while you play, The Elder Scrolls is a world built on deeds so long past they're barely remembered – except, of course, by those of us who were there.

While I'm sure this is far from a unique experience in the history of story-telling (I've heard people recount their experiences playing family sessions of Dungeons and Dragons throughout their childhood that sound similar), it is nevertheless an amazing feeling to see as an adult the realisation of a world that grew up alongside you. For all the collision physics and emergent events and grass realism and more than four voice actors, what will really stick with me about Skyrim will always be the time I opened a book of history and read a grand documentation of my own childhood experiences, seamlessly integrated into one of the most detailed settings to be found in a video game. The feeling is given a genuine-ness that can't be faked no matter how impressive a budget your production has, or how talented your developers are. It can only be created by the passage of time turning a child into an adult who has the privilege of experiencing first-hand a setting that has been developing almost as long as he has.

One nerd's gross pixelated mess is another nerd's gross pixelated childhood.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Papers, Please: Games as mental experiences

The Best Games are the ones that give you some approximation of an experience. There's endless talk of emotion in games, with 'realistic' emotional feedback replacing photorealism and even physics as the current pie in the sky of game development. Since LA Noir, motion capture voice acting has become increasingly expected from big titles that are even moderately reliant on dialogue exchanges.

I'm not going to loftily shit on this trend here, but what I will say is it misses what games should be striving for if they seriously want to put a flag down in the entertainment industry or art world. Films are great at showing people's faces moving while they have emotional interpersonal exchanges. Some films consist entirely of just that. As a result, despite being moderately interesting, LA Noir felt like a movie that'd keep stopping unless I pressed buttons to make it go again. This is a fairly shallow criticism of the game which has been made elsewhere, but rather than complaining it's a shit game I'd like to suggest it's a helpful indication that the True Strength of gaming may lie elsewhere; by generating experiences.

What I mean by 'experience' in a video game context is something that changes your mind state to more closely resemble the mind state of someone (or something) else, or an altered version of yourself. This is distinct from, for example, The Last Of Us' attempts to make the player care for Ellie. When Ellie was in danger I felt a real, palpable fear for her safety. That was a great achievement, but 'fear' is a fairly broad mind-state I'm already familiar with - scaring an audience is generally a pretty safe option. Though we may have moved on from 'things jumping at you' to 'things jumping at someone else you have some level of concern for', feeling scared for the safety of a loved one is an emotion most will easily be drawn into. Though this is somewhat new ground for video games, ultimately I was still 'an afraid 20-something straight white guy playing a video game'. That's the experience I was having - fear while using a PS3. I can file that away with 'excitement while using a PS3', 'boredom while using a PS3', and the most-common, 'despairing for the future of my species while using a PS3'.

Papers, Please crafts a very different sort of experience. By engaging with the game's simple mechanics to perform simple tasks, my very way of thinking began to change. I stopped seeing people as people, and instead saw them as a corrupt border official sees them - potential risks, potential rewards, potential punishments. They became a series of traits and facts that had to be sorted. I noticed after a few hours of play that I rarely even saw them as discrete entities any more; they were nothing more than height, weight, and hair colour. Their names didn't even register with me, I was merely comparing the letters on one document to the letters on another. If they matched, I did one thing; if they didn't, I did another. The simple graphics enhanced, rather than hampered, this experience. Refugees would tell me heart-rending tales which I would completely ignore because I was re-arranging my desk to be more efficient. I would pay no attention to things they told me unless they were essential to their processing, at which point I would refer to a transcript because that was faster than listening to them.

I didn't start out that way, of course. As with most games I started out with the best of intentions, but was open to being corrupted. This isn't my first rodeo, after all; I'm familiar with morality in games. Am I going to be a good border official, or an evil border official? But this isn't the kind of non-choice (looking at you here, every binary-morality RPG ever) Papers, Please presents to its players. You are a border official with a live family, or a dead family. "Fuck my family!" I decided on one playthrough, "I'm an evil border official." I opted to let my dead-weight family perish, and as a result, I was fired from my job because the State has no use for a worker who can't look after his family. Well, shit. Next time I was a Good Border Official, who was swiftly gaoled for trying to turn in a group of revolutionary partisans. The game continually undermines any assumptions you might try to form about good and evil. There are naughty and nice decisions to be made - the game bombards you with them - but they're rarely connected to consequences in a predictable way. This creates apprehension not of doing good or doing bad, but instead of violating The Rules. Sure, the status quo may slowly be starving your family to death, but to strike out and accept bribes could bring even swifter, more horrible consequences. Lofty transcendent ideals are painfully eroded in favour of 'what will keep me alive to come to work again tomorrow?'

These design choices leave you with a sensation of specifically bureaucratic powerlessness, the experience of being reified to a bunch of rules combining with pieces of paper. The drudgery of your work carries an ever-growing feeling of desperation as you struggle, and the desperation of others is increasingly swept aside by your own concerns. While I started out sympathetic to the frustrations of these sorry people as they strove to deal with a bureaucratic nightmare, after a couple of in-game weeks those who cracked under the strain and simply refused to leave the border house were an unforgivable cause of lost wages. I couldn't sic the guards on them fast enough, and as they were dragged off to whatever horrible gulag I condemned them to, all I could think of was getting the next 5 credits into the hut so I could feed my family.

This is what I mean by 'creating an experience'. I was, emotionally, fairly flat while playing Papers - at least compared to the edge-of-my-seat nervous wreck I am after a few hours of Last Of Us, or the strung-out ball of tired confusion I was after Spec Ops: The Line. Papers doesn't trade in emotions, it renders them meaningless. It makes you care about paper more than people, about a few minutes saved time over a life extinguished by firing squad. Desperate people plead for a little leeway, just look the other way this once, and you dismiss them utterly and in the most callous fashion. They accuse you of being a power-mad thug of the State, but you feel completely powerless. You actually start to resent them for being unable to understand things from your perspective - the structure of the work itself forces you to be alienated from your fellow man. Even if you could explain to them that if you don't make 40 credits today your niece will disappear forever into the state orphanage system, would that somehow outweigh the needs of their own family? It's hopeless, and that feeling of hopelessness is more profound than 1000 jump-scares, and is created without a second of motion capture.

This is where games set themselves apart from existing media. A film or book can make you empathise with a tired border official, a show like Breaking Bad can make you identify with the worst villains, but only a game can force you to think like one of these characters. You don't struggle to put yourself in their position, you struggle to get yourself out of it, as most people in such a position probably would. This is where the flash and pizzazz of Generic War Simulators fails to be interesting time and again - they're just a bad action movie where you have to press buttons to make the protagonist win. It doesn't tell you anything about war, it doesn't put you in the boots of a soldier, it doesn't give you anything of the experience of combat or even just general danger. Not every game has to attempt to engage their audience this way, but the ones that don't limit themselves to being imitations of other media's strengths.

Papers, Please very smoothly and cleverly offers something games excel at: experience. As someone with more than my fair share of awful bureaucratic encounters, it was enriching to experience first-hand the tense drudgery and combination of boredom & attention to detail required for this kind of work. It was also a welcome reminder of what games are capable of when crafted by clever people with vision, rather than by marketing departments with profit projections and too many lines of coke. Papers, Please knows what games are good at and seeks to utilise those strengths to create something that is unique: simulated first-hand experience. I'm not being hyperbolic when I say I'll never view the assholes who process my welfare applications in the same way ever again.