Tuesday, April 26

On Misinformation

Final Verdict: Ehh, it's alright.
I was playing Borderlands recently, wondering why I’ve sunk so many hours into it, when I started thinking more clearly about the game.  It Borderlands, you will notice that a number pops up every time you shoot an enemy, indicating the damage you dealt.  It made me think about the teaching most game designers receive, specifically the habit of making sure the player understands every action they perform and the consequences of it.  This can be easy to understand the logic behind; you want the player to know what they’re doing.  While this is true, I’ve found that my most compelling and immersive game experiences have come from situations where I don’t know exactly what I’m doing.  Oh sure, I understand the controls and basic setup, but the story, the effects of my actions, these are the unknowns that keep me invested and cause me to care about my decisions.
Looking back to the Fable games, you may remember the tag for the first was “For every choice, a consequence,” and that could be said to be true, but the problem was players could easily figure out what they consequences would be since it usually boiled down to “Kill this guy or don’t.”  Even actions like theft didn’t have any real consequence unless you were caught.
It is more in game like Dragon Age or Fallout that I find myself actually wondering about the choices I’ve made.  For instance, there is a point in Dragon Age Origins when you have the option of killing a woman to enact a magic ritual, or going to the Mage’s tower to ask for assistance there.  Clearly, killing her is not the preferable idea, but it will save the life of her son, and she is more than willing to do it.  At the same time, it would end a great threat to a nearby city, which has been plagued with undead attacks every night, and lost most of their population.  The question becomes: Do you take more time and cost possibly many more lives in going to the tower, or do you enact the ritual on the spot, saving the greatest number of people as quickly as possible?  I chose the latter, and afterward I realized because I wasn’t sure if there would be consequences for taking too long.
So it’s only because I was ignorant of the exact mechanics at work that I really cared about my actions.  If I knew the game wouldn’t impose a penalty for time (and I’m not telling you if it does or not), then my actions would have revolved around that, around the mechanics rather than the story.  The fine folks at Extra Credits made this point with regards to the binary morality issue; hiding the statistics would instead give us the feel that people hated or loved us based on our actions, not the arbitrary judgment of those actions.
This quality has only really come forward in the most recent generation of games, at least so far as I’ve seen, because now, with the medium developing and so many people pushing the artistry of it, it becomes hard to be sure what a game does or doesn’t have going on behind the scenes.  I’m sure that some people will be able to note the same sorts of effects from the past couple of generations, but I don’t feel I’ve really come across it until recently.
The main series can suck it.
Now, there’s a question of how far this method should go, certainly.  A player needs to know the controls, their objectives, and so on, right?  Sure, you may not know your ultimate goal immediately in a game, but it should reveal itself as the story progresses.  That last point, I don’t know about.  I think it’s a quality of linear storytelling and familiar tropes like the three-act structure that make us push games into the same style.  We’re unused to trying it different ways, but I can think of one game that lets the player find the real stories, and only gives tangential hints, leading to an experience you feel you’ve impacted and left truly for the better: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.
No, I’m not going to let up on this game, it’s one of my absolute favourites because it provided me with a strange, unique experience I haven’t forgotten.  And so we’re clear, every Crystal Chronicles game since has been trash.
FF:CC on the Gamecube received a lot of flack at the time for it’s multiplayer mode basically being a huge money-grab by Nintendo.  Surprise surprise.  But unfortunately, that meant a lot of the game got looked over, and unfortunately, this part was lost in the shuffle.  The game can continue for an absurdly long time, and the final goal is not contingent on getting to it, or really scripted events that need to play out.  The game itself is about experience, and the element that allows you to play to the end is a measure of your experiences.
This is where games really need to start exploring.  In many ways, it’s the same a great D&D campaign can be run.  A start point, a live, moving world with variable elements the players can impact, and an end point, far away, and contingent on the experience of the player, less measured in strength or cut scenes, but in a measurement unto itself. 
To create experience, we must experience ourselves and emulate.  The emotions, the relationships, the understanding and lack of understanding.  Not that we should strive for unparalleled realism, but we must recognize that not knowing the exact outcome of our actions is what causes to contemplate them.  Knowing them invalidates what truly may come of the experience, it negates any introspection once we see the consequences, and this is what games allow better than any other medium: the ability to look at your choices, your reasons, even when your action play out poorly, and wonder if you still stand behind it, if you are willing to re-evaluate yourself and your beliefs when confronted by their dark side, or whether you choose to hold fast and continue on a path you truly believe in, regardless of how it affect the rest of the world.

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