Growing Pains: An Exploration of Mature Game Design
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 03:20pm 10/07/12 | Comments
We explore a greater growth in the maturation of adult-themed games, and what they mean for the industry on the whole...
It's funny when you go to conventions like E3. A lot of games spend years in development, leaving developers spending years in perpetual communication darkness; their lives signed away to some legal demigod to ensure their potential top-tier product doesn’t leak into the creative gullies of some other game maker working next door, or whatever. It all becomes a bit of a secret society on the whole, where I imagine everyone enters the studio under verbal code, skull-ring key slot, retina scan or by giving up their first-born. So when you see common threads throughout the next burgeoning Triple-A treatments, it makes you wonder just how it managed to happen.
It could be that some of these hardworking game makers are breaking the 11th commandment by actually sharing tidbits about their efforts among like-minded creative types. Or it's the all-powerful, high and mighty PR and marketing machine that apparently drives consumer direction using its third eye to see through marketable space and time for the next development success. Or maybe, as I believe, it's simply part of a greater maturation of an artform and industry that has been organically growing since inception.
That isn't to say game development is like some mana-fuelled Mother Nature, because there are certainly many among its ranks who undermine this organic component through stagnant, rusty old safety-in-numbers design. But I like to think that as the industry grows and we, as both consumers and creators, grow with it, so does our confidence in trying new things at every end of the interactive media scale.
This year, having been to both GDC and E3 already, and having also visited every major gaming conference all of last year (barring PAX) as well as all the peripheral ones that make up a major gaming year like 2011 was, I was privileged to be knee-deep in the development garden, watching the first sprouts from a mass of seeds that had been sewn years ago (and clearly locked away in the aforementioned darkness), grow and blossom.
So from a perspective of saturation, in that I’ve been in this garden soaking up the sun for almost 15 years now, the major shift in games is in their adult-oriented pitch. It’s no longer about being violent for the sake of violence, or gory for the sake of shock or schlock (though those games do still exist). Rather, the greater, broader shift has taken a mature turn in mature themes. Killing has weight now, and designers are beginning to toy with concepts of actual morality not specifically built around a binary system. A game like Fallout 3, for example, had its Karma system, but you were rewarded either way, and morality stemmed more from a point of character building, than a swayed reflection of a built character, on the player.
Of course, we’ve had games like Grand Theft Auto driving maturity in gaming for a long time. Though, specifically with that series, it’s in its real-world social commentary more than anything. So from a player-choice perspective GTA really can be tagged as something of a crime sim; a game where you’re dished out orders to simply kill, steal or mame whoever the game names as your next target. Freedom, as it were, isn’t so free in Rockstar’s games, at least from a narrative perspective. That being said, you’re never really playing anyone beyond a common thug in the massively popular series anyway, which is just how the punters like it.
What I’m exploring here is more in line with an adult look at what it means to drive an avatar through an experience, but to finally have that experience reflected upon the player from a point of morality. Be it through player-choice in how you tackle a potentially dangerous situation, what it means to actually take a life or, further than that, what it would mean to take multiple lives if you were thrust into an uncontrollable situation. From the growth in maturity I’ve witnessed, games are quickly becoming less about forward motion, and more about consequence.
With that in mind, binary moral systems, like the aforementioned one in Fallout 3, can still be considered an important stepping stone to a greater emphasis on the player to perform the greater good. Certainly as we’ve seen in most Bethesda Game Studios games, their concept of morality is built around pure player-freedom, lighting up more of a grey area when weighing up the consequences of your decisions, good or bad, but theirs was clearly a step other developers saw more potential in - story-driven potential.
Games like Tomb Raider, The Last of Us and Far Cry 3, for me, are leading the charge here, pushing new concepts that empower players to think more heavily about the consequences of their reactive kills. It’s actually become a heady topic of debate though, as these and many other games finally explore the dark recesses of what makes this industry tick, and while many are, ironically, screaming for the blood of these games that apparently cross the line, there are others embracing the opportunities presented with the interactive component of what makes gaming so great, in regard to exercising true morality in videogames.
