Electron Dance
13Nov/14Off

The Conversation, 2: Hero Men

The Conversation is a retelling of my meeting with Dan Stubbs, who is developing the probably-too-ambitious-for-its-own-good game, The Hit. In part one, we discussed the squandered promise of the GTA open world model.

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As Belinda Carlisle belted out Heaven Is A Place On Earth from the coffee shop speakers, our conversation veered towards Bioshock Infinite.

“My favourite moment of Bioshock Infinite was a moment that wasn't a cutscene, wasn't a scripted moment,” said Stubbs.

“It was the menu?”

He laughed. “It was a nice menu! No, near the start of the game there was a bit where I could go off the path a little and I found my way into somebody else's house. It was fairly obvious that I was supposed to go that way but it was like I'm not going that way because there's something else I can do. So, yeah, I snuck in and I could hide around the corner and listen to a conversation between a husband and wife. And that was nice, just this feeling of being somewhere I wasn't supposed to be, knowing that I could truly decide whether I could walk in there and kill them, because I kind of assumed that was the only option, that I could either walk in there and kill them – or run away. I couldn't introduce myself and say ‘Hi, I'm a stranger in your town and I've just broken into your house. Apologies for that, but, nice to meet you!’”

Now it was my turn to laugh, but as per usual for Infinite, a scripted sequence turned to murder: “Eventually, I kill the guy, I intend to let the woman live because she doesn't look like she's going to kill me but she ended up on fire or something and burning to death horribly. I searched the place and found three gold coins or something and then... I kind of realised who I was. I just murdered a husband and wife who had done nothing to me, I'd broken into their home, killed them both, mercilessly for a handful of gold coins and I was just the worst person. And that was the best moment of the game for me. Just this. The fact that it ended in this situation where I actually felt a bit bad about killing these characters that the game was perfectly happy for me to kill.”

I remembered this, but didn't feel the same way, as Infinite had already persuaded me at that point that characters were mannequins who had three distinct states: script-reading, shooting, or lying down dead. I did offer that perhaps this scene was more a social commentary about The Castle Doctrine that Jason Rohrer's The Castle Doctrine, but there were few precious moments in Infinite that could offer this sort of personal resonance.

“The truth is,” I said, “every AAA project starts off with the grand ambitions but eventually they can't make them work. I was reading an article which I really like about the so-called Dead End problem. When you put some nice ideas together they just don't seem to work and eventually you say, okay, we'll have to shut that down and you end up with a normal shooter. In the worst case scenario, it knifes the project and it's gone because there's not enough time to fix it.”

Stubbs agreed. “Completely. I think part of the problem is the process that we have this right-brain development process where everybody has their role, where you have the artists in this room, you have the coders, you have the writer. And Bioshock is the perfect example. Ken Levine, the name on the box so to speak, is a writer. So the writing is kind of divorced from the game which is divorced from the art assets. They all have something to do with each other but they are all these separate little things that have been assembled by different people. And it feels like that. It feels like a collection of different things.”

“Let me dive in here with ludonarrative dissonance,” I said, unfortunately before I later coined the wittier phrase ‘vaulting the grave’. “The straightforward example of mechanics divorced from story is the psychopathic killer, but cutscenes dress him up as a very caring guy. The problem is it doesn't seem to make much difference. Do you think we're waiting for a reckoning, that people are going to get fed up of it? Or it's just going to be ‘yeah it probably doesn't make it a great game but it's not going to affect sales’?”

“I mean, these are great games,” Stubbs said. “Uncharted is a great series, it's great fun. We don't know there's anything better because we haven't got the latest thing yet. The reason we're making psychopath simulators is because we use the same verb – to shoot – in every game. What you're shooting is targets that pop up. To be honest, in Call of Duty they may as well just be yellow and white discs that you're shooting at with bullseyes painted on them. It doesn't make any difference whatsoever apart from the fact they shoot back. The opening of Bioshock Infinite where you're at the carnival with these animatronic things is just so self-aware of what they're making. They're making a carnival ride but I don't think they want to make a carnival ride?”

