|Michael’s Corner: The Bane Game Feature
It appears our number one preoccupation has entered into the realm of number one priority. The desire for the world to accept our ever-endearing medium that is gaming as the Earth's next major art form, once a non-issue in our minds, has transformed itself into an obsessive plight for glory. Frankly, I think we should worry less about what others think and concentrate more on bettering the games, ridding them of their remaining artistic incompetencies.
We certainly have painted a pretty picture for ourselves: every so often a few broad statements show up damning other mediums, labelling film or television as hopelessly commercial and passive—the implication, of course, that games suffer from little to no maladies. You would think interactive storytelling had reached its pinnacle and there is only mild narrative tweaking left to be accomplished. Far from it. Of course, we cannot pinpoint problem areas with our left hand if our right is busy proclaiming to the masses our unprecedented innovation and perfection—let us not add hypocrisy to our list of sins. So why bother preaching when we could be working, perhaps even to enhance the medium to a level of artistic unavoidability, where it would simply have to be noticed? Let non-believers suffer their ignorance, and us move on and upward.
It is no secret that the unique selling point of gaming software is interactivity, where the audience has a palpable and significant control over the events that take place within the game world. Team this with the movement of the role-playing and other story-based genres from just that, role-playing games, into an elaborate form of storytelling, and the result is an emergent narrative. It would be safe to assume that this is primarily where artistic advancements will take place. Video games, I believe, will forever remain a niche market, but responsive storytelling will flourish and develop into a popular medium all its own, independently from games; the relationship, as noted by industry veteran Chris Crawford, will be similar to the current popularity divide between traditional literature—novels and short stories—and comic books. Of course, to progress in this direction, a critical eye must be turned to the current situation. People satisfied with the way things are rarely moved to have things changed. And so, what current issues must we address? What about our medium is preventing it from moving forward, not necessarily in the sense of mass market acceptance, but in terms of medium growth and maturation?
An emergent narrative allows for its audience to make critical decisions in the progression of a story. As a result, the path that the "gamer" chooses should be reflective of their values and how they have applied them to the decision-making within the game. In this light, an obvious example of where there is room for improvement is within the very nature of the decisions that gamers are made to make. Micro-managing the characters that assume the role of player avatar (for example, determining what weapons and equipment to purchase) and devising battle strategies for them (from strategy game raids to selecting 'Attack') are the two most popular, and traditional examples of player interactivity. But these are related to the game and gameplay aspect of the bigger picture. In terms of a story-driven game, or as with the example of a literally-defined emergent narrative, gameplay is not as significant a factor, if a factor at all, and so it should be examined how player input affects the story, an area of significantly greater artistic importance. To some extent, this has been addressed. Recently, Chrono Cross made fairly wide use of multiple story paths, essentially placing narrative forks in the road that would lead different players down different narrative threads depending on their actions. But many of these instances were determined by a player's method of exploration, where the narrative path taken was the result of entering a particular house first; not exactly a reaction-discovery interesting from a psycho-analytical point of view, and not exactly a realization of interactivity's potential.
One surefire way for artistic growth is to increase the degree and real world relevance of a larger variety of themes with the decisions being made by the gamer. There is still an underlying hindrance however, common in nearly all games of storytelling genres that would inhibit this growth even if this were done. For instance, let us create a game scenario in which the player must decide between aborting a child a character is carrying, or having it. Having the baby results in suffering a loss of 40% of the gold earned in battle in order to support it, assuming that this is a significant cut in currency. Additionally, the limitation is set that only one of the parental characters (both extremely powerful, near-vital) can be in your party at a time (since one must stay home with the child). Counter this with the prospect of the gamer taking a 50% loss in funds and deciding to leave both parents out of the active party and home with the child so as to acquire a hidden character later in the game as this would help raise the newborn into a tended to and trained warrior. This creates an interesting gameplay choice, all three outcomes containing tempting qualities in terms of how the party will fare further on in the game. But there is also a significant narrative choice being made, one tagged with very strong moral implications. All of this however, can be undermined if applied to the format of most story-based games released today.
