The Systemic Integrity of Expression

I receive strange looks when I tell people that I think Alpha Protocol was a better game than Mass Effect 2. More strange looks, still, when I talk positively about games like Nier, Lost Planet 2, and Kane & Lynch 2 over those like Fable 3, Red Dead Redemption, and so on. I’m used to it.

It’s not like I don’t understand why people like some of these games. Mass Effect 2 is a well-made space opera that brings fond memories from an abundance of 70s-onward science fiction source material that is close to a lot of gamers’ hearts. Red Dead Redemption is a very thorough, loving recreation of the an underused setting (one which I have a great deal of personal love for). Fable 3 is the third game in an ever-evolving, clever action/RPG series; a series of whose first entry I played through at least three or four times. These are all appealing games in a lot of ways, and I have little-to-no doubt as to why some people adore them so. I also understand the predisposition to like these games as they represent the culmination of years of talent from the very well-respected and remarkable studios which produced them.

More still, I understand how easy it is to fall in love with a game which so wholly reproduces the feeling or memory of things which are near and dear to our past (or present) interests. To argue against the allure of riding a horse through the rolling landscape of Texas and Mexico in Red Dead Redemption is likely impossible and, more to the point, unnecessary. There should never be a doubt that what Rockstar San Diego achieved both artistically and technically with Red Dead Redemption is anything but outstanding. And if Red Dead Redemption was the film it sometimes so desperately seems to want to be, that might be enough (probably still not, but that’s neither here nor there).

Thing is, these games are all so mechanically and systemically broken — or, worse, simply uninteresting — that their allure seems to reside largely in the appeal their reference/source material allows them.

In playing through Mass Effect 2, I wondered what kind of game I was supposed to be playing. Am I playing a third-person action game? If so, the care devoted to a feel and control in a game like Uncharted 2 is certainly not present. And if I’m playing a role-playing game, why am I either bound to a good path or bad path (for maximum use of their associated gameplay systems) or a schizophrenic character who punches children in one scene and resuscitates a polar bear and carries it to safety in another. There’s either a comically good (or bad) role that I’m bound to playing to put the game systems to best use — one which does not carve out something even close to a believable, much less a compelling, character — or I choose the answers of the character I want to build and become some systemically ineffective player but maybe get an interesting story out of it. That these systems can’t really be narratively reconciled is a design sin in its own right, but it’s compounded by the fact that whatever shallow or complex character I create in the dialogue/story bits of Mass Effect 2 is entirely irrelevant to the character I play as during the overly abundant shooty bits of Mass Effect 2. It’s not a matter of ludonarrative dissonance, it’s ludonarrative irrelevance.

I generally get a rap for being overly invested or analytical about the systemic integrity of games; what confuses me, though, is why everyone else is not. When I talk about my love of mechanics and systems which reinforce themes and narratives, I’ve actually had the example of the Uncharted — a game series I thoroughly adore — cited as some purported counter-example. While it’s true that the Uncharted games are linear and feature a sometimes disturbingly cheerful protagonist despite his having killed hundreds (thousands?) of enemy soldiers, Uncharted is a game which I feel elegantly marries its narrative and systems. The goal of this game series is to emulate that of the Indiana Jones-era action/adventure movies and, despite its flaws, Uncharted and Uncharted 2 absolutely nail this goal. There is no point in either of these games where I feel like I’m limited from what I want to be doing within the universe these games exist in.

Jack Bauer endures more moral dilemma and executes better judgment in the matter of “who do I shoot and who do I not shoot” in the most absurd and overwrought episode of 24 than Commander Shepard does at his absolute best moments in any of the Mass Effect games, so we can’t possibly be looking at this as some sort of fulfillment fantasy can we? It’s either pulp science fiction, in which case it’s a game that is theoretically relegated to the nerdiest of the science fiction nerds (much like my library of Jim Thompson books are for a Noir nerd)… But that’s not the case. Mass Effect 2 is a major AAA game development endeavor beloved by millions upon millions of gamers across the world. So, again, why do we care?

We care because there’s something alluring about the mere concept of having anything to do with the path that Commander Shepard takes throughout these games. The illusion of choice and the perceived consequence of our personal decisions as the controller of these games is an intrinsically interesting prospect to us. Despite how much the Mass Effect games make explicit both visually and through its narrative, our minds will still fill in the gaps with something that somehow makes this mass murdering do-gooder (or do-poorer or schizophrenic do-whateverer) compelling. And, likely, this occurs because there is absolutely nothing in Mass Effect 2 that is not hideously well-polished. There is very little in the game that can be considered a “rough edge” — it’s just all so pretty and palatable.

There aren’t an abundance of times where you can find as close an analogue between two recent games as there is with Mass Effect 2 and Alpha Protocol, so let’s stick with that.

