The Zarathustran Analytics in Video Games series, pretentious-sounding as it may be, has proven to be some of the most discussion-provoking material that we have offered on PopMatters’ Moving Pixels blog thus far, and not just for the fact that author L.B. Jeffries shocks us into paying attention via the double take-inducing title. It’s just as much for the way that so many of Jeffries’ ideas sound like common sense until you realize how few of those ideas are applied in the modern gaming parlance.
Jeffries states that “Part of the reason this analytical method is named after Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is to do justice to the individualized nature of player input, to put aside judging a game purely by the game play or plot and go beyond that to analyzing the actual experience of a game itself.” It’s an assertion that makes plenty of sense, and yet, we still insist on qualitatively defining a game by its graphics, its sound, its gameplay, and so on, as if these things are only marginally related. Not only that, but we continue to focus on what the games offer us, rather than including in our evaluation that which we offer to the game.
The excerpts below are but a few samples of Jeffries’ insight, peppered with the comic interludes that have become emblematic of his personal style. What you will find are the musings of an individual who refuses to be swayed by the commonly-accepted tropes of game review and commentary.
On a game’s identity:
As the need for a critical language in assessing the art of video games becomes tantamount, the most logical place to start looking for such a language is by addressing the question of what defines the essence of a video game. What makes a video game different from a movie or a book? Player input. The interactive nature of video games is what defines them as different from other mediums, and thus arguably it defines what a game is about as well. The story and game design are certainly factors, but they are both portions of a whole.
Despite the claims of wanting video games to have more sophisticated stories, good stories in games only solve half of the problem. You’d need to adapt the game design to the topic as well. Put another way, no amount of renaming the chess pieces on a game board after my childhood friends is going to make the game about my childhood. No amount of saying there are political overtones in your FPS title is going to change the fact that your game design is still just shooting people. Staging Hamlet in a game with giant mechs probably isn’t going to capture the essence of the play (but it’d be awesome if someone tried). A game’s identity is not a matter of the plot or design, it is a matter of what the player is doing.
So what then do we have the player do? How does that relate to the plot and game design as they apply to a game’s identity?
The majority of video games out now still draw their roots from very basic games. The upcoming Starcraft II is a very complex, sped up version of chess. The Baldur’s Gate games, along with most fantasy RPGs, are basically recreating the D&D or GURP games in a complex visual form. Even Wolfenstein 3-D was originally just based on a World War II overhead game mixed with Ultima Underworld, basically introducing the FPS as simply a unique combination of two other games.
Most video games today are still considered games because that’s what their designs are based on: other games. But the game design doesn’t totally control the player input, because the plot is still what defines the motivation and characters of a game. The plot and game design are therefore meant to work together, with the player input having the most priority over how the other two are shaped. That doesn’t mean a game should offer absolute player freedom, it means that the three variables need to work together. Numerous games have begun to focus on new topics such as managing a household, babysitting, or taking care of a pet, reflecting this motif. In this vein, then, what are some other examples of video games whose player input reflects their topic?
On the silent protagonist:
The silent protagonist is essentially a crutch. The argument for using them would go along the lines of, “Rather than risk our main guy saying something the player doesn’t like, we’ll have him not speak at all.” It ensures people maintain a personal connection and are never broken out of the game experience. Yet at what point does the player’s desire to speak start to work against that goal? When does being unable to speak interfere with plot or game? Andrew Bossche, in an article for Gamasutra, outlines several key flaws to the silent protagonist as an immersive quality.
First, we already know what a character like Master Chief or Gordon Freeman looks like. They have a background, an identity, and a way that people react to them. People already believe they are playing someone else, why not just have them speak while you’re at it? The numerous incidents of people speaking around you and handing you objectives with little discussion ultimately weakens the protagonist, and that crutch breaks the connection. Bossche ends his essay by declaring that players think of themselves as actors rather than directors in a game. They are inhabiting a role while the game designer outlines the scene and motivation for the actor. Speaking should just be another part of that role.