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I concur, having spent many uncomfortable hours with Infinite. “It felt so funfair, you know, roller coaster ride. The rails you go around on sound like a roller coaster and it's just... when I talked about Infinite at the start of the year, I made this point that even the bloody buildings pop up like set pieces.”

“Which is desperately unfortunate because there's so much potential there. The whole thing about class war and racism... you have the potential to explore that in gameplay. You have the potential to be the oppressor... and then to flip that, so you can see that you were actually being racist yourself, in just accepting that these are the bad guys you are supposed to kill and then you can turn that on it's head.”

For Stubbs, it kept coming back to cutscenes.“Haze, one of the early PS3 games, tried to do that, have this framing device where you're the oppressor and everybody is gung-ho, sort of ‘HOORAH let's kill the bad guys’ and then you find out later that the bad guys are actually the good guys and you were on the wrong side to start off with. But it was so heavy-handed and did it all in the cutscenes.”

Deus Ex was the wake-up call for me,” I said. “That was the first time for me it felt that games had become a little bit more self-aware about what they were doing. And I just love the fact that after a few missions you suddenly realise, wait, I'm actually on the wrong side. And I thought I was going to turn this around, going to fix the organisation. But no no – you're leaving! And then you don't know what's going to happen after that because games didn't do that. They usually set you up as authority and whatever you're fighting for is just. It was like the comics of the 1960s, no matter what the superheroes do, they're right. I think it's difficult to pull that off now because we've seen it so many times, but it doesn't mean we can't do it better, I guess.”

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The conversation spun out into the sequel Deus Ex: Invisible War, which Stubbs hadn’t played. It follows the Deus Ex conspiracy structure so closely, the endings of the sequel feel more cynical and unrewarding than its landmark predecessor.

That’s when Stubbs broaches Spec Ops.Spec Ops does something that I think is very, very special, it gives you a choice. At certain points of the game, it kind of goes ‘right, you should do A right now, but there is a possibility of doing B’. And it doesn't tell you that you can actually do C and D as well. It creates the possibility space where a whole bunch of things can happen and says ‘this is the right thing to do right now’ and you've got to go ‘is that the right thing to do right now or is B the right thing to do?’ Or you can kind of look at it and kinda go hang on, I can do this as well. There's actually a way out of this where I can do the right thing according to my own personal moral compass rather than choice A or B which is painted as right and wrong. And I think a major problem with games at the moment, especially AAA games, is that we always have the right thing to do. And it's not just a problem with AAA games but it's a problem with culture at large.”

I hadn’t played Spec Ops: The Line at the time but, I can confirm, it was this conversation with Stubbs which led me to playing it soon afterwards. It turned out that I wouldn’t agree with him completely, but would be impressed with what the development team at Yager had attempted.

I agreed that plenty of indie games have the same “right or wrong” problem and Stubbs continued: “It's not just videogames, this is an old, old thing. We have this idea of a hero who is always masculine. I mean, look at Christian culture: the hero is a man. Women were just not a part of that. He had his twelve disciples... who were all men. And we have this idea of men being the doers, the active force, and women being the passive force. And looking at this from different angles... it could almost be a designed system. In a way it's completely unfair because men get to do stuff and women don't.”

On cue, Billy Joel began singing his heart out about a girl. She shouldn't change to try to please him. “I don't want clever conversation,” he sang. “I never want to work that hard.”

Stubbs continued, “I think the whole male hero female victim/trophy/whatever has to be talked about. There is something massively wrong going on and it's not just with videogames, it's with society as a whole. If you consider this as being a designed system we've engineered, it was probably the best possible system for a culture 2000 years ago. But right now we have the internet. We have a world of information at our fingertips. So there's no real reason, plus we don't need to go hunt our own food on the Savannah or whatever, it's a very different world now and the old archetypes are breaking down for a reason. Because they're not the best system any more. We are moving slowly towards a system where everybody is equal, where everybody can have access to everything, where everyone can be the actor, the doer and the thinker.”

