The Mission Link

I'll cut you, bitch.

“Well, if it isn’t Mahatma Gandhi himself.”

Over the last year and a half or so, I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Eidos Montréal’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution; along with its progenitor, Deus Ex, it is simply and unequivocally one of the five best games I’ve ever played. The other three games on that list vary from day to day, but generally include System Shock 2, BioShock, and One Random Bethesda Game.

Deus Ex  was released in June of 2000, so it might not stand up well today for those who didn’t play it when it was new, but for me it’s like revisiting an old friend. Sure, it’s ugly by today’s standards, but since today’s standards were formulated by a committee of six horny chimpanzees, two blind donkeys, and a sentient tennis racket, I’m perfectly comfortable disregarding today’s standards and thinking for myself. To be honest, Deus Ex was never a pretty game, but for everything that it lacked in looks it compensated with girth; my first playthrough took over 40 hours, which by today’s standards is positively geological. It never got (nor ever really needed) an expansion pack, since at the time Ion Storm Austin was busy repeatedly delaying the sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War.

Human Revolution was shorter, clocking in with around twenty hours of gameplay for the earnest completist, and as a result it garnered an expansion pack called The Missing Link in October of 2011. The Missing Link adds a mission that takes place within the story of Human Revolution, so of course a lot of people complained that it was merely an attempt at cashing in on the early success of the game, but whatever; at $14.99 it was somewhat pricey for a five-hour experience, but it was completely autonomous in terms of gameplay and character development — the nature of the mission ensured that players got to develop Adam Jensen’s skills to their liking from the very start, as he begins The Missing Link with his tabula firmly and thoroughly rasa, with nary a bullet nor an augmentation to his name. For an expansion that can be played at one’s discretion, as though it were a new, smaller, standalone game, that kind of character development works perfectly.

Sneak.

“It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.”

Where such character development doesn’t work is the way that it’s integrated into the narrative in Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director’s Cut. In playing the Wii U version, I’ve discovered that it’s no longer possible to play The Missing Link at my discretion; instead it must be played as simply another milestone on Adam’s road to liberating the world from tyranny, greed, and funky yellow haze. The incorporation of The Missing Link into the main plot of Human Revolution sounds like a great idea, until you experience that particular mission in the context of what it means to the player’s internal narrative.

Plenty of games play the Now-We’re-Gonna-Take-All-Your-Shit-and-Let-You-Figure-Out-Where-To-Find-It card — even BioShock and Deus Ex did it for ten to twenty minutes each — but none of them do it for five mothershitting hours, and none of them also take all of the skills that you’ve chosen over the course of however long you’ve played the game. (Please note the frequency of italics in the preceding passage, which I use here to indicate my intense vexation. That and “mothershitting.”)

I don’t know who first came up with this crap, but it wasn’t someone who valued player autonomy; when I play a game like Human Revolution, it’s my own story that I’m interested in maintaining — that is, the story that I experience in my head as I choose a play style, build up the character in line with my standards, and select and upgrade my weapons accordingly. Sure, I’ll follow the game’s intrinsic story if it’s compelling enough, doesn’t step on my ‘nads, and was written by someone with the aforementioned concupiscent primates’ working knowledge of the English language, but the story that I’m really after is the one that I construct for myself. Forcing The Missing Link to be played within the main plot of Human Revolution completely undermines that fiction (“I am the sniper, the brawler, the ninja-esque assassin-type sneaky guy”) and fundamentally requires the player to begin playing another game, as a completely different character, in the middle of what was a very personal, player-authored experience. How screwed up is that?

Blah

“I know you have gone through a lot of physical changes as of late, but you didn’t become a woman. Stay out of the ladies’ restroom.”

