Africa Wins Again: Far Cry 2’s literary approach to narrative

22 December 2008

fc2-hugepost

Far Cry 2 is a difficult game to write about; difficult because it’s an experience that doesn’t coalesce in individual moments or fragments. Whilst there are many memorable moments I can point to – the dynamic, emergent gunfights that characterise the gameplay, the starkness of the major plot beats – it is the player’s overall experience of the game that is its greatest strength.

And isn’t that how things should be? For a game that revels in the open world that it’s set in – a fictitious African country that covers desert and mountain, swamps and savannah – it only seems appropriate that it be a game about the impact of a world on a character, rather than that character’s interactions with the world. Far Cry 2 takes the mechanics of its open-world shooting experience, and works out how to wrap them into a much larger narrative without losing the coherence of the player’s actions.

Far Cry’s references to Conrad (and, in particular, Heart of Darkness) are well-documented already, but I think to focus on the words used, the plot the game follows and the references within the game so explicitly isn’t necessarily useful. What struck me was not the game’s similarity to Conrad; it its much broader, deeper appropriation of literary techniques – whilst using them in an inherently gamelike manner – as a way to tell stories.

(Before we go on: there are likely to be what you might call “spoilers” ahead, so there’s a break in the text for those of you viewing on the web. I don’t see how we can talk meaningfully about this game without talking about specifics, so if you’ve not finished it and really care about this kind of thing, look away now.)

Continue reading this post…

Is it art?

20 December 2008

John Lanchester has an article in the 1st January 2009 edition of the LRB on games. It shares a title with this post, and I went into it a little apprehensive, with my deflector shields up. I like Lanchester as a writer, but was fearing yet another piece (be it inside or outside the traditional gaming press) touching the old “is it art and can we have a cookie yet?” chestnut. The best responses to that question are not “Yes” or “No” but themselves questions: “Does it matter?”; “Does it have to be?”; “What do you mean by art?”; “What if it is?”

For much of the article, Lanchester avoids that and takes a more interesting tack: he wants to write a smart, balanced piece about gaming for a by-and-large non-gaming audience (the readers of the London Review of Books):

Books, films, TV, dance, theatre, music, painting, photography, sculpture, all have publics which either are or aren’t interested in them, but at least know that these forms exist, that things happen in them in which people who are interested in them are interested. They are all part of our current cultural discourse. Video games aren’t. Video games have people who play them, and a wider public for whom they simply don’t exist. (The exceptions come in the form of occasional tabloid horror stories, always about a disturbed youth who was ‘inspired’ to do something terrible by a video game.) Their invisibility is interesting in itself, and also allows interesting things to happen in games under the cultural radar.

And from that point, he takes a whistle-stop tour of some recent highlights in games – talking about Bioshock’s take on Rand’s Objectivism, Miyamoto’s take on “fun”, the lure of having agency, and what creativity in games now looks like (among other things).

I’m not sure I agree with everything he says, and I think that’s OK – he’s not forcing his opinion onto anyone else. What he is doing is talking about games in a smart, informed, and adult way for an audience that values all of those things except, perhaps, the games themselves. More than that, he writes in a style that is suitably anecdotal in places: he has clearly played the games he writes about, and that, to my mind, is hugely important.

When, at the end, Lanchester says

It seems clear to me that by the time my children are adults, video gaming will be a medium whose importance and cultural ubiquity are at least as great as that of film or television.

he’s not just talking as a cultural critic and father; he’s talking as a gamer himself. At the end, he suggest that we might, if things go right, see a “new art form” emerging. I’m not sure what he thinks it currently is, but given the comparison to Film and TV, he might dismiss it as a “communications medium” or some kind of similar terminology; I don’t know, but I think the word “art” is being used a bit too perjoratively there.

As such, that feels a little reductive to me; scattered throughout the past 30 years of gaming, there are many examples that show we’re already there. There might not be a defining “starting point”; it might become clear long after the fact, but right now, in the middle of it all, it’s much harder to assign dates and times to things.

