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NPC II: Rant // To Create a Reality

Fictional realities have come a long way since the 1980’s. And there is a reason video game narratives don’t translate well into film. 

The narrative difference between film and video game is of perspective and design. One allows you to experience a fictional reality through a third eye, no matter how much the film absorbs you into its universes. The other gives you the ability to immerse yourself personally in the narrative of a character- through control or a first-person view- who might bend the rules of luck, science and/or genetics a little. Two narrative approaches- the level of very personal involvement with the world and it’s characters differs, as does the emotional and locational attachment. Film allows you to experience events without becoming a part of them- they unfold without the passive viewer being able to influence them in the narrative world that the events require. A computer game makes the viewer active, an influencer and sometimes instigator of events, able to go beyond the boundary of events to explore the world that surrounds them. In contrast to film, the narrative that unfolds is a part of a world, sometimes its centre, but there is much to explore beyond plot points. 

Note: For simplicities sake, and the sake of my bank account, I will limit these observations to games I have played in the year outlined in part one, with background provided through previous experiences, Let’s Play’s and ancilliary reading. Most of the games and characters discussed hereafter are either story-based, open-world(ish) RPG’s experienced from a third-person perspective or character-based stories. The 2012 reboot of Xcom and its sequel makes a cameo appearance, as does Manny Calavera. Most of them share the common denominator of being available on the Mac. 

A very long time ago, I took part in a class called “Non-Linear Digital Storytelling”, which combined some animation with 3D modeling and plotting such a narrative. One of the things this I took home from this class was that there is no such thing as a non-linear story, but that you can make it possible to approach a story in a way that, while not devoid of beginning, climax and ending, does give the impression that you are in control of how it unfolds. The greatest conceit of any computer game is that it allows you to approach its narrative as you choose, with a variety of outcomes, reactions and possibilities that result from your past (inter-)actions and choices within the game world. But no matter how you approach it, and how much freedom the developers give you in reaching an ending, the story does play out on a timeline. How you get from A to Be is up to you, but both will eventually unfold. 

That being said, the advantage to being an integral part to ongoing (virtual) events is that you can influence them. On the flipside, they also influence you. One of the keywords surrounding computer games is immersion- like any good story, the authors intend to grip the player, bring them to a point where they will not only suspend their disbelief, but also forget their belief in their bodies and the way they are interfacing with the tale they have convinced themselves to be part of. Akin to binge-watching a series, you want to know how it ends and you will sit through it until it does. Like a book read through the night to reach that end, a digital tale will bind the active viewer for however long it takes to find out why they are cast into the role they assume in the world they inhabit temporarily. A point of distinction between storytelling styles in games is that some set out to tell you a story, others present you with a universe to explore. While it could be argued that any story is a universe of its own, some universes persist outside of the story they are telling you. 

The game doesn’t end, even after it tells you the story is officially over. There is dishwashing to get back to after the epic story you happen to have been embroiled in has come to a close. There are side-stories left to discover and explore, places unvisited, people not met yet or loose strings left to tie or sever. Some games, described mostly as open-world games, will allow actions beyond the fall of the stories curtain, a continued exploration and interaction with characters, building homes and settlements. They allow a lasting interaction that changes the game world, turning the viewer into an active participant in the evolution and structure of the world- often outside of the direct needs of the story that ties the game together on the surface. If you ever wondered what happens to characters in a story after the credits roll, this is where you find out.* No wonder you got lost in it. 

These Worlds Are Yours…

Game worlds are as diverse as the imaginations that produce them. They range from a black background with a title, as can be found in the independent “There is no Game” (Kamizoto, 2014/ http://www.kamizoto.com), in which the game becomes the form it is played by, to the lushly coloured canvasses of worlds and universes found in the current generation of so-called AAA games (aka blockbusters, with budgets currently ranging into the hundreds of millions of dollars-https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most_expensive_video_games_to_develop). With time, processing power and resolution, these worlds have become filled with many life-like details. More importantly, they have progressed from a figurative and symbolic to a literal translation of imaginations- an evolution from locations and objects that symbolise to those that are concretely recognizable as what they are. Where players once had to fill in the blanks between large squares, they can now see straight lines made up of tiny pixels. 

