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According to TV Tropes, a website that catalogs common video game tropes and storytelling devices, “Fission Mailure is whenever it appears you have lost the game, sometimes so far as to present an apparent Game Over screen, but in fact you had to in order to advance a plot” (“Fission Mailed”). The trope's name comes from a scene in Metal Gear Solid 2 in which the player seems to have failed the mission, but another screen pops up that says “Fission Mailed” and gives the player the option to “Emit” or “Continent,” instead of “Exit” or “Continue” (Metal Gear Solid 2). The term has come to encompass any occasion in a story in which a character appears to fail, but the failure is actually necessary to the story's plot. Fission Mailures can be found in dozens of games, including the nuclear explosion scene of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which will be discussed in the second chapter of this thesis. The concept of Fission Mailure serves as an appropriate metaphor for this thesis's subject matter: fundamental problems with the process of telling stories through video games as video games. Many of the video game developers discussed in this thesis appear to have experienced Fission Mailures in that their games are riddled with ludonarrative complications. However, these Fission Mailures are beneficial to the video game genre as a whole because they make developers aware of these central problems and enable them to fix them.
In this era of fast-paced technological evolution and line-blurring between what is or is not considered culturally valuable, video games are worthy of earnest study now more than ever before. There are several reasons that video games deserve to receive analyses with the same attention to detail as has been received by media such as literature, television, and cinema. An analysis of video games is important because the video game industry is very different from what it was fifteen (or even five) years ago due to advancements in technology and a transformation in the publics' opinion of video games. Also, many more people are playing video games today than ever before, so an enormous amount of money is being generated by the video game industry. The massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (commonly known as an MMORPG) World of Warcraft, for example, has over eleven and a half million subscribers (“World of Warcraft”). Assuming each of those subscribers pays the fifteen dollars or so that is required to play, this one game alone is an economic Godzilla. When one video game can single-handedly rake in millions of dollars, analyses of the dynamics of production and distribution of such video games are necessary.
The video game industry is currently at a stage in which it has to redefine itself, its games, and its business models. As such, we need to look at where the game industry has been in order to know where it should go. For instance, a long-running debate has taken place about whether or not games can be considered as works of art. Roger Ebert and others say that games are not art; others claim that video games are art, and others still argue that the entirely debate is meaningless. There has also been much contention over what, exactly, is the best method of analyzing a game. For example, in the infamous ludology/narratology debate, ludologists on one side claim that games must be analyzed as systems of rules, while narratologists on the other side say that games should be analyzed with a focus on narrative. As with the “games as art” debate, this conflict proves to be limited but the debate has been worthwhile nonetheless. Anything that brings attention to the scholarly study of video games is beneficial to the maturation of video games and video game culture. However, the ludology/narratology debate is simply a single facet of the problem of how to analyze video games. A variety of factors must be taken into consideration when attempting to analyze a video game, a few of which are offered in the first chapter.
The beginning of the first chapter is devoted to framing the considerations of the remainder of the thesis in a historical, critical, and theoretical context. Included in this first chapter is a definition of the term “video game,” for effective conveyance of ideas necessitates explanation. I offer an introduction to the field of ludology and some of the debates that have taken place within that field of study, including the debate (though, as I argue in my thesis, the debate is illusory) of ludology versus narratology. I place special emphasis on the theories of two game designers whose work I found particularly useful: Jonathan Blow and Jacek Wesołowski. The first set of theories discussed in this chapter includes Blow's three conflicts in game design, which include “story meaning versus dynamical meaning,” “challenge versus progression,” and “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery.” Wesołowski's theories pertain to the problem of pacing in video games and how that problem affects a video game's narrative. I also examine some of the various different methods that people have used in order to study video games, which I then proceed to use in the second chapter. The first chapter is primarily concerned with establishing current theoretical principles governing the study of video games and outlining some fundamental issues dominant within video games, including financial considerations.
In the second chapter of the thesis, I perform in-depth analyses on a handful of blockbuster video games from the past couple of years. These analyses relate to Jonathan Blow's theories of the key conflicts in video game design as well as some of the economic aspects of the video game industry as discussed in the first chapter. The purpose of this chapter is to show a few of the ways in which ludological theories are manifested in actual high-budget video games. The particular video games examined include BioShock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Call of Duty: World at War, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Fallout 3. This may seem like an awful lot of video games to analyze but the last four games are actually grouped together into two divisions: Call of Duty games and Bethesda Softworks' games. My analysis of BioShock will demonstrate how each of Jonathan Blow's key conflicts manifests even in one of the most highly regarded games of 2007. One of the main goals of the second chapter is to show how even the biggest and best games are incapable of escaping fundamental game design flaws and economic problems. A secondary goal is to show a way in which video games can be seriously analyzed. Video games are so diverse that one must not merely make broad generalizations about the whole of video games; one must look at specific games or specific examples in order to properly provide an analysis of the medium. With the Call of Duty games, I explore some of the problems which come from being a part of a franchise and tie those issues back into a couple of Blow's conflicts as well as Wesołowski's theories about pacing. Similarly, I discuss the application of Blow and Wesołowski's theories to the Bethesda Softworks video games The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3, including the ways in which these games' open-ended structures affect pacing and storytelling.
The third chapter's general theme is “the future of video games.” In this chapter I present two developers' attempts to answer some of the dilemmas facing the video game industry. The majority of this chapter is about downloadable titles such as Jonathan Blow's own video game, Braid, and Rod Humble's The Marriage. The analysis of Braid presented in this chapter provides a particularly interesting case study because it fails to overcome each of the fundamental conflicts in video game design as outlined by Blow. I also discuss The Marriage, which is somewhat of an unconventional video game. In the game, the player manipulates squares and circles in order to experience a metaphorical marriage. Again, the game is not the average gamer's usual fare. The Marriage is a video game that attempts to break out of the rewards systems common to so many other games. It tries to get the player to “temporarily expand their notions of what is aesthetically beautiful or what is interesting” (Blow, “Fundamental”). One thing that each of these games have in common is that they are downloadable titles. Without being available for download by various different means, these games would never have been allowed to come to fruition. One of the major points that I make in this chapter of the thesis is that digital distribution allows for much more innovation on the part of the video game's developer than would be possible under the traditional method of developing and selling video games.
In addition to an analysis of games such as Braid and The Marriage, in the third chapter I also provide an overview of the benefits of playtesting early and often in the game development process, releasing games episodically, and releasing games through digital distribution services. An example of one such digital distribution service is Steam, a platform that regularly experiments with the prices of its downloadable titles. For example, in one of Steam's sales, the number of purchases of the game increased by 3000% (Breckon, “Valve”). After discovering the success of putting games on sale, Steam has a sale at least once a week. This method has not been attempted by brick-and-mortar stores, and because Steam only offers downloadable titles, the developers/publishers of those video games are still making excellent profits.
While on the subject of money, I must take the opportunity to draw the reader's attention to one of this thesis's major themes: the influence of various external factors on the production, distribution, and marketing of video games. Whether those external factors include a video game developer's sacrificing a game's innovative qualities in order to ensure that it makes ends meet or a developer's inflated ego perceptibly seeping into his or her video game, video games are affected by numerous factors over the course of their development. Video games are not produced in a vacuum and as such they cannot be studied in a vacuum, hence this thesis's comprehensive approach to video game analysis. Over the course of this thesis, the analytical focus repeatedly returns to economic issues and other external factors that are similarly inextricable from video game production and analysis. As an example, I analyze problems such as the high cost of development for video game developers and the effect that this high cost has upon the outcome of the games. An incredible amount of money is made in the video game industry and people often tend to overlook the ways in which massive quantities of money influence the production of video games, particularly concerning the story and game design aspects of video game production. And while specific examinations of discourses among video game critics and applications of theories to texts (i.e. video games) constitute the majority of this thesis, the overarching aim, the goal that encompasses all others, is to analyze fundamental structural issues resulting from video game developers' attempts to tell meaningful stories through a truly interactive medium.
A Brief History of Video Game Analysis
Because ludology, which is another term for the new field of game studies, has only existed since the turn of the century, several problems plague the field of study. The first question is definition, or an outlining of some sort of framework, of the qualities that constitute a game. Though it may seem a simple question, there are an enormous number of differing opinions on the topic. Leading ludologist Jesper Juul lists six defining characteristics of a game as follows: “Games are based on rules; Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes; Different values (positive or negative) are assigned to these outcomes; The player invests effort to achieve the desired outcome; The player is emotionally 'attached' to the outcome; Games have negotiable consequences for real life” (qtd. in Buckingham 6). Much of the definition, set forth only six years ago, holds true, although the portion concerning player effort to achieve a desired outcome is already becoming obsolete. On account of the rapidly-growing consumer base of video games, developers are attempting to please all new demographics by inserting into their games features that remove the need for players to exert any substantial amount of effort in order to progress throughout a level, such as the “Demo Play” feature in the soon-to-be-released New Super Mario Bros. Wii (McWhertor). Perhaps most importantly, as game designer Celia Pearce explains, “games are played, and the rules of the game provide a framework for play” as well as “meaning [for] players' actions” (qtd. in Buckingham 6). Though Juul's definitions of some of the features that constitute a game are but a few in a sea of thousands, they are nonetheless universally applicable enough to allow for video game analysis.
Another result of the relative novelty of the video game is that people are only beginning to approach video games as their own entity and not as some form of interactive movie. In other words, a second key piece of information to take into consideration before attempting an analysis of a video game is that video games must be analyzed as video games. This point may seem self-evident, but as Pearce would be quick to point out, for the very reason that they are played, video games must be studied as games and “not simply as a new form of hypertext, literature, drama, or cinema” (Buckingham 5). At the same time, analyzing video games as video games, rather than some other form of media, does not necessarily imply that influence from studies of those other types of media are not applicable. Indeed, the study of video games relies heavily upon influence from other disciplines. But video games by their very nature possess qualities that distinguish them from other media. For example, in his analysis of the survival-horror video game Silent Hill, Ewan Kirkland explains that “the electronic input necessary for meaningful engagement with a video game, and the game's resulting response, significantly complicates traditional understandings of narrative, genre, representation and text itself” (168). Whereas media like literature, cinema, and to a lesser extent drama, are governed by relatively static formal elements, the video game exceeds strictly traditional methods of analysis.
Once equipped with two main tools of video game analysis – rudimentary understanding of what constitutes a game and the knowledge that games must first and foremost be analyzed as games – one can begin to examine some of the actual methods of video game analysis. Ludologist Markku Eskelinen believes that writing about computer games (a term that is synonymous with “video games” in this thesis) is “relatively stress-free” because “nothing too much has been said yet, and anything goes” (Eskelinen 36). However, one could argue that, if anything, the lack of existing criticism makes writing about video games even more difficult. The field of video game studies is overflowing with ideas about methods of analysis because each analyst is attempting to discover the method that can be considered the most correct. For the most part, though, scholars have been inclined to analyze video games with either a focus on contextual, audience-based research or on the games themselves as texts, dissecting the game and its components. Analysts who focus on audience-based research have “conducted experiments; distributed surveys; performed in-depth interviews with game players and analyzed the 'log files' that record all chat between the players in online multiplayer games” (Consalvo and Dutton). Such analysts have employed scientific, quantitative methods of analysis. Analysts who focus on games as texts have utilized much more varied methods of analysis. The studies typically include a division of a particular game's components into several categories, followed by a step-by-step examination of each of those components as they exist within the game as well as the meaning that can be derived from the results of those individual inspections.
As in other fields, debate has broken out between the two methodological groups. For example, in response to Will Brooker's textual analysis of the game Jetman, Consalvo and Dutton expose some of the traps to which the unwary textual analyst can fall victim:
His study does not lay out why these elements [institution, authorship, character and narrative, genre and socio-political connotations and remakes] were chosen as opposed to other components (such as the game world or the explicit notion of gameplay), and he appears more interested in exploring one game than creating a method that is applicable to other games.
In attempting to analyze a video game as a text, Consalvo and Dutton argue, one risks utilizing a method of analysis that can only be applied to a very small number of video games. Additionally, each textual analyst employs his or her own set of criteria by which the contents of a game are examined. These analysts' widely differing methodologies can lead to debate over which criteria should or should not be included in a game's analysis.
The lack of a shared vocabulary among ludologists has also been problematic. For example, the “ludology versus narratology” debate was arguably the result of a prolonged series of misunderstandings between ludologists and narratologists. In order to understand what the debate was about, the terms “ludology” and “narratology” must first be defined. As previously stated, “ludology” is another name for the new field of game studies. McDougall and O’Brien, the authors of a book called Studying Videogames, define the term as “the study of play” (127). They continue, “Ludologists believe video games are defined more by interactive play than they are by narrative and, for this reason, academic approaches to games should take play as the focus for study, and the structure and experience of play should over-ride the player’s requirement to ‘read’ the story of a game” (127). As late as 2008, the year in which the book was published, McDougall and O'Brien still pit ludologists directly against narrative, perpetuating a debate that, according to Gonzalo Frasca, “never took place” (Frasca, “Ludologists”). McDougall and O’Brien define “narratology” as “The study of video games as stories […] derived from literary theory and from the study of older media such as films. Narratologists believe that the traditional Media Studies concepts can be applied to video games, especially theories of narrative” (128). Boiled down to its core, the debate was about narratologists believing that ludologists only wanted to analyze video games as systems of rules and gameplay mechanics, without any willingness to examine narrative in their analysis. Likewise, ludologists believed that narratologists wanted to examine video games as if they were books and were unwilling to look at the rule-oriented or mechanical side of video games. For example, ludologist Markku Eskelinen made such statements as “if I throw a ball at you, I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories” (qtd. in Simons). Additionally, scholars from other fields of study thought the ludologists did not want interference from any outside scholars, even though Frasca, Juul, and others stated right from the beginning that video games need to be studied from several different perspectives. For instance, Frasca says in his essay on the subject that “Marie-Laure Ryan [a prominent narratologist] argues that ludology should not 'throw away' the concept of narrative from [ludology]. She even calls for the 'development of a new ludology' that includes [narratology]” (“Ludologists”). Though Ryan had a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived threat from the ludological camp, her response nonetheless speaks volumes of the misunderstanding that results from a perception of a fierce opposition in the ludology/narratology debate.
Like cultural media theorist Douglas Kellner before him, Ken McAllister encourages a “multiperspectival approach” to video game studies. Even though Kellner was advocating multiperspectivalism in cultural studies, his theories could be applied to ludology, effectively ending the “ludology versus narratology” debates. In order to utilize a multiperspectival method of analysis, Kellner explains, one would have to examine the artifact, in this case a video game, “within the three dimensions of: (1) the production and political economy of culture; (2) textual analysis and critique of its artifacts; and (3) study of audience reception and the uses of media/cultural products” (qtd. in McAllister 42). Such an approach to video game studies could intervene in not only the quarrel between textual analysts and those who favor audience-based research, but also the ongoing debates between ludologists and narratologists.
