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So here's me,

My real name is Max and I'm a diehard Browncoat. I also have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Star Wars universe left over from a childhood obsession, as well as an actual Star Wars encyclopedia, but that's another matter.

I like to sleep, but keep odd hours, I like food A LOT, I like TV on occasion, I'm not a huge fan of any music except symphonic, and apparently I have bad music taste, even at 20 I can barely grow enough facial hair to justify shaving more than twice a week, I love to write, I kinda read, I hate a couple of the people in my J-school program, HBO is perfect, LOST is actually alright, I'm a total gearhead, Avatar was a terrible movie but an incredible experience, How to Train Your Dragon was very, VERY awesome, and all I want at this moment is a 1:1 stuffed Appa.

Guess what this last paragraph used to be for? My two cents on the games/art debate. Guess what's here now? NOTHING, and that's the way I likes it.

Following (9)  

So here's the deal,

As I progress closer and closer to the launch of this site I'm rolling out, which will only be mentioned once more on this blog, I promise, I'm more and more considering doing this kind of thing for a living. This being writing for video games, whether that's writing scripts, reviews, blogs, podcasts, or comics; the possibility of games as a career is becoming more and more prominent in my mind.

And this contemplation of my future has lead to thinking about the life my future son might have, and this is where I arrive at the eponymous crisis of conscience. Do I allow my son to play games?

My, and probably many of your instinctual answers is of course yes. Let him experience the worlds that games can open, let his imagination run wild in them, let him blow shit up. But the immediate next thought, at least in my head, is that while games give so much, they also tend to impede or take. I truly believe that my social skills would be a great deal stronger had I played half the games I did as a kid.

So we arrive at an impasse, do I let him play the games he wants to, or encourage more sports and social stuff and build his people skills? Well luckily for me, we don't live in a world of absolutists (sith). I can let him have the best of both worlds, I can regulate his time.

But this introduces a third problem, that being that if I strictly regulate how he spends his time, I'm then solving what are really his problems for him. I take the responsibility from him, and he then loses out on how to think for himself. It's like being punished too much by overbearing parents, if they constantly correct what they believe to be problematic behavior, you lose your ability to do so on oyur own because you've never really needed it.

So here are my options,

- Let my spawn play games and possibly damage his people skills.

- Don't let him and close him off to some truly amazing flights of fancy, as well as betray a part of myself a little.

- Give him both and regulate his time and possibly damage his ability to improve himself on his own.

This isn't really much of a blog, it's more me spewing words onto "paper", but it's something I'm actually kinda concerned about. Now I realize I won't have to worry about it for a good ten years or so, but I feel it's something I might have to really consider. All this and I'm gonna have to feed the little fucker. Personally I'm owing towards kinda informing him of the consequences and then letting him make his own choice, but I'm genuinely interested which you guys would chose. And you can't chose my answer.

~ Om nom nom nom...

I read this shit over and it's really, really serious. Watch this, you'll feel less heavy-hearted.

So here's the deal,

I recently caught myself up on the awesome that is our pertaining-to-this-website's-writer-roster late Reverend. I listened to the lecture he gave at Berkeley about the difficulties of character development in games, and it got me to thinking, I should write a blog with a buzz word in the title. People will read it and think I'm smart. So here we are.

So yes. Agency and you. And them. In this case, them refers to developers. More specifically, the amount of agency they allow within their game. For thos of you who are like me circa last week and need a definition of agency, it's basically like a player's autonomy inside a game, their inherent ability to chose what to do because of a game's interactive nature. Anthony's talk was about the dissonance created when the player's agency and the protagonists interest don't line up, and how that factors into choice and story.

He focused mainly on how games deal with this dissonance, how much space they are willing to give a player in their story. For example, he mentioned No Russian and how it annoyed him when he was given no explanation for why he couldn't kill the terrorists right then and there and prevent the massive massacre which was acceptable and necessary to his character but monstrously evil to Anthony as a player. He also mentioned choices where neither option appeals to you, but you simply must progress because the only other option is to not play anymore, and how situations like that should be avoided.

