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Framing In Videogames

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On the surface, it would seem appropriate to compare videogames to movies. Certainly, big budget videogames have often put on the appearance of being like blockbuster films. From the badly compressed and poorly acted Full Motion Video (FMV) cutscenes in Sega CD games like Sewer Shark and Night Trap to the recycled Hollywood action of the Call of Duty series, AAA games invoke the techniques and tropes of mainstream cinema. Of course, the main problem with many of these games is that they fail to effectively adapt the techniques of film to the game environment. They never explore what each medium has to offer the other.

Virginia, a narrative videogame about two FBI agents investigating the mysterious disappearance of a boy in the  early 1990s, is one of the few videogames I have played that successfully navigates the impasse between games and cinema. Furthermore, it adapts an underlying principle of film that all cinema-inflected and narratively driven videogames should adopt.

So often when discussing what makes a “good” videogame buzzwords like interactivity, immersion, and emergence are used. These principles are often presented as the holy trinity of good game design. All videogames should be easy to learn and hard to master, so we’re told, and these three principles are the way to get there. A good videogame should privilege the ability of the player to interact and move about in the gameworld, it should have the player become totally immersed in the gameplay, and furthermore the player should be able to find emergent strategies while playing to hit the sweet spot between challenge and fun. It may be surprising then that Virginia is a great videogame that does not respect any of these principles.

The level of interaction is very limited. Each scene in the game has very few items you can touch and use, and these are often made quite obvious to you. The gameworld is beautiful and engaging but generally not immersive in the way videogames are supposed to be. Cinematic editing techniques like match cuts and dissolves transport you from scene to scene, preventing you from lingering too long at any point while playing. Finally, the game can be finished in about 90 minutes to two hours and is easy to play. There are no emergent strategies or mastery involved. It provides you with a very focused and specific experience, and then it’s over.

So why do I think Virginia is a great game? I argue it’s because Virginia adapts a particular principle from film that makes it successful in keeping the player engaged with its story and gameworld. That principle is framing, which can be defined as the particular composition of the visual elements in a scene. Virginia does this masterfully, as every scene is well composed and visually coherent, even though you essentially act as the game’s camera. The player experiences the entire game from the first-person point of view as FBI special agent Anne Tarver. The game never breaks this point of view, having you experience everything from basic interactions (like shaking someone’s hand or picking up an object) to your brief encounters with text (such as quickly reading a file on a computer screen) entirely from Anne’s eyes.

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You play the entire game from the viewpoint of FBI Special Agent Anne Tarver.

Throughout the game, you feel like you’re moving Anne and a movie camera at the same time, but it’s never confusing or incoherent. This is because Virginia’s directors, Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny, ensure that their use of framing is gamelike and dynamic. The game directors bring together strong visual composition with playful movement by:

  • giving the player a very specific point of view (FBI Special Agent Anne Tarver) and using that for strong characterization and narrative depth;
  • avoiding extraneous, unnecessary information or activity (hence the very specific forms of interaction)
  • ensuring the experience is contained within a specific point of time and is not padded out for the sake of increased playtime (the game can be completed in about two hours and you are often moved from scene to scene without too much time passing); and
  • providing the player with a clear path to navigate the story and gameworld.

Another reason for the game’s unusually strong scenic composition is that there is not a single line of spoken dialogue. The entire story is told through animation, music, your interaction with the gameworld, and the repeated use of specific images and symbols. Certain motifs such as sitting in the passenger seat of a car with your FBI partner Maria Halperin, holding a dead cardinal, being confronted by a bison, seeing a mysterious red door, or looking down at a broken key, recur often, giving vital clues to unlocking the story.

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The appearance of a bison is a recurring visual motif throughout Virginia

These recurring visual motifs are necessary as the game’s narrative has quite a bit of depth. The story of Virginia is one professional betrayal, conspiracy, cult activity, departmental corruption, and even gender and racial discrimination. It also relates many of these events in non-chronological order, while blending together fantasy and reality (mostly in the form of dream sequences). That Virginia can handle these themes and story-telling techniques deftly and subtly without dialogue is a testament to how well it uses framing to anchor the whole experience. While the makers of Virginia have mentioned ‘90s cult TV shows like Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and The Outer Limits as inspirations, they’re able to create their own visual language that is not just a pastiche of these influences.

To reiterate, the principle of framing, especially in the videogame context, requires strong visualization, coherent action, a specific time frame, and finally clear navigation through the gameworld. This ensures you can combine filmic techniques with gamelike elements to tell an interesting, compelling story. The lack of good framing is why I think games like Konami’s Metal Gear Solid series— which certainly has cinematic ambitions —fail to combine games and films effectively. Although Metal Gear Solid game director Hideo Kojima’s fourth-wall breaking and detached irony are amusing, it must be admitted that his games are overly expository, narratively confusing, and quite visually jumbled, even if they offer fun stealth action.

