Immersion and Storytelling in a non-art format

I don’t begin to imagine what qualifies as Art. For me, the extensive umbrella of “art” encompasses that which evokes emotion or understanding on behalf of the audience, through a deliberate process of creation. In that regard, I’ve considered video games to be art for a long time. And although I wasn’t one to cry when Aeris died (personally never liked her in the party and Tifa was clearly the hottie love interest!), the fact that the convoluted story of FF7 kept me on the edge of my seat (as well as forcing 3 subsequent playthroughs just to get it) was evidence that emotion can be evoked trough storytelling in any form. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the story that matters.

Games present a very unique experience in storytelling. The player is immersed immediately, having limited control over the actions of the characters and utilizing their own personal skill and thought process into the mere act of survival. Mario doesn’t make it to the wrong castle if the player isn’t capable of timing the leap just right to bounce off the koopa troopa onto the next safe ledge. In this way, games are inevitably an immersive form for storytelling, with the absolute base level of stakes being “if I don’t do this right, I don’t get any further!”

The Interplay of Difficulty and Story

The seeds of this post started months ago, while playing Gears of War on its most difficult setting. I noticed that the story itself was changed in believability levels once the challenge was impeccably hard. By way of analogy, let’s reference the Transformers movie from the 80s. After watching years of that cartoon, there existed a sense of safety for the characters. Mostly the Decepticons never hit a single Autobot with their clearly poorly aimed lasers (which is additionally absurd given the accuracy of current computer targeting systems – I mean, they’re fucking robots! We don’t have that kind of technology yet, but we can certainly hit the broad side of a barn from 5 feet back WITH A FUCKING LASER…) So it was simultaneously shocking, horrifying, sad and most importantly unbelievable when, within the first 10 minutes of the Transformers movie, the Decepticons literally kill a bunch of Autobots. Still, to this day, the whole thing made no sense.

I should say that typically when I play a game for the first time, I play it on Normal or even Easy difficulty. I want to enjoy the story, learn the challenges and understand the depth of gameplay before frustrating myself with tougher challenges. So the first time playing Gears of War, the characters are unbelievably awesome. We tear shit up, stomp faces, barely get shot and never die. We are an elite force of good, evidence of the superiority of human beings over grubkind, kicking ass and chewing bubble gum and generally mocking the feeble attempts at domination. Yet the limited storyline seems completely disjointed and unrelated to my making sex to the bad guys’ moms. The characters continually talk about the peril they face and the possibility of the annihilation of the human race. Characters get shot once in a cut scene and simply die, while in battle when I am occasionally hit I duck behind a wall and my wounds magically heal … frankly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

But try queuing up GoW on its toughest difficulty, and the story changes completely. Whereas before I was a one man killing machine, suddenly I am getting torn up by the most accurate snipers in the universe, spending more time reloading a checkpoint than actually playing. Suddenly this game truly is about survival, and the primary tactic changes from “run in guns a’blazing” to “holy shit fuck, how do I make it to that next crumbled wall to get a shitty shot at robin Hood over there without getting near enough for him to throw spiked chain grenades into my eye sockets?” In this way, the struggle and the desperation of the narrative has suddenly infected the way I play the game – everything is a near miss and a “barely made that one” and I can relate to the idea that we’re all totally fucked.

Another great example of this is the Halo franchise. Though used for many as a springboard to profanity-laced multiplayer hate speech and more teabagging than a Palin rally, I personally love Halo as a single player story. On easier difficulty settings, Master Chief is a fucking superhuman, tearing up alien baddies and mostly just running through levels killing anything that glows. At some points, the tiniest grunt aliens even start referring to MC as a demon and running for their fucking lives, and the player can feel exactly that awesome as he sticks a glowy explosive to a fleeing gruntling who stupidly runs into a pack of his friends before exploding into an array of glowy bits and glowy armor. But try it on the hardest difficulty, and the entire story changes. Suddenly, MC is barely a step above the cannon-fodder marines who fight, and explode, at his side. Suddenly the game becomes a slower, more meandering process and the sudden appearance of Brutes or, heaven forbid Hunters, will leave you desperately picking at their spikey armor with nothing but stones left as all your ammo was wasted earlier on taking out a fucking glowy tanks. Suddenly, MC’s survival is nothing short of miraculous, and humanity is almost assuredly fucked. And it suddenly feels like you’re playing the game the way its supposed to be played – an intense, frustrating collection of actions more about survival than domination. Look back at the story of Halo, and see what I mean.