To me though, these aren't a necessity, they aren't a hill every game must climb. I don't need a reason for a lack of agency, I don't even really need agency that much in terms of story, what I do need is skillful storytelling.

If a writer is skilled enough at their craft, they should be able to write the story and characters in such a way that your agency is never infringed upon. This is not to say that you, the player, should have infinite authority over your character or story, far from it. A skilled writer should never infringe upon your agency because they should be skilled enough at their craft to guide your agency, to manipulate it.

I wrote an article that followed this same idea a while back, where basically I wanted to be convinced that the evil choices were the correct; I wanted the writer to guide me down an evil path that I walked willingly, thinking I was doing good or ultimately necessary things.

We have a very unique opportunity with our medium to not only experience places and events which we normally wouldn't, but emotions too. Movies and books can do this as well; take for example your experience in that galaxy far far away. But with games it's different, you're doing, not seeing. It's one thing to see someone suck the life out of a 8 year old girl only to become more powerful.It's quite another to do so yourself. It's another entirely to do so thinking what you're doing is right, to really line up our emotions with what we're doing in a complete and ideally unnoticeable way.

Inception, for example, was very good at this. I felt the way the characters felt the entire way through. When *Infinitesimally small spoiler alert* they all woke up on the plane at the end, I even felt as if I myself had just awoken from a dream even though the characters and I were effectively awake the whole time. This unfortunately, is where movies have the leg up, though, and it's kind of counter intuitive. Because movies aren't interactive, because we don't have to chose and because we don't have to bring our morals into their situations, it's much more easy to accept everything the movie is telling you because it's not happening to you, it's happening in front of you, around you, the situation is not asking you to bring in your morals and proceed as you would.

Games have a harder time.of this obviously because they have to compete with a player's moral code and opinions and principals. The solution is to pull just enough wool over our eyes to cloud your vision of the writer's actual agenda while giving you enough to think everything is proceeding normally. Unfortunately this is a very difficult balance to strike.

The crux of my point is this; most people chose to harvest the Little Sisters because they operated under the excuse that they were just doing it for the power or to act like an asshole, but imagine if Bioshock had convinced you that harvesting was the right thing to do, in stead of just leaving it up to your decision.

I really want this to become a reality too. I want to do evil thinking I'm doing right, I want to explore emotions that I wouldn't normally explore not just for the sake of a break in convention, but because the game made me think they were the right emotions to feel. I want a game to basically perform inception on me. I want to feel these emotions, I don't want to chose them anymore. And of course I want to have the subsequent and mandatory matrix philosophy arguments afterwards about the illusion of choice.

To me, this is the area where games can expand the most, I would even say the future of emotional gaming if I were a less modest man. We've had games that can show us, we've had games that can move us, now we need games that can convince us.

~ Om nom nom nom...

So here's the deal,

For those of you who pay attention, it's been over a week now since my last post, and that interview doesn't technically count as my own. To that end, I apologize, I like to think I'm more committed to this blog than that. The only reason that I can offer is that I've been conceptualizing a lot. I've recently been putting the finishing touched on a concept for a website I'll be rolling out some time in the near future. I won't post a link for two reasons, first because I prefer to believe I'm above shameless self promotion, and second because the domain name isn't actually mine yet. Anyway, the planning stages of this endeavor are much more involved than I originally believed, mostly because those planning stages involve teaching myself to draw from scratch. Yeah. Turns out I can't diffuse artistic ability from another's brain simply by literally putting two heads together. That shit needs to be practiced.

Anyway, the real reason I'm writing this blog is to thank you. Yes, you. Since I joined Destructoid, I was much more insular than I thought I would be; I focused completely on my own work here and very little on anyone else's save for a select few. I realized that this approach was both isolationist and selfish, so over the past week or so I've really forced myself to read your blogs and comment meaningfully, to share in this community in a more substantial way than just the occasional rant.

What I discovered is rather wonderful, although not unexpected. It takes very little effort to get deeper into a community in which I thought myself already quite entrenched. Commenting and conversing with you people has been even more rewarding than I expected, and just as easy. It is not a grind at all to make myself part of the comment roll and actually get to know each of you a little better, and for that, I thank you.

