On the much hated and woefully overlooked Codec radio

On the much hated and woefully overlooked Codec Radio

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In a recent video on Persona 3, I talked about how the dating sim-slash-dungeon crawler uses its menus to overlay a certain optimism towards the glacial crisis that was—and still is—complicating the future of Japanese society. This aspect of Persona 3’s menus arises from an assumption I make, and I don’t think it’s too controversial an assumption, about menus existing in games as a mode of introspection.

What do I mean by this?

In an alternate universe I provided a couple of examples to give this interpretation more weight, one example of which was the codec menu in the Metal Gear Solid games. Unlike that marvellous alternate universe, however, time in our universe runs at a rate of one second per second, and to keep the video short and within its scope the example of Metal Gear Solid had to be cut. Instead, I’d like to expand the idea in this article, partly as a complimentary piece to the Persona 3 video, and partly to justify a shabby and safe assumption about videogames that as far as I can tell nobody has contested. Continue reading

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Re: Tension in Papers Please and Ludonarrative Dissonance

Ludonarrative Dissonance in Papers Please

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Jason Hawreliak wrote this article for Ontological Geek arguing in favour of the inclusion of ludonarrative dissonance (LD) within our critical lexicon. The short of it is Hawreliak thinks LD is a useful tool to have in our vocabulary, and that although it has historically been used in a negative tense to find fault in a game, LD can make for great narrative design if applied artfully.

I’m on his side there.

But then, Hawreliak goes about highlighting the benefits of LD with some questionable examples. I’ll take the two main ones: Papers Please and Mass Effect. Papers Please puts you in the role of a border inspector who must deny access to the country to people in need, even though that’s a cruel thing to do. Mass Effect lets you take squad members with you on missions, some of whom might be more suited to the mission narratively while others would be better choices ludologically (that’s an ugly word – basically, through gameplay).

In each of these cases Hawreliak describes a narrative dilemma – both choices available to the player are equally preferable but only one can be made. Letting a battered refugee into the country is overtly desirable but so is getting enough money to feed your family. Having Liara interact with her mother would be interesting but Wrex helps the team plough through combat. Being put in each of these positions might give you the feeling of your mind tearing apart a little, forced in two opposite directions by your desire to see both choice fulfilled, granting you discomfort and tension.

LD grants discomfort and tension, which is why Hawreliak prescribes these situations as reflecting LD, I think. But not all discomfort and tension in a videogame is an example of LD. Ludonarrative dissonance specifically refers to a sense of doublethink within a game, where it tells you on the one hand “Doing X is bad” and on the other “Doing X is good”. Or “character Y is relatable” alongside “character Y is a sociopath”, as is commonly cited of Uncharted.

Some problems in defining LD here, though. One of these hands is generally the game’s ‘narrative’, like how Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake is consistently presented through dialogue, character design, cutscenes, whatever. The other, more important hand is the game’s ‘gameplay’, which depicts Nathan Drake killing a thousand people. The two presented impression of Drake being a blokey everyman and Drake being an emotionless mass murderer do not mesh very well, creating a disconnect between the ‘narrative’ bits and the ‘game’ bits.

That’s fairly commonly how LD is defined, and I think it’s how Clint Hocking intended it when first coining the term. In this way, ludonarrative is a portmanteau referencing two distinct components, ludo (ie. game) and narrative, smashed together by virtue of their (dissonant) relationship.

I think a more useful way to consider and use the term is for ‘ludonarrative’ to mean ‘the narrative of gameplay’ in one fluid motion. The narrative fact that Drake kills thousands of people is not distinct from the gameplay act of Drake killing thousands of people. Looking at it this way, we don’t act as if narrative belongs in one box and gameplay belongs in a separate one, or as if ‘ludonarrative’ is not natively narrative, which I think is a better way to go forward.

You could consider that as an aside, or you could consider it as me restating and arguing for my understanding of LD, and so as the thrust of this small post.