I also want my concept of framing to stand in contrast to Ian Bogost’s concept of proceduralism. In the “Art” chapter of How To Do Things With Videogames he uses this term to describe one way of understanding the games of designers Jason Rohrer and Jonathan Blow. He writes:

“…proceduralist games are process intensive-they rely primarily on computational rules to produce their artistic meaning. In these games, expression arises primarily from the player’s interaction with the game’s mechanics and dynamics, and less so (in some cases almost not at all) in their visual, aural, and textual aspects.” (Bogost 2011, p.13)

Bogost argues that proceduralist games reveal the form of a game in order to have “meaning emanate from the model.” (Bogost 2011, p.13) My account of framing is different in that the visual, aural, and textual aspects are made central to communicating the game’s meaning. I’m not against Bogost’s concept as it may apply to games like Passage and Braid, but rather I am trying to provide another way of thinking about how a game can convey itself meaningfully to the player.

Studying the visual coherence that a game brings to each scene, and how it handles player visuals and movement is an important and overlooked aspect of games criticism. While games critics tend to gravitate toward whether a game is sufficiently interactive or challenging, the actual composition of each scene of game, whether it is experienced from the point of the view of the player or through a cutscene, is ignored. Framing is a valuable tool for thinking about strong visual storytelling in games, and can help critics discern those games that successfully adapt techniques from a medium like film to tell interesting stories.

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One of the many times you’re in the passenger seat with your partner Maria Halperin

References

Bogost, I. (2011). How to do things with videogames. University of Minnesota Press.

Variable State Ltd. (2016). Virginia.

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Are video games too violent?

Doom

The question of violence in video games has recently been cropping up a bit more recently, and as the understanding and development of unique virtual spaces continues to advance, it’s important to consider what having the ability to destroy virtual lives actually means. Recently Critical Distance — a fantastic aggregator of commentary and criticism on digital games— posted two pieces discussing violence in video games: “Violence begets violence” the first post by game designer Michaël Samyn on his new blog Silent No More, and “Fight Club: How Masculine Fragility Is Limiting Innovation In Games” by Sheva of FemHype.

Both pieces are interesting in the contrasting ways they address the prevalence of violence as a mechanic in video games, what the consequences of violent video games might be, and what steps should be taken in the future to diversify games and gameplay. Of the two pieces, I liked the latter more than former, and it’s interesting how they capture the relative successes and shortcomings of the discussion about violence in video games.

After violent games, violent gamers

Michaël Samyn is a noted game designer, who as part of Tale of Tales,  focused on creating immersive, meditative games like The Endless Forest and narrative driven games like The Path and Sunset. This is a design philosophy that I wholeheartedly agree with and always happy to see implemented more. However, I have some disagreements with the major arguments of his piece “Violence begets violence .

After stating that many online competitive spaces often feature intolerance, bullying, and harassment (which is undoubtedly true), he argues:

“We don’t need theories about the correlation between violent games and violent behavior. Many players of violent and antagonistic games engage in violent and antagonistic behavior. Whether violent people are attracted to games or games arouse violent emotions is irrelevant.”

For Samyn, there is a direct causal link between violent games and violent behaviour. He lays blame at the feet of the games industry, which he says “actively breeds a group of belligerent hooligans for profit.” He continues: “And the longer this process continues, the tighter the vicious circle becomes: only violent games sell well, so only those get made, so only violent people buy games, and so on.” He compares the games industry to the gun industry in the United States, which claims no responsibility for the deaths caused by the weapons they sell. He concludes by writing:

“A game developer who claims to be a peaceful tolerant person while producing murder simulators is a hypocrite. I will not accuse them of being directly responsible for mass shootings and online harassment. But they are beyond a doubt guilty of neglecting to prevent such things.”

There’s a lot to process here. While, like Samyn, I’m frustrated that Mature (M-rated) titles are so heavily marketed — even though they only make up about less than 10 per cent of games produced — I find his argument to be flawed, reductive, and not adequate in addressing the actual structures that create violence in the first place.

Samyn’s argument basically boils down to post hoc ergo proctor hoc, or “after this therefore because of this.” There are violent games and there are also violent gamers, so one must cause the other. To follow his line of thought, one would have to believe that players of M-rated games are not interested in challenge or narrative or wanting to experience something cool and different; that all they want to do is spend all their time killing virtual people, and that this eventually leads them into attacking others in the real world, whether online or in person.