You proved to me that this truly is one of if not the greatest communities on the web. I was essentially a lurker for the last couple weeks. Now I like to think I'm a contributer, and the transition could not have been easier or more gratifying. Thank you Destructoid, thank you for showing me you are every inch the community that you're lauded as, and welcoming a complete stranger you've known for the past five months.

~ Om nom nom nom...

So here's the deal,

A couple months back, back when I was just a wee lad taking his first steps into the big, scary, and often awesome-laden world of the c-blogs, I wrote a rather inflammatory post about how story in games was an absolute necessity. I have since reformed my view, I now view it as more of an extremely delicious peppercorn seasoning on top of a game steak. The thing is, I could never really see the main reason behind a story, apart from the obvious plot. I always kind of thought there was an extrinsic benefit to it all, something that wasn't as plainly obvious as all the exposition and character development.

I think I actually stumbled across it. I think I may have found the answer to the question that's been nagging at the back of my mind ever since I started playing games. And I found it in I think the stupidest possible way. I'd like to preface this however with the fact that I realize that I'm maybe and probably like the last person to come across this little tidbit of gaming closure, so if you think you're happy with your relationship with story in games, I invite you to get out of my blog. Forever. Don't even take a bagel. That's right, I'm an asshole now. WHAT OF IT?!?!?!? Ahem - However if you are curious, stick around, there's a story coming up. With alcohol. Then Barf. Pumped yet? Me too,

So yeah, today we start of with a story. And I'll introduce this one like every single one of its preceding brothers with the same joke that I for some reason think is still funny: Pull up a chair kids, cuz it's about to get narrative up in this bitch, BRING THE PROSE!!!

It's a sunny friday evening in a little Canadian town called Vancouver. The sun was out, the birds were chirping, and the pompous assholes in their Prius-es with their "BC - The best place on Earth" vanity plates had their noses turned decidedly upward. Young Om Nom was on his way to Commercial street to meet up with some friends, the plan for the night included copious amounts of alcohol followed by some hopefully productive time at a nightclub. And when I say productive, I mean sexually. However, the night took a turn for the worse when young Om Nom was peer pressured into "catching up" with his not-nearly-as-far-ahead-of-him-drunkwise-as-he-thought friends, so he hit the Bacardi like... something that gets hit really hard. Now sufficiently sauced, young Om Nom left the house with his friends and - POOF! that's where young Om Nom's memory kinda ends. Oh right, I promised mention of barf. Well there was some splatter on young Om Nom's shoes and a pretty terrible taste in his mouth when he woke up the next morning. He kinda connected the dots. You enjoy young Om Nom's pain don't you, DON'T YOU?!?!?

Now what was the point of that mildly entertaining story? Well it's either that or a severe case of seasonal affective disorder that put me in the mindset or lack thereof which led me to my revelation in the way I look at story, which I promise is forthcoming. You look confused. I'm not surprised. Bear with me, you're almost there.

Yes, it was either the resulting massive drop in brain cell count that followed that night or the fact that it's cloudy in Vancouver for the first time in about a month that's put me in the cerebral slump that resulted in this finding. Basically for the past several days, I've been unable to focus on anything other than what I'm staring directly at. My world has been completely tunnel visioned to the point where the days are kinda starting to blur together in my memory. It is all together a very odd feeling.

I promise the sentiment I'm trying to express is far less emo than the following sentence, but over the past couple of days, I feel like I've been living a life without context. With a near-complete lack of ability to acknowledge or contemplate the existence of anything that's not right in front of my face, this past weekend was a complete blur, devoid of any motivation to really do or think about anything.

Essentially, my life over the past while could have used what I've discovered a good game story provides: context, setting.

Red Faction Guerillla is an example of a game that does not do this well, but perfectly illustrates my point. The story in RF:G is very secondary to the gameplay, it's more just a passing reason to do what you're doing than anything else. And in this particular case, that's completely fine. The gameplay is strong enough to sustain it as a game, story is not needed. A story would be a bonus, but it's not necessary. This is the nature of our medium; the inherent interactivity means that we don't need plot development to enjoy ourselves, gameplay can sustain us.

