Archive for December, 2010

Rhetorical Answers

This isn’t related directly to game spaces, but it is related to writing about games more broadly. Ben Abraham has just made a post about the need for more persuasive rhetoric in writing about games, and I felt I had to respond to some of his points.

What Ben seems to be arguing is that while analysis of games is good and worthy, it’s not enough. We need to be more persuasive in our writing about games, he says. Games writing should be more persuasive than analytical. But to me, that immediately raises the question: what should we be trying to persuade people of? I’m not sure I see that Ben answers this question adequately.

In fact, if anything strikes me as something we need to be persuading people of, it’s something relevant to the first of the questions Ben poses in making his argument. That first question is, “what is still the number one issue to overcome when writing about games?” Now, Ben’s answer is that the number one issue is the conflict between objectivity and subjectivity. But I see it a different way; to me, that question is already resolved in favour of subjectivity. My answer to the question, “what is still the number one issue in writing about games” is: “The resistance to subjective approaches on the part of a large and vocal proportion of those who play and read about games”. Ben links to a comment by ‘JONNY’ that rails against “pseudo art bullshit”, and a blog post by Zach Alexander that tries to defend this incoherent anti-intellectualism with what I can only call much the same brand of anti-intellectualism, dressed up in slightly more eloquent words. These are the kinds of voices who shout down any analysis of games that looks for deeper meaning that what’s objectively visible on-screen as ‘pretentious’ and ‘over-thinking’. If there’s any one thing that writing about games needs to be persuading people of, it’s that subjective analysis of games is valid, and that people like JONNY and Zach don’t get to decide what is and isn’t ‘bullshit’ without having some kind of critical argument to back it up.

The answer Ben gives to his second question identifies the computer science (and broader engineering) heritage of video games. And this is where I lay the blame for this anti-subjectivity anti-intellectualism. It’s tempting to call this a lingering resentment by people of an engineering mindset at being forced to take compulsory English classes, but it’s not very mature, or accurate. My software engineering background may be somewhat limited (I did two years of a software engineering major and fled), but I know all too well the tendency of engineering disciplines to insist on rigid definitions and formal logic, and to dismiss anything that can’t fit these standards as not objective enough. Though there’s a large and growing contingent of we who discuss games in more subjective terms and with deeper analysis, but the prevailing discourse around games is shallow consumer advisory, or technical analysis. Even those shallow consumer advisory reviews routinely argue that games are good because they use a particular graphics engine, rather than because they provide a compelling, meaningful experience or that a game looks good due to ‘the graphical power of the PS3/Xbox 360/latest PC graphics cards’ rather than because it has a well-realised aesthetic.

Ben goes on to highlight some examples of writing about games that he sees as disappointing for not being persuasive enough, and one particular example he cites is Jorge Albor’s piece, ‘Barbarians At The Gate’. I was also a little disappointed by that piece when I read it, to be honest. Not because I agree with Ben’s position that it’s too much analysis and not enough persuasion, but because I think it’s not enough analysis. It doesn’t go deep enough, it doesn’t explore the issues raised, and it asks questions without then going on to attempt to answer them. To me, the problem with games writing isn’t that there’s too much analysis and not enough persuasive rhetoric, but that too much of the analysis is poor or insufficient. I want to see more analysis, better analysis, deeper and more ambitious analysis. I see the hesitance to go further not as a limitation of analysis, but as a result of the cultural context in which people are writing about games: that same engineering heritage, resistant to subjective thinking about things they see as purely technical.

Persuasive rhetoric doesn’t need to be the enemy of analysis. Nor does it need to supplant it, or be encouraged as distinct from analysis. Instead, I’d argue that persuasive rhetoric needs to be used to support analysis, better, deeper analysis. What persuasive rhetoric needs is something to persuade people of. And what analysis needs is to be wielded more expertly and vigorously, enabled by persuasive rhetoric.

Mapping The Wastes

I’ve been pretty lax in updating this blog lately, mostly because I’m hard at work writing my thesis. Since I’m busy with that, a lot of what I’m going to be publishing here will be pretty close to what I’m writing for the thesis, and right now that means more analysis of Fallout 3. I swear, there will be non-Fallout 3 stuff on here soon, especially once I get into my analysis of BioShock and BioShock 2 in coming weeks, and I’m still working on that Assassin’s Creed piece.

But right now, I want to talk about Fallout 3’s in-game maps, and in particular, the effect they have on the player’s experience of the game space.

Maps are one of the defining examples of conceived space in the trialectic model of spatiality, but the whole point of thinking of space as trialectic is that there’s a whole lot of influence and exchange between the different elements of space. Fallout 3’s maps are a fantastic example of how this works.

