In the meantime, I'm just a guy who writes about videogame theory and how the medium can achieve better cinematic emulation (while keeping its own indentity). Though, if that's too boring, you can always find something delightfully fluffy in the following:
Okay, okay...last time I said Part Two would be ready on Wednesday. But I didn’t factor in one of the worst attacks of flu I’ve ever had. Goddamn two-prong attack flu! Just be thankful, I don’t teach! Your grades would be awful due to me!
So in Part One, I lay down the groundwork for survival horror and this idea of perspective assimilation. This time the latest chapter looks at how interaction implements itself into the narrative structure. Basically, this chapter was designed to gauge reactions from my tutors who were reading it from a cinematic viewpoint. I wanted to show them how games created the same narrative as films, but with a completely different approach (be it the limitations of technology or general interaction).
It’s funny, when I listened to that Podtoid with David Jaffe, Anthony Burch's naive and idealist comments reminded me of myself during university...then I realised how jaded and cynical I had become after writing this paper...and cried a little inside.
Anyway...I hope you enjoy this bit too (yes, it’s long, I know...shhh!). Remember I can’t really give out the quote info unless I know you. Plagiarism, huh?! *rolls eyes*
Chapter 2: Interaction and Narrative in Videogames (Structure Comparisons)
...the brilliant beginning of Metal Gear Solid 2, with Snake crouching in the rain on the deck of the tanker, leverages Kojima’s well-known postmodern lucidity by allowing in-game characters to refer to button-pressing, and so it teaches you the bases within fiction. Halo, too, makes a welcome gesture towards this kind of solution when the decision of the Y-axis is contextualised as the fiction of fine tuning your Master Chief suit aboard ship. (11)
In Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2005), the protagonist, Snake, regularly engages in discussions about cinema with his film-obsessed medic. Topics range from Godzilla and subsequent sci-fi B-movies to James Bond. They also comment on the future of media, hinting at television and videogames (MGS3’s timeline is set in the Sixties). While these moments provide light relief, they also highlight the ability to create post-modern interactivity. For instance, MGS’s game mechanics are presented to the player through dialogue that make such topics as “press the O button to climb the ladder” seem like common practice in its virtual world, regardless of how the realism is presented. Very few narrative games have the ability to achieve this without the use of a training level or on-screen commands, which ultimately detract from the main body of work. Resident Evil 2 (1998) is an exception where it plunges you straight into the metaphorical deep end, assuming (as it is a sequel) that you’ve already accustomed yourself to the original’s controls.
With MGS, post-modern interactivity reaches beyond the playful in-joke that cinema employs it for. It is a tool that is used to ease the player into a complex world. Film uses post-modernism to comment on the real world, create satire and involve an audience using their previous viewing experiences. As mentioned before, videogames share this cinematic trope , but because of the deeper immersion based upon an intensified viewer gaze, it is able to weave interactive elements into the narrative core. MGS3 makes light of this kind of entertainment; writer/director Hideo Kojima is aware of his audience’s tastes as they immerse themselves in his virtual world. His references are confined to genre influences, rather than cultural, so it rarely alienates. This is no different to post-modern cinema; if the references are too varied, the viewer is displaced by a lack of knowledge and snaps out of the immersion. Both cinema and videogames draw the audience into a world where they momentarily push reality into the subconscious.
Snake’s body is more complex and interesting than a regular videogame avatar with a single health bar; it requires more nurturing, and so we come to feel more protective towards it, and by mentally closer to its various travails. This is extended by the brilliant touch in which Snake regains stamina during the times you are not playing the console... A wonderful example of Kojima’s beloved counter-immersive post-modernism, but also very logical way further to entwine the feelings of player and character... Metal Gear Solid 3’s injury system also works to further Kojima’s project of extending the notion of hurt in videogames... So now is the fact that a bullet wound doesn’t just trim a discrete length off the health bar, it goes on causing pain until he does something about it... By appealing to our sense of self-preservation and even fear, Kojima makes a shootout less appealing. (12)
Players control their avatars to a certain degree. Though there are some restrictions (structure, tasks and cutscenes), that’s not to say there is no interaction at all; player participants are more than passive viewers of projected images. Participants take responsibility for their avatar’s well being rather than watching them take pre-scripted changes in welfare, though this is dependent on how scripted the game is, e.g. Shadow of the Colossus ‘s protagonist’s appearance degrades regardless of how he’s handled.
But for MGS3’s injury system, we as participants connect with our avatar through nurture. Not just because we feed Snake to keep up stamina or to treat superficial wounds, but also through separate world goals. Snake, in the virtual world, needs to survive to complete his mission. In the real world, the player’s motivation is to progress to the end credits. Participants are also conditioned through virtual injury to sustain the stealth aspect and believable idea of Snake being a specialist veteran. The onscreen degradation of your character’s health in Resident Evil 2 is another (streamlined) example of virtual communication towards the player’s nurturing objective.
