The Human vs. The Gamer, part II: This time it’s personal

Falling out with Fallout 4.

So last time I talked about ludo-narrative dissonance. Or the inner struggle between the human and the gamer.

For me this was most obvious and jarring in Fallout 4. (Warning, spoiler territory up ahead. Nothing major, but still).

The game starts out well enough – on paper, at least. You get to spend some time with your allotted spouse (in my mind, it was an arranged marriage because at no point did this “role-playing” game ask me if I wanted to play the role of a dutiful 50s wife, but whatever). Then there’s the kid. Now, I don’t know what it is with children called Shaun in videogames, but oh blimey do they get kidnapped. Fair warning to all prospective videogame parents, if you don’t want your kid to get abducted, don’t call him Shaun.

And while I’m at it, let me just… Shaun! SHAUN! SHAAAAUUUN! (You don’t even need to have played Heavy Rain to know what I’m talking about.)

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Then hey ho, the bombs drop, the wifey/hubby gets offed and the Shaun (SHAUN!) gets David Caged off the stage in a rage, but without Ellen Page. I’ll stop now. The problem is, it all happened too fast and felt a bit rote. Even the scene where the spouse dies. There’s a bit of a running gag in the games industry, that the only way to elicit an emotional response out of gamers is to kill off a character – or a dog. That’s part of the reason I never took Dogmeat with me… I know what happened in Fallout 1, you ain’t doing that to me again, game. Well, in this case, your randomly assigned 50s spouse (in my case, the husband… was it John? Jack? Nathan? I never loved him anyway), gets the axe, or the .45 round to the head. To be fair to the game, the scene (locked to first person), was harrowing and emotional. But here’s the general problem with this scene and other times the game tries to engage the player at an emotional level… it hasn’t earned it.

One can draw a good parallel with Heavy Rain. For those of you who don’t know, David Cage, the French Kojima, released Heavy Rain, an “interactive drama” type videogame where a boy called Shaun (SHAUN!) gets abducted and you play an ensemble of characters, including the father, the cop, the private dick and the token female journalist (don’t get me started), to try and uncover the mystery and recover the Shaun (SHAUN!). Both games start with a scene in a completely different colour palette – bright, vibrant, happy colours in the intro. You get to play the part of the happy family. But whereas Fallout breezes through the whole shtick, with Heavy Rain you get to actually, properly play the part of the father – you play with the kids, you get nagged by the wife, you do a bit of work. Heavy Rain let me be the character, I grew attached to the kids (but not the wife… again, don’t get me started), in Fallout the interaction is limited to “press X to coo the baby or comment on the Nuka Cola in the fridge”. For the first 15 minutes of the game (after the two hours of designing her look), my character was a walking billboard for all things 50s America loved. It was so odd, I had this theory that she had been brainwashed as well. Then the bombs drop, the drama happens, Shaun (SHAUN!) get whisked away and you’re thrown into post-apocalyptic Boston and an open world.

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White picket fence and everything.

And then you craft settlements, pick tomatoes, save people, fight Deathclaws and Raiders, there’s a thing called the Institute and they’re bad, there’s the Brotherhood of Steel and they’re cool, the Railroad are interesting and the Minutemen… fuck the Minutemen. Fuck Preston Garvey and the defenceless settlements of Boston. The fighting Irish my clover-shaped… ahem, anyway. Ah, wait, there’s something I’m missing here. I know I didn’t come to the Wasteland to paint my power armour pink, there was a different…

Oh, right… the kid. Who cares about the kid anymore? Eventually (spoilers!), you find him. I won’t go into details, but my character was in tears. She was in tears because I chose the dialogue options that I knew would lead to that. Because it’s what my character would have done. But the person behind the controller wanted to mash the “Sarcastic” dialogue option and tell Shaun (SHAUN!) to git gud and stop being such a baby. Even though he was a baby the last time I saw him.

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My character in Fallout 4. She’s having another moment of “Why the fuck do I care, again?”

