Archive, Criticism

ARCHIVE: There Are Two Marstons

This was originally posted on tumblr on July 4th, 2014.


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One of the Indie3 panels I was self-aware enough to watch live was Solon Scott’s interview with Arden Ripley about her upcoming game, Date or Die! Their discussion eventually worked its way around to talking about visual novels and games writing in more general terms, and how to write a protagonist who at once functions as the player’s ambassador in the game world and a fully-formed, individual character in their own right:

’[I]t’s really challenging, but fun, writing a protagonist who is their own character whilst still trying to give the player choices and options and stuff. I don’t want them to feel like they just don’t have any say in what’s going on at all, but at the same time I don’t want them to be able to say things that are wildly inconsistent with Hero’s character, because that just makes her a bad character and then the player doesn’t have any fun with that if their character is inconsistent and all over the place. That’s no good for anyone. […] Usually in some games you might get an option where you can say something nice to someone or be a jerk to somebody, and Hero’s not a jerk. She’s just not that kind of mean person. But what you might be able to do is accidentally pick an option where Hero says something insensitive or thoughtless, as opposed to her actively antagonising anybody. So it’s about how you approach making options for players that are meaningful whilst making her a consistent character.’

The challenge here is crossing a gulf between the aspirations of system design and narrative design. In fact, my describing it as a ‘gulf’ already plays into that view of gameplay and story as being two forces pulling in different directions – not necessarily completely opposed, but very rarely aligned. Whilst trends in game design lean towards choice and increasing player agency, the narratives that are imposed onto these changing structures are the same as ever; conflict-orientated, good versus evil, often linear. The result is that at some point, these narrative models will not be able to accommodate the expansive aspirations of the game’s systems, and the former will suffer as a result. My go-to example of this is Red Dead Redemption.

At the beginning of RDR we’re introduced to John Marston, a former outlaw who’s been promised amnesty by the Bureau of Investigation for his previous crimes if he helps to apprehend the members of his old gang. Marston has also been forcibly separated from his family, and his regaining access to them is part of the bargain. Within the opening minutes of the game, the player is presented with a protagonist who a) has been forced into obeying and actively working with the law and b) has two suitably large incentives for doing so. The narrative gives us a character with a predefined goal and motivation, all of which imposes some pretty obvious limits on his interactions with the world; all of this person’s decisions would have to be made with his family’s safety and his future freedom in mind.

But as soon as the player is given control of Marston, the game has no such sense of restraint or consideration. You can shoot pretty much whomever you want, whenever you want, and the worst that can happen is a drop in your ‘honour’. You can ride into the town of Armadillo and shoot up the local tavern but afterwards the sheriff will still have a story mission for you that’s preluded by a cutscene in which the two characters strike up a muted friendship based on quiet, gruff respect for each other. The game wants to give you the choice to become a marauding criminal (again) if you want to, but the story is telling you that that’s not who Marston is anymore.

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I wrote about this issue – using this exact same example – a few years ago for Games? Magazine, and at the time I figured that the answer was to wait a few years, to wait until processors and machines were good enough to encompass games that could contain multiple, wildly varying stories that branched off of a single starting point. By Moore’s Law, I reckoned, it had to happen at some point, surely? What follows here is a redaction, I suppose, because Arden is right.

The issue is not so much that the game doesn’t respond realistically to Marston shooting up a town, but that Marston can shoot up a town at all. Rather than thinking about how to resolve the conflict between ‘cutscene Marston’ and ‘gameplay Marston’, one should think about how to make sure a conflict never arises. Once you make that the central question, the answer becomes obvious: better writing. By better writing I mean writing that works with the systems of gameplay and doesn’t box characters in to a certain set of morals which are ready to be undermined by the player at any point once the cutscene ends.

But so often we have no idea what ‘better writing’ entails, and usually this leads to a mix up between the meanings of ‘better’ and ‘more stylish’. That’s how we end up with, say, the Bioshockgames, which contain very stylish monologues and dialogues and one-liners and zingers but so much of the plot, thematic development and characterisation is crap. For writing to be better it needs to match up with the structure of gameplay on some level so that you feel like both were designed to work with each other.

There is, of course, lots of better writing in games already. Just off the top of my head, Thomas Was Alone is a good example. It establishes and fleshes out several great characters and then slowly brings them together to coalesce in a triumphant finale. That and, crucially, it works with all the other game elements to achieve its lasting effect. Better writing isn’t just aesthetically pleasing; it’s also structurally sound and thoroughly consistent. Arden’s version of this is spot-on because it lets the player explore certain nuances within Hero whilst still keeping Hero well-defined. Characters need to be well-rounded, not contradictory, capable of changes rather than discrepancies.

It’s fine to have ambitious systems of player agency, more of it, please, but if you want that and a cinematic, author-driven story, then you can’t expect them both to fit together, exist in harmony and never conflict. They will, and necessarily.

Arden Ripley’s Date or Die! is slated for a 2015 release. You can find more information on the game at its website here.

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