Friday, March 12, 2010

Walk, Don't Run

In last week's article, I argued that, when comparing video games to staged theater, game players should assume the role of both the director and actor of the performance. Whereas theater generally distributes interpretive and performative duties across a number of people, game players are responsible for both a performance's original vision and its subsequent reinterpretations.

Those who stage a play do so within the boundaries of an overarching structure laid out out by the playwright. The script, with it's dialogue and stage directions, forms the theoretical limits of the piece. For games, we can substitute the playwright for the developer, and the script for the game's rules. Just as certain scripts specify distinct dialogue queues, character movement, and set design, some games have more prescriptive limits than others. However, when different in-game rules function as contradictory stage directions, it serves to undermine the trust of even the most enthusiastic players.

Like many scripts, video games often front-load their stage direction at the beginning of scenes. Players, assuming the role of the director/actor, experiment with the constraints of the scenario. For example, in Uncharged 2, we could consider the stage directions to be the rules governing how Drake moves, how the environment works, and the way NPCs factor into the gameplay dynamics. The player is given the beginning and the end of the scene and is then left to enact a performance: completing a level.

Unfortunately, certain scenes in Uncharted 2 employ extra, contradictory stage direction that overrides the game's overarching rules. Take the Tibetan village scene that Jorge discussed: I was one of the people frustrated by the mandatory walking imposed in that scenario. Not being able to run was not annoying in and of itself, but the fact that the scene contradicted the game's meta-rules created a dissonant effect.

The established rules (stage directions) based on all the previous situations were that, in a three dimensional environment in which Drake is on foot, the player (in the role of the actor/director) can choose the speed at which Drake moves. This scene breaks that agreement without any explanation.

Rule contradictions pop up in other parts of the game as well. During the scene in which Drake must align mirrors to reflect sunlight around a room, there is a point in which he is hanging off the side of a ledge. Instead of being able to shimmy back and forth, climb up, or jump off, all control is removed save for the aiming and shooting controls. This was likely done to funnel the player into the puzzle's solution, but the act of such a dramatic rule change was jarring and confusing.

Similarly, the game sets out the basic rule that guns have a limited amount of consumable ammo. However, when the player performs the Yeti scene, this stage direction is forgotten and Drake somehow possess a magical pistol with infinite ammo. Again, this rule change was more confusing than anything: I initially started scrounging for bullets after I emptied my first clip because I had already internalized the rule that guns need ammo. It was not until I desperately tried to re-load an empty gun that I realized that, in this specific scene, the established stage direction for guns should be disregarded.

The theatrical equivalent would be like performing Glengarry Glen Ross and abruptly coming to a stage direction that said "The two characters never pause, stutter, or interrupt each other" even thought the script still contained Mamet's unique writing quirks. This stage direction would undermine previous directions and established characters, just as sudden rule changes undermine scenes in Uncharted 2.

Of course, "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," and there are times in which it makes sense to contradict established rules. It is much easier to accept modifications to overarching rules if they are diegetically justified. Uncharted 2 shows us how this can be done during the scene where Drake helps carry a wounded man to safety. The player is placed in a three-dimensional environment, on foot, surrounded by hostile NPCs, which suggests that they should be able to run, jump and shoot as normal. However, the scene-specific stage direction of having to carry someone logically prevents the player from directing/acting as they normally would.

Diegetic band-aids could have easily been applied to the aforementioned village, temple, and Yeti examples. An injury could have justified Drake's inhibited movement (although this would not explain why he could still leap off of ledges). The paralyzing ledge in the temple could have been transformed into a normal ledge that triggered an audio or visual hint from Drake to point the player in the right direction. During the yeti battle, there could have been a crate of ammo lying around, functioning as a de facto source of infinite ammo. Its appearance as a crate would suggest scarcity (even if such scarcity was an illusion), and forcing the player to make periodic mad dashes for ammo would have added another a layer of gameplay sophistication to the scene.

