Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Young Hero and the Child Soldier

When it comes to believability, children have it rough in fiction. From a realistic perspective, children are disadvantaged emotionally and physically compared to adults. From a meta-perspective, this same relative weakness is what drives writers and coders to protect them at any cost. Games will callously force a child into the role of the combat-driven hero and call it "empowering", yet at the same time games like Skyrim will exempt children from the possibility of death even as their parents and friends burn to ashes around them.

The difficulties that arise from depicting children as characters in dangerous situations stems primarily from their innocence, and the perception of that innocence in society. Yet their appeal as protagonists derives from that innocence as well: we wish to see them succeed, even if the story must be altered for this to happen. Their simplicity and naivety as human beings makes  them better "heroes" because they view the world in a simple black-and-white manner that does not brook the cynicism and complexity of a mature individual. But what separates a child from an adult, and, perhaps more importantly, what separates a child character's depiction from an adult character's depiction?

Here's a basic fact: a child is an adult who hasn't lived as long. In addition to the numerous biological changes that separate a man from a boy, or a woman from a girl, the plain truth is that a child has had less experience than an adult at almost any given task. An adult is a child with the luxury of additional time spent doing whatever tasks would contribute to their growth and development. Yet children are constantly portrayed as being the unjustified equals of adults across all genres and mediums. In many cases this is more related to protagonist-centric ability than the child/adult dynamic, but the simple decision to make a child a protagonist in a world where adults can do the same things should speak for itself.

What makes this concept difficult to deal with is the general arbitrariness of power as represented in fiction. The physical weakness of children is often reinforced even in works where they're more powerful for no reason - how many times have you heard "S/he's just a kid?" when playing a game or watching a movie? Tension is supposed to arise from the basic concept that a child would have a more difficult time overcoming such odds, yet a lack of explanation leaves the scenario deprived of the context that it is attempting to draw that drama from. We are told that children are disadvantaged, and thus a child who can defeat adults, or can defeat opponents that adults cannot, must be a great fighter. Yet if that ability feels fabricated, rather than believably established, then the value of that equation is lost.

In other scenarios, the child is simply shown as being as good as adults with no questions asked and no explanations given. Here I am thinking specifically of Final Fantasy XII, whose cast is almost entirely adult with the glaring exception of the two tag-along street rats who, according to interviews, were developed as less of a story-telling addition and more as a way to appeal to target demographics. The cast of Final Fantasy XII consists of a disgraced military leader, a deposed princess with magical powers, and two prolific airship pirates (one of whom is supernaturally empowered)...and also two kids. Two kids with absolutely no explanation for why they're as powerful as all those other, more experienced characters. Two kids who, with no training or combat experience, are suddenly able to slice through Imperial soldiers as easily as the veterans they hang out with.

The horrifying face of the child soldier
The problem with this setup is that it cheapens the in-story experience of all the other characters. With those two characters excised, there would be an actual legitimate explanation for why these characters are stronger than the soldiers and monsters they face. The fact that every character "starts off" being skilled, rather than starting at nothing and then rocketing to being the best in the world, would have provided some reasonable justification to the relation between the story and the gameplay. The adults in the party are trained warriors, and are all justifiably stronger than the average Imperial soldier. The children are protagonists, and that's their only strength - yet it proves to be good enough.

Moreover, the other problem with this setup, and others like it, is that we aren't even really supposed to think about it. The concept of children being as strong and competent as adults, if more emotionally immature, is so ingrained into gaming culture (and JRPGs especially) that the game glosses over it entirely. The contrast that the child/adult comparison is intended to provide is nullified by how common it is. I might even go as far as to say that it's an overcompensation: the idea that children are weaker than adults being reversed for dramatic effect has been going on so long that at this point it's surprising to find a scenario where adults are stronger than children.

I'd like to contrast Vaan and Penelo (and by extension all illogically strong child protagonists) with a character who's more of a survivor than a warrior: Newt from Aliens. Newt is one of the rare examples of a child character done almost totally right. Like many of her contemporaries, she's the only child in a group of competent, trained adults. Even before the marines show up, she's survived a catastrophe that claimed the lives of every other human being in her colony. Yet there are some little things that differentiate her from most "invulnerable kids", namely the fact that there were other kids and they died. While it's certainly implied in the cinematic release of the film, a deleted scene specifically establishes that there were a bunch of other children in the colony, and even out of all of those children Newt is the only survivor. Ergo, it's established, albeit subtly, that her survival has nothing to do with the meddling influence of authorial protection. She's alive because she's got the skills and knowledge necessary to survive, not because she's a child and the writers don't want children to get hurt.

Now, by itself, let me stress how important that is. The value of an exceptional victory comes from the high risk of failure. The reason heroes are celebrated for putting their lives in jeopardy for a higher cause or purpose is the fact that they, and we, are very much aware what would have happened if they had failed. The value of a child as a hero draws from the idea that a child is putting as much at risk as a more-competent adult out of a pure or innocent belief in the righteousness of their cause. Yet if every child that does that survives, the concept loses its impact. History is full of child soldiers, and the reason those figures are tragic even if they're heroic is that most of them simply weren't equipped to survive on the battlefield, both emotionally and  physically. The reason that child soldiers are a horrifying concept is that people die in war, a seemingly basic concept that the "child hero" concept ignores so it can have its cake and eat it too.

And here we come to the true crux of controversy: the difference between a "child hero" and a "child soldier". The differences are obvious even at the outset: one is inspiring, the other is horrific. A child hero represents a voluntary devotion to a noble cause, while a child soldier is typically associated with conscription into a petty war that the child cannot truly understand or endorse. A child hero chooses his or her path, whereas a child soldier is forced into theirs. In terms of depiction, the child hero is generally part of a lighter world with fewer consequences, whereas the child soldier is associated with a grim world of realistically awful consequences.

The truth of the matter is obviously more complex than that. The reason most cultures don't trust children to make the same decisions as adults is that children are simply not emotionally developed enough to do that. The underlying reason that an Age of Consent exists is because of the fact that, prior to that period, an individual is not trusted to make a decision that would be beneficial to their well-being. It exists because the child is not recognized as being aware enough to make such a decision for themselves. Yet, when an RPG features a child who takes up a sword to fight evil, it is meant to be inspiring and heroic: the child has willingly sacrificed their own happiness and safety for the good of all. But can it really be considered that? The fact that the child has been told by a giant tree, ancient prophecy, or hairy older man that they are required to save everyone does not mean that the pact is truly voluntary. Instead, it's taken for granted that the child knows what they're getting themselves into even though there's no way they have the cognitive ability to actually know what that entails.

The innocence of a child manifests itself in this supposedly-heroic concept. From the popular conception, the simple purity of a child allows them to make decisions unclouded by the greed and cynicism of their elders. They know what a hero is, and they know what a villain is. Even if they are not called to fight, children as protagonists are generally defined by their simple, yet poignantly moral, view of the world. It is this innocence that is drawn upon to create drama, tension, and most importantly sympathy for young characters. Such a concept is by no means limited to modern works, or even to fiction: look at figures like Roddy McCorley or the Minstrel Boy, who gave their lives for a purely patriotic cause. Yet this innocence is only valuable as long as the setting (or viewpoint) itself accommodates their view by truly being that simple and black-and-white; if the world is even a little complex, then the child's innocence becomes not only naive, but misguided and misinformed as well.

The difference between a child soldier and a child hero comes not only from the child's viewpoint, but also the world they inhabit. Think of the child heroes you know: they face unambiguous evildoers, and are often the only ones with the courage to do so. They do not face fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. They do not face patriots, professionals, or survivors. Child heroes do not kill people. They defeat villains. They slay monsters. They come from a perspective where the aspects of combat that they're allowed to understand do not truly encompass the nature of battle as a contest of survival, but rather as a trial to be overcome for the good of all. A child hero is part of an adventure; a child soldier is part of a war.

In essence, there are two worlds that a child may inhabit. The first is a world that protects them and offers danger that it does not truly intend to follow up on. The second is reality, where the nobility of a cause and the innocence of youth do not prevent the child from dying like any older man or woman. The former is the realm of escapist fantasy, where children seek adventure and choose to right wrongs - and it is, by its very nature, unbelievable. If it was believable, it would not be escapist. The various elements of such a world would not allow it to be believable in terms of physical, mental, and emotional representation. The latter is the realm of tragedy, for by default if a child is thrust into a war it is going to be a situation that they cannot truly deal with. Even if a war is depicted as being black-and-white, fought against an ultimate evil for the very survival of humanity, the inclusion of children is going to end up being tragic.

I'd like to take a minute to talk about Nier. Nier is a game that was released with two versions: one (Nier Gestalt) where the protagonist is an adult, and another (Nier Replicant) where the protagonist is a teenager. While at first this was sort of seen as a cosmetic change (and many gaming communities rejoiced at the opportunity to play as an actual justifiably strong adult rather than a wispy anime protagonist), it's actually pretty interesting how the games contrast in terms of character development.