The Theories of Blow and Wesołowski
Video games are an entirely different beast now than they were fifteen, or even five, years ago. Gone are the days in which gamers had to use their imaginations to supplement on-screen graphics and the plot-lines of the most successful video games could be summarized in single sentences. The most successful video games of the new century are the result of millions of dollars of investment and are centrally concerned with conveying meaningful messages through elaborate narrative. As video games strive to accomplish feats never before attempted (feats such as evoking the same amount of emotional response as movies regularly elicit from their audiences), the difficulty of analysis grows in direct proportion to the degree of their complexity. For instance, a number of problems have become so ingrained in game design that they are now characteristic of a majority the medium's works, even the simplest ones. A few key problems are pacing in video games and the video game conflicts outlined by game developer Jonathon Blow.
Last year, video game developer and theorist Jonathan Blow spoke at the Montreal International Game Summit about what he believed to be the three biggest conflicts faced by video games and video game developers today. These conflicts, which Blow described as preventing video games from being “coherent artistic works,” are the conflict of story meaning versus dynamical meaning, the conflict of challenge versus progression, and the conflict of interactivity versus pre-baked delivery of meaningful moments (“Fundamental”). The first conflict, “story meaning versus dynamical meaning,” can best be summed up as “the messages of what to think or how to feel about factors within the game (characters, events, and so on) that the story imparts on the player versus the overall messages the player receives from the game about how to think or feel.” Blow's self-coined “dynamical meaning” contains both the intentional messages of the game as well as the unintentional messages of the game. This conflict between story meaning and dynamical meaning becomes a problem when the story of a game tells the player to feel one particular way about an element of the game and another aspect of the game makes the player feel differently. For example, the video game BioShock presents the choice of whether or not to harvest Little Sisters for their ADAM as a moral dilemma, but regardless of the player's decision, the choice has no significant impact on the gameplay (I will return to this example in chapter two). In his lecture, Blow says that one of the ways to overcome this conflict would be to tell a game’s story through its gameplay, rather than having the story of a game and its gameplay mechanics totally divorced from each other, as is the case with many games.
The second conflict, “challenge versus progression,” is exactly what it sounds like. Blow argues that one of the ways in which game developers keep players interested is to continually increase the difficulty of a game and, once the player has passed a difficult section, reward them with story. According to Blow, game developers ramp up the challenge in such a way because it communicates to the player that their interaction with the game is meaningful. The problem is that as a game becomes more difficult, the level of challenge prevents the player from engaging with the story and, if the level of challenge is high enough, the player abandons the game altogether (Blow, “Fundamental”). One of the ways developers overcome this hurdle is by presenting the illusion of challenge (a “faux challenge”) by means of “dynamic difficulty adjustment.” In other words, the game is given the appearance of being difficult, while the difficulty of the game is lowered to a point at which the gamer can just breeze on through. Blow says that one potential way to solve this conflict is to make the game engaging to the player through other means than the level of challenge. One example given by Blow is the player could be made to “temporarily expand their notions of what is aesthetically beautiful.”
The third conflict, “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments, is primarily concerned with the difficulties of telling compelling stories in an interactive medium. According to Blow, it is hard to create dramatic, carefully-crafted moments because player interactivity disrupts the pacing and delivery of the game’s story (“Fundamental”). Because every action taken by the player alters the dynamical meaning of a video game in some way or another, developers have difficulty with this fundamentally problematic aspect of video game narrative. Though Blow examines this conflict of “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” in his lecture, he does not say much what can be done about it. He does say, though, “Whether they are pre-baked or dynamic, game stories will always be awkward second fiddle to the stories told by linear media. They will always do it better than [game developers] do because [video games] are interactive.”
Part of the reason that Blow believes video game stories will always be “awkward second fiddle” to stories in film or literature is that achieving proper pacing in video game stories has historically been difficult for their developers. Blow lists pacing as one of eight storytelling techniques that video game developers “inherently suck” at utilizing, along with other techniques such as the use of foreshadowing and body language in order to add extra dimensions to the game's story. Though Blow briefly mentions that poor pacing is a direct result of the interactive nature of video games, fellow video game designer Jacek Wesołowski expounds on the causes and consequences of poor pacing in video game stories to a much greater degree. Wesołowski uses as the basis of his explanation a comparison of storytelling (including pacing) in films and in video games. The main question he attempts to answer is “Why do video games seem to be incapable of achieving the same high quality level of pacing as that of films?” After all, filmmakers have learned over time to expertly manipulate their audience's emotions through pacing, and although it is clear that video games are essentially different from films, films nonetheless set an example in eliciting emotional investment from audiences.
Wesołowski's ideal target is to have a video game's story successfully imitate the sort of pacing displayed in “Hero's Journey” films such as those of the Star Wars series. The reason Wesołowski uses this particular narrative structure as an example is that the “Hero's Journey,” what Joseph Campbell termed the “Monomyth,” is one of the most prevalent narrative structures in video games. Over the course of the Star Wars series, the viewer experiences a number of peaks (climactic events) and valleys (moments of relief), with the overall intensity of the action increasing from one film to the next until the occurrence of the grand finale (in this case, the confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader). By the time the credits roll on Return of the Jedi, the audience will have been through a pleasant emotional rollercoaster. Wesołowski explains that the video game development community believes that “if we arrange events in an 'increasing wave' of intensity, we will achieve the cinematic effect of mounting tension. Just like in a movie, when the game ends, the audience shall be left shaken and wanting more” (Wesołowski).
Video game developers have had a hard time achieving proper pacing for several reasons, not the least of which is, as Blow briefly pointed out, that video games are interactive. Whereas a film's audience has no direct control over the outcome of the film, “[video game] players are bombarded with stimuli which affect their ability to respond to subsequent stimuli” (Wesołowski). As a result, the only way for video game developers to know the player has understood the game's message is by taking the interactive element of the game away from the player in order to force them to pay attention (Wesołowski). This particular method of conveying narrative is, of course, the time-honored tradition of the video game cutscene. Cutscenes are portions of the video game in which control is taken away from the player in order to convey moments of pure narrative. With few other options for conveying similarly condensed moments of pure narrative, video game developers often end up over-relying on the technique. For example, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, a blockbuster hit for the PlayStation 3, has at least two cutscenes that each come close to being ninety minutes in length (Edge Staff). Such cutscenes are no more than video game mimicry of cinema.
Some of the ways video game developers attempt to sidestep this theft of player control, Wesołowski explains, is by limiting a level's number of entry or exit points, not allowing the player to look away when something happens that the developers feel is important, avoiding the presentation of complex situations to the player, and using what are known in the video game world as “quick time events” to allow the player a small amount of control (Wesołowski). Quick time events are merely cutscenes that require button presses from the player in order to progress. Despite the video game developers' attempts, “the interactivity is lost, but a truly cinematic experience doesn't appear, because [developers are] unable to achieve a movie-like pacing” (Wesołowski). The video game developers' inability to abandon traditional development techniques and achieve pacing on par with that of film is why so many video games these days offer experiences that are so similar to one another. By and large, first-person shooter games play like other first-person shooter games and real-time strategy games play like other real-time strategy games. The similarity between video games of the same genre is due to the fact that developers, having confined their video games within narrow genres, simply replicate a handful of gameplay and narrative structures over and over again.
According to Wesołowski, the pacing of video game stories has become stale because intensity in games has thus far been built up through the escalation of either sensory stimuli or abstract meaning, which has limited video game developers' number of options for engaging their audiences. Escalation of sensory stimuli is when a developer simply adds more of what is already in the game (more enemies, bigger guns, etc.) in order to draw the player further into the game by appealing directly to their sense of danger. Intensity augmentation through means of escalation of sensory stimuli is visceral, relies on the player's perception, and is temporary because it is easy to switch from the escalated level of sensory stimuli back to the lower level of sensory stimuli (Wesołowski). Though an effective method of intensity augmentation in most cases, escalation of sensory stimuli can be seen as a sort of shortcut to audience engagement because of its temporal and visceral properties. Media that relies solely upon escalation of sensory stimuli may be said to offer “cheap thrills.” Intensity buildup through escalation of abstract meaning, a concept that echoes Jonathan Blow's idea of story meaning and dynamical meaning, is when “each part of a narrative means something – but together they mean something else” (Wesołowski). Abstract meaning buildup occurs not only when meaning is directly assigned to persons, places, or things within a story, but also when the combination of the meanings of those different elements produce new meaning. Intensity augmentation in this manner is cognitive, relies on the player's understanding, and is persistent because “meaning lasts” (Wesołowski).
But abstract meaning buildup is far from being a cure-all for the problem of poor pacing and intensity augmentation in video games. Abstract meaning buildup simply has a different set of drawbacks than sensory stimuli escalation. For example, abstract meaning buildup is thwarted because most video games fail to effectively mesh gameplay and narrative due to game developers' inability to cope with player interaction. Gameplay and narrative are “habitually … separated from each other so that player actions [do not] get in the way of carefully crafted film sequences” (Wesołowski). Blow uses an example from the video game Deus Ex to illustrate this problem. He says that if the player were to pick up an American flag at the beginning of Deus Ex and then proceed to carry it with him or her for the remainder of the game, everything that happens in the game from that point on would look ridiculous. The player would be distracted from the serious tone of the game by the misplaced flag, which would shed a humorous light on solemn scenes merely by way of contrast. Cutscenes would be ruined and, moreover, there would be absolutely no way for the video game developer to anticipate that the player would take that course of action (Blow, “Fundamental”). Many of the non-technical problems that are encountered by video game developers (including problems with pacing) return time and again to the interactive nature of video games.
In the next two chapters, I will explore some of the implications of these challenges to telling stories in video games as they play out in actual video games, including analyses of each game's elements of gameplay. In the vein of Kellner and McAllister, the following research combines formal and contextual analyses in order to create an encompassing study of video games. Because video games are such an incredibly lucrative entertainment medium, research pertaining to video games must be multiperspectival so as to broaden its scope of analysis. In the following pages, I hope to show that the study of video games is inseparable from the study of external forces acting upon the creation of games, just as Blow and Wesołowski's fundamental problems in game design are inseparable from each other. Understanding ludological theories, including those of Blow and Wesołowski, requires a thorough inspection of how those theories are applied to popular video games. Each of Blow's three fundamental dilemmas as well as Wesołowski's theories about pacing may be observed in each of the following blockbuster video games: 2K Games' BioShock, Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Treyarch's Call of Duty: World at War, and Bethesda Softworks' The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3. But each set of examples also point to contextual considerations central to formal issues.
2K Games and a Toxic 'Shock
2K Boston and 2K Australia's BioShock is, without a doubt, one of the most important games of the current video game generation. Hyped a great deal prior to release and well-received by critics and the public alike, BioShock has received more lines of fanatical hyperbole from the online video game community than any other game in recent memory. The review of BioShock on the website of Eurogamer, a European video game magazine, expresses sentiments that are representative of the gaming community's attitude. Kristen Reed's review states:
The hours spent playing this masterpiece were the perfect encapsulation of why videogaming is such a favourite waste of time for so many of us. BioShock isn't simply the sign of gaming realising its true cinematic potential, but one where a game straddles so many entertainment art forms so expertly that it's the best demonstration yet how flexible this medium can be. It's no longer just another shooter wrapped up in a pretty game engine, but a story that exists and unfolds inside the most convincing and elaborate and artistic game world ever conceived.
As the above passage demonstrates, reviewers' praise of the game tends to be hyperbolic. The game won Game Of The Year awards from numerous websites and magazines and sold millions upon millions of copies across the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC formats. A large part of its popularity results from its being one of only a handful of big budget titles to actively attempt to innovate within the space of video game narratives. And it is most certainly high budget – according to Ken Levine, the lead writer and designer for the game, BioShock cost fifteen million dollars to create (Grant). BioShock is also notable for the way in which the developers attempted to complicate the game's story by tackling weightier subject matter than the standard video game fare. For example, Levine has said that the Randian and Orwellian philosophies to which he was introduced as a result of his “useless liberal arts degree” directly influenced his work on BioShock and in the finished product the influences are readily apparent (Perry). Unfortunately, however, BioShock suffers from Jonathan Blow's problems of “challenge versus progression,” “story meaning versus dynamical meaning,” and “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments as a result of a heavy-handed approach to narrative as well as some other confusing design decisions.
Before beginning an analysis of BioShock's narrative and mechanics, I will establish a basic outline of the game's plot, setting and major characters. With the exception of the very beginning of the game, the entirety of the player's experience takes place in an underwater dystopia known as Rapture. Rapture was created and subsequently ruled with an iron fist by a mad genius named Andrew Ryan. Ryan, tired of the limitations imposed upon him by traditional Western society, decided to gather all of the greatest minds of the time (scientists, artists, engineers and the like) and create the utopian city of Rapture where, as Ryan puts it, “[men are] entitled to the sweat of [their] brow” (BioShock). However, as with the countless fictional utopian civilizations before it, everything eventually comes crashing down, both literally and figuratively. The exact sequence of events that led to the downfall of Rapture is never really explained in the game, but much of it has to do with Ryan's dictatorial oppression of the inhabitants of the city as well as the inhabitants' own abuse of a genetically-modifying drug known as ADAM. The citizens who used this ADAM eventually took their body modification to unhealthy levels and became ADAM-addicted monsters known as “splicers.” It is in this state that Jack, the player's avatar, finds the underwater city of Rapture. All of the buildings are dilapidated, and monstrous, insane splicers roam the darkened hallways looking for sources of ADAM. The hallways themselves alternatively have leaky ceilings or flooded corridors, depending on the extent to which the sea has been successful in reclaiming its territory.
At the beginning of BioShock, Jack is a passenger aboard a plane that crashes into the ocean, leaving him with no other choice than to swim to a nearby lighthouse. Inside of this lighthouse, Jack discovers an old bathysphere which leads him straight down into the depths of the ocean and, eventually, to Rapture. At first, the city seems like a fantastic place, but it quickly becomes clear that all is not well in Rapture. Jack is attacked by a deranged splicer before even stepping out of his vessel, and upon exiting the bathysphere, he sees that Rapture is in ruins. Shortly thereafter, Jack becomes enlisted to help a man named Atlas (a not-so-subtle reference to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged) find his family. The player spends the majority of the game going where Atlas tells him to go and doing what he tells him to do. Along the way, Jack attempts to discover exactly what happened at Rapture and what has become of Andrew Ryan. At one point in the game, Jack is led to believe that Ryan killed Atlas' family and from that point on, the player's goal is to help Atlas kill Ryan. Three-fourths of the way through the game, we learn that Atlas is actually Ryan's nemesis, the crime lord Frank Fontaine. The player also discovers that Fontaine was controlling Jack's mind using the phrase “Would you kindly?”; that Jack was genetically engineered in a laboratory only two years prior to the events of the game; and that Ryan is actually Jack's father. The game ends after the player succeeds in killing a monstrous, mutated Fontaine. The plot of BioShock is more convoluted than that of a Final Fantasy game, which is to say, incredibly muddled.
