Monday, December 20, 2010

The BioWare style: sliders and meaning (sketch 5)

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 essence of the BioWare Style, I’m arguing in these posts, lies in the way the re-compositional choices I discussed in my last post relate to one another through the system of theme in the three games I’m discussing. In these games, a player builds his or her performance not simply by recombining the themes provided by the game’s ludics (the modular pieces of narrative discussed in the last sketch), but also by casting that performance in relation to the central concerns of the game at hand (the sliders). Players of BioWare games, that is, build meaningful performances of a particular kind, through a particular system.

Performances in these three games seem to me to resemble bardic composition by theme in oral epic more closely than performances in other styles of RPG do, but that’s not a point I need to insist on--the contribution of this chapter will, I hope, lie, in pointing out the different way composition by theme occurs in BioWare games because of the combination of sliders and modularity. To put that another way, one that will carry discussion further, many RPG’s have sliders that describe for example a player-character’s “karma,” but it seems to me that only in BioWare RPG’s do those sliders have what I see as two peculiar (in the true sense of “peculiar”) characteristics:
  • a fundamental tie to the overall cultural topic of the game; and
  • a meaning finally determined by a manifestly modular system of narrative.
In this post I’ll outline the first of these characteristics. In the next post I’ll outline the second, and start to explore them in depth in the practomime of KOTOR, Mass Effect, and DragonAge: Origins.

By “a fundamental tie to the overall cultural topic of the game” I mean what we see most clearly in KOTOR: in that game, the Light/Dark slider doesn’t just index what the player, and any observer, are supposed to think about the player-character within the overall sphere of culture (that is, is the PC a “good” or a “bad” “person” when measured by the standards of the community of which the player and observers are members). Much more importantly, the Light/Dark slider indexes how the player-character stands according to the fictively-created governing rules of the fictional universe in which the player and observers imagine the narrative action of the game taking place. In KOTOR, the Force, the “energy field” that “gives a Jedi his power,” “is created by all living things,” and “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together,” itself indexes the player-performance in the world of the narrative. KOTOR, like all Star Wars narratives, takes the Force as what I’m calling its “cultural topic,” and the Light/Dark slider makes the re-composition-by-theme of the player-performance about it, too.

So by “cultural topic” I mean what we can also talk about in terms of “meaning effect” or “aboutness”: the Force, like the Council in Mass Effect and the Ferelden/Blight conflict in DragonAge, is what KOTOR is most generally about. Also like Mass Effect’s council and DragonAge’s Ferelden/Blight conflict, the Force renders an ideological negotiation from the “real world” in fictive terms. The Force is a fictive reification of important ethical questions of modern culture--in particular of the claims of the state on the individual; the Council is a fictive reification of questions about nationalism and American exceptionalism in the modern world; the Ferelden/Blight conflict is a fictive reification of questions about loss of freedom to the state in times of crisis. (I’ll spend more time arguing these points in the final version!)

KOTOR’s slider is the most obvious example, but Mass Effect’s paragon/renegade slider is equally tied to the cultural topic of the game. Mass Effect revolves around the efforts of an interstellar United Nations to save the galaxy: the renegade/paragon slider indexes a player’s choice of how to behave with respect to that organized government.

DragonAge as usual presents more complexity, but the multiple sliders for individual party-members, though they complicate the game’s performance possibilities in myriad ways, nevertheless have the same connection to the cultural topic of the game: DragonAge is about the nature of Ferelden and of the threat to its safety (the Blight), and the question of what the cost of saving that, or any land so constituted, must be. The NPCs of the PC’s party in DragonAge--above all, Alistair and Morrigan--constitute a system for shaping a performance that declares something particular, and unique to that performance, about that question.

Each NPC has an individual relation to Ferelden. Alistair is the reluctant heir who has been mistreated by the power-structure; Morrigan is a witch from the wilds whose motives are unclear for most of the game, but in the end have everything to do with the Blight, and in particular nothing to do with saving Ferelden. (I’m not trying to avoid spoilers--it would just take a wall of text to explain.) Leliana, Wynne, Oghren, Zevran, and Sten each have a very particular relationship to Ferelden; none has as decisive an effect on the player-performance as Alistair and Morrigan do, but each adds thematic possibilities that change what the performance means in relation to the cultural topic Ferelden/Blight.

The NPC sliders of approval/disapproval differentiate player-performances with respect not only to any idea the player might have about liking, disliking, loving, or hating this or that NPC, but also with respect to the much more embracing question of what the PC should do as a Greywarden to save Ferelden, and how he or she, and with him, the player and any observer, should feel about it. What affects the DragonAge sliders are decisions made about how to deal with the Ferelden/Blight conflict. A player-performance that employs choices that please Alistair is a composition whose re-combinations of themes are very different from one using choices that please Morrigan; the differences in thematic re-combination, moreover, represent fundamental reshapings of the meaning-effect of that performance as a version of the Ferelden/Blight conflict.