Nier Gestalt is the story of a man who seeks to protect his daughter. Nier, the adult, presents a strong foundation of support for his child despite his own hardships. While he is somewhat gruff and simple, he has the emotional maturity and stability necessary to handle the trials that are presented to himself, his daughter, and his friends. One of the most important aspects of his character is that, as an adult, he is already hardened to the realities of life. Hence, when things go south later in the game, he is not changed that much. He gains some irrational hatred for the beings that caused the negative events in his life, but as a whole he remains a sturdy and stable (if single-minded) character. Gamers applauded the opportunity to play as a character who was believably strong and uncommonly mature rather than playing a by-now cliche teen protagonist.

Nier Replicant is the story of a boy who seeks to protect his sister. Nier, the teenager, cares for his younger sister and works to provide for her - yet he is not much more than a child himself. He has an optimistic, happy-go-lucky view of the world that is largely supported by the fact that even with his hardships his life isn't that bad. He can make money by doing tasks around the village. The main threat to his life comes in the form of shades, omnipresent monsters who present a relatively minor (and certainly dehumanized) threat. His life is an adventure, and even his primary obstacle, his sister's sickness, is viewed as something that can be cured with a single quest.

The event that changes things for the worse in Nier Replicant is the same as it was in Nier Gestalt. Yet the change in the teenage Nier are much more developed than they are for the adult Nier, because they revolve around developing maturity and cynicism - something that the adult Nier already possessed. Teenage Nier, on the other hand, sees his life shattered. The simple world where problems could be solved without much trouble is taken away from him; the safety that his village represented is violated. The fact that teenage Nier IS a child is what allows this change to happen, because that's the development that the child-adult transition represents. He is forced to accept his circumstances and his character changes because of it. The emotional burdens placed upon him force him to change and grow or else be left behind, just as burdens upon children do in the real world all the time.

From a believability perspective, this is (to me) the apex of the child protagonist. Not simply the theme of growing up, but rather the fact that teenage Nier is influenced by his environment. What I don't like about the escapist fantasy concept is that it exists as a bubble: nothing is learned or changed because that would go against the point. There is no acceptance of responsibility because that's beyond the ken of a child's understanding. There is no sense of vulnerability because that's something the writers refuse to portray. Comparatively, teenage Nier starts off in a world that's justifiably safe (or safe enough, at least) and ends up in a world where believable consequences have taken their toll. His character development is almost entirely natural because it follows a set of highly visible cause-and-effect.

There's a few lessons I'd like to sort of wrap this up with, so let's get to it.
1) The value of a child as a believable protagonist must be balanced with the things they lack - emotional maturity, physical development, development of skills, etc. The contrast between an adult and a child is cheapened if the child has everything the adult does with no justification or explanation.
2) The directive of authorial interference with regards to child mortality cheapens the concept of having a child be in danger; distasteful as it may be, the tension of a child's survival must be connected to an actual risk.
3) A child ought to be influenced by their environment much like any other character; indeed, the lacking development of a child provides more room for believable growth and maturation.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Analysis: Killzone

Joining the ranks of games like Final Fantasy XI and Lost Planet, the Playstation-exclusive "Killzone" franchise is a setting that's a bit more complex than what gets used for gameplay. It's not much more complex, but it's complex enough to warrant some attention. While on the surface it's Space WW2, with Space Americans fighting Space Nazis using slightly-retooled modern guns, there's at least a bit more depth to it with regards to its story and its universe.

"Killzone" takes place in a colonial future, where a corporation from Earth spread across the stars to settle the Alpha Centauri system. That corporation was the Helghan corporation, and in Alpha Centauri they found two planets: one viable and fruitful, the other hostile but mineral-rich. The Helghan corporation flourished as they colonized these two planets However, earth's government (the United Colonial Nations) feared that the corporation would secede and become self-reliant rather than going through all the taxes and tithes necessary to ship their goods back to Earth. This resulted in the First Extrasolar War, where the Helghan corporation clashed militarily with the UCN and its local representatives, the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance. The UCN eventually won the conflict and claimed the viable planet of Vekta as its prize, banishing the Helghan corporation's employees and loyalists to the noxious, barren planet, self-named as Helghan.

Despite the horrific conditions of their environment, the Helghast managed to survive through a combination of technology and their bodies adapting to the new environment (though this takes several generations and many colonists die). Embittered and angry at their treatment by the UCN, the Helghast are ripe for the rise of a strong military leader, and that leader comes in the form of the charismatic Visari, who convinces the Helghast that Vekta is their birthright. This is, naturally, where the Nazi comparisons come in - a populace that feels slighted and vengeful against the nations that wronged them rises up under the power of a popular fascist dictator who convinces them to take up arms in the name of their own historical and genetic superiority. While the first game's intro illustrates the nature of their cause, the Helghast are still basically treated like generic Nazi gas-mask enemies. In fact, by the very nature of the game (an action-heavy console FPS), they're always going to be generic Nazi gas-mask enemies. Yet the series has done some things to at least try to make the conflict a bit more grey-on-grey.

It's not really arguable that the Helghast are, in some respects, bad people. Whatever their reasons, they are in fact a fascist government that is show executing civilians (both Helghast and ISA) without care. They have justifications based on historically poor treatment, but they're not "good" either. Conversely, the ISA takes the "good guy" role by virtue of being the protagonist faction and fighting the gas-masked glowy-eyed space Nazis, but they're more of a neutral corporate entity than anything. In Killzone 1 they're "good" by virtue of defending their planet against a foreign aggressor; in Killzone 2 & 3 they're "good" by virtue of invading an aggressor's planet to deter future invasions.

While the "grey on grey" concept is hardly new or innovative, one thing I appreciate about Killzone is that in a lot of ways it allows the audience to try to empathize with a race who are clearly, blatantly evil. Visari's maniacal, Hitler-like speeches have a charisma to them, as well as actual justifications, that makes the Helghast side believable in the sense that they're a downtrodden, oppressed people striking back at their tormentors while still being amoral, gas-mask-clad murderers who show no mercy to civilians or prisoners. They're evil in the most reasonable, believable way: the sort of evil that justifies its actions as being against acceptable targets. Rather than both sides being totally wrong, the "grey on grey" in Killzone is more about both sides being right, but only from their own self-interested perspectives.

One thing I really liked about the characterization, especially in Killzone 2, was that people could be unpleasant without being your enemy. The main team consists of four people: the player-character Sev, the team leader Rico, the demo expert Natko, and the tech expert Garza. Within this team, Sev and Garza have the most obvious camaraderie, playing off of each other's jokes and connecting on an intellectual level that's hard to get across. It's not particularly intellectual - they're still grunts in a CoD-style game - but they "get" each other, and they're more open with each other. In contrast, Rico and especially Natko are sort of classic meatheads; Rico means well, but doesn't enjoy thinking things through, and Natko's just sort of a dick.

What differentiates Killzone from games like Halo or Gears of War in this regard is that there's some legitimately uncomfortable moments with the latter two; it's not like Baird or Cole from GoW where they have hearts of gold despite being weird, they're legitimately shifty characters without being escalated to "villains". Rico screws up several delicate operations by his ham-handed approach, and Natko at some point makes the subtle escalation from "team jerk" to a fully unpleasant character. Yet they both do their job (well, except when Rico screws up), and they're allowed to be unpleasant without falling into the usual image of an undisciplined, rowdy, hostile soldier. They're not your friends, but they're on your side.

Killzone belongs to the realm of military sci-fi that, despite being set in a spacefaring future, has people using gear that's basically equivalent to modern-day technology. Unlike most of its contemporaries, almost every gun in Killzone is a slightly modified version of a real gun. Using real guns as a basis has a long and storied tradition in sci-fi, from Aliens to Blade Runner to Star Wars, but in Killzone the modifications are remarkably minor if they're even present. For example, the standard ISA rifle is an LR-300 with the magazine moved to the rear. The ISA shotgun and machine gun are basically untouched versions of the SPAS-12 and M249. The Helghast submachine gun is based on the Bizon SMG, again with almost no changes.

On the one hand, just straight-up taking real gun designs ensures that the guns are, in some way, "realistic": their designs make sense because, well, they're real. On the other hand, having them be exactly real designs detracts from the "sci fi" part of the game. If you know anything about the guns in question (and some of the guns have been used in a lot of games, so you probably do), then it's just sort of weird to see them throw a different name on it and pretend it's different.

The designs in general are pretty solid, but mostly feel like it happened not because it made sense, but because "that's what army guys wear". Both the ISA and Helghast have some sort of glowing instrumentation on them that makes them visible from a distance (orange goggles for Helghast, blue PDAs for ISA). While that's silly from a realistic tactical perspective, it serves its role in the gameplay by adding to the uniformity of the two sides (as pictured). I've talked about uniforms before, and Killzone's designs are a pretty good example of uniforms that are visually similar without being wholly identical.

