As Bill has mentioned, I’m now writing for the Ontological Geek! I’m excited to be here, and unwilling to mince time, so let’s leap right into the meat of my first contribution: a discussion of avatar and player. Oh, and as usual, spoilers are nigh.
Two Very Different Games
Since I’ve been on break, I’ve had the chance to play through a number of games I’ve been hoping to get around to, including Enslaved: Journey to the West, but also Call of Duty: Black Ops. If you know anything about these titles, you also know that they have little to nothing in common other than their shared nature as video game, at least on the surface. Both games also present a narrative (value of said narrative aside), voice-acted characters, and (for the most part) a single avatar for the player to control and experience the events of the game through.
I would argue that Enslaved offers the best narrative of the the two. The adventure game has incredible merits as a story. Its main characters are intriguing, likable, and the player’s avatar character, Monkey, goes through an interesting and believable growth arc through the events of the game. Those characters have quality voice actors, their lines are very well-written, and the stellar facial animation at play in the game allows for acting to occur outside the dialogue, which is something attempted in many games, but rarely to appreciable quality. You can see a bit of that here. The gameplay is good, but is not necessarily the thing that sets the game apart; similar systems have been executed more expertly in other games. What’s ultimately important about the rest of the game is that it stays out of the way of the characters, the story, and the gorgeous, over-grown vision of recovering post-apocalyptic America. The game offers an experience of par with the best of similar styles of movies, and contains similar production value. It is a good example of game-as-art because of the worth of the tale it presents.
Call of Duty: Black Ops has a less refined story, poorer dialogue, and is less visually appealing. However, it also tackles individual experiences in a way that no other medium can; one cannot envision the experience as anything other than game. This is a trait that Enslaved cannot boast, except maybe in an argument for the game’s pacing. Enslaved could have been just as effective as a movie, and aspires to nothing more. In other words, at no time do you feel like you’re anything but an observer in the story (which, again, is admittedly fantastic).
Before I go any farther, I want to make clear that this isn’t a bad thing. Enslaved is still a phenomenal and fun experience, a quality game that I have no qualms about recommending; I have encountered few stories in a game that were as well-executed. However, it does not capitalize on the traits that separate video games from the rest of art.
Inhabiting the Avatar
Black Ops is an interesting case. Its narrative never becomes exceptionally engaging, and its characters are true to type, but never truly interesting. That said, in nearly every mission it seeks to transport the player into their avatar’s body at least once. For instance, here’s a scene where Mason is forced to play Russian Roulette with a comrade after being captured by the Vietcong, though it has a surprise ending. It’s obviously NSFW, though its worth noting that it has plenty of naughty language in it. It’s a decent scene, but notable because of where it places the player: in a spot so tight that you empathize more readily with your avatar.
Another, better example of this is the ending to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. There’s no way you can’t empathize with Soap here, even if just a little bit. Ultimately, your commands are responsible for his vengeance. Perhaps there alternative methods of attaining equal or greater empathy with the character, but this method (allowing a player’s actions to correspond to a character’s actions in a dramatically important sequence) is completely unique to video games, and can result in a qualitatively different empathy than that produced by film or text. Other examples include the whole of the stellar Breakdown and the ending of Halo: Reach, which I’d hate to spoil here, so go experience it for yourself.
These sequences display the defining quality of video game art, albeit in their own gory and masculine fashion. They allow the audience to play a role in the presented narrative. Black Ops is distinct from Enslaved in that it offers players some degree of control in dramatically important moments, whereas in Enslaved there are clear boundaries between the meat of the story, told in cutscenes wherein players have no control, and actually “playing the game”, in which the characters may speak to each other, but the character’s controlled actions have no dramatic relevance. Thus, there is greater distance in empathizing with Monkey of Enslaved than with Alex Mason in Black Ops. This doesn’t change the fact that, ultimately, the player is much more likely to empathize with Monkey, but that’s because Monkey is a fantastic and fully realized character. Mason, even with the aid of shared action in important dramatic moments, never becomes anything more than another soldier.
I think that “distance” may be an effective term for describing the degree to which a player occupies a character’s place in a narrative. Distance is unique to the game. In Mass Effect, there is lessened distance between the personality of Shepherd and the personality of the player than there is in a game with fixed dialogue, and this allows for the player to exert control over the character, and thus the narrative. However, even in games where the player does not control the character’s decisions in a narrative, distance can still be reduced by immersing the player in the physical or mental realities of the character and by allowing for a greater degree of control within dramatic events. Quick-time events are the least sophisticated expression of this sort of distance, but the Call of Duty example is much more effective because there is closer correlation to the player’s actions and the character’s actions.
So, what are your thoughts? Do you think that distance is an effective concept in discussing games-as-art? Does motion-based gameplay, such as with the Kinect, create opportunities to lessen distance?