Pip-Boy World Map

Pip-Boy World Map

Fallout 3’s in-game maps are provided through a diegetic interface that integrates the conceived space of the game with the lived space. Within the fiction of the game, the Pip-Boy 3000 is a computer worn on the player-character’s wrist. As an interface, it provides the player access to a range of information and features alongside the game’s maps, including character statistics, the player-character’s inventory, text and audio notes they have received, and quest information. The Pip-Boy interface is shown to exist within the fictional space of the game: it is visible on the character’s arm in third-person view, and when it is activated it appears as an object within the field of view of the player-character’s first-person perspective. It sways with the movement of their arm, and is affected by other factors within the game space, such as glare on the screen dependent on the position of the sun in relation to the player-character’s facing. Further, the appearance of the Pip-Boy wrist-computer communicates – with its aesthetic of early computer graphics and its cathode ray tube screen – that it is an object that exists within the broader lived space of the game. It exists as an object that has a place within the fictional history of the game world. More specifically, it has a place in the personal history of the player-character, who receives it on their tenth birthday is told they can never remove it. All of this helps to integrate the Pip-Boy interface, and the maps it provides access to, into the game’s fictional space. What the integration of the Pip-Boy interface – and its maps – into the fictional space of the game world represents is the influence of the game’s conceived space on its lived space. The conceived space of the map exists within and both acts upon and is acted upon by the lived space of the game world.

However, the impact of this exchange and overlap between conceived space and lived space is limited by the interface’s separation from the normal action of the game. While the Pip-Boy is activated, time in the game’s fictional space is effectively paused. No character, including the player-character, can take any action within the game space, with the exception of the player-character’s ability to use inventory items within the Pip-Boy interface. Time, as represented by the Pip-Boy’s clock, the movement of the sun and other environmental factors, is stopped. As there is no mechanism to view the map outside of the Pip-Boy interface, this marks a separation of the game’s conceived space from its lived space.

FarCry 2 Map

FarCry 2 Map

This is a marked contrast from the in-game map interface used in FarCry 2, where the map is far more integrated into the game’s lived space. FarCry 2’s in-game map is presented as a paper map held by the player-character alongside a handheld GPS navigation device. While using the map in FarCry 2, the action of the game continues unimpeded, and the player-character can move around, lowering the map when they do so, and raising it again when they stop. While driving in FarCry 2 the map can be laid on the player-character’s lap, to be consulted alongside a vehicle-mounted GPS navigation device. However FarCry 2’s integration of its in-game map into the fictional space of the game represents an extreme case on the spectrum of integration among commercial first-person action games. Moreover, FarCry 2’s map exists in the context of a broader effort in the game at integrating interface elements with the game’s fictional space. Fallout 3 still presents the game’s conceived space – as represented by its in-game maps accessed through the Pip-Boy interface – as interacting significantly with the game’s lived space, despite the limitations on this interaction.

The maps accessible through the Pip-Boy interface represent not just the static game world, but also the player-character’s specific experience of it. Fallout 3’s conceived space is separated into marked and unmarked locations. Marked locations are named, provide experience points when the player visits them for the first time, and appear on the Pip-Boy map with one of a number of icons once visited. The range of icons used to mark locations is small, and the icon only indicates the general character of the location, such as a military base, settlement, etc. Before visiting them, the player-character may become aware of marked locations through dialogue or through notes, and these known-but-unvisited marked locations then appear on the Pip-Boy map as empty square icons and a name, marking known locations until they are visited. Unmarked locations are never marked on the Pip-Boy map, and represent an interstitial space of ‘wasteland’ between marked locations. Similarly, the game’s local map reveals the details of the space around the player-character as they move through the space. This incremental mapping of the space represents the impact of the game’s lived space on its conceived space, as the Pip-Boy maps essentially record the player-character’s experience of that lived space.

Displaying known but unvisited locations on the Pip-Boy map invites the player to explore these locations. Because the player will discover early on that the Pip-Boy map only displays points of interest as marked locations on the map, known locations create an expectation that something noteworthy will be found there. This provides a powerful motivation for the player to explore these known locations. Known locations might be anywhere on the map, at any distance in relation to the player, and there may be numerous other unknown marked locations in-between. The invitation that the known locations present, to explore and seek out points of interest, represents the game’s conceived space acting on its lived space, by informing the player’s experience of the space. This experience of the lived space of the game then informs the conceived space, through the marking of discovered locations on the map. This relationship between the game’s conceived and lived space represents precisely the sort of overlap and exchange that causes Soja to describe space as trialectic.