Sunday, May 22, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer 2.1: The System of the Worlds

Beyond the Girl Gamer: Introduction | 1.1 | 1.2 | 1.3 | 1.4

So far, we've talked a lot about characters: our protagonists, antagonists, and supporting casts.  Character design drives our gaming, to a huge extent, but it's just one part of the overall element of game writing, which is what we're going to examine in chapter 2 of this series.  And we're going to delve into some actual critical theory in order to do that.

Our transition, though, begins still with character to some degree, and the concept of the "coin flip" character in gaming.  The concept is this: you need to determine something binary (a male or female character), so you flip the coin to see if it comes up heads or tails and run with it.

I think of Chell, in Portal and Portal 2, as a coin flip character.  The game is completely, 100% unaffected by the PC gender.  In this case, the coin came up female.  In Half-Life (2) there doesn't need to be a particular reason that Gordon Freeman is male.  Valve probably didn't flip the coin, but when you do -- sometimes it still comes up heads.  There doesn't need to be a particular reason that Shepard of Mass Effect (2) is male; in the future, space marines come in all types.  And so BioWare has given us this most basic choice: to flip that coin ourselves.

This doesn't usually happen.  Not only does the coin not land on non-male, it also doesn't land on non-white or non-straight.  The straight white male is still an absolute default, and in the context of most games (and movies, and books, and...) any deviation has a distinct narrative presence.  There's a reason that THIS character has to be black, or female, but there's never a reason that a player character has to be a straight white dude.  He just is.  It's the unquestioned default.  (This is why the default Shepard is so boring to me.  He's generic, and there are thousands like him.)

Contrary to what some alarmists believe of all feminist thinkers, I agree that there's no good reason to make a specific man's story about a woman.  Sometimes you're telling the story of a man's life and that is totally cool.  If you are writing a historically accurate game about a knight in 12th century France well then by god, I expect him to dude up the joint in the manliest possible way, and I expect most of the powerful figures in his story also to be men, especially among the warrior and clergy classes. 

But when are our games ever historically accurate*?

Games take place in worlds of our own creation.  Law and Order can purport to represent New York City as it is.  We cannot claim to be representing Ferelden as it is, because there never was such a place outside of a writer's imagination.

But in fact, even when claiming to represent a place, like modern Manhattan, as it actually exists, all fictional media fail to some degree or other.  The story being told is always one that was written by a human, and one that is being filmed and edited by a human.   In any TV show, movie, or game the world, as we see it, is entirely constructed.  Someone came up with it, and made it, and everything in it is intentional.  Even the "reality" that bumps in (as in traffic on the street in Law and Order) is a deliberate choice -- someone chose not to use a soundstage, not to close that street, and not to use a different, traffic-free, take.

This basic idea -- that we are not ever watching reality, but are looking at a construct -- is at the core of all film studies and so it is in one of my old introductory film textbooks that I looked for the best description:
 "What film reviews almost always evade is one of the few realities of film itself, that it is an artificial construct, something made in a particular way for specific purposes, and that plot or story of a film is a function of this construction, not its first principle." 
Robert Kolker, Film, Form, and Culture, 2nd ed (2002). (p. xvii)
Rephrased, the most important concept to understand in early Film Studies is this: the characters are never the creators of the story's events.  Han and Leia don't flirt with each other due to mutual attraction; they flirt with each other because a script-writer called for it and a director put it on camera.  The story that you see unfolding is an element of the film you are watching.  The same is true of gaming.

Further, the sum total of everything put into the image you're looking at, in film, is called mise en scène (because the French had the first crack at written film theory).  It's basically the idea that lighting, set design, and every other visual in a scene help tell your story.  The textbook example (literally, it's in every introductory film theory and film history book out there) is the 1920 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  One look at a famous shot and it becomes obvious why:

91 years and thousands of films later, it's still creepy.

For us, and for our purposes going forward, the really important, unbelievably crucial point is this: Game worlds are 100% digital and therefore, 100% constructed.  Nothing is simply "found" and nothing is incidental or accidental.  Every pixel is deliberate and intentional -- even though those pixels can also be utterly thoughtless.  "Created" is not the same as "carefully created."

Let's take ourselves back to mise-en-scène for a moment.  Can anyone argue that this environment, shown below, is not absolutely as carefully crafted, and as essential to the story, as in any film?  It has, in fact, been argued that the real main character of Bioshock is the underwater city of Rapture, and there's something to be said for that.

