Tuesday, June 12, 2012

“Seemed Like The Way Of The Future”: VR Mk. II and Video Game Narrative

Note: So clearly what I'm talking about here is the Oculus Rift. Equally clearly, I have absolutely no idea that's what it is in this piece and seem under the impression it's of John Carmack's design and not Palmer Lucky's and unaware it's an independent company, which it is. To be fair to me, I was far from the only journalist to make this mistake and the coverage of the Rift at E3 2012 was spotty at best, leading people to make posts like this. I'll leave this up as my larger points on VR are ones I still stand by, despite getting the details of the machine itself pitifully wrong. I hope to have a full review of the Oculus Rift once the consumer version ships, as well as a follow-up on the promise and potential of VR sometime later in the year (2013).

Header video is, of course from The Angry Video Game Nerd, one of my favourite shows ever. If you're in the small minority who still aren't familiar with James Rolfe and Mike Matei and would like to see more from them, please check out their site here.

Well, at this rate my rule about “not covering current events unless particularly relevant” is starting to sound downright farcical...

So E3 2012 was this past week as of this writing. I wasn't physically there thanks to prohibitive travel costs and lack of an official press certification, but I was able to follow the breaking news in real time via a massive amount of streaming content, on-floor video, LiveTweets, instant recaps and my own personal array of spy satellites controlled from the Moon Base where I secretly plot to take over the world. Oh wait, you weren't supposed to know about that last part. Anyway, despite this year's expo being an overwhelmingly tepid and lukewarm affair that showed the industry in a creatively bankrupt holding pattern, there were a few interesting reveals of note. First was Ubisoft's ambitious-sounding new IP Watch Dogs, which I'm sure you'll find is the darling of the games media right now and the talk of the Internet and which hints it might tackle some intriguing, sophisticated and timely themes about the world socio-technoscientific zeitgeist. It certainly deserves a closer examination, and I'll be happy to rise to the challenge when it's actually a thing.

The second, and more important, reveal in my book is one that has baffilingly received very little attention, even on the show floor itself. I find this inconceivable because for me it was the absolute highlight of the entire weeklong expo. Tucked away in a little alcove and separate from the main conference hustle and bustle, John Carmack, whom I've expressed quite a fondness for on this blog before, was demonstrating a side project he's been working on that showed off some truly astonishing technology and potential. With a funky looking pair of goggles literally held together with a duct tape headstrap, Carmack hopes to do no less than bring back that electronic pipedream of the early 1990s, Virtual Reality, and damn well do it properly this time. What's even more unbelievable, if my informants from Los Angeles can be trusted, is that he's actually managed to do it. Describing how he's pulled it off requires some rather muddling digital computer lingo that I don't entirely understand, so let's let the man himself explain in his own words here and here.

What I find so exceptionally laudable about what Carmack says is that, from the way he tells it, this new kind of Virtual Reality system finally does what everyone who was taken in by VR in the 1990s wanted it to do: Fully immerse the player in a realistic-feeling digital world. Even better than that is Carmack's drive to make the materials to build the headset freely available to actual players as a kit that can be purchased for a price that's frankly scarily affordable. This is a conscious, targeted return to the hacker and HAM Radio roots of computer hobbyism that makes up a not-insignificant part of the video game community: A breathtakingly forward-thinking approach to an intellectual tradition that dates back to the Altair 8800 and the BBC Micro. The contrast between Carmack's spirited little demo and the vapid sludge I saw on display at the EA, Sony and Nintendo press conferences was completely night and day. John Carmack is truly the real deal and seems to have the healthy future of both the industry and the medium square in mind. Frankly, where he goes I'll follow.

As excited as I am for the hacker-positive aspects of Carmack's new project and as much as its ramifications and what it reveals about the culture of video game fans deserves careful attention and analysis, what I find most promising about it is what it illustrates about the way video games handle narrative. I had my suspicions before, but this new project has made me certain: John Carmack is not just a whiz kid techie with a bottom-up attitude, he's the first developer since Shigeru Miyamoto to effortlessly grasp what makes video games unique amongst creative media and I'm overjoyed he now works for Bethesda. To explain a little bit more about what I mean and why I'm making this claim, I need to bring up some things Sony showed off at E3 this year.

