Some Approaches are more Equal than Others.

Delivery of narrative is not the sole purpose of an artistic medium.

I say this because I've just read this article on Bioshock. It's a good article, all in all, and I don't want to deride in in any way. There was just one comment in it which triggered my alarm bells:

The point of BioShock, the raison d'etre, is really the story, and the messages and intellectual content that Levine tries to deliver as a payload. "Look at Lord of the Rings," he challenges. "Why is Lord of the Rings more interesting than random RPG story number 507? They're exactly the same thing. They have orcs and goblins and demons and trolls. But Lord of the Rings is a meditation on power. And it's really interesting because of that. It's what gives it it's heart." And with undenied hubris, Levine's trying to do the same thing with BioShock, while still delivering a game 16-year-old cheese eating high school students will want to play. "We have these philosophical notions, but you've got to deliver. You gotta bring home the monsters. You gotta bring home the superpowers." In short, he's become a commercial realist.

There's nothing wrong with this quote in of itself. Publishers demand returns on investment. Marketing the game as an RPG is not going to give them what they want. Therefore, while Bioshock is heavily RPG oriented (though without the unnecessary complexity which typical RPG convention dictates), the publisher wants to focus the market on the percieveably more accessible action aspects. If Bioshock allows players to take on a gung-ho approach as a viable option whilst also fostering sneaky and cerebral approaches, then it's truer to the root of the term "role playing" than most RPGs. Indeed, many FPS/RPG hybrids have certainly been wanting on the pure-FPS side, almost forcing your expression away from Rambo-ism via inadequate core controls. So again, if Bioshock pulls it off, I'm happy that it won't be an implicit cost to other sides of the game.

My issue here is that the implication from Levine (or rather, inference from the author) that the "shooter" aspect exists merely to sate base desires in the mass market and to deliver a story payload, seems to me to be an incredulous amplification. I know a developer on Bioshock, and although I'm not privy to details on the game (bless his NDA fearing socks), I am aware of the design philosophy that guides him. Because I know this, something about the above doesn't add up for me. The view that low level mechanics, proprioception, and feel are in any way less important than the overall message of the game does not match with what I perceive to be their attempts a more symbiotic relationship between the two.

The idea that Narrative and Ludology must together form a master/slave relationship is an old one, and one I had hoped was dead by now. I'll sum it up briefly for anyone who is unfamiliar: How can an interactive medium produce a coherent story without compromising the author's intent, or the player's expression? Who has the reigns of the story; player or author? Surely it cannot be both? It has taken a while for people to calm down and understand that there doesn't have to be a conflict of interest, but you get the occasional article in the press fanning the ashes of a long burnt out debate, hoping to ask a wider audience into this initially ferocious debate, generating a little advertising revenue, no doubt. What's the final point which settles the argument?

Logos Ex Machina*: The Message/Idea in the Machine. Through the forging of a path through possibility (HAY THAT'S THE NAME OF THIS BLOG!!) systems generate stories (or at least, "series of events": "Jump, Jump, Break Block" is hardly Dickens) but at a more abstracted level, systems describe and explain emergent behaviours. In other words, they portray a message/idea in their own way - in a way which is fundamentally different to painting, sculpture, dance, writing, film or any other artform.

When you play Civilization, you can derive an understanding about why, say, the US is in Iraq: From your needs as a player, you grow to understand that you need to dominate resources to fuel a war machine to conquer the world to dominate resources. In the Sims, you see countless truisms in life - our credence of the capitalistic lifestyle and worship of material goods: "The things you own end up owning you", or that there's a fine balance to be struck between all your base needs if you want to be happy and productive. These are not explicit stories - they are messages woven deep into the fabric of an interactive system either by masters of the art form, or by lucky shits with unintended messages to spread. Their exposition is a natural systemic inevitability through the emergence of gameplay, rather than a forced contrivance in a cutscene.

With this in mind, there is no conflict between player and designer for authorship. Both are free to express themselves at different levels, feeling each other's will/intent without an authoritive power struggle.

Clearly there is an overall narrative string in Bioshock, but the progression from System Shock 2 and Thief seems to show that Levine is more and more being reborn as a storyteller who is embracing the strengths of the medium. This is refreshing considering that many die hard storytellers in games see a player's agency as a nuisance; as an affront to their own creativity.

The Narrative, in Bioshock's case, is just one expression of the underlying idea. It is amplified by the gameplay, and vice versa, since both gameplay and narrative are striving to explain the same thing. That moral choice to bio-engineer ones' self, or save a population if little girls is wrought implicit in the fundamental gameplay - moment by moment actions bear out themes in the story, and in more way that one! The openness of possible expression in your approach ("Rambo" for the slack jawed joes, "cerebral" for the poncey art fags) is bookended by a difficulty at either extremity: "All guns blazing" is possible but apparantly difficult; "Tower Defense: the FPS" likewise is hard to survive on alone, but is fully catered to. A mix of strategies, therefore, may be the easiest route, matching the "Fundamentalism is Baaad" overtones which the story tries to express.

