June 09, 2015

Suspending Disbelief in Video Games

by Alan Beatts

I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, an avid player of video games.  However, I do enjoy some of them quite a lot.  They serve the dual purpose of entertaining me while also engaging me enough that I forget about the external world for a bit.  About five years ago, a friend gave me a game console for Christmas and, since then, I've played several quite good games from beginning to end.  I've also tried out a number that I started, got a bit of the way in, and then put aside because they didn't suit me.  That's a process that I do with novels as well. However, it's interesting that in video games the split between "this is fun, I'm going to finish it" and "nope, this isn't for me" is close to 50/50, whereas novels run closer to 85/15.

Perhaps part of the reason for that difference is that I have pretty specific tastes in video games.  Playing virtual football or golf has even less appeal to me than playing the actual sports (for which the appeal to me is already close enough to zero that you'll need several decimal places to make the distinction).  Likewise virtual dating games or other games that simulate social interactions don't interest me.  And, while games that simulate pseudo-natural processes in accelerated time (for example Civilization or SimCity) interest me in an ant-farm sort of way, I don't really like playing god.

Consequently, what appeals to me are role-playing games, shooting games and, most of all, the child of the two, generally called open-world games (for example Skyrim and Mass Effect). Since reading serves the same purpose for me as video games (entertainment and an escape from the outside world - although video games have an advantage in exercising my twitch reflex), in the last few years, I've started thinking about the similarities and differences between the two art forms.  The idea that both genre novels and the sort of video games I enjoy are both art forms is not something that I think needs much defense or explanation but, just in case, please consider that: they both require creating a structured narrative with plot, settings, and characters that will engage the reader / player for a prolonged period of time. Even games outside of my particular interest qualify as art forms, albeit for a different set of reasons.

When I consider the current state of the art in video games as part of the spectrum of story-telling entertainment, including prose fiction, illustrated narratives (i.e. comic books), film, epic poetry, and so forth, it strikes me that it is far from the eventual potential of the medium. Which is not to say that the medium doesn't have considerable merits now, but only to say that, even within the limitations of current technology, the medium is perhaps at a spot in its evolution equivalent to comic books in the 1970s.  And, like comics in the 1970s, video games are great fun and the product of some very talented people who are doing excellent work.

In the 80s and in the 90s nothing substantial changed about how comics were created compared to the 60s and 70s.  Mainstream comics in general were still four-color printed on poor quality paper (unless they were black and white).  However, what did change in the late 20th century was the skill and range of the story-telling.  With that change, comics took a huge step forward in terms of quality and came much closer to realizing their full potential as an entertainment and storytelling medium.

With that change, comics became the most recent in a series of artistic mediums that have moved from being a curiosity, to mere entertainment aiming to clear a pretty low bar, to a narrative art form that expresses the full range of human stories.  Television, motion pictures, and radio broadcasts all followed a similar route, each with their own unique twists and turns granted, but the overall path has been the same.

Do I think that there will be a video game that will be the Maus, the Hill Street Blues, or the Citizen Kane of that particular medium?  Yeah, I do.  I have no idea of the who, what, or when of it but I think it will happen.  But I do think I know one of the things that game producers, designers, and writers need to do better if video games are going to achieve that: suspension of disbelief.

Among the folks who play video games at Borderlands, "Get a goat!" is a standing joke and short-hand comment about video games.  It comes from irritation with a game in which, to be able to carry more than one weapon, you have to "make" a holster.  And, to make that holster you need to find, kill, and skin a goat.  Within the context of this game there are a variety of animals that you can hunt and kill - deer, sharks, pigs, and even (no, I'm not joking) cassowaries.  And yet, within this whole zoo full of critters, it must be a goat, and only a goat, if you want to make a holster.

This is not, to say the least, a convincing simulation of the reality that we understand.

Of course, neither are video games (especially not that one).  And so, "Get a goat!" has become short-hand for elements within games that don't make sense (or, worst case, entire games that are so full of things that don't make sense that they're unplayable, at least for some of us).

Like much fiction and almost all genre fiction, video games are not meant to be 100% accurate representations of reality.  If they were they wouldn't be entertaining.  On the other hand, and also like genre fiction, having as much connection with reality as possible while still maintaining the entertainment is the goal, because that allows the reader or player to become immersed in the story without getting jerked out of it by foolishness like, "Get a goat!"

One of the constantly improving elements of video games is the quality of the graphics.  Some of the best video games strive very hard to include graphics that are equal in quality to some of the best animation currently existent.  And, I'm sure, if creators could achieve photo-realistic graphics, they would do it in a heart-beat.  The apparent goal is to get closer and closer to "realistic" graphics.  Likewise the importance of using talented people to record the dialog for games is a given.  People like Max von Sydow, Ellen Page, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, and Michelle Rodriguez have all been hired to provide voice talent for video games.

So why so much concern with making a game look and sound like reality, but so much less concern with making the game seem like reality?

An old joke about lawyers is that part of their training involves swallowing camels and balking at fleas.  To enjoy great genre novels, we don't need an attorney's ability to accept the impossible while protesting the mildly distasteful, but we still tend to be very practiced at swallowing camels --

"One day, a computer programmer comes into work on the Lunar prison colony to discover that the main computer has become a self-aware artificial intelligence."  Sure, been waiting for that to happen.

Or, "A man wakes up in a mental hospital without his memory.  As it returns, he discovers that almost all of reality (including our world) is just a shadow cast by the only "real" kingdom, of which he is one of nine princes."  Not a problem.

Maybe even; "One little guy inherits a ring of ultimate power that must be destroyed to save the world."  I'm straining a bit here, but OK.

