July 5, 2013: Now hosted at bluehost.
August 5, 2012: Moved most things over to dmyers.us — hosted at justhost — including this blog.
The last bit of game you play in Mass Effect 3 fires two missiles down the throat of an Empire-State-Building-sized mechanical (‘synthetic’) Reaper bad-guy-thingy. These two missiles, unlike the zillions that have been fired before, have Commander Shepard’s magic touch and destroy the thingy. And then, later — much, much later — the vaunted Mass Effect three-game series rolls to a stop in the cloying waste of its own narrative muck, void of game play, game sense, and game magic.
Not even new voice recruit Buzz Aldrin, woodenly playing an overly tall Yoda in the game’s final (finally!) cut-scene, can put all the Mass Effect pieces back together again.
Disappointment? You bet.
But realize this, dear BioWare, game players don’t dislike your ending because everyone dies. Game players dislike your ending because it’s a bad ending.
So what’s memorable about Mass Effect 3?
Maybe, if it were The Real Housewives of Mass Effect 3, you might remember that time Shepard got in the sack with Miranda, or Ashley, or the equal-gender-opportunity provided by the new shuttle pilot.
Or, maybe, during an Oprah interview, you could talk about the time Tali decided to end it all with a backward, Acapulco-style swan dive. Or that time you had to shoot Ashley because she was preventing you from… doing something. Or that moment with Liara when she transported both of you into… uh, mind-space, I think.
But Mass Effect 3 is a game. And, because it’s a game, here’s what I remember:
I remember what it took to fire those two missiles that brought down that Reaper. Killing hordes of Banshees and Marauders and Brutes. Sending five Brutes at me at once — are you kidding me?
Or maybe the earlier sequence at the Cerberus base, where Shepard, gripped by a sudden elemental and unreasonable hubris, decides to stare down one of those huge Reaper bad-guy-thingies all by his lonesome. (That was the sequence where I died who knows how many times before learning the intricacies of the spacebar-aided side roll.)
Or maybe that time at the nuclear factory, when both squad members went down and I was out of med-gel and had to play tag with a Brute and his buddies for fifteen minutes.
Or maybe jumping and just barely escaping to the shuttle with my screen entirely splattered in red.
Or maybe the image of a headless body falling backwards after a sniper shot I took on the run from, like, two miles away.
Those are the game parts.
And those become the most memorable parts when you play the game — I firmly believe — because they have something to do with you, not with Commander Shepard.
Unlike what happens at the end of Mass Effect 3.
Supposedly, I read, there are slight differences in the ending of Mass Effect 3 depending on whether or not you logged onto the EA servers and played an otherwise superfluous and perfunctory multiplayer game — in order to max out your “Effective Military Strength.”
Do I care about this?
Multiplayer in Mass Effect? No, I do not.
Also, supposedly, you can slightly alter the Mass Effect 3 ending by being an attentive cut-scene watcher and clicking appropriately during a couple of “quick time event” moments.
But that’s pointless. The cut-scene rolls inevitably on regardless.
Again: The ending of Mass Effect 3 is not about you. It’s not even about Commander Shepard.
At the end of the Mass Effect series, you are forced to move the Commander Shepard character forward (to end the damn game), but you can only move that character in one direction. The enemies in front of Commander Shepard at the end of Mass Effect 3, unlike the enemies in the game part, can’t kill him. Likewise, the player behind Commander Shepard, unlike the player in the game part, can’t kill him.
And, as this game — all games really — makes clear, if you can’t kill something, then you don’t control it.
In the final section of Mass Effect 3, the enigmatic Illusive Man enigmatically appears and rambles on about control. Something about the Illusive Man controlling the Reapers, or the Reapers controlling the Illusive Man. Or something. It doesn’t last long. And then the Illusive Man dies.
The game player dies right there with the Illusive Man.
There is no way for the game player to escape BioWare and those Mass Effect 3 literati designers who are going to — you know they are — shove that innocent-little-boy-dies-in-fire metaphor down your throat one more time.
You’ve lost control, people. You’ve been blown up.
The bad-guy-thingies have won.
I’ll be at the University of Malta workshop on digital games and literary theory next week.
My presentation is called How games might annihilate narratives. [Update: pdf draft here.]
Here I examine two specific definitions of games and narratives — from Herman’s Basic Elements of Narrative (2009) and Suits’s The Grasshopper (1978) as assumptive of formal distinctions between the two forms. I then explore the origins and implications of this formal distinction from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Ryan’s claim (in Avatars of Story, 2006) of compatibility between games and narratives is questioned in some detail, particularly as regards that claim’s emphasis of Herman’s “worldmaking/disruption” function of digital game replay. Ultimately, the essay describes the communicative and expressive functions of, respectively, narrativity and liminality as separate modes of human cognition.
