Friday, 11 November 2011

The Assassination of Rockstar by the Coward John Brindle (or, three design failures in Red Dead Redemption)

Revenge. It’s an ugly word, but I’m an ugly man. I tried to start a new life of peace and fulfilment – I started playing Red Dead Redemption. But now the work of just one blogger has turned that all to ashes. They say this path never ends anywhere good. Maybe. Maybe not. But I’m damn sure I’m going to end the son of a bitch who spoiled that game for me.
As you can see, I get a bit carried away with the idea of the Wild West. Yet RDR itself leaves me somewhat cold, and the dirty no good rotten spoiler in question – Lee Kelly over at Ambient Challenge – has perceptively summed up the reasons why. The game’s visuals and sound are immaculate; it shimmers (to steal a phrase) with droplets of purest atmosphere, and, for a game, I guess the writing’s okay too. But Redemption is so entangled in the design conventions of the GTA series that its mechanics never live up to its aesthetics. I want to expand Spoiler Kelly’s critique to illuminate three major structural ways in which Redemption fails the challenge of its Wild West setting.

The Crime System
Our mother, because she was in all respects a sensible woman, did not believe in shielding her children from images of violence, and, because she was an evil one, revelled in inoculating them. Yet in one case she put her foot down: Jimmy alone was never allowed to play Grand Theft Auto. This summer, however, I made him play telling him the point of the game was to act like a psychopath. Instead, he spent his time cycling around Los Santos, burning off all the muscle I’d built up and being very careful not to kill anyone. Minutes later, he sailed off a cliff and landed directly on top of an old lady, who was crushed.
The point is, GTA makes it really hard not to murder. Squashy handling and suicidal pedestrians ensure a succession of accidental killings, while the extreme ease of murder makes it a viable response to almost everything. Opportunities to kick off are everywhere (that the player gains wanted stars when a cop scrapes past their car functions as an incitement to destruction as well as a satirical point), and a police department with the temperament of a nervous horse ensure that even the slightest of them quickly escalates into a horrific bloodbath. Nico’s grumbling in GTAIV comes off as ludicrous not so much because you can contradict it but because you’re obliged to. Dissonance is a spurious concern when players go out of their way to create it; the real question is what the rules encourage and prevent.
Red Dead Redemption is not as twisted, but it inherits many of the same mechanics. I’ve lost track of how often I have accidentally attacked someone (sometimes without realising), incurred their automatic wrath, acquired a bounty attempting to defend myself, been shot at, tried to lasso everyone, been shot at even more for doing so, and fled the town. Then I kill everyone in a forty mile radius and restart the console.
Part of the problem here is that Rockstar didn’t bother to offer the player many ways out of such situations. Ambient duels initiate as you walk through the world, but nobody you accidentally trample ever challenges you to a duel instead of simply attacking you. People draw their guns in a trice rather than responding to fists with fists. Nobody respects the sanctity of a one-on-one fight, and officers of the law shoot first and ask questions later (nobody ever shouts “surrender!”, even though surrender is technically an option). The intention of making it so much harder to get out of these situations than in GTA is clearly to dissuade you from getting into them in the first place, but it simply gives you less incentive to seek a peaceful resolution. In a world that demands the use of force, the consequences of force frustrate more than they excite. Contrary to what the makers of Farmville may believe, paying money is not in itself a satisfying ludic action.
But never fear. If you tire of unjust persecution, you can always commit genocide. Because there’s no escalation of force from the law, no army regiments, artillery pieces, armoured trains or barricades, the player is quite capable of trudging through dozens, hundreds of deaths. These non-canon rampages have occupied about 50% of my time in game so far, and they seem to be the usual result of something going wrong. But they are completely divorced from John Marston’s story and from my self-selected continuity – the one where the story I create makes some sense, rather than the one where he murderously acts out. Having watched my friends play the game I’ve concluded that these rampages – which occur without exception at least once in anyone’s play – have two causes. Either they come from sheer curiosity, and an impulse to see how far the player can go, or they are the frustrated outburst of a player who wants so hard to believe in the story she is playing yet is prevented at every turn. Either way, on you plod, killing and killing, people spawning, screaming, running away and spawning again, and brief red numbers you don’t care about lighting up the grey dawn.
That’ll show ‘em.

