I’ve been trying to keep out of the drama surrounding Phil Fish’s decision to leave the industry since the incident occurred a few weeks ago, mostly because I found it to be filled with emotionally divisive invective not conducive to respectful dialogue coming from both sides (and having encountered him twice at Indiecade and the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC, man deserve his privacy). While a much ink has been spilled on the topic of how public industry figures should behave online and online harassment, I think there’s an interesting side to the story that has been overlooked over the last two weeks.
In the wake of Michael Phelps’s record breaking run at the 2008 Summer Olympics, public pools filled up faster than ever before, and people of all ages who had no prior interest in the sport took up athletic swimming. Much of this owes itself to the wealth of media coverage on Phelps’ life story and his history with the sport. The story that Phelps spun that Olympics had touched and inspired people, and incredible careers might have started because of it.
Celebrity is a crucial part of professional sports because people like narratives. The story of how a kid from an impoverished rural family became a soccer legend through practice and hard work speaks powerfully to our collective societal subconscious, and stories like Phelps’ tell us that anyone can realize their dreams should they live purposefully. That same underdog narrative can be observed everywhere: think of Steve Jobs’ story, or Aerosmith’s, heck, even the Biblical story of David and Goliath. The narrative of an individual’s overcoming of great obstacles to achieve greatness is incredibly appealing, and movies like 42 and even The Social Network told roughly that same story about the trials and tribulations that their protagonists go through to realize their destiny. In a way, these real-life “career stories” resemble the “Hero’s Journey” narrative espoused in films like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.
This is why Phil Fish’s departure from the industry is absolutely tragic. Phil Fish lived out and documented the kind of underdog struggle that’s core to sports narratives. Corporate figureheads like Gabe Newell and Reggie Fils-Aime tell few of their stories to the world and nonetheless receive a monumental level of adoration. These executives are not here to tell an inspiring story of success and struggle, but rather relay information about upcoming releases to potential customers. This narrative is entirely a consumeristic one, nobody is going to be inspired to make games because of announcements about the release dates of Half-Life 3 or Super Smash Bros. Phil Fish shared his vocal opinions and uphill battle in Indie Game: The Movie and on Twitter, and people were brought into his story and supported him as he inched towards Fez’s release.
The average industry lifespan for a game developer is around five years, and Phil lasted far beyond that short period of time under duress greater than what most developers face. While I’m sure that moving stories about great careers are scattered everywhere in this industry, Phil’s was more closely documented and engaging than anything you would find in Harold Goldberg’s All Your Base Are Belong to Us. The story of him overcoming a monumental series of obstacles both personal and legal to release the incredible Fez is the kind of narrative that inspires people to go out and chase their dreams of making games. If the underdog narrative of one of the industry’s most inspirational visionaries concludes with him quitting the industry because of harassment, what kind of message does that send to aspiring developers?
So I ended up getting an offer to write for a crowd-sourced online arts & culture magazine named The Artifice. It’s a British project that seems to have gathered quite a following a few years ago out of a successful alternate-reality game. Under the terms through which I am bound, the writing I do for them will be available exclusively under the Artifice, meaning I can’t reblog to places like Gamasutra.
So what that means is that I’ll be posting links to the content I write for them. I’ll still have stuff avalaible here, but if you’re looking to read some of my more focused content. Direct your attention to The Artfice. My first article is an introduction to the old Ludology-Narratology debate aimed at mainstream gamers, and it’s worth the short time it’ll take to read it.
I’m going to spoil a lot of Bioshock Infinite for all of you, so beware this blog post if you’re planning on playing this game.
Bioshock Infinite is a game about a lot of things.
Religious zealotry, American Exceptionalism, theories of space-time and interdimensionality, patriotic jingoism, the inevitability of economic disparity, Occupy Wall Street, colonialism, and problems faced by political radicalism. While few of these plot threads arrive at a productive conclusion, it piques interest, causes uncanny discomfort, and provokes conversation and interpretation within its colorful fan community.
However, my view on the meaning of Bioshock Infinite, which has conflicted with the interpretations of the many friends that I have discussed the game with, involves a subtle level of self-reflexivity that I saw pervading the game’s entirety. Bioshock Infinite is about the nature of narrative in games and the conflicts between emergent and fixed narrative, returning to the conflicts between ludology and narratology that had died down years ago.
Before we begin, let’s go over some key terms necessary to understanding this argument, not everyone is a game designer. Emergent narratives are unscripted stories that come out of a game’s play, they may include dramatic character arcs in The Sims, and alternate histories created by Civilization V matches. Fixed narratives are stories determined by the game designer, and are most prominent in single-player narrative games such as Bioshock Infinite.
