When we were in the hotel in Austin, I caught part of a reality TV show called Work Out. Like most reality TV, it's an ensemble drama about a diverse group of personalities working toward a common goal, in this case the founder and staff of a high-class fitness center trying to run a successful business. The intrigue comes from the personal and cultural friction between the conflicting personalities types within the group, and to this end as many divergent characters as possible are brought together to put on a show. In Work Out, we're presented with the cast in such a way that their most outward traits are immediately caricatured: there's the tough, assertive lesbian entrepeneur and her crew of trainers composed of, as I remember them being portrayed, the 'funny-gay' guy, the 'butch-gay' guy, the Texan guy, the slutty girl, the vampy Posh Spice girl, the ex-Marine black guy, and possibly a couple of other less immediately-exaggerated members of the team. The top dog of the operation pushes them all to give 110%, and sparks fly; the minute-to-minute plot events of any given episode are an afterthought compared to the drama of the personality dynamics between individual group members.

When it comes to games, I'm very interested in single-player, character-based experiences. This isn't to be confused with my being "into games for the stories;" no, I normally find the author-dictated plotting of video games to be functional at best, regrettable at worst, but useful primarily for motivating the player's actions forward through the gamespace. However, I think that games can be extremely successful at presenting memorable supporting characters to the player, and allowing him to form strong bonds with these characters over the course of the experience. In almost any character-based game you care to mention, I can almost guarantee that three elements stand out above all else: the player's own actions (the "what,") the places the player visited (the "where,") and the people the player interacted with (the "who.") Coming in a far distant fourth might be the backstory and authored plot events themselves-- the specifics of the "why."

I'll take for example here No One Lives Forever 2. What do I remember about that game? First would be the "who"-- Cate Archer, Magnus Armstrong, the world-weary second-in-command at UNITY, the wheelchair-bound Dimitri, the foppish Director of H.A.R.M., and other colorful agents. I remember the "where"-- the UNITY offices, a mime school, India, Japan, Siberia, an undersea base, an artificial volcano, Akron Ohio. And the "what"-- shooting, sneaking, deploying clever devices to thwart foes, rifling through secret documents. But besides the broad strokes, I'm more hard-pressed to remember the "why"-- I know that H.A.R.M. has something to do with creating super soldiers, and Cate Archer has to stop them. This somehow involves a lot of globetrotting to exotic locales, killing bad guys and stealing interoffice memos. Eventually Archer defeats her foes at H.A.R.M. and saves the day.

How about another example? Metal Gear Solid 3. My first touchstone again is the "who"-- the fresh but tough Solid Snake, the support team of Major Tom and Para Medic back at the base, The Boss (The Boss!!) and her eccentric Cobras-- The Pain, The Fear, The End, The Fury, and The Sorrow; the heartless soviet Volkov, a young and naive Ocelot, Eva the double agent, and the Russian scientist who just wanted to build space rockets. The "where" is a series of jungles and covert facilities within Russia proper, mainly lush forested areas and concrete bunkers, perfect for infiltration. And the "what" is the meat of the stealth genre-- crawling, sidling along walls, creeping up behind enemies and interrogating them, firing silenced pistols, and hiding under cardboard boxes. Again the specifics of the "why" are harder to recall. Volkov is attempting to harness the power of Metal Ray, a supertank capable of firing an ICBM. He's employed Boss and the Cobras to help him, and Snake must stop his evil plan. So you meet the "who," do the "what" in the "where," and then beat the game. The noble and complex character of The Boss, the outlandish affectations of the Cobras, the duplicity of Eva, the amateurism and enthusiasm of a young Ocelot, and the menacing demeanor of Volkov are what leave the greatest lasting impression of any of the narrative elements, far before what order the events of the plot occured in or even what exactly they were at all. Games like this aren't short-- we spend a lot of time with these characters, get to know them, and form strong memories of just what sort of people they are. More than anything but the actual play mechanics and dynamics themselves, the strength of the supporting cast is what sustains the player of a narrative game; they are the game's lifeblood, the human conduit through which the player connects with the rest of the experience.

