Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What If Video Game Bad Guys Weren't Always So Bad?

Remember this guy? That's Severus Snape, one the most pivotal players in the Harry Potter universe. He's easily one of my favorite characters in the series, if not the actual favorite. I spent the entire time I was engrossed in the wizarding world going back and forth on him, wondering about his motives, and where his allegiances lied.

I'm going to talk more about him in a minute, but first I want to get to the topic of the day.

Video games don't handle grey areas so well. On some level, I understand why - if my character has a sword in one hand and a gun in the other, every moment I'm not stabbing or shooting something starts to feel like a tragedy of unrealized potential. Anyone I come across had better have a target on his chest, or be pointing me in the direction of the next guy that does. Otherwise, why am I here?

That brings us to video game villains, the targets of said shootings and stabbings. I may have been a bit hyperbolic just now, but the number of games I can think of where my character had to deal with any kind of moral ambiguity are unquestionably in the minority. And even in games that deal with that sort of thing, like The Last Of Us (my favorite game from 2013, which I won't spoil with any specifics here), the ambiguity is handled in cut scenes, with the big weighty decisions taken out of the player's hands.

[Note: Spoilers for the Harry Potter series and Skyrim Below]

So let's talk about Severus Snape again. Severus is introduced as an antagonist from the very first moment he meets Harry Potter. He's arrogant, he's humorless, and he seems to harbor a grudge against a poor kid whose parents have been murdered, and who's been been bullied nearly his whole life. Just the way he says "Potter" alone, with a disgusted curl in his upper lip in, calls him out as an obvious villain.

Except, in the end, he isn't. He protects Harry and the others in ways they don't realize until the very end of the series. And its not a spell that's he under or all a clever act he's putting on the whole time either. The truth is actually brilliant in its complexity, something I want to emphasis comes from a book series written for children.

Now I want to talk about Skyrim, which I talked a little bit about before. Skyrim's expansive fantasy world has several class-based factions for the player to join, if he chooses, and one of them is a wizarding school not unlike Hogwarts. For practical reasons, I knew my character, a battle mage, ought to check it out, but as an unapologetic fan of Harry Potter, I more urgently wanted to find out what was in store for me as a player. Would there be all the delightful whimsy that Harry, Ron and Hermione got to experience? Would they have their own version of Quidditch, or have their own rival houses, each with their own motto and sigil?

Sadly, the answer to all of this was no. Which was fine - the wizard's college in Skyrim was only a small part of the expansive world, and it can be forgiven if it didn't have the same level of detail as J.K. Rowling's epic series. What it did have was a number of teachers in the game's various schools of magic, some students milling about with various levels of idolization or scorn for me, and a plot about a mysterious magical artifact that was baffling the school's staff.

There was one character in the wizarding school that caught my attention, because he immediately brought to mind my beloved Snape. His name was Ancano and he was a Thalmor, a race of elves that believe themselves superior (off to a good start!). He was also an elemental mage and an advisor to the head Arch Mage. He was in the classic villain's position, presenting himself with classic villainous white hair and everything:

Ancano is introduced to the player with the same air of suspicion we met Snape with as as audience. He's obnoxious, he's creepy, and he's immediately at odds with the hero (which in this case is you, the player). Even the other teachers and students at the college have nothing positive to say about him. They all question his motives, (especially once the magical artifact comes into the picture) which of course make's the player question his motives. This is pretty unusual - even Snape was admired by some of his Slitherin students.

You might be surprised to hear that after all was said and done, when Ancano's true nature was revealed, the player discovers that...yup, he was totally evil all along. Your instincts were right from the start and this guy was a classic ultimate power/take over the world level douche. Ancano eventually summons creatures to attack the town below, and while everyone is distracted, he locks everyone out of the school so he can begin sucking power from the artifact. I stuck my sword through his throat as soon as the game let me, and it felt extremely unsatisfying, and sword through throat killings go.

So why is this so bad? Harry Potter had Voldemort after all, right? For my money, I think it's a big missed opportunity in a game that's already lousy with Voldemorts. Those are never the most interesting characters in stories, and nearly every video game has at least one of them. I think I took down six or seven Voldemorts on my way over to the Wizard's College for the first time. At best they're challenging adversaries that I fight at some point, but from a storytelling perspective they offer next to nothing.

