Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Bioware style: theme and modularity (sketch 3)

Spoiler warning: this post contains a plethora of spoilers for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), Mass Effect, and DragonAge: Origins. If you haven’t played any of these games and you plan to do so, and you would like to do so without knowing what’s to come, reading this post will have a deleterious effect on the realization of that plan. Concerning comments: I'd be incredibly grateful for any corrections and/or refinements you'd care to suggest about this chapter-in-the-making--Google Buzz is my preferred discussion-place now, so comments are turned off here. You’re most welcome to follow me on Buzz, here; you’ll find this post there, too, with any luck, and I hope to discuss it with you there!

The last post was about the light/dark slider in KOTOR, and before I proceed to talk (kind of) about cutscenes, as promised, I want to note that in the final version of this chapter I’ll pay much more attention to the Mass Effect and DragonAge sliders, which present very welcome complications to KOTOR’s slider. I’ll be sketching that part of the chapter in a few weeks, once I’ve had a chance to refresh my memory of those games.

My plan for this post had been to talk about the cutscenes in KOTOR, and to relate them to the cutscenes in Mass Effect and DragonAge, since unlike the sliders the composition of the cutscenes is quite similar among the three titles, and also quite distinct from other RPG-styles’ compositional dynamics.

As I moved along in my two research-playthroughs of KOTOR though, in which I’m playing both a light-side PC and a dark-side one, trying to keep them in parallel while still exploring as many of the different performance possibilities as I can, I realized that while it’s certainly possible to slice off the cutscenes and talk about them as an example of the way the Bioware style represents an occasion for a particular kind of composition by theme, the thematic nature of the cutscenes in these games is actually tied into the more embracing modularity of the games as wholes. When a set of dialogue choices in KOTOR leads to a cutscene in which an NPC does something that’s partly immutable and partly a result of the choices made by the player, the cutscene is functioning as an integral part of the much broader modular design of the game. For example when the PC chooses a dark-side option like telling an alien that he’s inferior to a group of mean human boys who are taunting him, and the party-member Carth Onasi, a decidedly light-side figure, demurs in a vignette of cutscene dialogue, the player has invoked that cutscene as an aspect of a system of modularity that along with the integral nature of the sliders discussed in my last post could be said to be the most fundamental thematic tools of the Bioware style.

On the other hand, modular cutscenes that run at specific times--the simplest example may be the dreams the PC of KOTOR has after pre-set events like saving Bastila after the swoop race--are simply formulaic, and take their place in the overall composition without need of comment except to point out their formulaic nature.

We’re now getting into topics that can prove out, at a technical level, the theoretical value of the comparison between player-performance in the digital RPG and bard-performance in traditional oral poetry. It’s worth quoting Albert Lord in his famous and foundational article “Composition by Theme in Homer and Southslavic Epos to demonstrate just how precise this comparison can be:
The theme can be defined as a recurrent element of narration or description in traditional oral poetry. It is not restricted, as is the formula, by metrical considerations; hence, it should not be limited to exact word-for-word repetition. . . . Regular use, or repetition, is as much a part of the definition of the theme as it is of the definition of the formula, but the repetition need not be exact. Strictly speaking, we cannot call an action or situation or description in the poetry a theme unless we can find it used at least twice.
Substitute “the digital RPG” for “traditional oral poetry,” and the comparison begins to come into focus; think of the formula as the ludics of the game--unchangeable things like the act of choosing party members and the dialogue choices that are identical between performances--and “metrical considerations” as the coding of the game, and the precision and power of the comparison start to show themselves.

When you realize that the nature of the digital RPG means that its themes are repeated a potentially infinite number of times, the power of the contrast that corresponds to the comparison and actually gives the comparison its bite also starts to reveal itself: while Parry and Lord and those who have come after them have worked on fossilized texts, the digital RPG (along with other, related kinds of games) presents an opportunity for living study of this kind of creative practice--an opportunity that Parry and Lord had only through talking to the Southslavic bards, an opportunity we can have only in faint echo in those precious passages of Homer in which the bards sing about what it means to be a bard. The digital RPG reifies what in traditional oral poetry can’t be reified--the training of the bards in the formulas out of which themes, and epics, were built.