It was time for me to hurl a cat into the pigeons. “From the point of the stories, if you make the roles equal, have they just become ciphers for the protagonist? I mean, is there any difference between a man or a woman? I haven't really got a great question here but it's along the lines of... it's a great goal to make men and women equal in terms of either can do a role. But that doesn't mean they're not different and of course---”

Stubbs interrupts: “Of course, men and women different! People are different! You and I are different! We are not clones of each other. And the fact we're both male has nothing to do with it, we are different people. I could be having a same conversation with a woman and I would say the same thing – we are different people. We have different experiences. We have different genetics.”

I wasn't giving up yet. I wanted to put aside the goal of role models and ask whether just providing equality lip service - making a new avatar with a different voice - would capture any gender difference at all. “I guess what I'm trying to say is, you take, say, Tomb Raider, and you cast it with Duncan Croft: does the game change? Or you take something like Uncharted and make it Jane Drake, do these games actually change?”

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“Well, with Uncharted and Tomb Raider, they've pretty much got the same gameplay mechanics in both games, so obviously those don't really change. But we have so many conventions of what the white male hero does in a country full of brown-coloured people. Yes, you can point out that I'm cringing at this point on the recording if you want.”

We laughed.

“We have these very dominant cultural ideas,” said Stubbs, “like you have the threat of rape in the Lara Croft story but you don't have that in Uncharted because it's accepted you can do those things with female characters but you can't do those things with male characters. And yet it would probably freak a lot of gamers out if you had a buggery scene in Uncharted 4 or whatever.”

I pointed out that Far Cry 3 had gone down that route, although admitted I had not played it.

Stubbs said he'd started playing it, but found the linearity in places off-putting. “So I haven't really played that one through enough to comment but, yeah, it's massively interesting. We're dealing with a point in history where it's all changing. Where the dominant paradigm that men are the doers and women are the people who have things done to them – the whole idea is changing. And I think part of it is going to come with videogames.”

In part three: "The whole free-to-play thing has been dominated by the fact you can put free on the screen and people will download it because it's free but it's a complete lie."

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  1. “in Call of Duty they may as well just be yellow and white discs that you’re shooting at with bullseyes painted on them. It doesn’t make any difference whatsoever apart from the fact they shoot back.”

    Although like many people I’m definitely guilty of describing CoD games as pop-up shooting galleries in the past, this is disingenuous. That the shooting gallery is made up of men with guns who are running and shooting is quite obviously a part of the power fantasy that is a part of the campaign’s engine. No one feels like a super-soldier popping fake bullets off at fake paper targets, no matter how good at quickscoping they are!

    Interesting that Haze gets brought up. The game that killed Free Radical, IIRC? Or at least the one that put them on a downward spiral. I bought a copy a little while back, despite knowing it had been roundly panned, because I wanted to see the story Dan brings up. Unfortunately the game itself was both bad and old, so I didn’t get far enough to see any of it. That it was grossly heavy-handed is not a surprise.

    I did run into a wonderful moment of the ageing videogame hardware of yesteryear, however – if you get hit by a throwing knife you’re supposed to use SixAxis controls to get it out. Of course many pads lack this, and neither the game nor its settings offer an alternative approach. Thus I found myself standing around for a full minute while my health drained to 10%, screen shaking every so often, until the effect wore off. Talk about immersion!

    I also ran into something similar with the dreadful KillZone 2, but in that instance I was able to pause the game, swap the controllers over, and use my half-broken DualShock 3 to – I think – activate the explosive charge, before pausing again, switching controllers again, and unpausing. Now that was an unforgettable action-packed moment!

    Continuing to enjoy this conversation, and (duh) I’m in agreement concerning the very simple binary morality of most games, the dominance of the male hero archetype, and that one should take care to offer more than ‘equality lip service’ in creative works.