There’s merit to that argument and yet also a distinct flaw to it. Being an actor implies you have an audience. You are communicating the idea of a person to someone else by your actions. On numerous levels, video games do that. If you’ve never checked out the website bonersgames, then at least watch some of his YouTube work. The man plays video games well enough that people watch them just to see the story unfold. He’ll pause to let tension develop, act confused just as the main character is feeling, and essentially plays the game to emphasize the very experience that the designers meant for the player—all for the sake of people watching his videos on YouTube. What boner’s performance implies (insert snicker here) is not so much that gamers should consider themselves actors but that the outside observer is an essential ingredient to any player connection. Simply put, having someone watch you makes you connect with the game.
On the redefinition of “person”:
To begin, we’ll look at games where the player is the main controlling factor. Keep in mind I’m not saying the plot or game still don’t force you to do stuff, I’m saying that the player is the dominant controller and foundation of the experience. The best examples that come to mind are more open-ended RPGs like Oblivion or Mass Effect. The key element of player emphasis and calling it “First-Person” comes from the use of ‘I’, as in “I did this, I killed her, I did that.” You have total control over your character’s appearance, actions, name, and those have an effect on the plot as well. At the same time, you can manipulate the game to how you want to play it. You can use magic to win, fight with swords, or any other choice that tailors how the game is played to your personal tastes. You, “I”, are in control of the experience while the game and story impose few restrictions.
In a Second-Person game, neither the player nor the story are the dominant controlling factors, the game is. Your actions have no effect on the story or how the game is played. A lot of shooters like Half-Life 2 or Halo are examples of this category, but the purest example would be Myst. The main character is you. You’re stuck on an island. You need to solve the puzzle this way. The game is in absolute control of both you and the story because the only way to progress is by playing exactly the way it wants and then it feeds you story.
Distinguish that from a First-Person game where you create both an identity and your own approach to a game. There can certainly be some variation in a shooter because you can pick weapons and tactics, but you’re still just making minor choices that have the same “Kill the Bad Guy” outcome. It’s still just “You do this to win, you do this in the story, you, you, you”. The game’s design creates the experience while the player-input and plot act in response to it. On a lot of levels this would be the purest form of a game because there is no interference with the experience. It’s just you, the way to win, and the challenge of getting there.
If you’re detecting a pattern then you can guess the next option: a Third-Person game is one where the story is in control. It tells you who the character is and it pretty much defines how you play the game. Prime examples would be the Zelda series or Max Payne. Being able to see the character is definitely a motif, but I hesitate to call it necessary here. An FPS like Thief starts to become third person because of the heavy emphasis on Garrett’s identity by having him speak frequently. The story controls the game because everything you’re doing has a meaning within the story.
These actions don’t involve personal strategy or methods of playing the game. For example, you getting the Master Sword would normally be an upgrade in a First-Person game. But in Zelda? It’s an epic event that progresses the plot and enables your character to progress in the story. You also are forced to use the weapon, for no better reason than the story requires it. And unlike a Second-Person game, the character you play as has his own reaction and desires with these events. The story controls the player because it tells who your character is, what they’re like, who they’re screwing, who they hate, and generally doesn’t let you do much to change that.
Is it truly for anyone to say that there is a right way, or even necessarily a wrong way, to write about games? I’m not so sure. Part of what makes reading criticism of a medium so interesting, especially in an age where so much of it is available, is finding a sense of the personality of the author presenting that criticism as much as it is looking for evaluation of that which is being criticized. In a medium like gaming, for which so much of the experience depends on what the user is willing to contribute, that becomes especially true.
Still, what Jeffries is offering is that to get a good sense of a game, one must look at the complete picture of it; what was intended by it, what the player can contribute, the effectiveness of the story, the mechanisms with which that story becomes the player’s story…everything. Regardless of whether or not one chooses to subscribe to Jeffries’ theories and methods, one has to admit: the guy might be on to something. All that’s left now is to see where it all leads.