I plan to argue that the Bioware version of the system of formulaic recomposition affords the player of KOTOR, Mass Effect, or DragonAge a particular kind of range of possibilities for thematic composition. A key element of that particularity lies in the role of the sliders discussed in my last sketch; an equally important element lies in the modularity of recurrent elements like dialogue cutscenes, battles, forced entrances into installations and caverns, and even visits to planets or towns--both generally (the party comes to a new town and has to go to the tavern/cantina to hear the rumors) and particularly (the party goes to the planet Manaan in KOTOR).

The themes of homeric epic are elements like assemblies of lords, sacrifices, and single-combats. As Lord details exhaustively in The Singer of Tales, young singers learned the formulas first, and then the themes, just as new players of Bioware RPG’s learn, say, the user-interface and then the basic elements of a quest like DragonAge’s Orzammar section, before learning to shape their performances according to their creative inclinations.

In both cases, the virtuosity and pleasure of the performance, for player and audience alike, come from the application of personal creativity to the thematic materials provided by the performance-system. So much is true of a wide variety of digital RPG’s, and of games of certain other genres as well. But the Bioware games under consideration are distinctive in deploying a high degree of modularity in at least three easily-definable areas: imaginary-spatially-differentiated plot incident, party-character choice, and dialogue-choice. All three of these games, that is, feature well-defined choices between places to visit, party members to take on such visits, and what to say to the NPCs met there. Any player of these games knows what I mean by “well-defined”: above all, each of these games features a decision-defining map screen of one kind or another, in which the player chooses the next destination; each features a party-selection screen, and each features a kind of dialogue in which each utterance-selection screen functions as a separate cutscene.

To put it comprehensively if simply, the player of these Bioware RPGs enacts his or her performance by fitting together, in the ludics of the game, places, characters, and dialogue according to the heroic identification figured by the game’s sliders. The player does this composition with reference to their often unconscious knowledge of and growing virtuosity in the systems of ludics that define the games. In choosing with whom to adventure, where to adventure, and what to say, the player of a Bioware RPG re-composes not just the narrative but also the part of him or herself embodied in the player-character, until in the end, at such moments as the choice between the legacy of Revan and the freedom of a new self (KOTOR), whether to protect the council (Mass Effect), and whether to put Alistair on the throne (DragonAge), the player is able to demonstrate his or her mastery not just of the ludic system of the game, but of an entire imaginary galaxy--or magic realm.

Despite the superficial similarity to games like Bethesda’s Oblivion (just to choose a single example among a great many), in which saving the world and rising to the top of the world order figure just as prominently as they do in these three Bioware games, the Bioware games, because of their sliders and their modularity, put the emphasis on the player’s knowledge of the system, and the player’s clearly-defined ludic choices. The successful player of Oblivion has done (albeit vicariously) the deeds that lead to saving Cyrodiil, has found the items his or her character needed to find, has fought the necessary battles, but he or she has not had a hand in manifestly manipulating the themes and putting them together, as has the successful player of the three Bioware games under discussion. Bethesda games, to choose the most obvious examples, don’t feature decision-defining maps or party-selection screens.

There’s more to be said, obviously, about the relationship between heroic sliders, modular performance, and the overarching narratives of the games (which are in fact describable themselves as themes, since the “reach the final battle and save the galaxy/kingdom from the mindless forces of evil” theme structures all three games). In the next sketch, I plan to try to put them all together; after that, I imagine that I’ll be able to use subsequent sketches to gather evidence to support and to tweak my argument.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Bioware style: KOTOR, light and dark (sketch 2)

Spoiler warning: this post is one long spoiler from start to finish. If you haven’t played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and you plan to do so, and you would like to do so without knowing about the legendary plot-twist, reading this post will have a deleterious effect on the realization of that plan. Concerning comments: I'd be incredibly grateful for any corrections and/or refinements you'd care to suggest about this chapter-in-the-making--Google Buzz is my preferred discussion-place now, so comments are turned off here. You’re most welcome to follow me on Buzz, here; you’ll find this post there, too, with any luck, and I hope to discuss it with you there!