As gamers we bring to each of these characters a set of scripts and semiotic encoding that help us understand who they are, their role and their motivations. These, of course, are specific, and drawn from our own literacies (sic) in other forms of culture whether they be film, comic, novels advertising or whatever. (13)
While videogames offer escapist fantasies with ready-made protagonists, players assimilate their own characteristics into the avatar. The problem is that sometimes, especially with iconic characters like Snake and Sam Fisher, total immersion is near impossible. Our failures as actors create a break in narrative interactivity and subsequent replays can drain the initial tension. While participants add their own persona through controller techniques, the fully developed avatar denies outside personas a chance to shine through. However, by assuming the role of director (already defined and occupied in the credits), it becomes a distraction from the intended progression. The direction and structure are set in place before play begins, much like watching a film.
Survival horror titles give the player avatars that are ordinary people. For characters like James Sunderland and Henry Townshend, we’re given minimal background information for motivation; James has a mystery to solve while Henry is required to escape a predicament. These characters are inexperienced in combat; there’s room for mistakes made by the player, enough so that player remains in possession of the avatar and not the camera.
James and Henry are dishevelled yet ordinary working class protagonists, unlike the chiselled features of the war veteran that is Snake
Both Undying and Resident Evil 3 use written sources, such as letters, journals, faxes and books, planed throughout the games to provide clues and forward the storyline... The deployment of written texts help broaden and consolidate the interactive experience as one significantly different from the way information is imparted in film. (14)
Information is given either briefly through manuals (character backgrounds, interaction, controls, etc.) or mostly in-game. This in-game communication is a post-modern interactive element, making up depth that might be lost through technical limitations. These works of fiction within the narrative work in two ways – to expand on the narrative and mis-en-scene and to assist the player’s progression to the next task. Silent Hill 2 for example, has the player/protagonist relationship discovering a letter containing a bizarre riddle. Upon finding the related puzzle, we find the solution within the riddle’s text. Of course, the clue is written in a gothic manner, keeping in line with the horror that the game’s story represents. Written clues in cinema work to serve the story, usually directed at a protagonist and indirectly to the passive audience. The cinematic protagonist is automated while the videogame protagonist needs to be directed to their next goal. A problem with backing the argument against videogames as an extension of established media is that the games are judged on what they create through on-screen presentation; rarely is the in-game written narrative is explored and dissected.
Another form of in-game information, and one that is featured heavily in the subject of survival horror, is internal character monologues. These are written on-screen texts that are activated when, through a participant’s actions, a protagonist investigates a part of their virtual space. These investigations can bear little consequences to the task at hand, but the character will talk about the interaction in their own personality and by doing so, help bond the player with the avatar through character traits. For example, Forbidden Siren’s characters explore areas previously discovered by others. If two characters find the same object, both will comment on it differently. So while occult hobbyist Kyoya describes in complexity the meaning of a makeshift shrine, ten-year-old Harumi will describe the same shrine in simplistic terms. While the player is controlling two different people with their own personal methods, individuality is reinforced by internal descriptions and monologues. Not only do they give structural information, they also help maintain the symbiotic bond between player and protagonist.
Since this is survival horror, it must be noted that internal written texts are used also because of the situation. Horror protagonists are always under the threat of attack and so stay silent during investigation, but each action is equally important. We need to know what is useful, what is insignificant, etc. To show every action is take control away from the player through cutscenes, while in the virtual world, it would attract your antagonists to unnecessary attention; so internal monologues represent at times a silent voice-over.
Interestingly, for older engines like the original Silent Hill, where character models cannot express complex emotions (the cast are stone faced except during FMV sequences), it helps relieve the technically limited cutscenes’ work of conveying character motivation. In one scene, Harry discusses previous events with the local witch, Dahlia Gillespie. After the scene has ended, we are left with a solitary Harry revealing, through written text, his worries and confusion about this recent meeting. The internal dialogue reinforces the idea that Harry is more than a puppet; he too has motivation and investment. Technically, due to the lack of facial movement, it would be difficult to differentiate between diagetic and non-diagetic dialogue.
Videogames still use this form of written text to get their descriptive hints across to the player and due to complex interaction it is unlikely that this will ever be dropped in favour of a ‘sound and vision’ approach. That’s not to say it hasn’t been experimented with in the past; cinematically influenced games like MGS, Fahrenheit, Ico and to some degree Shadow of the Colossus have all tried to relay information through non-written means.
Fahrenheit and The X Files (1998) both use icons to inform the player instead of text
Though this type of in-game information can only be created from intensive interaction, in cinema, if written information is presented to the viewer, the important aspects are highlighted or even read aloud. Cinema uses other techniques to create atmosphere and structure; it need not rely on extensive writing. Film narrative is constrained by running time, while videogame narrative, even with a set length, still allows participants the ability to progress at preferred paces. So incidentally, videogames have much in common with DVDs, with the ability to play, pause, repeat, etc.