I should also mention that the level design also re-enforces the narrative message: it's a sprawling the mis en scene. That's the technique it uses best to describe that same message - the ubiquotous conflict between the arrogance of imposed structure and penetrating waters embodying nature's malevolence: fundamentalisms causing conflict.

The point is, it's a three way symbiosis between exposition of the story, exploration of the physical/virtual world, and experiencing the varied strategies. Level Design, Gameplay, and Narrative are naturally intertwined: That's because this is not a case of "Which came first: Chicken or Egg; Story or Mechanic". It works because every cardinally aligned medium employed in the game is its own expression of a single unified idea. Using the message as a seed, each part of the medium grows out to express the same thing, in their own unconflicting terms - on those different, non conflicting layers.

I don't mean to imply that "Narrative as master" is a red herring, or that "You must have a story to justify a game mechanic". I don't believe either of those things - I welcome all approaches. I just felt that the idea that Bioshock delivers its message in one medium only, or that the other media utilized are subserviant, is false, and discredits the work that I know has gone into the game. Delivery of narrative is not the sole purpose of an artistic medium. Delivery of the idea is. And you can do it any bloody way you feel like. And you don't even have to be intentional about a message, because it's ultimately all in the interpretation!

I don't mean to sound like I think Levine indicted his own team, either. You know what I think happened? I think that a passionate journalist takes measures to dig deeper into details. I think Levine sensed that this guy is more interested in the higher level story, and placates him with more information about that side, playing to his wants, as every good designer should. Journalist (somehow) takes this as an implicit damning of what he percieves as a "lesser art" - that of basic interaction... kinaesthesia.

This whole post seems like an over-reaction to most, I'm sure. The reason that I rebut this incredibly minor point with this many words' worth of effort is because the idea that any one part of a game is more important to the medium than any other, by extension, denigrates what I'm trying to do with Goo: a focus on feel, and an expression of something greater through that one quality.

Just to show that I'm not being a total fanboy, I leave you with this Bioshock cover art, and the first words that sprung into my mind upon seeing it:

"Cowabunga, dudes!" :/

*Forgive me for a fruity embellishment which is probably translated wrong :/


Chris said...

"It works because every cardinally aligned medium employed in the game is an expression of a single unified message. Using the message as a seed, each part of the medium grows out to express the same thing, in their own unconflicting terms."

I agree with the entire commentary in general - there is definitely some real philosophical strength behind what you're arguing. But I have to admit, I had to read the article through 3 times before I understood you. When you use the words "the message", it really pulls things off-track, and mixes the wrong kinds of metaphors into an otherwise coherent commentary. There is no singular message in any work of art - that seems to be your entire point. Even when a single artist dominates a piece of work with their own intentions, the person viewing the art still has the opportunity to make their own interpretation.
An idea is a seed for the imagination. An idea can spring forth a work of art that grows out to express many parts of some 'thing' - but whole point to art is that the artist themselves has no privileged access to what's inside of the seed (so to speak)! A work of art shows us the gradual expression of an artist - and how their ideas change and form as they come to a better understanding of what it is they are expressing. I have no idea if BioShock will be a work of art or not - fuck fanboyism - but Levine has the potential to give it a sense of artfulness that is otherwise missing in most AAA titles.

Great article.

other rants on games and art

Bez said...

I definitely took a mad turn using "message" instead of "idea" for the reasons you suggested (message implying totalitarian control over the audiences perception - propaganda rather than discourse... the latter suiting an interactive medium far better than the former). That's far clearer and closer to what I meant to say, thanks. I sometimes get caught up trying to explain the same thing in five different ways. Sorry. I am not a writer by trade.

"There is no singular message in any work of art - that seems to be your entire point."

That's pretty close to what I meant. I think I was more irritated at the idea of one aspect of the medium being presented as "more important" than another, almost to the point of suggesting that the other mediums are inherently inferior and can only be helpful in their subserviance. Probably an overreaction.

Storytelling is certainly the oldest and most respected medium employed in Bioshock, and it feels as though some people would like to lean on that established credence as a way to "prove that games are art" to those who are unwilling to appreciate the medium on its own terms (i.e. family and friends who think games are all killing and violence and are stuck on the preconception that games have no inherent artistic value, unless they adopt the traits of another medium).

That doesn't sit well with me, mainly because I believe that the interactive portion of games has the furthest to grow, artistically speaking - it's simply young and misunderstood. In the article the "None of this matters" comment felt a bit as though this aspect was being sold out or ignored in the shadow of a bigger brother.

I say, fuck the insecurities which cause us to pander to the luddites - let's not feel the need to post-rationalize the art into a game mechanic, but rather, make the interactive elements self evidently artful. Ofcourse, I spent a while explaining my point of view on the interactive art, so I'm being hypocritical. I should just get back to work :).

Chris said...

Pandering, unfortunately, is something common to almost all "successful" AAA titles. Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing another Fallout.
Where are the developer "auteurs" these days? Jordan Mechner? David Crane? Eric Chahi?
They didn't rationalize a single damned part of their art for the sake of the masses. They just wanted to make something they envisioned.

again - good article. shame that there isn't a strong critical art scene in gaming yet. Just pieces here and there.