Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Stone dead

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I met my hero the other night. My excitement was bowed a bit by the fact that he was dead, and turned out to be a bit of a moaner, but only a bit. Even odder was the fact that until I'd met him, I'd never even heard of him. But, after one rambling, ghostly conversation, I realised I was his biggest fan.

Franclorn Forgewright is the greatest architect in all of Azeroth, responsible for the immense doors of Blackrock Depths and who knows how many other pieces of monumental masonry across the world of WarCraft. It was all I could do not to ask for his autograph. My bovine roots may mean I spend a lot of my time in elaborate yurts and bone-stitched tepees, but not even my hatred of the Alliance can dent my admiration of Ironforge and Stormwind. To meet the man who devised these stone-wrought colossi was something I never though a humble druid from Mulgore would get to do. His cities are as much machines as homes, as much statues as settlements, radiating history, hostility and grandeur. And so what was I ever going to say to his request for help but 'yes'? Allowing that 'For the Horde!' didn't really seem appropriate.

And that means it's the first quest in who knows how long I've given a damn about in WoW. I don't read the preambles, only the instructions. I still don't really know why we're at war, especially since Mulgore seems a haven of peace and plenty and not much troubled by scourges. I feel no sense of allegiance to Thrall, and I only hate the Alliance because they fanny around so hopelessly in Warsong Gulch. My commitment to the game has always been about the setting, not the story, until all of a sudden the setting became the story and I felt I owed this man - this grumpy ghost of my enemy - a debt of honour as real as I've owed to any human player. At a time when there's so much talk of story in games, it properly baffles me that the debate remains fixated on dialogue and character design when good games have known for years that architecture is the best narrator you could ever hope for, reading from a script that never tires.

So while I know it's really Chris Metzen or Bill Petras or Justin Thavirat I should be chasing with my autograph book, I'm going to stick with directing my gratitude to Franclorn Forgewright. Not least because he's a lot more likely to give me rare epix! in return. Thanks, Franc. Thancs.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Monkey see not monkey do

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Last night there was a fight in my house. Well, not so much a fight as a pretty brutal piece of abuse. One guy decided to show his chops by terrorising this girl. He got his cronies to pin her down and started taunting her that he was going to cut her tongue out. Someone had even found some tongs, and they were grabbing her head, forcing their fingers into her mouth, trying to grab at her tongue so they could get a grip on it. He was laughing and miming like he had a pair of scissors. She was screaming, trying to not scream, trying to keep her mouth closed as the men pried and pulled at her jaw. It was horrifying.

It wasn’t real, of course, but it was in my house. It was a trailer for BBC1’s new feelgood Robin Hood drama. The man was everyone’s favourite lovable rogue Keith Allen, and tongs were quickly knocked out of his thug’s hand by an arrow from our hero in Lincoln green. The trailer didn’t give the ending away, but I’m pretty sure the rescued girl, now flush with desire rather than terror, will have offered rakish Robin a kiss for his trouble. Probably not French, under the circumstances.

I’ve spent the week booting people in the nuts in God Hand, causing mass extinctions in Un Goro crater and executing armies of goons in Scarface, and this was still by far the most violent thing I’d seen. And that’s fairly common. Flick on the telly mid-evening and it’s very likely that you’ll be thrown straight in to some voyeuristic rape courtesy of Robson Green’s dismal Wire In The Blood, or some cockle-warming domestic violence round Albert Square. But that colossal discrepancy is appropriate, right? Because TV is passive, and games are participatory, so it’s only reasonable that we have standards with such a gulf between them that calling them ‘double’ is a joke in itself.

I’m not so sure. What changed my mind was the scene in Syriana where George Clooney has his fingernail ripped out by a horrified torturer. Watching it in the safety of my bedroom, the appalling violence of it physically propelled me to my feet. I instinctively hit the mute button, stepping away from the screen to distance myself from his pain and terror. Even in hindsight – and it’s months ago now – it makes my throat close. In fact, in hindsight it’s even worse because I now know he chipped his spine when filming the scene, so his spasms of pain were genuine. It made the idea that this was supposed to have less of an effect on me because I wasn’t an active participant seem bizarre.

