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.