KOTOR organizes every player performance around the player’s apparently climactic decision as to how to integrate the knowledge that the player-character (PC) was, before the game began, Darth Revan, the leader of the Sith (advocates and users of the dark side of the Force), into his or her subsequent performance. At that point, when (I estimate) 90% of the game has been completed, with only hints that the PC has a secret in his or her past, the PC learns that he or she was saved, before the game began, by the non-player-character (NPC) Bastila and, when it was found that the PC had no memory of his or her past, was allowed by the Jedi Council to go free in hope that he or she might return to the light side.

I want to take this moment as a kind of locus classicus of the Bioware style, not because other styles of RPG don’t feature similar moments, but because the way KOTOR handles this moment seems to me to share certain key characteristics with the way other Bioware games enable differentiated player-performances. This moment in KOTOR also doesn’t, I’ll try to argue, share those key charactistics with other styles.

Moreover, in the chapter I’m sketching here I want to argue that some at least of those key characteristics are describable in terms of oral formulaic theory. I want to suggest, too, that that description might integrate the Bioware RPG into--here I’ll just be simplistically, though not in my opinion inaccurately, broad--intellectual history more satisfactorily than it has yet been integrated.

To close the loop in a way I won’t be able to in the actual chapter, integrating a theoretically-informed thick description of the Bioware RPG into intellectual history has value in my eyes because it helps me understand my culture better, which in turn helps me shape my practices and performances more effectively to serve the good of all. For example, once I’ve described KOTOR to my satisfaction, I’ll be able to help my students integrate their reading in homeric epic with their performances in KOTOR in a way that advances their ability to analyze culture.

(I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing you wonder about--what the hell an academic thinks he’s doing when he’s writing this stuff that apparently has no value other than filling out his CV--but I always wonder about it. That’s why I think blogging has it all over what’s more usually called “scholarly discourse.”)

Anyway, the key characteristics of the way KOTOR handles this moment that seem to me 1) particular to the Bioware style and 2) describable in terms of oral formulaic theory are the relations of the moment to:
  • the light/dark slider;
  • the game’s cutscenes;
  • the PC’s exploration of relationships with party-member NPC’s, especially Carth and Bastila;
  • the final apparent meaning of the player’s performance.
To finish out this sketch, I’ll begin to unpack the first of these in terms of oral formulaic theory; my plan for the next few weeks is to take on each of them in a separate sketch.

The light/dark slider may be described in several ways. The most usual way to describe it is as a morality scale, by which the player’s choices are given what observers describe, broadly, as moral consequences in relation to the ongoing events of his or her performance. Briefly, a certain (large) number of dialogue choices in the game--for example whether, at this key moment of revelation, to have the PC declare s/he accepts the mantle of dark-side leadership or to have the PC declare that s/he rejects that mantle and will side with the light--, confer light-side points or dark-side points, the totals of which are tracked, in relation to one another, on a sliding scale that is visible to the player at any time.

The light/dark slider may also be described, though, as a ludic system by which KOTOR differentiates player-performances. As the player accumulates a balance on the slider, choices of character configuration--that is, the cost to the PC of certain powerful skills--are shaped by where the PC stands on the slider. For a player on the light side of the slider, skills like “Cure” are less costly, and skills like “Drain Life” are more costly. The player’s dialogue choices are thereby registered at the level of the gameplay so as to differentiate his or her performance from other possible performances at that level, in a way parallel to the differentiation at the level of dialogue, where the player must choose to say certain things and not to say others--choices that trigger the game’s awards of light-side or dark-side points.

At the same time, in a broader context, the light/dark slider differentiates the player’s performance in relation to the range of possible performances as a Jedi in the Star Wars universe, whose dualistic light/dark ethical system is essential to the game, as it is to every part of the discourse of Star Wars. This climactic decision in KOTOR, for example, adds either an enormous number of light-side points or an enormous number of dark-side points to the PC’s total, and thus places him or her decisively in relation to the ongoing performances of the Star Wars universe, whether in games, on film, or in text.

