August 29, 2010 12:00 PM | Simon Carless
[In this editorial, our own Christian Nutt looks at the way games use interaction and escapism -- with real-world parallels -- to see what actions can be meaningful, and what kinds drill down to meaningless button-presses.]
I just got back from Ikea.
I hate going to Ikea. I hate it because the store's design is intentionally obstructive to navigation, and because, inevitably, it's very crowded.
I'm going to assume that the majority of readers, no matter what country they hail from, have been in an Ikea. It's a European chain that's huge in the U.S., and there's one right outside Tokyo.
If not, the short of it is this. Most Ikea stores have two floors. The top floor, through which you enter the store, is a maze-like furniture showroom. Finish the first level and you can descend to the next floor, in which you have to wend your way through a dizzying array of household items.
If you make it through that maze, you're rewarded with the self-serve furniture warehouse and the checkouts -- and the exit of the dungeon.
I'm not the only person who has thought about Ikea this way, it turns out. Thinking about Ikea like a video game is not just a fun thought exercise -- it's a practical strategy for dealing with it.
Like any video game, Ikea has its secrets. The first secret you'll learn is that the designers have put in shortcuts that allow you to -- changing genres here -- skip whole worlds. When recently shopping for a mattress, I took a Warp Zone and skipped straight to bedding -- avoiding both Sofa World (1-2) and Coffee Table World (1-3).
The most important secret you will ever learn from playing Ikea is that you can subvert the entire game by taking some advice from Prince: walk in through the out door. That, along with skillful use of Warp Zones, and the recent addition of some needed player agency -- self-service checkouts -- is how I got in and out of the store in 20 minutes, a Gosa Syren pillow in hand.
I think about Ikea this way because I've been playing video games since I was a small child. I also think this mindset is dangerous.
People as Obstacles
Like anybody who plays video games, including many artists, programmers, producers, and executives, I'm an amateur game designer.
Some time ago, I had a thought. What if Ikea really were a game? What if we put those CPUs and GPUs to work on a simulation of the retail experience? If you had to navigate from entrance to exit of the store without touching another individual or knocking over a display, would that be a game?
What if I embellish it with some story -- you're a bored and harried Ikea worker, and you're trying desperately to clock out without being asked any more questions by customers, while also avoiding your boss? (In case you can't tell from this paragraph, I've worked retail.)
Turn the Ikea worker into an Italian assassin, and you have the slip-through-the-crowd of Assassin's Creed II. Turn the worker into an acrobatic courier, and you have the dodge-and-duck of Mirror's Edge.
Why does that make it work? Because -- right now, anyway -- video games are about escapism. At the beginning of this piece I said, "I hate going to Ikea." Why would I spend $60 to go back there -- or even to a thinly-veiled parody of it?
Renaissance Venice is an acceptable setting for a game. A pretty-on-top, ugly-underneath futurescape is an acceptable setting for a game. The mall? Not an acceptable setting -- unless maybe it's been taken over by zombies.
Like I said, it's because games are about escapism. And that's dangerous, too, and I'll get back to that later as well.
Into the Inferno
I think the deficiencies of Visceral Games' Dante's Inferno are fairly obvious. That I didn't discuss them more pains me a bit because I had the perfect opportunity to do so, and squandered it.
Of course, reviewers frequently wrote about how Dante's Inferno is a God of War clone... that isn't as good as the five-year-old game it's cloning. That's typical of game criticism.
Less often discussed is the fact that it has the same premise as Super Mario Bros.
The story is a very clumsy adaptation of a classic poem, and is tawdry and cheap, with cartoon sex and ridiculous violence. It's set against a backdrop of the Crusades that doesn't, as far as I saw, engage that at all (which, given the current state of world politics, seems particularly tone deaf).
And then there's the whole thing where you encounter a famous sinner from history and are invited, after reading a brief paragraph about them, to "Push X to Save, Push Y to Damn". Are you fucking kidding me?
Upon the game's release, I remember reading Gus Mastrapa's review, and finding it strange that he barely acknowledged its sins against literature and history. He did have this to say, however, and it caught my eye:
"The Old Testament morality of Dante's Inferno got into my head after hours of sin and punishment. By the time I made it to the final circle, where traitors, liars, and politicians suffer, I made a mental note to do my best to be nice to others. After centuries, fire and brimstone still do the trick."
My reaction to playing Dante's Inferno was a shrug. His was to perceive hell as a place -- and with that insight, my dismissal of Dante's Inferno is rendered moot. Because the game, at that moment, metamorphosed into art -- for at least one man.
I don't know Mastrapa's religious beliefs. He may believe in hell as an eternal destination, meaning he comes equipped with the mindset to find the creative team's vision chilling. Without getting too deep into mine, let's just say that I don't.
In all the ways that the some at Visceral Games made creative decisions that to my mind actively opposed meaning, it seems that somehow, this game was in fact elevated by others' talents.
For the right audience, meaning bloomed in a desert for ideas.
Nobody's been writing articles in defense of Heavy Rain. There's been plenty of criticism, but I think that a mixture of commercial success, positive reviews, and personal satisfaction with the game has kept those of us who like it quiet.
But, fuck it -- that ends now.
Of course Heavy Rain has problems -- lots of them. There are concerns with the game and its content, and conversing with really smart people and reading analyses of it have convinced me that they are not trivial.
And, of course, there's Press X To Jason, the satire of the game's climactic mall sequence, in which protagonist Ethan Mars makes a fatal error.
It's apt, of course, if you're not taking the game seriously -- and I've been told by some that it's not possible to take the game seriously. I didn't have that problem. But if you are taking the game seriously...