In all those cases we've just been asked to swallow one camel, right at the beginning of the story.  The revolution that follows the awakening of that AI is based on Western history, and the weapons derive from quite simple physics.  The prince's travels through parallel worlds follow a clear and consistent set of rules, so much so that the whole story is structured much like a mystery novel.  And even that little guy with the ring exists in a world that has such a mythical depth that we cannot help but believe in it.

We willingly suspend our disbelief in the fantastic elements of stories because we really, deeply want to believe.  We want to believe so much that we'll swallow that first camel and we might even swallow a couple more in the course of the story.  But our appetite isn't unlimited and fleas fill us up just as much as a camel.

Each time something happens in a story that strains our suspension of disbelief, we pull away a tiny bit.  If it happens too often, we stop believing or, to put it another way, the mental muscles that we use to suspend our disbelief get tired out.  The problem with many video games is that they ask us to swallow camels too often and, perhaps worse, they feed us a constant diet of fleas.

Some of the banquet of camels and fleas that video games present us is an unavoidable consequence of practical technology and design limitations.  The outdoor virtual "world" of a video game can't be truly limitless (though there have been some good jobs done of faking it). Likewise, conversations within a game are subject to sharp limitations because they must be some combination of scripted and constrained.  But other elements seem to me simply unnecessary.  And, if not unnecessary, then they could be avoided by more thoughtful writing and design.

As a case in point, I just finished a game called The Last of Us.  It is a really remarkable piece of work.  Visually I think it's the most realistic game that I've played, ever.  The voice talent is excellent and the dialog is very good.  I really enjoyed it and I think that the creators did a awe-inspiring job.

But . . . .

If you are injured, you can heal yourself with the application of, in essence, rags and rubbing alcohol.  Even if you've been shot multiple times, that solution will work.  That's a hell of a camel to swallow, but I understand that, given how games of this sort work, it's not enjoyable if you die pretty much anytime you're shot a few times.  Getting into a huge number of gunfights is part of the deal and you have to be able to recover from them (sort of like faster-than-light travel in much of SF -- don't ask how that works, just accept it).

The problem is when, half-way through the game I'm asked to believe that our hero, who has been shot more times that I can count, is laid up for weeks after a ten-foot fall and getting a piece of rebar stuck through his abdomen.  That situation yanked me right out of the story. You can't have it both ways, depending on what is convenient at the time.  Either he's the toughest thing since the Terminator or he's not.

What is frustrating is that it wasn't necessary.  Off hand I can think of two ways that the game could have been written that would produce the same result (i.e. plucky side-kick has to fend for herself) without losing my credulity.

I'd call that a camel too far and a writing failure.  The writers wanted to take the story to a specific place and did so without consideration of how that fit with what they had already asked the player to believe.

Despite the frequent gunfights, the intention of the designers of this game was to encourage a balance between direct confrontations and sneaking one's way around obstacles.  In service of that, they decided to make firearms and ammunition a very limited commodity.  Fair enough. Twenty years after the world ends due to a horrible fungal plague it will be damn hard to find ammunition or functioning firearms.

But, rather than just making ammunition hard to find, the designers set arbitrary, sharp, and ridiculously low limits on how much ammunition can be possessed at one time.  In a past profession, when I carried a pistol for real, it was quite usual for me to carry a total of 91 rounds of 9mm ammunition.  In this game the absolute limit is 24 rounds.  But, there are separate limits for each type of ammunition so you can only have 24 rounds of 9mm but you can also carry up to 18 round of shotgun ammunition.  Neither limit is affected by the amount of other ammunition or other gear your character is carrying.  This makes absolutely no sense.

In the matter of firearms, yes, they are hard to find.  In fact, firearms are so hard to find that, after a gunfight, searching the virtual "body" of the "person" who was shooting at you almost never produces a firearm of any sort and only occasionally any ammunition.  Posing the question, "What the hell was that person shooting at me with?"

I could go on in this vein but I think that you get the picture.

Again, not necessary.  There are ways I can imagine to balance the availability of ammunition and the number or toughness of the opposition to reach the same balance between sneaking and direct confrontation that the designers wanted.  Granted, I'm not much of a computer programmer but I do have a good idea of what's possible, and something like that is well within reach.

I'd call that sort of thing a family of fleas and a game-mechanics failure.  It's a consequence of accepting a standard convention about ammunition that dates, to my certain knowledge, at least as far back as 1995 and a game called Doom II.

I could write much more, both about The Last of Us and other games I've played, but the point is that these sort of writing and design choices are indicative of the state of video games now. Years ago, it was acceptable to present Batman as a well-adjusted crime-fighter with a completely clear conscience despite seeing his beloved parents murdered before his eyes.  It wasn't until 1986 that Frank Miller brought a sense of complexity and, silly though it may seem to use the word, "reality" to the character.

Likewise, in the 70s no one batted an eye at the convention that virtually all superheros were attractive, young, fit and wore tight-fitting outfits (assuming they looked human at all). Then, in 1984, John Ostrander and Timothy Truman introduced greying, scarred, 49 year-old John Gaunt in his patched clothes and worn boots.

The evolution of video games as a story-telling medium is a long way from the end.  Improving technology continues to make possible that which was beyond reach five years ago.  But, like adding color to film, improving technology is just mechanics and mechanics isn't what makes a story compelling.  What makes a story work is the writing.  The process of pulling the reader (or, in this case, player) so far into the imagined world that they forget that it isn't real.  Video games have not yet had their Tolkien or Lucas, LeGuin or Bradbury.  But I think they will and I'm looking forward to it.

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