I’ll discuss the way this particular system of differentiation distinguishes the Bioware style from other styles later in this post-series, but my argument will be that in non-Bioware RPG’s that have an analogous scale differentiating player-performances--for example the reputation scale in Bethesda games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion--that scale is tied into the events of the player’s performance (or, if you like, the performance’s narrative) quite differently. As we proceed, I’ll be trying to argue that the very different scales to be found in Mass Effect and DragonAge share important elements with the light/dark slider in KOTOR that none of them shares with the reputation scale in Oblivion. To oversimplify just for the moment, Oblivion’s reputation scale isn’t an essential part of the unfolding events of the main quest (partly because the very notion of a main quest is different in the Bethesda style), while the light/dark slider in KOTOR, the renegade/paragon slider in Mass Effect, and the individual approval sliders of party members in DragonAge have a determinative relation to the player’s performance of the central ludic materials of the game.

It’s here, I believe, that the concept of composition-by-theme begins to show its worth. To talk about why, I’ll pick two examples from the countless available thematic moments in homeric epic to compare with the climactic “I’m Revan” moment in KOTOR.

When a bard first chose to have Odysseus lie to his father in what we know as Book 24 of the Odyssey, and when a bard first chose to have Patroclus call Hector his third slayer in Book 16 of the Iliad, those choices differentiated those performances from every performance that had gone before, but they did so in relation to the existing epic materials. Those new themes, that is, were already based on old ones (“lying” and “battle-taunting”). In the recompositional process, bards made their choices in developing their themes (remember that in oral formulaic theory a “theme” is a part of a story, like an arming scene or even a whole battle) based on their knowledge of and skill in using the themes that had gone before.

Indeed, when subsequent bards followed them and used those themes (“lying to father,” “victor as third slayer”) in their own performances, they enacted similarly unique performances, in relation to the existing themes, despite the fact that they were using a pre-existing theme. To describe the difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey in a way that goes beyond the obvious and takes into account their geneses in bardic tradition requires that we describe the differing relationships between performance and theme in the two epics. This is the kind of analysis Laura Slatkin does in the essay I mentioned in my last post. That analysis tells us that the bards of the Odyssey re-composed their performances so as to take advantage of their hero’s own relationship to performances like theirs, and demonstrate their virtuosity at such composition.

That sort of argument is well-known to scholars of homeric epic; it has to my knowledge not been attempted on the digital RPG. I want to argue, though, that it should be attempted, because at the moment of decision between Jedi and Sith, the player of KOTOR re-composes his or her performance, even the first time, out of the elements given by the game, and above all in relation to his or her PC’s position on the light/dark slider. This is, I believe, the basic nature of re-composition in the Bioware style: the player at every moment shapes his or her performance with reference to a ludic system that renders the performance meaningful in relation to the entire system of the game, which is at the same time an overdetermined version of the player’s world that productively mystifies him or her about the meaning of his or her choices both in the game and in “real” culture.

From this perpective the homeric equivalent of the Bioware style would perhaps be a sub-genre in which bards sung their heroes’ words and actions according to a very stylized set of requirements (there are certainly examples of poetic genres with not dissimilar stylzations) that rather than the Iliadic focus on glory or the Odyssean focus on wits enforced a focus on a “scale” of diction that related words to themes. Odysseus would for example lie to his father if the bard had earlier called him “Odysseus the crafty,” or not lie to his father if the bard had called him “Odysseus the wise”; Patroclus would be third-killed by Hector if Hector had previously boasted that he was “great in glory.”

I’m beginning to suggest that what makes the Bioware style special is the way it ties the player’s performance explicitly to a fundamental ludic system that itself both represents and determines the register of the game’s range of performances. In KOTOR, that range has to do with the light/dark duality of the Star Wars universe; because of the light/dark slider, performances of KOTOR are always characterized in terms of where they fall on its spectrum--light, dark, or neutral. And because that light/dark duality was from its beginning in the original film Star Wars (now known as Star Wars: A New Hope) a mystifying allegory of real-world ethics, the KOTOR-player’s performance functions to express and perhaps even to shape his or her practices outside the game.

(To be sure, I’ve previously described pessimistic views, on the part of Plato and the designers of Bioshock, about the possibilities for games like KOTOR--that is, games with closed ethical systems--to shape player’s ethical practices. As a believer in the ethical power of homeric epic and the modern RPG, however, I hasten to say that I’m Aristotelian in this regard, though in few others, and I think that such mimesis does effect ethical education.)

