In Defence of Cutscenes (Eventually)

November 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Any narratalogical purist will vehemently insist that there should be no separation between protagonist and player. Every shot, every step, and every movement of the head should originate from the player and the player alone. In return the protagonist acts as a vessel for the player, their experiences merge and, if done well, the player becomes completely immersed in the game world.

As clichéd as it’s become to mention Half Life in an article like this, it’s worth doing since it’s such an absolutest in this regard. It’s hard to claim Freeman is a character at all such is the level of control the player has over him.

At first glance this approach to storytelling seems ideal. After all if we wanted to watch someone else’s story, would we not just watch a movie? It’s jarring to have choices made outside of your control and in effect we become what I can only think to describe as a fourth person to proceedings; too in control to be a third, and yet a little too impotent to truly be first.

The more you think about it however, the more you realise how few games actually go down this route. Half Life and Bioshock are literally the only two recent examples I can bring to mind (although of course feel free to bring up more in the comments). Some might argue that their rarity is as a result of a deficiency in a developer’s skill, but in this writer’s opinion the problem is actually far deeper.

Having a protagonist which can only act through the will of the player is constricting because it doesn’t allow for a very strong lead character. You’re always following someone else’s orders, always a part of a group, but never in control of its direction. It would be impossible for a game to allow you to do anything you wanted, and thus when it can’t take control away from the player and place it in the hands of a protagonist it’s forced to delegate this to an NPC. It limits storytelling in a medium which already struggles to weave unique tales of its own.

More quantitatively it also forces games to be experienced from a first person perspective. This might seem like an odd statement to make at first, so allow me to explain. Utilising a third person perspective involves having a character on screen, this much is obvious. This character needs to react to the world around it, the events that it sees, and the feelings that it has. It needs to shiver when it’s cold, gasp when it’s surprised, and get fidgety when you leave it stationary for too long.

If it doesn’t do these things it breaks the immersion. The first Dead Space struggled with this a great deal. Isaac Clarke what a completely human controlled protagonist, which meant that when he started seeing apparitions of his girlfriend he didn’t respond at all. The fact that it left me as a player confused was perhaps intentional, but it didn’t change the fact that at these moments it just looked plain weird.

Conversely the moment it does do these things you have an action which the protagonist is performing which did not originate from the player’s control. The protagonist becomes a character in his own right, and no matter how small an action, that fundamentally alters the structure of the narrative. A ‘dual-protagonist’ has been created, if you’ll excuse the attempt at phrase-coining.

Once a dual-protagonist exists, does this then excuse the use of cutscenes? After all, the character is already acting outside of your control, so would them doing any more be crossing any other lines? Since no matter how hard you try there’s going to be both a player and a protagonist as separate entities, why not reap all the benefits of having control over the pacing and presentation of a storytelling moment.

I’d also personally be very interested in a game which visibly runs with this trait, by perhaps having a protagonist who’s aware of the fact he has no control over his own actions. Such a game has the potential to be very comic, with a character who’s taken places by the player whilst simultaneously through dialogue making his opposition to this very clear. There’s more to be done with this idea, and I’d love to see it explored.

So does it bother you when a character makes choices which are beyond your control, or are you prepared to live with it if it leads to a better story?

Comment like your lives depended on it people!


The Video Game Library

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Paul Wheatley, a specialist in digital preservation at the British Library, expressed an interest this week in preserving our video gaming heritage.  “At the very least,” he said, “I would like the British Library to provide support to the NVA based on this digital preservation expertise and I’m hoping we can collaborate further.”

The implication here is a valid one; we simply don’t do enough as an industry to preserve our past. The arrival of a new hardware cycle is all it takes for us to lose legitimate access to thousands of games which, for the most part, won’t ever be ‘legally’ available again.

Take Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as an example. The game is a classic, one of the greatest to ever appear on the Playstation, and yet Europeans are stuck with a single option if they want to experience it once again. They must get their hands on an emulator with no official support, and download a disk image from a dark corner of the internet. This is a best case scenario, other games, such as the acclaimed Rogue Squadron for the Nintendo 64 aren’t yet playable by this means.