An article titled “is it art?” was always end up going that way; perhaps that’s as much an editorial pressure as an authorial impulse. I could certainly take or leave some of the conclusions. But a lot of Lanchester’s premise and exposition is really good, solid stuff, and it’s exciting to see this kind of thing in mainstream, critical language in a mainstream, critical publication. On balance, whatever you think of the art discussion being dredged up again, this time into the LRB, or Lanchester’s opinion, the article itself is very much worth your time. Like the best writing, it’s not about what it says; it’s about the ideas you’ll have reading it, the avenues it’ll lead you down.

What Left 4 Dead needs: an arrange mode

16 December 2008

Survivors

Left 4 Dead is a wonderful game, and there is, to be honest, almost nothing in it I’d change. It’s deceptively simple, lots of fun, and brilliantly executed. But it has a big problem: what happens when the players’ competency doesn’t live up to the drama the AI Director wants to portray.

(Quick digression, for those of you who don’t know: the AI Director is the name Valve has given the enemy AI; it’s a smart move, because the magic of the game really is the AI, and personifying highlights the importance of this game system to the players. It decides what to spawn, when to spawn them, and when to take advantage of players’ sloppiness; as such, it appears cruel and sadistic to most players, and it’s nice that the system has a name you can curse).

My friends and I are reasonably competent and we like a challenge, so we tend to start most levels in Advanced difficulty. Normal is a bit too easy in the early stages, and the apocalypse was never meant to be easy. Anyhow, we make good progress on Advanced for quite a while. The problem tends to come between stages 3 and 5 of any campaign, when we start to get wiped out a lot more.

We all die, and we restart, and we remind each other to stick closer and not shoot each other and not get distracted. And we do a bit better, and then we die. But this is OK; it’s a game, and we want to get better, and we like the challenge.

But after nine restarts, the challenge is wearing thin. And here’s where the problem kicks in: we would like to go to bed soon – it’s a school night, after all – and yet our pride reminds us that we would rather finish the scenario than give up. And so we grudgingly take a vote, drop the difficulty to normal, and thoroughly enjoy the challenge of the always-tough grand finales.

I’m ashamed we dropped the difficultly, but I’d be more ashamed if we didn’t finish the campaign. When this happened for the second time at the weekend, I got thinking as to how you could fix this problem, and I came across one possible solution.

What Left 4 Dead needs is an “arrange mode”.

I would like to be able to tell the game “there are X of us, and we should like to play an exciting zombie-slaying adventure for approximately Y minutes on difficulty Z“.

All the AI has to do is keep pace, supplying the appropriate numbers of highs, a really big finish, but backing off the volume of the zombie horde when it looks like we’re not going to make our time limit. As it stands, a decent run-through on Normal usually takes about 40 minutes, but Advanced sessions are taking me and my regular teammates about 1h45. This way, we could peg the session at, say, 75 minutes, and still have a decent evening’s fun.

If possible, the AI shouldn’t be adjusting the difficulty as it goes along. Players pick a particular difficulty for a reason – challenge, bravado, personal reasons – and you shouldn’t then throw easy-level enemies at them just because they’re running out of time; what Left 4 Dead has already proven is that much of the difficulty can come from pacing (how often the big encounters are, how weak the players are when you jump them) just as well as from hit points.

A good example of a game that already does this it the original PSP Ridge Racer; its “Custom Tour” mode lets you choose how long you wish to play for, and then it assembles a series of tracks that ought to take an average player that length of time; perfect for its handheld platform, as you’re often likely to be playing for known periods of time – a commute – rather than any other knowns. And, you know, I think there’s a lot of other games you can apply this model to successfully too, without any significant impact.

Other than that, though, I don’t want anything changed – and this should be in addition to the current gametypes, not instead of. I’m just a bit tired of admitting defeat and dropping the difficulty so we can get to the finale. Maybe that’s pride talking, but I don’t want to think that Louis, Bill, Francis and Zoey died because I wimped out.

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