Contextually, it’s believable that Adam has lost all of his weapons at the beginning of The Missing Link, but there’s no excuse for setting the player back to zero with his augmentations, which utterly disregards the reason why the original pseudo-standalone version of The Missing Link did this; a blank slate was necessary in order to allow the player to once more experience the pleasure of building a character and upgrading skills to meet a specific situation, but this occurs after the player has presumably finished the original game, when such character-building can be fully appreciated. The first iteration of The Missing Link was a reward, a little more of a very good thing; in Director’s Cut the corresponding mission is like being forced to eat dessert, with no spoon and no napkin, in the middle of a seven-course meal. In other words, it’s a punishment, one that is meted out for no transgression other than buying the game. It essentially says “fuck you, start over,” which is the most abhorrently disrespectful way to ask players to spend their time — given just a modicum of reason and ability, anyone can earn more money, but no one can earn more time, and I resent any game arbitrarily invalidating that which I’ve already spent towards its completion, especially when the span of that invalidation lasts for a full quarter of the total playing time.

At the very least, the Missing Link mission in Director’s Cut should have afforded players the opportunity to keep their augmentations, while making them scrounge through the environment for weapons and consumable resources. As it stands, the blatant disregard for the context of the original expansion pack, and its subsequent out-of-context application to a main-story mission, has — for me — all but ruined an otherwise unparalleled experience.

Leave a comment

Filed under Commentary

My View of Venus

Hmm.

The Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator was originally developed by Sony as a peripheral for the Super Nintendo, but Nintendo backed out of the project.

Before I begin this week’s diatribe, let’s run through a quick word-association test; I’ll write a word, and you respond — to yourself, of course — with the first word that occurs to you. And by “first” word I mean the first word that your internal censor deems least likely to reveal the sociopathic tendencies that you’ve been harboring since early childhood but which you’ve learned to mask with a convincing simulacrum of normalcy that most people mistake for a sense of breezy detachment and/or actually giving a shit. And by “you” I mean “me.”

Let’s begin. You’ll find my responses in parentheses.

Macrobiotic (Vulva)

Rabbit (Troop)

Fire (sale)

Disintegration (Martian)

It might be revealing that my first three answers refer to somewhat obscure TV shows, but the fourth should be known to anyone who grew up in the ’60s, ’70s, 0r ’80s with a pulse and six brain cells, and who put those brain cells to earnest use by basting them in electromagnetic radiation for six hours every day of their lives between the ages of five and eleven. I cannot hear the word “disintegration” or “disintegrate” without thinking of Daffy Duck’s disintegration-proof vest from Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, which as far as cosmic protective outwear goes, worked exactly as advertised.

That made me think about the concept of “disintegration” itself, and how the popular connotation of the word can be illustrated by the little pile of ash in the linked screenshot above, which I’m assuming indicates disintegration on a molecular level. While that particular scene in Duck Dodgers is funny, witty, clever, etc., and deserving of all manner of adjectival interjection, the concept has a broader definition that has all but disappeared (not disintegrated) in the 60 years since Daffy first discovered the caveats of emptoring an indestructible space vest.

"You may fire when ready, Gridley."

“You may fire when ready, Gridley.” Provided, of course, that your GamePad is charged and you can see through the layer of grime and fingerprints on the screen.

To integrate means to combine two or more objects or concepts into a cohesive whole. For example, while integrated as Devastator, the Constructicons are attributes of that particular larger entity. Once Devastator is done doing whatever it is that mean robots do, he disintegrates into the component Constructicons, who drive-fly-lumber-skitter-sashay off on their separate ways as individual entities once more. Disintegration doesn’t necessarily turn Devastator into a smoldering mountain of molecular leftovers; it simply separates his essential attributes so that the entity known as Devastator no longer exists, but in this case, what is disintegrated can easily be reintegrated.

That’s all fine and such, but what about conceptual disintegration? Concepts are much harder to reintegrate, because their disintegration often occurs more subtly than, say, that of Daffy’s Disintegrating Pistol. It can take years, or even decades, for the disintegration of a concept to show any discernible effects to an observer, but the particular gaming concept that I’m thinking about has already been disintegrated by at least one company over the course of the last eleven months.