Returning to Hawreliak’s article, the example of Papers Please does not demonstrate LD because it does not coincide the narrative of wanting to be benevolent or wanting to be selfish with its gamplay – the checking of documents for inconsistencies. In other words, checking documents for inconsistencies does not conflict with wanting to be a good border inspector (or wanting to feed your family). On the other hand, checking documents for inconsistencies does result in a dilemma where you want to let someone pass but don’t want to be docked for it, but this is not dissonance of ludonarrative with anything, rather a conflict between duty and empathy.

In Mass Effect, the tension between picking Liara or Wrex for your squad is based out of a desire for compatible themes or a desire for a potential gameplay payoff. It’s similar to Shepard’s decision to free or save the Rachni Queen, which is also a mechanical choice allowed of the player via dialogue options, similar to choosing a squad via a menu. Both mechanical, both offer a sense of tension from weighing your options and figuring out which choice you prefer. Even though many players perceive the Rachni Queen in terms of her potential use for them in the future (including her potential gameplay uses), the dilemma is not an example of ludonarrative dissonance because the narrative of gameplay (picking between narrative options) does not grate against anything framing it (the setting, the political history of the galaxy, Shepard’s character design, etc.).

Similarly, Shepard picking Liara for her relationship with her mother does not conflict with the narrative of Liara going on a mission where she will meet her mother. And Shepard picking Wrex for his tanking doesn’t conflict with the narrative of favouring strategic benefits over personal interest in a mission, since that’s within Shepard’s prerogative. Having to decide between these may create tension and inner conflict, but not, from what I can tell, dissonance.

As a couple of counter-examples of LD as a potentially favourable design element, and I may be projecting my own reading of the game a bit here, but consider Mass Effect 3. I consistently got the impression from how Shepard was discussed by her friends and allies that she was perceived as the “best of humanity”, representing her race better than anyone in the scheme of galactic relations. But in my experience through gameplay, I found Shepard’s relations to her fellow humans to be quite emotionally distant and chilly, as if she was having difficulty relate to anyone around her. So in a twist of irony, here I had the symbol of humanity unable to comport herself as fellow to other human beings, even as everyone tells her how human she is. This fits in nicely as a projection of the stresses and emotional barriers that can face someone put in her position, so the ludonarrative dissonance (loneliness vs. fellowship) cleverly portrays her psychological removal from those around her.

In the case of Papers Please, I’ve heard some players tell of a time where they found themselves in the zone of checking documents for inconsistencies and disallowing applicants near-autonomously, where the flow of document checking became so aesthetically pleasing that they grew unmindful of the horrific undertones of their actions. In such a case one could convincingly argue LD is being used to great effect, since most players see the role of being a strict border inspector as cruel and undesirable, but then find themselves drawn into it because ‘being a strict border inspector’ turns out to be rather appealing. The game implicitly says “X is bad” but through gameplay we find that “x is good”. By this you would have an example of LD aptly used to depict the banality of evil of bureaucracy.

 

The Place Ordained for Suffering: Worldbuilding for loneliness

Final Fantasy XIII loneliness

This piece is community funded. If you like this article, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.
Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne.

If memory serves, one of the reasons Final Fantasy XIII saw poor critical reception was because of the design shift in how it presented the fictional world—in this case, of Cocoon.

Previous Final Fantasies had towns and people, a huge attraction of the games, ‘towns and people’ meaning expanded areas of the environment representing the bustle of the everyday life of everyday characters. You could tell a lot by each area by contrasting one settlement against another. Wall Market in Midgar’s slums is dense, haphazard and cluttered with scrap and debris, while the expensive high street of militarized Junon is prim and staid, its shops lined like soldiers to receive the coastal wall.

By this you get a sense of each place. It earths you, relates to you, since what each place has to say about itself stands out in some way in the context of the plot and story structure. Wall Market is home, Junon is benignly hostile to victims of the classist society, Cosmo Canyon is the spiritual centre of humanity, Wutai is foreign to your expectations of normalcy but also foreign to Shin-Ra. Final Fantasy VII presents the world in a relatable way, fastening your conviction to preserve it from the antagonist’s overarching destruction.

To take that away in Final Fantasy XIII, oh it’s a shock. You lose so much of what constitutes the life of the world, the quiet moments of downtime that make it all worth fighting for. No longer can you kick off your shoes after hiking halfway across the country and take in the scenery. No option to book a room at the inn, visit shops and comparing prices, scour houses and alleyways for useful trinkets, plod the streets just to kick up the dirt.

