I remember the moment with crystalline clarity, both emotionally and critically. As it unfolded, it confirmed for me something I'd long suspected about open world games. There I was, en route to a mission, following the orders of an NPC. His initials were in gold letters, so I knew his requests were the most important thing I could be doing at the time. But as I was nearing my destination, something caught my eye. On the corner, three Nazis were posed with their rifles shouldered. I slowed down, thinking perhaps it was another bug. It was not. I coasted up close enough to see the two civilian women cowering before them. I heard the dialog:
"Please, you don't have to do this," one said. A fraction of a second later, the Nazis fired and the two women fell dead.
Allow me to preface this by saying that I am in no way a Batman 'buff.' My knowledge is rather limited, but I think this description still holds. I do realise, for example, that occasionally characters (such as the Joker) will eventually die in comic series. That doesn't prevent him returning in other media.
Being Batman would be a nightmare. Apart from the horrors of the brutal murder of his parents as a child, Batman lives bound by a set of principles that ensure his constant torment throughout his adult life. These rules exist both within him as a human character, and as unspoken but immutable laws of the Batman universe. Each night he must sally forth from his Batcave, to combat the endless criminals whose sole purpose is to destroy Gotham City, and by proxy, torment Batman. As a character, Batman is defined by his unquestionable need to safeguard Gotham. By contrast, his various nemeses are defined by their insatiable need to create mayhem, and thus, cause Batman pain.
When speaking of Batman this way, differentiating between his depiction in comic books, movies, television series or videogames is not even necessary. Whatever the medium, Batman lives in a kind of gameworld. The peculiar narrative content of the superhero thwarts the usual procedure from beginning to end, where conflict is resolved and heroic characters can live happily ever after. Batman's need to defeat his enemies stops just short of actually killing them, bound as he is in a deep sense of righteousness. Whether in comics, movies or videogames, Batman's overall goal is to lock such villains as the Joker in prison or Arkham Asylum, not put them in the morgue. So whatever else defines the contest, there is (almost) never any chance for permanent victory.
This is a few days late, but in the interests of keeping a reasonable record of what I’ve written and posted around the net, I am making an entry for my latest piece on Kotaku’s AU website. Anyone familiar with my writing and thinking on games will undoubtedly recognise these ideas, but once again its a thought piece which intends to generate some critical discussion among the public, non-academic readers of Kotaku. Thanks again to Mark Serrels for his support with this project, and thanks for the by-line this time! I exist for reals now!
Kaiden or Ashley? Rescue or Harvest? How do you make decisions in video games? Video games were described by Sid Meier as ‘a series of interesting choices.’ Indeed, many good video games today involve choices that go beyond which gun to use or how fast to run through a room. Many involve decisions between two general strategies, or like the above examples between two characters or responses that affect the rest of the game. The question here is, how do those choices matter?
I want to suggest that there are two different types of choices available in video games, and wish that there was a third. The first I will call a ‘mechanical choice.’ These are the kind that may not even seem like choices to experienced gamers, as they are built into the mechanics of the game. These are the ‘choice’ to grab a Mushroom in Mario, or to pick up a sniper rifle in Call of Duty while standing on a rooftop. Do you upgrade your sword and armour or not? Of course you do these things, because they help you to beat the game. Mechanical choices are economic: they make the player-character (or his allies) more powerful.
The second kind of choice is a ‘narrative choice.’ These are the kinds of decisions that affect the fiction/story of the game, but not the relative power of the player-character. By rescuing either Kaiden Alenko or Ashley Williams in Mass Effect, the strength of the overall party isn’t affected, since the two characters are more or less interchangeable given the right balance of the other party members. We do not have the option to rescue both, so a loss is inevitable. The only difference is which personality you lose. Playing as a good or evil Cole in inFamous is a general strategy (like any other good/bad split we see so often these days), but doesn’t affect the strength of the hero either way. Each power is balanced against its opposite, so in the end, a Cole of either alignment has equivalent firepower.
I find achievements a compelling topic in game studies. By achievements I refer to the fairly ubiquitous concept of player profiles that transcend the particular game, bound to the platform or service (ie. Microsoft XBox 360, Sony Playstation 3 and Valve's Steam all maintain separate systems), which exist as virtual trophy rooms to record the player's travails across many different games. This concept probably goes without explanation, but I tend to use the word achievements, and that's not to exclude the 'Trophies' found on PS3, for example, or other similar systems.
I first started to really mull the topic over last year after the now (in)famous talk Jesse Schell gave at DICE. For a post-mortem of that furore, head over to Critical Distance. He made a provocative speech that raised a lot of hackles, mine included. I'm not going to engage directly with that particular speech here, I'm not really focused on the 'gamification' (what a terrifying bit of corporate jargon that is) of non-game activities here. I'm more interested in the effect achievements have had on videogames themselves, why they have come to be, where I think they are useful and where I think they are a shameful crutch.