Before its release, Killzone 1 was one of the many games labeled a "Halo-killer". Regardless of its success in fulfilling that name (it didn't), let's compare the two a bit. One important thing about Halo in terms of believability is that most of the "superhuman" aspects of the player character are justified by his role in the setting. In contrast, Killzone games put you in the role of a Special Forces soldier - above average, certainly, but not superhuman. It's closer to CoD in space than Halo, because it uses modern technology and modern weapons and sort of shrugs off things like "how can he take so many bullets" and "how does his health regenerate" under the pretense of "well, it's a shooter thing".

Killzone's gameplay doesn't really take advantage of the setting; apart from maybe the more exotic weapons, nothing about the gameplay really needs the sci-fi backdrop. If I wanted to look through an EOtech sight and gun down some tangos with my high-speed low-drag assault rifle (RAMIREZ USE SMOKE), I could do so without having to travel several light years to do it. In essence, Killzone's setting makes two obvious games (three, if you count a half-explored aspect of the setting): a colonization game, a ground combat game, and maybe a space combat game if you're feeling generous based on five seconds in the 2nd game's intro.

The colonization game would mostly be about maintaining the health and morale of your population on a blistered, hostile world, and would explore the parts of the setting where a huge number of people had to either adapt to their new environment or die. A strategy game would be a bit more direct, since it's based on modern technology, but would be able to draw upon the wide number of troops, weapons, and vehicles represented in the Killzone universe. The ship game would probably be the most questionable, since other than "ships shoot missiles" the fleets in Killzone don't get much attention.

I guess the hypothetical problem with those three game types is that they illustrate a shallowness in the franchise; because of all its reused technology, Killzone doesn't have much to set itself apart other than the noxious conditions of Helghan and its mask-clad denizens. This brings up the further questions of why the setting was developed in the first place; was it just meant to be a sort of sci-fi filler game and it just got out of hand?

The question I have about Killzone is "why?"; I'm curious to know why, exactly, someone wrote up all that background for a game that barely cared about it. When someone made the picture of Helghast and ISA representatives at the bargaining table, and when someone else wrote some text background to accompany it, were they really being used correctly? Maybe it's just there to build up the franchise; maybe the veneer of depth gives it more credibility. Even if the series did branch out, I suspect it would be a scenario similar to Halo's own genre explorations "Halo Wars" and "Halo: ODST" - which is to say, they don't take it any more seriously than the main game does. Whatever the end result is, it's just sort of puzzling.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Taking Action and Playing Roles: The Skill/Luck Divide

RPGs are fickle beasts. On the one hand, RPGs purport to be the most character-driven genre of games, whether tabletop or electronic. On the other hand, RPGs offer one of the lowest levels of character control in gaming. The fact that most RPG systems are turn-based and/or tactical means that, rather than the player doing something as the character, the player is usually issuing an order to the character and expecting the character to carry it out. In an action game, the player is on some level directly doing something, even if it's highly processed through the game's controls. Reflexes and skill are involved more than planning and percentages.

The role of "skill" with regard to the player character has a different meaning than "skill" with regard to the player. In a traditional RPG (which is to say "rolling dice"), a character's skill affects the likelihood of passing a check, but it doesn't change the fact that the dice are all that decides it. A character may have a better or worse chance depending on their skill level, but ultimately it's down to the dice. This ought to create an attitude of acceptance; it's down to the dice, they're what decides whether or not someone lives or dies. Yet I find that it often does not, and this is largely connected to the fact that, again, RPGs purport to be primarily about character-driven narratives. How can a narrative be character-driven if said characters can die at any moment for reasons outside the player's control or influence? Hence, the divide.

In contrast, action-RPGs can include skill systems that naturally reflect a character's abilities. A character with more experience using guns might reload faster and aim more steadily; a character who's better at a mechanical or electrical skill might simply complete the job in a more timely fashion. However, these are a blend of "the character" and "the player". The limitations of most games mean that the things that the character influences are subtle things that the player does not directly control. The player hits R to reload, they don't actually go through the motions of removing the magazine and putting in a new one. The player holds down a button to hack a computer, they aren't expected to know the coding. Hence, the game becomes divided between "the player's job" and "the character's job". A theoretical game that was wholly player-based would have no room for RPG skills, because there would be nothing left for the player to influence.

I'll use an example scenario. Three characters are attempting to swim across a river. The first character is from a luck-based system and has a low skill level. The second character is from a luck-based system and has a high skill level. The third character is from an action game and has a variable skill level. The first two characters, despite their differences, are dependent entirely on luck; unless there are provisions or ceilings in place that say either the high-level character can't fail or the low-level character can't succeed, they're both equally vulnerable to a naturally high or naturally low roll. The third character may have an easy or hard time of it depending on their skill level, but it's the player's skill that does it - the character's natural ability just makes it easier or harder for the player. Yet the player in this scenario would be contributing a certain part of the skills, thus making it less "character-based".

Now, naturally, I'm making it sound like the player doesn't do anything in a turn-based RPG, and that of course isn't true. The player makes tactical and social decisions; it's simply a smaller set of responsibilities, and generally players dislike it when those things are taken from them. For example, many RPGs have a charisma stat and social skills of one kind or another, but the player generally expects to pick what is said. While a lot of the "charisma" process can be considered minor, but important, details (body language, tone, visible confidence and self-esteem), the player expects to be in charge of the major decisions regardless of the difference between their own charisma and their characters'. This becomes even more clear when talking about intelligence or wisdom, where the limitations of human malleability are tested simply by their nature.

In essence, skill tests are divided between the player and the character. If the action requires manual intervention, it's the player's job. If not, the character takes care of it. The more control is given to the player, the less important the character is. A true "character", if such a thing was possible, would be an autonomous individual with their own skills and abilities. Certainly a wise sage, a veteran soldier, or an experienced thief should handle their own jobs better than some fumbling player, and freed of the constraints of the player they ought to make better decisions. Yet the player must play a role, and this is a conundrum I've discussed before: where should the player end and the character begin?

Now I'm going to try to bring this back to one of my earlier points, to wit, the nature of failure and death in an RPG. RPGs are designed around the idea that one player plays one character, which contrasts with wargames and tactical games where the player has many expendable or semi-expendable subordinates. Loss in such games can be handled acceptably, because the unit can continue while the individual does not. Players may not be happy about a character's death, but the game goes on regardless. This applies to TV shows as well; characters died or were wounded in Band of Brothers, but the show was about the unit and thus the story continued. RPGs are stories about individuals (albeit multiple individuals grouped into loose affiliations), and if an individual dies permanently, that individual's story is over.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that I'm surprised how many "role playing games" still center on the assumed survival of the individual and the related focus on long, winding, relatively linear story paths. Death and failure are part of a story, and yet in order to reliably complete the stories laid out by the developer or the GM, those things must be ignored or marginalized. This isn't to say that action games don't have failures as well, but a failure in an action game is usually the fault of the player, and not just bad luck. No matter how you skew the odds - larger dice, bell curves, dice pools - failure is going to be inevitable, and there's nothing the player can do about it other than hope it doesn't happen in a critical scenario.

When we're talking "believability" in this scenario, the idea that characters simply can't die isn't going to enter into it. Once predestination and the assumption of safety is brought into a game's story, the game is guaranteed to either be rigged or to be derailed. Rather than building the story as it progresses based on pre-existing tools, characters, and events, the "do all these things so you can unlock the next part" approach means that the risk of un-removable failure (which is a major part of life, to be frank) simply can't exist. I'm not going to try to suggest what should be done about it, I'm just going to note that having one character in a combat-intensive scenario is basically putting all your eggs in one basket, and also you can't do anything to stop the basket from breaking other than hoping really hard that it doesn't.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The World-Building Process

It's not easy to make a new setting or series. There's a lot riding on a combination of familiarity and ingenuity, and the author or designer is tasked with creating a scenario that's recognizable enough to be easily comprehensible or tangible while also being distinct enough to be remembered as its own concept. The process of designing a world starts with an idea, and then that idea solidifies based on the components and processes that will end up creating the setting.

When it comes to settings I've liked and disliked, though, I've been able to draw a clear difference in terms of cause-and-effect. The settings I've liked have built up their aesthetic and their plots through things that made sense; the settings I've disliked have needed to find a place for their main plot, and thus everything else was just sort of thrown together to make way for it. A proper setting should be able to exist logically on its own, without requiring the main character to do everything and change every aspect of the world.

Making A Theme
There's two kinds of themes that are important when talking about world-building, and I've talked about them both before. The first is conceptual or authorial, and the second is the key component of the universe. The former refers to the way the setting is treated narratively - high or low fantasy, hard or soft sci-fi, and so on. It determines the nature of internal consistency in the setting. Deciding on this theme is a vital step when moving forward; for purposes of believability, though, the most important aspect of it is deciding how certain things in the setting work (physics, for example) and then sticking with it through the rest of the world-building process. The latter refers to a central theme or concept of the work, or something around which the setting revolves. I've discussed it before at length in the previously linked article.