Constants and Variables: Emergent and Fixed Narrative
Single-player games like Jak and Daxter are comprised of both fixed and emergent narrative elements. Fixed narrative in these games amounts to preset moments that occur between or during moments of gameplay, and may manifest themselves as cutscenes, background chatter, or narration. Games like these are also comprised of emergent scenes, which can vary wildly depending on player choice. Game narrative is not entirely dictated by the author, and exists as a strange amalgam of both embedded and emergent narrative. Game writers do not have complete control over how a game’s story will play out due to the nature of interactivity and player behavior. Even a single-player narrative game like Half-Life 2 can have an infinite number of narrative permutations dependent on how players approach combat and exploration sequences.
Which is a topic Bioshock Infinite addresses in its brilliant, mind-bending ending. Booker and Elizabeth escape Columbia through an interdimensional portal into the Sea of Lighthouses, a mysterious world beyond the constraints of time and space where every possible permutation of the universe at any possible time in history can be accessed through an infinite number of doors. “There are a million, million worlds. All different and all similar. Constants and variables. There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city… Sometimes something’s different… yet… the same.” says Elizabeth.
This scene is soaked with metacommentary about the distinction and conflicts between embedded and emergent narrative. Everyone who plays Bioshock Infinite will be telling a different story in their playthrough. Combat situations will play out differently depending on player strategies, Booker may or may not find all the collectible upgrades in Columbia, he may spend hours playing carnival games at the fair, he may ride the carousel in Soldier’s Field, and he may scour every trash can in Columbia for food. These are the “variables” that Elizabeth is talking about, the “million, million worlds” that are all different and the same, Bioshock Infinite‘s story is comprised of an infinite number of permutations coming out of the game’s emergent nature.
And yet, the rich range of narrative permutations that come out of interactivity is mooted by authorial intent and traditional narrative. Bird or Cage, ride the carousel or ignore it, fight with guns or Vigors, Bioshock Infinite‘s overarching narrative will always play out the same way regardless of player choice. All this is reinforced by the game’s single ending. While many games try to make player choice meaningful by providing a variety of outcomes based on player’s participation in the story, Infinite mocks the idea by making players powerless over the progression and ultimate outcome of the game’s plot. These are “constants”, the elements of a game narrative that are “always the same”.
The Illusion of Meaningful Choice
Bioshock Infinite is peppered with moments where players have to make a split-second binary choice, such as a decision to threaten or press a ticket seller, and the decision between two different brooches for Elizabeth. While most games like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain hinge upon these moments as an integral part of their branching storytelling, these moments in Bioshock Infinite make no meaningful difference to the overall outcome of the plot.
Games are characterized by having quantifiable and variable outcomes, and player choice in gameplay dictates these outcomes, leading to meaningful play. Bioshock Infinite challenges the notion that binary choice is meaningful by making its choices meaningless, that is, if meaningful choice is to be defined as a choice that influences the game’s outcome. The first Bioshock had a rudimentary morality system where player’s choices in dealing with Little Sisters influenced the plot’s variable conclusion and marketed this system as an integral part of the game’s appeal. Infinite subverts player expectations by making these “moral choice” moments irrelevant to the outcome of the campaign, at most, leading to a minor cosmetic difference on a character or two.
The artificiality and insignificance of these moments reinforces the notion that Bioshock Infinite is about the conflicts between player-generated and designer-dictated narrative and the diametrical opposition between ludology and narratology. Players are led by prior experiences with similar games to think that these binary choices matter with respect to the game’s narrative, and by subverting these expectations by making these choices almost irrelevant to the game’s conclusion, Bioshock Infinite raises questions about whether or not truly meaningful choice can really exist within a designer-driven narrative.
Does Autonomy Exist in Narrative Games?
The Lutece “twins”, the memorable and quirky duo of scientists lost everywhere in spacetime, provide perhaps the most thought provoking insight on game narrative in Bioshock Infinite. The Luteces are fourth-dimensional beings, and simultaneously exist in all places, at all times, in every possible universe. Adam Sessler of the fantastic Rev3Games channel likened them to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for their self-referential nature on the nature of fate and free will. This is fitting given their role in the game’s narrative.
Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead retells the story of Hamlet from the perspective of minor characters. The play deals with whether or not free will can exist within the world of a play, amongst other meta-things. The titular characters, doomed to die in the original Shakespeare play, attempt to defy their fate by escaping to England in one scene, but are rendered incapable of doing so by virtue of existing in a world dictated by an omniscient, godlike playwright. Video games are said to break from this problem by having the player enact the narrative by assuming the role of a character, thereby imposing free will into a universe traditionally thought to be dictated by an author. Bioshock Infinite challenges this idea in an early scene.
