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7:40 PM on 07.15.2010

The Hollywood Effect: A Response to "Brown Hair and Stubble"

Written in a flurry, in response to Chad Concelmo's article "Brown Hair and Stubble: The new face of modern videogames." Because it is too long for a comment, I made it a blog. Mind the typos and the mild Toy Story 3 spoilers.

I've always believed it was as result of gaming's insecurity to film that so many of our main characters subscribe to a very similar pallet. Once we could start designing playable characters to look like actual humans (for the most part) I believe that, like how a lot of big budget games are focused on making playable version of big budget movies, there was an assumption that gamers would want their characters to look like Hollywood types too.

Except that, for the most part, the most popular video game characters of all time weren't Hollywood types; they weren't even human. Playing as a super-speedy blue hedgehog or a pink blob that sucks up foes has never ruined a game for me. These are video games, and I like playing as a video game character. The idea that Kirby can swallow his enemies and use their powers for his own translates into a better gameplay experience for me nine times out of ten than the limits imposed on a "real person" character, who can only jump so high, or fight back with only fists or guns (sometimes more primitive weapons as well).

But that's not to say that I only want games like Mario, Sonic or Kirby, where the experience is focused on gameplay with no significant story to speak of. Sometimes I like a narrative to feel real to me - I will never turn down a good story that can move me emotionally. But Hollywood has this problem as often as games do, where they confuse an exciting story with exciting situations, but no relatable characters to make me interested in the outcome. Making a character I can relate to isn't, like so many people think, about making them as common as possible. For me to care about what's happening in the story, I need to care about the characters too. So it's simple: make their wants clear and their motivations relatable, or easy to understand.

Does it matter to me that Nathan Drake has brown hair and stubble like the majority of video game protagonists? No, not really. But it does matter that his character was flat and without clear reasons for his actions. If you want to argue that this was so that I can place myself in his shoes easier than a fully-fleshed out person, I will argue that I would rather be wearing a nice pair of elegantly built wing-tips than some one-size-fits-all beach sandals. And what I mean by that is that I will sooner become immersed in a very believable character with real emotions and desires than one that is blatantly uninteresting. To reference another brown haired character with stubble, John Marston felt like a real person to me because I knew what he wanted and why he was there, as opposed to Nathan Drake, who makes up for his lack of characteristics with an arsenal of smarmy quips.

But John Marston was a very realistic looking person who, as pointed out by Chad's article, lacked the risk-taking design that could have elevated his person to someone much more iconic than the brown-haired cowboy of the west that he was. Rockstar likely went in this direction because they operate on a big budget and have to sell a hefty sum of copies to make up for all the costs of producing such a large and expensive game. Similar to how Hollywood deals with a $300 million dollar movie, they feel that they have to appeal to as many people as possible. And to less creative designers and marketers, this means fitting in - not standing out.

It seems obvious to most people right away when you consider that you want to be the needle in the haystack, not the haystack. But this doesn't stop the big productions in Hollywood going to movies like Avatar, where the main character, Jake Sully, is played by the industry's latest action-star type, Sam Worthington. Brown hair and stubble; check. Now a movie like Avatar cost $300 million dollars to produce, so it's expected that every single element of the film was tailored to generate interest from the largest amount of people possible. But I could write an entire article (or four) on exactly how Avatar took no risks to earn back it's budget (and then some) by playing it safe with how the aliens were designed, the antagonists' temperament and, yes, the character of Jake Sully.

So we all know where it came from and why it persists. But can anyone pull away from the Hollywood effect without also sacrificing a grand success by doing so? I insist that you can, and that video games are easily the best avenue for pushing more interesting character designs across the board, even when some relatable protagonist is needed to drive a story. When I said earlier that it matters to me first that a character is believable - that isn't skin deep. It's much deeper than that, in fact. Look at the cast of Toy Story, for instance. Can you think of a better trilogy than those films? With better characters, a better story and a more important message? I can't. And audiences, as well as myself, loved these movies and the characters in them because they felt real. They didn't look like real people, they were toys! But because we could relate to how they felt - Woody struggling with being replaced, accepting the inevitability of his own mortality, and finally, saying goodbye - it was a very real emotional experience that felt drawn to and sympathized with.

So who says the next great action game needs some tabula rasa character? Who says that moments of great drama are best achieved when the characters look real but lack reality? You can't fake it, but you can apply it to even the most abstract and unreal of scenarios, and still get that connection with your audience. If you wanted, you could tether a drama to a character like Kirby, as long as your story was built to sustain that kind of thing. Some of us are still waiting for it, but it has been done before. So can you guess what game I'm anticipating this year most on the basis of its story? Epic Mickey, for sure.