Just as a playwright uses stage directions to define the parameters of their work, a game developer uses rules to define the boundaries in which players must fashion their experiences. The guidelines found in a single game simultaneously immerse some players while chafing others, and the developer can do relatively little about personal taste. Despite this, it is possible to at least provide a solid foundation on which the player constructs their performance, should they choose to play the game.

By forcing the player to walk after telling them they can run, games flirt with abandoning that which separates them from other media: player freedom. Unless the point of the experience is to present some Takahashi-esque "non-game," we should be wary of mixed messages within our stage directions.


  1. This is an interesting topic that I have often considered, albeit from a different perspective.

    My issue is when I hear criticisms levelled at a game's story because it is "out of sync", i suppose, with the player's actions. The example of this that stuck with me most is Clint Hocking saying "I'm supposed to feel sad about the death of this character [in GTAIV] and yet I ran over 17 old ladies to get there" (EDGE, E206, "Death of the Author").

    This bothers me because of a key term that you used in this article that I have considered before but do not see used very often: responsibility. In some cases, when people criticise games for not making sense like Hocking's example, it is like an actor in a play blaming the script for being rendered illogical by the actor's own on-stage actions. Hypocritical, really.

    In a video game, one of the player's role is as an actor. As such, they have a responsibility to act in a way that allows the story to make sense. That is, if the audience cares about the story of the game, and as audience is one of the player's other roles, this is ultimately the player's decision. But they can not then go and blame the game for not making sense afterwards.

    Conversely, the scriptwriter of a play can not force the actors to act in a specific way. Neither should a game force a player to walk just because they 'should' for the story's sake. If a player cares about the story, they will walk anyway. If they don't care about the story, that is okay too, so let them run.

  2. I thing the reason designers do the "Walking instead of running" thing is pretty simple:
    It's a matter of forcing players to their luck(sorry, no better expression for this) of noticing details of the environment that most players would usually miss by just running past them.

    I mentioned this before, but that walking trough the "Stranded" village scene in Gears of War is an example for that:
    Given the ability to run, most players would simply hold down the A button to jump right into the next fight, but without that ability you actually see people slamming doors or looking at you angrily.

    I haven't watched that Uncharted 2 village scene but I can imagine, that it has for example a beautiful scenery, that the designers simply want to show off a little.

    You could ask if this really is the best way to present your surroundings to players, but in any case I think this is the reason why designers do it.

  3. Good writeup about player immersion, but I feel you're missing a really important point by not considering the power of social constraints along with physical restraints in controlling player actions.

    There are two reasons why Drake can't run. One is narrative; the player is supposed to see the tranquality of the village and empathize with the residents so that they can feel the impact of the village's destruction.

    But then there's the technical reason Drake can't run, and the reason why he can't is because it's socially unacceptable to do so. He's following a guide who's walking, for one, but while in a peaceful village there's simply no logical reason for a human being to run through it. Social limiters can be as powerful as physical ones in many situations, but they tend to be much harder to perceive in videogames.

    This is partially the fault of designers. Players break these sorts of social norms left and right in your average game. It's not too strange that we're more comfortable with physical constraints on our avatar than social ones. After all, part of what players like about games is being able to behave in ways that they wouldn't or couldn't in real life.

    On the other hand, we aren't a blank cipher in Uncharted 2. We're Nathan Drake, who acts for the most part like a human being. Which is the bigger break of immersion: not being able to make Drake run, or running around like a maniac in a peaceful village?

    In summery, I think that the ultimate problem is that it's hard to represent social or mental constraints on the player. We can see the injured man that Drake drags around, but we can't see social conventions. Ultimately I think that's your point, which a wholly agree with. I think that designers need to recognize the power of social constraints, and more importantly, how to depict them.