Instead, for FFXIII, towns remain unvisited, their utility encompassed by menu surfing at savepoints—online shopping for your convenience, abstracted and sanitized, at the same time dehumanizing the experience. Dealing you with goods in turn for money, depriving you of the social space in exchange for the minutes it takes to wander from shop to shop, perhaps being forced to talk to somebody.

As it turns out, people quite enjoy socializing in a videogame, especially when it’s with a large number of two-bit NPCs over a very long period of time. Well, the whole towns and people thing is only dressing to put us in a certain frame of mind, after all. Nobody’s fooled by it, but it’s nice to see when we’re appeased like that, nice to be understood and charmed. This design is, in essence, recognition of our desire to be romanced by this gameworld, to maybe feel like we could belong in it, simultaneously consoling and empowering.

Against this, Cocoon feels empty and bleak. Lonely. To be denied of something we’ve come to expect from so many years of Final Fantasies, our love of which we have made no effort to conceal, is a downright shunning. No wonder fans were irate.

On the other hand, it is not a secret that these shrinking feelings were substantiated within FFXIII’s plot. Like most FFs since the late 90’s, the player takes the role of a small band of insurgents, although this time their plight exceeded precedent. What was needed to maintain narrative integrity, and what FFXIII delivered, was straying from conventional Final Fantasy world design.

For many fans of the series, it was mainly Final Fantasies VII through X, the games of their youth, which instructed their experience of what makes the heart of a Final Fantasy and cast their expectations to be sorely unmet by the series’ 2010 instalment. To contextualize the role of each game’s party of heroes within the gameworld, let’s recap on that history:

In Final Fantasy VII you are eco-terrorists/freedom fighters against the Shin-Ra Electric Power Company, a monolith basically governing the majority of humanity. Through appropriation and exploitation of its citizens, Shin-Ra’s capitalist nature has lead to economic dependency of the world, so nearly all of the towns you visit are in various stages of its thrall. People are largely aware of its parasitic nature and that their wellbeing is contingent on that of the Company, so regard Shin-Ra with either distain or the adoration of a Stockholm syndrome victim. The protagonist party, as a group of incognito eco-terrorists, see their role as perceived with gratitude or annoyance depending on the prosperity of a town by virtue of Shin-Ra’s current investment in it.

In Final Fantasy VIII you are mercenaries from Balamb Garden, a private military company, commissioned and soon embedded in an international conflict with Galbadia Garden, a rival PMC. The short version is the nation of Galbadia is being manipulated by a sorceress who wants to rule over all of time, but to the majority of people in the world, the front is that Galbadia Garden’s escalating aggression and its nation’s worrying political direction are matters of public concern. In light of this, Balamb Garden is seen as the counter-force, as well as an underdog compared to the Galbadian superpower, so many people act kindly towards you, if a little detached from the severity of the global situation.

In Final Fantasy IX, you present as a charming band of thieves but in truth are an impromptu task force ordered by the regent of Lindblum to interfere with neighbouring kingdom Alexandria’s plans for domination. Amid your party is the beloved Alexandrian princess, Garnet, while main character Zidane has social in-roads in the majority of the known continent’s cities and towns, so you are generally well received wherever you go. Alexandria’s military might and cruelty leads to shock in all who witness it; although Alexandrian forces end up occupying Lindblum, their horror and frustration sides the average citizen with you. By the time Garnet steps up to rule her kingdom, the mastermind behind the whole war cows Alexandria, making it a peer of what remains of its neighbours.

Final Fantasy X is less pertinent since your party members are publically stationed as heroes and celebrities. Unlike the other games, the antagonizing force here does not complicate the social space for the party or offer any condition of class warfare. It’s a cosmic danger, not a social one: you don’t need to worry about getting dobbed in by anyone. Every single person you meet is on your side in your quest.