The Combat System

Of course, genocide may be thematically appropriate for the American West. But I don’t remember anything in A People’s History about a white man who single-handedly wiped out the Native Americans (and all nearby wilflide). These non-continuity slaughters draw attention to another problem: combat.
The Wild West’s rugged masculinity is shot through with a vein of fragility, and its rough heroes are vulnerable in the way of all flesh. Getting shot is a big deal, and in the yawning emptiness of an unconquered land, who’s going to save you? The quick-draw mystique only functions because one shot is supposedly fatal.
Certainly this is the case on the one-off duel encounters scattered around the game. But outside of them, you’re Wolverine. Snap-to-target auto-aim and whip-fast reloading already make it trivially easy to pop heads, but the bizarre decision to implement regenerating health – which regenerates at a propsterous clip – means you can butcher entire towns without breaking a sweat.
Moreover, the safety net of health regen has made the combat designers lazy. Pinpoint enemy accuracy and short engagement ranges mean it’s almost impossible not to be struck – but no problem, Marston can take it. He shares with his enemies a high probability of success, but wins because he’s tougher – so why bother to make either enemies or the player more fallible?  Likewise, since a player leaning out from behind a cowshed to take aim can be shot instantly upon emerging, cover functions mostly to delay the hit until you’ve got enough health not to care about it. It’s as if the combat system consists entirely of quick fixes chasing each other in circles without any original problem to address: the player is accurate, so enemies must be too; enemies are accurate, so the player must replenish health; the player is tough as nails, so enemies must be accurate. And if there are sometimes many enemies for the player to take on, simply implement bullet time.
Features like suppression or more powerful accuracy modifiers based on range and movement might have served to create battles that felt part of the Wild West (and were more than merely pedestrian). The setting simply demands a different approach to bullets, and that in turn requires a different kind of combat, where anyone getting shot, including the player, is a big deal. That might have offered the chance of desperate escapes through the desert with a bullet in your gut, but it could also have cut down on the waves of goons the game deploys to keep things interesting.  

The Honour System
JENNY: But Father, do you mean unless an innocent receives communion, they're destined to go to Hell? That hardly seems fair.  
That endless parade of red numbers constitutes the third structural issue. Redemption’s opening cut-scene, quoted above, makes clear that ethics are a sticky business out west. Idle conversation on a train identifies natives as “savages” who have “lost their land, but gained access to heaven”, while a priest mouths off ironically about the benefits of a civilisation that offers “the chance to live among people who are decent and do not kill each other.” Clearly, the ethics of the West are lousy with hypocrisy, and clearly, the game is full of characters who do not share the same ethical standards as us or the forward-thinking, Injun-sympathising Marston.  
But let’s be clear: honour is a special concept. You’re not given an integrity meter, which would measure how closely you cleave to an ethical code of your own. Honour has to do with social perception, and measures your standing in the eyes of others (it does not rise or fall as long as you hide your identity). So, given the varying ethical standpoints we're offered, in whose eyes is this 'honour' calculated? Those who believe that the Bible equals civilisation and that the indigenous peoples are ‘savages’? Those who believe that civilisation is a crock of shit? Or the perceptive innocents like Bonnie MacFarlane? Clearly whoever tots up the tally holds religion in high regard, since killing preachers and nuns weighs heavier on your stat than killing ordinary citizens. On the other hand, these wise calculators of culpability must also be early feminists. In a side-mission, ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’, the player can forcibly take a woman back to the husband she has fled (or threaten her back into his arms). My housemate, attempting in good faith to play along with century-old morals, lost 100 honour by doing so. Rockstar tell a story where the question “whose morality?” is constantly bubbling to the surface, but a game where the problem is not tackled.
Moreover, this honour is inconsistently applied. In your first mission for the Armadillo marshal (‘Political Realities in Armadillo’), you lose honour for killing rather than capturing a bandit who is trying to shoot you. In the next, there is no penalty for killing twenty or thirty in a similar but much larger gunfight (despite a dialogue inducement to take them alive). It beggars credulity that the aggregate People of New Austin would object to the killing of one unknown robber in the middle of nowhere more than what amounts to a small war in Pike’s Basin. Leigh Johnson’s passing remark is a poor and isolated attempt to make the discrepancy seem like an intentional, coherent point:
MARSHAL JOHNSON: We just butchered a gang of thieves and the town is up in arms about a missing snake oil salesman? I'm so glad to be serving such a wise and respectable people.
Francois Truffaut might identify this as a particularly severe case of Culinary Possessive-Consumptive Disorder, i.e. having your cake and eating it (even though he was talking about glamourisation, a slightly different issue) . Johnson's line doesn't work because even 'legitimate' missions can incur losses of honour.