The reason that this is the first step, apart from the natural concepts of establishing themes, is that if you're building a setting believably (based on logical properties and processes), then it's reasonably helpful to know what the basic properties are before you start acting upon them. Rules make up a dynamic, and dynamics are part of the collection of traits that define a setting. Star Wars treats space combat in a very specific way (dogfighting small ships, large capital ships). If that was changed, and it was treated more realistically, the setting would be different. It's not "realistic", but it's "internally consistent". If you're going to have a break from reality, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that, make it a mechanic that influences the development of things in the setting. The same is true for things like magic; codify the way it works before you start building the setting, so you can have a logical path of development within the setting itself.

In essence, the point of this step is both to be creative about coming up with a new setting and to lay the foundation for the rest of the concept. If go about it the other way by making a bunch of stuff and then trying to fit the concept in, it's going to end up a bit more arbitrary. If you want to include certain features or aspects as being central to the campaign, put them in first and build everything else around it, because otherwise it's going to feel totally awkward whenever it gets mentioned.

Building It Up
So you've got your ideas. You've got your main concepts. You've decided what you want as the primary features in this campaign, and you've basically taken your first steps into making something. What's next? Well, if we're talking verisimilitude, you just do what makes sense. You take your base setting, or your base world, or your base concept, and you add in people and animals and whatever else you need, and you see where it takes you. If the things you've introduced as being "different from reality" are consistent and regulated, then the effects they have on the world should be equally regulated.

Say you want to make a fantasy setting, centered on the artificial introduction of magic (a la Chrono Trigger and Lavos, I guess). If we're assuming that this is a world that was previously Earth-like (or at least played host to humanity), then the time before the introduction of magic ought to be sensible. Use Maslow's Hierarchy for guidance, and just figure out where people got their food, shelter, tools, and so on from. Then, once magic comes into the world, apply whatever rules and regulations you made for it in the last phase and apply it to the world. How does magic work? Can anyone use it? What can it do? If it only comes to a select few, what's stopping those few from becoming powerful rulers and sorcerers? If everyone can do it, how does it affect the world at large, and the development of technology? If magic is commonplace, would the conventional methods of war that we understand in real life be effective - or, to phrase it more directly, does it really make sense for people to use swords and shields in a world of magic? And if it doesn't make sense, is it at least thematic to your concept?

In the past I've talked about the evolution and development of warfare in games. The binding thread of that and a lot of other articles is that, bar the interference of personal tastes, people generally do what makes sense based on the systems available to them. What's thought of as "min-maxing" in a game makes perfect sense in-universe, and is generally only unacceptable because it also doesn't make sense in-universe. If you're going to include a system or a concept in the game, then have people treat the concept logically. If they don't treat it logically, you can justify it with cultural or religious values, but don't forget to, you know, still have things make sense. If a character chooses not to wear armor in a setting where armor protects you, they don't get protected. If a character tries to use a basic spear in a magic-heavy setting, that character is most likely getting fried. Make things consistent.

The benefit of doing all this is that the setting is going to become "nested", or whatever you'd like to call it. What I mean is that the setting is going to be layered in such a way that all its components are intrinsically linked and identifiable. No part of it will just sort of "be there"; if it's assembled properly, all the pieces will be connected to both the major concepts or components of the setting, and will also be connected to the other pieces of the world. The more airtight the world is, the less it's going to feel like a grab-bag of random concepts. If you interlock everything, you can't pull a piece out without dragging the rest of the setting with it. It provides explanations and justifications for things that happen, and that gives depth to the world.

A lot of gamers and developers and writers seem concerned about the idea of not just doing the "same old stuff", which is to say standard Tolkien-derived fantasy, or standard Star Wars-derived sci-fi. This is usually because they're talking about things in reference to other series' or settings or works, and not in reference to things that make sense in the environment. They're talking about re-using things that people have already done, but doing it in a different order: elves do x, dwarves do y, halflings do z, but there's no reason for them to exist other than "I wanted them in my setting". And yeah, eventually you might have to do that - you can't really be expected to build everything up from a cellular level - but justifying things and having them make sense feels more grounded and acceptable than just saying "that's the way it is", and it helps people connect with the concepts you're trying to use.

Including The Players
If you're making a game - whatever genre, whatever medium - at some point the players are going to have to take a role in the world you've built. Since players are generally not inclined to fill "safe" roles, jobs, or careers, you've got to find some way to give them something exciting to do. In games like D&D, the players are usually outside the system - the NPCs live over here and do boring things, the PCs have their own distinct classes that are objectively better than NPCs are and don't have to worry about things like economic inflation. The "NPC" world exists as a vague backdrop to the "PC" world of hacking and slaying and looting. However, it's totally possible to make a world where dangerous pursuits can be believably included in the setting as a whole.

For example, in real life, dangerous pursuits are often motivated by specific prizes that cannot be easily gathered through simple labor processes. This is to say, there has to be a reason a spunky group of ne'er-do-wells is out in the wilderness looking for the resource, rather than a group of workers with a sound financial backing. The classic image of adventurers being motivated by gold is based on the rarity of gold in real life, and the equal rarity of finding it in the wilderness or in some old ruins. In most games, the simplicity of delving into a dungeon and finding more stuff ought to water down the value of what's being found, but for the player's sakes this topic is avoided.

Conversely, there are some fictional settings that have something that is relatively common and necessary, but is always dangerous to acquire. These include the artifacts from STALKER, the titular souls of Demon's Souls, and thermal energy from Lost Planet. In these settings, there's a combat-based career for PCs to pursue that justifies the nature of the adventuring party. Even in more traditional or generic settings, including things like enemy-based resources (such as harvesting body parts from slain monsters) gives a reason for the players' role in the ecosystem. It gives the player a role besides just "doing gameplay" and it adds to immersion when you're part of a logical chain of supply and demand.

To me, this is a vitally important part, but it's not that different from making the setting as a whole logical. The world is a system. Everything feeds off of something else, and everything provides food for something else. Farmers and miners and smiths and scientists and politicians all need the fruits of each others' labors, because what an individual can do by themselves is limited. The world needs to work, and to show that there needs to be some kind of chain in place. If the player never got involved, would the world still work? Conversely, if the player was involved, what sort of role would they play? What's a logical way for them to interact with the setting without just being thrown into it and treated differently from everyone else?

The world works. The world works the way it does because there's a trillion little systems and subsystems that also work. Plants work, animals work, people work, and they all work in relation to each other. Technology is the utilization of the rules of reality to benefit humanity; "this produces a consistent result, let's keep doing that". All the different parts of the world and all the different aspects of science - chemistry, biology, meteorology, whatever - are just different systems that form the larger system commonly perceived as "reality". That's development. Things happen, and they affect other things. The other things affected also affect other things, and onwards and onwards.

When you're making a setting, do that. Sure, you've got to have a starting point that's kind of abstract (and it's not like we're exactly 100% clear on where reality came from or why it works the way it does), but once the rules and the world are in place, work with it. Things happen that make sense. It might take some research, but the questions you have about what happen should come naturally. "How does this work?" "How do these things form?" "Why did this happen?" When you figure out why it happens in reality, you can figure out how it would work in a world that had magic, or a world that had monsters, or a world where a certain technology exists. Figure out the rules, and then figure out how people would play the game.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Malleable Characters and Visual Aggregates

One of the most important aspects of human beings, overshadowing and enveloping all the specifics of behavior and development, is change. People change, people make changes, and people are changed by things. Human beings are not static; even an individual who stands perfectly still is still aging, still using up energy, and so on. People exist in a constant state of flux, adjusting to their environments and surroundings in order to survive and thrive. Simple changes lead up to larger organization and eventually technological cultural developments, and it is through change that humans (or any other life forms) became what they are.

Naturally, if you're trying to make believable people, this is an aspect that ought to be included. This doesn't just have to be in the present tense (i.e. change happening when the camera's on), but can also be reflected in a character's past or history. It doesn't have to be big changes, like personality development or standards, either. Even the changing of clothing is a "change", though a routine one. All the elements of the decision-making process are part of change, because making a decision is putting change into action. Essentially, though, acknowledging change, of whatever kind, serves to deepen the character's relationship to the environment they're in. It creates a cause for all their "effects": the nature of their personality or their physical appearance, the skills they possess, the knowledge they have, and so on.

The human body is a machine. It's built to adapt and thrive just as the human brain is. It's not as specialized as many other animals, but it has the capacity to improve, and it has internal mechanisms that require changes on some level or another. These changes can show, through visual evidence, a character's past and their status. When thinking about or visualizing the body, it's often best to assemble it piece by piece. So let's start from the top:

The human head is pretty important for a lot of different things, but in terms of visual design it's most important because it's a focal point for interaction. Therefore, the design of the face and its components will be the first thing we focus on. The face can represent several different things. It can be gaunt or chubby depending on the individual's weight and lifestyle. It can be unmarred or weathered depending on the hardships that the individual has faced in their life. It can be smooth or wrinkled based on their age or quality of life. The basic facial model is made up of a combination of bone structure and skin, and reflecting proper conditions allows even these basic aspects to tell a story through visual cues.

