Could Full Metal Jacket have worked as a game?

It’s been over two weeks since I posted anything here. The beginning of the school year is partly to blame for this; however, so is my laziness. I’m sure that my posts will be less frequent during the semester as I’ll be busy with more important (read: graded) work. With that in mind, I press on in my blogging endeavors.

In addition to my business and laziness, I’ve also been struggling with an idea for a blog post. I finally decided that instead of analyzing another video game it would be fun to imagine how a well-known story might have worked as a game. I decided on Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, one of my very favorite films. (It’s actually based on the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, but I’ll stick with the version that I’m familiar with.)

I’m certainly doing a strange thing here—imagining what this movie would be like if it were actually a game. I don’t mean to suggest that I think Full Metal Jacket should have been a game, or that it would have been better if it were a game. Rather, the point is to consider how changing the presentation of the story—namely, by relocating the audience within the story—would affect how it operates and how we experience it. A larger question to consider is: can you tell a story like this in a video game? Also, how would you tell this story in game format? The best way to address these questions is to dive right in.

We’ll start with an overview of the plot. Full Metal Jacket follows Private Joker and a handful of Marines as they progress through boot camp and are then sent to war in Vietnam. The first half of the film illustrates how military training conditions average young men to kill on command and without hesitation. The second half of the movie attempts to portray what the overall “feel” of the war was, or what it was like to be a soldier in Vietnam. As the plot is largely about how normal people are transformed into killers, I think it could work as a game or interactive story. The player would assume the role of Private Joker and would experience everything he experiences in the film. This would cause the player to develop some lesser form of the mentality that the soldiers in the film developed.

Let’s consider how this process might play out. At the beginning of the game, the player must engage in all or many of the everyday activities of boot camp. They are constantly berated by the drill instructor, they must run obstacle courses and participate in physical training, they must take care of their bunks and service their weapons and do target practice. Perhaps not all of these activities would be directly included in gameplay, as some might prove too tedious and might prompt the player to stop playing. Indeed, the tasks would need to be presented in a way that would encourage to player to continue playing (a daunting but not impossible task). Regardless of what actual tasks are performed, the result should be that the player begins to think like the Marines in the film. Again, this would obviously not be a terribly strong effect, but it might be forceful enough to make some impact on the player. The player should begin to fall into the routine, to feel natural within it, to comply with orders and what is expected of them. Their mentality should mirror that of the recruits in the film.

The first half of the game would necessarily include a lot of verbal abuse at the hands of your drill instructor. The player should feel as if their worth is measured by success in their drills.

During the second half of the game, the player is engaged in the daily realities of the Vietnam War. At the beginning of this section, they are a reporter with the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. They can roam base camp and local Vietnamese towns, must perform their designated duties around the base, and perhaps must engage in some journalistic activities. The player should quickly grow weary of the boredom and monotony of the rear echelon and desire to get into real combat, just as Joker does in the film. Once in service with the Lusthog Squad, the player goes on patrols with the squad, travels from destination to destination, and engages in the occasional firefight. They would engage in some of the key events of the film, such as the assault on Hue City and the engagement with the sniper at the end of the film. Throughout this part of the game, the player should come to understand the monotony of warfare, the emotional distance with which soldiers view their job, and the terrifying reality of death. By the end of the game, the player should come away with a mentality that mirrors Joker’s closing monologue: the war is miserable, but they are thrilled to have survived this long.

The film ends with Joker and company singing "The Mickey Mouse March" amidst the burning ruins of Hue City. Ideally, the player should finish the game with the same sense of perverse, ironic happiness.

I don’t intend to propose specific gameplay elements and mechanisms for eliciting these feelings in the player. It would of course be a difficult and tricky procedure, but I don’t believe that it would be impossible. One of the most difficult parts would be holding the player’s attention and making them want to keep playing, especially as they are engaged in unpleasant or boring tasks. This situation mirrors the soldiers’ predicament in the film: after a while they realize they don’t really want to be in the war, but they have committed to it and cannot back out now. Additionally, even though fighting in the war is miserable, they feel as if it is their proper place. The game would need to somehow compel players to keep playing out of a sense of commitment (or morbid curiosity?), which would mirror Joker’s mentality in the film. It would also be difficult to make the player legitimately afraid of (or at least very apprehensive about) dying in the game. Perhaps this could be achieved through a harsh penalty for dying, such as having to restart the game from a much earlier point; however, this would also increase the tendency to quit playing. These problems are not easily answered, but I’m not convinced they are insurmountable.

