Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hey Where'd Everybody Go?

Epic Citadel is a tech demo. This means it’s the videogame-industry equivalent of a late-night infomercial:

Check out the Unreal Engine for iOS devices! It slices! It dices! It facilitates bump offset mapping and dynamic specular lighting with texture maps!

Personally I think calling this particular work a “tech demo” diminishes it. Epic Citadel is a gorgeous little sandbox designed in just eight weeks by Epic’s Principal Artist Shane Caudle. The demo, which can be downloaded from the iTunes app store, lets you walk around the grounds of an imposing medieval castle and look at stuff.

Sounds pretty boring, right?


Because Epic Citadel is a tech demo and not a game in the traditional sense, its designers were under no obligation to stuff it with the usual game elements. There are no monsters to kill. Despite the heroic fantasy setting, there are no princesses to save. There are no NPC characters bustling around in the streets waiting to feed players their next quest objective. There’s no HUD. No health bar. There’s no opening cinematic letting you know the name of the dark lord that’s about to hijack the realm’s magic crystals and/or yank the curtain down on humanity.

Because Epic Citadel isn't meant to be a game, it naturally becomes so much more than a game. It contents itself with simply being a world—an emotionally resonant one that invites players to fill in all the backstory. As I wandered down the winding cobblestone alleyways, craning my neck to watch sunlight dance on the wash somebody had pinned to a clothes line, watching the slow arc of a hawk gliding overhead, watching a colourful banner whip in the breeze atop a stone parapet, my mind worked feverishly to fill in the gaps.

Why are there no people in the city even though there are signs of habitation everywhere? Candles are lit. The cathedral bell chimes. A dog barks. It appears to be late afternoon based on the sun’s perch.

I begin to imagine the citadel as part of a hypothetical videogame called Rapture (I know, I know, try to forget about BioShock for a second) in which all the castle’s pious inhabitants have been whisked up to heaven. Except for yours truly.

I imagine Rapture opening, with no backstory, no map, no narrative anchor. This wouldn't be a game about trying to find out what mortal sin kept you from being admitted to glory. This would be more like Cillian Murphy’s character beholding the unsettling grandeur of deserted London in Danny Boyle’s zombie classic 28 Days Later. The game’s one-word title would be the only thing colouring your interpretation of your circumstances.

In Rapture you'd see vestiges of human life everywhere, but the whole of humanity would seem to have vanished into the air. You'd find cauldrons of water boiling over lit kindling and piles of scrubbed potatoes that had not yet been scooped into the pot. You'd stumble across fields half-tilled. The whole game you'd wander in search of life, wondering if you were the only person left behind on earth. This wouldn't be a game about checking off the laundry list of adventure-game to-dos. Instead the experience would center on exploration, loneliness, human connection. Confusion and fear and instinct and desperation.

Rapture would be a game suggesting the darkest extreme of the single-player experience. Only what if the experience merely appeared to be taking place offline. What if other players’ exploration left behind dynamic footprints—a far subtler version of the overlapping universes of Demon’s Souls’ multiplayer component.

Perhaps what the player initially thought was simply a missed train to Paradise was actually a sentence to something more sinister—being left to wander a version of earth that forever teased you with the promise of human connection but never delivered.

Obviously Rapture is not a game that will ever be made (Irrational Games would issue a cease-and-desist on the name anyway). But I like to think a videogame world that took environmental storytelling seriously enough could capture a player’s imagination without reams of dialogue and cutscene plot development. Or any plot development whatsoever.

It's time for developers to leverage our restive subconscious.

So many games bend over backward trying to be movies. For once I’d like to play a game that felt more like a colouring book, where the developer provided me with the wire-frame outline of a narrative and then set me loose to colour it in with my own fever-dream what ifs. Till that sort of game arrives, I’ll be busy compiling the first issue of my new magazine Tech Demo Enthusiast Quarterly.


[You can download Epic Citadel from iTunes here.]

Monday, October 11, 2010

Gongs of the Patriots

Metal Gear Solid 4’s opening cinematic whets players’ appetites with a fairly standard menu of videogame comfort food—a non-specific battlefield somewhere in the Middle East, assault rifles, missile launchers, turbans, crow-scavenged corpses. The game’s protagonist Old Snake, perfecting his nail-gargling Tom Waits impression, croaks the opening line of voiceover narration: “War has changed.”

War may have changed, but gamers have been here before, killed this enemy before, perhaps in this very same war-ravaged desert outpost. As the opening cutscene builds in intensity, the player grips the controller more tightly, anticipating the action to come. Minutes slip by. The player looks on impotently as a firefight breaks out. Somewhere around minute seven or eight, the player sets down the controller. Snake flees for his life from a towering bipedal armoured mech. The player follows this development out of the corner of his eye while getting up to pour a glass of Coke.

