The Last of Us #3

As a deaf person who wears hearing aids, my primary form of communication since I was three years old has been through vocal speech. While hearing aids help me distinguish what is being said, I don’t really rely on my hearing all that much. Instead, I depend on my ability to read lips. When it comes to video games however, it’s impossible to even try to read the characters’ lips in the game. I’ve had to rely on subtitles/close-captioning to fill in the blanks. The reason I pointed this out, is because subtle facial reactions and cues are huge when trying to get a read on someone’s emotion. It’s an extension of the game for me personally and the face is such an important and complex communication channel.

Facial animation was first introduced in 1982 and focused solely on the mouth and eyebrows. In 1991, it was proposed that animation systems consider the link between intonation and the emotion to drive their system. Pretty much all video games are lacking in the ability to effectively communicate the emotions of the characters. In my opinion, it is essential that people realize that literally every single aspect of your face is used to communicate with people. Video games have never really focused on the following during dialogues between characters: cheek muscles, eyebrows, forehead creases, nostrils, position of chin, the clenching of your jawline, pupil dilation/constriction, eyelashes, tongue, and how much teeth is being shown. Video games that depict humans also never seem to produce the desired emotion of what is happening in the game. If you look at Grand Theft Auto V, the facial animations are decent, but they don’t really capture the essence of what’s happening in the game. It exudes laziness. The Last of Us is unique in that Naughty Dog, Inc. put a serious effort to exhibit the emotions completely.

In a game like The Last of Us, the emotional whirlwind that the characters and gamers themselves are exposed to is what really sells separates the game from its peers. When I try to read lips of the characters in other video games, it’s unnatural. It immediately reminds me that I’m playing a video game. I understand that it’s a computer animation and rendering of what we see in the real world, but for me, it’s a huge dealbreaker when it comes to how immersed I can get within the game. Simply put, The Last of Us contains the best facial animation I have seen in a video game thus far. It’s not perfect, but it’s close. They were able to capture the intonation of how the characters meant to say the word, which is how words are said in its pitch as well as its delivery speed.

The main characters in The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie, were able to show shock, fear, irony, sarcasm, despair, anger, sadness, disgust, and surprise, among other emotions. Joel and Ellie weren’t just computer rendered characters. They were their own people with their own moods and their own distinct personalities. They weren’t solely outward projections. They were also able to project inwards, which is difficult for video games to accomplish. And that’s what I believe is necessary to help people bond with characters. If you look at the video above, The Last of Us 2, which is due later this year or next, is looking more and more impressive. I mean, I think the video speaks for itself from my perspective. It’s uncanny how natural it looks and I’m excited to play it. When Ellie says, “I’m going to kill every last one of them,” at the end of the video, one can’t help but get goosebumps. The bar has been set by Naughty Dog, LLC and everyone else is playing catch up.

 

 

Sources:

Pelachaud, Catherine, Mark Steedman, and Norman I. Badler. “Linguistic Issues in Facial Animation.” Computer Animation. University of Pennsylvania. 1991. Pages 15-30.  https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1076&context=hms

Schaap, Robert, and Rafael Bidarra. “Towards Emotional Characters in Computer Games.” Entertainment Computing. The Netherlands: Delft University of Technology, 2008. Pages 167-172. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rafael_Bidarra/publication/220851417_Towards_Emotional_Characters_in_Computer_Games/links/004635311e999b6343000000/Towards-Emotional-Characters-in-Computer-Games.pdf

 

 



 

Source: The Last of Us #3

Physical Story Arcs in Journey

Building on my last post about Journey, I found a post on The Guardian’s Games Blog about the relationship between Journey’s physical progression and the progression of it’s story.  In the post, game designer Nick Harper discusses the many ways in which traditional movie plot formats are reproduced in video games.  The aspect of his analysis that I found most compelling was the idea that the story arc of most films and compelling narratives can usually be simplified into five main parts: intro, turning point, development, low point, and climax. Harper then maps the stages of Journey to this arc:

Journey’s Emotional Arc (Nick Harper, The Guardian, 2012)