This is where the aforementioned maturation comes into full effect. It could be argued that “excessive violence” cannot have a mature component to it, but excessive is also a term of subjective context. Over-the-top violence can still impact on an emotional level if handled right - just look at any Scorsese or Tarantino movie, for example. So in the context of Lara Croft’s newest adventure, which also happens to be an origin story, Crystal Dynamics has taken the opportunity to set-up just what makes Lara such a driven, strong and powerful individual in a mature and modern fashion (as far as game design goes). The adage “what doesn’t kill us, only makes us stronger” comes to mind, and her purported “rape” scene where it’s alleged her attacker is clearly intent on molesting her, is a perfect example of an excessive violence moment.
I saw the sequence first-hand at E3, and not once did “rape” come to mind. What did was at all costs Lara had to protect herself, and the sequence in question, clearly outlined an unstable individual hell-bent on taking her life. You can watch the scene here for yourself, but I took away from the moment a sense of urgency and measure, this individual, characterised by his body language and demeanor, would have killed Lara, which would mean game over. It’s the first kill the Lara Croft we all know today ever performed, and the weight of it hung so heavily in the air during our presentation that it outweighed the violent storm raging in the background, her need to immediately escape the scene, the gravity of being stranded and outnumbered on a remote island, the disappearances and deaths of her friends in cruel, ritualistic fashion... everything. It outweighed everything.
The topic of the female role in games, or as gamers, which has sprung up in force since the unveiling of Lara’s first kill moment is one I do side with, but not specifically where this game is concerned. Comments made in an interview with the game’s executive producer, Ron Rosenberg, have created a clear-cut case for the “rape” bandwagon in the new Tomb Raider, but despite his proximity to the game and its development, I’d argue he’s a perfect example of someone who can’t see the strength and development of the scene, or beyond what many consider to be a cliche Hollywood moment.
There’s another creepy character Lara runs into much earlier on in the demo, who also has similar, slimy body-language, but I never once thought he was going to “rape” her either. These are bad-guys typified by an exaggeration of body-language and character, they’re awkward and unnerving for a reason, and I for one applaud the team for not making Lara’s first kill a generic henchman. Adding a face and personality, eerie as it is, to the scenario simply adds more believable context behind it. The outcome, then, becomes relatable despite its over-the-top nature.
Of course there are tricks to creating a sequence like this. Tricks the film industry has perfected in its much longer existence than videogames as mentioned, but the convergence of filmic storytelling with interactivity that isn’t linear is one part of what’s making so much of this maturity boom, well, boom. And this brings the concept of “excessive violence” full circle, because like it or not, Lara’s first kill, and the events leading up to it, have sparked a media furore.
“One of the character defining moments for Lara in the game, which has incorrectly been referred to as an 'attempted rape' scene, is the content we showed at this year's E3 and which over a million people have now seen in our recent trailer entitled 'Crossroads',” wrote Crystal Dynamics studio boss, Darrell Gallagher, in response to said furore. “This is where Lara is forced to kill another human for the first time.
“In this particular section, while there is a threatening undertone in the sequence and surrounding drama, it never goes any further than the scenes that we have already shown publicly. Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game.”
All this stems from the concept of subjective context. What one person finds excessive, another finds contextually driving, but there should be no mistake about what you’re going into when playing Tomb Raider - Crystal Dynamics has set out to craft a believable, contextual foundation for who Lara Croft was when we first took her through a tomb all those years ago. Only now, with better storytelling techniques, more complex writing and far better visuals, it’s all the more impactful.
But Lara’s ordeal is only one end of the spectrum, and lends itself to relaying her ability to survive, and excel, in what she does without a malicious component. Lara, for all intents and purposes, is a heroin. It doesn’t mean this ascent into mature gaming needs to be totally above board though, as we learn with Far Cry 3, a game where you’re thrust into a similar situation as the Tomb Raider, only eventually Far Cry 3’s protagonist, Jason Brody, will actually begin to enjoy killing.