One of the biggest game worlds (in theory) is the world of Daggerfall, a 1996 Elder Scrolls game, with a game world of 160 000 km2. While this sounds like a vast amount of space, one of the criticisms towards that game is that, as many dungeons are made up of randomised building blocks, they look very much the same. This aside, it was one of the first games to use a 3D engine (as opposed to a 2.5D engine- http://en.uesp.net/wiki/Daggerfall:Dungeons). It has a day-and- night cycle, full moons and a full calendar of events, holidays and celebrations. Compare this to Skyrim, released in 2011 (and remastered in 2016), with a much smaller game world (ca. 40 km2). The design goals of these two worlds feel very different, although Skyrim is an iteration of the ideas found in the former: The world of Daggerfall- more precisely Hammerfell, though larger, does not invite sight-seeing or screenshots. It exists mainly to connect towns and dungeons, as a container for the story the player is living and is mostly devoid of topographical details- hills, mountains and forests are absent.  Skyrim, while still a container, and a smaller one, is also a character in the game with a distinct personality that persists beyond the story- described by the games’ designers as an Epic Reality (https://www.giantbomb.com/the-elder-scrolls-v-skyrim/3030-33394/). It is an invitation to explore, experience and discover. From a graphical point of view, it is much more advanced and offers the occasional view that will make the player stop and enjoy the illusion of a sunset on an (icy) beach. Additionally,  several distinct microclimates characterise the locations you visit in game, adding a distinctness to those locations, and differentiating the experience from space to space. In the 2016 remaster, this world gains new lighting systems and depth-of field, making the world much prettier, without adding much content to it. Unlike Daggerfall, gameplay happens outside of dungeons and cities as well- beyond random encounters with the odd monster. Travel through the world and guided exploration become a feature to be experienced, as well as a chore. 

For the longest time, climbing has been absent from most 3D video games (to my knowledge). Notable exceptions are Lara Croft (as of 2013), the Assassins Creed Series (one of the first series to systematically include vertical movement as part of their core gameplay since 2007), Metal Gear (again, in it’s latest incarnation, published in 2015), parts of Horizon Zero Dawn and the latest incarnation of the Zelda franchise, in which you seem to be able to climb almost anything. The reason I am mentioning this is that most game worlds place restrictions on navigation and interaction with the landscape, whether for reasons of gameplay or immersion. In the first case, not being able to circumvent a mountain by climbing over it makes it possible to place a natural barrier to progression through a wall. The second case is a technological limitation, as far as I can tell- climbing would require a new set of collisions and physics calculations to be applied to anything vertical, as well as animations that do not seem unrealistic or contrived. In other words, it would require more processing power than most people currently have on their gaming device, and poses a risk to the beliveability of a characters movements- think of the complexities of climbing a tree. Do I place my hand here and foot here? Can I reach that? How far up do I have to bend my knees? Nevertheless- the inclusion of climbing in the most recent generation of games promises new approaches to gameplay that were not possible hitherto. 

There are dedicated climbing simulators that take into account the strength of your grip, how tired your muscles are after a certain distance, your characters’ overall level of fitness and many other factors. But they mostly lack any other gameplay aspect. Which brings us to skillsets, gameplay and what you can actually do in these good-looking escape-pod worlds. Each game establishes an internal logic of objects you can use, and to what use you can put them- how you can benefit from your environment, or be of benefit to it- in short, the ecosystem that surround the player. You will be able to communicate with the worlds’ inhabitants. In most, you will be able to walk, run and crouch. Many involve some kind of a fighting mechanism- a favourite fallback when other storytelling options fail. You may be able to ride a boat, ride a horse (or vehicle) or, as shown above, climb mountains. You can make make changes in the game world (creative or destructive). We will return here for an in-depth look in a later part, when we examine gameplay mechanics in more detail. 