VIdeo games have the advantage over film right now when it comes to our characters and they way we can connect with them. While studios like Pixar will keep pushing family films with unparalleled attention to their characters and stories within animated movies, there aren't so many doing the same with games right now, despite that our medium of choice gives us more freedom with what our characters can look like and what kind of worlds they live in. We can raise the bar every time we try because our standards are still aping off Hollywood. There are so many things cinema excel at that games can't do as well, but that goes both ways. Games, and the worlds they introduce to the player, have such potential for creativity, with any kind of resolution or fidelity, that there is no reason why we can't set our own goals. Don't you want to feel a natural, emotional connection to something that isn't real, and, unlike film, be able to interact with it? Then go on an adventure with it and endure a story of unique struggles and challenges in a way that films are unable to replicate?

Or maybe I'm just describing The Last Guardian.   read

2:50 AM on 01.24.2010

It Doesn't Have To End This Way: Why Mass Effect 2 Seems Poised to Disappoint Me

[Spoilers: Mass Effect and information routinely divulged by Project Director Casey Hudon on Mass Effect 2's plot and final mission. Also, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."] + [FIRST BLOG is LONG BLOG]

Take a moment, dear reader, and think back to your favorite moments in gaming, whether it's a gripping tale coming to a close, a white-knuckle car chase that ended with narrowly avoiding capture, or just a brief moment when you found yourself completely immersed in the look and the feel of your virtual environment. Now, if you can, decide if any of those moments could be improved if they were experienced in another medium. Obviously, nine-times-out-of-ten, the moments you enjoyed in games are best left in games, because the designers mindfully crafted your entertainment with the unique strengths of the medium in mind. The stories told in games are absolutely sui generis. And you see, no one arguing that video games can tell a powerful story is doing so without, themselves, having witnessed something along those lines. While it may not have been the ideal experience, it gave them a passion for the potential of stories in games, inspiration for future possibilities. What they saw, and felt, was something like they had never experienced before.

And we all want to have that experience. We all hope for something new, something else we can point to when we declare that our medium of choice is doing something nothing else can.

But I am concerned. Because the trappings of this medium we love may be the doom of those things we hope to move forward. The release of Mass Effect 2 is almost upon us, and there is plenty of excitement in the air as there often is with big-budget sequels from established developers. Just from scanning the comments to any video or preview of the game, one finds people anxiously counting down the days and vigorously fist-pumping in the air while chanting "GOTY." But a few weeks ago, I heard something that shifted my perspective on the game-to-be. So now, before my thoughts fall completely on deaf ears post-launch, I want to show you what I fear may be another escalation of the ever-evolving battle between what a game should be and how a story is told. Things are getting cut-throat and people's feelings are bound to be hurt. But the real victim here is what gets blown away in the cross-fire; the innocent casualties of compromise.

Let me say upfront that I am eagerly anticipating the release of Mass Effect 2, and despite being in the fortunate position to receive the game for free, I have been very excited to pick up the sequel after a handful of enjoyable play-throughs of the first game, ready and keen to continue the story and evaluate the improvements to the gameplay (sort of like another game I'll be getting on the 26th, yeah?). And let's face it, unless there is a very reclusive and bizarre demographic of gamers that are completely uninterested in the story elements of Bioware games and doesn't tell anyone about it, the people counting the days until Mass Effect 2 is released are largely more excited for the story than anything else (not to say that the improved gunplay isn't quite rousing). We want to know what's going to happen to Shepard, the old crew, the new crew and the Reapers.

Bioware knows this and they've been stringing along those of us who are too excited to wait to play the game ourselves with new information, character profiles, extended trailers and lengthy interviews. But something fishy has been showing up in many of the interviews regarding the touted "suicide mission", a certain thread strung through these discussions that has me filled with a growing sense of unease. Specifically the following, documented by Destructoid's own Anthony Burch during a preview of the game:

"Depending on how well the player has equipped the Normandy, which NPCs the player has recruited and how loyal they are to him, the player may have to watch as some or all of Shepard's crew die… including Shepard himself. [Casey Hudson] promised that it'd be possible to get through the game without losing any of your squad-mates, but that it'd be very difficult to do so."

Now if you've read up to this point, I can safely assume you've already heard this piece of information spoken about a number of times. Maybe you thought it sounded off, like I did, or maybe you didn't. In either case, allow me explain to you why this and other statements made during the course of promoting Mass Effect 2 have got me dreading the conclusion to the game. (Despite what conclusions I draw from what the general public knows after this point, I don't know what will actually occur during the course of the game, so please don't assume I am certain or decided on anything at this point. This is purely speculation.)

