Thursday, 28 August 2008


So apparently there are two kinds of videogame scholar, which may come as a suprise to those of you who thought there were no kinds. As I understand it, narratologists are the sorts of people who attempt to analyse the plot of Braid (hopefully without losing their already fragile sanity in the process) while ludologists play it and go "Look, he's going backwards! WOW." These two schools of thought are equally valid and should be given equal considerati- yeah, I know, the ludologists are right, but let's pretend, ok? In any case, it's not like you can perfectly separate the two. Take Phoenix Wright. The gameplay is terrible, and while it's pretty much the best-scripted game you're likely to find, it's still nowhere near the calibre of actual decent fiction. It's like playing a crap game while reading a crap book, and yet the result is not double craptitude but one of the most entertaining game series of the last few years. It's all in the connection between the two. Even Braid mirrors its story thematically within the levels (or so my narratologist friends tell me, before going back to... doing something prententious, or whatever? I can't bring myself to actually be mean about them, sorry.)

In any case, it should be fairly clear that narratology vs ludology is a false dichotomy. There's a third way. As a chap called Jonathan Culler apparently said at some point, "the theory of narrative requires a distinction between... 'story' - a sequence of actions or events, conceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse - and... 'discourse', the discursive presentation or narration of events". I don't know who this guy is, I just got the quote off Wikipedia, and I don't think he was talking about games. But it's like Half-Life 2 isn't it? It's one of the best games ever, and that's not because of the gameplay (well-executed but fairly ordinary gunplay) or the story (alien invasion hokum) but something in between - the rattle of a railway bridge as you cling to the struts below, the empty houses strewn with dead bodies, the echo of the Overwatch robotic announcer over the river at sunset. I guess that's what this Jonathan Culler guy was on about anyway. He wants to call this stuff "discourse", but that's a rubbish name, so let's call it awesomology.

Basically almost every game relies on awesomology. (I'm sick of that already. Let's go back to discourse.) But even this is impossible to separate from the other aspects of a game. Think about your favourite game, maybe it's Half-Life 2. If you were trying to isolate just the gameplay aspects, and removed all the plot and all the discourse bits, what would you end up with? At the most basic level, what you do in HL2 is press buttons and waggle joysticks (assuming you're on a console). So if you mapped out a full runthrough of the game in terms of user input, you'd end up with a list of instructions like "move joystick this way, press trigger, press A". Timing is important of course, so let's model the game as one big quicktime event. A button press flashes up on screen and you press it in time, or fail somehow (maybe by losing health, maybe by changing the subsequent sequence of button presses to something more complicated or roundabout). Rinse and repeat for 12 hours or so, and you've finished Half-Life 2.

Except obviously you haven't really played it at all. Output is important as well as input - it's what you're reacting to that makes games different from each other. But as soon as you bring in the elements that make it an FPS, ie the acquisition and disposal of enemies, you're already bringing in some level of discourse. Even if it's all stick figures and wireframe environments. More importantly, while it would still be a pretty boring game, it would at least be more fun than a giant QTE.

Discourse is everything. I can think of very few games that don't have any of it - Tetris, I guess, and other puzzlers, and maybe some hardcore reaction-based schmups and racers. You could call these games "pure", as if it's a virtue that they're unsullied by the horrors of plots and setpieces. A lot of games get called pure, though, and it's interesting to examine why. One game series I often hear the adjective applied to is the Mario series, which I'm inclined to disagree with. If you're hoping this post is turning out to be another installment in my perpetual vendetta against Super Mario Galaxy, then you're in luck.

I like Galaxy a lot, but it is not a pure game, not by any means. In fact, I don't think any of the Mario games since Super Mario Bros have been, which may explain why I'm not all that fond of them up until Super Mario 64. Discourse is inevitably tied to a lot of non-gameplay things, including graphics and sound, and once a game ages beyond the point where these things can still impress, it's only got gameplay to rely on. I enjoy playing, for example, Super Mario World, but for me it is nowhere near the transcendant experience it's described as by people who played it when it first came out. I think this is because I'm not playing it as the most technologically advanced Mario game to date, and thus I am not blown away by its increased scope and improved graphics. The graphics aren't even all that nice from an artistic viewpoint, either.

Galaxy's graphics, meanwhile, are. I consider it one of the prettiest games ever, and the settings are evocative, and the music isn't half bad either. There's something else going on here though. I guess it gets called "pure" because of sections like "Revenge of the Topman Tribe", one of the stars in the Dreadnought Galaxy. There's a bit (about 1:55 here) I call "radiating circles of laser doom" where you have to jump over a load of radiating circles of laser doom, hence the name. The guy in the video messes around a lot, but it's a pretty easy section - just run from one end of the platform to the other jumping over the radiating circles of etc. It's pure platforming, and quite entertaining. It's odd though, because if the platform was arranged differently - say, a long thin walkway with moving straight lines of laser doom - it would be a lot less fun, and yet it would "play" basically the same. You'd still be running and timing jumps in the same way, just in a less funkily-designed environment.

It's almost as if the game is relying on the anticipation of gameplay to impress rather than the gameplay itself. When you first see Bouy Base, or the capsule in the Good Egg Galaxy, there's a sense of excitement because it looks like a fun section. But once you're in, it's standard running-and-jumping antics that would play out just the same in a less interesting setting. That's how I felt, anyway. Maybe you found them just as much fun as they looked. If you did, I can't blame you for thinking it's the best game ever, as so many people do. For me, it felt like smoke and mirrors.

I don't mean to imply that making a game visually interesting is somehow duplicitous, just that there's a lot more discourse going on than is immediately apparent, and sometimes - because of a mood you're in, or a preconception you have about the game, or a million different reasons - you can find yourself immune to it. That's the main reason I don't think Galaxy is one of the best games ever. Now hopefully I can stop going on about it and get on to something more interesting. Like Smash Bros in-jokes. Woo.

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