In any case, the whole point of turning Full Metal Jacket into a game would be to pull the audience into the story and thereby make it more personal. Instead of merely observing how war transforms Joker and his squadmates, the player would experience some of these changes; the player should catch themselves being affected, ever so slightly, by the events of the game. They should realize boot camp made them compliant to commands and eager to fight, and their time in the war made them feel compelled to obey orders but also eager to get out of the war in one piece. Turning Full Metal Jacket into a game would theoretically make the story more impactful on the player because they would personally experience the key psychological themes of the film; this experience would in turn remove any doubt the player has about the transformative experience of war and would make the story much more personally relevant. It would help to dismantle the protective shield of deniability and cause players to seriously consider the psychological impacts of warfare upon its participants.

However, there is a question residing over this whole discussion: is it unethical for a game to attempt to make its players feel these kinds of emotions? Would some (or many) people be upset to discover they could be manipulated by certain strong experiences, such as boot camp and warfare? Is this something that most people would prefer not to know about themselves, and if so, does this impose a restriction on storytellers? Are there some things that we should not persuade people to think about themselves, or is everything free game (no pun intended) even if it makes people uncomfortable?

These are difficult questions without clear answers, but if video games ever begin to go in the direction I hope they will, they will need to be considered carefully.


Silent Hill: Psychological horror at its finest

This post is SPOILER-FREE.

I’ve had Silent Hill on the mind of late. I like to consider myself a fan of the series, although I’ve never played the first game. I have, however, played Silent Hill 2, 3 and 4, which is certainly a good chunk of the titles developed by Team Silent. I’ve also played Homecoming, which wasn’t terrible, but…we’ll just leave that game alone, shall we?

I decided that it would be fun to take a look at the original Silent Hill games and explain why they are such great psychological horror titles. Silent Hill is all about atmosphere—almost every element of the game is designed to create the series’ signature mood, a mood that I believe is most accurately described as “unsettling.” Other synonyms to describe the games include “disturbing,” “creepy,” and “eerie,” but I think I like “unsettling” best. You’ll notice that I did not say “scary.” Sure, the franchise has its fair share of frightening moments, but I don’t think Silent Hill was ever really about scaring the player so much as disturbing and unnerving them. It always seemed to be about presenting a world, characters, and creatures that were just slightly off—just different enough from reality to create an unsettling, creepy sensation. As I said, atmosphere was everything; this is because the games were developed by a Japanese team under the principals of Japanese horror, which (if Wikipedia tells the truth) typically focuses on psychological horror and tension building. Consequently, there was little budget for the gore and cheap thrills that Western horror tends to rely on. The newer Silent Hill games developed by Western studios are unfortunately going further and further away from the style of the original games. The upcoming title, Silent Hill: Downpour, appears to be no exception to this trend.

Anyway, I’ll now examine some of the key elements in Silent Hill that add to the games’ atmosphere and help to create such an unsettling horror experience.

Setting: Most of the Silent Hill games are appropriately set in or near the town of Silent Hill. The town has a long, troubled history that involves a satanic cult and the antichrist (or at least a demon of some sort), but it’s not really the backstory that makes the setting creepy. Most often the game environments are dark, or—more characteristically of the series—foggy. There are also at least two different “realities” at play in each game: the “normal world” and the “otherworld.” The normal world is subtly disturbing because it appears to be—well, normal—at first glance, but closer inspection reveals things that are “off” about it. For one, there are hardly any other people in the town, and sometimes there are corpses lying about. Most of the buildings are also rundown, full of odd types of junk, and just plain creepy looking. When the game switches to the otherworld, it becomes much more obvious that this world is severely screwed up, as walls are replaced by stretched flesh, rust and blood accumulate on almost all surfaces, and the game world is engulfed by darkness. In the otherworld, all the familiarity of the game world is replaced by disturbing images that make the player very uncomfortable. Both “worlds” go far towards creating the mood of the games.

The otherworld hospital as seen in SH2 (left) and SH3 (right).

