Far Cry 3 and “Emergent Storytelling” (Part 3)

How to build a used game: While it is possible to tell a more freeform tale, why isn’t it done?

far cry 3 screenshot

Stories are a kind of history. They recount everything we know or believe about what has been, and are also imaginary trips into what might have been, allowing us portholes of view into potential and possibilities we might not otherwise consider. Books, on the one hand, tell a story by using our mind to imagine a landscape on a mental screen, and descriptive words draw us into a world carefully crafted for us. And, although it falls into what can only be described as a ‘3rd person experience’ (because we are well aware we are not that person) we are allowed to imagine things in our own way, and that makes every story personal to each individual. Books allow freedom in the telling, even if it is a “on rails tale” the reader maintains the freedom to imagine everything, and that freedom makes for pleasurable escape.

Movies, on the other hand, while also ‘on rails’ in their telling, show everything to the observer. A good movie is much like watching someone recount a tale, directly from their mind, as all of the imagination is done for us. Unlike books however, movies have soundtracks, where characters interact, discuss, cry out, and music adds another exciting layered element to the mix. Points of view can also be exciting with good cinematography, views we would never consider while reading a book. And here that lighting can also be something that never crept into our imagination at a heightened level such as a movie might display either, along with costumes, acting ability, etc. Really, the only thing the two (books and movies) have in common is the story itself.

Video Games however, have been patterned after these two disparate parents, and although having this parentage, are completely unlike either of them, because games depart on the aspect of outright freedom. For now, you do not observe the character – you ARE the character. Your actions decide what is what, and where something goes, and how things happen and when. You choose the event, you directly impact the story, and everything that happens; the world is crafted around you, not a group of other characters you are observing. And, this is exactly why telling a game story like a book or movie just doesn’t work that well.

Frankly, it is a very new thing for developers to consider, and coming to grips with it has long been a challenging idea. The plain truth is, most people often simply do not know what to do when offered a free-form, free roam world, and will be confused and lost as to ‘where to start’ simply because they have lived a life of little exploration or invention, or, because they have become more than  accustomed to being told what to do (whether in real life or games). The simple fact here is too many people do want to be told exactly what to do, despite everything they say, or contrary opinions they grip. Whether this is because they are lazy or fearful, well…I will not explore that, as it is all speculation on my part.

In an FPS, the ‘handholding, on rails’ forced storytelling can be done good or bad, but suffice to say it often comes off as an experience of having one’s head held under water, or maybe being dragged along like a dog on a leash. Add that quicktime events do nothing to eliminate those early impressions. In the past, games were made and then a story added as an afterthought, so you can see how far things have come with players being the main character in a more effort filled, crafted tale that games are now built around.

I suspect that at some near juncture, someone will manage to invent better AI, and a method of crafting a character (that we can all define our own way, appearance, race, backstory, etc., not unlike what mass effect did in some respects, but greater) and our characters story is the one that we will live as individuals and experience, and not something someone ‘feeds’ us. But this cannot happen until worlds are fully fleshed out, and made into playscapes. The problems then become what is and isn’t allowed rule wise, as it is likely that these games will have to be MMO’s, to make up for the lack of unpredictable AI, and create worlds where nearly anything can happen. Since I have never played one of these, (an MMO) I cannot comment here as to what is or isn’t currently possible. I do know that too many games having a primary focus of violence is starting to drag on me, however.

In Far Cry 3, (like every FPS I have played) there is but one solution to every problem, and that is shooting someone in the face (or wherever). A player really has no option of diplomacy here unless someone scripted it in. And, I suspect that is the very problem that will need to be overcome…prewritten scripts. But that potential act itself speaks here, not because it is not an option, but because one path creates sameness, which for players eventually translates to boredom. I am not saying diplomacy would make the game more thrilling, I am saying doing the same thing over and over ad-infinitum is.

Most of us play games to escape from the world, the very world we live in and too often find boring. But, the truth here is that life is filled with risk in some ways, because some actions can terminate us. Just so, some actions have no risk attached simply because we are eventually going to die anyway. Suffice to say, most of us seek to experience small, short term adventures where we can choose whatever we will, and “no harm done” to us physically, personally. Fine, our character might die, but that is not quite the same as actually losing our own arm or our actual life, now is it?

My childhood was filled with escape. I grew up very ill, and had to spend much of my time indoors. I was diagnosed with something very serious and life threatening, and was forced to live a “cautious” life. So, books became my universe because I needed freedom and adventure, and I certainly did and do love all of those many worlds I visited. Worlds of water, sand, overgrowth of plants, lizard men, talking spiders… yeah, I even like talking spiders. Merely because they are different from the pain of life I have long been forced to suffer. And now, being older…I have much apathy for real life due to that suffering, which not only did not depart, it grew, and forces me to daily account for “success” I am expected to achieve and manage in life, while any and all reality is quite different than my wants or hopes crushed dreams.

And yet…since death is (currently) inevitable, the truth is all we can expect is future loss, and the end to the existence we now have. For me, that is/was yet another driving force to explore other universes; to live as many lives as I could cram into this one before it was gone.

And I suppose that is part of why I am so adamant on what games can be. A chance to experience new and extended lives we cannot normally live. I certainly see hope for the ‘mentally ill’ here, to make choices and find experiences that enlarge our viewpoint of what is, what hurts and troubles us, and any damage that may have been done to us, or otherwise (speculation here). And, those with a disability (as problem it has not vanished) people with all manner of problems have hopes of learning and seeing new lives and worlds too, certainly much incentive to travel to those places.

Lets face some facts: Not many folks have explored space because it isn’t cheap, and it is dangerous. It’s actually a better job for a robot, or maybe a cyborg like master chief type character. Much of what the universe offers us, apart from our dreams and fantasies is dangerous, which directly means loss of this life. And yet, video games have already proven translated abilities for many, like improved skills for doctors or dentists.

My point here is that life itself can be very dangerous, and many of the things in games are too, things we are unlikely to try in real life, in any way, but we could use the experience for learning purposes. I certainly would never try climbing a rusty old creaking tower in real life like I did in FC3. I am not sure I am over my fears of heights, but the experience really helped me in some respects. One can only wonder if those giant spiders in Skyrim helps some folks with spider related fears…

Video Games need to be more, more than they are. Currently, games are like board games that have been translated to a screen with music and some actors.  But, the potential remains for us to experience new things and new lives, new universes even living as new people. The funny thing here is that we can ignore our fellows in real life, and walk right past someone and never speak to them despite many opportunities. Will living new adventurous lives in future game universes make us to be the same?

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