The connection between player and avatar is diminished by the use of a third-person perspective and the game’s heavily managed, shifting and pre-rendered framing. Yet even here there is a less complex pattern of viewpoints than commonly found in film, precisely because the shots are orientated around the avatar. (15)
Narrative based games, like the third person perspectives of survival horror, tend to draw upon cinematic influences to help achieve the discussed player and avatar symbiosis. By drawing upon cinematic gaze and the use of tasks, participants are led through mazes and past obstacles; through this, a bond is created much like the viewer and protagonist in film. So while videogames are becoming cinematic through achieving simulacrum, they also break away from the influence’s narrative restraints in order to obtain the status of credible interactive media.
With film, depending on the genre narrative, the camera’s gaze is fixed on the protagonist, but if needed, will attach itself to supporting characters to expose more details. This switching of perspectives is a natural occurrence that creates narrative progression. By doing so, it also eliminates ‘dead time’ (the idea of on-screen non-progression). In third person videogame genres like survival horror, the virtual camera’s gaze is also attached to the protagonist, even so far as to say an extension, since we can sometimes control it depending on the structured space. Non-pre-rendered games like Silent Hill allow control of the camera surrounding the avatar, while videogames with pre-rendered backdrops (Resident Evil, Obscure and Alone in the Dark) disallow such abilities.
Games are far less likely than films to use ellipses to eliminate ‘dead’ time. Time in games may be spent exploring (without getting anywhere) or interacting with objects that do not have significant bearing on the main tasks. Most films only give screen time to what is deemed essential to the storyline, spectacle or the building of character or mood. (16)
As previously touched upon, ‘dead time’ occurs throughout the minor differences between film and videogame. The most prominent times when we notice this occurrence is when we’re progressing between locations. Videogame examples of large scale ‘dead time’ include Silent Hill and Resident Evil. The former especially has you traversing constantly on foot around many of the town’s abandoned districts.
The 3D horror game Silent Hill is comparatively maze-like: progress is more conditional, and incidents more overtly sequenced. Paths may branch (there is more than one possible ending) but resolution maintains a tidal pull on the player. Silent Hill is a horror game, it aims for intensity, tension and fright, and its ability to generate such effect is fuelled by its more directed gameplay. (17)
At first, the virtual space is daunting since you have entered a fully rendered town. However, there will always be a linear path despite the way the player progresses, either by curious exploration or non-linear puzzle solving. So even for the most complex structure, the foundation is formed from basic task completion and pre-determined linearity. It’s not enough for a videogame to create physical antagonists. To make compelling diversity, there has to be puzzle solving to stem the progressive pacing and to keep the challenge entertaining. These tasks are usually evolved from the basic ‘find the key to the locked door’ scenario. Due to the real-time interaction between player and avatar, gameplay is not bound by time restrictions, nor do they play a major role in cinematic events.
Film relies on the removal of ‘dead time’; so, dependant on genre, anything non-progressive or non-structural is removed. The timelines are condensed, therefore superfluous actions are reduced. With videogames, the participant decides on the amount of interaction they want within the narrative structure. In survival horror, the completion of tasks is dependent on detailed explorations; there is no progression unless the requirements have been satisfied. However, to keep up the tension, participants are tricked into exploring at the intended pace.
Silent Hill has a rich and varied soundtrack, but contains no music in a major key. In fact, the ‘safe state’ is not present in the same sense, so the music never settles on or even moves toward any kind of resolution... They must sustain a consistent and persuasive of terror and apprehension in the player. (18)
Silent Hill keeps the player unnerved of their surroundings, either by claustrophobic gaze, location, sounds or virtual threat. From an entertainment point of view, these elements create a believable horror story, but from a structural point of view, the same elements are used to keep the participant moving at a consistent pace. While this doesn’t eliminate ‘dead time’, the exploratory aspect in cinematic videogames is reduced to fleeting appraisals. Role Playing Games encourage exploration due to the epic scope of narrative, while survival horror keeps the narrative timeline to the equivalent of a mini-series (due to cinematic influences). Therefore, the interactive element remains intact without stretching its own cinematic running time. Not only does this reinforcement encourage steady progression but it also, in theory at least, suppresses the participant’s ability to deconstruct the gameplay.
So while videogames can be described as richer in detail and interaction, cinematic techniques are still their foundation. Cinematic restrictions can be built upon, either for quicker or slower purposes. The more detail shown however, the more risk there is for the narrative to lose focus. There are positives and negatives to these different approaches to media, but the subject here is to reveal how videogames overcome restrictions imposed by their influences and thus presenting itself at a level of acceptance.