In addition, there are different things that can be added to the face through believable means that affect its visual profile. The most basic of these are facial hair and makeup, since these are things that are generally part of daily life. Showing facial hair and its growth might be justifiably considered a pain for artists or designers, but the representation of its growth and the character trimming it makes it feel more like real hair and less like something stuck onto the character. Similarly, makeup ought to be something that's applied, rather than being permanently attached to the character 24/7. Both of these things affect a character's face, so making them malleable rather than permanent allows a degree of logical changes within the realm of believability.

Hair has a combination of easily-malleable and difficult-to-change properties. The latter includes basic properties like color and texture, while the former reflects the fact that hair can be cut, trimmed, tied back, put up, and so on. Therefore, a combination of these two factors makes hair more relevant to a character's decision-making processes while still retaining a justifiably interesting aesthetic. The issue for believability is connecting the fashion to logical choices and processes rather than being something the artist thought looked good.

Probably the easiest and simplest way to alter hair is to tie it back or braid it. This can signify several different things depending on your perspective, but from a general utilitarian standpoint long hair being tied back means that it's not in your face and thus communicates a more no-nonsense approach. Short hair can convey the same message. The nature of the hair, even in such cases, is also variable; compare a stylized short hairdo to a simple buzzcut, or a quick, unkempt ponytail to a tight, professional one. The texture of the hair also conveys aspects of a character's life, depending on whether it's clean and loose or thick and raggy.

Not only simple or utilitarian hairstyles make commentary, of course. If a hairstyle is justifiably elaborate, it says something about the character and their willingness to spend time and effort shaping their hair into that form. Adding this element of believability turns it from a simple design choice to a visual cue just like any other hairstyle; without that element, it doesn't mean anything. If visible effort is a part of the universe, then a complex hairstyle can signify wealth, vanity, or just a willingness on the character's part to spend time on their appearance. There needs to be that element of effort in order for a complex hairstyle to be appreciable as part of a character rather than simply an artist doing what they think looks good.

Finally, it's important to convey the weight and nature of hair, even if that's fairly low-key. The consistency, thickness, and solidity of hair help make it feel more real, and what I see with a lot of artists is basically making the hair like some kind of glossy, solid mass. Hair flows, moves, and sways. If hair gets in your eyes, it's harder to see. It can be grabbed at or get caught on things. These simple things appeal to sensory concepts, just like many other "believable" materials, and if it's real to the characters it's more real to the audience.

Like the face, the body can be shaped by a character's lifestyle. Weight, muscle mass, skin tone, and skin consistency are all simple elements that, in their own ways, reflect where a character's from, what their life was like, and what they're capable of now. It's the difference between a scholar and a laborer, or a noble and a commoner. Like any other part of a character's appearance, a character's life makes visible changes on their body. Some parts of this are easy to reflect; tanning in general is pretty simple to understand, whether it's a farmer's tan or a beach tan. Weight is also pretty simple, at least when you're creating a divide between starving beggars and opulent aristocrats. In more modern contexts, the "weight = wealth" issue isn't nearly as common, but in any setting or situation where food is a rarity, the ability to be fat and unhealthy is something that most folks won't get away with.

Muscle development, on the other hand, is reasonably complex. I think this giant image that I'm linking right here says things a lot better than I can, but the basic lessons that should be taken from it is that muscle development isn't like an on-off switch, but is dependent on the cause of development and the locations being developed. More importantly, the body-builder physique (which some of us probably think of as being the peak of musculature) isn't necessarily the best physique possible when it comes to muscle development. However, both form and function have their uses in believable development, because they're just alternate routes by which a character has come to their current condition.

Most importantly to this topic, bodies change in the long term. To use a classic example from the children's novel "Holes", the main character's body is described as going from tubby and pale at the beginning to lean and tan from all his time in the desert. There are certainly many other examples, but the body is something that is influenced by environments and lifestyles. It's something that's more long-term than hair is, and it's not as directly controlled by the character, but it's a malleable element that can be used to show changes in a character's situation.

I've already done some articles on outfitting - whether it's clothes, armor, or gear - but the role of those things in this article is the fact that, underneath their clothes and gear, people are people. Humans are universal across any setting they're present in. Clothing and equipment, however, reflects their life as well, because it's a combination of available resources and needs that must be filled. Clothes need to be made from materials that are available, whether it's cloth, linen, fur, or some other material, and they need to fulfill some role for the characters who wear them.

Relatedly, a character's possessions ought to be considered logical items in their own right, not just part of an iconic outfit. Clothes can be changed and chosen depending on necessity and availability. The person wearing them is relatively constant, but clothes are the most easily altered element of a character's visual design. Like any other part of a character's design, ignoring cause-and-effect with regards to equipment and outfits makes them less meaningful in design terms. As I mentioned with Soul Calibur, a character who wears clothing that makes no sense for them (or wears the same outfit all the time) feels less like a character and more like an artist's plaything. In contrast, creating justified reasons for clothing choices makes a character feel more like someone who's actually making decisions, which allows the audience to better suspend their disbelief.

If there's a lesson I'd like you to take from this article, it would be this: people change. Things change. Situations change. Change happens all the time. If you can reflect that in your characters and your designs and your story choices, the world will feel more real and more developed. Everything that happens ought to be explainable and justifiable in-universe, and that doesn't mean you can't have cool things or interesting designs - just that they need to be as impressive to the characters as they're meant to be to the audience.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Analysis: Soul Calibur

This is kind of a weird game to look at on a blog about believability, so this article's going to be a bit more informal than usual. Soul Calibur is a weapon-based fighting game that takes place in the real world, including countries and regions from all over the globe. It's hard to say that Soul Calibur was ever meant to be "realistic", but there was a time that it was meant to be at least a little grounded, and that period has been far exceeded by how cartoonish and over-the-top it is. Still, the few traces of a basis in reality (and how those concepts were either eliminated or marginalized) is worth exploring, at least a little bit.

Soul Calibur centers around two swords, Soul Edge and Soul Calibur. Soul Edge is a sentient sword that cultivates slaughter and death to absorb more souls and grow more powerful, while Soul Calibur is (initially) not sentient, but can be used by the right wielder to defeat Soul Edge. In essence, Soul Edge is the focal point of the setting; without it, Soul Calibur (the series) is just a generic historical fighting game. In gameplay terms it still is, but the story and all the characters are organized around interaction with Soul Edge, either with obtaining it or destroying it.

Soul Calibur takes place during the late 16th century, but includes elements like sorcery, ninjutsu, alchemy, and ancient gods. The combination of things that Soul Calibur gets "right" and that Soul Calibur gets wrong is really just baffling, to be frank; in some areas, they try to show their research, and in others they clearly don't care one way or another, and not just in "well, whatever, there's magic and stuff so they can stretch reality a little" ways either. They just get things wrong, and it's not that they don't do the research or whatever, because they do. They do the research, and then they go out of their way to ignore the more obvious parts.

Let's start with something reasonably believable: the character and background of Siegfried Schtauffen. Siegfried is from the Holy Roman Empire; his father was a knight who fought for the people during the Peasants' War (though the timeline is off by a few decades), and Siegfried idolized him as a hero growing up. However, when Siegfried was a teenager, his father went off to a foreign crusade (although no crusades were going on in real life at the time). Siegfried fell in with a patriotic crowd of teens who decided to attack knights returning from the crusade based on the justification that they were cowards fleeing from battle. I think you can see where this is going: Siegfried accidentally kills his own dad, freaks out, and then hears rumours of Soul Edge being able to restore the dead. Hence, his motivation and his reason for being in the game.

While there are some factual errors present in it, the basic layout of Siegfried's background is fairly reasonable. It's based on things that make sense in the general period, and while it's not 100% realistic, it works all right for what it needs to do. It explains his motivation and background within the limits of the setting. It also ties into his character design; he's German, so he's blonde, and he's a knight's son, which explains his equipment (which we'll touch on later). It uses different elements and ties them together to create a cohesive character, rather than having certain parts just be there because "well whatever we need to say he's from somewhere". The different parts of his design are connected.

Now let's look at Sophitia. No, we're not looking at the ninja, or the zombie pirate, or the the S&M tomb guardian. We're just looking at the Greek woman. You know, from Greece, a region well-known for its olive skin and dark hair and what the heck am I looking at here. The weird thing is that the design team knew that, at the time, Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and they decided Sophitia was from Athens, and thus incorporated Athena into her backstory (though the idea that the Ancient Greek deities are openly worshiped in 16th-century Greece is equally suspect). But they neglected to include or explain the fact that she doesn't look even remotely Greek. And it's not just her; her husband doesn't look Greek either, so unless there's some little Norse enclave in Athens, it just doesn't make sense.