“Well the core mechanic of [Far Cry 3] is obviously shooting, you know, we’re an FPS,” Ubisoft Montreal’s Mark Thompson told us in an interview. “What’s really interesting about the game and how we went about developing it is we’re not embarrassed about that, about the fact it’s a game about shooting; a game about killing. So we wanted the story to be about that -- the story had to be about killing. And so the protagonist we chose, Jason, we wanted [him] to be a blank slate -- not in the Half-Life Gordon Freeman sense -- but someone who hadn’t killed before.
“It’s interesting because as a gamer, when you pick up the controller and kill, what we [developers] do is reward you, we say “good job”, and we wanted to explore a little bit about what that means,” he adds. “What it means to kill, what it means to shoot with a gun. So with a character like Jason it’s perfect; when you come to the island for the first time, and you pick up the controller, you pick up a gun, and when you shoot it for the first time in Far Cry 3, it’s the first time Jason is ever doing that. Jason isn’t Black Ops, he doesn’t have some kind of secret history; he’s not some kind of ex-Navy Seal chef aboard a frigate somewhere. He’s just a regular guy. And he has the sort of skills and abilities you’d expect of that.”
Jason’s “call to action” as developers refer to it, is a defining moment in the game where he and his friends come face to face with death and a choice needs to be made in order to survive, and avoid game over. What’s interesting is game over, in a sense of death early on in a game where the main character is not a hero (yet), is as definitive. In the past, you could just restart the level, make sure you pack more health or hide and regenerate your shields or HP, but in this brave new world, death is imminent and you’re forced to pull the trigger without that inflated sense of self. No one in these games is Batman or Superman, they’re relatable people, and we, as players, will grow with them. Where the developers begin to take these concepts though, is proving to be very interesting as Mark explains in their exploration of the deeper parts of our, and our on-screen counterpart’s, psyche.
“So everything we do psychologically is really Jason trying to reconcile these two different worlds,” he tells us of the game’s more “out there” moments. “The world that he came from... he’s 20-something, he came from California, he’s college-educated, he’s wealthy, you know, and then he smashes into this world of Vaas and the islands - these islands that are a little bit too far away from everything else. So he has these moments of reflection where he goes inside to something hallucinatory, it’s almost like his subconscious is saying “hey, what are you doing here?”.
“So you see a lot of Jason reflecting, and his subconscious almost challenging him for some of the things he’s doing, because what we wanted to do in the story is make sure that we didn’t say “hey players, we’re smarter than you, why are you killing people?”, that’s insulting, and so we embrace the fact that when you kill you win, so at one point Jason starts to enjoy it -- that’s what’s interesting, it shows how he becomes a killer and how he starts to enjoy it.”
It’s certainly an interesting twist. Imagine if Batman finally killed Joker with his own hands - would it mean he’d finally crossed that psychological line, from hero to psychopath? How far would you go, not only to rescue loved ones or friends, but to also avenge their deaths? What’s the difference between avenging and revenge? For a game to actively cover these themes as part of a greater, directed narrative is, in my opinion, a massive step in the right direction because at heart, we’re all trained killers when it comes to games - whether it’s squashing a Goombah or killing Nazis, gamers eradicate without abandon.
The other part of this isosceles though, is Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, a zombie apocalypse action-adventure opus that explores what it means to survive in a world potentially not worth surviving in. And what it means to be human in a world filled with almost anything but.
It’s true that most zombie media casts humans as the real monsters; incapable of getting along with other survivors and only out for each other, in the greatest sense of irony relating to human survival, but The Last of Us takes its approach differently. The player-character, Joel, has more in common with “The Father” from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” than the likes of Chris Redfield or Leon S. Kennedy, while his companion, Ellie, has what could be described as a more accepting view of the harsher things Joel, or the player, might have to perform because of her proximity to the game’s apocalyptic foundations.
