2.19.2007

Subvert

As any dilligent nerd should, I've familiarized myself with the ouevre of Osamu "God of Manga" Tezuka. His storytelling is masterful, and some of it is simply mind-blowing in scope. Over the decades that he produced material, he created an incredible range of properties, from Kimba the White Lion, to Black Jack the outlaw surgeon, to the millenia-spanning Phoenix series, to an eight-volume retelling of the life of Buddha, and of course his trademark character, Astro Boy.

Until recently, the original, Tezuka-directed Astro Boy animated series from the 60's wasn't available domestically. Now it's been released in two excellent box sets, the first of which I picked up and have been watching an episode or two of per night.

The thing that stands out about Tezuka is that he is first and foremost an entertainer, regardless of his subject matter. His stories are all peppered with flashy fights and plenty of quick little jokes and sight gags. Thereby, even a story with a deep theme and complex plot can entertain a viewer who's simply interested in a few laughs.
For instance: Astro Boy is a children's show, but the most recent episode we watched operated on a few assumptions that would most likely go over the intended audience's head, and featured a few quick twists that led to a significantly complicated plot. To synopsize:

Some 50 years ago, a prominent scientist, "Dr. I.C. Frost," hypothesized that if astronauts could freeze themselves during an extremely long space flight, they would be able to defrost upon arrival to explore faraway planets otherwise unreachable by humans. So, to prove that his theory is right, he established a secret lab in a hidden facility in the deserts of Egypt, built a robotic sphinx and an army of robotic crabs for protection, constructed his cryogenic chamber, and froze himself, to be defrosted in 100 years. Present day (50 years on): a nefarious character has set his sights on Dr. Frost's well-guarded technology, and employs a covert agent to kidnap Astro Boy, drain him of all but the last reserves of his power, and strand him in the desert. Having no memory of how he got there, Astro calls out for help, lost in the wastes. The nefarious character "rescues" him, restoring his power on the condition that Astro will help him in his "expedtion" to an "ancient tomb." Astro proceeds to do battle with the guardian crabs and the Sphinx, gaining entry to the secret lab. However, upon her defeat, the Sphinx reveals the nature of the tomb/lab, Dr. Frost's wishes, and her purpose. Astro then realizes he's been had, drives away the nefarious man and his crew, and agrees to keep Dr. Frost's resting place a secret between himself and the Sphinx, until Dr. Frost awakens once again. Astro flies off to another adventure, ending the episode.

Note that the above is stated in chronological order, whereas the TV episode starts at present day, and reveals the backstory later on.

The point of typing all that out was to illustrate that 1) the show's premise was based upon an understanding of the speed of spaceflight to other star systems and the concept of cyrogenics, and 2) the plot itself is fairly complex and relies on a dialogue between two different time periods and a third-act "reveal" of the nefarious character's true nature. Regardless of how far some or all of this might fly over the heads of an audience of children, the show succeeds in engaging and entertaining any viewer by featuring frequent robot combat (between Astro and the crab robots, and Astro and the Sphinx,) and a constant stream of very clever little sight gags, inserted during otherwise mundane sequences. So, a viewer that doesn't understand or care about the plot can nonetheless enjoy the show entirely for the frequent robot fighting and simple jokes, and maybe absorb the themes of the story along with the core entertainment factor.

I think that video games are ideally suited to be message delivery systems (MDS) following just the same formula. The main draw, the core experience, of a video game is the gameplay itself, which in many cases is buffered by narrative elements. The gameplay is wholly separate from the narrative; one can easily exist independent of the other. However, in most narrative games, the story elements support the gameplay and vice versa, or the two elements at least run alongside one another. Much like the viewer of an Astro Boy cartoon can enjoy the jokes and action without appreciating the overall plot and themes, the player of a game can enjoy jumping and fighting and leveling up without investing himself in the story. It's the idea of the short positive feedback loop, laid out by a colleague of mine and expanded upon further in this Gamasutra article-- the player (or viewer) is driven forward by constant small rewards to complete a larger task. The classic Lucasarts adventures are successful for the exact same reason the classic Astro Boy is: there's a joke at every turn (every click,) giving the player constant tidbits of entertainment regardless of their overall investment or progress through the total work. Overserious adventures fall flat, since when the player is stuck, they have no levity to tide them over until they figure out that frustrating puzzle. Genuinely funny adventures that keep the player stuck for too long also fail, since hearing the same jokes repeatedly stops being funny.