The arbitrary nature of the honour system exposes its general purpose. For the most part this angry number is used merely as a stick to beat the player when she attempts anything that contradicts the way John Marston’s written. The Wild West is supposed to be full of figures who profit by doing bad, full of anti-heroes and rough justice, but there is little advantage to a low honour score in Redemption. Only discounts at the world’s one ‘disreputable’ town and a lot of grief from would-be hero NPCs await the player who incurs the wrath of the mysterious Honour Commission. Nevertheless, I would fear to live in Redemption’s Wild West, where that star chamber operates. As an ordinary citizen, I contain only fifty honours (?), and killing me, no matter how gruesome the method, would barely dim a paragon’s halo.

The Wrong Trousers
RDR’s problems are symptomatic of design laziness. Faced with the problem of blanacing a wide, open gameworld against their desire to exercise tonal and dramatic control over a tight story, Rockstar have neither been stern enough to properly restrict player choice nor chill enough to allow and reward it. Worse, their reliance on the GTA formula creates a game where the rules encourage the player to do everything the story demands they avoid. The solutions imposed to prevent this dissonance are clumsy in the extreme, and tend to punish, confuse or simply refuse to acknowledge the player. How Red Dead scored so highly on critics’ measures while dragging these contradictions across the New Austin desert is difficult to understand.
What if Rockstar had been brave enough to start again from first principles and design a system appropriate for their vision? Let’s slip down another leg in the trousers of time and imagine that they took Justin Keverne’s Framework for Systemic Storytelling (plus Part 2) – which came out a few years earlier in this dimension – as their bible. Keverne’s framework focuses on the creation of systems from which stories will emerge independently in response to player actions, but goes into detail about how a developer could ensure these stories are satisfying and controllable.
On the one hand, his recommendations might seem like the hopeless dreams of an emergence fanatic, a hardline deus-ex-ista harping on about the immersive sim all over again:
Initially only allow knowledge of an event to be passed directly to those Characters who witnessed the event. Propagate that knowledge through the network of Characters based on their connections to each other: Allies share information, Enemies don’t. Any Characters who don’t receive knowledge of events directly should only receive knowledge of the consequences as represented by the changed state of objects within the world.
Yes, yes, (drawls the toned and muscled CoDbro of my imagination as I tearfully clutch my special Anna Navarre pillow) – Deus Ex was great, wouldn’t it be nice if mainstream games had built on its work, and can we all get on with our lives, please?
(I played DX for the first time this year. The recent converts are always the most zealous)
But Keverne provides a perceptive overview of how such systems could knit together and offers plenty of scope for narrative control by a developer:
If the cast of characters, settings and props are those befitting a noir story then the  choices available to the player can be organically restricted to those that are thematically appropriate for such a story. Genre conventions in this sense are not necessary a flaw and in fact they can help players understand the range of options available to them.
...if designers desire certain events to occur such events can be instigated by a general purpose ‘Fate’ character, who effectively serves as a designer proxy. Ideally such a character would never be needed but the possibility exists to allow this framework to work in support of a more scripted story.
Keverne’s brief outline is a fantastic counterblast to any argument that such design is simply too difficult, too vague, too undefinable; now, if anyone asks “but how would you even DO that?”, one can gesture to the Framework as a good starting point.
So how might this kind of thing work for RDR?
Don’t create allies or antagonists create Characters. Define Characters both contextually and functionally. Create AI Characters that are autonomous Agents with their own personalities, goals and motivations. Use these variables to determine their behaviour and reaction to the Player’s actions. Let them become allies or antagonists based on the Player’s behaviour and their own perception of it.
‘Honour’ now involves various ideological measures which different characters in the game perceive in different ways. Some lawmen are willing to overlook certain actions while some criminals have their own perverse codes. Proto-feminists and the hardline religious reward the player appropriately, and the game’s themes of hypocrisy and moral relativism are dramatised by the world’s response to the player. Towns where the player is highly respected are less likely to punish her, but this is based on specific connections rather than a generalised heavenly aura. Do I detect a whiff of tragedy coming down the line – automobiles unloading from ships, telegraph lines, the old West ending and the government expanding (oh, and that SPOILER too)? No problem: let the characters who espouse those ideologies become more and more powerful as the game draws on.
Initially only allow knowledge of an event to be passed directly to those Characters who witnessed the event. Propagate that knowledge through the network of Characters based on their connections to each other...
The player can move faster than their own notoriety if they flee to towns without telegraph offices; telegraph lines can be brought down with explosives, and go out of operation during storms. The player can escape the ill effects of a badly designed crime system by skipping town and doing missions in other areas. Bandit settlements and characters provide a safe haven for evildoers but will exact their own price – a moral one – from those who seek shelter.
This ain’t no silver bullet. Issues with the combat system, and crime detection on a micro level, are not solved. Yet it’s important to emphasises that they are not just questions of competence but questions of vision. The vision wasn’t there to create a thematically appropriate and satisfying combat system, nor to work out how the player could be dissuaded from (or punished fittingly for) criminal and ‘evil’ actions without bashing them over the head with a club emblazoned “YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE JOHN MARSTON.”
How dare I call the makers ‘lazy’? Didn’t they write thousands of scripted lines, record hour upon hour of dialogue? That kind of supreme effort of storytelling is hard to reconcile with emergent design, and I freely concede it. Recording alternative lines for every possible permutation of John Marston is an unworkable solution, and nudging him towards Freeman-style neutrality would sacrifice much of what is clearly Rockstar’s ambition.
But their own attempt is fundamentally contradictory, and the player-as-actor is being fed her lines through two different earpieces. The developer behind one is reading a script inherited from GTA, rambling alluringly about liberty and fun but forgetting how the shape of that game’s freedom and the nature of its compensatory mechanisms were determined by its particular thematic concerns (i.e. modern-day urban criminality). The developer in the other earpiee is frantically trying to contravene his companion at every turn, squawking that the player shouldn’t do anything she’s told and struggling to impose the role he wants her to fulfil. Whoever was in charge needed to knock their heads together, stop, and think things through from the foundation. Tearing down all the GTA posters would help.


