Saturday 8 October 2011

Where the Line Leads

I need you / I don’t need you / and all of that jiving around

It is in the nature of Brindles to return to the scene of a crime long after everybody else has been allowed the mercy of forgetting. Since a similar impulse is clearly afflicting this blog  (Left 4 Dead? The Marriage? In 2011?), let us go stubbornly and grudgingly back to examine a year-old minor furore. Shortly after the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops, a fellow called Bungle put out a video of him playing through the first two levels without firing a shot.

For detractors, Bungle’s video offers the grim spectacle of the linear manshoot genre’s design principles enacted as full-on farce. On Hardened difficulty he is able to stand around like a lemon admiring the idle animations on his gun while AI companions blitz through the enemy before him. He does this from cover, in the open, and in slow motion. He runs through a field of harmless explosions and, as a culmination, sits in the back of a plane twiddling his thumbs over the firing studs of a machinegun as enemies queue up outside to spray blanks at him. As it turns out, he’s been rendered invincible for the sequence. It seems like the player has finally become irrelevant to the proceedings.

That isn't quite true. The player cannot be properly irrelevant, for her role even as a mere receiver of experience remains substantial: the experience is hers and doesn't happen without her. We must nevertheless distinguish between the level of agency different games offer, between the extents to which they allow the player to change the game-state from within its own ruleset. In physics, ‘phase space’ is a map on which all possible states of a system are drawn. The phase space of BLOPS resembles Wolfenstein 1d – without the shooting.

At the very least, the game is wilfully disrupting its own illusion. Protagonist Alex Mason is supposed to be a walking nexus in history, a key participant in the secret wars of the twentieth century rather than the spectator figure that modern life made of the rest of us. Better, then, to say that BLOPS acts like it doesn’t need you: however much it requires your participation, it rarely rewards it, and often refuses to acknowledge it at all. It is a passive-aggressive sibling of a game.

Why, in a title ostensibly casting the player as an ultraviolent hero, does the ruleset permit her to act like a tourist? How do its mechanics encourage this comic disconnect?  Scrutinise those mechanics and we find that the route here was incrementally paved with reasonable, sensible design decisions which together conspire towards this result.

First let’s dispense with a niggle. At many points (0:59, 7:38, 7:48, 8:00) Bungle slightly gives the lie to his own thesis when he’s forced to take action to avoid being shot. Diving into cover on a Cuban street or ducking and weaving through the corridors of Castro’s villa, our console-lamenting chum is not actually able to sit back and watch things unfold. At some points he’s forced into a sprint, and at another (8:14) he is flanked by an enemy and has to come back by another route. While these are hardly stirring moments of player choice, and they are far outnumbered by moments where the player can just stand gawping, they do suggest the possibility of a game built around this scrambling for cover (Warco?).

Note that they occur most where map layouts offer even a hint of non-linearity – that is to say where they take rectangles instead of lines as their basis. This small change in blueprint has disproportionate ramifications for player agency and is just the kind of thing that appals a proper revolutionary by making the Tsar seem that little bit gentler. With minimally imaginative design it would not be so difficult to make a Bourne­-style BLOPS map which involves vaulting walls and ducking into buildings to escape firefights unarmed (that is, if there was actually a map editor instead of expensive DLC).

By and large these occasional scramblings for cover do not rescue the game from the charge of passive-aggression. But the apparent irrelevance of the player doesn’t come spring from nowhere. It can be traced to a number of specific design choices, each one taken for sound and identifiable reasons. Firstly, the player’s regenerating health allows her to survive combat without needing to actively seek out health or change her behaviour in battle. Secondly, she is given competent AI companions who can hold their own in combat. Thirdly, these AI companions are invincible, meaning they can carry the load without her input; finally, she herself is invincible during key sequences.

When Halo featured a regenerating shield it was a stroke of design genius. The game had been streamlined from the giant alien Flashpoint it could have been and stripped down to a core of pure combat (hence the subtitle, Combat Evolved). Sad for the gaming world and for its future as this may have been, the new Halo stuck to its guns. Shield regeneration ensured that, mechanically speaking, this was not a game about looting and searching but only about FIGHTING. Between rushing forward into fire and falling back to recover, its fights acquired a kind of pulse, an ebb and flow between caution and bravado, and since the enemies also had shields – a crucial factor not often replicated by modern imitators – they were only ended by decisive and sustained assault.

By removing the health bars which the Master Chief still bore beneath his shields, CoD intensifies another effect: negating the long-term consequences of any one engagement, so that all fights, as long as they are survived, end with the same result. If effects are signals to intent then Treyarch’s goal here was clearly to make each fight ‘fair’ and equal – especially to prevent situations where the player hits a checkpoint with hobbled health.