Upon arriving in Columbia, Booker encounters the twins blocking a doorway. They walk up to him and give him a coin, “heads, or tails”, they ask. Booker flips it, calling heads, and it lands on heads, like it did for the last 122 times.
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a similar scene occurs where a coin lands on heads 92 times in a row. This leads the characters to wonder if they are under the control of a supernatural force. In real life, coin flips are determined entirely by random chance, and exist as a fair and impartial way of making binary decisions. This cannot exist within the constraints of a work of fiction, even computers at a machine level are incapable of simulating randomness. The coin-flip scene in Bioshock Infinite is not determined by random chance, and is scripted by the developers to always land on heads.
What this means is that autonomy and procedurally generated narrative cannot exist within a narrative game like Bioshock Infinite no matter how hard developers attempt to give the illusion of an open-ended narrative. The coin-flip scene represented an ideal point to give the player the decision of calling heads or tails, but Booker is scripted to always call heads. This is done purposefully, as removing player autonomy from this scene tells us it is impossible for a game with scripted elements to be truly player-driven.
This notion of the impossibility of autonomy in single-player narrative games is reinforced immediately after the player regains control over Booker. The Luteces walk to the side and open the doorway for Booker to proceed and stand there. If the player stays near them, Rosalind will tell the player to leave several times before saying “If you don’t go, I’ll be forced to start repeating myself.”, after which, she does.
This interactive scene is a prod at the artificiality of NPC’s in video games, and despite attempts at creating rich and realistic characters in fiction, characters are ultimately fictional constructs created by authors devoid of autonomy and drive. Lutece is scripted to repeat the same limited number of prerecorded lines until the player inevitably leaves the area and continues the game. Despite the fact that players regain control Booker in this scene, it is impossible for players to do anything but proceed down Infinite‘s narrative path.
BioshockInfinite‘s themes of the illusion of free will extend from the artificiality of NPCs to the very nature of interactivity later on in the game. In the game’s final sequence, Booker finds himself reliving the moment he sold his daughter to repay his debt. Booker tries to resist, and players, disgusted at this grim realization, will too. “You can wait as long as you want, eventually you’re going to give him what he wants. You don’t leave this room until you do.” says Elizabeth. At this point, the only option available to the player is to pick up the baby and hand it over to the man at the door, players cannot fight back or escape the room. Players will inevitably surrender the baby, since they cannot progress until they do. Both Booker, and the player, are rendered incapable of making any other decision by the very nature of Bioshock Infinite‘s method of storytelling. Aside from surrendering the baby after waiting for an indefinite time, the only other option available to the player is to quit the game.
So is Booker an autonomous being, or is he controlled by an omniscient force called the Player? Perhaps the question being raised here is whether players are autonomous beings or simply actors controlled by the invisible hand of game design. The interactive nature of the medium would suggest that players are truly autonomous and capable of making rational decisions that influence the world of the game, but all this is an illusion. It is impossible for true, meaningful autonomy to exist in a single-player narrative game because the authored nature of fiction prohibits players from making choices outside of the ones that a game’s system allows.
Its totally possible that I’m reading way too deep into Bioshock Infinite. However, even if my interpretation of the game strays far from predominant interpretations of Infinite, the questions raised by multiverse theory, the illusion of meaningful choice, and the myth of autonomy in single-player games raises interesting questions about the nature of video game storytelling. Just like how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern raises questions about the nature of fictional worlds dictated by authors, Bioshock Infinite raises questions about universes collaboratively authored by both designers and players.
In the initial moments of Saints Row: The Third, irrelavant backstory is introduced with the Star Wars Title Crawl to the tune of the 2001: A Space Odyssey. The game then cuts to a gang assault in an urban basketball court, which turns out to be a Japanese energy-drink commercial, being watched on a character’s cell phone as they prepare to rob a bank. The bank-robbery turns out to be a film shoot. One of the gangsters remarks, “ultra-postmodernism, I love it”, dons a giant mask of himself, and begins shooting up the building.
Ludonarrative Dissonance: I Promise this is Relevant
One problem I have with sandboxy-action games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, is that they suffer, more than any other genre, from ludonarrative dissonance. Simply put, ludonarrative dissonance is a problematic phenomenon in video games when a game’s mechanics thematically contradict the game’s narrative. This is mostly caused when game developers try to tell a specific story using the wrong genre.