I am absolutely love how video games allow us to interact with stories and characters in a way unlike any other medium. And when a story is built around the strengths and limitations of video games themselves, the result can be something very special. Though with the commercial success of blockbusting films, there is some incentive to capitalize on that energy and social fascination. With those efforts, it's not uncommon for obvious mistakes to be made when the goal for your game is "cinematic!" Likewise, focusing too hard on certain gaming trends can be equally damaging if you lose sight of how your design reflects on the gamer and the story they're experiencing. It's my suspicion that Mass Effect 2 may be guilty of a combination of these two. The result is a "suicide mission", but perhaps not the one Bioware thinks they crafted.

The idea for a suicide mission being the climactic end-game scenario for Mass Effect 2, a game marketed as the darker second part to the trilogy (because it's part two, motherfucker), is a very good one, indeed. Maybe not the most original, but from an angle of increasing the tension as we head towards our final mission and the culmination of the story thus far, it's not quite "edgy", but it certainly has an "edge" (in italics). It gives the player a sense of dread, while knowing that they have to face the the danger of very plausible death, and put the lives of their team (albeit new-blood and strangely antagonistic this time around (save for Tali)) in that same peril. I have no complaints about this idea, from a story perspective. Rather, it's the way that Bioware as decided to integrate this framework into both their marketing and the game design that has my eyebrow raised. So let's look at what that preview said again, this time zeroing in on the curious detail that keeps getting brought up in these interviews, "[Casey Hudson] promised that it'd be possible to get through the game without losing any of your squadmates…"

It's here that I'm sensing a little conflict here between gameplay and story. The big-brains over at Bioware have cooked up a suicide mission for their dramatic conclusion to Mass Effect 2, with the stipulation that you can survive "depending on how well the player has equipped the Normandy, which NPCs the player has recruited and how loyal they are to him". Now at first this seemed like a nice little reward to the player for utilizing all the resources and mechanics available to them, and I'm sure when this was decided on by the developers, they thought exactly that. They must have thought, "If the player really likes these characters, really digs our story and how they can build loyalty and strengthen every aspect of their team, why not make it worth their while and let them make it through the 'suicide mission' intact? Let the strong, dedicated team of soldiers go against impossible odds and conquer it through their bonds of friendship and superior fortitude! And give me a raise!"

Sounds brilliant, right? Too bad, though, that tension and dominating sense of actual danger has been completely deflated to a binary choice put into the hands of the player. Good bye, edge. Good bye, italics.

Now, I like giving the player choices, where and when appropriate, but I don't believe that what Bioware has done here is an example of the correct way to balance a narrative-driven experience and a player-driven one. Indulge me, dear reader, as I examine what mistakes were made, and how they could have been avoided.

Problem One: The "no-win scenario" is a very capable tool for creating a drama, don't fuss with it. If Bioware, and Casey Hudson in particular, is to be believed, then what could have been one of the more emotionally affecting moments in gaming history has been robbed of all traction and thrill. Let's take for example, if you will, the Kobayashi Maru test depicted in the movie "Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan", which sets up the audience for the final battle between the Enterprise and the Reliant where Spock dies as a result of his efforts to save the rest of the crew from certain death. Now just because of a strong use of foreboding by introducing a "no-win scenario" at the start of the film doesn't mean that the audience wanted Spock to die when the crew of the Enterprise was confronted with an actual one, or that they were even okay with it. Spock was a treasured character in the series and his death was a tragic conclusion to a riveting story. All of this considered, I doubt anyone asked to evaluate the plot of "The Wrath of Khan" would think that it could be improved by Spock surviving his last heroic act. And I believe this is a universal opinion among matured individuals. Whether or not we would, ourselves, choose to encounter a no-win scenario, I don't think you could find a reasonable person to suggest it makes for a less dramatic story.

The first Mass Effect tried a no-win scenario with the player when you were forced to decide between saving Ashley Williams or Kaiden Alenko (with mixed results). On the other hand, you were given another situation where you were confronted with an enraged squad-mate, Wrex, and if you didn't use your linguistic skill to resolve things with him, Ashely will shoot him before things get out of hand. Now, despite that the consequences of the latter situation are not revealed to you until the scene is over, players soon discovered the choice they had to make was essentially between "saving" Wrex, or letting Ashley gun him down. Without getting into the obvious imperfections of both scenarios, I believe that the scenario with Wrex is a significantly more flawed example of using the player to affect the outcome of the story.