Ambiguity is not impossible to portray in this game. Earlier in my adventuring I came across an interesting quest involving a woman named Saadia (a rarely seen dark-skinned Red Guard, like my character) who I overheard was being hunted by a group of angry looking men. When I tracked the woman down, after initially pulling a knife on me, she eventually confessed that she was being persecuted for speaking out against a dictatorship in her native land. She asked me to kill the men who were looking to punish her and I agreed. I went to a cave full of mercenaries and starting killing everyone left and right, until I got to the final room, and the leader of the group told me to stop and hear him him out.

The leader, Kemantu, explained that I'd been lied to, that Saadia was wanted for treason, for selling her homeland out to the people she claimed she was being persecuted by. He told me to take a moment to consider how quickly I chose to help and slay all his men without knowing for sure if I was being lied to. He also implied that perhaps I was thinking with the wrong part of my body. At that point, I had to decide who was lying to me, Kemantu, or Saadia? I had no concrete proof of anything. I was stuck in ambiguity. I put the controller down and thought long and hard about what to do next.

This brings back an earlier point I discussed about smaller stories having more flexibility in their outcomes in a game like Skyrim. It didn't matter in the main storyline/grand scheme of things whether I killed the women or the men in the cave, so the game let me choose and stick with my decision either way. After scouring the internet for definitive answers (cheating, I know) and not finding any, I finally decided the men had a slightly better case than the woman, and I allowed them to find and capture her (that she wouldn't be killed by the men, as opposed to the other way around, was another deciding factor).

My feelings are much more along the lines of disappointment.
Ancano could have been ultimately good, or ultimately bad, but it's unfortunate that there was never a moment where I doubted his villainy (except in the blind hope that the game's writers were doing a really terrific job making this character into an obvious Voldemort, only making the later Snape-reveal to be that much more powerful). He could have tried to make his case as to why I should trust him at all, or why his motives were anything but nefarious. He could have offered me a role his plan, which I could have considered (what kind of loot will betraying the school get me?) or declined. When he started cackling at me for the first time, telling me how pitiful I was, and how unstoppable he was about to become, I just nodded my head and quietly sighed. If the game allowed me to do the same with my character, I would pressed the appropriate buttons to do so.

I don't think there's any point in introducing a character in a game that the player doesn't trust but has to wait around to eventually engage with. If there's not going to be any questioning of motives from an antagonistic NPC, the power should be in the player's hands to address the character's loyalty as soon as possible. Otherwise, the obvious enemy should be kept holed up in a castle or a cave somewhere, protected until the time is right for confrontation. I'm not asking for branching paths or sweeping game design changes here, just better writing.

In speaking to the larger issue, if video games want us to get more invested in their stories, they should start putting in a lot more Snapes, and a lot fewer Ancanos. I want to have more moments where I put my controller down on the coffee table, and stop to think about my actions rather than just blindly dashing from plot point to plot point. These moments normally come in the form of strategizing and stat-building, but they rarely make an appearance in the way of questioning my or other character's roles in the story.

I'm going to talk more about this next time, when I delve into The Walking Dead and Mark of the Ninja, two great games with some of the most stellar uses of storytelling I've seen to date.


Monday, April 28, 2014

The Incognito Story (And It's Hidden Benefits)

There are a lot of games that don't need much of a story. There's a princess that's been kidnapped, so, you know, run to the right where the castle is to try to save her. Done. There are some bad dudes doing some bad things, so, you know, you should punch and kick everyone bad dude you see (which will likely be every dude you see). Easy. There are zombies on your lawn. Obviously you should plant some anti-zombie plants to get them off your lawn. Say. No. More!

In games like these, it seems like less is always more, though there's a surprising amount you can do with less. Take this awesome, recently discovered truth hidden in Trials Fusion for example (and as the video warns, spoiler warning for the story you didn't even know existed), a game that, until its second sequel was only ever about riding your motorcycle from start to finish as quickly as possible:

A hidden story like this is perfect because it's entirely possible to ignore and not miss a single aspect of the gameplay itself, but if you do notice it, and start paying attention, it adds a whole new unexpectedly rewarding layer to the overall gaming experience. Totally win-win!

I personally love making these discoveries whenever possible. Games like The Last of Us, which has its main story being presented to you front and center, also has tons of smaller hidden stories - some mere snippets, some fully fleshed out - throughout the post-apocalyptic environment, which can be found in notes, journals, and scrawling on walls. To plenty of people, it's just useless crap they happily ignore, but for players like me, its the cherry on top of my awesome time playing in this world.

Anyone know of any other hidden gems like the ones I've mentioned here?


Friday, April 25, 2014

The Importance Of Milking Smaller Stories

I love Skyrim, and I think it's a great game to discuss in my first post, because it has examples of what I consider to be both good and bad storytelling, and also because I'm super hooked and just loved talking about the game in general.