As a result of the developers' decision to include devices called “Vita-Chambers” (as in “revitalization chambers”), BioShock succumbs to an interesting problem that is a mixture of all three of Blow's fundamental issues in video games: the problem of “challenge versus progression,” the problem of “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments and the problem of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning.” These Vita-Chambers are scattered throughout the city of Rapture and allow the player to come back to life with a reduced amount of resources an unlimited number of times. When the player respawns in one of these chambers, though, the enemy with whom the player was battling remains at its lowered level of health. If the player so desired, he or she could just run headfirst into every enemy encounter, whittling away at the enemy's health, dying and respawning until the enemy eventually dies. Thus BioShock runs into the problem of “challenge versus progression.” Removing negative consequences from character death also removes all of the game's challenge. The Vita-Chambers allow BioShock to present the illusion of challenge, what Blow termed a “faux challenge,” so as to retain control of the player's attention. However, as is the case with most of the video game problems analyzed in this thesis, 2K's response to the problem of “challenge versus progression” raises questions that are difficult to answer. From a gameplay standpoint, why is such a device needed? Vita-Chambers lead to questions such as “Should the player be punished for dying by having to endure a 'Game Over' screen?” and, on a more fundamental level, “How does one deal with the permanence of death in a virtual reality?”
The reason the presence of Vita-Chambers stick out like a sore thumb within the world of BioShock is that aside from the player-video game interface, they are the only feature of the game that exists for purely ludic purposes. In a game whose main strengths are purported to be immersion and storytelling, these strictly gameplay-related elements of the game are highly conspicuous. In the game, every minute detail, from the mechanics of Jack's superhuman abilities to his mysterious origins, is explained to the player within the context of BioShock's gameworld, regardless of the credibility of the explanation. Being a purely ludic gameplay component, the Vita-Chambers receive no such detailed explanation. There are a couple of brief words on the reason for the chambers' existence hidden throughout Rapture, but they are vague and must be actively sought out by the player. In order to remain immersed in the game's story, the player must simply ignore the reason for the Vita-Chambers' presence in Rapture and accept their existence. In BioShock, the presence of the Vita-Chambers results in the presence of the problems of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning” and “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments. The lack of any sort of story meaning for such a conspicuous gameplay element only serves to make the dynamical meaning (“You are playing a video game”) all the more apparent. In other words, the player's sense of immersion is shattered, taking the player straight out of the story. Similarly, the presence of such an obviously ludic device in the intricate world of Rapture exposes 2K's desire to allow the player to get straight into the pre-baked elements of the plot by undermining the player's interactivity in the gameworld. When the player eventually manages to beat the game or get past a particularly tough enemy encounter, the player's sense of accomplishment is diminished because the developers have made sure through the mechanics of the game that every player interaction has had a discernible benefit. If, for instance, the player reduced a particular splicer's health to thirty percent of its full capacity before dying then that same splicer's health will still be at thirty percent when the player goes back to defeat it after resurrecting in the Vita-Chamber.
Aside from the problems resulting from 2K's inclusion of the Vita-Chambers, the majority of BioShock's difficulties with the problems of “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” and “story meaning versus dynamical meaning” come from a particular series of interactions between the player and a group of children known individually as Little Sisters. This series of interactions is the game's much-vaunted “ethical” dilemma. In the world of BioShock, these Little Sisters are little girls who have an ADAM-secreting sea slug living inside of their bodies. The scientists of Rapture purposely placed these slugs inside of the little girls so that they would be brainwashed into harvesting ADAM from the bodies of dead ADAM junkies. By ingesting the ADAM that they find in corpses and allowing it to pass through their bodies, the Little Sisters are capable of producing large amounts of raw ADAM. The Little Sisters simultaneously scavenge and produce ADAM for use by Rapture's scientists. Just as the Little Sisters are programmed to collect and produce ADAM, there are enormous, freakish splicers known as Big Daddies whose sole mission in life is to protect the Little Sisters from harm. The Big Daddies follow the Little Sisters from corpse to corpse and do not bother anybody as long as they are both left alone. The moment the player or other splicers interfere with their morbid process, however, the Big Daddies unleash a torrent of violence upon the transgressor until one individual or the other is dead. Most splicers know to leave the Big Daddies and Little Sisters alone, so unless a splicer has somehow made a mistake and triggered the behemoth, it is almost always the player's job to fight the Big Daddies. The reason the player must almost always fight the Big Daddies is that the only series of meaningful choices the player is allowed to make in the entire game is whether or not to save the Little Sisters from their hypnosis and remove the parasitic slugs from their bodies. These are the only choices that have meaning attached to them within the context of the game's spectrum of morality. All of the other choices in the game (hacking computer terminals, upgrading weapons, killing splicers and so on) exist either to improve Jack's abilities or to facilitate the player's travel from one point in the gameworld to another.
The problem of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning” arises when we examine the consequences entailed by the player's decision. For each Little Sister the player comes across, the player can either harvest the ADAM from the Little Sister, killing her in the process, or save the Little Sister by removing the slug from her body. Aside from the desire to follow the traditional paths of morality (i.e. killing the Little Sisters is “evil” whereas rescuing them is “good”), the only other influences on the player's decisions is the knowledge that harvesting the Little Sisters will net Jack a larger amount of ADAM than saving them, but that Jack will be rewarded later on for saving them. The problem of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning” becomes very apparent once the player realizes that the external incentives are not differentiated enough to influence the decisions one way or the other. Whether the player decides to harvest or save every single Little Sister, there is very little difference in the amount of ADAM received. Jonathan Blow pointed out in his lecture at the 2008 Montreal International Games Summit that from a storytelling standpoint, the player is supposed to struggle with the dilemma of whether to be altruistic or do what it takes to get ahead, but the game inevitably ends up feeling wrong because from a gameplay standpoint, the player must be able to get ahead regardless of his or her decisions (“Fundamental”). Because the story meaning of a game includes all of the game's deliberate messages of both the storytelling and gameplay variety, BioShock's story meaning tells the player he or she should harvest the Little Sisters in order to become more powerful, while at the same time it implies that he or she should save the Little Sisters because, after all, they are just little girls who are being abused by those in power. BioShock's dynamical meaning, which includes the game's deliberate and unintentional information, tells the player that there is absolutely no reason to harvest the Little Sisters (or, for that matter, to save them) because the player will end up with roughly the same amount of power and resources no matter what he or she decides to do. The only meaningful, ethical choices in the game are rendered completely insignificant by BioShock's gameplay mechanics.
The fact that the player's response to the Little Sister dilemma is the sole determining factor in the outcome of BioShock (whether the player views the “good,” “bad,” or “really bad” cutscene at the end of the game) points towards some very serious problems with “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments. No matter what the player decides to do in regards to saving or destroying the Little Sisters, up until the very last scene of the game, all of the character's interactions will play out the exact same way. The player will still blindly follow Fontaine/Atlas' commands, kill Andrew Ryan and, ultimately, kill the monstrously mutated Fontaine himself. The game wants players to encounter these pre-baked meaningful moments regardless of any other actions that they may take throughout their journey. At the same time, however, the game wants the player to have some degree of agency within the gameworld, so the player is presented with the Little Sister dilemma, which is supposed to be meaningful in and of itself on an ethical level. What the game neglects to tell players is that the way they deal with the Little Sisters is weighted with more than just an arbitrary ethical meaning and that the game's resolution is directly affected by their choice. The game never mentions that the only way to get the “good” cutscene at the end of the game (which shows the Little Sisters growing up and living happily ever after) is for the player to rescue every single Little Sister. If the player harvests so much as one Little Sister over the course of the game, then a “bad” end scene will play in which Jack is driven insane by his abuse of ADAM and splicers take bathyspheres to the surface in order to wreak havoc on the world above. If the player decides to harvest every single Little Sister, the same exact video plays as with the “bad” ending, but the only difference is the tone of voice of the narrator. In the “bad” video the narrator adopts a tone of disappointment and melancholy and in the “really bad” video the narrator is downright furious. The problem of “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments is a direct result of the game's refusal to disperse such essential information as how to achieve a particular ending or the exact consequences of the player's decision in the Little Sister dilemma. Because the game does not want the player's interactions to be meaningless, the pre-baked moment at the very end of the game is determined entirely by this series of identical decisions. The result could feel unfair if, for example, the player were to harvest one Little Sister at the very beginning of the game and then experience ethical growth and save every other Little Sister. Despite the player's intentions and the fact that the player (and therefore the player character, Jack) had a change of heart, the player would still realize at the end of the game that he or she had invested around twenty hours in BioShock, only to witness an undesirable resolution.
In addition, the pacing of BioShock, an important narrative element made all the more crucial due to the fact that the game has no multiplayer offering and therefore relies entirely upon an effective single-player campaign, suffers on account of the game's overuse of plot twists and its over-reliance on intensity augmentation, which includes abstract meaning buildup and escalated sensory stimuli. The first two weaknesses in pacing, the overabundance of plot twists and the long length, are quite common in both cinema and video games, but that does not make their presence in BioShock any less of a disappointment. The developers of BioShock apparently felt the need to parallel the game's enormous budget allotment by taking the length and storyline of the game to a similar level of exorbitance. At one point in the game, no fewer than four major plot twists are revealed in the span of ten minutes. This machine-gun series of revelations not only feels ridiculous to the player, it also damages the game by making players feel as if the game had been lying to them for the past fifteen hours. This cluster of plot twists reduces the bombastic, epic nature of the game's narrative to the level of a daytime soap opera. For example, in the first three-quarters of the game the observant player is able to ascertain that Jack is actually Andrew Ryan's illegitimate son, a plot detail that can be found throughout works ranging from Dickens to The Empire Strikes Back. Then, during the scene in which Jack confronts Ryan, the player learns that Jack was the product of genetic engineering. Ryan does not explain the nature of the genetic alterations or the unnatural speed of Jack's aging process. In an audio diary titled “Baby Status,” the player learns that when he was a “year old [he possessed the] gross [musculature] of a fit 19 year old” (BioShock). Ryan also reveals to the player that Atlas was controlling Jack using the phrase “Would you kindly?” In what could have been an exercise in existentialism or an attempt to snap his son out of the hypnotism, Ryan uses the phrase “Would you kindly?” and demands that Jack kill him by bashing him to death with a golf club. In the scene immediately following the death of Ryan, Atlas congratulates Jack on the murder and then reveals himself to be Frank Fontaine, a criminal mastermind and the game's real antagonist. The plot of BioShock twists so violently in such a short period of time that the player is put at risk of a broken neck.
One of the biggest kinks in the pacing of BioShock stems from the player's battle with a mutated Frank Fontaine, a scene in which 2K's attempt to augment intensity through escalation of sensory stimuli is almost overwhelming. The player's confrontation with Fontaine occurs at the very end of the game's twenty-hour campaign and is the player's last series of interactions with the game, not including the aforementioned ending cutscene. After Jack is forced to kill Andrew Ryan and is subsequently rid of his indoctrination with the help of a Dr. Tenenbaum, it becomes Jack's goal to seek his revenge on the villainous Frank Fontaine. By the time that Jack reaches his nemesis, however, Fontaine has injected an enormous amount of ADAM into his body and resembles a plasmid-empowered mix between Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan and the Incredible Hulk. This particular attempt at intensity augmentation is most certainly perplexing, considering the game's weighty themes and austere atmosphere. The sudden switch from vaguely pretentious intellectualism to coarse barbarism mirrors the change in the way the game was marketed midway through the development of BioShock. Originally, the game was marketed as a sort of thinking-person's shooter, but “it wasn't until the company began selling it as an exciting action game that the project really gained steam” (Breckon, “2K Lead”). 2K was obviously forced to change gears in order to retain BioShock's triple-A status and, due to 2K's method of development in which aspects of the game were being changed even during the later stages of development, 2K was able to incorporate this strangely out of place boss battle with an enormous monster at the end of the game. While the decision to turn Frank Fontaine into a monster makes sense to a certain degree within the context of the story, it still feels wrong on a fundamental level and completely spoils the pacing of the game. Additionally, the player has witnessed so many plot twists by this point in the game that the Fontaine Thing ends up being the straw that breaks the camel's back in regards to the player's suspension of disbelief.
Infinity Ward and Treyarch Answer the Call of Duty
Infinity Ward's first-person shooter, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Treyarch's follow-up, Call of Duty: World at War, also illuminate some of Jonathan Blow's and Jacek Wesołowski's ludological dilemmas. On the one hand, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is one of the defining games of the current generation of video games. Over a year after its release in November 2007, enormous numbers of people are still logging into their online service of choice in order to play the multiplayer portion of the game and, as of May 2009, at least thirteen million copies of the game have been sold (Thorsen). Whether looking at the superb gameplay (for example, the finely-tuned controls are a small but important element of gameplay) or the innovative narrative risks taken by the game, Call of Duty 4 is a game that seems to do no wrong. The reason for Call of Duty 4's success can largely be attributed to the way it successfully negotiates common ludonarratological dilemmas and paces its narrative. Call of Duty 4 retains a firm grasp on the player's attention from the beginning of the first level up until the end of the game's grand finale. Call of Duty: World at War, on the other hand, falls far short of the ludonarratological achievements of its older brother even though the game was at least as financially successful. World at War falls victim to Blow's conflict of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning,” perhaps the most common video game conflict out of Blow's Big Three, and also suffers from poor pacing. To use Blow's phrasing, the “story meaning” of the game is that the player should care about the characters within the game, but the “dynamical meaning,” which includes such factors as the game's high level of violence, discourages one from wanting to play the game at all. Additionally, World at War's pacing is mediocre at best and, as per Wesołowski's theories, the game strictly adheres to the method of intensity augmentation solely by means of escalation of sensory stimuli. The game is essentially Call of Duty 4 with more violence, more multiplayer modes, and less innovation.
As with all other Call of Duty games, Call of Duty 4 is told from the perspective of several different characters and military groups who are all involved in one large conflict. In various different sections of the game, the player will control a “villainous” Middle Easterner and then take control of the opposing forces of those Middle Easterners immediately afterward. Over the course of the game, the player assumes control of Yasir Al-Fulani, the fictional president of an unnamed country in the Middle East, a couple of members of the British SAS and a few members of the U.S. Marine Corps. This sort of narration from multiple viewpoints is not usually seen in first-person shooters. More often than not, the player controls a single heroic, defender-of-all-that-is-good, unquestionably righteous savior character and is stuck with that character for the entirety of the game, as in every Halo game. So Call of Duty 4 is not a game to rest on its haunches and let itself dictate to the player a strictly straightforward, unambiguous story.
Call of Duty 4 is also known for the extent to which it brings the player emotionally closer to the events taking place in the gameworld by making heavy use of scripted events in order to focus each player's experience. In this way, the player gets the most powerful interpretation or viewpoint of the story. It is because of scripting that each event unfolds differently for every person who plays the game. Control is never taken away from the player during extended bouts of cutscenes (though sometimes there are brief cutscenes that exist for strictly narrative purposes); rather, certain events on the way from Point A to Point B always occur in the same time and place. For instance, an explosion may always occur at one particular spot in the level. This restriction of player interactivity in order to tell a meaningful story echoes Blow's theory of “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments. By allowing the player a diminished degree of interactivity in important narrative scenes, Call of Duty 4 manages to gracefully allay many of the problems with “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments. Blow's ludological problem is not completely solved, but Call of Duty 4 succeeds in utilizing both player interaction and pre-baked delivery without sacrificing either side of the opposing pair.
