Thursday, 8 December 2011

"Do Games Need to Tell A Story?" Week 4 - More Control, More Impact

 By keeping the player in control it's possible to still give the moments of the game the proper impact. In fact, it can actually be easier.

Yesterday I talked about cutscenes and to sum it up I basically stated that when used as rewards and with a light touch then they are something that helps sell a game. More often than not these days though cutscenes are used with a heavy hand, to force players to pay attention to stuff they need to know, or to point out the obvious, or to briefly provide an alternate style of gameplay in the most utterly annoying way possible.

There is the question of how moments in gaming can still have impact if we -- the twitching, "get on with it" attitude masses -- are left in control. To this end I can think of at least a few moments that are more impactful because the player is still at the helm, and these aren't old examples either: they come from the current generation.

Note: there will be spoilers from this point onwards for both the Call of Duty and Metal Gear Solid series. You have been warned.

I haven't played COD much, but I did actually touch upon one of the most intriguing -- at least in my mind -- moments in the series. For our intents and purposes here though I believe that this Destructoid article sums it up far better than I could. To set the scene this level and the gameplay therein happen directly after the helicopter that Sgt. Paul Jackson (whom the player controls) is in has crashed due to a nuclear device going off:

"The mission begins and Jackson’s vision fades in: he’s still in the downed helicopter. His fluctuating heartbeat is the only thing which can be heard over the wind. His vision fades out, fades in, the colors change.

"The player inches forward on his belly, and eventually flops awkwardly out of the chopper onto the ground. This is the moment where they player expects to be able to stand up, so he does. The player attempts to walk, but finds that his movement is extremely slow and wobbly. Again, nothing unusual yet -- the player expects to start moving at his normal speed any moment now, at which point he’ll get his gun back and be able to personally kill the bastards who downed his chopper and killed the pilot he tried to save.

"But a few seconds pass, and the player doesn’t get his strength back. He continues to wobble slowly, never gaining his balance, never moving at the speed he’s used to. The player now assumes that perhaps he has to move somewhere or look at something in order to initiate the next scripted sequence which will give him full use of his body again: there's no reason they'd let me play as Jackson if I didn't have to do something, right?

"At this moment, the player walks around, examining the bodies of his dead comrades, viewing the destruction of the nuke, desperate to find whatever object or character will help him get to the next bit of gameplay.

"Suddenly, his vision goes blurry.

"Blackness creeps in from the edges of the screen.

"The player moves even slower for a few moments, before falling to the ground altogether.

"Everything goes white.

"Another loading screen appears.

"What just happened? The loading screen suddenly informs the player that Sgt. Jackson has just been killed in action. Once again, the player has died -- because he was supposed to."

I recognise that at this point people are actually criticising the Call of Duty series for what is now seen as "a need" to include at least one of these shocking moments in every single game they release. Again, like cutscenes, if something like this is overused it becomes trite regardless of how solid a narrative device it actually is, but consider how shocking this moment must have been to the people who played through the game for the first time and probably literally never saw it coming.

Certainly it's not the first time that a character has died in a game, but it is one of first times in memory -- if ever -- that a character died while the player was controlling them and the following factors were in place: a) there was nothing the player could do to stop the death from occurring and b) more significantly, the death of Jackson is not the end of the game. Far from it. I mention the second characteristic because at times games have let players control characters that are obviously going to die, but only at the very end of the game when all the story is said and done. As the author of the article goes on to say:

"[This scene accomplishes] numerous things, all related to redefining death in videogaming as we know it. The sequences prove that death can be an important means of eliciting player emotion, rather than acting as a temporary setback. They make the player hate the two main villains even more, adding a greater sense of weight to the actual gameplay.

"Additionally, the player becomes terrified that any character he controls, at any point, could potentially be killed by powers beyond his control. After Jackson died, I played through Soap’s campaign frequently petrified that he -- that we -- could be killed by the narrative at any time. I had never before experienced this feeling in a videogame. Ever."

In a time where a lot of gamers -- and I admittedly am one of them -- have become somewhat jaded, feeling something like the constant whispering in the back of your head that the character you're controlling could die through no fault of your own and that you'll be forced to be in control of him or her but not the situation itself, that's something unique, something special that needs to be tapped into more often without becoming cheap (a fine line to traverse, but it can be done).

The second moment does not involve death, but hits home just as effectively. It is here that I talk from personal experience. The game is Metal Gear Solid 4.

Near the end of the game, there's a moment where Snake must walk through a hallway that's being bombarded by microwaves. Certainly they could have made this into a cutscene, but they chose not to, instead leaving the player in control. Movement eventually slows to a crawl, and you have to jam on a button to force Snake to crawl forward, and as all this is happening another segment of the screen is showing the current states of all the other characters -- many of whom we've grown fairly attached to throughout the series -- in dire straights. We know that everything until this point rides on making it to the end of this corridor. This is why having the player control this moment is so powerful.

The pain that we feel, the muscles cramping from having to rapidly jam on the button for so long, is just a fraction of what Snake is actually going through, since he's being roasted from the inside out. That walk, that crawl, also sums up Snake's character: having endured so much, beyond what anyone could think a single person could endure. All of it in order to save the world and those that he has come to care about. We know that his story is coming to a close, and in that moment and so many others in the final chapter, we feel the weight and the consequence of guiding him through the final steps on his journey.

Moments like this are extremely powerful, all the more so because they are something that we, the player, actively have a part in, whether or not we can overcome the circumstances doesn't matter: it is the execution of the moment where the crux succeeds or falters, and in cases like these (which admittedly are few and far between) where it succeeds in spades.

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