Monday, November 17, 2008

Beyond Limitations

[Warning: This post may contain spoilers. Read with discretion.]

Last week Spencer Greenwood of Noble Carrots wrote a very interesting post concerning the thematic limitations of videogames. In this article, Spencer discusses the opening scene to Call of Duty 4, a game I was fortunate enough to be playing at the time, in which the character is dragged through a city, only able to look around. Greenwood had this to say: "The game robs the player of its usual interactivity to great emotional effect. However, I am not sure that this level should exist in a game. Why couldn't it be left to happen in a film? ... the emotionally engaging part of the video they were watching was fundamentally, not an interactive experience."

My first thought was in defense of the game. This segment holds more meaning specifically because I expected more character control than I was given. If this were to happen in a film, I would never have had this expectation. But couldn't this also be considered a limitation? Am I confining my experience by playing games with certain gameplay expectations? I quickly jumped down a rabbit hole of thoughts regarding the limitations of videogames. If the medium cannot address certain thematic concerns, is it doomed to be literature and film's entertaining but ignorant and incoherent step-brother? Are we trapped within the narrative walls of our console prison?

To answer these questions, I first want to take a look at another example from CoD 4. In this scene, your character is extremely limited. You must crawl slowly through the wreckage of your downed helicopter just to gaze upon the nuclear destruction and die. This segment is stunning and disturbing.

The contrast between interaction in the rest of the game and minimal interaction in this particular scene, creates a narrative connection between the lack of player mobility and the lack of character agency within the story. As the player is confined to the limitations of game mechanics, so is the protagonist confined within the structured violence of a war hungry world. The inevitability of player death creates a sense of entanglement, or even culpability, with the system of violence that allowed nuclear carnage to ensue. Maybe being a soldier in CoD 4 isn't as freeing or exhilarating as you thought. The expressive power of this scene could not have been the same in film or literature.

Every medium has its own limits and expectations. Novels are confined to paper and text, with a history of established narrative techniques. Film is a purely visual and auditory experience, and it too has a set of rules and patterns commonly adhered to. Videogames are no different. Therefore, we can take a lesson from those artists who have used these unique characteristics as artistic diving boards.

Vladamir Nabakov was a master of the English language, and several others for that matter, and often used reader expectations to his advantage. Traditionally, novels have a beginning and an end: first A happens, then B, C and so on. In Pnin, the narrator becomes trapped in this formula. The protagonist's story presumably continues past the last chapter while the narrator is forced to begin again at A, doomed to recount the tale for eternity.

Taking lessons from Nabakov, Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves creates a frightening manifestation of the story with the actual text and paper of the book itself, breaking countless conventions in the process. Danielewski's text warps and fades into the binding, crosses over itself, literally creating a labyrinthine journey. Like the titular house of leaves, the book itself is larger on the inside than it is on the outside, adding a sense of macabre realism to the tale. These stories could not have been told with the same power in any other format.

Film too has its narrative jugglers. Federico Fellini's is filmed in such a way as to warp dreams, flashbacks, and reality, creating the most "metafilm" I can think of. Christopher Nolan's Memento tells a compelling story in backward moving segments of linear narrative. This film shatters the viewers' narrative expectations while simultaneously driving the story towards both a beginning and an end. These movies take the limits of storytelling in film and use them towards their own ends, creating unmatchable experiences.

If film and literature can do it, so can videogames. Some already have. Metal Gear Solid fans should all remember Psycho Mantis, a telekinetic, leather wearing weirdo who can read your mind and your memory card! Having an enemy call you a coward for saving your game too often is uniquely unsettling.

Jonathan Blow's Braid also has a scene in which the limits of the game mechanics forge a stronger narrative. At one point in Braid, time moves according to the direction you move, resulting in your character rushing past an NPC who comments on his haste. The protagonist, by definition, is rash and driven ever onward. Without the limitations of a side-scrolling platformer and the mechanics of time, this illuminating piece of narrative would not have been the same.

All the limitations of videogames, from interactivity to save files, hand-held controllers to less-than-perfect AI, are also the features that make videogames unique. No experience in one medium can be mirrored perfectly in another, as it should be. We may have limitations but the expressive power of videogames is limitless.


  1. Having just come off playing COD 4, I can throw my own thoughts into the ring here.
    The cutscenes where you've got limited control are all quite jarring, and thrust you directly into the story. Most videogames thrive on the concept that you can do most anything, and have a certain level of freedom. Taking that away goes against every rule in the book; you're not allowed to decide (or influence) your destiny. I think of the assassination scene, or rather the lead up to it. You're not given much context, and you're thrown into a moving car. Your only option is to passively watch the scene in front of you; whether that be the people in the car, protesters outside, soldiers shooting guns, executions, dogs, etc. - there's something out there.
    No dialogue describes the scene; it just happens.
    I was annoyed by the whole "regaining consciouness" thing several times, but the cutscenes were different. The nuclear explosion scene is jarring because we can't save our character (re: ourselves), we're forced to die. Even the ending glosses over our entire mission as if it was a "training exercise." COD 4 is a deep-thinking game when you look at it, and I like how you chose to validate these cutscenes. I think we're used to the choose-your-own-adventure games that routinely come out, so moving away from that makes the plot thicker, but the characters more important.

  2. The interesting thing for me is that as much as I can recognise these scenes (and some others) from the game as being important in telling COD4's story, as well as arguably important for gaming as a whole, they still didn't really do much for me in terms of immersion into the story. I appreciated the scenes/scenarios as they played out, but the overall experience I had with the game doesn't seem to be as 'connected' as most other players who have eventually gone in-depth on the game.

    I find it interesting because I do connect with games like BioShock and most recently, Fallout 3, yet I didn't with COD4. Is that my fault for something that I can't quite pinpoint, or is that the game's fault? (another interesting question)

    Does it even matter when really, as players, we all have our own individual experiences?

    And just to be clear, I loved the game despite not playing it when everyone else did (I instead played it earlier this year). I just didn't get fully immersed into it like most people seemed to.

  3. @ Alex

    I hadn't thought about the mission recap at the end of the level as a way to gloss over the scene, but that is a very good point. The fact the game continues as normal after the nuke scene is somewhat unsettling.

    @ Steven

    I actually wasn't as immersed into CoD 4 as some either, but that could be a fatigue with FPS titles. One possible implication of the post though, is perhaps immersion isn't always best to get a message across to the player. If we see videogames as potentially persuasive, immersion in the classical sense may not be good in and of itself.

    There is another scene in CoD4 that was interesting, and that was the aerial bombing chapter. This was immersive and made me, and the people watching me play, incredibly uncomfortable. Because it was artificial, and actual bombing runs are scene in a similar computer layout, it made it far more real. That realization that killing so many people, and being close to killing innocents, is that easy in real life is incredibly unsettling. I think that is exactly what the developers had in mind.