  1. "But I’m damn sure I’m going to end the son of a bitch who spoiled that game for me." - John "yella belly" Brindle

    Those be fightin' words. Pistols, MacFarlane's ranch, at dawn. *spits tobacco*

  2. I ain't gettin' up early for you, Kelly. Let's make it noon. I needs my beauty sleep so you got something to remember me by when I send you to hell - that is if you're worth the honour. *spits tabasco*

  3. I have Red Dead Redemption as approximately my second favorite game ever (Super Mario 64 if you were wondering). However, I thought that the cutscenes and authored narrative in general were terrible and agree with most of what you wrote.

    For me the game is awesome because of how wonderful it is just riding around that world. Of course I played and loved the main game as a single-player experience, but again that is in spite of the cutscenes and heavy-handed story, not because of them. The "random stranger" missions I thought were generally more interesting than the story missions.

    You mention the auto-aim which may indicate that you're making a mistake - you should have expert targeting on. The game is significantly more fun that way, and honestly the game might have dropped significantly in my personal ranking if I had never switched to that. I also wonder if I would have enjoyed GTA4 more had I done that (not sure if the option existed).

    One phrase that strikes me from your last couple of paragraphs is "Rockstar's ambition." Simply put, Rockstar needs to get a new set of ambitions, because this mindset of trying to beat Hollywood by trying to become more like Hollywood is not working. Telling the story of John Marston the way they wanted to tell it just might not be doable at all in a game with a lot of freedom. Maybe that's more suited for an Uncharted-style game (but whether those are bringing gaming in the right direction is another story).

  4. thanks for commenting. I'll have to try expert aiming mode, though I suspect that the combat system's deficiencies won't entirely go away just because I'm finding it harder to aim. the difficulty with the wild west is that it's a mythological setting we now know almost entirely through film, so cinema is never very far away from the subject. I don't think they could have created a wild west game without trying to emulate cinema! but the question is what you want to take from cinema (atmosphere, drama, visual feel, grizzled character) and ask how to emulate that. in many ways they did pretty well: it looks like the wild west, it feels like the wild west, and people look like wild west people (the animation, a facet too often neglected, is fantastic). the problem is the stuff that's exclusive to games - it's how you play and are compelled to play.