This brings up the essential paradox of Soul Calibur's design: they could have made it realistic, but they didn't. They could have made it UNrealistic (i.e. "not use real places and just stick it in a generic fantasy mishmash, which they ended up doing for some of the side modes), but they didn't. The fact that they put it in the real world is what opens it up to criticism, because it's objectively and identifiably wrong. They cared about some characters (Mitsurugi, Siegfried, Xianghua, maybe Maxi if you squint a bit), and for other characters they were just like "lol whatever just ignore their background". If you're going to do the research, why wouldn't you use it? It's really just baffling, when you get down to it.

Design & Visuals
Despite being based around weapon combat, Soul Calibur has always been pretty poor when it comes to actually conveying impact in any other way than "the weapon made contact with the target". People get buffeted around by blows, but there's no sense of damage, either in terms of slashing, piercing, or crushing. What the player sees is basically what happens: the model was physically moved by the force of the attack, nothing more. Similarly, armor doesn't really do anything; some characters wear it and others don't, but everyone takes the same damage and nobody's more or less visibly pained by an attack. Armor is just another form of clothing, and weapons are just sort of blunt clubs at best. It does do weight pretty well, especially with the larger weapons, but the actual "impact" part of the equation just seems underplayed.

There are two main issues to discuss with regards to design: representation of materials and the sensibility of the outfit. Let's start with the first, because the second's going to take a while. Most Soul Calibur outfits never really seemed to be made of cloth, though latex and other artificial materials are far more common. It seems less like outfits and more like superhero costumes or something. As the graphics improved and became more detailed, this became more and more noticeable: none of these characters are wearing anything that looks like it was made by human hands. Of course, they weren't really before either, but you could at least assume that it boiled down to poor textures. Now there's higher-quality textures, and they look shiny and artificial, i.e. "like modern artificial materials".

This isn't totally universal; there's plenty of characters like Raphael or Hilde who have outfits that look more convincing (in terms of the materials used), and the metal bits on every character generally look okay. But for the most part there are a lot of characters and costumes where it's just sort of baffling when one considers what, exactly, the costume is meant to be made of. On the other hand, they do have physical properties - they're smooth or shiny or...latex-y, or whatever you want to call it. It's not exactly "believable" as something that makes sense in the time period, but on the other hand it does actually portray materials, whatever their origin. I mean, I've still got some problems with them (everything's too shiny, for example), but it's not a total loss. In some cases, the simplicity of real weapons (usually a character's non-main weapons) contrasts with the unusual magic weapons, like the organic Soul Edge or the crystalline Soul Calibur. It's inconsistent, but sometimes it works.

Visual Design & Character Design
Soul Calibur doesn't seem to have a lot of decision-making logic; that is, there's not a lot of explanation of why people are wearing what they're wearing, just that they are. The chaste, noble-born alchemist Ivy wears something that can best be described as "implausible", while the modest, pious village girl Sophitia starts out kind of unreasonable and ends up...well, it ain't good, is what I'm saying. Both of those linked pictures track the character's development, with increasing amounts of sexualization. The important thing to note is that neither was believable at the start, but it got noticeably worse over time.

The odd thing is that both Ivy in particular has a history of far more reasonable secondary costumes (SC1, SC2, SC3). These costumes cover more and look a lot more like something that she (as a character) would choose to wear based on their established personality traits, though they're hardly perfect in terms of believability. They're dignified and fit in well with how the character seems to perceive herself. Yet the ones that don't make any sense in any respect other than "made by an artist to look sexy" are, for obvious reasons, the famous ones. But this is more than just an issue of showing some skin, or wearing impractical clothing to a fight (since everyone who's not wearing armor is guilty of that, and that armor doesn't matter anyways). It's an issue of character motivation and perception. Nothing about the clothing makes sense with the character or the time period; it's just the developers playing dress-up to manipulate the players.

Therein lies the problem for believability. Very few of these characters use their costumes as a way to either (a) establish character traits in terms of how the character chooses to dress themselves or (b) say something about the character through the way the costume is designed by the artist. They're there to look sexy, and while this manifests in different ways, it's still pretty much the main driving force. There are exceptions, mostly male. Siegfried is the most immediately reasonable character in terms of what he wears, at least in Soul Calibur 1; he's even got mail underneath the plate armor in the ending illustration. His armor tends to vary in quality in other games, though, and his weapon has always been a big "rule of cool" stick rather than something meant to seem like an actual blade. Raphael's weapon and clothing are emblematic of his status as a nobleman,  although he gets a bit more thematically vampiric after his initial appearance (though this at least manifests in larger capes and bat-shaped jewelry, i.e. "things that exist in real life, even at that time"). Mitsurugi's gear is a bit stylized, but it's consistently respectable; even in its "one shoulder pad" ridiculousness, it looks like something a brash warrior would choose to wear.

Even though these characters have distinct visual styles and varying degrees of "do whatever's cool" to their design, they're still designed in such a way that their personalities and background are connected to their appearance. The problem with Ivy's main costumes isn't that it's stupid or sexist (well, those are problems too), but the fact that it says nothing about her character. If it DID say something, it would be something like "she's sexually open", but she's not - she's totally chaste. In the same way, Sophitia's costumes used to make sense in terms of being peasant dress or a warrior-maiden's garb or something possibly stupid like that, but there's really no way to explain her Soul Calibur IV costume other than "the artists know what people are expecting". Characters like Hilde are an attempt to reverse that trend, but it still continues in its own way.

There's a few other male characters I'd like to discuss: Kilik, Maxi, Yun Seong, and Rock. These are dudes who are not fond of shirts. There are some alternate costumes that cover more, but they're clearly willing to flaunt it if they got it. Are these characters called out on being designed for purposes of female fanservice? N-well, maybe by some people, but in most cases "no". Their costumes still seem aesthetically designed to support their concept; Kilik's a warrior-monk, Maxi's a southern-Pacific pirate, Yun Seong's a brash young patriot, and Rock's a barbarian. It seems like a natural part of their character, to the extent that it's not like "whatever, he doesn't like wearing shirts because that's hot". In contrast, most female characters who are more sexualized feel forced into it; it's not a part of their characters or their design, it's just something that's sort of there. Characters like Setsuka and Seung Mina wear sexualized clothing, but it seems like something they'd actually choose to wear for their own reasons (well, depending on the outfit). It says something about their characters, or at least their sense of style.

The point is that "sexualization" and "stylization" are not in themselves bad things, but they should be used to say something about the character. A veteran warrior is going to dress differently than a dapper young noble; a chaste scholar is going to dress differently than a geisha. The clothing says something about them, either in terms of what they choose to wear and why they chose to do so, or how the artist's choices reflect the character's personality. If you're going for the former, it's better to do so in a way that the character can understand (i.e. having clothing that makes sense to the character instead of a magic outfit conjured from the creative aether), but if you're doing the latter, you should actually have the outfit be relevant to the character, instead of throwing on a totally unrelated fetish suit.

Soul Calibur ultimately throws me for a curve because it's not realistic, but it's not totally unrealistic either. There's so many parts where it seems like they're actually trying to do something logical, or at least to have some sort of purpose in the setting and the story, and yet there's so much other stuff where it's just "rule of cool sexy outfit" or "the giant sword bashes the dude into the wall and stuns him briefly". It's not the style that's bad per se (again, it IS bad, though), but it's the fact that the style detracts from ways that things could have been done creatively.

History isn't that boring, guys. People had crazy fashion in real life, it's not just something made up by anime artists. But it still had certain styles to it, and it was still based on materials and techniques that were actually possible to make or use, not just "well here's some latex in 16th century Japan". I'd be okay with unarmored characters as long as the clothing looked like something people would actually choose to wear of their own volition, and while some of the alternate outfits do a better job of that, it's not really the same thing. In a game like Soul Calibur, visual appearance is one of the major defining aspects of a character in terms of expression, and Soul Calibur's developers took that opportunity to say "their characters are irrelevant, here's some tits".

So basically, to sum all this up: pick a reason and stick with it. If you're going to just be like "do what's cool, whatever", then why are you bothering to do research and make SOME of the characters look okay? If you're going to set your game in the 16th century, then why aren't you putting your characters in outfits that make sense (or at least look real in some regard) for the time period? If you're going to give your characters backgrounds and personality, why doesn't their visual design correspond with that? Why? Why did this happen?!?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Analysis: Mount&Blade

"Mount&Blade" is a classic game, and by that I mean that it's old-school as heck. This isn't just a question of style or graphics, but of the intrinsic way that the game treats the player and gives the player opportunities to interact with the world. It dumps you in a setting and says "do what you want", which is the kind of wide-open sandbox that doesn't come up as often anymore. It is an approach that emphasizes interaction, usually at the expense of writing and dialogue. While M&B's world isn't totally believable, the ways in which it's unbelievable are useful in terms of discussing why and how believability is used.

Mount&Blade casts the player as a new immigrant to the land of Calradia, a fairly simplistic and obvious collection of real-world cultures, including France (Swadia), Italy (Rhodok), Mongolia (Khergit), Scandinavia (Nords), Russia (Vaegir), and the Middle East (Sarranid). These nations war with each other in an unending struggle for territory and fame. The player's role in this is to find a logical niche, starting off slaying bandits or harassing caravans to build up the strength and numbers necessary to join a faction (or even start their own).