The hindrance, in terms of artistic integrity, affects the purity of the moral decision, but this trickles down to sabotage the entire balance on all three levels. The appreciation of a decision such as the one to be made in the above scenario cannot be realized if it is not the morals of the player driving the decision. If you borrow a friend's copy of the game and memory card, and load his or her save to discover they opted to abort the child, ideally, and most critical to the capabilities granted by something such as an emergent narrative, the assumption could be safely made that your friend is pro-choice and has no serious qualms with abortion if having the child is a significant enough burden—in this case a financial pressure and time consumer. But what if upon further inspection you discover your friend has another save where the decision was made to have the child? Was your friend having a moral dilemma, one where they were so utterly at a loss for what to do that they simply had to try every option so as not to commit to just one? It is far more likely that they took advantage of the luxury that a manually controlled save feature offers to satisfy their curiousity and discover the consequences had they taken the other options. More importantly, since the availability of such a practice was known to be available to them prior to the decision-making, the decision was never approached with the degree of attention or importance it should have been in the first place. The end result is a killing of the gameplay choice since both routes become known and their advantages and disadvantages assessed openly and the best route taken confidently (though if the design was done correctly, there would be a fairly even balance in terms of gameplay in the long run, anyway), and a slaughtering of the moral dilemma as it is reduced to whichever is best for the party in terms of success in battle. Therefore, the artistic integrity of the narrative, including the element of interactivity, which is supposed to allow the reflection of the gamer's instinctual response to events, is compromised. The culprit here is the current model of the save game feature.
In terms of reactions, as they relate to a gamer's ability to affect the game itself, the more impulsive and natural, the more telling and artistically important they are. This is not to say that players should respond to major plot decisions on a whim—all decisions in virtual worlds or the real one deserve the application of critical thought—but gamers cannot be permitted by designers to allow preoccupying factors like what kind of Full Motion Video they will see if they choose one path, or the likelihood of meeting a lost character again if they choose another, to get in the way of making responses that more accurately reflect their values and livelihood.
The next question, of course, is how to do this. One preliminary measure is to create a narrative immersive enough, and decision-making conflicts interesting enough, to remove the possibility of trailing thought that leads to such curiousities rising to begin with. More directly, and not so dependant on genius, is the application of a concurrent, or effectively perpetual save feature which, through its authority, holds the player in the decision-making moment longer and greatly adds to the importance of the decision itself—it creates the same scenarios, but with no option of turning back. At the beginning of a new game, the player would select an area on their hard drive or on a memory card to store their progress, and without gamer initiative the progress is just saved after each completion of a set time interval (for example, every five minutes) automatically. A variant is allowing a gamer to save at any time (or set save points), but forcing a save after each plot-affecting decision while maintaining a strict adherence to limiting the save to a single memory compartment per new game. The possibilities, although finite, are bountiful, and the artistic benefits great. It is that some sort of modification is necessary to further enhance the artistic significance of a malleable medium such as this that is important and should be noted. Currently, an option after making a decision you may deem to be the wrong one is to hit the reset button; by eliminating this option, the decision being made in the first place is given that much more consideration and thought as the result will directly be a reflection of the gamer's decision-making, permanently, for all to see. The end result now is an end-game far more telling of the gamer's values applied to the constructed game world presented by the designers.
To say a revision of the save feature would solve all of the gaming medium's artistic inadequacies is quite an oversight. There are far more fundamental flaws prevalent, with answers not nearly as simple as the implementation of a new or adjusted feature. With that said however, it should be noted that the proverbial Rome was not built in a day; in order for us to build on the foundations set and further the gaming medium, it is necessary to break gaming down into its elements and look at the situation objectively. To increase the relevance of the themes presented in games, and to construct a system to better utilize the interactive nature of them is, or at least should be, a future aim of the industry. For us to expand our narrative scope successfully, it would most definitely be in our best interests to attempt to deal with what would result in future problems now. And essentially, that is my point. We had a fantastic leap in artistic credibility over the last four or five years, be it recognized by the mass market or not. Now is not the time to stop. As I suggested earlier, nothing gets fixed if no one thinks it is broken, so let's find what is broken and begin the fixing.
- Michael Jens Harnest