Game genre is more than a box of mechanics and design decisions used to codify a game, game genre also determines the type of behaviors and emotional responses that designers want to promote in their game worlds. A slow, graphic-adventure game like The Walking Dead promotes a wildly different set of behaviors and emotions than a cooperative first-person shooter like Left 4 Dead. While both games deal with surviving in a zombie apocalypse, their respective genres each promote the telling of radically different types of stories. The Walking Dead‘s slow, methodical mechanics are intended to promote a melodramatic and introspective narrative, while Left 4 Dead‘s mechanics are intended to promote frenetic excitement and panic.
Which brings me to what frustrates me about sandbox games in general: the types of behavior that the genre promotes fundamentally contradicts the types of stories that developers attempt to tell with them.
Genre Confusion in Sandbox Games
Red Dead Redemption is the story of reformed outlaw John Marston’s attempt to come clean with his past, his quest to bring his former gang members to justice, and his salvation in the love of his family. Over the course of his adventure, he will kidnap maidens and strap them to railroad tracks, rob banks, and shoot up entire towns before riding off into the sunset on a stolen bronco.
If this seems confusing or problematic at all, blame Red Dead Redemption‘s confused choice of genre. Red Dead Redemption‘s somber character drama of salvation, inner-turmoil, and the quest to find peace clashes violently with its genre, making it perhaps the single most frustrating example of ludonarrative dissonance in recent memory.
The sandbox genre promotes a very specific set of player behaviors and emotions. As an open space for freely constructed play, the sandbox-game lends itself to the creation of freely-formed challenges. Powerslide for a hundred meters, jump 200 feet into the water, collect three diamonds to build a pickaxe, run over as many pedestrians as possible, survive as long as you can as cops pursue you. Simply put, the sandbox game promotes spontaneous, free-form play in the form that Callois would call “paida”.
The playful behavior that the sandbox game promotes is fundamentally incompatible with the deep character dramas that games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft AutoIV try to tell. This owes itself to the fact that said playful behavior mostly manifests itself as attempting to drive muscle cars into incoming pedestrians. But if John Marston is really trying to redeem himself and Niko Bellic is trying to escape the demons of his past, why is it that their respective games promote behavior such as driving stagecoaches off cliffs? If Wei-Shen from Sleeping Dogs is an undercover cop, why does he take pleasure in slamming civilian’s heads into car doors? The silliness that these sandbox-games encourage is contradictory to the serious stories that these games have.
Which (finally) takes us back to Saints Row: The Third. Here, narrative and genre exist in perfect harmony. Unique amongst contemporary sandbox games, ludonarrative dissonance is not a problem to Saints Row. The game’s world, characters, visuals, and narrative operate with the game’s mechanics as a cohesive whole. While Red Dead Redemption‘s world was populated with incidental collectibles, minigames, and animals meant for hunting, Saints Row‘s world is populated with spontaneous challenges such as hidden ramps, wide-open roads for powersliding, and narrow alleys for running pedestrians over.
Its also fitting that Saints Row is juvenile, filthy, and ridiculous. Gang leaders are worshipped like celebrities, criminal organizations operate like record labels, and the civilians of Steelport live in a strange mix of veneration and fear of the Third Street Saints, as quick to run away from the player as to beg for an autograph. Phallic imagery bounces about from weaponry to in-world advertisements. Minigames range from throwing oneself into incoming traffic to collect insurance money to riding about in a flaming ATV trying to set pedestrians ablaze. Intertextual references are too numerous to count. Everything about Saints Row’s fixed narrative frames the player’s behavior in Steelport’s sandbox in an appropriate manner.
All this extends to the game’s mechanics, which both expect and reward free-form, “paida”-type play. “Respect”, which amounts to experience points, is rewarded for successfully completing the spontaneous challenges that players may set for themselves, such as bowling over pedestrians with power-slides, surfing atop moving vehicles, and dodging between incoming traffic, leading to character upgrades and other extrinsic rewards. Saints Row is cognizant that players are going to behave in violent and silly ways, and thus structures itself to reward such behavior.
All that I’m saying here is that Saints Row provides a rare example of an open-world crime game actually making sense narratively. Perhaps this owes itself to the game’s self-proclaimed “ultra-postmodernism”, which becomes particularly blatant after the “http://deckers.die” mission. Ultimately, the silly, self-aware humor of the game creates the only kind of narrative appropriate for the sandbox genre. In retrospect, perhaps games like Red Dead Redemption and Sleeping Dogs would have benefitted narratively by limiting player freedom or picking out a more fitting genre for the kind of story that they try to tell.