Characters: Silent Hill games feature only a handful of important characters per installment. Usually the protagonist is a reasonably sane person (or at least seems that way at first), and sometimes there is a supporting character or two who appears to be more or less normal. However, the other characters are always…not. Sometimes their dialogue is stilted or they respond to the protagonist in bizarre or nonsensical ways; sometimes they seem a bit distant from the goings-on of the world. Some players may chalk this up to bad writing (and the voice acting could certainly be better), but I’m convinced that this is done intentionally to create a distancing and alienating effect. Here’s a conversation with Vincent from SH3:

Perhaps a better example, here’s James’ second encounter with Angela in SH2:

Angela is such a disturbed character that I thought she deserved a second clip to illustrate just how bizarrely she behaves toward the protagonist:

Of course, the characters often have some amount of reason for behaving so strangely (in Angela’s case, it results from childhood trauma), but this doesn’t lessen the eerie auras that surround the characters.

Monsters: Of course, there are also plenty of monsters to fight in Silent Hill, and they’re understandably the most disturbing part of the games. Some monsters are humanoid in shape, while others closely resemble dogs or insects, and still others are amalgams of several contradictory body parts. Regardless of their shape, all monsters tend to share some common characteristics: they are covered in blood and disgusting-looking flesh, and they move in very unsettling and unnatural ways. Sometimes they move very rapidly, sometimes they move with an eerie lack of fluidity, and sometimes their movements imply a great deal of pain. However they move, they almost never do so in the way a normal, healthy person would; especially when the monsters are more or less humanoid in appearance, their abnormal movements amplify their unsettling “otherness.” Overall, the monsters are creepy because they are almost always perverted versions of familiar things.

The Lying Figure (left) and Bubble Head Nurse (center) from SH2 and the Closer from SH3 (right).

Sound: No discussion of Silent Hill could be complete without mentioning sound. Sound effects are incredibly important in the games and go a long way toward creating the unnerving atmosphere. I simply must mention the radio, a staple of the series that serves as an early warning when monsters are near. When you hear that static pick up, you tend to stop dead in your tracks, ready your weapon, and peer into the fog in hopes of detecting the unseen threat. It’s a brilliant system that is designed to both aid the player and make the hair on their neck stand up; I have one fond memory of a time when the faintest crackling of my radio made me pause for several seconds and mentally prepare myself to round the next corner. Of course, the monsters all make telltale sounds as well, and they are almost always inhuman and utterly unearthly. Finally, ambient sounds are often used to disturb the player: groaning, creaking, and footsteps heard in the distance put the player on alert even when there isn’t an actual enemy making the sounds. Silent Hill 2 featured a few memorable moments in which footsteps could be heard following the protagonist, ceasing whenever he stopped moving and resuming once he did. It’s just the sort of thing to make you feel like you need to keep your back to a wall at all times.

I think I’ve certainly dug pretty far into what makes Silent Hill so damn unsettling. Much more could be said, especially on a game-by-game basis, but this serves well enough for an overview of the early series. The great thing about Silent Hill is that absolutely everything works toward furthering the atmosphere, and the game never lets up on the disturbing, eerie mood. The effect is so great that you may occasionally wonder if you really want to keep playing the game, but if you’re anything like me you’ll also feel compelled to finish out of morbid curiosity. And these games are certainly worth finishing, if only to experience the wonderful psychological horror they have to offer.

Oh man, I almost went through this whole post without mentioning Pyramid Head. That would've been a tragedy. Here he is, looking menacing.

Free will and video games: The Stanley Parable

This post contains SPOILERS.

The Stanley Parable is a Half-Life 2 mod written and created by Davey Wreden. It is an experimental game about the role of free will in video games and stories in general. The creator strongly suggests that players go into the game with as little knowledge about it as possible; I agree that following this proviso will enhance your experience of the game, but you don’t really need to actually play it in order to appreciate what it does. Regardless, you can download it at ModDb. All you need to play it is Valve’s “Steam” content delivery system, but if you don’t have Steam, and if I understand correctly, ModDb also has its own system called Desura that you can download and run the mod on. If you’re at all interested in experimental games and stories, then go check it out. You’ll want to play through the game six times and get all six endings, but that won’t take long since you can finish one playthrough in about ten minutes. When you’re done, come back here and read what I have to say about it, would you kindly?

This mod is brand-spankin-new—released less than a month ago. A friend came across it (which is no surprise since it’s currently ranked #1 on ModDb) and strongly suggested that I check it out. I figured this would be the perfect game to discuss for this week’s post since it just came out and was created by the sort of person I need to start affiliating with. Also, it just so happens that The Stanley Parable’s consideration of free will is a great contrast to last week’s discussion of “would you kindly” in BioShock.