It's like a murderous and awkward Renaissance painting in here.
But the fun part is, it's not just the modern, cinematic games that use this concept so crucially.  I think the first game where I became really aware of the environment beyond my character as essential was Super Mario Brothers 3.

Yes, this game.

In SMB3, the sun itself pulls right out of the background art and becomes an enemy.  All of the brick types work differently (two are shown here).  Enemies, fatal to the player character, come popping out of the environment regularly (the plant in the image above being just one example).  And in levels comprised of large, scenic blocks (World 1, Level 1 for starters), the player can actually drop behind the white ones.  Literally, the player can take herself behind the scenes of the video game's environment -- but only at certain times.

So when we're looking at a game, and analyzing it in any way, the crucial thing is for us to remember that everything is created.  We need to remember to step outside of the narrative and to repeatedly ask how and why the designers of the game chose to frame it or to make it progress in the way they did.  If we're asking, "Why does Naomi Hunter wear her shirt unbuttoned so far down in the lab?" it's the wrong question.  We should be asking, "Why is this world designed in such a way that our scientist is an attractive female who keeps her shirt unbuttoned so low while working?"  If Nathan Drake bumps his head going into a tunnel, the question is not, "Why is he so clumsy?" but instead, "Why did the game's creators decide this tunnel was two inches shorter than their protagonist?" or, "What are we meant to learn about this character through seeing this collision?"

Sometimes, when we're asking these questions from outside of the narrative, the answers will be mundane.  "Budget restrictions" or "tight deadline" are probably the most common answers, across all games and studios.  If we're asking why the Courier in Fallout: New Vegas is silent, that's probably the answer we'll get (not enough time and money in the world to make recording every possible line a worthwhile design choice).

But sometimes, we'll find, on asking, that no-one thought carefully about a design choice one way or the other, and instead just made an assumption based on his or her own cultural defaults.  Those are the most interesting answers.  From these moments, we learn more about the culture producing the game -- we learn more about ourselves, and about what will need to change in the future if we want different games.  From the same text I cited earlier:
"The idea of culture as text means, first, that culture is not nature; it is made by people in history for conscious or even unconscious reasons, the product of all they think and do.  Even the unconscious or semiconscious acts of our daily lives can, when observed and analyzed, be understood as sets of coherent acts and be seen to interact with each other.  These acts, beliefs, and practices, along with the artifacts they produce ... have meaning.  They can be read and understood.
Robert Kolker, Film, Form, and Culture, 2nd ed (2002). (p. 116)

Here in the real world where we live, everyone is allowed to be incidental.  People come and go, because they're people.  The main character of my life is a straight white woman (and I am she).  When I am at work, if I am taking the elevator from the ground floor to the 10th, and the doors open on 6, the odds are about 50/50 whether a man or a woman will board.  Similarly, in my workplace in particular, the odds are about 50/50 that the person boarding would be white or a racial minority, and about 1 in 6 that the person boarding would identify as non-straight.  I would expect and understand any of these, because I move in a world full of people.  If I am taking the Metro home, and the doors open at Union Station, I would expect an even bigger range of diversity in boarding passengers.

If Solid Snake were in an elevator going up ten stories, and the doors opened on 6, there would have to be a story-driven reason for a woman to board.  (In fact, there would need to be a narrative reason for the doors to open at all.)  Snake moves in a world of ideas, concepts, and tropes, not in a world full of people.  We say "truth is stranger than fiction," because we expect fiction to make sense.  But what kind of sense?  Does fiction deserve as much random diversity as reality has?

And so, in the next chapter: what spaces do our characters live in and why do our characters live in these spaces, when they could be anywhere?

*Your Critic will not have a chance to play L.A. Noire until later this summer, so if this one is the exception that proves the rhetorical question, well, try not to leave spoilers.


  1.  Does fiction deserve as much random diversity as reality has?

    Well, I'm not sure this was the best wording. Fiction can't deserve anything, any more than my coffee, computer, or chair does.

    Randomized diversity shouldn't be discouraged in design, precisely because of what you said about Euro-male as the default. It's the default not because writers all pass around the same bad penny, but because few coins are ever harmed in the making of those decisions. Randomization "when it doesn't matter" is a cheap and quick tool for writers to avoid unintentionally falling into pitfalls of stereotype. In some games, randomized diversity is important. While it doesn't make sense to randomly determine all the general characteristics of each member of Shepard's team, or a character that walks by Solid Snake, designing curb flow on the streets of Liberty City by hand would be a Sisyphean task, and probably make it feel really wrong to boot, if it ever got finished.