Having played through the game, it is incredible to see the different stages fit this model so well.  The intro represents the first few minutes of the game, when you begin to understand the controls and are able to explore the world to some degree, though the world seems very desolate and is sparsely populated with the ruins of an ancient culture.  At the turning point, the player discovers how to engage with the ribbon-creatures and progress through the world towards the mountain, which has since become their goal. The development comes as the player begins to sand surf down into the civilization, where they find the machines as the primary antagonists. Though this marks the physical low point of the game, Harper argues that the narrative low point comes as the player dies in a blizzard trying to reach the summit.  Naturally, there is the rebirth and ascent, made possible by a group of god-like white figures that revive the player and allow them to finish their journey to the summit.

Compare Harper’s emotional or narrative curve to the physical map that the game displays in the form of murals:

In-game mural from Journey (thatgamecompany, 2012)

I found Harper’s argument very compelling, especially after seeing this mural from the game. Of course, the emotional curve is not the only way to talk about the story of Journey, since other methods like the hero’s journey also apply very well to Journey.

Source: Physical Story Arcs in Journey

Postal Redux: Another Perspective

While Postal Redux is played in the third person perspective, I never have felt that the game lacks a sense of immersion. Some may argue that the sequel, Postal 2, is much more immersive because it is played in the first person perspective. In general, many gamers would argue that first person perspective games are more immersive than third person perspective games because you can play from “inside” the in game character. In his article “Why Can I See My Avatar? Embodied Visual Engagement in the Third-Person Video Game”, Daniel Black states that it is not the so much the perspective that creates immersion but how effectively the game can bridge the gap from physical reality to digital fantasy.

Black examines James Newman’s “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame” in order to make a case for his claim. Newman is arguing against the immersiveness of third person perspectives and how it creates a division between the player and the in game character. Newman states that “the primary-player–character relationship is one of vehicular embodiment” (Newman). Black argues back that this vehicular metaphor acts as Cartesian dualism, “with the player taking the role of disembodied cogito using the game character to act upon the digital res extensa of the game world” (Black). To explain, Black is saying that players use in game characters in order to perform tasks that they would otherwise not perform, kind of like a puppet. He continues saying that if this were truly the case, games would not be as engaging as they are made out to be. I agree with this statement because I believe in game characters are more than just a tool to be used, they are a digital representation of one’s identity and behaviors. They encapsulate a secondary form of consciousness like no other medium can because they allow the player to perform whatever task said player wants to act upon.

Continuing on the vehicular metaphor, Newman describes a typical CoinOp racing game and how it is possible to be sitting in a physical representation of the in game car you are driving, yet view yourself driving from a third perspective (he suggests from a helicopter). He states that these type of games create “multiple and apparently contradictory presentations of the self”(Newman). Arguing against this claim, Black turns to how we view Hollywood car chase scenes:

“While we do not control the car in the Hollywood film, we identify with the driver, and perhaps flinch at a near collision as if we were physically located inside the car, even as we watch the chase largely from a viewpoint outside the car.” (Black)

These car chase scenes often have multiple perspectives of the singular main driver- a first person perspective of the driver, a perspective of the passenger, an outside of the car third person perspective, and sometimes even a perspective from another driver. And while the film creates multiple perspectives and angles that we view ourselves in, we often can still maintain singularity with the main driver in order to create consistency inside our heads. Black states that if we are able to create consistency with films, we should be able to create consistency in videogames, which have much less switching of perspectives. I agree with this statement because even if there is a visual “division” between me and the in game character,  be it the perspective or even the screen itself, I can still feel like I am inside the game. I am creating a mental connection to the character in order to create consistency for myself. Perspectives do not have to be one to one with the in game character, but they at least need to allow me to be able to create a simulated singularity.

Black finds problems Newman’s argument against the immersiveness of multiple perspectives/representations of the self in order to strengthen his own argument for the immersiveness of third person perspectives. Even if a game is in a third person view, it can still be immersive and can allow players to feel like they are truly inside the game. Postal is a perfect example of this claim, as its third person view does not hinder its immersiveness or its ability to envelope the player’s identity into a digital character.