That said, I think that the majority of games suffer from the problem of integration. Like most overt narrative elements in games, interaction between and characterization of the PC and members of his supporting cast are kept entirely separate from the interactive elements of the experience; the player performs the "what," then is passively shown the "who" in a non-interactive scene. The potential as I see it lies in integrating the drama of the group dynamics into the central play experience itself, making it a part of the possibility space.

The drama of group dynamics is central to more significant fiction than reality TV, and demonstrates what aspects might be useful to games. For instance, I recently watched Oliver Stone's Platoon for the first time. Here is a story that's fueled not by the specific plot points of the timeline, but by the pressures of the setting and a diverse group of characters with conflicting morals. The young, naive Charlie Sheen character, the "player character" as it would be, is the viewer's link to the experience; we lose our innocence along with him. The rest of the drama blooms from the squad bending under the pressure of war: Barnes' frighteningly calculated wielding of death, DaFoe's warm and compassionate manner with Sheen and his desire to reign in Barnes, the gung-ho sociopath on the squad who wants to "do'em all-- do the whole village," their well-meaning but ineffectual C.O., and the rest of the characters who just want to get home to their sweethearts.

Central scenes of the film revolve around two conflicting approaches to war, as embodied by the strongest personalities in the squad. Barnes has been turned into a machine, focused on his objective regardless of the human suffering it causes. DaFoe's character is the liberal voice of reason that tries to hold Barnes back and do things "the right way," morally and according to protocol. Sheen's character lies in between, an observer more often than not but a mediator when emboldened by DaFoe, as in the scene where Sheen drives away a group of GI's who are attempting to rape a villager. These three characters might embody the id, superego and ego as did the three Sellers in Dr. Strangelove; they are the three forces pulling all the characters' meta-actions back and forth across the line from humanity to animalism. More than any objective to "clear X village for VC supplies" or "get to the checkpoint," the events generated through the squad's group dynamics under pressure are themselves the drama.

Thinking of it this way, grouping the player of a video game with NPCs of strong character types that hold their own goalsets and carry them out according to their AI desires would be one approach to generating dynamic narrative through the group's and player's actions themselves-- how the group of NPCs interacts between themselves, the world, and the player. If Platoon were a game, and a well-defined Barnes and DaFoe (I should really look up his character's name) were grouped with the player, and then the group was given an objective to search a village for hidden weapons, the drama would follow based on the actions they dynamically performed in reaction to the obstacles in the gameworld that they happened to encounter while trying to achieve that goal. Barnes might tend to kill civilians who tried to impede his goal, while DaFoe might tend to block the killing of civilians. This might affect the allegiance of Barnes to DaFoe; if Barnes' allegiance to DaFoe dropped from "friendly" to "threat," Barnes might gain the internal goal of isolating DaFoe from witnesses and killing him. This might be true of any GI character that became a threat to Barnes, including the player. The player's decisions, based on the NPCs' actions, which in turn would be based on their own ingrained personalities and received stimuli from the gameworld, would itself define the "what" and "why" of the gameplay experience.

There have been games that play with the idea of dynamic squad interactions. I'm thinking of Bioware's games such as Baldur's Gate II and KOTOR, or the Jagged Alliance games. These games feature interpersonal dynamics between individual group members that occur during and at times tangibly affect gameplay-- mixing certain squad members in Jagged Alliance can raise or lower the morale of your squad, causing some members to perform better or to desert entirely. However, as far as I know it's as yet unheard of for the NPCs' desire sets and available actions to dynamically define the meat of the narrative and the gameplay. I would love to see a game where the concrete authored narrative is restricted to only the broadest objectives, and the drama and tension grew from the meaningful interactions between the human player, the richly-defined cast of NPCs, and the gameworld that they shared.

No comments: