I’m in control, here!

Okay, so I’m up late, being productive in my research, and failing dismally to fulfill my obligations to write a weekly reading log (glog? rlog?), this time, about Judith Butler and her stimulated rant about performing gender.  Well, I thought I was meant to be doing research for my Honours?

So anyway, I’ve been reading the personal blog of Chuck Jordan, “Spectre Collie.”  In an amusingly cyclical coincidence, he has recently been following my friend on Twitter, simply because he likes my friend’s handle.  Go figure.

But I digress (it must be late!):  I was reading, and this is the first snippet of a comment relating game writing to theatre at all:

So it’s the game designer’s job to add in some direction, to establish some potentially interesting characters, and set up some fodder for drama. It’s not a game unless there are rules, and it’s not a story unless there’s a premise. But at best, the end result of that is more like improv theater, but with the roles of the audience and the performers reversed. The developer shouts out some ideas: “You’re a Croatian immigrant!” “In New York City as if it were populated by people with a fourth-grade sense of humor!” “And you gotta kill a dude!” And then the player runs off to do his thing, until he gets the next batch of instructions.

Even when that’s done well, and it almost never is, you still end up with a great divide between the player narrative and the developer narrative. I’ll tell my story, now you tell yours. Except yours doesn’t really matter that much, because I know what scene is going to play next.

Who’s In Control Here?

Well, I don’t know any director who would ever, ever do that to an actor… unless they’re in an audition!  No, it’s more likely to happen with a small team of very experienced, talented, comic/improv actors.  They can bounce off each other.  But, wait, there’s that game: Thank God You’re Here.  So why is that different?

In Thank God You’re Here,  the actor goes in, fully knowing that he has no real choice to change the plot of the scene significantly.  They’re there to flounder and be funny doing it.  They rely on the actors around them to catch them and guide them through, allowing them to set up their jokes and do what they want.  But they don’t want complete freedom, they don’t want to hijack the scene just so they can be clever and make a joke: there’s stand-up for that!

Chuck continues with another bit of (to me, obvious) insight, giving three examples of where the plot of a game “forces” you into decisions that aren’t yours (heavily cut):

1. Near the end of Half-Life 2:Episode 2, the player’s asked to press a button that will launch a missile; the event that the entire episode has been building up to.[…]

2. Near the middle of BioShock, the player’s told to press a button that will blow up the city. You’ve just watched a climactic scene that’s all about being a slave to orders, or being a man and choosing to make your own decisions. The veil has been lifted! And then immediately afterwards, you’re made a slave to orders. […]

3. Near the beginning of Grand Theft Auto IV, the player’s character decides to kill a guy who’s been having sex with his cousin’s girlfriend. […]

So how can I possibly say that when a game about free will rips away your choice, it’s bad but forgivable; but when a game about killing guys orders you to kill a guy, it ruins the entire game? It’s all about the player’s narrative at that moment.

In the Half-Life 2 example, it’s a no-brainer: everything in the story up to that point has been about launching a missile. You can’t not want to press that button.

In BioShock, it’s pretty much the exact same scene. Everything you’ve done so far has been to get to this point. You still want to push that button, because you’ve spent the last 10 or so hours trying to get to the button. It’s just that the scene has been put into the worst possible point of the game. It’s a case of plot fighting with story: the plot is overwhelmingly pushing you towards doing this one thing, but the story has forced you to ask, “how come I have to do it?”

[…]

The problem is assuming that I want to kill this guy just to advance the designer’s story, when the designer hasn’t earned it yet.  He hasn’t established character enough to explain why I would automatically decide to do this, instead of just telling my cousin to go screw himself.

This is what (I hope), I’ve been talking about (see my last post about Bioshock) where I say that it’s not about giving the player free-will, it’s about giving the player no desire to choose any option apart from the right option.

So maybe this is where I say, “Right.  The player can be audience and actor.  They can do see everything they do.  I have the props.  I have the set.  I have the supporting cast, and they’ve all learnt their lines and learnt the stage directions.  Now that you’re back from your holiday at Rapture or Liberty City, I’m going to take you through this.”  Who am I?  I am the Director.  I’m in control here!

(or maybe I’m very tired and having delusions of grandeur)

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