“Ellie was born after this pandemic,” explains Naughty Dog’s Bruce Straley during our demo at this year’s E3. “She has a 14 year-old’s somewhat childlike naivety, but it’s a dark and brutal world, so it’s not 14 year-olds like you see today, it’s a different 14 year-old; she’s more capable -- more manageable -- inside this environment, and we want to see how these two grow and evolve through the course of this. So Ellie will change her behaviours and her capabilities as she’s with Joel throughout this adventure.”
The harshness of Joel’s reality against the more innocent view of the decaying world Ellie has, like some bright-eyed optimist who can’t see the levelled forest for the levelled trees, is a beautiful contrast in the world of videogames. We know what Joel is going through from our more human side, we’ve all been a part of greater, non-apocalypsed society, but Ellie’s almost childish lack of despair represents that inner-child in all of us when we play any game bereft of morality. To an extent, she’s the videogame component of the product, and Joel the emotional track we’ve all run in our own real-life lives.
To this end, and much like the previous games mentioned, one of the more mature aspects of The Last of Us comes in its world. We’ve seen post-apocalyptia plenty of times before, and it’s often represented as a dark afterthought for an even darker period in human history (or fantastical history). Fallout 3’s myriad hidden bunkers sheltering nothing but skeleton families and unheard SOSs was always a chilling reminder of the imminent threat the world felt it faced during the Cold War, but in The Last of Us, the permanency of society’s collapse is dished out in equal halves. On the one hand we have the cold, violent “enemies” Joel and Ellie will cross, the sort of people who’d just as soon stab you in the throat as look at you. And on the other we have the bright, colourful tones and textures of nature taking back a world that once belonged to it. Naughty Dog’s societal collapse is anything but grey, brown or drab, it’s an explosion of life beyond perceived death. This same divergence can be seen in the game’s two lead characters.
“We’re interested in seeing the different contrasts in humanity,” Straley continues. “You know, there are people who are willing to do anything to survive, meaning your life is meaningless to them if they can get three bullets and a half a bottle of alcohol from you.”
Morality and maturity will then boil down to player-choice once again, only this time it carries with it that imminent threat of game over. To continue the analogy, in Fallout 3, death was certainly a large part of what you faced, but the only thing you were really protecting was yourself and your progression. It was, again, all very much binary. In The Last of Us though, the scarcity of ammunition and healing options, as well as Ellie’s own safety alongside your own, are driving factors for the player’s desire to stay alive, and potentially, out of sight. But you also need to survive, meaning difficult choices will need to be made in the accrual of much-needed items to see you through to the next day. It’s a fascinating way to tackle the usual gung-ho attitude of many gamers, and a strong example of matured game-design.
“We [want] player choice,” Bruce concludes. “So you have the opportunity to make it past enemies, and leave them alive - it’s really up to you, as the player, to decide “what’s the risk I’m willing to take? Does he have some supplies that I want?”, and understanding the brutality and violence inside of this world sets your mindset as a player, aligned with Joel and Ellie, so you feel that sense of constant threat.”
A lot of talk also spawned post-E3 about the full-on violence in The Last of Us, but again, it boils down to context, and having seen Bruce demo the game in two different ways, choice and consequence leads the game’s pacing and narrative, and dictates how you have this “violence” served to you. But the context is going remain the same throughout. For all its juxtaposed beauty, the undertone of Naughty Dog’s game is a dark and harrowing one indeed, and certainly not fit for anyone unwilling to do what it takes to survive.
We’ve seen steps towards this growth in maturity coming for a while though, whether it was exampled to you in the “No Russian” scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, or presented to you through the philosophical undertones and political overtones of BioShock (and its impending true sequel, Infinite), games, for the better part of the last generation, have not only been growing up, they’ve been maturing. And with maturity comes composure. Hearing uneducated reports about “rape” scenes, or “pornographic” scenes, or “gratuitous” violence in videogames just tells us that, as an artform (and let’s be honest, in the last decade games have absolutely crossed that threshold), videogames have arrived.