Which brings me to my next point.

Problem Two: You're not taking anything from me when you take what I don't care about. Similar to the Wrex-decision from Mass Effect, the suicide mission in the sequel seems eager to affect you emotionally by putting your team at risk and placing you in the position to save them. Unfortunately, like in Mass Effect, a choice between letting a character I like live or die is no decision at all. If a player feels a connection with Wrex, they will want to talk him down and, essentially, save his life. But if they have no such connection with the character, they are less likely to put for the effort to save him, and he dies with no real consequence to the player. Now Mass Effect 2 looks to be making the same mistake, only on a larger scale.

The idea is that through completing the game's extraneous content (which I'm certain will at least be more interesting and better developed than the first game's side-missions) you can build bonds with all the major characters in the game, which is required to survive the final mission. In a simpler fashion, if you care about your team enough to create this fellowship, then you are rewarded with their survival. But if you aren't personally attached to them, they are likely to die. It's my opinion that this is being done with a backwards mentality to suit the gamer and with no regard for what could be a much more weighted conclusion in favor of pandering to the player.

But let's ask our man, Casey Hudson, for some good news. Maybe they'll off some characters we have no control over to introduce an element of mortality and actual risk to the player?
"Some of the characters, the potential love interests, some of the most popular characters, we needed to make sure that these characters could not be killed."
Oh. I guess we can't kill popular characters either.

The final insult though, comes wrapped as a gift to the player. But we know what it really is…

Problem Three: Playing the blame game. As I mentioned before, letting the player's proficiency at completing all the tasks within the game decide whether or not they come out in one piece by the time the credits roll is just dressing up a simple binary question. In this way, what appears to be Mass Effect 2's most interesting plot point becomes completely moot, and is really ages behind much more complicated examples of both narrative-driven and player-driven games. Even worse than the simplicity of the scenario being presented is the actual choice the player has laid out in front of them. It's at this point where Bioware comes off as either cowardly or stupid or both.

Yes, the much talked about "suicide mission" is actually not referring to the danger of the mission at hand, because we've already established if you run around collecting and training for long enough you can survive anything, but rather the idea that the developers are, instead, pointing a gun at your head and telling you to play the game one way or you will die. Now let me be perfectly clear on this, I'm not saying that the side-missions and extra content will be exhausting or simply not fun. What I'm saying is that it's likely that knowing what I know, I may end up playing Mass Effect 2 for longer than my enjoyment lasts to ensure that my team survives (I certainly didn't play 100% of the original Mass Effect). It just so happens I might see NOT scouring the galaxy for countless hours as a calculated decision to let my teammates (or Shepard) die, instead of just how I would normally play through the game. Not only am I suicidal for theoretically not wanting to play every last bit of Mass Effect 2, I am also murdering my crew!

I'm feeling depressed now, Casey Hudson, say something to cheer me up. This can't be how things will go down, can it?
"If you're doing all those things right, then everyone survives. And if you're doing them wrong, then everyone dies. And Commander Shepard dies, too."
Oh, bummer.

See, if you want to write a powerful story about heroes, villains and sacrifice, that's fine. But don't wimp-out and waste all that dramatic story-telling on making the player feel completely comfortable with how things turn out. If you want to give the player responsibility over the lives of others and have their decisions make a difference, that's fine too. But don't do that by making their choice between playing your way, or death.

Make the choices complex and sometimes impossible. Make me feel uncomfortable. Make me throw down the controller and stare, slack-jawed at the TV as it dawns on me what just happened. Force me to deal with the fact that I can't squeeze a flawless victory out of every situation.

Gaming has a great advantage in the realm of story-telling that it has not yet fully realized how to wield. The power is there to make the suffering and death of a hero so much more poignant than any film or book can. You might be forced to watch that hero die, or have sent them reluctantly or unknowingly to their fate. Even more so, you might have to be that hero, and there might not be any way around it. So don't cheapen what we have by reducing it to what's safe and easy. We're all used to "easy", show us something we've never seen before. I can't guarantee you'll get it right the first time, but I know that I'll remember a failed attempt at something great more than I will successful mediocrity.

(I would very much appreciate if you take into account that I have no way of being absolutely certain of anything that will happen in Mass Effect 2 at the time of writing this, as I have said multiple times, and as such the issues that I raise are not me trying to condemn the game before it even hits store shelves, but only the concerns I have at this point. Thank you.)

[Quote Sources:
Interview: Casey Hudson, project lead
Preview: Mass Effect 2
CES 10: Trilogy Story Interview]   read

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