Fatal abstraction

I guess I have nothing to fear from BioShock after all. Andrew’s review — in addition to being beautifully written — basically says, “No, you tool, this game is everything you expected.” Consider me encouraged, and chastened, all at once. Happily, the fallout from my doubts has been a collection of almost entirely cordial responses — even at 1UP, where blog comments have a tendency to drift into “frothy spew” territory at a moment’s notice. I guess BioShock brings out the best in everyone. We should rename it “Yuletime in August.”

Really though, I’m surprised that no one called me a hypocrite for being such a cranky jerk about the BioShock demo after freaking out in joy at the Metal Gear Solid 4 gameplay demo — which, it should be said, looks to compromise its narrative consistency far more than BioShock could ever dream. How terribly biased of me.

So why am I discontent when I’m slightly shepherded in one game yet totally cool with seeing a dude in a different game produce a giant metal barrel right out of thin air? No, it’s not fanboyism; I’ve never been particularly kind to Metal Gear’s narrative excesses.

Maybe it’s just that when a game’s villain is an improbable fusion of Stan Lee and Señor Wences, anything goes.

But yeah, lately I’ve been playing Metal Gear Solid 3 — shamefully, playing it for the first time ever — so the disparity in my reactions to MGS4 and BioShock was at the front of my mind as I spent two hours last night stalking The End. And I think the difference boils down to a simple word: abstraction.

Yes, it’s that Uncanny Valley thing again. Except it’s not really the Uncanny Valley, as that generally pertains to digital actors (or “synthespians,” if you want to be all Wired Magazine circa 1994 about it), and I’m speaking of things with far wider reach. A gulf of perception, if you will. A game can get away with unrealistic gimmicks by separating itself from reality with layers of abstraction. The more abstract the game, the more improbable it can be. Give a caricature of a character like Mario a feather that allows him to fly and it’s fair game; do likewise for your soldier in Call of Duty 4 and suddenly you’ve completely undermined the game. The more realistic the game, the more jarring every deviation from reality.

It’s even more noticeable in games using a first-person perspective, because joining the player’s perspective with the on-screen avatar’s removes a layer of abstraction. Thus a dazzlingly authentic-looking FPS like BioShock can unfortunately get away with employing fewer contrivances than a third-person action game like MGS4, because BioShock’s nameless gravel-voiced hero is you whereas MGS4’s hero isn’t; it’s Solid Snake. Of course, BioShock has its dramatic deviations from real life — plasmids, Big Daddies, etc. — but at a fundamental level the game tries to emulate a convincing imitation of reality, or at least a realistically-rendered fantastic situation. Your character moves at a realistic pace, enemies behave unpredictably, light and shadow are rendered beautifully. So when its narrative bends to the necessities of gameplay, the compromises are noticeable for their inconsistency with the game’s general ethos. Meanwhile, when an enemy fails to see a lightly-camouflaged Snake at close range, it may be a bit stupid — but you ultimately accept it, because MGS places game mechanics before narrative integrity. (Which isn’t to say narrative doesn’t occasionally shove gameplay aside in MGS, because it does. Often! But even then, you’ve frozen time to have a lengthy philisophical chat in the thick of a firefight. Not exactly the real world, there.)

It seems fitting when you consider Metal Gear’s legacy, its roots in primitively-rendered 8-bit technology that made heavy use of symbolism. By retaining their predecessors’ symbolic elements, the MGS games use their nature as games to create unique situations — the sniper duel with The End, for instance. I made use of every tool at my disposal to gain the upper hand against him, from binoculars to thermal goggles to flashbangs to sound amplifiers, which is all very brilliant and demonstrates the flexibility of the game’s tools and situations. But a few times, I spotted him not by guile and caution but rather by the ZZZZs rising above his head as he slept. Totally unrealistic, and fairly stupid when you stop to think about it… but wholly in keeping with Metal Gear tradition, where enemies have napped on the job beneath a cloud of ZZZZs since the very beginning.