An example of this “arrival” can be seen in an alarming report some time ago on Fox News (not exactly a bastion of non-partisan reportage, but still) about the ‘sex scenes’ in Mass Effect. Which, of course, were anything but. It was a scene that was far more tasteful than any Katy Perry or Nicki Minaj music video (often shown on morning music shows for all ages to see, mind), and carried with it an emotional weight few games have managed to recapture. In fact, pursuing your relationships in BioWare’s space opera was one of the most mature aspects of that series; you, as Shepard, performing a balancing act of enormous magnitude among your many suitors - it was a component of the game almost anyone who played would have faced, or been exposed to, in real-life at some point.
Fox News managed to twist it though, for their own alarm-addled ends, “exposing” the game as one that leaves “nothing to the imagination”. They also made outlandish, unsubstantiated claims that players could “engage in graphic sex” and even “decide exactly what [was] going to happen between the two people”.
Of course the Fox News report was completely erroneous, and they actually made something of an apology for misrepresenting the game, and its alleged “pornographic” content. In large part this was due to a major lack of research, in that the pitchfork wielders hadn’t even played the game and it came to light the “experts” the news organisation called in were given the briefest of briefs on what the game, and overall topic, was about.
That was in 2008, and it’s interesting to see that mainstream sensationalist media hasn’t changed its uneducated tune. More recently, and to bring the conversation back to Lara Croft, the “rape scene” bandwagon was ascended upon, with most outlets simply assuming the absolute worst about the sequence in question, without looking at it from different angles, or confirming with the source.
Mary Hamilton from The Guardian in the UK wrote about this “attempted rape” as fact, like, no matter what it was going to happen. She then asks an obviously important question about the player failing the scene (full of quicktime prompts), and if said fail meant Lara’s attacker prevailed in raping her. The problem here is the assumption that this sequence is indeed an attempted rape. Certainly Rosenberg’s comments in his interview with Kotaku have given credence to the media assumption that there is, but in the wake of Crystal Dynamics’ studio head, Darrell Gallagher’s comments that “sexual assault of any kind” is not a theme covered in the game at all, I stand by my initial thoughts on the scene, and a belief that the entire sequence has been blown out of proportion.
Here in lies the rub though. Even when tackling maturity and adult themes in games, creators and players alike, are going to be accosted for breaching some invisible line that shouldn’t be crossed in videogames. And until the medium is taken seriously as an artform, and a platform for telling a great story with the extra length of interactivity, it’ll be an uphill battle from an acceptance perspective for the greater mainstream world to come into line.
There will always be mindless killfests out there, or schlock horror with cheap scares. There’s always going to be a game that thwart aesthetic grey-matter in favour of a bit of T&A, and there’s bound to be a gaming experience laced with hidden purple dildos you can use to bludgeon people into embarrassed submission, but all of that has already preexisted in every other form of media since tales were sprawled on ancient cave walls (sans purple dildos most likely). The difference with our medium is in our ability to not only help shape the destinies of our avatar’s tales, but to have them reflected on ourselves.
It’s a ripe time for all of this to surface too, and on our shores specifically with confirmation games aren’t just for kids anymore thanks to the impending introduction of an R18+ rating. But globally, in the wake of so much exposure with grown-up terms like rape, murder or violence being bandied about, we can rest easy in knowledge that discussion, even from a negative viewpoint, is still good discussion. Videogames are growing up, and the more we see of games broaching adult themes like Tomb Raider, Far Cry 3 and The Last of Us, the closer we’ll come to an acceptance that games are just another great medium for great storytelling.
And if those three games are where we stand at the end of a generation, I can’t wait to see what developers do with the next. Bring on the next adult videogame scandal, and do it with mature aplomb, I say.