A recent article on Vorpal Bunny Ranch caught my attention with a compelling perspective on the role of players. In his piece, All men and women are merely players, Denis Farr discusses the act of play as a sort of theatrical rehearsal. The bounded space of a game is the stage, script, sound, and lighting all in one. The actors are the players and the developers are the writers and directors. Cooperatively or otherwise, players explore the limits of the production while experiencing the narrative along the way.
Denis goes on to extrapolate his approach by describing a scene in Mass Effect in which an unknown Asari touches his character, an uncomfortably forward gesture. The result is an act of narrative wrangling, in which Denis justifies the action on screen the way an actor may justify disagreeable commands from the director. In this case, how a scene resonates on screen is dependent on blocking. It is this often unappreciated artistry that interests me today and the inherently difficult production of realistic blocking.
For those unfamiliar with theatre, blocking is a term referring to the placement and movement of actors during a performance. It was coined by W.S. Gilbert, who moved blocks around a miniature set to represent actors maneuvering on stage. This act is similar to playing a game where, for the most part, we control our avatars around an established environment. Successfully appeasing players while relinquishing them of control, perhaps necessary to sensibly block the movement of characters on screen, is an impressive feat of design.
It is interesting, then, that Denis uses Mass Effect as an example. Mass Effect 2 improves on the conversation animations from its predecessor immensely. I have become so accustomed to conversation in which all parties just stand there staring at each other that ME2 was a shock. NPCs react to conversation queues, backing up, walking about, leaning against a railing, or turning around for example. Shepard and her crew are particularly mobile, displaying a range of gestures, from hugging to hitting. Sean Sands of Gamers With Jobs puts it well when he states:
"Scenes aren't just set up as instances of action and inaction, so much as they are directed and framed in a theatrical sense. Staging and blocking are considered during crucial interactions, and characters are framed in ways that add weight and tension."
The ability to make Paragon or Renegade decisions during dialogue, immediately interrupting a scene, is a clever way to add player agency to these scripted events. To follow the theatre example, it provides more room for actor exploration. Conversations in ME2 are only slightly interactive, yet still compelling, in no small part due to realistic blocking which adjusts according to player decisions.
When blocking is constrained in some other games, however, the audience can be less than forgiving. Uncharted 2 features a scene in which Drake walks around a Tibetan village high in the mountains. The game forces the player to walk, not run. Continuing with the rehearsal analogy, limiting player movement is one way the developer controls blocking. There are those who criticize this scene for exhibiting too much authorial control. While that may be the case, it can be difficult to find ways to overcome the problem. There is a fundamental conflict between realistic blocking and player agency.
The rehearsal analogy may help explain why limited movement in games irritates some players. Prior to the Tibetan village, there is a reasonable assumption on part of the player that the rules of play will not change. They have already been established by the developer and clearly communicated to the player. Drake can run, period. Therefore, running is part of the actor's available repertoire. Removing the ability to run is akin to a director suddenly asking her performers to hop on one leg. Hopping may fit the scene, but it severely inhibits the understood parameters by which the actors explore the stage. It comes off as cheap and unfair.
It is actually more palatable to impose blocking during non-interactivity, primarily cut scenes. Cut scenes are just not as riveting as participation however. Fortunately, Bioware designed the dialogue system in Mass Effect 2 such that player agency during conversations is predicated on relinquishing blocking to the developers. All the communication options reflect the player's general sentiment, not the exact words Commander Shepard will employ. These abbreviated options signify to the player the agreement between themselves and the creators. In exchange for dialogue exploration, players relinquish control of blocking to the game's creators.
Unlike UC2, ME2 appears fair because the actor and director are conversing and exploring the scenes together. The Renegade and Paragon options cleverly assuage any residual tedium from interactivity, giving the player/actor another tool to engage with the scene. The environment Bioware creates is much more akin to a rehearsal than the performance demanded by UC2. Naughty Dog's decision was made with good intentions - sensible blocking is crucial for developing compelling in-game scenarios. It just so happens the top-down production of realistic blocking inherently conflicts with player participation - the one way a player/actor explores a performance. Most players show animosity towards undue interference, just like most actors. Developers need to stage scenes accordingly.