Saturday, 25 February 2012

I was never any good at skiping

“if dialogue can be skipped in games, then why not combat?”

I cant help but wonder if  perhaps another question should be asked, that if ANY element of a game can be skipped without effect then why is it in the game at all? 

When combat is totally meaningless wanting to skip it is not only fine, but the rational response.*

Any time I play a game and see a character hacked down in combat one minute, and up good as new spouting his life story the next, my heart sinks a little. It just seems sloppy devaluing both the gameplay and the story, and gets progressively more jarring more strictly delineated a game places these elements.

It just seems so limiting, I need to see more if I ever want this to stop skipping from being a rational choice for me. What about companion npc's who are in danger when I enter combat? or characters who expressed themselves through actions as well as words? Perhaps even combat paced to allow for moments of calm where dialogue can occur.

These don't seem like they should be unreasonable hopes, there are already great examples in both traditional narrative media (such as films and tv) and in games themselves.

Taking a quick trip back to the year 2000 (& taking a moment to consider that isn't it strange now we fully grown) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a great example of actions speaking louder than words. I'm not gonna attempt a full synopsis here but suffice to say I don't think anyone who has seen stoic Li Mu Bai balanced effortlessly on top of a swaying bamboo forest, would dispute that the way the protagonist move and fight can say something about who they are and what they feel.

Now you might counter 'But films can completely control their protagonists! Games can't without devaluing the experience !' While this is true games can control their antagonists and side characters so there's still plenty developers can do.

Then there's the cheap but effective trick of a colleague in genuine danger(or at least seemingly so). For most of Deus-ex: Human Revolution Malik was harmless helpful air taxi/confident, with a side order of friends with bad taste in men and then someone had to go blow us out of the air during a nice routine trip to shanghai. So there I am with Malik doing the routine 'go on without me, the mission is more important!' routine and for some reason something still clicked.

Seeing games embrace combat more often as part of their arsenal of storytelling techniques would be a welcome step forward,but before possibilities offered by engaging in conflict as a storytelling device can be fully explored there's a bigger issue to be dealt with.

Bravery isn't just choosing to fight, but the choice to fight when you could run away.
Combat can't really mean anything until its part of a game story that doesn't require violence to advance. That doesn't just give me the ability to skip combat, but to actively run away from it.

As long as there is no game in existence where I can truly be a coward, and fundamentally that means the opposite is true.

Don't let all this talk about combat give you a impression that I think dialogue in games is some shining paragon, in fact I think generally the way they have been used has been getting progressively worse not better in the past few years.

I'd love to play a RPG game where dialogue choices actually tested if you were paying attention to what was said. Was there memorable dialogue in Mass Effect and Dragon Age? Yep there sure was, but did it matter one jot if I paid attention to it? Nope the game couldn't give a flying fuck. I feel like I'm part of some dysfunctional couple in a terrible 1990's sitcom. There's a lot of dialogue going on but no communication. Neither of us seem to be expected to really pay attention to each others, we are just waiting for the next queue to say our lines.

What if dialogue what something that mattered towards achieving your goal?

There's two common ways you can use dialogue, tests of understanding and test of recall.

Riddles are one age old way of testing understanding, but they haven't really seen any use outside adventure games. If traditional media like TV's Sherlock can tie one characters understanding of a piece of dialogue to the life or death of another, why can't a game do the same? Turns out all the encouragement a developer needs is a character called the Riddler. Arkham Asylym gave you a small amount of text and a big chunk of environment and left the rest to you. To put it simply, It made me feel smart. What I hate about most collectable system is that there is very rarely a way to figure out their location on your own, AA made this their key virtue. Its sequel Arkham City shifted to focus primarily to test of skill and mastery and lost something in the process. There was never the same little shot of adrenaline that came the with beating these challenges that I got the original brain based riddles.

I can't recall many test of recall and the ones I can are part of a particualry old school of game design, their particular style of highly binary pass/fail word play seem to have fallen out of fashion. Fortunately we have iPhone ports. King of Dragon Pass is over a decade old, and its a game which forces players to learn it mythology and punish people who didn't pay attention. It takes the native american idea of a vision quest, transplants it to a quasi Viking society and made recalling the details of their myths and legends vital to your success. I lost count of the number of times I've lost key members of my tribe or worse because I couldn't recall the exact path a hero's journey took.

I'm not saying that games can't have filler, or that ever action has to be meaningful, but the whole skipping argument seems to just accept the current level of fidelity in game storytelling as as good as things are going to get. Maybe I'm naïve but I hope not.


* Whether or not i should be allowed to is another matter.  You could call 'authorial intent!' but since I subscribe to the idea of games narrative's as often being a co-authored experience I guess I'll chicken out and say that as long as game are clear about what they are offering, people should be able to do as they please.

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