Monday, 9 June 2008

An extract from my recent paper on VR and the 'first person perspective' videogame

I've been thinking about (and doing a bit of select reading of) the concept of 'New Games Journalism', which Kieron Gillen outlined in his 'New Games Journalism Manifesto'. The point that I thought was most important, was this:

New Games Journalism... argues that the worth of a videogame lies not in the game, but in the gamer. What a gamer feels and thinks as this alien construct takes over all their sensory inputs is what’s interesting here, not just the mechanics of how it got there...

This makes us Travel Journalists to Imaginary places. Our job is to describe what it’s like to visit a place that doesn’t exist outside of the gamer’s head...
The thing with travel journalism or reportage is that it’s interesting even if you have absolutely no inclination of going there.

The idea of dealing with the game and talking about it subjectively, as embodied, is extremely powerful, to my mind. And with this though, I wanted to share with my handful of readers, an extract from my own research discussion paper which will undoubtedly be somewhat adapted into a section of my thesis. I'll hopefully put the paper up in full in a few weeks, but until then, here's a little bit of my own attempt at injecting the aesthetic of 'New Games Journalism' into a bit of academic writing.

Any resemblance to Jim Rossignol's recent post on Rock, Paper, Shotgun from last week is purely coincidence. I started writing the paper only a few days before Jim wrote his and when he beat me to the punch, I was kinda miffed. But hey, it means I must be on the right track if someone as distinguished and insightful as Jim is talking about it.


Oblivion, belonging loosely to the category of open world or sandbox type games, allows the player great freedom for exploration. At almost any point the player can leave the main narrative path and explore the world to discover and engage with its inhabitants, or simply venture into the countryside for its own sake. The game world stretches for many miles, across many different environments and is populated to varying degrees with ancient ruins and secluded settlements. The ability to go ‘off the beaten track’ is inscribed within the games rules, and is clearly accommodated for, even expected. For example, one of the many ‘skills’ that a play can employ within the game is Alchemy, which involves the brewing of potions from raw ingredients often gathered from the wild. At its most abstracted level, the game can be seen as rewarding players for exploring and discovering these useful reagents through the ability to brew useful, even potentially life saving potions. Somewhat humorously, the possibility is open to reading the game as encouraging the practice of stopping to smell the flowers.

A different aspect of the game that I wish to relate and demonstrate the power of procedural rhetoric is best told through my own subjective experience and reaction. At a point roughly 20 to 30 hours into the game, I found myself at a location called Cloud Ruler Temple high up in the Jerall Mountains. To the south of the temple is visible the towering spire at the heart of Imperial City, the largest city and one of the central places within which much of the game takes place. Behind the temple and to the north is a series of large, beautifully rendered snow covered mountains. There is no road leading up it and no perceptible reason to climb them. With no inclination towards advancing the plot and instead being possessed by a desire to explore the world, I began to enacting the role of ‘the explorer’ as classified in Richard Bartle’s taxonomy of MUD[1] game players[2]. Bartle describes four types of MUD players and their differing rationales for engaging with the game – in the case of the explorer, Bartle says

Players try to find out as much as they can about the virtual world. Although initially this means mapping its topology (i.e. exploring the MUD's breadth), later it advances to experimentation with its physics (i.e. exploring the MUD's depth).[3]

Knowing that my character possessed an exceptional level of the acrobatics skill, which directly modifies the height of a player’s jump, I attempted to climb the mountain through a combination of running and leaping. Thwarted by near vertical surfaces of snow and ice, I made my way across the face of the mountain (in my mind pretending that by rock climbing I was managing to traverse the similarly near-vertical cliff faces) to approach from the north, a much gentler gradient. At many points along the way I would get stuck, just below the crest of the mountain with the knowledge that it was just out of reach teasing me, making me want to get up there all the more. I would perhaps assert that this feeling in me was somewhat akin to that experienced by many serious mountain climbers who characterise their motivation for climbing mountains as doing so ‘just because it’s there’. Similarly, I wanted to climb to the peak of the Jerall Mountains because they were there; however, I also wanted to see what was on the other side.

When I finally did reach a section of the mountainside that permitted the kind of virtual ice climbing I was undertaking, I was rather excited. I had, after all, spent the last several minutes on the face of a mountain and had gone so far as to have crossed several sections of the map. The inability to reach the top so far had only made me more determined. I eventually reached what I believe to be the highest point in the game and the view was all the better for feeling as though I had actually accomplished something. Over the other side of the mountain ranges – and plainly within view of the massive draw distance[4] – was another set of mountain ranges, not snow covered like the ones I was standing on, but wooded and rolling and filled with possibility. Looking north-north-west, the woods continued on down to what appeared to be a large body of water, possibly a lake or the ocean (the ocean was certainly in that direction and reachable in other places) however there was one small barrier between me and those far away hills of promise, and it was a literal barrier. Upon reaching certain points of the world designated by the level designers as the ‘edge of the map’ and hence playable area, players encounter an impassable, invisible barrier and are told via onscreen lettering ‘You cannot go that way, turn back.’ I propose that, in effect, by not allowing the player to visit all the places one can see Oblivion, due in part to its emphasis on beautifully realistic visuals, heightens any feelings of wanderlust already present in the player, whether intentionally or not. The fact that the game intentionally sets itself up as a consistent world, as previously mentioned, and encourages exploration, only to so cruelly curb said exploration, is rhetorically strange, if not wilfully perverse.

[1] MUD stands for ‘Multi-User Dungeon’. These were generally text based online games, the precursors to modern ‘massively multiplayer online’ (MMO) games such as ‘World of Warcraft’ or ‘Everquest’. I am stretching his definition to include single player games that include large worlds much like MUD’s – such as Oblivion.

[2] Richard Bartle ‘Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs’ in Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, eds. The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, (Mass.: MIT Press, 2006), pp.754-786

[3] Ibid.

[4] Draw Distance is the technical term for how far the game engine renders the environment into the distance. The fact that the draw distance is so long is a bi-product of the games previously mentioned appropriation of FPS tropes such as technology pushing graphics.


Fashigady said...

Sounds good, can't wait till you put up the rest.

Ben Abraham said...

After reading this section through again, I spotted no less than 2 spelling mistakes or omission of words.

Darnnit - I spent ages proofreading that paper! =P