In the next sketch I hope to talk about the cutscenes of KOTOR, and in particular the ones that result from the “I’m Revan” moment. The modularity of these cutscenes, and their integrated relation to the player’s re-composition of his or her performance, seem to me highly analogous to a bard’s use of stylized themes like feasts and battles.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Bioware style (sketch 1)

I’m tuning up to write a chapter for a forthcoming volume on digital RPG’s, to be entitled Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: Digital Role-playing Games and to be published by Continuum Books. Whether or not my contribution is finally accepted for the book, I think it should be a worthy--even ground-breaking--volume, given its editors’ emphasis on theoretical approaches to the subject in their call for chapter-proposals.

What you’ll see here, if you decide to read this post, and whatever others I manage to produce, is a series of probes in the direction of a methodology of game-criticism based on a fuller appreciation of games’ analogy to oral formulaic epic, and to homeric epic in particular, than I think game-critics have yet deployed. Here’s the abstract I submitted, for starters; I need to state clearly that the final version of the chapter--the one I’m working towards with these sketches--hasn’t been accepted for publication yet, though based on the abstract the book’s editors requested a final version.

Bioware’s epic style: oral formulaic theory and the recompositional process in three Bioware RPGs

Several writers, beginning with Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck, have observed the analogy between certain forms of digital game--most notably the RPG--and the oral improvisatory process that gave the world the Iliad, the Odyssey, and countless other works of the Western literary tradition. Briefly, the player of an RPG engages in practices that are highly and interestingly analogous to the practices of the homeric bards, as studied through the comparative materials collected from South Slavic bards and analyzed originally by Milman Parry and Albert Lord. The RPG-player uses the elements given him or her by the game, just as the bards utilized the tradition in which they had been trained; the RPG-player recombines and innovates upon these elements to produce a performance that is irreducibly unique in the occasion as the bard did the same to produce his epic performance. Indeed, as the homeric bard’s performances were later codified eventually to become the fossils we know as the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the singers of tales of other traditions’ into works like Beowulf and The Song of Roland, RPG-players’ performances are these days sometimes codified in video form and shared around games’ communities.

This chapter seeks to contribute to our understanding of the operation and cultural significance of the digital RPG by analyzing key moments in three RPGs by Bioware, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and DragonAge: Origins as instances of the same thematic recompositional process delineated by Lord and deployed as a methodology of “composition by theme” by scholars like Laura Slatkin. I demonstrate that a developed “Bioware epic style” may be identified in the way Bioware RPGs use a complex imbrication of dialogue trees, highly modular cutscenes, and party selection choices to allow players the opportunity to compose by theme themselves, creating performances that necessarily stand in relationship to other performances of the same game both by themselves and by others, just as thematic composition in the homeric epics--and in the Odyssey in particular--derives its most important effects from the interactions--indeed the interactivity--of the current performance with the possibility of other, different performances.

I demonstrate that in these three Bioware RPGs players’ choices of character origin, of dialogue, and of party selection, as well as of conduct towards party members, we see the mechanics of the Bioware RPG develop in each game as a way of shaping interactivity with the cultural materials given in the game. I also consider as contrast two other studio RPG styles, the Bethesda style and the Square Enix style, to illuminate the particular operation of the Bioware style. The chapter’s greatest contribution is thus likely to be in the comparisons and contrasts of three different games with one another and with other styles of RPG as outgrowths of a new practice of the oral epic tradition.

So my first notion of what my argument in the chapter will be is very much along the lines of a wonderful--though, I think interestingly flawed--paper by the brilliant classical scholar Laura Slatkin, called “Composition by theme and the metis of the Odyssey” (partly available here on Google books). I’ve taught Slatkin’s essay many times now in various courses on homeric epic, and it never fails to generate productive discussion about the exact extent to which we can say that an oral epic is about something or means something.