Infinity Ward's ability to reach a compromise between these two opposing factors allows Call of Duty 4 to avoid problems such as those encountered by the video game Deus Ex, in which the story meaning of the game could be undermined by the dynamical meaning resulting from the player's great degree of interactive freedom. In Deus Ex, for instance, an inappropriately-placed object, such as an American flag, could make even the most somber scene seem ludicrous. Blow points out that if the player were to carry an American flag around during their playthrough of Deus Ex, that American flag would inevitably show up in humorless cutscenes where players engage in dialogue about the potential end of the world (“Fundamental”). The misplaced American flag would, Blow claims, draw the player's attention away from the seriousness of the custcene because the flag would create humor (though, admittedly, Blow's example is not very funny) by way of contrasting with the rest of the scene. Ultimately, the flag would reduce the gravity as well as the effectiveness of the game's cutscene and cause problems relating to the game's overall dynamical meaning. However, Call of Duty 4's linearity and the player's inability to carry anything other than guns renders such narrative dilemmas impossible.
In addition to bridging the gap between the player and the gameworld by using scripted events, Infinity Ward also brings the player emotionally closer to the events of the gameworld by taking innovative narrative risks with the story. One Call of Duty 4 level in particular does something not usually seen in first-person shooter games: it exists for no other reason than to have the “good guys” (in this case, the American forces) die. In this level, the player controls a U.S. trooper who sits in the passenger seat of a helicopter flying over an unspecified Middle Eastern city as a nuclear bomb detonates within the city and the entire area is decimated. In the next scene, the player controls the severely injured U.S. trooper as he crawls out of the destroyed helicopter, into the destroyed city, and dies. This particular scene wonderfully illustrates the way in which Call of Duty 4 avoids Wesołowski's two methods of video game intensity augmentation. In this scene, intensity is built through neither escalation of sensory stimuli nor through escalation of abstract meaning. Instead, the player becomes closer to their avatar through sharing the last moments of his life. The player, who at this point has complete control of the avatar, attempts to come to terms with the reality of the game's events (in this case, nuclear war) in the same instant as the avatar. Infinity Ward deftly uses player interaction in a moment of pure interactive narrative as a means of meshing gameplay and narrative, thereby increasing emotional intensity and offering a potential solution to one of the main problems of pacing in video games.
Treyarch’s Call of Duty: World at War, the successor to Call of Duty 4, is similar to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare but has several key differences. The commitment to melding storytelling and gameplay through innovative forms of narration that is characteristic of Call of Duty 4 is conspicuously absent from Call of Duty: World at War. First, and most noticeably, the game takes place on the Japanese front of World War II whereas Call of Duty 4 took place in a fictional future war in the Middle East. This means that all of the battles in Call of Duty: World at War actually took place in some form or another. This basis in history immediately roots the game in a level of reality that was not present in Call of Duty 4. Secondly, the game is much more violent than Call of Duty 4. Presumably, the reason is that Treyarch thought the added blood and gore would give the game an added level of realism and provide the player with an accurate understanding of the horrors of war, thus making the experience more authentic. Call of Duty 4 was certainly a violent game – there are executions, suicides, and all other manner of brutalities – but Call of Duty: World at War brings the violence to a completely different level. There is copious bayoneting, Japanese soldiers running at the player screaming “Banzai,” and up-close scenes of people burning alive at the hands of a flamethrower. For instance, the very first scene of the game depicts a Western soldier having a Japanese officer put a cigarette out on the soldier’s eye. Immediately afterward, the Western soldier has his throat sliced open as his blood sprays all over the wall.
Due to the game's basis in historical reality and the large amount of gratuitous violence, some people have had trouble playing Call of Duty: World at War. Even the most jaded of lifelong gamers have been known to cringe while playing the game or to abandon the game altogether. For example, James Ransom-Wiley, the Managing Editor for the video game blog Joystiq, was unable to play past the first five minutes of the game (Ransom-Wiley). But this repulsion to violence can be attributed to more than just the fact that the violence is based in historical reality. In Call of Duty: World at War, there is actual, genuine violence. In the first cutscene of the game, before the player ever takes control of a character, the player’s eyes are assaulted with real historical footage of genocide. The footage is a clip of blindfolded Asians being shoved into a huge pile of (presumably dead) bodies. Treyarch knew what it was doing when it put all of this violent imagery in the game. When the player selects “New Game” at the Main Menu screen for the first time, there is a disclaimer that states “WARNING – Call of Duty: World at War contains graphic content and historical footage which some players may find disturbing. Player discretion is advised.” This warning is a first for the Call of Duty series of games. Never before have the already-violent games needed a warning in order to stress the extent to which the game is graphically violent. The ultra-realistic violence of the game hampers the emotional connection Treyarch attempts to create between the player and the events taking place in the gameworld. The realism of the game's events, such as the scenes of torture and genocide, work against the game's story meaning as well. Rather than the narrative of the game working against the story of the game or vice versa, both the narrative and the gameplay hurt the game's overall quality. This intermingling of problems that detract from the game shows that even though this particular problematic game can be dissected and categorized using Blow's set of game design conflicts, that set of categories is not always sufficient to cover all conceivable aspects of game criticism. Sometimes the line dividing each category (story meaning versus dynamical meaning and all the rest) is so obscured as to be almost imperceptible.
Though Treyarch had previously attempted to piggyback on the success of Infinity Ward by developing such lukewarmly-received titles as Call of Duty 2: Big Red One (as distinct from Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 2) and Call of Duty 3, there can be little doubt that Treyarch knew Call of Duty: World at War would have an enormous install base at the time of the game's release on account of Call of Duty 4's success. In the end, World at War may have achieved financial success on par with that of Call of Duty 4, but due to Infinity Ward's lack of involvement with the creation of the game, Treyarch failed to reach the same high levels of developmental craftsmanship as Infinity Ward displayed in Call of Duty 4. Despite each developer's mutual lack of involvement with each other, the fact that each developer has created games within the same franchise means that the successes or failures of each game in the franchise become associated with every other title in the franchise. In the case of World at War, the successes of Call of Duty 4 equates to financial success for Treyarch. Conversely, Treyarch's ludonarrative failures run the risk of tarnishing Call of Duty 4's good name and, by extension, Infinity Ward's as well.
During the summer of 2009, rumors circulated that Infinity Ward dropped the “Call of Duty” moniker from the name of the next installment in the franchise, the direct sequel to Call of Duty 4. This rumor was spurred on in part by Infinity Ward themselves, who left the “Call of Duty” part of the title out of the game's first several gameplay videos. The purpose of these pre-release gameplay videos was to show that development on the new video game was progressing smoothly. A major reason for the release of pre-release gameplay videos, a practice that many publishers and developers frequently follow, is to generate consumer interest in an upcoming game. On Infinity Ward's videos, the game was simply called Modern Warfare 2 instead of bearing the expected Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 title. Such a gutsy move would have illustrated their loyalty to a higher standard of quality. Infinity Ward was thought to be taking quite a large financial risk by leaving the “Call of Duty” out of the title of their next game and, indeed, the risk ultimately proved to be too large for them. They found that once they dropped the famous “Call of Duty” moniker from Modern Warfare 2, people were no longer familiar with the game (Graft). The game's brand awareness plummeted drastically, so Infinity Ward decided to reattach the “Call of Duty" to their game's title in order to generate consumer interest, and their plan succeeded. Despite the consistently high caliber of games produced by companies like Infinity Ward, the harsh reality of the video game market is that such developers must make decisions based on market forces, even if it means yoking themselves to other, inferior products.
Bethesda Softworks and the Problem of the Sandbox
In the past thirteen years or so, Bethesda Softworks have become one of the leading developers of computer role-playing games and have firmly situated themselves alongside such renowned video game developers as BioWare and Square Enix. The phenomenal critical and public response to each of Bethesda Softworks' games can largely be attributed to two factors. The first is that Bethesda puts an incredible amount of care into crafting each of their games. They often spend years developing a video game. They have been known to develop game engines (the internal mechanical structure of the game) from the ground up so as to be assured that their products' gameplay meet their lofty expectations and initial conceptualization. A second reason for the success of Bethesda Softworks is their richly-developed gameworlds. When Bethesda creates a video game, they do not just create a single story for their audience to perform. Instead, they bring entire worlds to life and allow their players limitless possibilities for interaction with those worlds. Bethesda creates such meticulously constructed and multilayered video games because their ultimate goal is to immerse players fully into their gameworlds. People play Bethesda video games in order to become immersed and as a means of pure fantasy (or in the case of Fallout 3, science-fiction) escapism. Even though Bethesda frequently succeeds in fulfilling their audience's desires for immersion in elaborate gameworlds, each of their video games is nonetheless afflicted by major ludonarrative and design problems. Bethesda Softworks' fantasy epic, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, as well as their post-apocalyptic science fiction epic, Fallout 3, is plagued by Blow's problems of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning,” “challenge versus progression,” and “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments.
Before beginning a comparative analysis of each of the games, however, one must know how and why each game can be compared in direct relation to the other. It would not be much of a stretch to say that all role-playing games developed by Bethesda Softworks are successive reiterations of the same core game type. Bethesda's unique approach to game design results in many of their games offering the same sort of experiences and possessing the same sort of gameplay. Bethesda games are characterized by expansive, fully-realized gameworlds in which the players are encouraged to create their own adventures however they see fit. In Bethesda games, the player is not even required to follow the main storyline of the game (referred to in the world of role-playing games as the “main quest”) in order to have an enjoyable or meaningful experience. Instead of following the main quest, one could simply spend one's time exploring the enormous gameworld, going from place to place and doing whatever one likes. A person can often have the most fun in Bethesda games doing even the most ridiculous of tasks. When I played The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, for instance, I would spend hours stealing from every house in a town or becoming a vampire and going on a killing spree. I am not sure what that says about my character, but in games such as Morrowind or Oblivion, one could just as easily join an organized religion and spend time going on pilgrimages to various shrines and temples that are scattered throughout the gameworld. The fun that can result from such ridiculous or mundane courses of action is all a direct result of the incredible amount of immersion that a gamer experiences when playing a Bethesda game.
The immersion itself comes from a combination of the first-person point of view in Bethesda games as well as the richly-developed gameworld, which is made all the more engrossing by the various gameworlds' enormous amount of lore. In games in The Elder Scrolls series, the lore is written in hundreds of in-game novels that contain the world's history and mythologies as well as biographies and notes of the world's inhabitants. Instead of “playing” the game (in the traditional sense of the word), one could spend dozens of hours reading these in-game novels and learning about the world of Nirn, the planet on which the events of The Elder Scrolls series take place. In Fallout 3, the lore seeps into the player's experience more through dialogue and the gameworld itself than it does through the written word. Because America was made into a withered husk of its former self after the Chinese dropped nuclear bombs all over the country, the player gathers bits and pieces of information of what the world was like before the bombs by wandering around the wasteland and examining the ruins. The player learns about the world as he or she interacts with it, and in this way the world becomes a character with a personality all its own. The player also learns about the world through the people that inhabit the world not just through dialogue but also through seeing the range of effects that living in such a desolate environment has on the population's psyche. Some of the world's factions, such as the Enclave and the Brotherhood of Steel, were empowered by the barren desolation and the struggle to survive, whereas others, such as those who have become freaks as an after-effect of the nuclear radiation, were driven to the point of insanity. In these ways, the settings of Bethesda games take on a life of their own, becoming a sort of secondary character with which the player comes to empathize over the course of his or her experiences in the various digital realms.
Despite these strengths, one of the central ludonarrative problems in both Oblivion and Fallout 3 is the problem of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning.” This problem permeates both games on a number of levels and is closely intertwined with other ludonarrative dilemmas. The “story meaning versus dynamical meaning” problem in Bethesda games results from the structure of the games themselves as well as from various problematic design decisions. In Oblivion, the basic plot of the game is that the emperor of Tamriel, the continent on which the game takes place, has died and left behind an illegitimate heir. The player's avatar is a nobody who breaks out of his or her (the gender is optional) prison in the beginning of the game and, because the avatar happens to be in the right place at the right time, the avatar is tasked with finding the emperor's heir. Once en route to the heir's location, the avatar discovers that the gates to Oblivion, one of many hells in the Elder Scrolls universe, have broken open and demons have spread throughout the continent. After locating the emperor's heir, it becomes the task of the avatar to “close shut the gates of Oblivion,” as the game so dramatically puts it (Oblivion). So, the “story meaning” of the game is that the player should care about the plights of the empire against the newly-unleashed forces of evil. However, in Oblivion, the player's avatar is not the center of the gameworld's attention, as is the case with almost every other role-playing game ever created. Instead, the player's avatar is simply a person whom Martin, the emperor's heir (and as far the main quest is concerned, the most important character in the game), has tasked with running errands, albeit very significant errands. The player is essentially a henchman to the newly-crowned emperor of Tamriel. Bethesda's decision to make the player a side character instead of the focus of the game's plot was a very clever design choice, although it also has deleterious effects from a ludonarrative standpoint. The fact that the player is a side character in the game allows the player a greater degree of role-playing freedom. Instead of being forced into an assigned role, the player can approach the game from a large number of angles and, as stated previously, the player does not even have to follow the main quest. While the player has an incredible amount of freedom to make his or her own decisions within the gameworld, the combination of the avatar's essential unimportance to gameworld as a whole and the player's ability to pick and choose interactions makes the “dynamic meaning” of the game essentially say “the player is expendable because anything that the avatar does within the gameworld could just as easily have been done by somebody else.” For a game whose main goal is to allow players to immerse themselves in the gameworld for hundreds of hours, fostering a feeling of insignificance within the game may work as disincentive to play Oblivion.