In the relative short history of digital games, games and narratives have mounted an uneasy alliance. Despite the commercial success of narrative-based games and despite considerable theoretical interest in the synthesis of games and narratives, aesthetic tension remains. And, unfortunately, most recent attempts by game designers to resolve this tension (e. g., incorporating quick-time events like those in Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, or including morally ambivalent gameplay like that of CD Projekt RED STUDIO’s Witcher series), appear no more effective in providing an enjoyable narrative experience than the more radical of strategy of switching off the game-play entirely, as offered within Bioware’s newest release, Mass Effect 3.
In contrast to the seeming inability of interactive digital media to adopt a sastisfactory narrative aesthetic, it is interesting to note that the medium of film much more quickly did so. Less than ten years after the Lumière brothers first projected Arrival of a Train at a Station (1895), Edwin S. Porter had produced The Great Train Robbery (1903). And, only ten years after that, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin were household names.
In roughly the same amount of time, digital games have cycled through interactive fiction and adventure games and role-playing games and a variety of other, similarly narrative-inspired and narrative-duplicating aesthetic forms that have failed, consensually, to inspire to the same degree as their originals. Digital games, on the other hand, have had increasing influence and impact during their short history, both when packaged as narratives and when not.
I have presented here an explanation as to why this might be the case: Games and narratives exist most appeallingly as aesthetic experiences within two different modes of human cognition.
These two distinct modes — labeled here luminality and narrativity — originate within the natural history of our species and continue to influence us much in the same manner as did their original forms: one fundamentally expressive, the other fundamentally communicative. In these two fundamental respects, then, these two modes of human cognition function quite differently and independently: they interpret and understand the world around us in different ways and, as a result, offer different ways of being in that world. To be within one of these two is, simultaneously, not to be within the other — just as, analogously, to be entirely rational is not, simultaneously, to be entirely narrative.
Nevertheless, as equally modes of human cognition, these two share common functions of human semiotic systems more generally (including the transgressive function of self-reference). In these shared semiotic functions, games and narratives may yet find some aesthetically acceptable union, even if only an ironic and dissonant one.
For surely, games and narrative are not so far apart in function as raven and writing desk. And the output of one might well serve as fuel and fodder for the other. Certainly, our most aesthetically pleasing game plays and replays provide incentives for their subsequent retelling as narratives — just as, among all chess games ever played, some of these are considered brilliancies. These brilliancies may be relatively rare instances — and, when they do occur, they are governed as much by chance as design — but they occur nevertheless.
More reasonably, then, the relationship between games and narratives might only be so distant as that between Morlock and Eloi, both still recognizably human, but only capable together of producing mulish offspring.
For a game to inspire specific retellings, to be narratively designed, it must involve actions whose purpose is not just winning or losing, but fulfilling a concrete goal. It cannot therefore be about aligning three tokens on a line on a game board, nor about kicking a ball into a net. But it can be about stealing cars or using cars to chase bank robbers.
– Marie-Laure Ryan, Avatars of Story, 2006, p. 193
Does this make sense? It doesn’t seem to.
‘Aligning three tokens on a line’ and ‘kicking a ball into a net’ are, to my mind, clear instances of concrete goals. However, Ryan’s claim is clearly that ‘stealing cars’ is a concrete goal and ‘aligning three tokens on a line’ is not.
Explanation 1. In order to make sense of this, let’s assume that perhaps this means to say that the concrete goals of narratives, as opposed to the concrete goals of games, are of a special sort of concreteness: a concreteness that is part of the human condition. Thus, stealing cars would bring with it the expectation, in the world in which we as humans live, of repercussions. Someone would miss their cars and come looking for them. Likewise, using cars to chase bank robbers would imply that we would wish to capture the bank robbers and that the bank robbers would wish not to be caught. In both cases, we might infer something about the goal-seekers from their goals; and we would infer this based on the assumption of a common human condition among those who infer (us) and those who we infer about (the goal-seekers).
On the other hand, ‘kicking a ball into a net’ gives us little to go on regarding such inferences. Did the ball wish to be kicked? Was the kicking done in order to improve the kicker’s calf muscles?
We just don’t know.
So, perhaps this would work: concrete goals are part of the human condition; non-concrete goals aren’t.
Explanation 2. But then, upon reflection, it is also unclear that this version makes any sense. Because, as Ryan notes, ‘stealing cars’ in a game is what the game’s goals are about — not what the game’s goals are. In fact, it is fairly important (to our personal human conditions) that the game goal of stealing cars be something distinct from the (truly) concrete, non-game goal of stealing cars.
So, perhaps, in order to make sense of this, we need to assume that the concrete goals of narratives, as opposed to the concrete goals of games, are of a special sort of concreteness: something like (but not really) the concreteness associated with the human condition. So, stealing cars is not really stealing cars, but it is about stealing cars — and being about the human condition is close enough to the human condition to be concrete.