The possibilities for subversion in games are endless, and some games have begun to mine those possibilities. Grand Theft Auto 3 comes to mind, as does the more recent Dead Rising. GTA3's draw was the open-world action gameplay: ramping cars over buildings, blowing up crowds of onlookers, leading the cops on wild chases through the city. And yet, even if the player completely ignored the core storyline to freeform, every radio station that played in every vehicle was densely packed with ruthless satire of American culture in the form of Laszlow's bewildered talk show hosting, and the variety of consumer-lampooning advertisements that played between songs. The gameplay itself was the draw and the experience that sustained the title, but it also acted as a message delivery system, inundating the player with Rockstar's very specific point of view.

Dead Rising is the more recent, and more overt, but relatively less successful example, as its message is largely delivered during skippable cutscenes, as opposed to alongside the gameplay itself. It's great nonetheless-- it's a Japanese game, clearly made for the American market (released exclusively on the 360,) starring American characters and taking place in America, but the story itself is explicitly anti-American, anti-consumerism, anti-Western-culture. The draw of the gameplay is smashing thousands of zombies, and smash zombies you do, but at each plot point the thrust of the narrative rails on the Western way of life, targetting American gluttony, virulent consumerism, and government corruption. The idea of consumer as zombie, admittedly lifted from Dawn of the Dead, and the rampant destruction of all the products and shops in the mall as an anti-consumerist fantasy do underpin the gameplay itself, but the real, outright message delivery occurs during the discrete, skippable cutscenes, and fails to some degree through lack of integration with the core experience.
In the past, I've seen the disconnect between gameplay and narrative to be a failing of games; ideally, I believe that the player's actions should BE the narrative of the game, the events themselves perpetrated by the player dictating entirely "what happens," as opposed to the separate gameplay simply propelling the player to the next pre-scripted sequence. But I think there's a huge amount of value in intentionally exploiting that disconnect in the current generation of games to subversive ends. Since the gameplay lacks bearing on the narrative, the narrative can be whatever the designer wants. Players will consume enjoyable gameplay first and foremost, and swallow whatever rides sidecar to that experience. This is true of any game, even those with the highest production values, extending this concept to the widest possible audience. What's most exciting to me about this concept is that it's a chance for games to have tangible social impact-- something that, as a medium with an extemely large and impressionable audience, it's high time they achieved.

SUBVERT! SUBVERT

2 comments:

Erlend Grefsrud said...

Very nice piece of writing. I just found your site, and I'm loving it so far.

Just one comment on your analysis of Dead Rising: Try dressing up Frank in some truly ridiculous clothing and watch the cut scenes. It might be an example of me seeing what I want to see, but it seems like whoever directed the cut scenes knew Frank would most likely be dressed in women's clothing or a Mega Man suit.

Everyone who interacts with Frank looks uncomfortable, as if they're being forced to cooperate with someone who's clearly not particularly sane. In short: The designers are at least trying to make the choices of the player reflect in the storytelling, even if it is baked into it and highly inflexible. But watch the cinematics while Frank is wearing something out of Tots for Tykes and look for the uncertainty most of the characters exhibit.

I think the "true ending" confirms, or at least partly validates, my observations.

Steve gaynor said...

Yeah, I know what you mean. The designers' decision to A) let Frank dress up in absurd clothing and B) remain in those clothes during story sequences does a great deal to take the wind out of any serious commentary the dialogue makes. The same can certainly be said of GTA3's social commentary played for laughs. Anything too heavy-handed I think can push the player away, so these elements of humor do much to make the subversive messages palatable.