If you haven't played, Skyrim is a massive open world role playing game where you play the role of a Dragonborn, a slowly growing powerhouse who appears to be genetically predisposed to kick some dragon butt. Which is convenient, because dragons have just reappeared after being presumably extinct for hundreds of years. That's not all that's going on either - as in all the Elder Scroll games, various factions and races are in conflict and are vying for power across the land, and your role will be pivotal in the course of Skyrim's history.

Sounds like a pretty decent setup for a game, right? One of the joys of Skyrim is how little of the main storytelling you are forced to experience. It is apparently very common for players to venture off after being given their first taste of freedom, building up their character's skills, and hoarding treasure to their heart's content while dragons roam the countryside freely, and the citizens of the land wait patiently for their hero to come around.

If and when their hero does come around to the story (and he should, if only for the expected rewards he'll reap), there are hundreds of stories waiting to be told. On top of the many jarls and clan leaders in the world, there are many lowly citizens in the towns are in need of a helping hand for everything from clearing an area of bandits to helping out a small boy who's being bullied by an an even smaller girl. What's funny about my experience with those two specific quests was that clearing out the bandits was easy, but helping out the child was actually kinda tough.

99% of the quests offered in the game revolve around you the hero learning of a certain character's needs, then assisting - sometimes by retrieving or collecting something, or, much more often, by doing some killing. You are much more likely to be a walking sword and fireball generator than you are any kind of negotiator, tactician, or creative problem solver. Even quests that start off with the hero being asked to save a tree involve killing a number of witches, tree spirits and the like along the way. Of all the skill trees your character is able to develop, 'pacifist' is not one of them.

Which brings me back to the bullying quest. In between dragon slayings, a small boy approached me in the town of Winterhold, which became my character's de facto home town because of its centralized location. I purchased a home there and interacted with nearly citizen at some point. The child, Lars Battle-Born, asked me to help him with his bullying problem, which on its own was a fairly laughable request. The bully was a confident little girl named Braith who I'd seen running around. She'd told me over a dozen times how she wasn't afraid of me, despite the fact that, if I felt so inclined, I could incinerate her into ashes on a moment's notice (though technically, this wasn't true, since the game doesn't allow players to kill children, as you'll see in the below video, making her bravado more accurate than any other adult in the land).

When I was given the option of what to say to the boy's request, my characters was able to agree or decline, telling him "grow a backbone, kid," which was an interesting kind of rejection. It didn't necessarily make sense for my character to 'save' this kid from a girl who later told me she was only doing it because he refused to kiss her. This was exactly the sort of thing this kid should be working to solve on his own. Of course, I still wound up doing it, because denying him simply ended our interaction, and saying yes in Skyrim always leads to a reward. For all I knew this kid was holding onto some amazing staff, or piece of enchanted armor. (Spoiler alert: nope, he doesn't. He has exactly 2 gold for you).

(Note: this video shows the introduction to, as well an "alternative" approach to handling the quest)

In giving the player total freedom, a game like Skyrim finds itself limited in the ways it can tell stories. Many of the more important quests are hamstrung by the need to move the plot forward in a predictable fashion. The game assumes you are a hero (even if all of your actions dictate otherwise), and so eventually, if you want to see the end of the game, you're going to have to help out the right people in the right sort of ways. I think most players would agree this is a fine compromise. We're not quite at the point yet where games can allow for an infinite level of branching storylines the way it does character building. However, I do think there's an opportunity here for the game's smaller quests to shine.

I would have loved a true alternative choice to solving the bullying quest, where I actually helped Lars learn to fight his own battles. This quest doesn't matter in the grand scheme of the game's plot, so its outcome should, in theory, be a little more flexible. Maybe Lars could be convinced to spar with my character, throwing a single punch and then staggering back to convince the kid he's capable got a nasty left. Or maybe something a little less violent (though pushing the children to actually fight would be delightful in own twisted way), like convincing Braith to be a little more forthcoming with her feelings, and teach her a valuable lesson about the dangers of sending mixed messages. Either outcome wouldn't require a few more lines of dialogue, and asks nothing the game isn't already capable of, but multiple solutions would give me as the player a feeling that I did a little more than hit the "A" button the appropriate number of times to win.

There are some examples of what I'm talking about in Skyrim already, which I'm going to discuss in more a later post (another chance for me to talk about this game!) For now, I'll close by saying I think there's an opportunity in games like this to present the player with interesting choices without having to back up those choices with many long, branching alternative storylines. I say let us have our open world cake and eat it too!