The preponderance and length of MGS4’s cutscenes have become something of a running joke. At times the game’s creator—iconic Japanese videogame auteur Hideo Kojima—seems to regard the PS3 controller as an oddly shaped DVD remote, little more than a means of pressing play on the series of short films he’s crafted for his audience to consume. Herein lies the game’s thematic tension: MGS4 is itself a game about control—both literally and figuratively. Kojima comes out and tells players as much.

Amid the overcooked dialogue and thinly veiled Iraq war commentary of the aforementioned cinematic, Snake describes the new face of war: “ID-tagged soldiers carry ID-tagged weapons, use ID-tagged gear. Nanomachines inside their bodies enhance and regulate their abilities. Genetic control, information control, emotion control, battlefield control—everything is monitored and kept under control.” And just in case you missed the symbolism of this narration early on, Kojima introduces the Screaming Mantis boss character in Act 5 who hijacks the movements of Snake and a secondary NPC with—wait for it—puppet strings. (I see what you did there!)

Could there be a more blatant metaphor for the relationship between game designer and player? Player agency in any videogame is by its very nature an illusion, of course. Players only possess whatever agency the designer confers upon them. It’s hard to determine whether Kojima is merely being cheeky by calling out this lopsided power differential in the context of his game or if he’s trying to make a larger point.

The struggle between authorial control and player agency in videogames continues to be one of the elements inhibiting the medium's acceptance as art by gatekeepers in the broader cultural intelligentsia. American film critic Roger Ebert famously rejected videogames’ capacity to be art based on this premise: art is the product of a creative mind exercising authorial control. When players get involved and start making meaningful decisions, authorial control breaks down and the work ceases to belong to the author. In Ebert’s mind, at least, this interactivity taints the artistic purity of the creation.

Kojima—who teasingly (and tellingly) credits himself as “Voice of God” in the game’s closing credits—cedes control to the player periodically, but these moments feel like token gestures. Most of the time your actions in the game feel utterly inconsequential.

The game’s impeccably polished stealth mechanic, though fun to exercise, simply divorces you further from the conflict raging around you. If slithering on your belly across an active warzone and remaining undetected counts as victory, what was the point of you being there to begin with? If anything, it makes Otacon look incompetent for not airdropping Snake closer to his objective.

MGS4 takes you all over the world—the Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe, snow-battered mountain passes—but its level design is rote and uninspiring. Especially Act 2’s South America section, which sends you creeping and crawling through what might as well be a lab-rodent maze forking through a drab jungle. By way of consolation, the game scatters a few enemies about for you to shoot in the head if you get too bored. Or not. The game is too busy loading its next cutscene to care either way. Whether you play as a pacifist or a blood-thirsty headhunter has zero impact on zilch.

Kojima’s decision to repeatedly seize control from players in the interest of parceling out his story would be easier to forgive if he had a compelling yarn to spin. Sadly even by Hollywood summer-blockbuster standards, MGS4’s script is obtuse and syrupy thick with melodrama. There’s just no excuse for over-earnest platitudes such as “a new dawn is rising” and “find a new lease on life.”

Kojima’s unwieldy narrative rambles like a drunken university lecturer, heaping on exposition with babbling, jargon-spouting fervour. If the game’s myriad cutscenes were spliced together and projected onscreen at your local cinema, half the audience would walk out halfway through, red palm imprints gracing their foreheads.

Simply carving your story up into episodic, five-act structure and weaving in retro Metal Gear footage to stoke fanboy enthusiasm hardly makes you the Tarantino of videogames. Idiosyncratic design choices must always remain subservient to a tightly plotted, emotionally resonant story.

Some of MGS4’s creative gambles pay off handsomely—an experimental split-screen sequence toward the finale reminds players what’s at stake if Snake and company fail—but the game ultimately buckles beneath the weight of its own hubris. By ignoring the player’s need to make a meaningful contribution to the experience, Kojima ensures that we snort derisively when Snake’s friend and ally Otacon cheers “WE DID IT!” after the game’s final climactic victory (most of which the player has idly watched unfold in yet another bloated Jerry Bruckheimer-esque cinematic).

The most gratifying narrative-driven videogames go out of their way to bolster the player’s sense of involvement and contribution—BioWare, please take a bow. At least where MGS4 is concerned, Kojima comes off instead as the attention whore who corners you at a party and prattles on about himself while you struggle to get a word in.