Fallout 3 also suffers heavily from the problem of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning” due to the basic structure of the game. While the game better engages players in the main quest and makes their actions feel more meaningful than Oblivion on a larger scale, the injection of a deep actions-and-consequences storyline into such a free-form interactive proves to be problematic. Fallout 3 is a story about a young man (or woman – again, the choice is optional) and a search for his father in the post-apocalyptic nuclear wastelands of Washington, D.C. The game takes place two hundred years after the Chinese government annihilated the United States with nuclear bombs in the year 2077. The story of Fallout 3 begins in an underground nuclear shelter known as Vault 101. People have lived there for the past two hundred years without ever stepping foot outside of the vault. During that time, the inhabitants of Vault 101 have developed a complex civilization with a tyrannical government, learning facilities, and all other manner of things that constitute a small town. One day, without explanation, the avatar's father breaks the vault's biggest taboo: opening the vault door and heading out into the wasteland. The player spends the rest of the game attempting to reconnect with the father. Despite all sorts of sub-plots and sidequests, the game is essentially about the avatar's search for his or her father. In order to understand where the problem of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning” plays a part in all of this, one must first understand the way in which Fallout 3 was conceptualized and subsequently marketed. Bethesda wanted to follow in the footsteps of Black Isle Studios, the developer of the first two Fallout games, and allow the player a greater freedom of choice in actions than routine in role-playing games. The theory was that depending on the player's actions at certain points in the game, events would play out differently over the course of the game. After all, it only makes sense that in a wasteland dominated by hues of brown and gray, one's actions should take on various shades of gray as well. These subtle decisions prompted Todd Howard, Bethesda's Executive Producer, to declare that the game would have over two hundred different endings (Bennett). However, when actually playing the game, the traditional trappings of the role-playing genre of video games rear their ugly heads. When faced with decisions, the player can almost always spot the “good,” “evil,” and “neutral” options. Instead of the morality of the game forming organically, the player is constantly aware of the potential consequences of particular courses of action. So, the story meaning of Fallout 3 is that the player inhabits a morally gray landscape in which he or she must make morally gray choices, but the dynamical meaning is that the game is essentially identical to all of its role-playing game predecessors. After all, if it looks like a role-playing game, acts like a role-playing game, and smells like a role-playing game, then it must be a role-playing game.
As a result of some confusing design decisions that were made in response to players' reactions to previous Elder Scrolls titles, Oblivion suffers from Blow's problem of “challenge versus progression.” Instead of the level of challenge steadily rising over the course of the game and preventing the player from progressing, as is the case with the problem of “challenge versus progression,” Oblivion suffers from a sort of inverse “challenge versus progression.” The player is able to progress freely through the world of Oblivion because the game has no significant challenges at all. This aspect allows the player to accomplish any task in the gameworld, but it also makes the game less fun because the player can essentially breeze through the entirety of the game. To see how this happens, though, one must look to the mechanics of previous Elder Scrolls games. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Oblivion's predecessor, draws some of the most striking contrasts in terms of gameplay mechanics. First of all, in Morrowind, the outcome of every action taken by the player is dependent on a variety of factors and is determined using mathematical calculations. Though the gameplay takes place in real-time, these calculations occur instantaneously at the press of a button. So, for example, if a player were to try to attack a monster using a longsword, the amount of damage inflicted by the attack and whether that attack even connects at all are determined by the level of the avatar's agility, strength, luck and longsword skill as well as the level of the monster's agility, armor rating, and luck. The avatar's agility level and the monster's agility level are the prime determining factors as to whether attacks connect. In the role-playing game world, the likelihood of one's attack connecting is known as a “chance to hit” and can be seen in everything from tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons to all manner of role-playing video games. Understandably, some players of Morrowind were disappointed by the effects of this “chance to hit” when their attacks were visibly connecting. Therefore, to open Oblivion up to greater mainstream appeal, Bethesda removed this “chance to hit” from their latest Elder Scrolls game. While the decision to remove this “chance to hit” makes sense from an economic standpoint, the lack of a statistics-based combat system makes what is already a potentially very easy game even easier. Two years after the release of Oblivion, the “chance to hit” combat system makes a reappearance in Fallout 3 with the V.A.T.S., otherwise known as the “Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System.” Since Bethesda creates reiterations of the same basic style of game, their addition of such statistics-based combat systems to Fallout 3 suggests that its absence was detrimental to Oblivion.
Another way in which Oblivion stumbles into the problem of “challenge versus progression,” or “lack of challenge versus ease of progression,” is that the level of most enemies that the player encounters in the game is dependent on the level of the player. As with the removal of statistics-based combat, the addition of leveled enemies was Bethesda's response to the difficulty that some players experienced when playing Morrowind. In Morrowind, from the very beginning of the game, players are capable of encountering enemies much higher in level than themselves. The level of the enemies is completely independent of the level of the avatar. If, for example, there are a couple of level thirty-five vampires in a particular building, there will always be a couple of level thirty-five vampires in that building. In the beginning of the game, the possibility of encountering such high-level enemies can seem daunting to the player, but over time the player becomes powerful enough to destroy any foe. Although players can always reload a previously saved game after they die, this dispersion of enemies of different levels adds a sense of danger, and therefore immersion, to the game. In Oblivion, on the other hand, the level of the enemies scales with the level of the avatar. If the avatar is level five, then the avatar will only encounter enemies that are level five, such as level five rats and level five wolves. Furthermore, if the avatar is level thirty-five, then the avatar will only encounter powerful level thirty-five bandits wearing expensive armor and using expensive weapons. What this does on a cognitive level is make players feel as if they are never advancing through the gameworld. The players are incapable of seeing their progression because every enemy has leveled up at the same exact speed. Fighting a level thirty-five bandit when the player's avatar is level thirty-five presents the same degree of challenge as fighting a level five rat did when the player's avatar was at level five. This addition of leveled enemies also causes fundamental cognitive dissonance in the mind of the player because it does not make sense for bandits, who should by all means be poor (after all, they are attempting to kill the avatar so that they can loot the corpse), to carry around equipment that costs tens of thousands in gold. Bethesda must have been aware of the cognitive dissonance that is caused by the leveled enemies in Oblivion because by the time Fallout 3 was released, they had gone back to the non-leveled system that was displayed in Morrowind.
Fallout 3 is afflicted with some similar “challenge versus progression” problems as those experienced by Oblivion, particularly concerning the design of the game's combat system. Whereas Fallout 3's combat system provides a greater level of challenge by being statistics-based, it suffers from some other design decisions that are unique to the Fallout series. As has been previously mentioned, the combat system is called V.A.T.S., which stands for “Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System.” Even if one is unfamiliar with the world of Fallout, one can glean how the game's combat system works by examining the explication of the system's acronym. When entering into combat, the player has the “option” to enter V.A.T.S. mode, which pauses the action of the game and allows the player to select a specific area of the enemy's body to attack. Every attack while in V.A.T.S. mode uses a certain number of action points. The player can only take as many actions as the action points will allow. But the “option” to use V.A.T.S. or not is a false choice because choosing to play Fallout 3 without using V.A.T.S. is like trying to perform brain surgery while blindfolded. In other words, it is impossible or at the very least impractical. However, choosing to use the V.A.T.S. system essentially makes the game a cakewalk. Often, the only combat strategy the player will utilize in the game is to enter V.A.T.S., select the enemy's head as many times as their number of action points will allow, exit V.A.T.S., and watch the game win itself. The game is either too hard or too easy, with no middle ground between either end of the difficulty spectrum.
Due to the style of gameplay utilized in Oblivion and Fallout 3, both games run into Blow's problem of “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments. Both games demonstrate a severe disconnect between the open-ended nature of the games and the effort by Bethesda to inject a compelling storyline. Part of Bethesda's difficulty lies in the fact that the main storyline of each game is simply another quest that the player can choose to follow or simply choose to ignore and go do something else. In Oblivion the contrast between “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments is not so off-putting simply because the game focuses less on telling an involved, momentous story than on allowing the player to interact with the world in a myriad of ways. When playing an Elder Scrolls game, a player can spend his or her time in so many ways that once the player actually gets around to the main quest, it has become just another avenue of interaction in the gameworld. Though Bethesda attempts to provide the player with setpiece moments, such as the one at the end of the game when a giant Daedric god comes to the physical realm and begins to destroy The Imperial City, by the time the player actually reaches Oblivion's climax, they will already have seen so much that the setpiece essentially becomes just another portion of the quest. The number of people who play Oblivion for its story instead of its open-ended gameplay are few and far between.
Fallout 3 more frequently encounters Blow's problem of “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments because with this title Bethesda wanted to retain their traditional open-ended gameplay while also having a more meaningful story than those of their previous games. In other words, they wanted to have their cake and eat it too. Whereas with Oblivion Bethesda stuck to the “interactivity” side of the “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” conundrum by giving the main quest the same amount of weight as the rest of the quests in the game, Fallout 3's main quest is given precedence over every other quest. While this means that the main quest of Fallout 3 is much more compelling than the main quests of all Bethesda's previous games, it also means that the conflict between interactivity and pre-baked delivery of meaningful moments is all the more obvious. For the most part, though, Fallout 3 succeeds in juggling interactivity and pre-baked delivery of meaningful moments – until everything begins to fall apart at the end of the main quest. The player's encounter with Colonel Autumn, the leader of the Enclave and one of the game's main “bad guys,” may unfold in many ways, but assuming that the player has played the game as a “good guy,” the player's avatar and Colonel Autumn will inevitably engage each other in battle. Autumn and his goons ambush the player in the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. as the player is on his or her way to restore (or sabotage) the country's water supply, thus saving (or imperiling) the day. The player has spent hours before this encounter battling mutants, being abducted and subsequently breaking out of captivity, discovering that the President of the United States is actually a program in a huge machine, and fighting alongside laser-wielding, forty-foot robots. So, the player is disappointed to discover that the game's main boss is an old man and a couple of goons. Despite the game's climactic buildup and attempt to immerse the player in a compelling video game narrative, the grand finale of the video game is a disappointing cliché. It does not help matters that, due to the length of the adventure that the player will have undergone beforehand, the player is already ridiculously powerful by this point in the game and is capable of slaughtering these foes in a matter of seconds. But this battle, the last battle of the entire game, is not the most glaring example of the problem of “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery of meaningful moments” in the game.
The most glaring example of “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery of meaningful moments” in Fallout 3 comes a few moments after the battle when the player is faced with the most important decision of the entire game: whether or not to save America by restoring the nation's water supply. The decision of whether or not to save America is truly unpleasant, but not for the reasons one might think. The choice is so unpleasant because the game ends immediately afterward regardless of the player's decision. No matter what the player has done up to this point in the game, his or her final decision will immediately start an unstoppable sequence of events, both within the context of the game's narrative and in actuality. The player's control of the avatar is taken away, and then players are presented not with an engaging ending but with a slideshow chronicling their adventures through the wastelands. This ending is so distressing from a ludonarrative standpoint for a number of reasons. First, it quickly becomes clear to the reader what Todd Howard meant when he said that the game would boast an extraordinary number of endings. The endings are not dynamic, meaning that they are not individual endings that are the result of the whole of the player's decisions within the game. Rather, the endings are an amalgamation of clips that play based on certain key decisions that the player made over the course of the game. Instead of players experiencing a satisfying ending at the end of their lengthy adventure, such as participating in a final battle that would force them to use their cunning and their full arsenal of weaponry, players are rewarded with a series of clips played in a piecemeal fashion. A second reason the ending of the game is so disconcerting from the perspective of Blow's “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery of meaningful moments” dilemma is the very fact the game ends. Fallout 3 is the first Elder Scrolls-style Bethesda game to disallow the player to continue playing the game after the end of the main quest. Both Morrowind and Oblivion, for example, allowed players to keep playing the game for as long as they wished, regardless of the achievements of the player within the game. As has been stated previously, all the way through Fallout 3, Bethesda had been trying to have their cake and eat it too in regards to the problem of “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery of meaningful moments,” only to fall exclusively to the side of pre-baked delivery of meaningful moments and unexpectedly yank control of the game away from the player. I am not exaggerating when I say that as I saw the game's final cutscene begin to play, I felt robbed. I have been a long-time fan of Bethesda Softworks and was familiar with the conventions of their previous games. One of the expectations that a fan of Bethesda comes to place on their games is the expectation that one will be able to play their games as long as one wishes. Bethesda released numerous downloadable add-ons and expansion packs to Fallout 3 since the game released last year, and one of these nixed the original ending of the game and allowed the player to continue playing after the final cutscene. After much deliberation I decided to download this expansion, titled Fallout 3: Broken Steel, and spend additional time in the wastelands of Washington, D.C. I found it hard to look past the way that the game ripped control of the avatar from my hands. I felt like I had already been betrayed after having spent dozens of hours in the game, but I eventually came back to it and decided to give it a second shot. Even though I only played the game for a handful of hours after downloading the Broken Steel expansion, it was still nice to be able to continue playing after the main events of the story. I was able to go back and uncover all the stones that I had left unturned on my first trip through the wastelands.
Due to the open-ended structure of Bethesda games, discussing the application of Jacek Wesołowski's theories about pacing in video games is complicated, though it is necessitated by the presence of pacing problems in these games. One of the most notable problems with pacing in Oblivion and Fallout 3 is that, depending upon the actions of the player, pacing may not exist at all. Wesołowski does not seem to mind that the games run the risk of completely lacking any tangible sort of pacing. The basic game structure of Oblivion and Fallout 3 possesses what Wesołowski calls a “great middle section.” In Bethesda games, the player is introduced to the mechanics of the games in a quick tutorial; the player spends the bulk of the games adventuring (the middle section) and then the games end. Wesołowski says that this great middle section, with its create-your-own-pace design approach, is something that can only be done by video games and is one of several alternatives to the cinematic method of pacing. In his article on Gamasutra, a video game website that focuses on topics relating to the video game industry, Wesołowski explains the benefits of using Fallout 3's method of pacing as follows:
Free from pressure to move onward, the player can pay more attention to details and subtle relationships. Even though the story is made up of predefined blocks, players create the context of each block by themselves. Films are doubly incapable of this, because all scenes always arrive in the same order, and because they are time-constrained in that they end at director's, rather than the audience's, discretion.
In theory, Fallout 3's alternative method of pacing sounds ideal. However, after playing Fallout 3 and witnessing the game's resolution, it becomes clear that the game suffers problems with pacing from the way in which Bethesda attempts to simultaneously utilize a cinematic and free-form method of pacing. As Wesołowski states, the portions of the game using cinematic pacing come in “predefined blocks.” In order to retain their trademark style of gameplay, Bethesda takes what could have been a straightforward, focused narrative if played from beginning to end, chopped it up into these “predefined blocks,” and spread it out so that the player could also interact with the gameworld in a free-form fashion. On account of Fallout 3's combination of free-form and cinematic pacing, though, a palpable dissonance forms in the mind of the player. This dissonance in pacing can make the player feel as if perhaps he or she is not doing something worthwhile when straying off of the beaten path, or as if he or she has wasted time exploring when the main quest is finally joined again.
Almost all of Oblivion's issues with pacing arise from the game's extremely open-ended structure. Technically, only Fallout 3 is composed of a great middle section because the entirety of Oblivion is one long middle section. The game never really ends; one just eventually stops playing. The player's interest inevitably just fizzles out and he/she puts down the controller or keyboard. From a pacing standpoint, such a conclusion is obviously undesirable but Bethesda's devotion to absolute player freedom in Oblivion makes it unavoidable. The pacing of Oblivion also suffers from the lack of an impetus for the player's actions. The game's narrative is never compelling enough to make the player want to do anything as a result of the events taking place within the gameworld. The player is driven solely by his or her own desires. The player explores the forest and picks mushrooms in order to make a potion because he or she feels like it. The player visits a weapons trainer to increase his or her knowledge of a weapon of choice because the player desires that knowledge. The player completes the game's main quest simply because it is there and it is something to do. The optionality of the main quest, one of Oblivion's main components, does a disservice to the overall quality of the game.