One of Mount&Blade's major appeals for me is that it is built on a logical universe. Calradia is made up of a series of villages, castles, and towns, and it is these things that define the world. Calradia operates on a highly feudal system; lords own property and use the income to buy troops, and then when the country goes to war they gather together to take enemy territory. Peasants bring their wares to towns, and towns send trading convoys to other countries. Bandits will set up lairs and hideouts to attack groups of peasants or trading caravans, and when the player destroys a lair, the bandits dissipate. Towns that are allowed to trade without disruption will grow richer; towns that are constantly harassed will grow poorer. You can even talk to guildmasters in the towns to see what they need, what they trade, and so on.

Calradia is interesting because it works in a fairly logical way. It's a lot of subsystems connected in a way that makes everything work and keeps the caravans running on time. On the other hand, it's a perpetual system; it's hard to actually make things change in Calradia, and the best you can really hope for is making things switch hands. Lords can't be born or die, castles and villages can't be built or destroyed, and nothing's really permanent. You, the player, make your mark in the world by rising in the ranks according to the system, not by overcoming or subverting it. Even if you lose, the worst that happens is you lose all your troops and have to build up from the bottom again. It's a neat system for interaction, but less useful for emergent story stuff.

The reason for these things is pretty obvious, though: the game is about a world that's perpetually at war so that the player can find something to do. Ergo, if important people could die in battle, the player's interaction would be limited by people constantly dying. It's a reflection of the game's thematic focus; it's not "live in a world", it's "lead a mercenary band". This manifests in other parts of the game, as well; there's a lot of detail on some aspects of the world, and a lot less on other parts.

Interactions with people generally come in two forms. The player has reputations in villages and towns based on tasks done for them; saving them from bandits, helping them get more cattle, or even something as simple as buying everyone in a tavern a round of ale will raise your reputation, while raiding and pillaging will lower it. The former is a question of sacrifice or heroism, while the latter reaps immediate benefits but results in a long-term loathing. Your reputation in villages determines how many villagers you can recruit to your cause; the more highly a village thinks of you, the more numerous (and better-quality) the troops they offer will be. A player who pillages freely may soon find themselves without friends if their army is destroyed.

The other form of interaction is interpersonal. This is done through a fairly bare-bones dialogue system, but the game does manage to capture different personalities and viewpoints reasonably well. Players can talk to lords and nobles to earn their esteem in various ways, and if a player has a good enough relationship with a lord from an enemy nation, they can attempt to convince them to join their side by figuring out their perspective and appealing to it. Some nobles are more kind and generous, while others may be more cruel and bloodthirsty, and hence different actions will influence them in different ways. Building up a good relationship can even lead to possibilities of marriage (daughters and sisters for men, the rare open-minded lord for women).

Interaction, though, is generally another field where the focus rears its head. You can interact with lords in a huge number of strategic ways, such as advising them on courses of action or dealing with political manners. Maintaining good relations has a big impact on your status as a member of the game world and how different factions and characters view you. Yet this detail is largely for its own sake; there's not a lot of dialogue outside of the "professional" problems. You can't really just chat; even the courtship process is fairly brisk and businesslike, and there's basically no interaction once you're actually married.

In the same way, the player will find themselves leading great armies, perhaps even with several named, important companions. Yet the dialogue is minimal; regular troops cannot be talked to at all, and companions only have a few lines for specific occasions. This is a scenario where more emergent things could have been done; status updates on morale (companions have them, but they are very basic), a narrative description of abilities and statistics instead of a direct stat sheet, and so on. Talking conveys information of one form or another, and games should be able to convey information through conversation rather than an awkward, unimmersive character sheet.

The reason that this sort of bothers me is that Mount&Blade is a wide-open sandbox, and hence it is a world for the player to interact with. Yet ultimately there's not enough rewards in terms of intangibles like respect, power, celebrations, and so on. You get things done, and when they're done they're done. It's front-heavy; a lot of effort put into the process of getting there, but not a lot to show for it when you've finally reached your goal. Hence, the game is driven entirely by player motivation, rather than any real rewards. In fact, that's true of a lot of the game; even the more tangible goals of gaining property and leading armies are going to be based on the player finding these things interesting, rather than the game going out of its way to make them seem worthwhile. While that's fine in a limited sense, it would be better to develop the rewards aspect more to make the world seem more rounded.

Mount&Blade's combat system is one of the few systems that really feels like it adheres to a common-sense view of fighting in that period. Everything is pretty much doing what it makes sense to do. Parrying and shields work by being physically interposed between the wielder and a blow or projectile. Armor reduces damage on the covered area, and an uncovered area can be attacked to do more damage (going un-helmeted is basically a death sentence). Weapons have swing arcs rather than simply being intangible, meaning that different weapons have different uses. This leads to intuitive tactics: in tightly packed quarters, swing overhead or thrust. In open areas, slashes are more effective. If you're approaching an archer, raise your shield; if a shield-bearer is approaching you, shoot him in the legs.

What I enjoy about M&B's combat is that it feels logical. When I mess up, I can see why. When I do well, I can see why. When I look at a video of other people playing, I can see why things happened the way they did. It's about physical location and movement, not about meta-gaming. There's a few unrealistic things, naturally, like movement and jumping in general, but overall it's a common-sense platform. Demon's Souls also tried for that sort of combat, but the nature of combat animations made it a bit more quizzical. Mount&Blade is simple: attack from a direction, make sure there's nothing in the way of you and the target. It's also challenging enough reflexively that it's enjoyable on its own, in my opinion. It's really the kind of system that should be emulated by every medieval game, because it's a way to do things that makes reasonable sense while still being engaging.

Artistic Direction
I don't think M&B would be half as immersive without its wonderful illustrations, done by Mongolian illustrator Ganbat Badakhand. These illustrations are used as a sort of reinforcing tool, being subtly connected to different events and occurrences. It depicts the world that the game's representing, and while the graphics are good enough to do that on its own, the presence of these illustrations definitely helps to establish "what we're supposed to be seeing". It's a very down-to-earth style that still manages to look stylized and interesting through positioning and visual direction.

Of course, the game's graphics aren't too bad either. The armor in M&B is some of the most sensible that can be found in any game, because it's all stuff that makes sense; hauberks of mail or jackets of brigandine, with coverage for four major areas of the body (head, arms, legs, and torso) that ensures that characters need to dress sensibly to survive. This doesn't mean that they look boring; there's a wide variety of tabards, surcoats, and tunics worn over or under the armor, but the most important aspect is that the armor itself is normal. Games generally seem to put too much focus on making the armor itself look strange or exotic, rather than having the clothes be the visually interesting part and the armor being more sensible. In addition, lords don't wear their armor all the time, and this too is something I think games tend to miss out on: the fact that, when you're out of battle, you can wear whatever you want. When it comes to armor design, business ought to come before pleasure, at least if you want it to be taken seriously.

Mount&Blade (or Warband, I should say) doesn't really look super-great in comparison to its contemporaries, and while there are some mods to fix it, this tends to detract from immersion. It's a scenario where I feel like the knee-jerk response is "gameplay is more important than graphics", and while that's true I think the presence of graphics can be used well to make the game feel more real to the player. Still, it's hard to fault the design and aesthetic in general; it's only the technical details that fall short.

Mount&Blade is a game that I would say needs to be experienced fresh to really understand the appeal. It's a game that gets boring after you've played it for a long time, but there's a real feeling of accomplishment in going from a low-level nobody to a great general through force of arms and quickness of wit. The first time you've built up enough troops to storm a city and claim ownership of it, it shows how far you've gone in the game world. While the period after that accomplishment is a bit dry and underdeveloped, it's the kind of RPG that really tries to portray the player's rise to power instead of just throwing him at higher-level things as he or she gains strength. It's not exactly a universal game model, but it works well for what it does, and it's easily expanded upon for new games as well.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Analysis: Bioshock

 Bioshock is one of the most well-known names among "people who take games seriously" crowds. Its artistic style and philosophically influenced setting has drawn a sort of artsy following and earned it a lot of critical acclaim. However, I've always had a problem with it, and the problem is that there are two Bioshocks: "story Bioshock" and "gameplay Bioshock". Story Bioshock is based on reality with some minor deviations (plasmids and splicers). Gameplay Bioshock is a pretty standard FPS that doesn't treat anything like its real equivalent in order to make a very "game-like" experience. Story Bioshock is about an unbelievable underwater city populated by believable human beings; Gameplay Bioshock is a series of corridors populated by hostile AI.

It's the same problem that games like FFXI and, to a lesser extent, Lost Planet had: the setting does not support the gameplay, and the gameplay exists in a way that ignores the setting. The difference, of course, is that while one has to go digging for interesting concepts in FFXI and LP, in Bioshock the interesting stuff is staring you in the face. However, in Bioshock those concepts are used as a distraction to try to make the player ignore the fact that the actual gameplay has nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, to make use of its setting properly, Bioshock would have to be a different game; perhaps not totally different, but different enough. There are too many things about the gameplay that just don't make sense for it to be believable. So let's start from the beginning.