Sony's press conference was essentially one great big party thrown for the so-called “hardcore gaming crowd” and the loyal PlayStation faithful. It seemed to go over rather well (and it damn well had to given what Sony's fortunes are right now), especially coming off of the sleazy EA show, the fever dream of a Ubisoft presser and the supposedly-disappointing Microsoft showing. I was personally entirely unmoved, but my reasons why are part of a larger attitude I see present in gamer culture and are better saved for another day. One thing both me and my colleagues were in complete agreement of however was that Wonderbook for the PlayStation 3 is an absolutely nonsensical and pointless waste of time. In case you are unfamiliar with the madness that is Wonderbook, allow me to illuminate you: Wonderbook is basically Sony's stab at an Augmented Reality programme where players stand in front of the PlayStation Eye, hold a book-like tablet and wave the PlayStation Move controller over it to make things appear on screen. This was demonstrated by a Harry Potter licensed game where aspiring wizards use the Move controller like a magic wand to turn pages and interact with words to do things like cast spells and trigger minigames. Sony claims this will revolutionize the act of reading and allow books to “transport you to other worlds”.

Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that books are already designed to trigger the imagination in their own way and in no way require motion control nor Augmented Reality to do this and the troubling notion that all of the Wonderbook titles seem to be written for kindergartners. What I instead want to focus on is the Sony's notion, very problematic by me, that video games and books somehow need one another. The existence of Wonderbook tells me that Sony thinks books would be improved by slathering on some token rote interactivity and, conversely, that video games are improved by being connected more intimately to books. By implying the mediums are in some way codependent, and logically in some way related, this cheapens them both because in my view books and games couldn't be more different in the way they interact with readers. Books, while dependent to some extent on readers using their imagination to flesh out the look-and-feel of the world, are generally passive media that rely on a linear form of narrative built around character development that is slowly and methodically revealed to the reader. The story has already been told, in other words, and the reader just has to guess how it will turn out. Whereas video games, as I've argued, are designed so players can generatively build the story in tandem with the developers (when they even have a story, which is not even a prerequisite). Given this logic, what is the purpose of Wonderbook? If the book's story is open to player agency, it's not much of a book and if the story is already mostly written the player's role is largely irrelevant. It's a bad game and a bad book all rolled into one: Like one of the potions in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that gives you an error message and disappears when you mix incompatible ingredients, much less than the sum of its parts.

There's a bothersome habit amongst game developers and journalists that, because of the medium's troubled history with moral guardians and its general struggle for legitimacy, to attempt to justify its existence by comparing games to books and movies. If they could somehow show games can tell as good a story and provide as good an experience as the best novels and films, they reckon, this will finally prove video games are a valid and respectable form of art and entertainment. This logic is, simply put, wrong. Video games are most certainly a valid and respectable form of art and entertainment, but not for these reasons at all. When developers operate from this mentality we get calculated misfires like Wonderbook and, more to the point, Quantic Dream.

For those unfamiliar with Quantic Dream, they are a positively vainglorious development studio headed by the unflappable and controversial David Cage who has spent the majority of his career trying to beat Hollywood at its own game. Responsible for such massively-hyped hits as Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, Cage's group has embodied better than any other studio the trend to make “cinematic” games. By hiring A-list actors and jockeying to remain on the cutting-edge of realistic motion capture technology, Quantic Dream consistently aims to provide the most realistic games with the most nuanced and sophisticated narrative. Cage often boasts the stories in his games are as good or better than those of the most dramatic movies and are singularly responsible for proving games are art, an argument that might hold water if any of his games were written well. If my bitterness and apathy hasn't already betrayed my positionality, Cage's is not a viewpoint I am especially fond of and I've found both of his previous efforts to be deeply unpleasant experiences. Both Indigo Prophecy and especially Heavy Rain are built around making decisions at crucial moments to activate different paths on a ludicrously branching narrative. It's definitely interactivity and the player is a crucial component to the game's story to be sure, but not in any meaningful way in my view. Mostly these games play out like really fancy, dolled-up choose-you-own-adventure novels to me and any investment to be gained from them comes from the themes discussed by the characters during the constantly playing narrative which is so carefully-constructed I feel distant from it. It's all the reasons I gave for not liking Mass Effect but taken to the logical limit.

The reason I bring up David Cage and Quantic Dream is because they were another developer to unveil a new project at Sony's E3 conference. Dubbed Beyond: Two Souls (or 3EYOND, I'm actually not sure which), it will apparently chronicle the story of Jodie Holmes, played by Academy Award-nominated actor Ellen Page and deal with Cage's own ruminations on death, mortality and the afterlife. The trailer revealed at E3 had the commendable gonads to be several minutes long, rendered entirely using the in-game engine and show off no interactive gameplay whatsoever to the packed auditorium of veteran games journalists. Never have I seen a finer demonstration of David Cage's opinion of players, interactivity and the basic fundamentals of the video game medium.