So I will definitely say that the purest form of storytelling in games relies on the player actually playing the game on the hardest difficulty. It appears that in most cases, this is the game the developers want you to experience. This is the story they want to tell.

Pure Immersion Games

The idea of immersion as an element in gaming isn’t something new. Perhaps the greatest example comes from good old D&D, a system that requires a player not only to engage all action through a set of rules and rolls, but requires a certain level of character development and commitment for the wheels to even start rolling to begin with. I have often complained about the fluidity of storytelling capable in traditional RPGs and lost in the modern trend of “branching paths,” wherein the decisions made by the player ultimately lead to the very same plot points regardless of the choice made, thus rendering the “choices” completely nullified. At the time, it felt like a huge part of my complaint relied upon technical capabilities not even close to available in the current video game market.

The perfect middle ground for me comes from a mix of a driving, forceful, directed story arc and a depth of character appreciation. While immersion dominates the D&D world of storytelling, it also relies heavily on the cooperation of several people to commit to the vision of the DM. At its finest points in storytelling, D&D sessions might clip along with little table talk and a smooth understanding of combat mechanics without frequent breaks to look up rules for climbing a tree, finding a birds nest, balancing on the branch while throwing eggs from the nest, damage for the attack, vision-blurring effects of non-standard projectiles, and attacks of opportunity. However, most sessions of D&D fall into a more socializing aspect, full of distractions and table talk and out of character jokes; and this is, indeed, the very best part of a good D20 nerding session.

But without a more domineering force driving the narrative, the act of total immersion ends up somewhere closer to socialization, and this middle ground is lost.

Over Immersion – The Failings of MMO Storytelling

I should briefly add a note here. Many people talk about the immersive qualities of MMOs as one of their biggest strengths. As a WoW player, I can’t necessarily argue about the immersiveness of that particular game – given the wealth of achievements, classes, and “carrots” (even limiting those carrots to vanity pets and mounts), as well as the free-expression style of interaction with other players, there is no question that one can immerse themselves into the WoW for literally days upon days of play time. However, I would argue that MMOs, even those with heavy amounts of lore, are almost on the entire opposite end of the spectrum in terms of storytelling. Though quest givers and flavor text provide ample amounts of depth, these things are almost entirely avoidable and are certainly not integral to a player who merely wishes to level, grind rep, and raid. The very repetitive nature of MMOs at endgame eliminates much of the potential for storytelling, as the story is ultimately on a Groundhog’s Day infinite loop with rare significant world changes.

The truth about MMOs, based on my WoW experience, is that storytelling is a minor part of an immersive social experience. This is the modern day equivalent to the base-level of immersive storytelling I was talking about before – most of the “story” being experienced is told is really one of survival through use of buttons.

The exception, of course, comes from the availability of roleplaying servers, where players are required to remain in character in all interactions with the world. However, without a guiding force DM, the same failings of repetition and rudderless ships applies – immersive storytelling should be driven by a strong narrative, which is lost in the overabundance of player control regarding how the story plays out.

Still, I have never tried the RP servers, believing myself locked out from joining them for having been laid before.

[Editor’s Note: Yes, there is stratification within the nerd world, where even I, a confessed huge nerd, still hold unfortunate and unreasonable biases and prejudices against lower caste nerds – like people who roleplay in MMOs and LARPers]

The Importance of Mood

It’s surprising to me that more game designers aren’t aware of mood or how to execute it properly. The use of ambient sound, chilling sound effects and minimalist soundtrack can create the most frightening movie or game moment possible – clenched jaw, white knuckles, prone to jumping out of your seat. This describes anything from The Grudge to Walking Dead to Resident Evil. For the more action oriented, check out the mood created in Halo by soundtrack alone, or in Mass Effect to create a milling, contemplative universe with the silence and emptiness of space reflected by the minimalist repeated electronic score.

All of the best moments in gaming storytelling, for me, revolve around creating a mood so immersive as to bring the true intent of the story home. I readily admit to tearing up when finally reaching the ending of Final Fantasy 10, once that piano hits and Yuna reaches in for one last embrace from Tidus… sniff …

But my all-time favorite memory comes from playing Thief 3 on the Xbox, through an oddly removed level in a haunted insane asylum where strange robed monstrous humanoids hunted me in the shadows, and every few moments a loud and jarring creak of iron doors being opened somewhere else in the building gave the constant sense that while I couldn’t see anyone or anything near me, I was most certainly NOT alone. I got so anxious and stressed playing through this section of the game that when my roommates got home from a night of boozing and jokingly banged on my window to get me to open the front door, I literally jumped and yelped. A visceral reaction in the real world to an intensity created completely in an imagined one? That’s. Fucking. Mood.