So, perhaps this would work: concrete goals are about the human condition; non-concrete goals aren’t.
Explanation 3. But then, upon reflection it is also unclear that this version makes any sense. Because, after all, although we know that the game goal of ‘stealing cars’ is about stealing cars (that one is easy), what about stealing (instead of aligning on a line) three tokens? Is that about stealing cars? Or what about stealing three cars in order to align the three cars on a line? Is that still about stealing cars?
Or what about drawing little car pictures on the three tokens (or attaching little wheels to them) and then aligning them on a line, or stealing them, or doing something else with them entirely? What would that be about exactly?
And, if it is unclear what a game goal is about, then how can we know when one game goal is about the human condition and another game goal isn’t?
Maybe we should just chuck this whole human condition thing entirely.
Explanation 4. Maybe what it means is this: For a game to inspire specific retellings, to be narratively designed, it must involve actions whose purpose is not just winning or losing (period).
This would be okay with me because, among other reasons, it is okay with Suits. Suits’s definition of a game (well, game-playing, actually):
to play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity
– Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper, 1978/2005, pp. 48-9
In this definition, the purpose of games is not just winning or losing but “bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules” — and Suits goes to great lengths (believe me, he does) to distinguish between winning a game and “bringing about a specific state of affairs.”
So, if we are to go with Suits’s definition of a game — I’m going with it — then all games involve actions whose purpose is not just winning or losing. And, then, extending this definition to Ryan’s claim takes her claim to mean that all games inspire specific retellings and are narratively designed.
But then, of course, the whole point of Ryan’s claim is that some games (those with concrete goals) inspire narrative stuff and other games (those with non-concrete goals) don’t inspire narrative stuff.
So that doesn’t make much sense either.
Explanation 5. Games are one thing, and narratives are another thing.
I’m pondering a bit more about the relationship between games and narratives. I’m prompted to write about my pondering due to the Koster post here.
Koster’s argument is that a narrative can serve a game’s feedback function, but only, basically, once. His conclusion is that narratives are not a very good — not a very sustainable — game mechanic. I agree with him, mostly. I’ve written previously about how narratives and games are a bit like oil and water in several respects. (But I’m broadening my views more recently.)
And, though the Koster post makes sense as written, it’s based on a very simple model of both games and narratives.
Koster’s narrative model is focused on the sequencing of events.
And his game model is a concoction of stimulus-response mechanisms and pattern-matching. This model presents itself as more about the pattern-matching than the stimulus-response mechanisms, but we know it’s all the same because there is no clear indication in the model as to why pattern-matching is fun: pattern-matching is fun, this model says, because it is — and “fun is the process of discovering areas in a possibility space” (from Theory of Fun).
This is unsatisfying in that pattern-matching is not universally fun. Certainly, some pattern-matching is more fun than some other. And, in fact, some pattern-matching is no fun at all. Pattern-matching folk like Koster admit this, but what they admit about it is this: Some patterns are too difficult to match, and others are too easy; those patterns are no fun. The patterns that are the most fun to match are the ones in the middle of being too difficult and too easy.
That makes sense, as far as it goes. Indeed, the patterns that are most fun to match are sort of like Goldilock’s bed: a bed with dimensions and complexities similar to the dimensions and complexities of Goldilocks. So, likewise, the patterns that are the most fun to match are those patterns with dimensions and complexities most similar to the dimensions and complexities of pattern-matchers. But there’s a problem: The patterns that are really the most fun to match are not simply those patterns with dimensions and complexities most similar to the dimensions and complexities of pattern-matchers, but patterns with dimensions and complexities most similar to the dimensions and complexities of the human condition of pattern-matchers. These latter sorts of patterns might qualify as patterns, but they also qualify as something else: beauty and art.
Stimulus-response and pattern-matching models don’t say too much about these latter and special sorts of patterns: the beauty and art sort. Or, when they do say something, they say something like this: Games can’t deliver these sorts of patterns. Koster says something like this: “[G]ame systems,” he says, “have a very limited emotional palette.”
Some people — some of the same ones — would then further say that games are inferior to those things that can deliver the beauty and art sort of patterns: things like films, novels, and narratives. (Roger Ebert, for instance, has said something very similar to this.)
And then there are some other people entirely — Marie-Laure Ryan in Avatars of Story, for instance — who say that both narratives and games can deliver beauty and art. Games and narratives may even be able to deliver these sorts of patterns simultaneously and together — a claim based on a very different model of games and narratives than is Koster’s claim. In Ryan’s view, narrative is less critically about the sequencing of events than it is about the construction of a narrative world, including both world building and world manipulation (cf Herman’s Basic Elements of Narrative).