One reason the first Metal Gear Solid holds up so much better than most PlayStation games can be found in its careful balance of realism and abstraction. The characters move in a fairly convincing manner, but the models themselves are almost sketchlike, lacking real facial features. By mimicking the abstraction of Yoji Shinkawa’s art, the developers managed to imbue the characters with a stylized appearance that holds up much better than contemporary games that tried for a more realistic look. The PS1 simply wasn’t up to the task of creating convincingly detailed humans (ignoring for a moment Vagrant Story, which is the exception to so very many rules); by using an art style that worked within the hardware limits, Konami created a unique-looking game that dodged the bullet of obsolescence through abstraction.

Not that this is a particularly novel or important realization. It’s just been on my mind a bit, I guess. And I don’t mean to suggest that games should necessarily uphold abstraction as an ideal. Sometimes it’s integral to the game, but other times it’s just a crutch for insecure or unambitious creators. That BioShock eschews so many conventions and clichés of gaming and still comes off as well as it does — and as well as the reviews suggest — well, it’s an impressive feat. My heart’s all atwitter.

Aaaand that’s why we’ll be starting the BioShock Fun Club Wednesday. I have it on pretty good authority that everyone is champing at the proverbial bit to get started on it. No sense in forcing you poor souls to wait around.

14 thoughts on “Fatal abstraction

  1. But, but… I’ll get it one week later! :(

    About abstraction and stuff, I think every game is ultimately unrealistic, as every movie, novel, comic book or any piece of fiction is. And that’s ok. I mean, not even documentaries are torn away from that abstraction. They all just show layers of reality (whatever that is) whether is, even if it’s something as surreal as Super Mario Bros., and we always asume the rules of every new universe that is presented before us are somewhat logical… or not. It all comes down to the experience and how we feel with what we see, hear and all that.

    Great writing, sir. Thanks.

  2. Gameplay gets in the way of realism and realism gets in the way of game play. But that’s alright it a video game after all.

    If you have a game that tries to be realistic no mater how much metaphores you can use and try to have HUDs that keep the art style of the game, some of the gameplay elements will still feel gimmiky. But those are needed keep the game userfriendly and playable.

    Things like heath packs, health bars, save points, radars, ammo count and so on are still nessesary and sometimes part of the experience like in the Metal Gear Solid series. So I do agree with you and praise your open minded attitude.

    also, I’ll be picking bioshock when it comes out.

  3. Western game design seems a lot more prone to obsessing over making everything “in-fiction” – the death mechanic in BioShock is explained as the Vita-Chamber, while the first five minutes of RE4 gleefully smash the fourth wall with two characters talking about a player’s handbook. MGS is obviously of the second tradition, although it clearly swipes a few things from the grounded, immersive western school – and it’s not like there isn’t some natural cultural osmosis both ways.

    I don’t think there’s really a right or wrong answer (it’s art, duh!) though I definitely prefer it when games that *do* indulge in a fiction make some effort to present it as a top-to-bottom unified explanation for what happens. But then my formative games were Doom and Shock1 rather than Zelda or Final Fantasy.

    Almost every game in existence goes meta at some point, if only for the load/save and options screens, so there’s always a limit. I just like it when that limit is set explicitly by the designers rather than accidentally stumbled up to – “Uhh, so, save checkpoints are purely meta, your health bar is half-meta half-not, and the story is completely non-meta, except for Psycho Mantis who can’t decide if he knows he’s in a videogame or is just a damn weirdo”.

    That’s kinda my problem with the gamer view of Kojima, people credit him with having this master’s touch where every single pixel is intentionally planned and crafted, when really he’s planning some things and just pulling shit out of a hat like the rest of us.

    All of which is to say, a little narrative justification for gameplay elements goes a long way.

  4. Maybe it’s just that when a game’s villain is an improbable fusion of Stan Lee and Señor Wences, anything goes.

    Dude, Andrew Ryan from BioShock is a mustachioed industrialist in a suit. He probably plays a round of golf with Ocelot every Sunday.

  5. I’m intrigued at the idea of a FPS as narrative abstraction. I suppose it’s no different that first-person narrative. In the latter you create suspense or tension by keeping the details of the character’s world from the reader; in the former you are effectively doing the same thing, obscuring the details of the game world via a narrow field of vision. I was going to comment about the chapter on abstraction from Understanding Comics, but I’m not sure it applies. Using those terms, the most emotionally investable character in video games would be the dot from Adventure. With most other media storytelling is the goal, but in video games the story is a tool used to envelope the player in the game.