A Great Example of Meshing Worlds: Assassin’s Creed – Brotherhood

For anyone who has never played any of the Assassin’s Creed games, a usually unreported plot device exists, unique and wonderful, passively immersive and compelling. While almost every ad for the game shows the kickass assassin protagonist (either Altair or Ezio), parkouring around anachronistic buildings and leap-stabbing guards, then slinking away into the shadows without being seen. The premise itself is enticing and seems hard to believe given the typical nature of stealth games (being mostly at night and in dark corridors, while AC is clearly all about sunlight and cityscapes). But for people who have never played, what you’re seeing is really only half of the plot of the Assassin’s Creed franchise …

The real, unseen in ads hero of Assassin’s Creed is Desmond, a young man living in the not-too-distant future. He is kidnapped by a mysterious group working for a company named Abstergo, and is forced to sit in a machine and relive these scenes from history, freely controlling the actions of the assassin. As the plot develops, it is revealed that Desmond is the ancestor of these assassins, and their memories exist within his DNA. And the Abstergo jerks are trying to unlock some secret hidden in Desmond’s memories of Altair’s memories, tied in to two warring factions from the middle ages – the Assassins and the Templars. So to reiterate, you control Desmond controlling Altair (or Ezio), and everything is related to a plot that has gone on for hundreds of years and relates to things going on in the modern world.

This is quite the setup for a game appearing to be nothing more than a visceral murderfest.

As enticing as that plot is, it’s the little touches that really draw the player into the story. Desmond’s ability to reach further memories relies on his becoming synchronized with the original; memories – the closer Desomnd (and you) get to a perfect synchronization, the more things get unlocked. This manifests in two important ways – first, instead of game overs, you have “complete desynch.” Altair, for instance, never killed innocents, so killing innocents results in desynchronization. Taking damage in fights results in a lessening of synch since Altair actually survived the encounters, and being detected during other encounters yields the same result. This idea, merely a variation of typical rule sets for games, is then visually implemented by cubed glitches in the screen, tweaked and jumpy breaks between cut scenes, and great loading sequences where entire cities are dropped into a blank and vacant background space similar to training scenes from the Matrix. The game completely fucks with your sense of reality at times, with occasional oddities like hidden messages from past Abstergo test subjects written in glowy invisible ink and located all across the expansive cityscape. These messages, for instance, though experienced in the past by Ezio, were in fact written from the present to Desmond, sitting in the Abstergo chair sometime in 2012 or so…. You with me?

So in addition to complexity of plot and visual clues to remind you of the depths of interaction, as well as two distinct storylines per game (one set in the past and one in the present) and in addition to the perfectly executed gameplay involving parkour exploration, leaps from great heights, and GTA-style missions around the city, Assassin’s Creed – Brotherhood (the third entry into the series) also offers some great collection and perfection style side quests reminiscent of the difficulty challenges and MMO staples named above.

In one mission, I was tasked with accompanying a man in a gondola to gain entrance to the dungeons of a castle to destroy some blueprints and generally kill a bunch of shit silently. Touching or in any way interacting with the gondola would result in immediate desynch. In order to beat the mission, I needed to destroy the blue prints. In order to gain 100% synch, I needed to complete a single unique challenge – in this case opening a certain door instead of having the guards open the door. I played through the mission first just getting a feel for where the door was and how I could complete the mission properly…. Then immediately reset the mission and tried my hand at perfect synchronization. These perfect synchs often require speed and precision, or perfect concealment, killing a guard from a hidden location, taking no damage through the entire mission, or using only a certain weapon throughout the mission. None of the challenges every get frustrating, but they provide a wonderful sense of immersion into the story as well as the game – not only must I complete the tougher goal in order to get a check mark leading to later unlockables and achievements, but I am also caught up in understanding the difficulty of the main character regarding the plot – thus forcing me to recognize the character and the story as the designers wished instead of turning this subtle and creeping game into a run-and-stab murder race.

Some of my favorite moments in ACB have been in experiencing this perfectly executed mood and immersion into the world. I feel the intensity of the chase as guards look to end my life. The intense music continues when I leap into a pile of hay, as the red arrow marking a searching guard approaches. I pull him into the pile and end his search the old fashioned way, and the music returns to a calm ambient track as I leap out of the hay, brush myself off, and meld back into the crowd, searching for my next mission or collectible.

I am an Assassin.

And storytelling has never been better executed in a video game.

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