By the same token, there is a visible wish that AI companions – since they are present – should make their presence felt. It is tiresome when shooters introduce your character as part of a team or squad and then contrive reasons to keep you alone (see AvP2). Likewise, useless AI companions are worse than none at all: if the player has squadmates they had better be able to fight without being nursed. And they should also go forward without prompting, so as to avoid the suspicion that they have no lives separate to the player and to encourage newcomers to move forward. In that case, why should they be ‘vincible at all? Maybe they have roles in the story, or maybe they will be important for progress, or maybe the player just doesn’t want to feel punished for the behaviour of an unreliable algorithm.

So now you have AI companions who can’t be killed, who can handle the enemy, and who will show you the way through the level, while the player can avoid death by attrition. A certain rot is starting to set in, but sound reasons also attend the player’s invincibility in the final sequence of the video. Previous CoD games – CoD 2 in particular – would sometimes pop the player in a turret or the back of a truck and have them defend against waves of enemies. The effect of high difficulty modes on ordinary play is that you’re forced to be mindful of cover, to keep your head down, to be more careful, to act more desperate. But in these situations the player cannot move or take cover and therefore has very little choice over whether or not she takes a bullet. Her only option is to kill the enemy before he kills her, but by the nature of enemy accuracy this is partially random achievement. On Hardened or Veteran such sequences can be intolerable roadblocks, mountains on the difficulty spike, proper cause to hurl the mouse against the wall. They are equivalent to jail in Monopoly; you just have to hope you roll doubles. Why keep that in your game? It’s just a cathartic spray-sequence. Just so for the harmless explosions which raise Bungle’s complaint at 13:25. If they dealt damage, or even could kill, would any extra ludic complexity emerge? The player would either take random damage swiftly healed or die from no choice of her own. Making them entirely aesthetic was a fair decision.

It's easy to see why these choices were made, and hard to argue against them. Treyarch surely didn't set out to create a game that plays itself: around the same time as Bungle's video was posted, another folk pisstake, 'Shoot the Hinges', demonstrated the opposite desire. At isolated points game is so fanatically intent on the player’s participation that it breaks down, repeating its instructions over and over like Howard Hughes was lead designer. They wanted you to feel needed. 

Nevertheless, here we are: if some games are only 'loosely' co-operative, this game is at all other junctures only loosely anything. Rarely is the player required to display a percentage of the awareness or co-operation which a three-man team would need to survive against overwhelming odds. Instead, she just needs to show up. The crucial element is not any of those individual design choices, but the goal they were intended to meet. All of that jiving around with hinges is a neurotic compensation mechanism – an ex post facto attempt at saving the game from the fruit of its own design.

No wonder it feels dysfunctional. One moment it clings to your arm and demands pernickety drudge-work to prove that you’re making an effort, and the next it’s pointedly ignoring your attempts at communication in favour of its own script.  Certainly this neurosis stems from anxiety over the act it has to follow: Treyarch’s Call of Duties have always been the runts of the family. Rocked during development by Infinity Ward’s acrimonious divorce from Activision and stricken with guilt over its secret joy at being the publisher’s new favourite, BLOPS juggles deep-rooted envy for its sister games’ fireworks with a continual terror of player abandonment. It suffers from the common fear that it will be recognised as an imposter by those whose grace it craves.

More prosaically, we are looking at the product of what Clint Hocking calls an ‘arms race’:

Arms races happen when easily predictable gains along a single axis suck intelligent well-meaning people toward inevitable conclusions that they are unable to avoid despite their clear visibility. Incremental sacrifices of agency in exchange for massive leaps forward in development of authored film-like narrative technique is - in my opinion - just such an arms race. Especially if that race is the Zeno's paradox I believe it to be.

Here, simple and predictable gains in player fun lead inexorably towards a state of nigh-total ‘looseness’, towards a game that invites you to a party and then spends the whole night talking to your ex. Perhaps that’s fine; Ian Bogost persuasively argues, there is enough room in the world for every kind of game, and none are aberrant. But developers have to realise that if they don’t want to sleepwalk down that route they will need to go back and examine the foundational principles of their design. At no point did Treyarch cross some line where these principles were clearly betrayed: rather, this was their logical end-point all along. With them in place, decisions that were in principle ‘correct’ would lead here naturally.

At Rice University in 2010, Jonathan Blow delivered a lengthy lecture in which he indicted many modern design practices as having a common, unrecognised and unethical end point. His attempt to dispense with these practices in his own work and thereby avoid their "inevitable conclusions" may risk baby/bathwater overlap. But the Strange Case of Bungle and BLOPS aptly illuminates his argument.

CodBLOPS’ priorities are well-rehearsed by players, journalists and critics as well as declared by its design choices. It values spectacle and scripted wonder highly. It emphasises high production values and attempts perfect execution of a few simple elements (not that it always succeeds) rather than breadth of player experience. It wants to be accessible to players without necessarily demanding too much of them; it wants to offer downtime for the brain. It assumes that fun consists of not being impeded in your forward motion, or, perhaps, not being punished. And it assumes – likely with the best intention – that the player does not want to be frustrated, treated unfairly, or randomly killed. These assumptions are not without value, and good things often come of them. But we should know where they lead – either towards automation, or unhinged contradiction.

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