The Human vs. The Gamer

The Prince and the Tomb Raider

Videogames, it can be argued, were never meant to be cinematic, much as David Cage would like to pretend otherwise. It can be said that the work of auteurs such as Hideo Kojima (a man I both respect and loathe), has pushed the medium further into the realm of cinema – for better or worse. Say what you will about pervy uncle Kojima, but he does a fantastic job in the direction department. Like him or no, he’s contributed to pushing the medium further towards being recognised as a true art form. At the same time, the hour-long cut-scenes and the opening credits on every single mission make it clear what the creator’s intent was: recognition by way of imitation. Likewise, playing Cage’s Heavy Rain is like watching an HBO drama unfold where you’re being constantly asked for input. Rather repeatedly and annoyingly, at times.

But this isn’t what Pong was about. It was about moving a simple pixel from one end of the screen to the other. It all went downhill from there. The more sophisticated videogames grew as a medium, the more we players felt like we could relate to the increasingly detailed stick figures on screen. We even started creating our own stories around some of them; creative minds filled up the gaps where we felt they needed that added narrative that the game itself either didn’t provide or was found wanting. It may or may not have been the creator’s intent, but people are an imaginative bunch – as hard as that is to believe at times. Since childhood we’ve been used to this. Give a kid a pair of sticks and by the end of the day you’ve got a veritable telenovela unfolding.

And I know I’ve just written a post about Lara Croft, but…

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Yup. Lara Croft again. Deal with it.

At this point, I have to bring up that word that some people who write videogames seem to hate so much… ludo-narrative dissonance. That’s two words, but fuck it. It’s a good pair of words. It describes what happens perfectly and efficiently. It is a real and present issue in the writing and execution of videogames and their respective stories (if they can be bothered to have one). Sometimes, it’s not a problem. If you’re playing a shooter and you’re told to shoot people, then that’s your lot. You get what you pay for, well done. Sometimes, it goes into the weird… why is a plumber jumping on mushrooms and turtle things… don’t think about it too much. But when games profess to tell an engaging story, a human story and try to make that jive with the gameplay, it will happen that it’s just not going to dance to the beat that the writers envisioned.

That’s the best part, the gameplay reinforced the story perfectly. The Prince starts as a runny-nosed little twerp of a royal kid who just wants to impress his dad, and still manages to be a spoiled brat while on a clucking military campaign, Zarathustra grant me strength. As the narrative progresses, you unlock new skills for the runt, the combat (such as it is) evolves, you get new abilities, and the Prince himself evolves as a character. He matures literally overnight (in terms of the game’s timeline), and he becomes wiser and a much more likeable character in the process. Visually, this is represented by the wardrobe change. Rather amusingly, the Prince loses bits of his garb the whole way through. It’s justified by what’s happening (the man’s taken a beating), but it’s still a bit of cheese (or, I guess, beef), and by the end he’s a bare-chested, scarred and grizzled veteran… and still a hunk. Ah, remember when male characters were objectified as well? Maybe that’s a topic for a different article. But I digress… point is, the new gameplay elements back up the story’s arc expertly, and the two are in lockstep the whole way through. Masterfully executed. And oh, sweet daeva, that soundtrack… did I mention the soundtrack?

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Would you just look at that slab of man-meat?

Then there’s Tomb Raider. A story about a girl growing up, similar to the Prince (notice how many of these games are really about puberty? I should stop planning my future posts…). On top of that, you get an arc about sisterly love, in place of your usual throw-away love interest. And the story was wonderful, it actually had me in tears. And this gets mentioned a lot, but that’s because it illustrates the point so well, there’s this scene where Lara tearfully kills a deer in order to survive (something you never have to do again, by the way)… and then proceeds to gleefully murder her way through an entire island’s population, because I guess, videogames.

Had the game been more of a platformer than a shooter this would have worked. Had Lara’s story been more like Kate Walker’s (see previous post, yadda yadda, shameless self-promotion), this would have been perfect. If it had given me no combat but the boss fights, maybe one or two fight scenes (or the one with the wolves), I’d have been satiated. I wouldn’t have even complained if they were mostly quick-time events. As it stands, though, I have to say Lara’s got a bit of a Jekyll/Hyde thing going on. There’s the writer’s Lara who is a beautiful, human character, and there’s the gamer’s Lara… an unstoppable, petite murder machine.

And there’s the rub. The real dichotomy isn’t between game and narrative. At the player’s side of things, it’s between the human and the gamer. See, the human in me wants Lara to be the character in the deer scene. I want her to be kind and emotional, I want to feel what she feels and get that cathartic ending where she overcomes her demons (and those of the island). The gamer in me wants to finish this bloody 60 dollar product I bought, and there’s a heap of gameplay between now and the ending I want. Then there’s the collectibles, and the secret bits on the map, so the completionist in me wants that 100% badge. That’s where the immersion breaks, the 4th wall implodes in on itself and I stop caring about the STORY and just want to finish the GAME. In other words, the human element is played down and the gameplay takes prominence.

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And that just gets me right in the feels.

This isn’t always the case. It’s not a given that videogames can’t tell a good story. Just look at Prince of Persia, or Heavy Rain to name but a few. Most of Bioware’s RPGs are famous for good writing. But good writing isn’t the issue. It’s marrying the writing to the gameplay and telling them to see the Rabbi before they decide to split. Then you have to argue about who gets to keep the kids and who gets the cat, it’s all just a mess, really. Why get into it at all? Why can’t we just get along?

But isn’t that just the cliché. There you are, a sensitive, well written story and you know what you’ve got to offer… a nice, tried and true linear structure with a dramatic build-up and a great pay-off at the conclusion. Then you meet this wild child… a real rebel, with that mischievous look that promises exciting action, pace like a Formula 1 race and all the spectacle you can… spectate. They lure you in with violent violins, mellow cello and a brass section that makes Hans Zimmer go “wait a minute…”. It’s never going to work, is it? You know it, they know it, but there’s that twinkle in the eye, that little guilty spark that makes you think… hey, maybe we can swing it. Sure enough, it doesn’t work and it ends in tears, as it was always going to.

But sometimes you don’t have a choice. Your mum makes you get with the bad boy with the bad temper but the good finance. Or you get paired off with the shikse whom you know is too good for you, but hey, you can show her a good time. Ok, this metaphor has gotten away from me now.

Point is, sometimes you get a well-written story that gets paired off with unsuitable gameplay. Either you’ve got a massive company with two completely different teams working off the same whiteboard but reading completely different things into the same game plan. Sometimes it may very well be just cynical corporate execs telling the “artsy types” to suck it up and give the gamers what they want. And that’s the one that grates my cheese the most. “Give gamers what they want”.

You hear that bandied around a lot. Some call it pandering, some call it marketing. But that’s not the part that bugs me. It’s the notion that “gamer” somehow implies your typical, basement-dwelling, Doritos-munching, Mountain Dew-soaked, pockmarked teenager with a boner for violence, disproportionately chested women and the shooty-shooty bang bang. Somehow, despite a medium that has given the world The Last of us, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Life is Strange… there’s still this stigma that gamers will not or can not appreciate a well-crafted story that isn’t paired off with a Michael Bay level of spectacle.

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To illustrate my point about gamers, here’s concept art from the Prince of Persia sequel.

Those can be fun too, I wouldn’t imply otherwise. But you can’t give the mechanics of Battlefield to Syberia’s Kate Walker… and, as it turns out, you can’t even trust them with a story of World War 1, but more on that some other time, maybe. The gamer in me will always appreciate fun bits of gameplay, but the human in me can’t stand to see a good story waste away in a bad pairing.

I’m soft like that, I guess.