Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

Reality in gaming (a short version)

Posted by flagg49 on June 27, 2009

This is a quick, irritated response that may grow in the future. It’s about how realistic games need to be. Not in the sense of verisimilitude–mimesis, seeming like life, whatever–but a much more limited question. How much work do games need to do in telling us a backstory that sounds believable? Another way of putting the question: how much do game stories have to be realistic and interesting on their own terms, and how much can they punt and tacitly admit to being excuses for gameplay and other content?

It’s commonly accepted that game stories have to be at least a little believable. Maybe the most usual complaint in game reviewing is a version of the “this story is a genre cliche” objection. We’ve all seen, at this late date, enough lone heroes fighting a barely-described corporation or government. God save us from labs where scientists have gone too far and created some kind of monster that only an fps hero with a shotgun can kill. Or protagonists who have lost their memories. Or crime bosses who want us to prove our worth by stealing something. Etcetera.

These show up in games all the time because they’re ready to hand. You don’t have to work to explain them to your player, and very often they fit a gameplay mechanic well. How to justify the presence of a berserk-seeming opponent in an fps? Or any of the variety of fetch-quests whose rhythmic appearance is the basic pulse of almost every rpg today? Story cliches are familiar solutions that have worked to justify popular gameplay styles.

You can object to them because they’re uncreative. And you can most often justify them, if you’re a designer, or just someone who happened to like the game anyway, by saying that creativity in justification doesn’t really matter. Games ask to be evaluated in terms of the innovation or proficiency of their gameplay. See Tom’s post below re Crackdown.

All this was stirred up by this Red Faction review, which got my goat and got me thinking.

Disclaimer: I loved Red Faction, having obsessively whittled away at its single player for evenings on end until I achieved full completion, all side missions included.

So I was already apt to disagree with the reviewer, who unaccountably claims to be nonplussed by its gameplay innovations. (I can see disliking it because of the way the destructible environments and open world structure do or don’t work, but to claim that those are boring is to be, I suspect, trying to sound different by arguing something that’s plainly, even laughably false–that these things are tepid nonstarters rather than successes or failures trying to push the limits of the genre.)

Anyway. One of the things the reviewer objects to is what he imagines to be the boilerplate “fighting in a rebellion” story:

RF:G starts off by establishing a summary narrative: the old good guys have become the new bad guys, the Martian poor get Martian poorer, and the quest for equality rests in the hands of a normal miner. Actually a sledgehammer strong enough to crack space cement (but not the ground) rests in his hands, and in Volition’s hands a computer keyboard typing out cliches about freedom for the people. The loose ideas that tie the narrative together are at best lazy and at worse irresponsible pastiches of Marxism and Rawlsian equality. Look, I don’t expect the Grundrisse here, but damn it, Volition wrote this with the subtlety of sledgehammer playing Serious Sam. And then got the sledgehammer to deliver the lines in a recording booth made of sledgehammers.”

So, the story is too simple, a version of the claim I summarized above. But check this: it’s “an irresponsible pastiche of Marxism and Rawlsian equality.” Aside from an interesting eagerness to display familiarity with the names of famous people, why is the author upset that the designers of RF:G have used the ideas of “revolution” and “rebellion” in their entertainment without including (how?) philosophical descriptions of those ideas?

One suspects that the root of the objection is what I’ve already described: that the idea of revolution is being used as a throwaway justification for a world where bad guys have officers everywhere and can show up in force when you attack their buildings, just like Liberty City in GTA uses the idea of the police the justify its very similar enemy-generation procedures. This use is offensive, the author implies, because it is derivative and unsubtle, and because it demonstrates unfamiliarity with the historical reality of revolution (see how he name-checks actual revolutions later in the article).

But, would we really want a deeply-imagined alternate historical Mars in which the idea of revolution is “thick,” and not obviously borrowed in part from other games in the genre? Such a Mars is readily available, in fact, and one suspects that the game designers know it pretty well, from some of the touches they’ve scattered around their game: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Hugo-and-Nebula winning Mars books.

I think the answer is no. Notice how long Robinson’s (excellent) books are. It takes work, detail, time for writer and reader to set up such a detailed universe; hundreds of pages. Some of those pages, in Robinson’s version, include lengthy discussions of Swiss-style federalism and the ethics of eco-terrorism. But this takes place over the span of hundreds of pages. Why one would want what the author of this piece seems to envision, a “responsible” mobilization of the works he names on revolution–Marx’s behemoth Grundrisse and Rawls’s landmark work of political philosophy A Theory of Justice, I have no idea. Indeed, one struggles to see how the game as it is is an “irresponsible pastiche” of these things (where’s the irresponsible use of the idea of surplus value, for instance?). The references to this philosophical background come from the review author alone.

Why? Because, I think, such posturing is itself a conventional trope of video game reviewing. What could be easier than to say, by mentioning texts from your philosophy 100A lecture, that a game is insufficiently intellectual? It’s much easier, after all, to incorporate those texts briefly in the course of your discursive evaluation of four years of someone else’s labor, than for those texts somehow to be gracefully worked into the game itself. Name-checking philosophy is , I’d venture, a big part of the symbolic economy of video game reviewing. But it is, and can only be, a part of bad video games.

Because what Red Faction gets from the idea of rebellion is a justification for its gameplay mechanics. And it rightly gets that justifying job out of the way as quickly and painlessly as it can. Note “painlessly.” inFamous (or however someone in marketing asks you to spell it) has some of the most painful, though still brief, plotting in any game in recent memory, and it ain’t because the ideas of (I think) romantic love and government experiments gone wrong that the game uses are gone into in too little depth. It’s because the designers of that game didn’t get them done proficiently and quickly.

Which is exactly what RF:G does do. It uses a readily available idea to allow you to jump into its very full game world, and to permit such wonderfully entertaining scenes as the race across the free-fire zone, about 2/3 through the game, that so cleverly invokes the trench-assault from A New Hope. If I were drudgingly, pedantically taking this scene to task for failing to justify itself on the basis of what rebellions are “really like,” I would miss the fun.

And fun’s what the reviewer has clearly missed. If a game isn’t fun, then it’s surely not a reviewer’s task to squeeze blood from a stone. But if a reviewer misses the abundant fun that a game can provide on its own terms, then, well, we can say if we’re feeling forgiving that he is a bad reviewer and has done a lot of people who worked very hard a disservice.

A few larger questions remain. The one that interests me is: how to work the thickness-of-world in that the reviewer seems to have wanted? Because, for all my satirizing, I agree that it would be wonderful if there were a way for a game like Red Faction to work in the level of detail about Mars that Kim Stanley Robinson brings to his novels.

Put another way: if the designers had hired Kim Stanley Robinson as a writer, how could he have contributed an equivalent level of detail to what he brought to his books?

This is a question no one’s come close to answering, but it’s one of the critical questions of the medium, the answer to which, among other things, will permit video games to be considered in the same way as movies and books by the mainstream and specialist cultural apparatus alike, instead of the playing-dumb evangelism that apologists like Seth Schiesel are currently allowed to provide in publications like the New York Times.

I don’t know, of course, but I’m inclined to say that something like the deep-RPG universe suggested by a game like Mass Effect has to be one answer. Tom picked up and read all the data pads lying around that game, and read all the codex entries on worlds you never even get to go to. That’s a world where thick detail is written not into mandatory, linear cutscenes or dialogue trees, but optional world-detail. The question is, how to integrate that detail more fully into the texture of games, so that, if for some reason we chose to, we could have our responsible inclusions of Marx and Rawls and our vehicle-theft missions all in one?

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