Thursday, January 13, 2011

The BioWare style: manifest identification (sketch 6)

This post introduces my argument about the relationship of the BioWare performance-slider to the BioWare RPG’s modularity of theme. My thinking when I stated to write this sketch was that this section of the chapter could prove a nice way to package my conclusions, as I also put the argument itself together. The creation of the meaning-effect of the games through the relationships of their sliders to their modular themes seems to me to be the absolute essence of the BioWare style. While I do that final synthesis, I was hoping, I would be able to accomplish two other goals: first, to triangulate the differences of the three games the chapter is supposed to be about; second, to bring in other styles for comparison, to demonstrate that the BioWare style is distinctive and that it can be usefully described as I have described it, in terms of the analytic methodology of composition by theme pioneered by Lord for traditional oral epic. That last bit will prove tricky whenever and however I manage finally to do it at length, but it may well be the most enjoyable: I’m convinced there’s a major contribution to be made both to the study of these individual games and to the study of the RPG in general by demonstrating that a thick description of the way an RPG handles composition by theme provides a critically revealing index of the role that the digital RPG has played and can play in culture.

But although I still want to close the chapter I’ve been sketching towards with some version of that argument, it’s become clear as I’ve proceeded to exceed the word limit for the chapter, with no end in sight, really, of what I’d like to say not just about BioWare RPG’s but also about Bethesda, Square Enix, Lionhead, and Atlus RPG’s, just to name a few, that there’s a project here that my training would ordinarily make me think of as a book: specifically the type of book called a monograph, which is basically a scholarly article that got too long for its own good. The problem is that nobody publishes monographs any more, because, generally, monographs just aren’t profitable, because they’re useful only to other researchers on the topic, and then only for perhaps a single footnote, if that. Add to that the problem that nobody publishes me (well, not nobody, but the market for this stuff would only be described as “limited” by a very generous observer) and you’ve got an occasion for me to kick over the traces and say “Here (yes, here, on my blog) is where I stand.”

That is, I think I’m going to try to write the book here, by drafting the kinds of sketches I’ve been drafting, then refining them gradually into a more organized and articulated structure. The experiment of drafting a chapter intended for publication here on the blog has encouraged me to think that other bits of this new sort of blogograph might find their way through the peer-review process and become “real” scholarship. That’s not to say that I think the chapter I’m sketching here will get accepted; rather, it’s to say that I feel reasonably confident that the process of blogging these sketches has led me to a chapter that I feel comfortable submitting to a traditional peer-review. Readers of Living Epic won’t see the back-end scholarly stuff unless the chapter gets accepted and published, but it’s very easy to do that back-end stuff by pounding on the blog posts in a series of Google Docs for a few days, with an added dash of Zotero goodness.

Enough front-matter. My focus in this post shifts from KOTOR to a broader comparative view of KOTOR, Dragon Age: Origins (DAO), and Mass Effect, as a way of beginning to discuss both the essential shared elements of re-composition in the three games and the differences that reveal the way the style has manifested itself not as a single set of ludics but across several different ludic systems. I begin with a consideration of the difference between Mass Effect’s version of the slider and KOTOR’s, then use that discussion to open a three-way comparison of analogous moments in the three games.

I’ll be arguing that modularity plus sliders equals a particular kind of meaningful identification. I plan to demonstrate that the re-compositional thematic ludics of the BioWare style allow players of BioWare RPG’s to form a specific kind of identification with their player-characters: an identification that enacts a subjectivity manifestly negotiated between the game’s thematic system and the choices the player makes within that system. The player of a BioWare RPG relates to his or her PC through the enactment of modular themes and the manipulation of sliders, with the result that his or her performance enacts a visibly unique claim to selfhood.

Through the manifestation of that negotiation, the player gains the special impression of individuality and of fullness that distinguishes the BioWare style. Whereas the homeric bards and their analogues in Yugoslavia performed their thematic recompositions in relation to a public occasion and a public role, the player of the BioWare RPG performs him or herself to him or herself, gaining a self-identity that we may describe theoretically in the terms I use above, of a subjectivity of manifest negotiation. I’ll try to show that manipulating the modular themes of the game in relation to the game’ sliders peforms the player’s subjectivity as not only capable of saving a world worth saving, but also as capable of making that salvation meaningful outside the game.

The Renegade/Paragon slider in Mass Effect can serve, in comparison to the light/dark slider in KOTOR and the party-character sliders in DAO, as the emblem of this meaningful identification: the negotiation of dialogue choices involved in performing a particular version of that slider produces a manifestation in the “Squad” screen of what kind of human the player’s Shepard is. Because the cultural topic of the game is the status of the human race vis-a-vis the other races of the galaxy, what the player sees on the squad screen is a visual index of a numerically determined relationship between his or her performance and the meaning of that performance with respect to the cultural topic. That is, the player’s identification with Shepard--the way he or she is performing Shepard as an extension of him or herself--is visible as a negotiation on that squad screen, a screen the player must visit every level if he or she is to continue playing the game.

KOTOR and DAO share the essence of this ludic performance of manifest identification. When we compare this effect to the light/dark slider in KOTOR, we see the essential similarity of the two systems; although the DAO system differs in that the sliders are not centrally located, it is similarly essential to continuing the game that the player visit the party-characters’ individual screens with great frequency (at least those of party-characters the player has chosen to adventure with), and each party-character’s approval/disapproval slider is displayed prominently on that screen. Just as in Mass Effect, the player sees a visual representation of a quantitative index of the relationship of his or her performance as the player-character to the in-progress cultural meaning of that performance of the game.

My plan for the next sketch of what I’m now thinking of as a never-to-be-published book not to be titled The Epic Styles of Major Developers of the Digital RPG: Realizing the Ancient Potential of Traditional Oral Epic in a New Age of Performative Technology is to push further in my argument about this special, manifest kind of identification in the three BioWare games under discussion with reference on the one hand to traditional oral epic performance and on the other to the “modularity plus sliders” system of the games.

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!