Here's what a story would do though, were there to be a prominent one in RF:G. It would give the game universe a much more solidified setting; it would give it a context. I'm only mildly aware that I'm on Mars at all, and I'm completely unclear on my character's specific motivations or those of the people around him. Insert a story, and suddenly all these problems go away. You have a universe that feels lived in, a universe that feels solid, a universe grounded in a setting in stead of floating passingly through an indeterminate one.

I tend to find that in games that have very little story, I consider the in-game universe to begin and end with the portion of my character's life that I have control over. It's like, when I turn off or finish the game, that universe no longer exists because there isn't enough context to sustain that universe when I'm not in it. My perception of reality has been very similar to the story in RF:G, a mere reason or cause for me to be where I am or do what I'm doing at any given moment, nothing beyond that.

My normal perception of reality can then be compared to a game like Oblivion or Mass Effect, where story and plot are near paramount. Those universes feel lived in, they feel like they could be real in some far off galaxy. I'm very aware that the story of that game happened before I got there and will continue after I leave. The planets or towns feel like they are inhabited by actual people, whom I am completely aware have things to do outside of show up to enrich my playing experience every so often. There's enough information there to sustain that universe's existence past the confines of my time in-game, and completely enrich the time I do spend in it.

In it's most boiled down form, my point is this: a well constructed story, and the exposition that accompanies it, should give the player the feeling that the events, people, and places in a given game are not simply there for their sake, that the existence of those people places do not simply begin and end with the player's glance.

In a sense, we are lucky in that we have a medium that can produce titles that are exceptional without even coming close to touching a story, plot, or exposition, and that is why those things are bonuses. But in another sense, story and exposition are completely necessary. To me, it's very difficult to create a living breathing universe without some kind of story telling, and a living breathing universe is a major asset to any game deep enough to support one.

So there it is. A night of barely remembered drinking and two days spent in mentally suspended animation have yielded a difficult to understand and almost unnecessary point. And apparently some passing Beyamor-calibre self deprecation, me for the win. Seacrest, out!

~ Om nom nom nom...

So here's the deal,

I would like to start by saying that the past week spent without a single post was a cold and frightening one indeed. It's the longest I've gone without posting something over the last 5 months, and I endeavor not to repeat a feat so heinous. On that note, hello destructoid, it's been far, far too long. How was your week?

On a more self-centered note, shut up, I don't care how your stupid week went, Om Nom's turn to talk. YAY! Prepare to be slapped with opinions both ridiculous and repetitive. Yes, slapped.

So if you've read more than three of my blog posts over the past 5 months, you'll know that I think the most important thing a game can do is make you care. Whether it's about the story, the characters, your actions, your reputation, if you care about any one of these enough, that caring can pretty much carry you through any negatives a game may present, within reason of course. I was contemplating this when I stumbled across a major omission from this list. Across my entire time playing video games, I have never cared about my or one of my protagonist's mortality in the context of a game.

This is I think the cause of many of the statements regarding gamers' apathy towards mortality. Not only do we tirelessly slaughter countless other "people" in games on a daily basis, but more importantly we rush into this slaughter with no concept of self preservation, at least not for the right reasons.

You don't hate being killed in a game because you've just died, you hate it because it's inconvenient. It means you have to back-track, you have to lose ten minutes of hard played game time, or your stats have to take a hit. The fact that your character, an established being with feelings, opinions, and motivations all their own, has just died is completely secondary to the fact that you're gonna have to clear that fucking room again or beat that fucking boss again.

And this to me is completely unbelievable. How is it that in the near four decades spent playing games have we not come across a single title that makes us care about the only thing that has remained constant over those 40 years: ourselves?

The player is the only constant in gaming, it goes without saying. The only thing that every single video game in history has in common with every other is input by the player, and somehow, the little detail about making them care about themselves or the characters they play got lost in the mix.