Strangely (note my irony), it’s a discussion that’s very highly analogous to discussions I have almost every day on Twitter, Facebook, and Buzz about the possibilities for meaning or “aboutness” in narrative video games. I’ve long ago dispensed, for my own purposes, with the notion that we can talk about games having “authors” in any meaningful sense. But the question of what effect that absence of authorship has on what I prefer to call “meaning-effect” is one with which even homeric scholarship, whose modern incarnation is of course older than video games themselves, and whose roots go back much, much further, continues to have great difficulty in dealing. Game scholarship has made advances in this direction--Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck holds its value very well in this regard--but there is much more to be done, and I’m hoping that my Bioware chapter will help do it.

At any rate, I think formulating this argument will take my own project in a direction it should definitely now go--the nuts-and-bolts critical discussion of what the fundamental comparison on which this blog is founded can actually tell us both about homeric epic and about games, and in particular about story-based video games. Slatkin’s argument is more or less that whoever put the Odyssey together did so 1) with a full understanding of the implications of the multiformity of the oral formulaic themes out of which he was making the thing we now know as the Odyssey, and 2) overtly to place himself (or, if you’d rather, the Odyssey’s narrator) in sympathy, and in friendly rivalry, with his hero Odysseus, in the aspect of metis (cunning). To make a corresponding argument about a game or a set of games would involve actually considering what the narrative materials of RPG’s are, and how they fit together--something that the critic of a novel or a film doesn’t do, something unique to oral epic and games.

My plan is to argue that in three crucial moments of the Bioware RPG’s I mention in the abstract, the player’s performances achieve their meaning-effects in a way describable in the same terms Slatkin uses of the composer of the Odyssey, a way particular to the Bioware style. I want to say that even on the first playthrough--and with increasing complexity as firsthand playthroughs and secondhand knowledge of others’ playthroughs accumulate--the player of a Bioware RPG must make meaning out of his or her performance not only through the performative choices s/he does make but also through those s/he doesn’t, not in the general sense true of all RPG’s but in the specific sense of a confrontation with the games’ potential performances, forced upon the player by the way these specific games deploy their thematic material.

I haven’t decided on the three key moments yet--and of I’ll course support my conclusions about them with many references to other moments in the games--but one of them is likely to be the moment in KOTOR at which the player chooses the way his or her performance will end. (I’m going to put it that way in this sketch because I want to keep it spoiler-free).

Just to end this first sketch with something concrete, I plan to argue that KOTOR configures the player’s performance in such a way that the choice between Light and Dark is a confrontation with the meaningful implications of the player’s performance to that point in the game, and so also with the potential meanings of the performative choices with which the game now confronts the player in the form of specific dialogue-options. As the player’s performance continues from that point, his or her composition by theme--that is, the theme s/he chose to elaborate at that crucial moment--works out its meaning-effects in great part through that performance’s relation to the player’s confrontation with his or her previous choices, above all through the specific valence of the Light/Dark scale that lies at the backbone of the game’s ludics.

Structuring, resolving, and elaborating this kind of choice is exactly what Slatkin’s Odyssey-composer does, with relation to the thematic materials of the Odyssean tradition. The performative choices he made, which echoed centuries of performative choices made by other bards, had the same relation to choices he’d made earlier in the recompositional occasion of his version of the epic: he was forced into the same kind of confrontation. The difference--and the reason I think we can talk about a “Bioware style” as opposed to an “Odyssey style” or a “Bethesda style”--is that the Odyssey-composer’s confrontation was in the register of metis, and involved things like similes, whereas the KOTOR-players’ confrontation is in the register of Light/Dark, and involves things like romantic cutscenes.

If I’m not mistaken about where I’ll go next (though admittedly lately I seem to have less than 50% accuracy on that score), I’ll be getitng more specfic, and more spoiler-y, about that moment in KOTOR. I’m excited about this chapter, and I’d love to discuss it with anyone who’s interested as it develops, in the interest of ensuring that it makes a real contribution to its fields.

I’m going to use the occasion of this post on which I’m eagerly seeking comments to experiment with turning comments off on the blog and requesting that if you're interested in commenting you do so on Google Buzz. If you haven’t experienced how interesting, prolonged, and downright valuable Buzz discussion can be, I recommend giving it a try!
You’re most welcome to follow me on Buzz, here; you’ll find this post there, too, with any luck, and I hope to discuss it with you there!