After the announcement of the Wii U, I had doubts about the idea of dividing my focus between the lavish visual real estate of a 40-inch TV, and the positively penurious 6.2-inch screen on the GamePad, but I was still intrigued by its potential. The first game that I played on the Wii U — the eponymous pack-in for the ZombiU Deluxe Set — justified my wariness with a GamePad-based inventory management system that used a cumbersome drag-and-drop interface to transfer items between containers and the player-character’s backpack. I assume that the purpose of this design choice is to maintain a plausible degree of suspense, as the game does not pause while the player is performing this task — instead you’re at the mercy of every shambling meatstick who might lumber along and take a bite out of your face while you’re sifting through your Jansport looking for some green herb. Since suspense is the game’s primary means of maintaining immersion, I understand why that feature was included, but I found it to be much more of an annoyance than a benefit.

"Happy b-birthday, you thing from another world, you."

“Happy b-birthday, you thing from another world, you.”

Consider the heads-up display of a fighter jet, which integrates various crucial flight parameters, including airspeed, altitude, heading, and target information, all in one central location, maintaining the pilot’s visual aspect in the area in which it is most vitally necessary — outside the canopy. Someone figured out a long time ago that the more time that a pilot spent looking at the stuff that could kill him — including missile batteries, other fighters, mountains, and the ground — instead of on fixed, separate cockpit gauges, the more likely were his chances of survival. Successfully operating some of the most complex machines in the world is a task that demands the most exacting immersion, which is made possible only by the integration of vital flight statistics into a single visual aspect; disintegrate those statistics, along with the pilot’s focus, and you destroy that immersion.

The fact that flying a fighter plane and playing a video game are two vastly different activities does not alter the unifying principle between the two, namely, that immersion can be neither created nor enhanced by the disintegration of focus. Prompting players to look away from the TV screen and perform an action outside the established game space, on a low-resolution, low-quality screen, is the worst kind of immersion-breaking disintegration taking place in the industry today; this is evident even in the otherwise-spectacular Wii U version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director’s Cut.

I never asked for this. Actually, I did, but it was about seven months ago. Still worth it.

I did ask for this, but it was about seven months ago. Still worth it.

While it sports many improvements over its two-year-old siblings, Human Revolution for the Wii U still suffers from a mild case of gratuitous GamePad implementation — in general, and by comparison to other games, the GamePad is used well in Deus Ex, especially when it saves players the trouble of pausing to search for information such as available credits, current praxis points, and an active map, or when it serves as a virtual keypad for entering door codes. Using the GamePad for inventory management, quick weapon selection, hacking, praxis allocation, reading ebooks and pocket secretaries, and sorting goals, should have been left on the main screen; not only is the GamePad’s screen too small and of insufficient quality for these activities, they needlessly compound the disintegration of focus with nonessential use of the touchscreen. For example, using the aforementioned door codes is improved with the touchscreen, but hacking most decidedly is not — nodes slip and slither beneath your finger with even the slightest deviation in planar accuracy, frequently requiring two or three presses in order to accept your intended input while the hack timeout clock is counting down. Fortunately, most touchscreen-centric tasks can be accomplished using the analog sticks and face buttons, which is Human Revolution’s sole saving throw on the Wii U; while the immersion-breaking prompt to look at the GamePad still appears every time you check your inventory, pick up an ebook, or summon the item wheel, it does not force the use of the touchscreen to interact with these items. And that’s a Good Thing.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution was the reason I bought a Wii U back at the end of March; originally the game was rumored to be due for release at the beginning of May, but it arrived yesterday — a little late, sure, but still amid much fanfare and rejoicing. It remains brilliant, but it’s this very brilliance that works against it as far as the GamePad goes; whenever a game’s content can stand firmly on its own across three platforms — Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC — much care must be taken when porting it to a platform for which the sole distinguishing feature is the incorporation of the nonessential. (That means the GamePad is a gimmick, but shh! Don’t say anything!)