Much could be said about this short but thought-provoking game. As I noted, there are six endings to the game, and each one has something different to say. Not all endings are as “good” or satisfying as others (both intentionally and, perhaps, unintentionally), but each one makes some sort of commentary about video games and life itself. The whole story is deliberately vague, so we can’t be entirely sure how much we can read the game as a metaphor for life and how much it is just about video games; some endings lean more toward one direction than the other, creating a rich but disjointed complexity when all six endings are considered together. The themes vary widely: one ending attempts to contemplate the nature of reality as a function of perspective, another slaps us in the face with the fact that we are playing a video game and nothing more, and a third seems to present a rather grim illustration of the self-imposed slavery of working for a living and doing what you are told. However, rather than trying to analyze the game as a whole (a truly daunting task), I’m going to focus on my favorite ending: the full disobedience ending.

In case you haven’t played the game and don’t plan to but have decided to read this post anyway, here’s a video of the disobedient playthrough in its entirety:

It’s possible that I like this ending best because it’s the first one I got. However, I think it also offers the most interesting consideration of what players actually do when they play a video game. We’ll begin by making the observation that all games constrict player choice. By their very nature, they allow the player only a certain predetermined number of options or behaviors; the player may only do what has been programmed in the game, and they may only behave in ways that advance the story. The Stanley Parable focuses on story and how it constricts the player.

We should make the distinction that story functions a little bit differently in a video game than in a novel, movie, or other type of non-interactive media because video games require a player. The player must advance the plot; the plot will not advance without player input. When a game is telling a story that can only advance in one direction (i.e. a non-branching story), the player is forced to behave in a very particular way. Therefore, the player has no free will in the matter; they cannot do whatever they want, but what they must do.

The full disobedience ending of The Stanley Parable offers a unique perspective on what happens when the player does not do what must be done in order to advance the story. Disobeying the narrator’s instructions is, in the first place, very exciting. I was very curious what would happen when I did not do what he told me to, and I was consistently delighted by the narrator’s reactions to my disobedience. In fact, the interaction between the narrator and the player were the most interesting aspect of the game. The narrator repeatedly points out that there is no story aside from the one he has laid out, so disobeying his prompts leads to—well, nothing. At one point, disobedience leads quite literally to nothing—an unfinished portion of the game world. I thought this was an excellent illustration of the ways that video games restrict the player: outside of the pre-planned route, there is no game world in which to play. I was particularly intrigued by the narrator’s query to Stanley as he stands in the unbuilt section of the map: “Is this what you wanted? I spent all this time building a nice world for you, and you’d rather see the unbuilt portion. I might as well have not even bothered to make this world for you!” The question was particularly poignant in this scenario because it was what I wanted to see. I wanted to see what would happen when I didn’t obey the narrator, and this was it.

When the narrator abandons Stanley, he thinks he is dooming him to a meaningless existence, believing that Stanley can have no life—or story—unless it is planned out. When Stanley returns to his place of work, there is no narration to assist him and the player is free to wander the map for a limited period of time. This is a very interesting way to explore the possibility of removing the narrative framework from the world. Stanley has no story to guide him; the world around him may now seem dull and meaningless. However, the point is that Stanley can now create his own story and his own life. Even though it may not be as lavish as the story the narrator had planned for him, it is his story, and he gets to decide what happens in it. The ending narrative may be considered as a brief commentary on life: being able to make our own decisions is critical for a fulfilling existence, and these choices are perhaps more important than the way our lives end. The journey is more important than the destination.

I loudly applaud The Stanley Parable for experimenting with complex themes and nontraditional methods of storytelling. It is good to see game creators thinking outside the box. While this game couldn’t really be a full title, since its mechanics would get very old after awhile, its ideas could serve as jumping-off points for future games. The key is to consider new and exciting ways for players to interact with the game and the narrative and go from there.

...but not here.

Would you kindly read this post about BioShock?

This post contains SPOILERS.

BioShock, Irrational Games’ 2007 FPS/ RPG/survival horror title, features one of the better plot twists to appear in a video game for some time; it makes me think back to Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which featured what may perhaps be the greatest twist in video game history. That’s a topic that may very well be for a later date, but today’s post is all about BioShock’s plot twist. If you haven’t played the game and don’t want to ruin the surprise for yourself, then this is your cue to stop reading.