Sources:

Newman James (2002). The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame. Game Studies, 2.

Black, Daniel. “Why Can I See My Avatar? Embodied Visual Engagement in the Third-Person Video Game.” Games and Culture, 13 June 2015, journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1555412015589175#articleCitationDownloadContainer.

 

Source: Postal Redux: Another Perspective

4 Fallout Myths

Lawrence King

Digital Narratives

Sample

April 6, 2018

After doing some research I learned some weird things about Fallout 4. I discovered myths that surround the game. There are multiple mythical locations, creatures, and people in the game. I’m going to talk about four of the myths. Two locations and two creatures.

The first location is Fairline Hill Estates. Fairline consists of six buildings in a cul-de-sac. If you bring someone with you, they will usually mention that they feel uncomfortable and want to leave. If you bring a man named, Preston Garvey to the estate, he mentions that it used to be a Minuteman settlement. There are also a couple of clues that help you to figure out what happened to the settlement.

The second location is Red Death Island. It is located in the south-west sea of the Far Harbor add-on map. When you travel to the island, however, no map marker will appear, even if you go during the quest, ”The Great Hunt”.  Apparently, the island is the location of the ominous Red Death. The island is quite small and is usually quite well hidden by Far Harbor’s fog.

The first creature is The Red Death. It’s a creature said to haunt the fog of Far Harbor. It is located on Red Death Island. The Red Death was feared for many years by the fisherman of The Island, many claiming that the red light frequently spotted during long periods of fog were from the creature as it killed many people. Once the fog rolled into the harbor, all fisherman would stop what they were doing and get away from the sea. However, despite all the rumors and “sightings”, it was discovered that the Red Death is actually a very small, completely docile creature with glowing red eyes whose shine pierces the fog and lures curious captains to their doom.

The second creature and final myth is the Mother of the Fog. The Mother is a sacred spirit worshiped by members of the Children of Atom, as they believe her to be a saint of their god, Atom. She is a dark, ghostly figured shrouded in black smoke. Many players claim to have seen her appear then disappear in various locations in the fog of Far Harbor. Fallout 4 is such a large and expansive game that it’s not surprising if you see some weird things. They make the game more interesting in my opinion.

 

Work Cited

Fallout Myths Wiki. Myths and Legends in Fallout 4. http://bit.ly/2ofNAGA

 

 

 

 

Source: 4 Fallout Myths

The Plot Thickens! – Narrative Architecture in Rusty Lake: Roots

Henry Jenkins, in “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” considers the relationship between games and story.  He examines the tension in the scholarly community between those who wish to privilege the mechanics of games in their studies, the Ludologists, and those who focus on the storytelling aspect, the Narratologists.  Jenkins proposes a middle ground, one that asserts that many games tell stories while acknowledging that they tell them in ways unique to the medium.  Rusty Lake: Roots, is a highly narrative driven game, and I believe it departs from Jenkins’s characterization of typical video game storytelling in its clearly linear and unchangeable narrative progression.  In doing so, however, it may limit the freedom and exploration players come to associate with games.

Rusty Lake: Roots, is an epic family drama, spanning across generations.  Each level contains its own narrative, telling the story of a key moment in the family’s history.  These stories range from birth to death, marriage to betrayal, conspiracy to rescue.  Jenkins characterizes traditional video game storytelling as episodic.  He explains that “Each episode…can become compelling on its own terms without contributing significantly to the plot development and often, the episodes could have been reordered without significantly impacting our experiences as a whole (7).  Rusty Lake: Roots somewhat defies this description of video games.  The narrative of the game, while occurring in individual episodes, has a clear arc and could not easily be reordered without losing a great deal of coherence.  For example, in one early episode, Albert throws Emma’s baby into a well.  In a subsequent level, Emma hangs herself due to the heartbreak of losing her child. Several levels later, the player finds herself in that well helping the now-grown child, Frank, to escape.  In another level, Frank kills Albert.  This sub-plot is but one of several narratives that follow a more traditional literary plot structure.

This clear narrative structure is due in large part to the family tree structure by which the game is organized.  After each level, the player returns to the tree and a branch grows, displaying a new level to play that quite literally stems from the previous one.  The narratives, therefore, follow a clear chain of cause-and-effect, as I identified earlier with the Frank narrative.  While this structured approach to storytelling allows for a fascinating, easy-to-follow narrative, it certainly constrains players’ freedom.  Jenkins identifies this concern, explaining that too much plotting can detract from the exploratory nature of games.  Rusty Lake: Roots falls into this trap.  Players can solve the puzzle on each level, but ultimately have little to no control over the outcome of the narrative.  The choices the player makes have no impact on the story, which may be frustrating to players who prefer freedom within a game world.

The game’s family tree displays how each narrative episode progresses from the last

Rusty Lake: Roots is not a traditional game.  Everything, from its graphics (stylized two dimensional drawings), to its mechanics (simple pointing and clicking), to its structure (a clear narrative progression with little player agency), departs from the usual big-budget video game conventions.  However, as an indie game, Rusty Lake: Roots is able to take risks and experiment with storytelling.  The result is a rich, sprawling story worthy of a Gothic novel enacted in a video game.

Source: The Plot Thickens! – Narrative Architecture in Rusty Lake: Roots

Like a Bad Dream: Surrealist Horror in Rusty Lake: Roots

Rusty Lake: Roots in an escape-the-room puzzle game telling the story of the Vanderbloom family in 1860.  Dysfunctional to the extreme, this family is brimming with murder, suicide, cult-like rituals, sacrifice, and strange experiments.  What interests me the most about Rust Lake: Roots, however, is its use of surrealist horror.

I’m a lover of most things horror (the glaring exceptions being torture porn and anything with large spiders).  But spooky and scary generally delight me.  What makes Rusty Lake: Roots so unsettling is that it just doesn’t make sense.  The website TV Tropes explains that surrealist horror is “not just nightmare-inducing, it’s nightmarish in a literal way, by being surreal, disjointed, dreamlike, and filled with bizarre imagery, usually saying goodbye to all logic and sanity in the process.” 

Rusty Lake: Roots definitely fits the bill.  Some levels are more frightening than others, certainly, but the whole game feels like an incomprehensible nightmare.  There’s a recurring shadowy figure shaped like a large man with a bird’s head.  In a birthing scene, you give one baby a bottle of blood, and it drinks it happily.  Albert, one of the main characters, is frequently depicted wearing strange, frightening masks that can sometimes control the weather.  In an otherwise romantic scene, James proposes to Mary with a message written in Mary’s blood.

 

Mr. Crow lurking in the window. Personal screenshot.
Mary goes to sniff a flower and her face promptly begins to bleed. My screenshot.

What interests me most about this surrealist horror is its use in a puzzle game.  Puzzles are about figuring things out, finding clues and solving problems.  In Rusty Lake: Roots, solving the puzzle often only brings about more puzzling results.  Mr. Crow, as the bird-man is called, will often appear at the very end of a level.  In one level, the final step to the puzzle involves cutting out a corpse’s tongue and putting it in a jar, but you never know why.  The player solves the puzzle and figures something out only to be greeted with something incomprehensible.  I think this mismatch between the mechanics of the game and the theme is a really powerful choice.  Contrary to our usual experience, solving the puzzle often results in more questions than answers, enhancing the game’s surreal, bizzarre atmosphere.

Source: Like a Bad Dream: Surrealist Horror in Rusty Lake: Roots

Tearjerker

The gaming console I grew up on was the PS2. It’s fitting then that two of the best video games of all time in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and The Last of Us were released exclusively on the Playstation. I loved the Uncharted series, but was never able to make the time investment during high school to play The Last Of Us, which was released on the PS3 and remastered on the PS4.

The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic horror game and unlike the trend of the last 10 years, The Last of Us does what other games couldn’t through it’s visual and sound components, as well as its in-depth character development. I felt the visual graphics are insanely well-made. The attention to detail gives the impression of how if the developers and creators were heavily invested, then the people playing were going to be heavily invested as well, albeit emotionally speaking.

From the start, you’re emotionally invested in the characters and the game doesn’t hesitate to rip your heart out. As Henry Jenkins said, “The tone of voice and body language can powerfully express specific emotional states.” When Joel’s daughter who is around 8-12 years old is killed, the graphics were able to depict the anguish and despair on Joel’s face. You could feel some sort of empathy with the character even though is all made up and taking place in a virtual world. So I think that factor of emotional attachment is something that we haven’t really discussed in class that much.  The emotional atmosphere of The Last of Us was not really existent in the Uncharted series until the fourth game, A Thief’s End was released in 2016, more than three years after The Last of Us came out.

The musical component of the game is pretty melancholy and suspenseful and keeps you on your toes, which is fitting especially when I couldn’t hear the clickers until they already killed me from behind. You know stuff is about to go down, but you don’t know exactly what is going to happen. That suspense keeps the player engaged.

The environment and setting in the game were illustrated as overrun and dilapidated, giving you a sense of ill foreboding about what was going to occur next. You want to get through the game as quick as possible, but the cutscenes succeed in making you stick around. Regardless, while most games are meant to entertain the gamers for brief periods of time, The Last of Us combines the perfect blend of cinematic cut scenes with open-world exploration in combination with a linear storyline.

Source: Tearjerker

Dying from Death

In previous classes at Davidson I have discussed different art themes, one of my most favorite being the theme of the Uncanny. I am a big fan of scary movies and games because of the rush I receive by playing them. This rush can be amplified to high levels especially through media like movies and video games. Especially Virtual Reality video games. In Death is a virtual reality game based on the premise that you have been transported to “purgatory” and you have to rid it of the creatures that live there, namely demonic archers and knights. It is one of the few games to have given me a true moment of fear by how well it can encompass the uncanny.

In Death Gameplay

The first element of the Uncanny that players will notice about the game is how the soundtrack creates an immersive and eerie sounding world. The creaks of the castles you navigate, the sounds of arrows piercing flesh, and the sounds of souls rushing past you create a world that keeps you looking behind you for something evil. These sounds are complemented by a world that upon first glance looks familiar but you soon realize is anything but, a hallmark for the Uncanny. There are seemingly endless drops and spaces so dark you cannot even see your enemy, that both evoke fear of the unknown, another Uncanny characteristic. The enemies are also quite large, appearing at around 7 ft tall for some of them.

The Uncanny characteristics of In Death render the world an immersive and intense place, perfect for loosing yourself in a game. I wanted to hit on the danger of this, however. TASS a Russian news agency recently reported a case of a man dying while playing virtual reality games alone. According to the report the man tripped into a glass table and after cutting himself on the resulting broken glass, ended up bleeding out. According to PCGamer.com this is the first case of someone dying while playing VR. There are possibly many other dangerous situations regarding virtual reality gaming. The immersive nature of games such as In Death are spectacular sights to behold but need to be approached with caution.

Source: Dying from Death

Postal Redux: Shooters and Society

Videogames are often a means to leave the real world and give your mind a time to relax. And as technology became more and more advanced, some studios decided to make them more and more realistic. As games became more and more realistic, mature videogames began to raise eyebrows as the line between real world and videogame world began to disintegrate. I argue that mature, violent videogames can be allowed in society but in the wrong hands, they can lead to horrible outcomes. Like DoomPostal was society’s scapegoat for the gun violence seen in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Postal was released in 1997 and was heavily criticized for its over the top violence. It is important to note that this was released in the same era as Doom and Grand Theft Auto, and society was getting nervous about the mature video games being released. Players take control of “Postal Dude” and are challenged to proceed through levels killing the required amount of people with various weapons. There is no story (only still frames with what could be called poetry…), you are just thrown into the world with a gun and an objective: rack up maximum points with maximum carnage.

One of the many still frames that are used between levels. Note the graphic text.

On the surface, the game is simple run and gun game that focuses merely on the violence and bloodshed of victims just for the sake of being violent. But if you dig a little deeper, you need to have a detailed strategy in order to stay alive and maintain your best weapons (ammo is limited). This includes hiding when necessary, taking out hostiles in the correct order, and looking for ways to take out large groups at once. Like Doom, there is a method to the madness and a well crafted method equals a better score. So if Postal is encouraging a strategy for mass murder, could someone argue that it is teaching players how to commit mass murder?

One of the first levels encountered. The goal is to kill hostiles (typically police and the army) and leave the civilians alone.

Though Postal is not what we would consider realistic by today’s standards, it was most certainly cutting edge for the time. The line between realistic world and “just a game” was definitely blurred which caused some people to think that this game would harm the minds of the players and cause them to be more violent.  Their thinking was justified, how could this be considered just a game? It was very much a part of real life. Remember, “going postal” was a term familiar in the 90’s. It was actually created due in part to this event. And this is only one of the few tragedies that happened in the 90’s. The United States Postal Service even tried to sue Postal developers, Running With Scissors, for defamation. Society had an argument against games like this, they obviously had negative relationships with real world events. But at what point does the suppression of what games are released become an issue with Free Speech?

You should be allowed to publish any type of videogame no matter the content. But, I think that mature videogames need to be monitored more effectively. You shouldn’t have minors owning violent/explicit games. If their parents want to buy them the videogame, they should be informed about the content in the game and be okay with their child playing said game. If you are of age to buy mature games, you should ask yourself if you are ready to see the explicit content and if you think you will be harmed by it, you should not buy the game. Mature videogames get bad press because people do not play them maturely. I have often seen grown adults act childish over GTA: Online and misrepresent the gaming culture. To play mature games, you need to act maturely and be aware about what it is you are actually doing in the game. It is important to know when videogames are just games and when they are real. As games become more realistic and virtual reality allows players to step inside the game world, we have to take a minute and remind ourselves that it is just a game.

A large explosion in Postal, not uncommon.

 

Source: Postal Redux: Shooters and Society

I Beat the Game (The Stanley Parable Log #1)

The Stanley Parable is an unusual game. Originally a mod for Half-Life 2,  it places the player in the shoes of Stanley, an employee at an unnamed generic corporation. Stanley pushes buttons in a specific order based on what his computer says every day, but one day his coworkers vanish and his computer gives no instruction.

This is where the gameplay starts for the player. The game’s mechanics consist only of movement via WASD and the interaction button E (which sometimes opens doors and does little else). The player interacts mainly with the narrator; a sophisticated British voice narrates Stanley’s intended actions, but the player is capable (and often subtly encouraged) to disobey these suggestions. For example, on my first playthrough, I came to a point in a hallway with a door with the words “BROOM CLOSET” written on it in large letters:

Although the narrator says something like, “Stanley continued down the hallway,” the door clearly stands out to the player. I went inside, and the narrator responded in disbelief, then impatience, then anger:

The narrator eventually runs out of lines, and the player can move on or sit in silence interminably. But this makes up only one of very many instances where the player can disobey the narrator, most of which lead to different game outcomes and endings.

This conflict between narrator and player, storyteller and listener, constitutes the core of The Stanley Parable. It uses the interactive medium to play on tropes of video games and narratives in general. A clear example of this commentary comes at the end of the, “main,” storyline.

After discovering and shutting down a mind control facility in the basement of his office building, Stanley steps out into the open world a free man:

 

This idyllic countryside and peaceful epilogue appear to represent an escape for the protagonist. However, they come across as almost too perfect; this image seems unbelievable and unrealistic, suggesting that Stanley has not in fact reached freedom. Further reinforcing this impression, the screen immediately goes black and cuts back to the beginning of the game.

This is but one of many endings for the game, which in it’s loading screen claims that, “THE END IS NEVER THE END IS NEVER THE END…”

 

Source: I Beat the Game (The Stanley Parable Log #1)