That relationship to the cultural topic makes the BioWare slider different from the Bethesda one. The Bethesda karma or reputation slider indexes player-performance not to the cultural topic of the game but to an apparently transparent game-representation of a “real-world” ideological evaluation. Karma in Fallout 3 and reputation in for example The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion both differentiate player-peformance in a way analogous to that of the Light/Dark slider, but Fallout 3 isn’t about karma, nor is Oblivion about reputation, in the way that KOTOR is about the two sides of the Force, Mass Effect is about how you deal with the Council, and DragonAge is about the people of Ferelden.

This point, I think, is likely to be the most contentious, and most critiqued, in this chapter, so I’d love to hear any counter-arguments that spring to the mind of any reader who’s gotten this far!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Bioware style: meaning-effects in performative systems (sketch 4)

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!

As promised, in this post I’m going to try to pull together the modularity of theme I talked about in my last post with the role of the sliders I discussed in the post previous to that one. In putting those things together, I’m also hoping to deliver on a commitment I made in the first post in this series, to describe the performative nature of the crucial moment of KOTOR in terms of this complex system of recomposition. I committed at the same time also to describe the way the essential peformativity both of that moment and of the ludic system that creates it renders its effect on its audience (both player and observer) in an inescapable relation to the ludic choices of the performance.

That performative moment, I want to suggest both makes a vital part of the game’s system of recomposition and emblematizes that system more strikingly than any other moment. From there, I hope to continue in the next post in the series to the task of isolating key moments in the three games under discussion and describing them in the same terms. While I do that, I want at the same time to point out the uniqueness of these terms to the Bioware style, and hopefully even point the way towards analogous descriptions of the Bethesda, Square Enix, Atlus, and Lionhead styles.

The final meaning effect of a player performance in the three Bioware RPGs I’m discussing--that is, what the player, or an observer of the player’s performance, takes away as a description of what that performance “was about”--is comparable to the final meaning effect of a tale as recomposed by a bard. From performance to performance, though the materials remain the same, the meaning will differ, within a range that is simultaneously bounded--because of the determinate nature of the game’s ludics on the one hand and the poetic system’s constraints on the other--and infinite, because of the unending potential for variation within those constraints.

When a player of KOTOR finds his or her player-character (PC) in the climactic scene in which the PC’s past as the leader of the Sith is revealed, what the choice he or she will make at that point will mean is determined by the entire range of other choices he or she has made within the ludic system to that point; that meaning will be modified also by choices made subsequently. The player creates the meaning of a particular performance of KOTOR, that is, in the relationship among all the choices made in the course of that performance: the big choice between Light side and Dark side has no determinate meaning in and of itself; rather, it exists only as a choice that the player, and whatever audience receives the player’s performance, must integrate into the rest of that performance.

So much is true, mutatis mutandis, of every practomime, whether a game or a story: the way the player rotates and strafes a single, crucial block in Tetris has a meaning only in relation to all the other rotations he or she has made, and will make; the disappearance of Captain Ahab into the whirlpool with Moby Dick has a meaning only in relation to “Call me Ishmael.”

Composition by theme, though--the element that binds together the digital RPG and oral epic--determines that this integration of choices presents peculiar performance affordances in practomimes that allow that kind of composition. That is, the digital RPG and the oral epic have a special analogy, among the whole range of games and stories, because they allow composition by theme, and because they allow composition by theme, saying that a crucial choice in an RPG or an epic performance has meaning in relation to another choice has a special interpretative value.

A player’s choice in KOTOR of whether to side finally with the Jedi or the Sith is in this way like a bard’s choice to have Achilles refuse an embassy from Agamemnon. Because the themes exist in the ludic system, in relation to other themes in the system, performance-possibilities arise that could only arise in such a system. A bard’s performance of a book of the Iliad or the Odyssey, or even of the entirety of one of those epics (like, for example, the versions we have in the text that has come down to us), takes its meaning from the way the bard recomposed the materials available to him in the thematic system of poetics in which he was skilled. A player’s performance in KOTOR takes its meaning from the way the player recomposes the materials available to him--the modular content and the Light/Dark slider--in the thematic system of ludics in which he or she has become skilled.

The prominence of that system is the element that makes composition by theme possible both in homeric epic and in the digital RPG:

Achilles’ refusal of the embassy in the ninth book of the Iliad famously gains its meaning as a refusal to return to battle, and to the themes of traditional Iliadic oral epic. The choice of the bard, that is, is the choice of Achilles, and vice versa. Refinements to the theme of the embassy--the addition of Odysseus, for example--reshape the meaning in the same way, by establishing a new relationship between choices.

The player’s choice of Jedi or Sith in KOTOR creates a meaning-effect in relation to a huge number of other choices in the game, most of them registered on the Light/Dark slider, but perhaps above all in relation to choices made with respect to the player’s party-members. What kind of being is the player’s PC? What kind of story is the player telling about that PC, or about the player him or herself? These questions cannot, after a long series of choices and their effect on the performance--indeed, an effect rendered visually on the slider--be answered in a performative vacuum. “Cannot,” indeed, in a sense of strict impossibility: even if the player should decide to make the choice in relation to nothing but, say, the flip of a coin, that choice--beyond any effect on the virtuosity or interest of the performance--would still affect what happens next in the performance. The choice can be made only within the entire system of the game, which, as I’ll discuss in the next post, is in the end a microcosm of the performative system of the Star Wars saga itself.