Putting Alpha Protocol side-by-side with Mass Effect 2 is an unfair exercise; one of these games is gorgeous and polished and the other is Alpha Protocol. It’s hard to look at Alpha Protocol and see anything remarkable but, given the time, it’s a surprisingly clever game with expressive mechanics that are tangibly (if loosely) tied to the narrative. And even the level design in the game allows for a modicum of expression within the realm of the game’s high-level conceit: empowering the player to play through an absurd super-spy storyline as a character reminiscent of James Bond, Jack Bauer, or Jason Bourne. You can shoot dudes, you can tranquilize dudes, or you can stealth your way around dudes. At times, you can smooth talk your way out of dudes entirely, but the conversation system in Alpha Protocol is actually somewhat complex and timing/situation-dependent and does not, at any point, highlight what the “good” or the “bad” way to react to a situation is (thus, it’s difficult to exploit your way out of a situation).

Alpha Protocoldoes, at no point, imply that you could Sam Fisher (pre-Double Agent and Conviction) your way through the game; you’re bound to the kind of spy that could kill an entire room of dudes easily if you so chose to. It’s not a complex simulation, but it’s a fully, if roughly, explored set of consistent systems. It’s within that conceit that there is expressive wiggle-room, and the mechanics of Alpha Protocol do a lot to take that conceit as far as it can within it’s sub-AAA production values. It’s not a pretty experience, but it’s all there, and it all works to create an entertaining experience that surprised and entertained me, on the whole, more than Mass Effect 2 did.

When I think about my time with games like Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, and Fable 3, I think I had a perfectly acceptable experience. I probably had the experience that the development team wanted me to have with their games. With Red Dead Redemption, I at no point didn’t experience the story of John Marsden, but I sure didn’t play it. With Mass Effect 2 I got the new gang together and did some really cool stuff in space, but outside of the combinatorial approach to a “dynamic” ending, I didn’t bring much to the game as a unique player.

And then there’s Fable 3. When I played Fable in my college dorm room after a particularly dull Michigan football game (Wolverines! or something?), I had a ball. I got to be this asininely powerful guy who, over the course of an admittedly short experience, I defined into this hideously ugly magic-abusing lightning rod of a guy. And, sure, it only took four-five hours. And, sure, it was ludicrously easy. And, sure, it wasn’t a particularly novel storyline. But, what Fable was remains one of my fondest gaming memories: an action/RPG where the way I played the game actually seemed wholly unique from my friends. My old, magic rune-covered dude rocked some mean lighting that cleared entire screens of enemies. One friend had a big weapon and a dude with horns. Another actually tried to find some kind of balance. And while it doesn’t sound like much it was, in practice, a refreshing thing to see how differently we all played this one, seemingly hyper-linear game, from one another. We all, largely, experienced the same story, but we all took the gameplay segments we were given and put a little bit of ourselves into those.

Now, six years later, I’m playing Fable 3 and wondering what the fuck happened to the potential I saw in that game. I’m now playing a game where, almost insultingly, I’m meant to be along for the ride rather than defining my gameplay style. Rather than defining my game through play, I’m opening discrete chests along the “road to rule” which ends in me unlocking everything there is to unlock in non-dramatic and uninteresting fashion. Instead of playing how I want to play, I’m making a few high-level choices about how I run my kingdom in order to prepare for an oncoming assault. And, while it’s a clever twist, it’s a wholly unexceptional one that allows me, as the player of this game, very little room for expression. I eventually find that I can exploit the passage of time in the game and just leave my Xbox 360 running while my various estates pool absurd amounts of gold instead of oppressing my people for money during discrete game events, but this is not a rewarding discovery, it’s a cheap one. I’m not using lighting to kill everything (and, in the process, making my character age quicker and get scars everywhere), I’m doing the equivalent of taking the game disc out and hitting it on the ground until it does what I want when I put it back in.

None of these games are bad games; not by any means. I’ve talked to people who have loved all of the games that I’m presently ranting against and their reasons for loving them are entirely valid. As a game designer, though, it seems that we’re arbitrarily limiting the potential of what remains a limitless medium in order to maintain some collective vision of the narrative experience. The nature of an interactive medium should be the feedback loop between the player and the game; to not explore (or, at least, consider) the expression space of this cycle seems to be a missed opportunity.

5 thoughts on “The Systemic Integrity of Expression”

  1. Player expression is something that most AAA games play down. I would definitely like to see more games that allow you to express yourself through play.

  2. It’s good to see someone stick up for Alpha Protocol, it was a real surprise for me last year and it’s a shame that people will swear it off because of the lack of polish.

    What I enjoyed most was the lack of a “morality meter” attached to all of my decisions. If I did something I felt was wrong, I felt it internally rather than watching a slider slipping down a karma scale. Alpha Protocol allowed failure to be a valid outcome and the shades of grey between a successful mission and a complete mess was so exciting to see, I could forgive any bugs I ran into.

    Great Post!

  3. I feel the same way you do, but in reverse. Playing Uncharted 2, I was constantly looking for a way to avoid the clunky third-person action and platforming, so I could explore more new places and see more cut scenes. It’s a fine game, of course, but the parts that interested me were totally irrelevant to my gameplay performance, or actively dissonant. Mass Effect 2 at least offered the illusion of choice to go along with the awkward mass murder.

  4. Uncharted is a weird example; I think it fulfills its purpose and goals remarkably, but, yes, it doesn’t exactly offer a lot of freedom or anything. I still think it’s a decent example of gameplay being very much in-line with the theme of the narrative/game, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a good example of expressive play.

Leave a Reply