If you are taking the game seriously, then wait a sec. Didn't Quantic Dream just turn Ikea into a game? They added drama through narrative -- a lost child -- and they did it.
Pull up your chair. Here's what makes Heavy Rain a profoundly important piece of game design.
Yes. Game design.
The game's interface, through which any action can be accomplished using the same controls -- firing a gun, driving a car, tucking in a child, kissing a woman -- makes every game action equally important.
Think about this. Most games that try to sprinkle some sentiment or levity by adding child-tucking-in or woman-kissing hack it in. You push a button. An animation plays. You're not doing those things. You're just tapping X.
And in contrast, what you're usually doing, in those games -- with a tremendous amount of depth and nuance -- is killing things.
No, shooting a gun in Heavy Rain isn't as satisfying as shooting a gun in Gears of War. No, driving a car in Heavy Rain isn't as satisfying as driving one in Gran Turismo. But, in Heavy Rain, kissing a woman or tucking in a child is as satisfying as shooting a gun or driving a car.
This elevation of all actions to the same plane is essential to what makes the game a success from a design standpoint. It is vital in terms of the game's core interactivity; it is also absolutely essential to the way the game tells its story. Each moment -- whether you're making an omelet or fighting a killer -- is truly capable of the same interactive, and thus narrative, relevance.
It's also crucial to the game's accessibility, which -- let's face it -- if we want to sell games that aren't just about killing things, is something we need to worry about. That may be, in fact, part of why the game has sold four times what the developer and the publisher estimated it would.
Of course, there's one more thing I love about Heavy Rain. And that is that it's about real life. Sure, serial killers aren't very real life, but fathers and sons and death -- meaningful death -- and neurotic journalists are. (Trust me on the last one.) This is how a trip to the mall was turned into a game, after all.
And that is so very refreshing to me, because I am, as of this writing, 33 years old.
Here Comes Cathy
Last week, Atlus, developer of the Persona series, debuted the trailer for its latest game, Catherine. Based on this teaser, the game looks confusing and dreamlike, filled with bizarre imagery. It's the kind of thing I like, generally.
But what I like so much about the trailer is not merely its style.
No, what makes Catherine matter happens at the very end of the trailer. The main character, Vincent, sits at a table with his wife, whom he's cheated on. She shouts "There's just no way I can forgive you!"
This is not one line in a storm of scrolling text. This is the sound of a woman betrayed. When's the last time you saw a game do that?
For that matter, when was the last time a publisher had the courage to release a game with a woman's name as its title?
This is the sound of a trailer becoming my trailer of 2010.
Per the official site, the game's an "action adventure". Since the trailer is gameplay-free, who knows if the bulk of it is taken up by Vincent running through surreal dreamscapes eviscerating sheep-men with a beam katana, ala No More Heroes? We can hope not -- because what made the Persona games so good is how they integrated the minds and hearts of their characters to the gameplay and world.
But the fact that it's about a guy who cheated on his wife instantly makes it a hell of a lot more interesting. This year, I went through a horrific breakup. This year, the closest I came to navigating a dungeon was buying a pillow at Ikea.
Back to the Store
When I navigate Ikea, in real life, I think about it like a game, as I've confessed. I see the furniture as obstacles.
I see the other shoppers as obstacles, too.
Whatever some politicians might suggest, this doesn't mean that I've lost touch with reality and will soon shoot up an Ikea because I can't get to the checkouts fast enough.
But here's what is dangerous: gamelike thinking may make it easy for me to navigate Ikea much faster than the average shopper. If games have failed to erode my morals in any meaningful way, which I assert is true, they may have still permanently changed the way I look at the world -- in a very weird way.
And here's what else is dangerous: the more our games concentrate entirely on escapism, the more impossible it is to put any sense of reality into them. Not because you can't have meaningful characters embedded in fantasies, of course. But because, in their attempts to so forcefully escape the bounds of the real world, they deliberately avoid meaning.
But you can't avoid what you're mired in. And therefore, so often, they are simply beautiful -- but boring -- trips to Ikea. We can't leave the world behind; we just clumsily obscure it.
We do not need to lay these empty fantasies on so thick. Look at Heavy Rain! It's not realistic, say its critics. Yes, it isn't. The Origami Killer stuff gets silly. But it's no less realistic than Lost or Inception, and it's more realistic, in many ways, than the average episode of CSI -- which, of these examples, it most resembles.
Where Heavy Rain succeeds is because of the relationship between Ethan Mars and Shaun Mars, the relationship between Shaun Mars and Scott Shelby, the relationship between Madison Paige and Ethan Mars.
Heavy Rain's story was derided for being a toolbox full of blunt tools, and it is -- and it's good that we recognize that, so we can do better. But these emotional tools are the fundamental tools of storytelling. We fundamentally can't throw them out just because it's easier to set a game in outer space and pay the merest lip service to the idea that people there there could be fathers, sons, or lovers.
And maybe its gameplay is also one blunt tool -- but if it's a limited instrument, it's also a versatile one. By mapping gameplay meaningfully onto all in-world interactions rather than just one, meaning comes along for the whole ride.
A friend told me a funny story. When he was playing Dragon Age: Origins, he was, coincidentally, in a very bad frame of mind. At the time he was also going on a lot of dates. He looked at these dates, he says, much like NPC interactions in the game.
When I was going out on dates I wasn't thinking "What do I want to know about this girl?" and "Are the two of us compatible?" or even "Do I WANT to go out with this girl?"
Instead, I started perceiving every first date as an "interaction", and the things I said and she said as obstacles on the way to improving her attitude towards me.
Is it warped that he thinks this way? Yes. Is it bad that playing Dragon Age is like going on a series of bad dates? That's worth thinking about too.