But that’s the problem. The story, on its surface, should be emotionally engaging. It’s an abducted child, for crying literally out loud. You play the mother (oh, and videogame mothers… alright, I said I’d stop, but seriously, this needs to be talked about), or father if you prefer. But I played the kid’s mother. In the game world, that ungrateful little rugrat came out of my womb (it feels so weird to write that), I gave his polygoned arse life and yet… I’d rather go talk to Preston Shit-eating Garvey about another clucking settlement that’s been raided.

There’s nothing, no feeling, no tug on the ol’ heart strings. Nada.

And don’t tell me Fallout doesn’t do emotions or that the game format won’t allow it. To Fallout fans, all I have to say are a choice few words: Boone, Bitter Springs, Veronica and the Chains that Bind (that went S&M really quick, didn’t it?). Those were engaging stories, they made me feel for the characters involved. It made me want to reach through the screen and hug Boone and Veronica. Arcade, Raul, all of them needed a hug, come to think of it. Except Benny, he needed a bullet. And he got it.

I won’t say Bethesda don’t do good writing. They do fantastic writing. And you can’t say that open-world games don’t lend themselves to great stories either. The best example of this to me is Fallout 3 and Liam Neeson as your character’s father. Oh, did that get me right in the feels.

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I… sniff… I just need a moment.

I love Liam Neeson. That voice like melting butter, oh dear me… And having Oskar Schindler play your loving father, and by all accounts a fantastic father figure at that… oh, Bethesda, you plucked them heart strings right, you did. But it’s not just that. The writing is great, but the gameplay enforces it. Much like in Heavy Rain you get to spend the intro with your family. And you meaningfully interact with them. You literally take your first steps as a baby in front of Papa Liam. You get a birthday party with your friends and your adoring father. You take part in the Vault equivalent of a bar/bat mitzvah when you receive your Pip-Boy. Some criticised this as “slow” gameplay, but it was well worth it, because it paid off later. When you leave the Vault, you get a message from dear dad before he buggered off (tree, meet apple). I refused to play it… I still hated him at that point. Then, when I was in Minefield, fearful for my life, I finally decided to play Dad’s last message. And it brought me to tears. You don’t get this kind of emergent gameplay anywhere else. Eventually, the two get reunited, and in my case, he told me how proud he was of me that I had saved Megaton… Do you have any idea how wonderful it is to hear Liam Neeson say he’s proud of you? Because if you don’t, you need to stop what you’re doing right now and play Fallout 3. Do it!

I didn’t get that with Fallout 4 at all. And I can’t fault the characters. They’re some of the best written NPCs I’ve had the pleasure to engage with since… well, since New Vegas (or Mass Effect, but again, don’t get me started). Hancock, MacCready, Piper (yes, Piper, shut up), even Danse if you get to know him. Hell, all I have to say is Nick Fucking Valentine (the sound you heard there is the mic being dropped). And here’s something Bethesda did very well… they got rid of Karma (controversial, I know, but that mechanic belongs in the 90s), and instead they gave us characters who reacted to our in-game actions. I genuinely felt bad when Nick told me he hated something I’d done. And I couldn’t care less when Danse went on about blah, blah… until the tough macho guy opened up to me and I nearly cried.

But did I get that with Shaun (SHAUN!)? No. I turned off the game and went to listen to Liam Neeson’s recorded message again.

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Why am I doing this again?

The gamer had been asleep at the wheel. The gamer in me wanted to complete the story AND do all of the fun bits in-between. But when I got to the pay-off – meeting the kid – the human in me rebelled. This is bullshit. I feel nothing. I no longer have anything invested in this story. Leaving aside some of the criticism (hah, “some”) with regards to the gameplay, Fallout 4 is a great game. Fallout 4 has a great story. It’s just a shame that the two don’t mix.

I’ll see y’all on the Strip in New Vegas. You’ll find me playing Blackjack at the Tops.

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Some people just want to watch the world burn.

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.