The potential to dig out all the old hardware is there of course, but this becomes significantly harder when the various equipment necessary hasn’t been on store shelves in a good long while. Even when people do put in the effort to do everything above board, their money is unlikely to to go anywhere near the people that poured their heart and soul into the game.

Teams of passionate individuals who work in their spare time on various console emulators are the unsung heroes of our industry. These people don’t get paid (for the most part), they don’t get supported, and every step they make is an uphill struggle against the closed hardware the majority of our games now run on. It is simply ridiculous that a commercialised industry for emulating old consoles doesn’t exist.

The Wii’s Virtual Console, as well as the inclusion of original Playstation games on the Playstation Network, is a noble effort indeed, but in the grand scheme of things it’s little more than a drop in the ocean. Work to make old games available through this service has been hampered by bureaucracy at every turn, bringing serious doubt to the financial viability of each inclusion.

The final nail in the coffin is that the proportion of the gaming audience interested in playing ten or even five year old games is going to be tiny compared to the total gaming market as it now stands, and that’s just for the blockbusters of yesteryear. Finding anyone interested in playing, let alone paying for AeroWings for the Dreamcast is a business endeavour only a fool would embark upon.

The capitalists amongst you might argue that this should be the end of the discussion; that if there’s not enough demand to fund such work then it shouldn’t be done. You have a point of course, but just because the majority of people aren’t interested in something, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. After all, the popularity of sites such as Gamespot and IGN shows us that  most people want nothing to do with anything beyond news, reviews, and previews from their video gaming journalism but that doesn’t mean we’re wasting our time here at Bitmob.

My argument here is not that I want access to every retro game in order to play and enjoy them, but that it’s important for our history to be able to. There aren’t going to be many games made today that people will still want to play in fifty years, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t have contributed a great deal to the industry as a whole.

Take kill.switch as an example. When it was released it was a pretty standard third-person shooter with a nifty little thing called a ‘cover mechanic’. It was fun, but nothing special, not special enough to warrant an HD re-release at any rate. Nowadays, with the inclusion of the cover-mechanic in dozens of games this generation, could anyone really claim that kill.switch wasn’t a milestone?

The solution then – as I see it – is government intervention. If Sony and Nintendo’s eagerness to fill their retro catalogues is anything to go by, there simply isn’t enough financial incentive for any private individual to go about archiving old games. It thus becomes necessary for the government to step in and do the tasks that we may not want to pay for, but certainly need. 

On its most basic level this could mean collecting together physical copies of games as they’re released, as well as the hardware they run on, and storing them in a library of sorts, for gaming historians to peruse at their leisure.

Taking this idea step further however, in a perfect world anyone could access this library at any time from the comfort of their own home. Emulator teams need to be officially supported, and disk images made available by legitimate means. Some sort of public domain would be needed here, a stipulation that after a game has been out of print for ten years or so (so as to not harm present day sales), then the government should be free to force publishers to make it’s source code available online.

This idea is utopian I’ll admit. After all we haven’t even been able to digitise the public libraries of the world yet, and those are all made up of books likely to take up a couple of megabytes at most in virtual form. Current copyright laws would also prove troublesome, since the lawyers wouldn’t be too happy with all this information going out for free.

In reality, it’s probably a completely impossible proposition to expect companies to make their back catalogues available for free, even with an unlikely government push behind the movement. As much as I hate to say it, thousands of titles will likely never be legitimately available again.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and change things now. Perhaps legislation could be enacted to force games made from now on to be publicly released after they’ve gone out of print, ensuring that copyright documents written today are aware of this eventuality. It wouldn’t do much for the hundreds of Dreamcast games that are impossible to find today, but it’d certainly be a start.

It seems like a small issue currently, but with console hardware getting as complicated as it is, it’s only going to get harder and harder for emulator teams as time goes on. We need to start seriously thinking about video game libraries now, because with every year that goes by more and more games are released that could potentially be lost. In all likelihood, the issue isn’t going to become apparent until it’s far too late.

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