All told, this is a more engaging claim than is Koster’s in that if a narrative provides feedback in a game through world building and world manipulation, then you no longer have to worry about the diminishing feedback of a repetitive narrative sequence, you can start to benefit from the more interesting and compounding feedback of a recursive narrative function.
Unfortunately, because this realization is really a very good one, it has led many narratologists, including Ryan, astray. Because narrative (or, more circumspectly, narrativity) can be a game mechanic, say the narratologists, game and narrative are compatible. They are sympatico.
But no. They are not.
Tommy, of the Who’s rock opera Tommy, is blind. Yet a pinball wizard.
Luke Skywalker, in the very first of the Star Wars movies, demonstrates his fledgling mastery of the Force by parrying attacks while blinded.
Neo, in the culmination of the Matrix trilogy, negotiates his way into the Machine City while blind; without eyes, Neo sees what others cannot.
These are fictional characters and fictional accomplishments, but each is similar in representing human vision as a useful but optional component of human experience. Should our sight be deprived, these stories tell us, there is recourse. Our other senses — physical, mental, or ‘spiritual’– step up.
There is much fairy tale in this claim, of course. But this fairy tale is seductive and used in subtle ways to support a politically appealing view of human experience as an egalitarian feature of our species, equally available to all regardless of our physical differences.
In practice and fact, however, human blindness confers human disability and limitation.
Can a blind player be a pinball wizard? No.
But what about a more general question: Can a blind player play a game?
Certainly. Blind players are prevented from interacting with game tokens in the same fashion as fully visioned players, but, at least in traditional games, it is the relationship among game tokens — which token is ahead, which is behind; which is valuable, which is not — that constitutes the game. And accessing and manipulating this relationship among game tokens is an act of cognition, not vision.
In fact, there is a variant of chess — blindfold chess — built on this realization.
It must be noted, however, that in order to perform well at blindfold chess, it is much more important to be skilled at chess than to be skilled at blindness. Blind chess-players seem to have no particular advantage in playing blindfold chess; chess grandmasters, on the other hand, have a great advantage in playing blindfold chess.
And chess is not the only sort of game. For interactive digital games — first-person shooters, for instance — the relationship between game tokens is not the only variable defining the game. To access and manipulate relationships among game tokens, the digital game player must access and manipulate the game interface, which is then equally defining of game form and experience.
Most digital games depend on a visual and tactile interface; some games (e. g., Milton Bradley’s Simon) also depend on an audible interface. But for interactive digital games, to remove the ability to access and manipulate the game interface is much more crippling than to remove the sight of a chessboard.
Certainly a blind player can play chess. But can a blind player play Team Fortress 3?
And then there are a couple of further questions:
1. The possibilities of game design. Can Team Fortress 3 — and similarly real-time, interactive digital games — be translated into a medium that a blind player can play? For instance, the rules of golf have been modified to accommodate blind golfers, but to what extent do these modifications recreate the play of golf? For games like golf (and even more so for first-person shooters), it’s not clear that a blind player can access and manipulate the same play experience as the sighted player. But can games be designed in some alternative way — not to mimic but to evoke experience? For instance, perhaps this might be possible through synesthesia: the subjective interpretation of sensory data in terms of an alternative sensory process, e. g. “hearing” colors or “seeing” sounds.
2. The realities of human design. To what extent does human experience in general — play or otherwise — depend on the human senses? Obviously, human experience depends a great deal on the senses, but we tend to evaluate this dependency as a binary one: either the experience is accessible (in which case it is the same egalitarian experience for all) or it is accessible to some and wholly inaccessible to others (e. g., the blind).
Playing the audio — beeping sounds — version of Simon and playing the visual — blinking lights — version of Simon are normally considered, essentially, playing the same game. If so, then a blind player can be considered to be playing the same memory game of Simon ( i. e., having the same experience) as a deaf player. However, playing the conventional, graphically animated version of World of Warcraft and playing a text-only, MUD-like version of World of Warcraft seem (particularly during the combat portions of the game) very different experiences.
When and how does this difference occur?
If we play World of Warcraft in black-and-white, is it still the same game-playing experience? If we play the game with cataract-impaired vision, is it still the same experience? If we play the game with inferior hand-eye coordination, is it still the same experience? During which portion of turning off the sound and the light and the touch of an interactive digital game is that game rendered into a different experience? Is it during some single critical moment or is it during every moment?
Our most fundamental and universal human experience — our sense of self — suffers from gentle degradations. In between human life and human death are subtleties, sometimes caused by the impairment of our senses, sometimes caused by their augmentation. If we accept this of the human experience of self, why shouldn’t we also accept it of the human experience of play?
The play of a skilled player with superior senses and faculties is not merely quantitatively different from that of an unskilled player in hours played, levels cleared, and scores achieved. It is a qualitatively different experience.
We might even say, politically unappealing though it may be, that the play of a skilled player is a more complete experience.