The next chapter examines video games and distribution models that deliberately attempt to innovate within their specific roles in the video game industry. The games attempt to answer some of the problems theorized by people such as Blow and Wesołowski and exhibited by the games discussed in this chapter. The digital distribution models attempt to allow developers to overcome the hurdles accompanying traditional retail distribution. Each of these innovations in the video game industry have their advantages and disadvantages, but they are important because they recognize and endeavor to solve problems with the production and distribution of video games.
Jonathan Blow's downloadable puzzle-platformer, Braid, makes for quite a curious video game success story considering that the game is comprised of a series of conflicts and contrary oppositions. Despite being harshly criticized for its price point, the game is one of the most highly-praised, well-received games ever developed for the Xbox 360 and personal computer. The game must be downloaded from the Xbox Live Arcade, Internet retailers, or a digital distribution service such as Steam, and in this age of Wal-Mart Supercenters and mega-malls, the fact that no physical retail version of Braid exists makes the game's massive economic success even more remarkable, given many gamers' negative reaction to the game. Instead of perceiving the game as an introspective, thoughtful video game that was created partially as a statement about love, life or a number of other subjects (depending on the individual gamer's interpretation of the story), and partially in response to issues that Blow perceives as plaguing the current video game industry, many gamers merely saw Braid as a pretentious byproduct of Blow's over-inflated ego. Above all, Braid's success is bizarre because it succumbs to every single one of Blow's fundamental issues in contemporary video game design despite having been developed as a direct response to each of the three problems.
In order to understand the game's content, one must understand its context by examining the game's development process as well as decisions about distribution. For example, Braid's problem of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning” stems entirely from Blow's personal emotional and financial investment in the video game. Indeed, Blow's financial investment in the game merely manifests the extent of his emotional investment in a monetary form. The fact that “he spent more than $180,000 of his own money during the past [several] years to develop Braid” shows just how much meaning the game held for Blow (Brophy-Warren). Additionally, Blow also went on hiatus from his real job as a video game industry consultant in order to work on Braid (Brophy-Warren). Blow discloses his emotional investment in Braid in other ways, but these particular actions and their consequences will be covered in detail below.
An enormous uproar arose over the game's price when Braid was released on August 6, 2008, on the Xbox Live Arcade. Gamers around the world were incensed at Blow/Microsoft’s price for the game: fifteen dollars. At the time of Braid’s release, very few games were being released on the Xbox Live Arcade (also known as the XBLA) for fifteen dollars. The standard prices for downloadable games at that time was between five and ten dollars and people were outraged at the five-dollar price difference. Blow cannot be blamed for wanting to have the game priced at fifteen dollars, especially when one takes into account the fact that he put at least 180,000 dollars of money from his own pocket into the game’s development. Braid was going to be priced at twenty dollars for the computer version of the game, five dollars more than the XBLA version of the game and at a similar price to other downloadable computer games such as World of Goo and Aquaria (Chalk). Yet another outcry sprang from the gaming public and Blow eventually decided to move the price for the computer Braid down to $14.95, five cents cheaper than the XBLA version of Braid (Chalk). While Blow may have been worried about earning his money back from Braid, his investment definitely paid off. According to VG Chartz, a website devoted to tracing and analyzing the financial aspects of the video game industry, as of February 13, 2009, Braid has sold 253,912 copies on the XBLA and has made a cool $3,808,673 (Schlichter). Perhaps most interesting about this pricing hubbub is that the price of the game did not affect the critical reception of the game. Video game critics, journalists and enthusiasts praised Braid almost universally. In fact, Braid has a score of ninety-three out of a possible one hundred on Metacritic, and it is the eighth highest-rated Xbox 360 game and the highest-rated XBLA game yet (Xbox 360).
The game itself is a unique creation in the world of modern video games, though it has roots in traditional, well-trodden video game genres. Braid is a mix between a puzzle game and a platformer (à la Super Marios Bros.) in which the player has the ability to rewind time, thus negating traditionally inconvenient gameplay elements such as death. In the first section of the first level, Tim, the player's avatar can hardly do anything more than make the avatar bounce on the enemies’ heads. As the game progresses, though, the manipulation of time becomes the central component of the gameplay and the player soon realizes that the game is not a traditional platformer at all, but rather that it is a puzzle game in the guise of a platformer. The key to beating each level is to manipulate time in various ways in order to gather puzzle pieces that can then be put together to form a picture. In the third level, for example, time flows normally when Tim moves right and time flows in reverse when Tim moves to the left. Time stands still if Tim does not move at all. Eventually, in the final level, time flows in reverse by default and whenever the player rewinds time, time moves forward at a regular pace. Unless one actually sees the game in motion, the mechanics appear to be mind-boggling. Even then, however, the peculiarities of the varying types of time manipulation can be a bit overwhelming, and while the game has been likened to a Mario-ripoff by Braid's detractors, the game's mechanics stand as a testament to its uniqueness.
Braid is also unique in its approach to storytelling, but in order to understand the nature of that uniqueness, one must understand the roles that the problems of “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments and “story meaning versus dynamical meaning” play within the game. Just as the two problems are inseparably intertwined with each other, so too are they intertwined with Braid's approach to narrative due to Blow's presence in the game. For example, the particularity with which Blow attempts to control the way the player interacts with the game results in a glaring “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments problem. While the game can often be frustratingly difficult for the average gamer, a point that I will revisit later, Blow insists that players “solve [the puzzles] for [themselves] and do not use a walkthrough!” (Official). In a tongue-in-cheek walkthrough that Blow posted on his website, he defends his game by saying things like “[The puzzles] don't require you to do anything random; they don't require guessing” and “when you manage to solve those hard puzzles, you will feel very good about it” (Official). Though the open-ended nature of the game’s narrative encourages a variety of different interpretations, Blow clearly intends players to have a uniform playing experience. But Blow cannot control the way that the players interact with the game without having that restriction reflect upon the way that the player interprets the game's narrative. His iron-fisted dominion over the playing experience is pre-baked delivery taken to the extreme and set in direct opposition to player interactivity, which includes player interpretation.
The intrusion by Blow into the gamer's playing experience also results in the transformation of the game's meaning from the story meaning, which says that “Tim's experiences in Braid are open to interpretation because of the extent to which the game's narrative is open-ended,” to the dynamic meaning of “There is no reason for the player to care about Tim or his experiences at all because the game is obviously a huge ego-trip on the part of Blow.” Like the problem of “interactivity versus pre-baked delivery” of meaningful moments, the conflict between Braid's story meaning and dynamical meaning results from Blow's dominant presence within the game. For Julian Murdoch, a blogger at the website Gamers With Jobs, Blow's walkthough was his “first encounter with the unwelcome voice of the author” (Murdoch). Murdoch explains that with the walkthrough, “Blow inserted himself into my experience of his work. I had been pre-chastised by the author: I was a moron if I couldn’t [complete the game] on my own. I took Blow at his terms. Not finishing the game became an act of rebellion. He, not his game, had pissed me off, and so I petulantly took my marbles and went home” (Murdoch). Internet discussions indicate that Murdoch is not alone in his antipathy towards Jonathan Blow and his game. On Joystiq, a video game blog, there are just as many people who believe Blow is “a pretentious dick” as there are those who love him (Orenthol). One particularly eloquent poster precisely echoed Murdoch's opinions, stating that “Blow may be intelligent and may have something different to offer gamers, but that does not change the fact that he has the tact of a walrus out of water. I appreciate being able to experience his unique game, but I felt constantly sneered down upon by the very guy who was supposedly trying to do me a favor by developing God's gift to gamers” (Saria the Cat). Though Saria appreciates Blow's attempt to shift the video game narrative/gameplay paradigm, Blow prevents Saria from enjoying the game itself by obviously and self-consciously attempting to shift the paradigm. Instead of having the game speak for itself concerning issues of narrative and gameplay, it becomes obvious to the player that Blow himself is addressing these issues through the video game.
The phenomenon of developer over-presence in video games is rare and usually only occurs in one of two situations. The first situation is when one central, charismatic and public developer's personality looms over the end product because of the large role that the developer plays over the course of the game's development. Peter Molyneux and his over-hyping of the video game Fable is an example of this first type of developer over-presence. Before Fable was released, Molyneux made several promises about the features that would be included in the finished version of the game, but many of these features never made the final cut. So, when Fable was released and players gave the game a spin, they could not forget Molyneux’s words or shake the feeling that Molyneux has personally lied to each and every one of them. Molyneux came out with a public apology, saying “If I have mentioned any feature in the past which, for whatever reason, didn't make it as I described into Fable, I apologise. […] I have come to realise that I should not talk about features too early so I am considering not talking about games as early as I do” (Molyneux). The second case in which the developer’s presence can overwhelm a game is a single developer has a strong personal investment (emotional or financial) in the game. In other words, developer over-presence can occur when the game is a developer’s personal brainchild. However, the problem is not that the developer becomes attached to their creation, but rather that the developer over-identifies with his or her product. Blow and his involvement with Braid are an example of this second type of developer over-presence. However, no matter the specific category of a developer's over-presence, the end result is always a noticeable problem of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning” in the mind of the player.
In addition to being a result of developer over-presence, Braid's dynamical meaning, which leaves players feeling as if they are awkward third wheels between the game and the developer, emerges from the fact that the game is Blow's direct response to the problem of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning.” In his speech at the MIGS, Blow offers Ian Bogost's concept of “tight coupling” as a potential solution to the problem of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning.” He explains that “tight coupling” is “when you just work really hard to make the story and the dynamical meaning cohere and not openly conflict with each other” (Blow, “Fundamental”). Tight coupling has historically been difficult because “there isn't a culture of designers paying attention to dynamical meaning,” and because with the high budget production model, developers often cannot determine how well a game's gameplay is going to work until it is too late to make any large-scale changes. However, since Jonathan Blow is a video game scholar as well as a developer, and since Braid is a fairly low-budget video game, Blow attempted to close the gap between Braid's story and dynamical meanings by telling the game's story through its gameplay. Each level of Braid has a written prologue, but Blow made sure to leave the components of the game simultaneously vague and focused enough that the player realizes that meaning is hidden behind every facet of the game. If, by the last level, the player has not come to understand that meaning lies behind every creature and gameplay mechanic of the game, the end can leave no doubt in the player's mind.
In this last level, Blow reveals through gameplay that Tim is actually the antagonist of the game, a fact that throws a wrench into Blow's attempt at tight coupling. In this last level, time flows in reverse when played from left to right. The screen is divided horizontally into two halves; in the top half of the screen is the Princess, the love of Tim’s life and the person about whom Tim has been telling stories (the prologues before the levels) for the entire game. At the beginning of the level, a villainous knight descends from above and starts chasing the Princess, who then screams for help and flees from the knight. As the Princess flees from the knight, she uses levers and switches to help Tim, who follows along behind her on the bottom half of the screen, overcoming obstacles. When Tim finally reaches the Princess, however, the Princess is sleeping and Tim cannot interact with her. The player’s only option at this point is to rewind time. When rewinding time, time flows normally and as Tim starts going back through the level, it appears that Tim is chasing the Princess, who is setting traps to keep him from getting to her. When Tim reaches the end (which is also the beginning) of the level, the Princess screams “Help!” and a knight descends from above to save her. At this point it dawns on the player that Tim has been the villain of the game the entire time. He has been following a person who wanted nothing to do with him and reminiscing about the way things were, or the way they might never have been. Therein lies one of the major problems with Blow's response to the problem of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning.” At the game’s end, the player still has no idea what it means that Tim is the bad guy. The true meaning behind the events of the game are known only to Blow, who has absolutely no intention of ever letting anybody else in on the secret. This knowledge only serves to increase the player's awareness of Blow's presence within the game, which in turn increases the degree of the problem of “story meaning versus dynamical meaning.”
In addition to the aforementioned developer over-presence in the game (or perhaps as a result of it), another source of Braid's problems with interactivity versus pre-baked delivery is the textual narration that bookends each level. This textual narration is the game's primary method of explicit story meaning delivery, as opposed to the game's secondary, but equally important, method of delivering story meaning through gameplay. The problem with the textual narrative is that it really only serves to further convolute the player's perceptions of the real meaning of the game's story, just like the confusing final level. For example, in the game's epilogue an unidentified character says to another unidentified character “Now we are all sons of bitches,” which is exactly what Kenneth Bainbridge said to Robert Oppenheimer after the first nuclear bomb test (Braid). This line has led to several far-fetched theories (or not, depending on what Blow actually meant with the statement) in the community of the game's fans. Another problem with Braid's textual narrative is that it is only tangentially related to the events of the game itself and, frankly, it is poorly-written. In a thread on Joystiq about the Games as Art Debate, a certain poster offered Blow a bit of backhanded praise by saying “His game was good, but […] he left out things like a real plot and had the purplest prose this side of a pre-graduate Creative Writing course” (alienmastermind). For an example of the game's “[purple] prose,” one need look no farther than the introduction to the game's first chapter, which is also, in Braid's complicated and non-sequential fashion, the last chapter of the game. The textual introduction to the first chapter is as follows:
Tim wants, like nothing else, to find the Princess, to know her at last. For Tim this would be momentous, sparking an intense light that embraces the world, a light that reveals the secrets long kept from us, that illuminates – or materializes! – a final palace where we can exist in peace.
But how would this be perceived by the other residents of the city, in the world that flows contrariwise? The light would be intense and warm at the beginning, but then flicker down to nothing, taking the castle with it; it would be like burning down the place we've always called home, where we played so innocently as children. Destroying all hope of safety, forever. (Braid)
As with the many other instances of textual narrative in Braid, the first characteristic of the text that becomes apparent to the reader is not the text's meaning but rather its style. Braid is not the first video game to feature extensive sections of textual narrative (Lost Odyssey comes to mind as a recent video game that succeeds in employing large amounts of textual narrative), but the turgid, overwrought quality of its narrative does make the game stand out from others. Blow's presence becomes apparent through his writing and further widens the existing rift.
The last of Blow's fundamental game design issues from which Braid suffers is the problem of challenge versus progression. Braid falls victim to the conflict of “challenge versus progression” not in being too easy but in being too difficult. The game has neither “faux challenge” nor “dynamic difficulty adjustment.” In other words, the player must rise to the game's set difficulty level and beat the game's various puzzles but, unfortunately, in Braid there is nothing that allows the player to overcome the problem of challenge versus progression. The player will either be able to beat the puzzles or will be forced to stop playing after numerous attempts. Though levels can be revisited upon completion, the player must nonetheless solve each puzzle in order to beat the game. The difficult puzzles stand as a barrier to completion of the game. The story of Braid and its level of difficulty work directly against each other and this filters down to the player in a way that is distinctly noticeable. While Blow certainly uses difficulty to communicate to players that their interactions with the game are important, players are not provided with sufficient motivation to keep them wanting to play such a frustrating game. One source of the game’s difficulty comes from the fact that it is a puzzle game disguised as a platformer. As such, the player soon learns that absolutely everything on the screen is functional and is important to solving the various puzzles at one point or another. There are no extraneous platforms and the placement of each item or character in the game is deliberate. As a result, it can often be difficult to make sense of the level and if a game is so hard that it becomes work, then the player is not likely to continue playing. So, one of the possible outcomes of the challenge versus progression conflict is that when the difficulty level is too high, the player is essentially punished for attempting to enjoy the game. Furthermore, because the challenges in Braid are not “faux challenges,” it often becomes impossible for the player to progress without eventually wanting to rip his or her own hair out.