In Final Fantasy XIII, your situation is more extreme than the former three. Again, there is a militarizing superpower waging war on a peaceable land—Gran Pulse and Cocoon, respectively. In this case, however, Pulse attacks Cocoon by converting the latter’s citizens into weapons to use against it. Cocoon is seen as the defender in this ongoing war, while Pulse is enormously threatening, mysterious in purpose and agency, subversive, corrupting.

The characters you play—Lightning, Hope, Sazh, et al—are zapped at the very beginning and imbued with this purpose. Suddenly they find themselves labelled as public enemies, outcast by their own society. So, hounded by Cocoon police forces, your party of fugitives is channelled ever forwards, perpetually unable to stop and rest or to blend into a crowd, given how their faces have been plastered on every TV in every city.

Unlike Shin-Ra, Galbadia and Alexandria, however, Cocoon is not the dominant military power in this war. It is very much the underdog, or at least it’s presented as the underdog—you have no ground to view it otherwise given how your lense into the world is that of a group of Cocoon-born and bred individuals. In this context, your party of heroes are the unwitting instigators of aggression, and Cocoon’s reaction reads as justified self-defense. So deep in enemy lines, Lightning and company find very few allies so very few social opportunities to chat with your average bloke on the street. A condition spared Cloud’s, Squall’s and Zidane’s quests.

Looking inward to the emotional state of your party finds they have little to be charmed about. They have been made into soldiers in a war to destroy everything they’ve ever known. Their own world has turned against them. They are betrayed and shunned, victims of social ostracization, objectified in a conflict between deities. The narrative of loneliness and detachment coming from the unavailability of people and towns is appropriate design given how it complements the experiences of your protagonists.

In this light, the further complaint that the game only opens up after leaving Cocoon and arriving on Gran Pulse is an additional boon.

Final Fantasy XIII worldbuilding for loneliness

The same design reappears in a similar form in Mass Effect 3, where again it was targeted as a common point against the game. Long accustomed to Shepard’s bopping across the galaxy to visit cities and get acquainted with their inhabitants, fans were annoyed by the reduction of available cities to the one option, the Citadel, which the plot has narratively switched to become the hub of sentient resistance and sanctuary against the warring Reapers.

Locations around the rest of the galaxy are instead dedicated to furthering the story through engaging in terrestrial battle against the reapers and communing with diplomats to wrangle support for the war effort, the latter of which largely depicted though cutscenes, meaning the player hasn’t the ludonarrative option to enjoy the areas as downtime and cannot return afterwards.

Cruising through space now means hopping from one skirmish to another, one story-beat to another, with little to fill time in between. You can still approach planets and scan them for ore and optional key items, but you can’t land on them to sink your feet in or kick around some dust, like we enjoyed doing before. On the most part they become less like places and more like objects in space, abstracted notions of planets with an accompanying information card, that sometimes reward you with goodies for pressing buttons at them from orbit.

The universe feels emptier for it.

Coinciding with this thinning of outer space, the inner space of the Citadel has changed, too. As Shepard, the player can walk around various sectors of the complex, its shops and nightclub and refugee camp, as well as check up on party members during their shore leave. Unlike Final Fantasy XIII, you do get one city to spend some downtime.

But other than the few specific supporting cast members, you don’t have much of an opportunity to talk to the Citadel’s inhabitants. On the most part, the ambient chatter of the city is filled by autonomous dialogue between groups of two or three NPCs, each having their own discussion on how the war has affected their lives. As Shepard approaches within earshot, their voices chime into their respective string of conversation to serve as the life of the Citadel while providing some ancillary worldbuilding about some social or cultural affair.

Let the record show that much of this dialogue is actually quite interesting and endears you to these bit characters and their placement within the world. A couple of examples stand out: there’s the citadel guard befriending a newly orphaned teenage refugee, still waiting for her parents to reach port. And there’s the elderly lady with Alzheimer’s frequently mistaking an embassy clerk for the girlfriend of her missing son. Significant in my mind is the Asari trooper suffering from survivor’s guilt, regaling her Reaper encounter to her therapist.

Aside from eavesdropping, you can interact with many of these characters only once, by sharing with them some item or information crucial to their topic of conversation (a soldier’s dogtags, an irreplacable religious artefact, etc.) that concludes their dialogue cycle. In the case of the traumatised Asari soldier, you can use Shepard’s status as a Spectre to officially entitle her to a firearm, since she keeps asking her therapist for access to a gun just for the comfort of having it. Allowing her one results in her suicide.

