This rather excellent blog post prompted me to finally write about something that’s been bouncing around in my skull lately: The disparity between the narrative context and the mechanical systems of most games.
Cultural expressions, be they films, music, cookbooks or striptease, tend to be about something: They explore themes. Sure, a piece might subvert or play around with its theme, and that might turn out to be the essence of the expression, but generally there’s a certain correspondence between theme and content that provides integrity to the experience.
Games are notoriously bad at this. I could produce a laundry list of games that fail to capitalize on their premise whatsoever (sandbox games are notorious repeat offenders), but to enable the clever pun in my title I’ll focus on games featuring giant walking robots. Beware, reader: At least one sacred cow will be mercilessly slaughtered.
Consider this list:
- Steel Batallion
- Virtual On
- Shogo: Mobile Armor Division
- One Must Fall 2097
Sure, these are all very different games in terms of genre, but they share a theme: You’re in charge of a mecha fighting other mechs. Ostensibly, these games are modelling the same basic circumstances in order to give the impression of participation in mecha warfare. Some of them, however, never even attempt to realize the theme’s implications and reduces the exciting notion of manning a ten-ton bipedal death-o-rama to an empty surface metaphor.
Steel Batallion is a prime example of a game that goes to surreal lengths to immerse the player in its city-stomping subject matter. Supporting what can only be described as an optional cockpit with two controller sticks, pedals and over 40 buttons, Steel Batallion makes a serious effort to simulate something that does not even exist. It’s a great example of exactly how silly and awesome games can be:
Of course, Capcom didn’t shirk its responsibilities in designing the simulation either: Players must eject from disabled mechs or lose their character. Mechs will topple if manoeuvred too ambitiously. There are even window wipers.
Skip to about 5:35 for gameplay. It’s absolutely glorious.
The mecha is as fully embodied as possible. The weight and inertia of the machine is a central play element, along with realistic hardpoints and even the suggestion of an operating system that fails if the machine overheats. Steel Batallion faithfully reproduces even the most minute details of its fiction in both presentation and gameplay.
The contrast with Shogo: Mobile Armor Division is staggering. While ostensibly about mecha combat, the mechs are nimble and unrestrained by their suggested scale, pivoting as quickly as you can skate your mouse around, bounding like bunnies as they circle-strafe their quarry. The only real difference between the on-foot and mech sections is the elevation of the viewport and the scale of the surroundings.
While a competent FPS, Shogo completely fails to connect its surface metaphor and mechanics. The metaphor is pure window-dressing, faithfully reflecting its source material down to its faux manga aesthetics, but failing to encapsulate it in its mechanics. In a sense, the game is lying to you about what it is. It occasionally swaps textures, weapons and enemy models around and replaces the ceiling with a skybox, but that’s it.
(In the same sense, Call of Duty: World at War and Modern Warfare fails to distinguish between WW2-era and modern weaponry. They’re balanced in the same fashion, the same raycasts determining trajectory and the same canned recoil animations faking feedback.
The feeling of participating in WW2, it is implied, was similar to a modern surgical-precision operation — or at the very least, the sense of being a soldier in a war hasn’t changed. That certainly suits the CoD series’ propagandist portrayal of war.)
Of course, this is not to say that every game needs to be a simulation or constrain itself to real-world phenomena. Plants vs Zombies hardly portrays an accurate relationship between, well, plants and zombies — but that’s not the point either. It’s an interface-driven resource-management clickfest.
There is no real player embodiment and the surface metaphor is supposed to catch the player’s interest, not provide scaffolding for mental modelling of the mechanics. If anything, the surface metaphor’s wish-fulfilment fantasy lies in the juxtaposition of flora and undead, suggesting to those who like zombies that they’re perfectly acceptable pop culture tropes, while those who find zombies ridiculous have that notion reaffirmed as corncobs fling butter at them.
There’s hardly any plumbing in the Super Mario universe, but there are plenty of pipes that create a dreamlike coherence between Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom. Of course the subconscious wish-fulfilment fantasy of a Brooklyn plumber will feature pipes. Only they’ll be clean, and they lead to magical places.
(Meanwhile, consider how strangely unsuitable Sonic the Hedgehog’s signature golden rings became when coupled with a black, gun-toting hero. They changed from trope to signifier.)
Virtual On sits in a strange place. Its mechanics and physics are completely detached from reality, but the game very much captures the fantasy of mecha combat. There is a heaviness and sluggishness to the uninterruptable and occasionally lengthy attack animations suggest a certain physicality, sure, but the fantasy is the superhuman freedom, strength and combat potential afforded by technology.
It’s the fantasy that the human form (the body as separated from the mind, a silly dualism our culture fixates too much on) could become even more acrobatic, even swifter, even more powerful if only it was something we made rather than was given. Notice how I can’t even talk about embodiment without suggesting that the body was given to the mind.
Where Steel Batallion amply illustrates precisely how impractical walking tanks would actually be (and thus, in a sense, undermines its own fiction, but I’ll let that stand lest I undermine my own), Virtual On is an interactive extrapolation of the excitement and sheer exhilaration of impossible possibility that underlies mecha combat in manga and anime. It is a recreation of a comic book reality and its carefree transgression of mundanity.
The same can be said for Shogo, but the fact that the game distinguishes (or actually fails to distinguish) on-foot and mecha combat highlights that they’re just the same. Mobility, play-style and mode of participation remains the same. While the weapon models vary, their sense of power and impact doesn’t. The fiction grows hollow and bereft of significance.
