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.