  2. Oh pants, I put some pseudotags in to mark out the two-paragraph tangent I embarked upon, but it looks like the commenting system ate them. Sorry HM!

  3. Hey Shaun.

    The fallacy of “ludological reductionism” – I don’t know what else to call it – is something I tackle with Erlend Gresfrud a lot as well. But the truth is, once you’ve seen the same games enough times, it’s pretty difficullt not to see them in terms of their button-popping genus. That is, the form is now king over whatever skinning you provide. Sometimes it does work, which is why it’s a fallacy, the question is when and why.

    I don’t entirely agree with Stubbs but I understand where he’s at. That doesn’t mean this is the end of controversial statements =)

    (I deleted a fair chunk of our discussion on gender stereotyping and I almost took the whole thing out. Never know if this stuff is going to be misinterpreted, you know how it is.)

  4. “But the truth is, once you’ve seen the same games enough times, it’s pretty difficullt not to see them in terms of their button-popping genus. That is, the form is now king over whatever skinning you provide. Sometimes it does work, which is why it’s a fallacy, the question is when and why.”

    Whilst much of this is going to hinge on the work developers have done to erect a curtain before the wizard, I’d counter that it is also contingent on the ability of individual audience members to suspect their disbelief.

    This is not something I have ever personally struggled with, even in Call of Duty games, of which I’ve played through the campaigns of a good four or five! I am quite happy to submit to being engaged in this way, and I don’t think this clashes with the process of analysis or criticism.

    I confess I’d find it quite horrifying to sit in front of a game and be unable to see it as anything more than the sum of various parts I had seen before elsewhere. To peer straight through that curtain as if it were of no substance.

    (I worry that by writing the above I am just wrapping this around to long-passed discussion of ‘ludology vs. narratology’ as though they were antithetical modes of criticism…)

  5. Shaun, I was going to rebut this but it’s a fair point. Several times I’ve argued that immersion is in the mind of the player, not the sole responsibility of the developer.

    Thanks to your meddling comments, I guess I have to restate my point thus: it gets harder to maintain that self-deception once you’ve seen the same form so many times. Exactly the same thing happens in television. How many times have you watched an anthology serial with zero concern for the heroes’ welfare, knowing nothing bad can really happen to them – at least until the end of the series? How many times do you know they are going to find a vaccine or defuse the bomb with mere seconds left on the episode’s clock? It is still possible to enjoy such programmes – the form becomes a vehicle on which you hang some interesting ideas or characters – but the form itself is not good enough once you’ve seen it a few times.

    So we can agree to enjoy cutscene-laden games like MGS but then reject Haze because it just doesn’t have that pizazz. I am also a fan of Spec Ops which is not shy on the cutscene front either.

  6. :-)

    I think your restatement is quite reasonable.

    Anecdotally, I have found a pleasant side effect of watching TV shows like Deadwood, the Wire, the Shield etc – in which very little is really sacred – is that some of that sense of tension predicated on my expectation of unpredictability filters through to other shows which don’t themselves justify or generate it – which improves my experience of them, hurrah.

  7. Yes Shaun I know what you mean. I’m watching Marvel Agents of Whatever and it does occasionally surprise but not enough to justify the tension I feel at times. I guess it’s the Deadwood effect!

    (On reflection, Deadwood was an odd show. Moving and shocking but also terribly dull at times.)

  8. (I have to agree. I loved it, absolutely loved it, but attempts to rewatch it have stalled due to the pacing.)

  9. I still think that the most useful feature to introduce to open world RPGs would be ‘knock on doors’ allowing you to see if you are actually welcome before entering people’s houses.

  10. Hey Andy, sorry been deprived of time this week especially with the new video having gone live and all.

    I think your idea is interesting – in terms of making the player reflect that these dwellings are not just some exploitable virtual space. It’s possible this disruption to pacing might upset some players and the “knock on door” mechanic might seem inconsistent with the rest of the game? I’m not sure. Down to someone else to try it out :)


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