It’s bizarre because, watching Syriana, there’s nothing to tell me this isn’t really happening, no physical cues to prove it’s fictional. The camera-work is intrusive and intimate. Your point of view is trapped in the room, watching everything. In the film, your role is that of an observer; and in reality you’re an observer too, shifting in your seat as uneasily as the camera shifts round the scene. There is nothing physical to tell you this square of light in front of you isn’t a window – a weird periscope which starts in your house and finishes in an air-duct in the wall of a real room where real people are torn open with pliers. I may intellectually know that George Clooney isn’t really a CIA agent, and that this square of light means something different from the square of light in the wall through which I can see rowdy students get kicked in the stomach by angry taxi drivers in the early hours of the morning, but you have to agree it’s a fairly esoteric distinction.

But in a game, you have a constant feedback that this it isn’t real. In order for someone to get booted in the nuts, you have to press the boot-in-nuts button, and the very act of doing that proves that this isn’t real. The screen may show you that’s what happening, but you know as a matter of physical, verifiable fact that it isn’t. You’re wearing slippers and drinking some coffee that’s gone a bit cold, not killing a man with your fists.

The real answer for the double standards, of course, is that after 50 years of TV we’ve accepted, as a society, that screen-violence doesn’t have a direct or decided effect on people’s behaviour. Whether that’s true or not, and whether or not the question of its insidious influence isn’t taken seriously enough is up for grabs, of course. But the collective decision was taken some years ago that that time I came home and found myself, unannounced, trapped in an MRI scanner inches away from the bursting, bleeding eye of a man being cooked alive by a psychotic lab technician who’d turned the whole thing up to 11 has done me no harm at all. Wouldn’t it be funny if, in another 50 years, we realised it was game violence that was the safe stuff?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Story Of Oh

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I was showing a friend the opening of Final Fantasy XII today (having forgotten what an amazingly pretty downer that is - ten minutes in and he's dead, she's dead, he's killed him and him, and the evil empire that killed your parents has actually stamped on your flowers) and it made me realise why stories in games will always be rubbish.

It's not the old interactivity-vs-narrative problem - although I'm still convinced that they remain the opposite ends of an increasingly threadbare piece of string - it's this: game stories have to rationalise the fact that every single thing in the world revolves around you. You are the person the shops were built for, the crates stacked for, the mines laid for. You're who the girls wait for, the enemies spawn for and the NPCs patrol for. Sure, games like Oblivion work pretty hard to convince you that it all goes on even when you're not around, but at best it feels like Westworld - an eerie bonhomie that only fools you if you want it to.

Any story in which only one person can be the agent of change is always likely to feel trite. It's a fairytale pattern, whether that person is fairly fairyish (Link) or not at all (Doomguy). It's why saving the world is still the main occupation in any game where you don't have a football or an Enzo. How could anything less be possibly be expected of you if you're the person the world revolves around? It would be churlish not to. The stories in films and books uusually revolve around a powerless person scraping together enough potency to make a big dramatic change - whether it's dying gracefully, or usurping a vicious drill sergeant, or organising a really good batchelor party. And if the heroes are presidents, superheroes or single-mothers-with-unstoppable-guts-and-integrity, then the story is the recognition and defeat of their *actual* weakness, which usually turns out to be Gerald Depardieu or hydrophobia or something equally lame. But in games, even if you start with a weedy pistol, or 10HP, you're still the most powerful - often the only powerful - person in the world. And that gives you two big problems: first, it means that it's very hard for game stories not to be hyperbolic, and second, it makes it very hard for them not all to be the same. The set-dressing may change from sci-fi to fantasy to WWII (although not much further) and the telling may change from the perfunctory to the inept to the elegant, but can you name three games that tell a story which isn't about someone who saves the world by doing the same few things over and over?

Actually - I can. GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas. How about that?