Now to be fair, there are plenty of people who play games like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim or Fallout and see how much chaos they can create, but is this necessarily a sign of latent violent tendencies? Or could this be construed more as an individual wanting to test the limits of a designer’s intentions within a virtual world? I think the latter is more likely than the former mostly because destruction in a virtual space does not necessarily signal a desire to destroy in a real one. While games, like other media such as books, TV, movies, and so forth certainly affect us emotionally, making us joyful, sad, intrigued, or even occasionally angry, it would be wrong to say that the affective relationship one has to their media completely transforms them into something they are not. There are more complex phenomena at work and to reduce it to one simple cause is to actually denigrate the actual power of the medium that one is criticizing or praising.

This passage is particularly frustrating:

“I think game developers, as creative people, probably middle class, probably intellectuals, underestimate how unstable some members of their audience are, how isolated they live, how little access they have to education and broader culture, how little context to place these games in that are so important to their sense of self. We could help these people with entertainment that demonstrates the beauty of life, the value of non-violent interactions, how much better it feels to care than to hurt, how big and diverse the world is, and so on.”

This assumes two things:  that only uncultured, unsophisticated, and disenfranchised folks engage in online harassment and see violent games as their raison d’etre, and that games that centre story or interactivity or quiet, meditative spaces rather than action and violence should be created as some sort of corrective on bad behaviour—that these can’t simply exist or be developed for their own sake— and affect people in a way that’s deep and significant without serving an undeniable social good. Simply stating that more empathetic games will create more empathetic gamers is just as bad as saying violent games create violent gamers: it’s not a simple 1:1 relationship. Furthermore, such an argument seems to say that a simple change in consumption will lead to a change in attitudes. Games, while powerfully affective are not necessarily motivational: what one does in a game is not tied to what one does in real life, and we need to do more than change games to change attitudes.

Let’s talk about Fight Club

This is brings us to Sheva’s “Fight Club” piece on FemHype, which offers a more nuanced and interesting discussion of what violence means in the context of gaming. The piece wonders why it is that despite our ability to now craft incredible virtual worlds that violence is often retained as the core mechanic. Other things can be done, but still in a big open-world role-playing game like Fallout 3, you’ll be spending a great deal more time shooting giant ants and Super Mutants than, say, debating The Enclave on their lack of a constitutional mandate. At first, Sheva says, her reaction in conversation with others was to advocate for more choice even in violent games, but then she realized that even in a game where you can choose not to be violent, violence still informs the game world and how the player progresses. So even if violence doesn’t create violent video gamers why is there such an insistence on violence existing in games in the first place? Sheva writes:

“There is a growing multitude of games that don’t utilize violence as a central mechanic. Many of these are in the independent sector—The Stanley Parable, Papers, Please, and Never Alone are a few of my personal favorites. Telltale Games’ entire catalogue since the release of season one of The Walking Dead has had conversation and social maneuvering as the central game mechanic. Animal Crossing, The Sims, and Minecraft are all worldwide sensations made by what one would now consider to be AAA companies, and yet, since not one of these games has violence as a core mechanic, each and every one of them has been criticized as not being ‘game-y’ enough.”

Gone Home game

This gets us closer to what is going on, that there is a tendency for people to argue that games without violence as a central mechanic are not games. This a dangerous tactic often used in online debates to delegitimize the significant, artistic work done by independent game developers who are expanding the language of games. For example, although a game like Gone Home was widely praised by the gaming press and was a commercial success, there was a vocal group of gamers who argued that since Gone Home is about exploration and discovery it cannot be a real game. This is where we get to the root cause of the kind of online harassment we see too often on Twitter and other online spaces: the pernicious belief that games and other media should only have one form, and that they exist to cater to a single group of male gamers. As Sheva says in her article:

“Violence, goes the logic, is what makes a game masculine—and, by extension, being masculine is what makes a video game a video game.”

It’s this belief system which causes women, persons of colour, and others to be attacked online for even suggesting that games should do more. One might say that it’s the players and not the game. The answer is both yes and no. This behaviour is informed by a specific kind of reactionary right-wing ideology — the same you find fighting against gay marriage, health care, or welfare. It’s the ideology that is against equality of any kind, that wishes to preserve one type of power and privilege for a limited group of people. This is the root of the “masculine fragility” that Sheva mentions in her article — it is an attempt to circumvent the greater equality afforded everyone within games and games culture through intimidation, fear, and harassment.

Playing a violent game or making one or even enjoying one doesn’t make you a bad person, but seeing it as the only expressive form for games and then attacking other people for disagreeing with you certainly does. It is only through more sophisticated critical commentary, the building of new, diverse communities of game creators, the continued expansion of the expressive power of the medium, and actively challenging the social and economic structures that reproduce, support, and enable one limited point of view about games, that we will ensure that a safe space for both players and creators will be the norm rather than a pleasant exception.