    On top of that, it can be a useful aid to a more considered design process. If you only randomize, that's obviously bad. I've been in (and inflicted) my share of totally plotless D&D "campaigns" where the DM just rolled dice for literally everything. As someone who is laboriously working through trying to write a story, however, I spent a lot of fruitless time trying to design my main characters. Eventually I just threw up my hands and just threw sex and ethnicity on the page like flicking paint and just ran with it. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, and where it didn't I've tweaked it, and sometimes I've tweaked it back around to the random result. Call it inoculating your story against unconcious bias.

  2. All right, then... do we, the consumers of fiction, deserve as much random diversity in our stories as reality has?  ;)

    I do think background diversity is probably nearly as important as cast diversity.  One thing I always liked about both of the recent Fallout games is that the denizens of the Capital Wasteland and Mojave Wasteland come in all types.  (Which made it moderately annoying that, especially in New Vegas, your companions kind of don't.)

    I don't think main characters (player characters, immediate supporting cast, main antagonist, etc) should be purely randomly cast.  A story needs to make sense and five randomly generated people thrown at the wall really only serve for one or two stories (like the first two seasons of Lost -- any "random people thrown in to work together" sort of story). 

    Eventually I just threw up my hands and just threw sex and ethnicity on
    the page like flicking paint and just ran with it. Sometimes it worked,
    sometimes it didn't, and where it didn't I've tweaked it, and sometimes
    I've tweaked it back around to the random result. Call
    it inoculating your story against unconcious bias.

    You flipped coins and saw if it worked.  Suits me fine!  ;)

  3.  Does fiction deserve as much random diversity as reality has?

    Serious fiction has to make sense on its own terms. Those terms don't have to exactly mimic our world (unless it's supposed to be set here) but cause-and-effect still need to apply. The lack of Space Asians in Firefly, for example, strikes people as bizarre because no explanation is offered for what seems like such an unlikely future. The ubiquitous Asari strippers aren't off because their inclusion is sleazy (they signify sleazy locations) so much as because they're so out of character with everything else we know about the Asari.

    A game or movie based on a book about a planet colonized by Indians who proceeded to build their society along ancient Hindu lines, for example, would lack diversity in the sense that there would be few if any African, Caucasian, Native American, East Asian, etc. people around. But there'd be a reason for it.

  4. And not all areas of reality are equally diverse.  Bluntly speaking, I have a much higher expectation that a person I bump into on the street in Montana or Stockholm will be white than when I'm in DC.

    Mass Effect does a fairly good job randomizing its background characters, though.  If you're walking around the Citadel or Omega, the odds that the person you bump into will be human, turian, salarian, asari, or krogan are pretty decent, with elcor, volus, etc. mixed in.  It's just a different kind of diversity.

    And the lack of Space Asians in a universe where Mandarin is everyone's bastardized second language is more than just a little weird.  ;)

  5. I think Mass Effect, like Star Trek, posits a future in which humanity has overcome many/most of our current problems. So there's no racism between humans, and no sexism that I recall either (the only time Lady Shepard is specifically disrespected is by a Batarian and fuck those shitburgers, amirite?) So the Alliance is ruled by a couple of black men, and Shepard's mom is an admiral, and the race and gender of Shepard doesn't affect your interactions with them. 

    Of course default Shepard is a white dude, just like the top roles in Star Trek and TNG were held by white actors, because we sure haven't reached that future yet.

  6. You're right about ME being like Star Trek.

    Default Shep is a problem, but I think he's more of a marketing problem (and that "default" is the other problem) and not so much a game problem, as I haven't seen him once in my game. ;)

  7. mass effect 2 has some hilarious (and crass) side conversations that you overhear from those random characters, too. the volus trying to buy, er, performance enhancers made me laugh out loud.

  8. When I first started playing tabletop RPG's in 1980, several us would flip a coin to determine gender of the character we had just created.  I think that was a bit of a crutch, a half-way ale house.   I don't do that any more, but it's because I actually think of female characters I want to do.   For most of the 90's we had a Call of Cthulhu campaign that was set in the 1920's - with Lovecraftian alterations, of course.   Several people came up with female characters that both fit the period, were interesting, and could contribute to the goals.