    It’s not surprising to have different expectations for Bioshock and MGS4. With Metal Gear, you pretty much know what you are getting into. The previous games serve as yardstick to define it against. As a new game, Bioshock exists in a critical void. How you interact with it and how you enjoy that interaction has yet to be defined.

  6. I agree with everything you said… EXCEPT your mention of Vagrant Story as having “convincingly detailed humans”.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Vagrant Story is BEAUTIFUL (even by today’s standards) but the people are NOT detailed, if anything they’re a perfect example of why style and symbolism almost always outlive quickly-out-dated realism. The Vagrant Story characters look like Akihiko Yoshida drawings.

  7. Very nice topic. Here is another question. Since the story in Killer 7 is meta, would the lifebar/savesystem character select be in fiction? (Yes, I know the gameplay is lacking)

  8. Yeah, I definitely don’t think Kojima is some kind of divine being whose every contrivance is inspired brilliance. I think he regularly paints himself into a corner with his stories, and his gameplay mechanics are too complex and cumbersome to allow a truly seamless narrative. MGS has simply been on my mind of late, since I’ve been playing it, and makes a nice counterpoint to BioShock.

    I did think of mentioning Killer 7, but I’ve not yet played enough to have formed an opinion about it.

    As for FPS as narrative abstraction — I’d love to recommend ZPC, an old Mac gaming running on the Marathon 2 engine. It used heavily stylized art that made the entire game look like a KMFDM album cover, and gave your hero improbable abilities like chi punches. It was bizarre and difficult to play due some major gameplay balancing issues… but definitely memorable for its high level of abstraction and surrealism.

  9. I really love how Kojima must explain how every little gameplay quirk makes sense in the game’s universe. For example, eating a certain kind of mushroom recharges your batteries. When Snake tell this to Para-Medic, she humors him into thinking it’s true, then tells the rest of the crew how it’s just a placebo effect.

    I think his need to explain everything is why there weren’t training or VR missions for MGS3 (though I agree that they were desperately needed); Kojima couldn’t justify them enough in the context of the game.

    Though I did find it odd how Volgin’s Pikachu powers were never explained. I mean, they went through all the effort to explain how The Pain’s body could actually be a living bee colony.

  10. Guess I’m going to have to buy BioShock then. You know, one gaming convention that I somewhat guiltily hope the game will bow to is the boss fight (especially the final boss fight). I imagine they could throw some crazy things at you in that kind of situation. Kind of doubt it’ll happen, though, from what I’ve seen and heard of the game.

  11. My favorite MGS3 contrivance is the Patriot gun. Calling for info on it gets you the explanation that it has infinite ammo because the cartridge is shaped like the infinity symbol. I especially liked the advisor’s “Oh, yeah, I see how they did it.” attitude about it.

  12. What? Nintendo stopped supporting the great Jeremy Parish conspiracy? C’mon, where’s the cutesy cute? Oh, sorry. Yeah, guess I’ll have to buy Bioshock now! Silly me.

  13. Yeah, MGS’ love of abstraction and its love for over-explanation are a little hard to reconcile. It seems reasonable to me that MGS is supposed to be a simulation of something that, itself, is abstract. It’s not just technologically different, like the Bioshock world is; it actually has different physical, or even logical, rules.

    I know that probably sounds like an over-charitable/fanboyish interpretation, but it does explain a lot. Characters mention abstractions like the radio, the Action Button, etc.–that’s because the game is simulating a world that actually includes those abstractions. The plot is ridiculous, because a world that included such abstractions would naturally be pretty strange. And, for the same reason, those abstractions have “in-fiction” explanations.

  14. I’ve been playing Deus Ex of late, and how they handled the abstraction issue came to mind. You have the choice of taking the tutorial or not, and during the tutorial, there effectively is no fourth wall, telling you what buttons to press (by default, as they say) to perform each action and whatnot, but once you actually start the game, everything’s kept in-fiction. What really caught me this time, though, was how they made the main menu look like all of the computer screens in the game, including a little symbol and “Welcome to Deus Ex” in the top-left corner of the menu. It was almost like I was a hacker controlling JC Denton!

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