Blow wants the player to accomplish the game entirely by him or herself, without the use of a walkthrough or hints of any sort, but the problem with this is that the game is simply hard. Julian Murdoch says that “When I hit the inevitable wall in Braid, I discovered that, despite being allowed to run roughshod through the game in order to experience and appreciate the narrative, such gameplay would keep me from reaching the story’s end. I was furious. Unlike most video games, Braid requires literal perfection” (“Braid”). Again, the “literal perfection” required by Braid comes back to the point of developer overpresence in the game. If Blow were not so determined to have the player experience his elaborately-constructed game in a very particular way, the game's difficulty level could perhaps be more negotiable.
Blow's own ludological dilemmas not only run rampant in his own game, but also prove to be interconnected. Whereas with a game such as Fallout 3, one can look at the game and say “1) the problem of interactivity versus pre-baked delivery results from the game's attempt to have an open-ended narrative and a meaningful narrative at the same time, 2) the problem of story meaning versus dynamical meaning results from the game's attempt to provide players with situations in which they must make morally gray choices, and 3) the lack of challenge in the game forms an inverse of the problem of challenge versus progression,” one is not able to make a similar set of claims in regards to Braid because Blow's three ludological problems are not separated. For example, the overpresence of Jonathan Blow in Braid leads to each of the three problems. It transforms the game's story meaning into the dynamical meaning of “Braid is entirely about Blow, so why should I care about any of the game's goings-on?” Problems of interactivity versus pre-baked delivery arise because Blow only wants the player to interact with the game in a certain way, which is by not using hints or guides of any sort. However, because Braid is a strict puzzle game, even if the player did use a guide, there would still be only one way to solve each of the game's puzzles, which results in the problem of challenge versus progression. Either the player will be able to beat the puzzles or he or she will eventually hit a dead end and stop playing. The analysis of Braid is tricky, therefore, because any of these problems that result from Blow's overpresence fit several labels. For another example, Blow's determination to have the player interact with the game in a particular way can obviously be labeled as the problem of interactivity versus pre-baked delivery, but it can also be labeled as the problem of story meaning versus dynamical meaning. The interconnectedness between Blow's three game design conflicts in Braid can be attributed to Blow's game design philosophies, which embrace such concepts as that of Ian Bogost's “tight coupling,” as well as Blow's attempts to offer alternatives to big budget, blockbuster game design philosophies. Braid may still suffer from the same problems that keep blockbuster games from being “coherent artistic works,” but it manages to do so in a different way (“Fundamental”).
The Marriage: By Any Other Name, Still a Game
The Marriage, a free-to-download computer game created by Rod Humble, challenges traditionally-held opinions about what, exactly, constitutes a video game. Rod Humble, the executive producer of the Sims division of the enormous Electronic Arts video game company, would never have been able to accomplish such a feat had he not made the conscious decision to release The Marriage as a free, downloadable title. Therefore, it is difficult to judge the success of The Marriage using the same criteria applied to other video games. One cannot simply look at sales figures, NPD data, or Metacritic in order to establish a sense of the game's impact upon the consumer-base and the video game industry alike. Instead, one must dig a little deeper in order to gain a sense of people's reactions to the video game by hopping onto the Internet and scouring video game forums, blogs and various other types of video game-related websites. Most of all, though, one must play the game for oneself in order to understand it, for The Marriage is an intensely personal game on the part of Rod Humble and it was constructed in such a way as to be intensely personal to each individual who plays it. The video game, irrefutably a game while simultaneously hardly seeming to be a game at all, is as open-ended and widely-interpretable as possible, which might lead one to think that it would be more capable of avoiding many of Blow's fundamental problems in game design. However, because Humble created the game with the intent of it being perceived by the public as a piece of interactive art rather than as just another video game, The Marriage is simply forced to adhere to the rules of video game design at the same time as it is confined by the boundaries placed upon it as a piece of art.
Due to The Marriage's marketing and presentation, the game is meant to be perceived as interactive art rather than just another independent video game in a sea of indie video games, though, arguably, that is exactly how it can be labeled. Certainly, labeling the game as a “indie game,” a term which is often synonymous with “art game,” instead of “interactive art” does little to blunt the game's effectiveness at conveying meaning through a digital medium. Humble himself believes the “distinction is obsolete” between the labels “art games” and “interactive art” (Rohrer). As he says in the game's lengthy accompanying article, “The Marriage is intended to be art” and, as such, “[it] requires explanation” although merely stating that it requires explanation in order to be understood – at least as he meant it to be understood – “is already an admission of failure.” However, Humble justifies his explanation of the game by saying that “when working with new art forms one has to start somewhere and it's unfair to an audience to leave a piece of work (even if its not successful) without some justification.” Such a statement can be empowering from a video game analyst's perspective because it presupposes the ability of video games to be artistically meaningful. Furthermore, because Humble created The Marriage as a freely available piece of art rather than as a commercial video game, “it's certainly meant to be enjoyable but not entertaining in the traditional sense most games are. This means I am certain to be perceived as being pretentious by some who read this” (Humble). The issue of Humble's pretentiousness will be revisited later in this chapter, but his statement that The Marriage is not meant to be particularly enjoyable because it is not a traditional video game is crucial to understanding how it attempts to overcome Blow's conflicts in video game design. Because the game is not meant to be played only as a game, it is allowed to employ a different set of rules. However, because The Marriage is still interactive and also a video game regardless of labels, it fails to entirely overcome Blow's problems.
In order to understand the game's meaning, one must first have a basic understanding of the way the game operates. After downloading the game and installing it into one's Windows-based personal computer (the game is not available on Macs), the player's entire introduction to the game consists of nothing more than the words “The marriage” on a blue background with the words “Rod Humble 2006” in the lower right-hand corner of the screen (The Marriage). After that, the player is entirely on his or her own in discovering the mechanics and rules of the game. The player is not even provided with the instructions to get past the game's title screen; the game is activated by simply hovering the mouse cursor over the game's title. If in need of a nudge in order to really get into the game, the player can go to the “Help” section of the Windows bar at the top of the screen. Doing so will open a text file with a message from Humble saying that first of all, the game is complete and the absence of sound, which the player may have noticed upon starting the game, is “deliberate and final” and that it was the developer's intention to remove “Everything that might obscure the games rules and dynamics” in order to “leave the work itself” (Humble). Furthermore, Humble states that the game is controlled mainly by the placement of the player's mouse cursor and that “no clicking is required during gameplay.” The mechanics of the game are as simple as possible on a computer game interface, but the rules to which the player must adhere in order to win the game are considerably more complicated.
Upon beginning the game, the player is greeted by a rather minimalist picture: two squares, one pink and one blue, slowly floating toward each other on a light blue background. After a few moments, circles of different colors slowly begin to fall from the top of the screen to the bottom. These three gameplay elements (the pink and blue squares, the circles which fall across the screen, and the color of the background) are all that the player will see over the course of the game, which can be completed in just a few minutes if the player knows exactly what he or she is doing. However, the player must struggle to come to terms with the exact functions of the elements and the relationships, both literal and metaphorical, between those elements. As Humble points out, the placement of the cursor is the only thing about which the player need worry when manipulating the game's mechanics, though the outcome of the particular placement of that cursor can be infuriating for someone who does not understand the inner workings of the video game.
Though not immediately obvious upon starting the game, the player's goal is to keep both of the squares their original solid, opaque hues. Much of the reason for the initial difficulty with the game is that the ever-fading squares, which can be considered the “main characters” or the “protagonists,” each have different needs and different ways to fulfill their individual needs. For example, the blue square must come into contact with the colored circles in order to thrive whereas the pink square also benefits from contact with the colored squares, though to a lesser degree than the blue square. In order to truly maintain a satisfactory level of opaqueness, the pink square must occasionally bump into, or “kiss,” as Humble calls it, the blue square (Humble). Although the squares are not capable of being directly controlled by the player, they can be manipulated to a certain degree. The player can make the two squares begin to hover toward each other slowly by placing the mouse's cursor over the pink square, which causes the blue square to shrink. If either square shrinks down to nothing or becomes entirely transparent due to the player's neglecting to satisfy the square's needs, then the game ends and the player must start over from the beginning.
One of the most immediately noticeable examples of Blow's fundamental conflicts in video game design in The Marriage is the problem of challenge versus progression. Upon beginning the game, the player panics because of the lack of instructions about how to play the game. In an article about the game's development history on The Marriage's website, he warns the reader, “After this point there is a lot of information that may lessen your enjoyment of the game the first time you play. I suggest you play the game first before reading further and if you get confused return to it” (Humble). Just like Blow in Braid's walkthrough, Humble challenges the player to figure out his game for himself or herself, though doing so is considerably more difficult because The Marriage is completely void of any sort of instruction. A layperson cannot simply start playing the game and immediately succeed. Players need an extensive period of trial and error to succeed in the game because they must attempt to survive (by keeping the squares' colors opaque) while simultaneously figuring out the game's mechanics and the relationships between the game's various different elements.
Not all who have played the game have had the same sort of frustration, though many have still inevitably been turned off by The Marriage's problem of interactivity versus pre-baked delivery, which is itself directly connected to the game's problem of challenge versus progression. After all, Humble mandates that the player play the game without using hints of any sort (unless it is absolutely necessary, as it was in my case), thereby making the game incredibly difficult, so that each player will develop a certain idea about the game's message. In theory, the absence of instructions, hints, or context of any sort allows each individual player to treat the game as a blank slate, to borrow John Locke's phrase, upon which different meanings and interpretations will be built. In practice, however, the absence of instructions and context in The Marriage ends up being frustrating to a number of gamers (myself included among them) instead of intellectually/emotionally liberating. For example, Rabish12, a poster over at Joystiq and an Internet acquaintance of mine, expressed his indignation over what he perceived to be an ego-trip on the part of Humble when he said “This guy is […] the biggest douche I've ever seen in the gaming industry. The Marriage isn't art, The Marriage doesn't even approach art, and claiming that it is because the rules aren't explained anywhere is retarded. Art isn't art because it isn't explained to you, it's art because it's a work of creative expression, or because it means something” (Rabish12).
Though the meaning of some aspects of the gameplay and game design are relatively simple to figure out (such as the pink square representing a wife and the blue square representing a husband), most of the other elements of the game are much less obvious. When I first attempted to play the game, I was at a loss as to what it meant when the squares would become transparent or change in size, and I was also confused by various other aspects of The Marriage's game design. For example, I did not know what to make of the all of the circles falling from the top of the screen. What I found most confusing of all, of course, was what the combination of all the different elements meant. Fortunately, Rod Humble has an extensive explanation of every single element of The Marriage on his website. He begins the explanation with a sort of apology and acknowledgment of objections to releasing a game that requires a written explanation in order to be understood. Before explaining the individual elements of the game itself, he first states that his overarching goal in creating The Marriage was to express in a video game “how a marriage feels” (Humble). As for the circles that I found so mysterious, according to Humble, they represent “outside elements entering the marriage,” be they “work, family, ideas” or anything else, although he leaves the specifics of their meaning entirely up to the player. Besides explaining the meaning behind the colors of the squares, Humble states that the size of the square represents “the amount of space that person is taking up in the marriage,” and the transparency of the square represents “how engaged that person is in the marriage.” Humble goes on to explain that each different background color carries a different meaning, but the colors and their meanings are so numerous (and their explanations so tenuous), that I will not reiterate each of their meanings here. I will simply offer a single example of the sort of explanations given by Humble. He says that the beginning color of the background, blue, represents a male-dominated environment, such as a club or any other environment in which relationships are initiated. After having read Humble's accompanying article for the game, all of the various elements of the game make perfect sense, but one's proper understanding of these elements seems to hinge on one understanding the meaning of the falling circles. If one does not understand what purpose the circles serve, it becomes almost impossible to interpret the changing size and transparency of the squares, which leads the player to fail numerous times without ever really learning how to correct mistakes. According to Humble, “the game mechanics are designed such that the game is fragile. [It's] easy to break. This is deliberate as marriages are fragile and they feel fragile,” which is something that Humble wanted the player to experience through The Marriage's gameplay. Unfortunately, this fragility also causes the game to be extremely complicated and difficult unless players know exactly what they are doing, which is highly unlikely for their first few playthroughs.
The game's fusion of gameplay and meaning also results in a fusion of Jonathan Blow's fundamental problems in game design. The problems of interactivity versus pre-baked delivery and challenge versus progression are both results of the absence of player instruction in the game and the specificity of meaning of each aspect of the game's design. Both of these aforementioned problems are inseparable from the problem of story meaning (which in this case can be considered to be Humble's explanation of the game's meaning) versus dynamical meaning because the game is an interactive piece of art in addition to just being a video game. Consequently, problems that would otherwise exist solely within the boundaries of the video game spill over into the real world with potentially negative repercussions. For example, in an ordinary video game such Super Mario Bros., failure of the player to reach the castle with the allotted number of the lives simply means that the player could not complete the level and needs to try again. Neither the game nor the game's developers remark upon the player's personal worth or value in the event that the player squanders all of Mario's multiple lives. Failure is simply a result of the player's lack of skill. However, because The Marriage is an interpretable piece of art as well as a video game, failure of the player to complete the game or to interpret the game's mechanics and gameplay in some sort of meaningful way means that the player has failed both within the context of the video game and as an intellectual or a consumer of art. If the player fails to make sense of the game or complete it after a certain number of attempts, the game's dynamical meaning essentially becomes “you fail as a person and as a gamer because you can neither play the game nor interpret it properly.” Admittedly, The Marriage is much more subtle in its condemnation of the player than Jonathan Blow is in Braid and its accompanying walkthrough, but nevertheless, the fact that the game can be seen as condemning the player shows that The Marriage is quite a long way off from escaping Blow's fundamental conflicts in game design.
On the other hand, the experiment that is The Marriage can also be considered a success because playing and interpreting the game in the correct way can have benefits beyond simple player satisfaction at understanding and completing the game. As Humble points out in his explanation of the game and of his intentions in creating it, he is not particularly interested in players understanding the game exactly as he himself understands it. All that matters is that the players derive some sort of coherent meaning from the game and that that understanding enriches the players' lives in a beneficial way. Indeed, playing and interpreting the game in a successful way (here I use the term “successful” instead of “good” or “right” because, as I have just stated, there is more than one way to interpret the game, which means there is no single correct interpretation) can lead the player to alter their actual method of living or engaging with others in relationships, potentially leading the player to a greater level of satisfaction in their own life. As Humble says in an interview, The Marriage is used as a tool on “marriage guidance sites and relationship bulletin boards” as a means of getting couples to think critically about their marriage (Rohrer). No matter what one takes the overall message of The Marriage to be, in order to elicit some sort of meaning from the game, one must practice a certain amount of introspection. After playing The Marriage, players are likely to relate their experiences with the game back on their own life and determine whether it can teach them any meaningful lessons.
