Holiday confab

I appear on the 2008 holiday edition of Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer Podcast, specifically in "Volume 3" of the series. Abbott asked more than a dozen guests for their favorite games of the year, then brought small groups together to discuss their picks on the air. I was joined by Wes Erdelack of Versus Clu Clu Land and Tom Kim of Gamasutra Radio. It was an interesting chat; I look forward to listening to the rest of the sessions, and hope you will too.


Iroquois Pliskin said...

Hi Steve! It was swell to chat with you on the confab; you really whet my appetite for Yakuza 2. I'm a big admirer of your work on this blog, especially the quality of the writing.

One question I didn't manage to formulate on-the-fly when we were talking: I know you criticized GTA4 for imposing these arbitrary limitations on your interaction with the world. Why was it that Fallout 3 and Yakuza 2 connected with you where GTA4 didn't? I always felt like Fallout really limited your interactions with the world too. Was it the sense of discovery? was it the fact that GTAIV had this jarring conflict between narrative and gameplay?

Anyways, the larger reason I'm asking is that I'm interested in the obstacles to the kind of immersion you so eloquently advocate. Is the problem that we don't have enough liberty (i.e. not enough "verbs") when we interinteract with the world, or is it that game designer haven't gotten all the immersive details right?

Steve gaynor said...

With GTA4 at least, it was a question of expectations and, yes, ludonarrative dissonance: the narrative and characterization made claims that the mechanics sometimes didn't support. Such as, the story says Nico is a nice guy in the beginning, while the mechanics conspired to make him act intentionally evil on his part by accident on my part. It could be argued as a clever twist that makes a statement on Nico's inability to lead a straight life even when he tries, but it didn't seem to be an intentional friction. Similar was the whole "I just need the money" aspect of his motivation. According to the mechanics, he doesn't need the money-- I don't have any bills or creditors breathing down my neck, I'm not building towards some grand monetary goal, and yet the story tells me "I just need the money," even after I scored half a million from a bank heist? Again, it could possibly be read as an excuse Nico gives his business partners to cover up the aimlessness or sociopathy that drives him to keep wallowing in the criminal underworld.. but I don't see that as being the author's intention. The interactive limitations of the game's abstracted systems for dealing with the world never bothered me, except where the story implied I should have more freedom (to give up my life of crime, to be a law-abiding citizen) than I actually did.

Which is why I believe that Fallout 3 never bothered me in this regard. The player character is largely a cipher, and the game's writing never presumes to know what's in the player's heart (whereas Nico crying over Kate's dead body rang false.. I sure as shit wasn't shedding any tears; I hadn't dated Kate for the past 18 hours.) The wasteland is a nasty place, and I can destroy everything and everyone there; I can explore anywhere I want to explore, at my own pace-- exploring the wasteland never felt pointless, as there were interesting, unique encounters seeded everywhere, whereas time spent between missions in many open-world games feels like 'wasting time'. I could follow or drop the main story quest chain anytime I please, which made it feel like it was following the same rules as the rest of the world, helping to cohere the entire experience; I can talk to most people I meet, and the limits of the dialogue trees never grated on me. What were the constraints of Fallout 3 that bothered you?

Iroquois Pliskin said...

You're right that the obvious incoherence of Niko's motives in the main storyline is hard to explain away. Maybe my theory that this conflict is a deliberate piece of commentary on the part of the developers is a bit of a stretch, but there's all these bits of dialogue in the third act that make me think something's up. (all this somewhat-heavyhanded stuff about not "choosing the rules of the game" when he's talking with the other minions, and whatever.) There's a review which makes this case pretty well: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/grand-theft-auto-iv/

I don't know if that's the kind of thing that would make this conflict any less dissatisfying to you, to me I kind of felt like they were acknowledging the conflict between the unfreedom of the narrative bits and freedom of the gameplay.

This is probably a pretty wrongheaded thing to say, but I have to say that I often find games most compelling on a narrative level when they force you into doing things you don't want to do, regardless of the rest of the game's mechanics. In Fallout 3 I always felt very comfortable with the actions i was committing. I never felt like there was any conflict in the story-- I always felt very sure of myself on a moral level when I was going through the game. There were always *good* choices to make, and this made it kind of uninteresting as a narrative-- there was never any sense of conflict or character.

I'm sure this sounds crazy. But it's also how I felt about Bioshock too-- the most compelling narrative moment in that game is when the game takes the control away from you, not when it gives you that famous moral choice. Anyway, that's probably not a good defense but what I like about games like GTA (and Far Cry 2 also, come to think of it) is how they made you feel uneasy about your actions.

While Fallout 3 isn't all that great as a character-driven narrative experience I have to say that it's a fantastic game. You're totally right that exploring the Capital was just endlessly compelling because of all those little capsule narratives strewn around the game. (I couldn't say the same of GTA despite my feeling that the cultural specificity of its world was more impressive to me-- it's a breadth-vs-depth thing.) to be honest they're both fantastic games, they just have a very different strengths as pieces of narrative-- you are probably right that Fallout is more coherent as an experience.