There is only one game that has created a character so vivid and influential on my own values that I took time to consider their input or existence in the game as separate from my own, and that's GTA IV. Nico Bellic was so... real that I felt bad for him, not for myself, at the end of the game. In my ending, it was Roman who died, and I felt worse that Nico had lost a family member than I as the player and Nico's controller had.

If a game could make a player genuinely care about their avatar's capability to die, whether that avatar is a faceless hero or a full fledged narrative character, it would add unparalleled depth to any story or choice making system. Suddenly, it's not only what do I want, but what do we want. Are we fighting for the right reasons, am I right or is he? These questions would force a player to look deeper into their character's fundamental personality and views and weigh them against their own. This would be the closest we could come in real life to DNA digivolving or that process that merged megaman and his operator in the god awful American mega man anime that was on like 7 years ago.

Unfortunately though, no game has gotten to this point yet; no game has reached that most crucial junction in this process and made me feel bad because my actions while controlling a character got them killed. And why is this? Is it because there are no worthy characters? Of course not, Nico Bellic was more than capable of supporting this kind of caring, in fact really any likable character can, but it is literally the second most constant part of games that is the biggest block to this incredible opportunity: the game over.

Those words live in infamy with us. They mean insufficient skill, they mean bad luck, they mean inconvenience, they mean you're dead, they mean, simply, that you failed. Except they don't. Our worst affectable (I think that's a word) consequence imaginable is really nothing more than a minor inconvenience. If you're saving "smartly," you won't lose more than five minutes of play time. Less if you're like me and save constantly.

There is no consequence to a game over. If anything it actually improves your game because it allows you to learn from your mistakes, then redo what you screwed up. It's like writing a test and having the prof grade each question the second you finish it, and you can go back and correct any you get wrong. There are no permanent consequences to a game over, nothing to convince you that dying is a bad thing in any way shape or form.

The worst part though is that the amount of solutions to this problem are severely limited. Yeah you can do as many games have and introduce similarly meaningless consequences to death, but again, you then care that you died because you lost a couple hundred bucks to hospital bills or because you lost all your guns, not because you let your sole link to the world of this game perish. Really the only way to make a player care about their in-game mortality is to open up the possibility of permanent character death. I know where your mind went, and ME2 didn't do this right, obviously. One extremely small window for permanent character death doesn't count. It needs to be a frequent possibility.

But this too is destined to fail. No one is going to pay for two or more voice actors to voice protagonists who may never even be needed, nor are they going to pay to write as many different POVs or branching stories. This problem, which to me is a significant one, really has no viable solution, and that's really quite sad. I care about the secondary characters for no reason other than their personalities. I took Thane and Grunt into combat with me not because they complemented my Sheperd the most but because they were my favourite characters. When Legion died I was sad because I had lost a teammate and ally, not because I'd lost an expert hacker.

Devs and writers have become quite expert about making us care about every element of their games, from stories to causes, characters to choices, even "the public's" opinion of us in games like Fable and GTA. It's endlessly sad to me that they've failed in the most crucial spot though; they can't make me care about me simply for me, not because dying means I have to back track or find my favourite gun again. They don't, as of yet, have the ability to make death it's own consequence.

~Om nom nom nom...

So here's the deal,

The faceless hero is a protagonist you've no doubt played, they've been around for a while now, popularized most notably by the Master Chief and Gordon Freeman. Obviously the objective of this kind of character is to allow the player to more easily immerse theirself into the game, to allow them to literally put them into their character's shows.

The main problem with this though is that without a choice system, it's difficult to build a narrative around this kind of character; if the player has no input on the story and the character they play is simply a vessel for that player, there really isn't any room there to insert a plot. Take the Master Chief for example; criticize his lack of personality and any Halo player worth his salt will quickly refer you to the books, where his character is "much more fleshed out."

I don't really view this as a point for the character though; if you can't work a character into a plot within its original medium, they're simply not that great a character. If I said that Anakin Skywalker wasn't a whiny angsty power hungry bitch, it would be hard to justify grounding my argument outside the movies to anyone that's not a "hardcore" Star Wars fan who's read into the extended universe. The point is, the fact that the most interesting parts of the Chief's character take place outside the games says a lot about how undeveloped he is, when he very possibly could be.

I'll give you an example. There's a Joe Sacco graphic novel called Palestine; it's an account of true events told through a comic strip from the point of view of Sacco on his 3 month long trip through Palestine. The point of the book is to give readers insight into the point of view of the less-frequently-sided-with-than-the-Israelis Palestinians. Just like a lot of games, it's a one-sided and some what small-scale viewpoint of a much larger conflict, but it's told through a character with their own opinions and allegiances. Even in Halo this is the case; the Chief is the prototypical faceless hero, and he has his own emotions and views.

Just like in Halo, though, in Palestine, Sacco encourages us to form our own opinions, because as a journalist, that is his primary goal with the book. It's even in the art style, as Sacco's character's eyes have no pupils, all but begging the reader to insert theirs. The immersion is seamless; it instantly becomes I think that's awful, that looks terrifying to me. So while we have enough of a character here to satisfy the need for a functioning protagonist, their influence is small enough to allow us to create a very nearly unpersuaded view of our own.

Another example of a successful faceless hero is in the Digital Anvil space sim Freelancer. In the game, you play as Edison Trent, the eponymous freelancer thrust into the middle of a literally galaxy-wide conflict. Just like Sacco and Chief, his influence on the story is minor, he (along with the player) are essentially dragged along for the ride, in fact it almost feels like you're being led around on a leash. I still haven't decided how I feel about that, but I digress. The point is that in Freelancer, you're given freedom. Not so much choice as freedom, I think that's an important distinction. Choice is more of an instance by instance thing, where as freedom is a kind of sandbox game feel, and that's definitely what Freelancer is.

Imaging an average of 2 - 3 planets and 3 space stations for each of these systems, big fuckin place

You are given the complete freedom to progress through the game as you wish; with the exception of one example I'll mention later, you can drop in and out of the story as you please, work for any of the dozens of factions, fly any kind of ship you want excluding capitol (capital?) ships, be a smuggler, a pirate, a member of the navy or police of any of the 4 nations, endlessly customize your ship's weapons and auxiliaries, the list goes on.

What freelancer does really well is that it gives the universe tons of back story, so you don't come in without a context, but it introduces you to the character which is very much yours at a point in his life where everything is fresh. You develop relationships and allegiances at the same pace that Trent does, so they feel like your friends, your opinions, and most prominently, your ship.

The semi-unrelated point I said I'd come back to is that even with all this freedom, it does not suffer from the same condition as COUNTLESS RPGs do in that when the story gets focused near the end, you lose the ability to refuse the missions, because there's urgency, something is threatening life as we know it, so no, you're not allowed to go kill a couple razorbats or direwolves to get some more money and level up just once more, there's shit needs doin!

I can't tell you how many times I've used this image over the past 4 months. ugh

The final element of a good faceless hero is epitomized in Bioshock. While it's true that Jack doesn't have much of a character of his own, the firs tperson viewpoint of the game really emphasizes the fact that things are happening to you. That is a very important je ne sais quoi for a faceless hero; while they need their own character, the goal of of this type of character is immersion, so the goings on in the game still need to feel like their occurring to the player, not the character. This is one of those very difficult to define qualities of a game that is really achieved through competent design, as well as strong atmosphere. Another game that did this well was the game I swore I wouldn't mention by name in a faceless hero article because it's SOOOOOO cliche (imagine an accent agu over the e there).

Unfortunately, this POV is an easy one to mess up. While great gameplay wise, the chief as a character isn't really that great in the games, and the books shouldn't be able to compensate for that. Nomad in Crysis also flopped as a character, as did Bioshock's Jack, even though he did one thing very right. It seems then that there are really 3 main requirements to making the right faceless hero; They need a face that's not too big, it has to grow with yours, and it has to feel like yours, through freedom or otherwise. At the end of the day though the main thing is this: it's a light touch that crafts the face, a small chisel, not a hammer.

~ Om nom nom nom...