The game is all about fighting your way through Rapture, an underwater city built by businessman and zealous capitalist Andrew Ryan, who vehemently opposes left-wing politics and government control of any kind. Ryan intended for Rapture to be a sort of new, prototypical city that operated according to his personal ideals; it was designed to be “a city where the artist would not fear the censor. Where the great would not be constrained by the small. Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.”

"Without petty morality holding me back, I can finally get the cosmetic surgery I've always wanted!"

When the silent protagonist and player character, Jack, unexpectedly arrives in Rapture, Ryan suspects that he is an agent of the CIA or KGB who has come to infiltrate and sabotage his city—you know, since things are going so well, what with the raging civil war and all. Due to his suspicions, Ryan tries to kill you a few times, sending at you both Splicers (genetically-altered, homicidal drug addicts of sorts) and the city’s automated security systems. He also supposedly detonates a submarine holding the family of a character named Atlas, who takes you under his wing and attempts to guide you through the insane city. So, by the time we finally confront Ryan, we have a few reasons to want the guy dead. After all, he is kind of an asshole.

Here’s a clip of the confrontation with Ryan. Even if you’ve played through the game, I advise you to watch it again because it’s so damn brilliant.

Turns out things are not at all as they seem. Not only is Jack the three-year-old illegitimate son of Andrew Ryan, genetically engineered to reach maturity very rapidly, but he is also subject to the commands of Frank Fontaine, a mobster and opportunist who is vying against Ryan for control of Rapture (although it’s anyone’s guess why he’d want to run the place; but then again, few people in Rapture seem to be playing with a full deck). While this is a mind-blowing plot twist in and of itself, it also makes the player’s role in the game a lot more interesting.

I’m thinking mostly of the “would you kindly” trigger phrase that Fontaine and Ryan use to control Jack. In the confrontation scene, when Ryan reveals that Fontaine has been controlling us, we realize that we’ve been asked to perform task after task throughout the game. Atlas has sometimes asked us and sometimes told us to go to certain places, do certain things, and kill certain individuals, and we have followed his suggestions without much second thought. It becomes clear that we’ve done certain things not because we necessarily wanted to, but because we had to.

You see, one thing I’m interested in when it comes to video games is what I might call player desire, or strongly wanting to behave in a certain way. I’m very fascinated by the idea of a game that makes the player really want to do everything that is required of them. Instead of going after a bad guy simply because we’re told to, we should feel compelled to go after him because we really want to get the guy. Of course, this is what good writing should do in the first place: it should motivate the player to perform their designated task. But what if a game made us want to get the bad guy so much that we felt as if it were our own decision in the first place? What if a game put us in an open world, where we could do whatever we wanted, and we said, “What I want to do is get that son of a bitch?” The idea of a game that lets us feel like we’re following our own desires, rather than adhering to a set of desires that has been laid out for us—that’s one thing that really gets me excited.

So, what does all this have to do with BioShock? When we learn about the “would you kindly” trigger phrase, we realize that we have been guided by the hand through events of the game. This works on two levels: Jack has been guided through Rapture by Atlas, but we have also been guided through Rapture by the game itself. Think about it: when we as the player begin the game, what is our objective? What would we want to do in this environment? Of course we want to survive and successfully complete the tasks presented to us. But aside from these things, we are likely to have no strong desire to do much of anything in the city, except perhaps to explore and fight enemies. The game’s plot tells us what we should desire and guides us along the proper course to fulfill these desires. We may understand why we should do these things, and we may even be eager to advance the plot toward its conclusion. However, the necessities of the plot force us to perform in certain ways if we wish to complete the game. We must admit that we have no choice in the matter: we either do as we are told, or we simply don’t play the game. In this way, the “would you kindly” revelation creates an interesting parallel between Jack and the player—who both have little control over their actions and are being guided along by an outside force—and it also serves as an omission of sorts that the game is not really letting us do whatever we might please. Though we are in control of our actions in one sense, in another sense we are not.