Although Shepard has this route inwards to connect with people, the manner by which it plays out comes across slightly jarring. Rather than seeming like a ‘true’ quest as in these sort of RPGs, the kind of yolk where you go somewhere to complete the objective before returning to your quest-giver, retrieval of the key item or information typically occurs accidentally in the general course of Shepard’s space exploits, by scanning around planet clusters or examining points of interest in the field, and in both cases clicking ‘ok’ at whatever you find. The items themselves appear as nothing more than information cards, flat and hollow, literally stock images for whatever they represent. Perhaps they mean the world to some NPC but to the player-as-Shepard they’re hollow knickknacks.

This links in with the way the game presents your relation to the NPC population of the Citadel, again contrasted against fan expectations built from the previous games.

Eavesdropping being the majority of your interaction with characters in an area, Shepard cannot communicate with characters except to present them with the profits of her self-imposed errand. Other than that you can’t even communicate with people, you can only witness them communicating with one another. All throughout these conversations, the camera remains fixed to its normal in-game position, as opposed to the excited camera work of cutscenes and conversations of greater comparative importance, giving a slight aura of aesthetic distance and disinterest to Shepard’s exchanges with the people of the Citadel.

Note that the sudden departure from dialogue as a mechanical interaction, shifting instead to autonomous NPC conversations, and the framing of this via unperturbed cinematography is the exact same dialogue/relation design as the few Cocoon civilians you pass by while on the lam in Final Fantasy XIII, minus the perfunctory sidequests.

It’s a removal from the lives of these people, from the entirety of sentient life in the galaxy, appropriate to Shepard’s spiritual isolation as ‘humanity’s savior’, as everyone keeps telling her. We can see the rising stress of this role over the course of the story as she becomes more and more detached from those around her, more conscious of perceptions of herself as an icon, a military asset, and not as a person.

At the same time, Shepard is being edged towards the centre of the worlds of those with whom she has her most intimate relationships. You can talk to your crewmates, gratefully, but they themselves seldom talk to one another other of their own accord, so the Normandy never quite feels like a team, unlike Mass Effect 2. It creates a sense of discord where everyone seems to be putting on a brave face and acting normal only for your sake, to avoid troubling you and risk agitating Humanity’s Last Hope. Though you may be surrounded by support for the mission and boundless well-wishing, realising your companions are compartmentalized and isolated on the Normandy, that their camaraderie is a facade, breathes into you a grave air of loneliness, which binds perfect with Shepard’s narrative arc.

Although these aspects of Final Fantasy XIII and Mass Effect 3 are often counted against the games, I consider them a triumph of narrative design.

This Week I Read: PAX is bad and other things are good

It says “this week” but I’m dropping links for the past few weeks. My course came to a head on Thursday with a magnificent workload, hence my recent negligence. But rather than simply dumping everything that’s sent a sparkle to my eye, I’m going to parcel them out into Gone Home and non-Gone Home related texts. I hope to write a bit on Gone Home in the near future so I’ll hold off on the former until then.

Let’s start with Austin Walker’s take down of Bioshock Infinite‘s Elizabeth. Walker argues that Elizabeth has nothing in the way of any personal agency, and I agree with him. Mechanically, there is nothing Elizabeth does that is not a command by the player. Irrational’s attempt to make her ‘useful’ (self-plug 1) has the result of only making her convenient, as little more than an accessory for Booker. She is a hat with a 20% chance of recharging your health, a Vigor that lets you open tears, the glint of a nearby coin that signals its presence. Outside of mechanics, at the extent of her agency she is a narrative device, channelling you down a level or making you chase after her from A to B. Although she is functionally less frustrating than Ico‘s Yorda, she is equal in agency to that useless damsel.

It’s rather unfortunate that Elizabeth was touted as being the next coming in NPC buddies and this non-entity is what we got. It’s more unfortunate that she was collectively lapped up, so I’m delighted to see other critics knuckling down hard on Infinite. Continue reading