Story & Premise
Bioshock takes place in the Randian utopia/dystopia of Rapture, a massive underwater city designed by its founder, Andrew Ryan, to serve as a haven against the various societal and governmental influences that exist on the surface. One of its main goals is to escape the ideas of forced altruism that Ryan felt pervaded the surface world in the form of taxes, charities, etc. Another goal was to avoid the influence of things like censorship and moral control, especially in regards to things like research and development.

One of the things that this unhindered research results in is the development of ADAM, a material taken from sea slugs that allows for genetic modification and development. While the player mostly comes into contact with combat-related Plasmids like throwing fire or lightning, most of the Plasmids are suggested to be more utilitarian in nature, ranging from cosmetic improvements to medical advancements. However, the side effect is that ADAM eventually causes mental and physical decay, resulting in the mutated beings known as Splicers.

Rapture is eventually taken down due to Ryan's paranoid need to keep the city a secret from the surface world (though how a billion tons of material and thousands of prominent citizens just disappeared without notice, I don't know). His fear of the surface allows smugglers such as Frank Fontaine to establish a racket based on the unfulfilled needs of the populace, especially the poorer segments of the population. This eventually led to a civil war between Fontaine's followers and Ryan's followers that ended up destroying most of the city, a war exacerbated by the sanity-influencing effects caused by Plasmid usage.

The player in Bioshock takes the role of Jack, Ryan's son, who was subject to research by Fontaine that accelerated his growth and instituted mental programming. He was taken out of Rapture, then activated later as a Sleeper Agent. Jack's genetic makeup allowed him to bypass many of Ryan's security measures, and Fontaine's use of the command phrase "Would You Kindly" kept him under control. Under Fontaine's instruction, Jack made his way to Ryan's sanctum and murdered him. Following this, Jack was rescued and deprogrammed, at which point Jack made his way to Fontaine and murdered him too. The events following this depend on the player's morality.

While there's a lot of things in Bioshock's story that rely on suspension of disbelief, it's not a bad story. It's a logical set of events for the most part, and while its commentary on the Randian ideal is somewhat diluted by the necessity of crazy genetic modifiers that make people go insane, it's still fairly solid as a philosphical analysis. However, the problem is that Bioshock isn't a book or a movie. It is a game. Games are meant to be played and interacted with, and the role of the player takes Jack's role from "acceptable" to "forced".

Bioshock's plot twist - that the player is being controlled by their friendly radio voice - is designed in such a way that it serves as commentary on the traditional player-character relationship, in a crude aping of the Metal Gear Solid formula (which was already fairly questionable). However, the mechanics of the mind control don't match up with the way that the player is corralled throughout the game. The player does what they do for two reasons. Firstly, they are receiving instructions on the radio that are indicated to be issues of survival, i.e. "if you do this you will get out of Rapture". There is no reason for them not to be followed, and if there was a reason it would be undermined by the second issue.

The second issue is the fact that the path through Rapture is entirely linear, and there is no way to go except forward. It is not a question of control or exertion of free will, it is the fact that the choice is literally not the player's to make. There is nothing else that you could do except go along with Fontaine's plan, and it isn't because of the mind control. The mind control is shown to work in a very direct and unavoidable way: go here, do this. However, unless Jack's programming knows exactly where Ryan is, there is no reason for the rest of the city to be inaccessible. In addition, there is no reason for Fontaine to mess around with all the other excuses and justification: he could have just grabbed control of him immediately and told him to go kill Ryan.

In a normal plot, these would be relatively minor gripes. The fact that the game is a game is what makes it a problem. The player will try to do other things and find that they cannot. It is not because of Fontaine's insidious plot, nor is it because of the limitations of Jack's will. It is because they did not program those areas. That is the reason. Bioshock's plot is the same as every other linear FPS' plot, except they are laughing at you for it. That's it. Even if you were suspicious of Atlas from the very first moment, there is nothing you can do. Even if you really just wanted to get home, there is nothing you can do. It makes assumptions about the player's motives and then taunts them for having them even if it cannot confirm them.

What bothers me about it is how little work it required on the part of the developers versus how much praise they got for it. It was a way for them to change absolutely nothing about the gameplay while still retaining intellectual credibility. It's like making a bad game and then at the end going "I tricked you, you just played a bad game". It doesn't make the game good, it's just a poor justification for bad gameplay. The in-game justification is mind control, but the actual issue is that the programmers didn't provide any alternative paths, and to be frank the mind control justification doesn't actually cover that.

One part of the game that should have made for an interesting concept, but wasn't really used that well, was the concept of the Splicers. Splicers are human beings who use mass-produced Plasmids exactly like the ones players use, found in vending machines across the game world. They are insane individuals, but it's indicated that Ryan is coercing them through payments of ADAM, and thus they can theoretically be reasoned with to some extent. They're part of a hostile environment, but they're still people, even if they're unstable people with a wide variety of superpowers.

Naturally, the game doesn't use any of this.

Splicers are always hostile units who are grouped by class: Thuggish Splicers, Leadhead Splicers, Spider Splicers, Houdini Splicers, and Nitro Splicers. Splicers of different classes are fundamentally identical even if they're defined only by the weapon they carry. Some have Plasmids, but it's based entirely on their class, not on individual variations. They feel like factory-churned robots, not like people, and it doesn't help that there's only a few Splicer models and voices. It's supposed to feel like a city full of lunatics, but instead it feels like a game area full of standard enemy types.

What bothers me about this the most is that a lot of the voice acting is really good. It's intense, it's emotional, and it suggests a humanity that is totally undermined when it's strapped to a robot with the instructions "kill kill kill kill kill". There's even voice clips in that video that suggest Splicers can be bartered with. They have different factions, different motives, and different viewpoints. They have different origins and different Plasmids and different mutations. They should be different, and the game grinds them out like an assembly line. It's hard to take seriously when they serve no purpose other than speedbumps and pop-scares. They should have been treated like people, and instead they're treated like robots.

Presentation and Combat
While Bioshock's artistic direction is certainly distinct and memorable, there are other forms of its presentation that tend to suffer as a result of not being the main focus. It is these things that primarily took me out of the game, not just in terms of logic but also in terms of tactile connection. Indulge me for a minute and allow me to tell you a story. I picked up Bioshock after not having played in a while, due to my recent interest in that time period. While I remembered that I didn't like it, I felt like it ought not to matter because I was there for the immersion. This worked reasonably well for the game's intro; the sweeping visuals, the distinct design, the detail on the different objects, etc. However, it simply evaporated as soon as I engaged in combat. The worthless little plinks of the revolver (or even worse, the tiny scratches of the Thompson SMG) drew zero reactions from the Splicers, who kept advancing without even acknowledging they were hit. Then they hit me, and all that happened was that my health went down.

Damage in a game is kind of difficult to do. Condemned is one of the few games notable for its brutal depiction of melee combat, so expecting Bioshock to be able to pull off the same concept might not be fair. On the other hand, it creates a problem. I was drawn in by the realism and detail of the world, and all of that became totally useless as soon as I picked up a gun. It turned it from a tangible, believable world to a game level. The guns and their effects on the Splicers are so unbelievable that it was almost impossible to go back to appreciating Rapture as a "real place" afterwards. It was basically necessary for the gameplay, though, which is also inhernetly unrealistic.

So how would this be fixed? My suggestion would be to make the game more of a stealth/adventure game than a high-powered FPS. Make encounters with Splicers more optional (i.e. provide ways to negotiate or evade them), but also more deadly. Problems should have multiple solutions, and the most direct one shouldn't always be the best. In essence, it needs to be realistic, not just because "realism is good" or whatever, but because it's attempting to portray a realistic world in Rapture. The world it shows it at odds with the gameplay, despite the fact that many parts of the setting are there to justify the standard FPS conventions (such as the different stores).

Bioshock is first and foremost a game about combat, regardless of whether you're using stealth or hacking turrets or whatever. It's a game about Splicers getting shot en masse in the face. The atmosphere of fear that the game attempts to cultivate through the use of "monster closets" and atmospheric noises is undermined by the fact that Jack is a superman who literally cannot die due to the presence of Vita-Chambers. It attempts to make the Splicers justified, but then treats them like disposable zombies instead of insane people. It tries to make the world realistic, but fails when it comes to depicting combat and damage.

What bothers me the most about Bioshock is that people praise it for its setting, and then apply that praise to the game itself. Bioshock is a mediocre game with an acceptable setting. If Bioshock is accepted as a shining example of gaming, then the bar is being lowered; it doesn't matter how well the game plays or how well it integrates concepts as long as it looks nice. In terms of gameplay, the setting only exists to justify the linearity, and even that's half-done. They could have made a game that actually worked with Rapture and the concepts it represents, but they didn't, and people are okay with that. We, as a gaming community, ought to expect more than that.