Much care was taken with Human Revolution; Straight Right, who also ported Mass Effect 3 to the Wii U and did a similarly admirable job, somehow managed to sharpen the textures, tone down the saturation, restructure the boss fights, and deliver a steady, solid frame rate even in areas that chug on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. If you’ve got a Wii U, and have yet to play Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to those who appreciate having to think their way through a game — I can’t say that the Wii U version is the definitive version of Human Revolution, but it is the best game that I’ve played on the system, even as it disintegrates your focus and breaks the immersion by requiring your face to be in two places at once, especially when one of those places is really, really small.

Leave a comment

Filed under Commentary

Do…Or Do Not

Familiar this is.

Familiar this is. Returned I have.

One of the first rules that any good fiction writer should learn is “show, don’t tell.” An entire course could be taught around this principle, but essentially this means that action — any action, whether a car chase (please no), or a witty verbal confrontation between the hero and the villain, or a lightsaber duel between a computer-generated Muppet and a computer-generated actor — must occur in front of the audience and not behind the scenes; otherwise, it’s not action, it’s exposition. And exposition is not good storytelling, as illustrated by the following exchange:

Bill approached Betty by the water cooler. “Hey, Betts, did you hear about Bob?”

“You mean Bob, our former coworker, who recently quit his job in R&D in order to go gallivanting through the jungle in search of Ancient Mystical Artifacts which he will then willingly and happily present to the indigenous peoples of the country in which he performed said gallivanting?”

“The very same. Turns out he had quite an adventure last month.”

“I hadn’t heard! What happened, Bill?”

“His plane crashed, his guide abandoned him, he was attacked by a swarm of Dengue-infected mosquitoes, he was shot in the right butt-cheek, and was almost eaten by a crocodile.”

“That’s horrible! Is Bob okay?”

“I don’t know; no one’s heard from him in a few weeks. Wanna try that new Thai place for lunch?”

“That sounds good. Goodbye, Bill, and thanks for the update about our former coworker Bob!”

If the story is about Bob, the preceding exchange is exposition because it places the audience about eight thousand miles away from the action. If the story isn’t about Bob, it’s filler; who gives a shit about Bob if the story is about Bill and Betty? (Who wouldn’t rather read about Bob, though? Bill and Betty sound like a couple of boobs.)

Shut down, your government is. Nonessential you are. Home you must go.

Shut down, your government is. Nonessential you are. Home you must go, Palpatine, before my bitch I make you.

To find a corollary concept in gaming, the show-don’t-tell maxim must be taken one step further; in an interactive medium, whenever the audience is forced out of an active role and into a passive one, the experience becomes similar to Bill and Betty jabbering about Bob at the water cooler when they should be at their desks filing their WENUS reports; in passive fiction like books and films, showing is better than telling, but in gaming, playing is better than watching. Whenever I’m no longer doing in a game, my attention span expiration countdown begins to speed up, and it doesn’t take long for it to time out completely.

So how are game developers supposed to tell stories, then? To answer that question, you’ve got to define the word “story” in the context of video games; when any storytelling medium necessarily and by definition employs an active participant in its realization — the player — it changes the types of stories that can and should be told. But because of the way that stories are presented in books and films, that is, from either the first- or third-person perspective, most developers have forged a lifelong association between the word “story” and the attendant idea that “story is something that happens to other people.” As a result, many games — if not the majority of them — attempt to tell stories by bolting them onto the interactive experience in a kind of piecemeal, give-my-creation-life mishmash of poorly integrated narrative. It takes an enormous amount of energy to get that big ugly bastard up and shambling around the lab (and later, into the countryside, where it can terrorize a small village by boring the gopher shit out of them with bad writing, bad acting, and substandard animation) — energy which is usually drawn from the player in the form of inactivity within a supposedly active medium.