The strongest selling point of the 1998 Grand Theft Auto was that you could steal vehicles, and drive them through the streets of fake New York. It was a very focused experience, attempting to make you feel, without much backstory, like a low-level mobster working their way up in the crime world through actions performed with cars. Compare this to later iterations, in which, in spite of the car mechanic being improved and maintained, you are also required to accomplish a number of other tasks unrelated to driving cars, such as shooting people, and are generally given a lot more freedom in your movements, the locations you can visit and the actions you watch your character perform. You are also treated to pre-rendered, voice acted cutscenes, which provide you both context and missions to perform in game- images and voice replace onscreen text and still images that had been used in earlier games. In those, it was possible to play the game without paying too much attention to the story- now, the story unfolded cinematically and was told through means invented more than 100 years previously. The nature of the game itself had also shifted, turning from what was mainly a driving simulation with criminal elements to a crime simulator with driving elements included. What had been an atmosphere implicit in the artwork, music and gameplay became explicit (and received a mature rating) in dialogues and many (arguably stereotypical) characters- it moved from the players imagination into an observable, visual world.

Over time, overlap between game genres became inevitable as game mechanics proved popular. Many games began to include some character development in the form of improving skills. RPG’s, where these skill trees had originated, included less artificial combat and movement mechanics and more visual storytelling- becoming, in some ways, successors to earlier adventure games. Half-Life and Halo changed the storytelling and gameplay methods of first person shooters to go beyond the shooting and deeper into a rich game world that sought to tell a story beyond the barrel of a gun. Games such as Deus Ex and System Shock mixed role-playing, stealth, shooting and technology, even weapon customisation in ways that had not been tried before- at the time, they were unique in giving the player many freedoms in how they chose to accomplish their goals. By now, many games include some, if not all of the abovementioned elements, and leave the choice of which world to immerse themselves in to the player- though real freedom in game and out, remains elusive

The last aspect to be mentioned in relation to these worlds is time: Time moves differently in-game, in more ways than one. Most games accelerate time- the passage of seconds, the transition from day to night- to create a visible impression of time passing as you play. An hour in game may pass in five minutes, which does not stop a dedicated player from spending hours in front of their screens. Additionally, games are one of the few media that allow you to rewind to reach a different outcome through savegames- repeated death is a learning experience, not the end of your current existence in the world. One of the most enduring aspects of gameplay is the “what if” factor*. I’m sure many people would love to be able to live through their what ifs in their real lives- this is a very limited opportunity to live one life's what ifs. 

This part ends here. In part 3, we talk about people. 

Meanwhile: Continuity

Continuity Screenshot: http://www.kongregate.com/games/glimajr/continuity
Continuity (2010) is a sliding-tile puzzle game with a unique game mechanic. Developed by Elias Holmlid, Dmitri Kurteanu, Guy Lima, Jr., and Stefan Mikaelsson, it is the winner of the Best Student game at the 2010 independent game festival. It can be found here: http://www.kongregate.com/games/glimajr/continuity The "sequel" can be found here: http://continuitygame.com
<< Part 1: To Escape a Reality                                              Part 3: Keeping Company >>


*There is also a genre that allows you to develop your own world without any set story- though this does not exclude a narrative. My examples would include Spore (http://www.spore.com), Rimworld (https://rimworldgame.com), Portal (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portal_(video_game)) and almost any of the Civilisation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization_(series)) series. These set out evolutionary goals- inception, survival, discovery, thriving, territory defense and final supremacy. The claim is that they allow you to evolve your own gameplay and approaches within the game worlds’ rules (and sometimes finding out how to break them).

** There is a style of gameplay called Permadeath, in which when you die, you die and have to start the games’ story from the very beginning. This is found in several titles, but is occasionally a self-imposed limitation by the player. This ensures a life-like, linear progression in story and character- after all, life often gives you second chances, but never the chance to go back in time and change things. It may split off a separate alternate time-line- the point at which a time-line might split off is the last save you have made. Everything that happens beyond that point, even if it initially has the same outcome as your first attempt, is an alternate timeline. “Life is Strange” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_Is_Strange), a casual episodic adventure, uses this idea as a gameplay mechanic. 

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