  4. I said this in response to Jorge's article last week, but I'll say it again here: forcing you to walk is itself a band-aid to cover up another rules change: there's nothing to collect, nobody to kill, no puzzles to solve and nowhere to climb. In every other scene in the game, there's something you need to DO to progress, but in the village scene that rule has changed. Making you walk is one way of showing you the change in objectives.

    Also, I totally agree with Andrew about social constraints. This is my one big gripe about Half-Life 2, incidentally. Gordon, if he were a character at all and not just a floating gun, would be a complete psychopath and nobody notices. He's busy trying to break the teleporter prototype while Alyx is pouring her heart out. He never looks the actual characters in the eye, he's too busy hopping around impatiently at the exit he knows they're eventually going to lead him to. Valve, in their stubborn but admirable devotion to a particular mode of gamemaking ignore the importance of social rules and it destroys the illusion of believability for both Gordon and the characters in the game.

  5. The is really difficult subject, and I think the theater model for understanding why the walking scene is flawed is incredibly helpful. In regards to Brendan's statement about responsibility however, I side with Andrew and Julian.

    One, the difficulty in conveying how a scene should be played to achieve a narrative effect is very difficulty. Partially because, as Julian points out, the rest of the game is all about action. There is a psychological effect of repetitive learning that makes acting the "right way" hard, making a decision about who is responsible very difficult. If the developer has hammered into the player over and over again to quick reload, should we really expect a player to be so self-aware as to ignore this habit during to achieve heretofore ignore narrative ends?

  6. Hey Brendan, thanks for stopping by.

    Thanks also for bringing up the idea of responsibility. Any story is bound to fail without the audience's/participant's cooperation, and perhaps a bit of suspension of disbelief is a good thing. I'll have to remember this as I embark upon Heavy Rain...

    Hi Christian:

    I think you're on to something about the developers wanting to show off their world. In a perfect world, they could rely on the player to notice the little details, but I have a feeling that many people who would ontherwise appreciate it would end up plowing right through it.

    Hey Andrew:

    Thanks for getting me thinking about the social side of the walking scene. I agree that it would be socially normal to walk in that situation, and that games make it difficult to enforce social rules.

    I think the reason why I never saw walking as socially imposed is because the developer chose to make walking a technical rather than a social limitation. For example, if Drake started running, the villagers could start yelling or shaking their heads. Their admonishment or incredulity would have been a much more palatable and compelling reason for Drake/me to walk in that scene.

    Rather than simply put technical limitations on Drake, I'd rather see increased interactivity with the villagers. If I started running and jumping around like an ass and they started treating me with disdain, I'd probably stop out of embarrassment!

    Hi Julian:

    In that case, I wish they would have highlighted Drake's injury a bit more to make the band-aid more convincing. Just like the yeti, infinite ammo, temple, etc. scenes, rules change without much of a narrative excuse.

    Good call on Half Life and the whole silent protagonist trope in general. I wonder if there is a future for silent protagonists?

    Hey Jorge:

    Unless the point of the game is to show that the "right way" of doing things was a lie (e.g. Bioshock or Shadow of the Colossus) I think that the "narrative" found in the game's rules should always trump the narrative of the game's plot.

  7. I don't think that rules necessarily have to be immutable. In the village scene, they changed the rules for narrative effect. This is a case of fitting the rules and the story together harmoniously. In addition to letting the player know that there's no objective beyond walking, it reflects the slower pace of life in the village and most importantly tells you that for the first time in the game Drake feels safe. This is the kind of synergy between the rules and the overt story we've been clamoring for another dose of since Bioshock was the first blockbuster AAA game to say something specific and intentional with its rules. The primacy of player expectations that you're vouching for is precisely the kind of thinking that leads us away from Jack and towards Gordon.

    I disagree that they should have played up Drake's injury because, while it would have been a more "logical" way to signpost the change in objectives, it wouldn't have SAID anything. I'm not saying they weren't wrong in other situations. The yeti scene in particular bugged me. I'm just saying that I'm willing to applaud any rules-based storytelling, especially when they take a risk on it in a AAA title.