Actually, there is try, but suck at it you do.

Actually, there is try, but suck at it you do.

All gaming is performed from a first-person perspective. Before you light up the switchboard with calls of complaint and derision, realize that I’m not talking about the visual perspective, which is an entirely different matter, but the mental perspective; whether I’m rolling the dice and moving the race car around the board in Monopoly, or piloting Lara Croft up a cliff wall in Tomb Raider, or blowing away a vortigaunt through the eyes of Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, by nature of my input, I am a first-person participant in the process, regardless of the medium. I am moving the race car; I am moving Lara Croft; am Gordon Freeman.

Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to bad plastic surgery.

Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to bad plastic surgery.

In a video game it makes no difference where the camera is positioned while this is going on; it’s possible to play Fallout 3 in a third-person point-of-view without detracting from the first-person mental perspective, largely because in Fallout 3 nothing is considered more important than your interaction with the game; there are no scripted enemy intros, no cutscenes, no long segments in which you are forced to become a passive and disconnected witness to the developer’s frustrated film-making ambitions. So while Fallout 3 does tell an intrinsic story — the story that takes place solely within the game world — it does so unobtrusively, never dragging the player outside of the personal, extrinsic story, which is the sum of your unique experience with the whole of the game, from your gender choice, to your facial features, to your character class, to the skills that you use, and the manner in which you approach and solve mission objectives. Are you playing as a brawler or a smooth-talker? That’s part of your extrinsic story. Do you prefer to help the NPCs, ignore them, or even harm them? Also part of your story. Do you avoid a fight whenever possible, or do you charge in headlong, with little regard for your well-being and insurance deductible? That’s also part of your story, but let me add that if you’ve fully fleshed out the details of your character’s health insurance plan, you might be taking the concept of extrinsic fiction to the extreme. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

An extrinsic story is not necessarily an exclusive attribute of role-playing games, because any game can enable the creation of player-exclusive fiction as long as it does not regularly and intrusively prevent the player from, you know, actually playing. Role-playing elements are merely one way to accomplish this; Dark Forces is a game that contains no role-playing elements at all, but which entices players into successfully transferring their mental perspective into that of Kyle Katarn, the game’s protagonist, by means of keeping players inside the game at all times. Dark Forces never removes you from the action in order to show you pretty pictures or fanciful dialogues; all cinematics are presented at natural breaks in the action, such as level transitions, and they’re mercifully short. The result is a game that’s surprisingly effective at enabling the creation of extrinsic fiction by permitting players to play the game with no interruptions; in this case the extrinsic story is fashioned by the accumulation of all the actions taken in the game, whether that’s stealing the Death Star plans, taking out a Phase III dark trooper, or avoiding dianoga in the sewers of Anoat. (And yeah, the plural of dianoga is dianoga. Who knew?)

What fresh hell this is? My ass you must kiss.

What fresh hell this is? My ass you must kiss.

Of course I don’t object to anyone else liking games that employ forty-minute-long cinematics instead of integrating story details into the gameplay. I understand why this kind of passive storytelling appeals to people — after all, it’s been the accepted method of indicating the fate of every Betty, Bob, and Bill since the dawn of time — I simply don’t care for it in games, for the reasons outlined above. Having my progress (my interaction) in a game halted in order to be force-fed story elements that I could have been voluntarily munching on all along is the surest way to indicate that I’m really only a passive spectator on someone else’s journey. It’d be like receiving a copy of the script when you purchase a movie ticket, not to follow with the movie, but to fill in the places where the director couldn’t figure out how to use his chosen medium to its utmost potential.

My favorite developers don’t drag me out of a game in order to club me over the head with their storytelling; the best artistic experiences are those in which the essential elements are fully integrated within the defining context of each medium; great literature doesn’t need pictures, great pictures don’t need words, and great games don’t stop the player from playing them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Commentary