Despite The Marriage's inability to overcome Blow's fundamental conflicts in game design, the game is still an important first step to solving the problems that currently run rampant in video game design. Humble's video game shows that despite the label a developer places upon his or her video game, as long as the final product can be considered a video game, that game will still be subjected to the same sort of regulations placed upon the medium and will still face problems that are seemingly native to video game design. However, by characterizing his video game as an interactive piece of art, Humble blurs the lines between video games and other forms of media and unveils an important direction in which expression through video games may grow in the future. When video games have been entrenched in such problems as those demonstrated by Jonathan Blow, it only makes sense for the community of video game developers to alter their basic assumptions about the process of video game creation. Only after developers perform a sort of creative paradigm shift in their thoughts about what constitutes a video game and how, exactly, they should be created will video games finally be able to break free from problems such as Blow's fundamental conflicts in video game design.
Looking to the Future
A few tools and methodologies may lead video game designers to greener pastures of creativity and fewer conflicts between video game narrative and gameplay: selling video games through digital distribution services, releasing video games in episodic installations instead of all at once, and playtesting extensively from as early a stage in the developmental process as possible.
Looking to the future, digital distribution services could allow video game developers to flex their creative capacities and thus help solve several of the current problems in the video game industry, including, potentially, Blow's fundamental conflicts in video game design. One of today's best examples of a digital distribution service for video games is Steam, a service created by Valve Software, the company behind such groundbreaking games as Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. Because it costs developers and publishers far less to sell a game as a digital download rather than as a complete retail package, digital distribution services such as Steam enable small-time developers to get video games into the eye of the public. Theoretically, Steam allows video game developers to be more creative with their video games than would be possible under a traditional retail production scheme, because the financial risks associated with producing a digitally-downloadable game are not as great as the risks associated with traditional retail video game distribution. If a developer's video game does not go over too well with the public, then the financial hit to the developer is smaller, leaving the developer more able to pick up the pieces of their unsuccessful product and start over from scratch.
Additionally, Steam serves as a sort of cure-all for several of the video game industry's various ills in that it simultaneously solves the problem of video game piracy; allows video games to stay up-to-date at all times by way of an automatic patching system; acts as a community hub for around twenty million computer gamers who use the service; and, if Gabe Newell's (one of Valve's co-founders and a visionary of game design) dreams come to fruition, will allow those millions of gamers to fund the development of new video games. While fan-funded video game development is a risky concept and is most certainly unprecedented in the world of video games, Gabe Newell makes the point that because video games have certain budgets at the beginning of development, the game's developers and publishers want to recoup the money that they lose during the games' development periods and, as a result, “all the game decisions have to be incredibly conservative” (Kowaliski). Newell would like to see games sold through Steam utilize a development model in which the community of video game fans could invest a certain amount of money into the development of those games, and then have the amount of each investor's contribution determine how large a portion of the video game that particular investor would own. The Valve co-founder reasons that “in venture capital, there's this concept that your best investors are your customers, because they have secondary gain if you're successful – they not only want a return on their money, but they're incredibly happy if you actually make a great game that they get to play” (Kowaliski). In this model of video game development, for the investor who chooses projects wisely and puts his or her money into a game that turns out to be excellent, the situation is doubly beneficial. The investor gets a return on his or her money and can play an enjoyable video game. On the other hand, the investor who puts money into a game that turns out to be terrible is likely to feel twice as upset. He or she loses money on a bad investment and, to add insult to injury, the game is not any fun to play. Newell admits several kinks need to be worked out in determining how such an endeavor would work, both functionally and legally, but I agree that it is time for the video game industry to embrace such experimental methods of production and distribution, as have been employed by the music and film industries for years.
Though the video game industry has been slow to follow in the footsteps of the music and film industries, the video game industry has taken several cues from the television industry in regards to methods of video game distribution. One such method that has become increasingly more common in the last several years, partially on account of digital distribution, is the release of video games in bite-sized episodic segments. One of the several benefits of releasing games episodically instead of all at once is that the individual episodes are capable of being sold at a lower price than that of traditional retail video games, potentially widening the game's audience beyond what it might have been had the game been released at fifty or sixty dollars, the standard price of a new, full-length video game. Additionally, the “feedback loop” is shorter with episodic video games than traditional retail video games, essentially allowing episodic games to “get better as they’re made” (Sanchez). Between episodes, video game developers can respond to the criticisms of the previous episodes and address them in the new installments, theoretically enabling the episodic game to improve through a series of trial-and-error that is simply unavailable to developers who create games using more traditional methods. Most importantly, however, releasing games episodically allows video game developers to be more creative and innovative than would otherwise be possible, much like when developers release games through digital distribution services. Creating a small, three-to-five-hour-long video game is a much smaller undertaking for developers than creating a twenty-plus hour epic (similar to any of dozens of video games in the vein of BioShock or Fallout), so the level of risk associated with making unorthodox design decisions is similarly diminished. Releasing games episodically also expands the pool of potential video game developers. As one Gamasutra contributor so pithily put it, “These new distribution methods lower the barrier to entry to being a game developer, which in turn [increases] the amount of content put out and ups people's willingness to take risks. This leads to innovation” (Portnow). Though story-centric adventure games (with the notable exception of the episodic Half-Life 2 expansions) have thus far made up the bulk of episodically-released video games, more solution-inclined developers could respond to Blow's fundamental problems in video game design.
Lastly, video game developers could potentially overcome not just the problem of making a successful, entertaining game, but also several of the more crucial problems in video game design by having groups of development outsiders playtest their video games throughout the entirety of the games' development cycles. Playtesting is simply when people, usually (but not always) people who are not a game's developers, rigorously test a game during the process of its development in order to test the game for bugs and to offer feedback to the game's developers. One of the most important things about playtesting from a purely functional and commercial standpoint is that it allows developers to find bugs in the code of a video game. If a game is not playtested before being released, then it is virtually impossible for the game to ship without being chock full of bugs. Unless gamers are involved with the development process, as when developers release a game to the public during the beta phase of its development, they do not usually enjoy playing bug-ridden games and, as a result, those bug-ridden games often sell very poorly. Historically, far too great a number of developers have tended to wait until just a month or two before a game goes gold (at which point the game is ready for release to the public) to do the majority of the playtesting, which means bugs and defects are bound to be overlooked. In our age of perpetual connection to the Internet, developers can release downloadable patches to make changes to games after they have already shipped. These patches are released in response to players who find bugs or problems in the retail version of the game. The players themselves act as playtesters and developers simply correct their games as they see fit. A secondary benefit of playtesting is that developers are able to see the effects of various game design decisions on the player, which lets the developers know what is working with the current build of the game and what needs to be changed or scrapped.
For example, in the case of Valve's Portal, playtesting “allowed [the game's developers] to be objective about new content and often gave [them] ideas of how to fix problems. It even provided the inspiration for new puzzles, as [they] witnessed playtesters solving puzzles in ways that [they] hadn't previously considered” (Barnett et al.). For the developers of Portal, one of the most highly-lauded games of 2007, playtesting acted as a catalyst for innovation as it was a tool to be used to refine the game's existing features. One of the results of Valve's frequent use of playtesting in Portal is that the game had a “very smooth difficulty ramp,” effectively eliminating the presence of the conflict of challenge versus progression. One of the first things that springs to mind when I think of Portal, a game that I played often, is the balance of its difficulty curve. The game challenged me without ever frustrating me, which is the mark of a game that has been thoroughly playtested. Used efficiently, playtesting could be similarly successful in allowing developers to overcome other fundamental problems in video game design as well.
These suggestions do not provide definite solutions to the problems faced by the video game industry, and they are all heavily rooted in and influenced by financial and economic factors. Even though these suggestions could drastically change the video game industry, they are not altogether free from financial restraints. Indeed, they are all affected by economic factors and are related in some way to ensuring that a particular video game or group of video games makes a profit. The ways in which these suggestions are related to making a profit are all rather obvious, but the relationship between the suggestions and their bases in the acquisition of capital is so important that it needs to be stressed. Video games that are not extensively playtested generally do not perform as well in the market as those that are relentlessly playtested. Similarly, video games that might otherwise be overlooked by a significant portion of the gaming population are given a breath of life when put on sale in digital distribution services such as Steam and Direct2Drive. Just as profit motive lies behind each of this chapter's suggestions, profit motive drives every conceivable aspect of video game production from initial conceptualization to distribution of the final product. No subject can be studied effectively, especially a subject such as video games, which is directly involved with the amassing of wealth, when it is examined as if inside a vacuum. While Blow and Wesołowski's more textual analyses are valuable, I could not write this thesis without regard to outside or contextual factors such as the influence of money on video game development and the seemingly-inherent conflict between creative innovation and commercialism. Had these issues been discussed at length as was originally intended, however, the thesis would simply have become far too large for the purposes of an undergraduate Honor's Thesis. As the thesis stands now, a brief mention of these crucially important influences upon video game development will have to suffice.
Today's video game industry may be up against its biggest set of problems since the Video Game Crash of 1983, but strides are being made to improve the industry and small innovations are being made all of the time. For example, the barriers between various different genres of video games are beginning to break down, allowing even high-budget video games such as Brütal Legend to experiment in ways which were previously inconceivable. Brütal Legend alone makes use of at least three distinct genres (beat-em-up, racing, and real-time strategy) in its short duration. Even in this one blockbuster game's innovation, though, there is much room for improvement. While this game, which could be said to be symbolic of the video game industry as a whole, attempts to break convention and pursue new avenues of gameplay innovation, it still subjects itself to the systematic categorization (by dividing itself into distinct, traditional genres) that has plagued the development of new, original experiences in the last couple of decades. The video game industry as a whole seems to follow the same “two steps forward, one step back” approach as that taken by games such as Brütal Legend.
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1The excessive number of plot twists in and around the Andrew Ryan confrontation scene also demonstrate a problematic implementation of intensity augmentation through means of abstract meaning buildup. So many different meanings are assigned to the story's characters so rapidly that the game's narrative is irreparably distanced from its gameplay. The player spends the first fifteen or so hours of the game traversing the city of Rapture at Atlas' behest. During this time, the player does as Atlas requests because his requests are undeniable from a gameplay standpoint (after all, they are BioShock's “main quest”), but within the context of the story it is still understood that Jack exercises a certain level of free will. The concept of assumed free will is enforced even further by the structure of BioShock's levels and the vast amount of possibilities contained therein. For example, due to the large number of plasmids (the serum that allows Jack to genetically alter himself) at the player's disposal as well as the dynamic artificial intelligence of the splicers, a level could potentially play out in an almost unlimited number of ways. When Jack realizes that he has been little more than Atlas/Fontaine's puppet, the player simultaneously experiences feelings of being used. The shared emotions between the player and the avatar could possibly lead to the player becoming even more emotionally entrenched in the gameworld, but it also has the potential to highlight the disparity between the game's narrative and gameplay. Because the plot twists contained within the narrative are directly tied to the gameplay leading up to that point, the player can potentially feel as if he or she was participating in the construction of those lies through BioShock's gameplay.
2Though some have had difficulty playing World at War, others have found that the realism and violence lends the game a certain amount of authenticity that had previously been lacking in the series. For example, a 1UP review of the game states:
While enemies died en masse in previous installments, dismemberment and gore were essentially nonexistent. That's no longer the case -- here, legs are severed, men cry out in agony as they reach for lost body parts, and gouts of blood fly as bullets pierce flesh. World at War portrays the horror of WWII more accurately than ever before, and it even comes across as almost too much at times...until you remember that real servicemen actually witnessed similar events. Several other moments stand out beyond basic combat gore; shocking executions (men being set on fire -- ouch), Japanese ambushes, and brutal hand-to-hand battles remind you that WWII wasn't just a glorious victory for the Allies, but also a horrible event that viciously ended many young lives. I find World at War's portrayal mostly respectful (if a little repetitive), and it does a good job of showing just how evil -- and heroic -- humans can be. (Gallegos)
If the incredible number of sales of World at War is any indication, Anthony Gallegos, the author of the review, is apparently not alone in his views. Since its release in November of 2008, World at War has already sold millions of copies and, according to Major Nelson; the game is currently the most-played game on Xbox Live (Hryb). It would be easy for one to follow the logic that if so many other millions of people enjoyed the game, it could not possibly be that bad as far as potentially offensive content is concerned. The fact of the matter, though, is that most of the people who buy the game these days do so solely for the game's multiplayer component. More and more people are playing their video games online nowadays and because World at War's multiplayer so faithfully apes that of Call of Duty 4, there was already a huge player base for the game before it was even released. All players had to do was transfer from one game to the next.
3The game was not released on the Playstation 3’s Playstation Network (also known as the PSN), which has a different approach to downloadable games than the approach taken by the XBLA. Entire retail games are released at retail price on the download service whereas the XBLA tends to focus on smaller arcade games.
4Personally, the fact that I was completely on my own in figuring out The Marriage's mechanics the first time I played the game resulted in my attempting to figure out the rules for about fifteen minutes, failing multiple times, and then setting the game aside until very recently, when I was forced to play the game because I had to write about it in this thesis. As a matter of fact, I never managed to figure out the rules on my own. Like Julian Murdoch's response to Braid, for me “Not finishing the game became an act of rebellion […] so I petulantly took my marbles and went home” (Murdoch). The key difference between my own experiences with The Marriage and Murdoch's experiences with Braid is that it was actually the game itself, not Humble, that had frustrated me so completely. I was not upset with Humble. I was just upset that I, a person who has been playing video games almost religiously ever since I was old enough to hold a controller, could not figure the game out for myself. Had I not crumbled and used Humble's guidance almost a year after my initial experiences with the game, I likely never would have made it to the game's ending, which took just a few moments once I knew what I was doing.
5 Perhaps unwittingly, Rabish12 points out a rather confusing dilemma pertaining to any art whose main goal is to convey some sort of meaning: meaning does exist in a vacuum. An individual consumer of art, be it video game, film, painting, or any other medium, rarely analyzes a piece of art without being somewhat influenced by the personality and authorial intent of the art's creator. The Marriage suffers from the inverse of the problem of developer overpresence in Braid. Whereas in Braid, the player is haunted by the presence of Jonathan Blow, the complete absence of developer presence in The Marriage leaves the player just as frustrated. Players of The Marriage begin the game not knowing what to do and even if they can figure it out, they do not know what to make of it, which can lead to feelings of disappointment in even the most stalwart hardcore gamers. The only difference between the way Blow dealt with Braid and the way Humble dealt with The Marriage is that Blow was (and still is to this day) completely unwilling to let the game's fan base in on the game's true, secret meaning (which he asserts exists), and Humble happily explained the meaning of every little detail in his game.