Both Wonderbook and Beyond: Two Souls are symptomatic of a big problem the games industry has in my opinion. This constant, insecure pursuit of comparisons to books and movies misses the core value and purpose of video games as a medium which is, as I've argued the ability to effortlessly share experiences and build a shared world through which an infinite number of singular stories can be told. This is something neither books nor movies can do in my view because they are passive media. Without that crucial element of player agency, there's no tangible connection to the fictional world (this is of course not to say one cannot get invested in a book or movie; there's a difference between relating to something and experiencing it). Books and movies are very good at telling stories other people have written and provocative themes can be explored through them both textually and metatextually, but they are at heart still based around linear narratives readers can look at and critique from afar. Video games are something completely different and to conflate the three of them is spectacularly wrongheaded in my opinion. It's like in the Uncharted series, which is designed from the ground up to be like an action movie. Players assume the role of an Indiana Jones analogue and move from setpiece to setpiece and magnificent cinematic cutscene to magnificent cinematic cutscene. Even the mechanics themselves belie the action movie influence: Players do not “die”, they “throw the take” and have to “redo the scene”. Everything about these games gives the impression developer Naughty Dog have a very specific story to tell and if the player deviates from the literal script it makes things inconvenient and annoying for them. Player agency has been compromised in favour of linear narrative, and I don't think there's anything more self-destructive than that for a game. I dread a world where every game is like Heavy Rain or Uncharted.

This brings us back to John Carmack's big idea. Carmack, and his partners at id and Bethesda, understand the importance of agency in a way Sony, Naughty Dog and Quantic Dream don't seem to be able to. It's telling Carmack and id made their name via seminal first-person shooters like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, which were all groundbreaking early steps towards immersing the player in a game world in a way that had never been attempted before, at least not with any real success. The big revelation these games ushered in is right in the name of the genre they helped codify: “First-Person Shooter”. For the first time, there were games that put the player literally in the shoes of their character, making the proverbial link between them and the game even more direct and intuitive. It's difficult to overstate the effect this shift had on the way players interacted with games: No matter how seamless and intimate Super Mario Bros. was, there's truly something to be said for the ability to actually see through the eyes of a character. It simply adds a layer to the experience that hadn't been there before. What id's games did for the first time was change the role of the player from puppeteer to active agent within the game world itself (Miyamoto eventually found a way to change the paradigm here too, but that's another story). Now, with his new experiments with head-mounted VR displays, John Carmack may very well be taking this core concept to the next stage.

If video games are, as I've argued, fundamentally about sharing or creating a generative experience and the point of player agency is to blur the boundaries between the players, developers and game world than a viable first-person perspective is a logical way to facilitate this process. Likewise, competent and effective motion control and well-implemented stereoscopic 3D are further technological ways the medium of games can invoke to make provocative statements (the latter is also important for visualizing 3D space and kinesthesia, as I have of course argued before). Setting the accuracy of the statements aside for the moment, the intimate, pure sense of “I found this” or “I saw this” or “I made this happen” which dates back to at least Super Mario Bros. is integral to the way video games convey themes and I feel Virtual Reality could be the singularity at which technology will finally be able to demonstrate this in its purest form. In my opinion the more streamlined we make interfacing with our games, the easier it will become to connect and resonate with them because it will be easier for us to feel like the experiences onscreen are actually happening to us. This is exactly what Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to evoke through Super Mario Bros. and is the core difference between active and passive media and why trying to shoehorn a linear narrative onto a video game is such a poor choice in my opinion. The way I see it, games like Uncharted, Heavy Rain and Mass Effect series would all be far more evocative and powerful titles if, rather than pausing the game every few seconds to play a lovingly rendered CGI cutscene with professional actors angsting about choices the player has or has not made, players are confronted with those choices and the themes of the work at a visceral, personal level because they have been made to feel an intimate part of the world or narrative.

In the not-too-distant future I'll take a closer look at a game that shows how this alternative can work brilliantly, but for now I want to concentrate on the potential Virtual Reality has to be a perfect fit for this oft-overlooked model of critique and, frankly, revel in the knowledge I live in a world where it can not only exist, but exist in an open, generative, bottom-up form that's true to a pioneering ideal of the medium in a way unlike anything else I've seen in recent memory. There may very well come a time when this too is subsumed by the soulless corporate lowest-common-denominator chasers or misguided hipster artists that have the run of the industry today, but for right now let me bask in the afterglow of an unexpected victory for not only the video game spirit that caused people like me to fall in love with the medium a long time ago, but also the playful underclass that helped light the spark of that ideal in the first place. If this is where one of the medium's leading lights is pushing the medium to go, then I for one am behind him totally and completely and hope he gets all the support and resources he needs. I'd adore for this to be our future and can't wait to see how inspired developers utilize the potential of this new technology to make the most evocative artistic video game works to date. Just this once, I hope a so-called “innovation” lives up to its hype instead of becoming a last-minute cash grab in the dying throws of a generation desperately tossed out by publishers who know they can no longer compete, destined to be abandoned as quickly as they were introduced.

Please, oh please let me be right about this one.