Another example could be the horses in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Shadow of the Colossus. Epona is a vehicle. It’s a box sliding around topology with an animated model attached, increasing movement speed but otherwise failing to impact the mechanics of movement.
Agro, on the other hand, is a horse. You guide his movements rather than controlling them, the horse exhibiting enough intelligence to avoid cliff edges and enough physicality that he never turns on a dime. You could argue that Epona is a product of hardware limitations, but how come the fat Italian plumber physics of Super Mario 64 are so accomplished?
Virtual On, then, inhabits the same dream-made-real space as the Super Mario series. The kinetics as well as affordances reflect a particular aesthetic, a particular mode of wish-fulfilment. Steel Batallion reflects another.
One Must Fall 2097, however, fails to reflect any aesthetic at all. Often lauded for its depth (really just its customization metastructure, which in itself undermines the entire aesthetic of the fighting game genre in a doubly-whammy of groan-worthy design), the game makes no effort to embody characteristics of its subject matter.
The pre-rendered mechas are the laziest sort: No stretching and squashing, no heft and scale, not even the slightest hint of weight and balance shifts. Sure, there are sparks instead of blood, and the Mechanical Gladiators conceit supports the metastructure, but the game is not about giant mechs duking it out. Its fiction is a commercial differentiator, nothing central to the experience per se.
Now, you could say I’m being rather mean-spirited and chauvinistic about the importance of congruence in mechanics and fiction, but I believe that the honesty of games (in the sense that Robert McKee talks about honesty in story) lies in the relationship between mechanics and their representation.
The MechWarrior series strikes an elegant balance, avoiding the sheer impracticality of Steel Batallion while immersing the player in a somewhat faithful simulation of what mech combat might be like. The weight and scale of the mechs is implied by an exaggerated view bob, while the slow turn-rate and limited weapon load-out shapes play style.
While the interface is more utilitarian than wish-fulfilling, it implies the complexity and sophistication of the machinery. It’s not a very absorbing simulation (unless you own one of those crazy cockpit cabinets, you lucky pig), but it’s coherent enough to convey a real sense of participation in its fiction. In short, the game doesn’t lie about what it is and doesn’t attempt to short-change your expectations. The simulation is honest and, if anything, a little dignified about its limitations.
The point, in the end, is that games absolutely need honesty to be meaningful. Their mechanics need to explore rather than simply reflect their surface fiction, if they are to be respected as cultural expressions. I believe a game is essentially redundant if all it aspires to is basic agency and nothing more. Unlike storytelling, fiction is not at the heart of videogames; fiction is a facilitator. A kind of Rosetta stone that gives a few clues as to the content of the system, while leaving the exploration and understanding to the player.
In a sense, games are anti-fiction because they cannot contrive meaning through structural devices, symbols or metaphor alone. They rely on projecting meaning onto the player’s actions, unlike a reader or film-viewer who projects meaning onto the symbols comprising its narrative. Unlike text, games can have intrinsic meaning that arises from the participation itself rather than the interpretation of a projected participation.
You cannot lend meaning to a film of another person playing a game unless you know the game itself or form some manner of identification with the player — at which point the game simply becomes a diegetic element in a fiction. The sense of mentally modelling the relationships between a game’s mechanics lie at the heart of the play experience.
Yes, there is also the momentary exhilaration of pure participation, as suggested by Callois’ categories of fun, but fun is a shallow definition of the simultaneous sense of learning, exploring, hypothesizing, testing and re-embodiment that distinguishes games from many other forms of entertainment. In this way, play has more in common with performance than consumption.
The aesthetics of games rely on coherence between signifiers and experience-of-dynamics (Heidegger would have invented a great word for this, bless the old contrarian) rather than possible meanings to be gleaned through interpretation. The system is objective, no matter how flexible; if you study it you will learn its truth.
That’s not to say that a negation of this relationship is not a worthwhile aesthetic (look at masocore games), but unless the negation is explicit and perhaps even the reason for the player’s participation, the game has failed. Failed as an expression, failed as a symbolic system and failed as an effort of craft.
If you’re a developer, let your game be a symphony of implication, fiction, agency and empowerment (the gratification of successful effort, not just embodiment of a warrior or all-powerful technocrat) that is above all concerned with the honesty of the relationship between fiction and system.
Let both reinforce each other’s meaning to the player’s experience and let the experience-of-dynamics be as pleasurable and believable as possible, even if the subject matter is incomprehensible horror.
(Modern Warfare 2 and its retarded little brother, Black Ops, look down in shame as the words resound through the immateria of gamespace.)
There’s a reason LARPers dress up like orcs and elves and then go on to feign their mannerisms and role-play their racial traits. If the effort of participation was tangential to the enjoyment of games, they wouldn’t. They’d make it simple, and just tell their friends that they’re fantastic exaggerations of human anatomy. Then they’d order pizza, put on a DVD and leave it at that.
If you’re a player, let yourself be fascinated not only by the representation of your chosen wish-fulfilment fantasy. Let the wish-fulfilment carry weight, a sense of reality even where there is none.
Don’t let 60-foot humanoid war machines wrought from exotic alloys and the finest cybernetics feel like the resin replicas that fetch such awful sums in comic book stores, or even worse — like some dude in a suit, like a faker-than-fake Godzilla or King Kong. Because in play, they are not symbols. They are essence.
Games are about something. They always are, even if the consensus is that they’re primarily compulsion-facilitation machines that can be applied to shopping lists and exercise regimes. No, that’s a misunderstanding — or worse! A lie and a distortion that seeks to strip the most monumentally important cross-fertilization of culture and technology down to a more addicting form of drama.
Obey the robot.