And how do things change after the confrontation with Ryan? Dr. Tenenbaum, a relatively benevolent NPC, helps Jack break the mental conditioning that Fontaine has been using to control him. For the first time, Jack is not subject to the suggestion of others. So, what does he do? More importantly, what does the player want to do at this point in the game? Chances are good that the player will want revenge on Fontaine, since he has used, manipulated, lied to, and ultimately betrayed them. This is exactly what the game now directs the player to do: killing Fontaine becomes the overarching objective for the remainder of the game. BioShock undergoes a bit of a paradigm shift at this point: where it once persuaded us to do things we may not have had any strong motivation to do, it now encourages us to do exactly what it knows we’ll want to do. We can imagine the game asking us, “Alright, considering everything that’s happened up till now, what do you want to do?” And I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that every player would respond, “What I want to do is get that son of a bitch.”

And get him you do...even if it looks pretty damn silly while you're doing it.

Gameplay Analysis: L.A. Noire

This post is SPOILER-FREE.

L.A. Noire plays unlike any other game you’ve seen in a while. It has its traditional driving and shooting sections, but the heart of the game lies in the detective work—finding clues and interrogating suspects. The crime scene investigation sections are reminiscent of old point-and-click adventure games in which certain objects in the environment must be inspected in order to advance the plot. The interrogation sections bear some resemblance to dialogue trees used frequently in RPGs, but they require a more interesting and focused type of player interaction than simple “choose your response” conversations. Both of these key gameplay elements combine to create an intriguing connection between the player, the story, and how the player causes the story to unfold. This is a very vague statement, so I’ll now try to explore some of the details and explain why I find this type of connection so fascinating.

Let’s begin by considering the whole nature of the game. It is a detective game, so naturally it is dominated by exploring crime scenes, following leads, and trying to piece together what exactly happened and who is responsible. The story—of each individual crime and of the game as a whole—unfolds as more and more clues are discovered; as a result, the player’s perception of current events is constantly changing and evolving as new information comes to light. This type of story is very common, of course, especially within classic detective stories and the film noir genre. However, I’m convinced that an interactive version of a detective story, such as what L.A. Noire offers, introduces an interesting new element to the classic twists and turns of the murder mystery story.

Consider this: as we’re reading a mystery novel or watching a detective film, we’re following the protagonist as he attempts to decipher the mystery. We’re mentally working through the implications of each new clue just as the protagonist is; our understanding of the story is changing as we get closer and closer to the truth. However, our interaction with the narrative is parallel to the narrative itself: our hunches and evolving understanding of the case can never change or interact with the story itself. We know that the detective will eventually put the pieces together and solve the crime. Whether or not we are able to decipher the clues and discover the truth, the protagonist is sure to do that for us if we just follow the story through to its conclusion. In the end, we can have no real impact on the narrative.

Placing a mystery story into an interactive medium changes this entirely. Suddenly our hunches and theories—our evolving understanding of the case—become incredibly important because it is our job, as the detective, to solve the case. If we cannot piece things together, then no one will; we cannot rely on the narrative to resolve itself. The player’s perception becomes an integral part of the narrative because the player has the responsibility of solving the crime.

Investigating clues, such as this corpse, is a major gameplay component.

I know that this may not seem all that interesting to some readers. One of the things I’m interested in, though, is video games that really pull the player into the story—games that make the reader’s thoughts and feelings matter, in some way, to the development of the story. I think L.A. Noire, as a detective video game, does just that. As we examine the crime scene and interrogate suspects and witnesses, our understanding of the case changes. We form hunches about the specifics of the crime and who committed it. The interesting part is that we are then forced to act upon our hunches. Granted, L.A. Noire limits the player’s free reign significantly: we are only allowed to explore certain locations and interrogate certain individuals. By placing these restrictions on us, the game offers some guidance as to what sorts of hunches we should be forming. It tells us that we are right to be suspicious of the victim’s husband, but not of the victim’s next door neighbor. These kinds of restrictions are understandable, as allowing the player complete free reign would necessitate a larger game than would be possible. Still, within the limitations that are placed on us, we must try to piece together the clues and solve the mystery. And while the game does not allow the player to fail outright (which might have actually made the game more interesting), poor detective work results in a poor understanding of the case and a low rating, indicating poor performance. If we want to fully understand the case and tie up all the loose ends, we must follow through on our intuitions and figure things out for ourselves.

The interrogation gameplay is of particular interest because it complicates traditional methods of information-feeding commonly used in video games. Interrogation consists of three parts: asking the question, listening to the suspect’s response and observing their behavior, and determining whether or not they are telling the truth. The player is given three options: they can accept the suspect’s statement as truth and prod for additional information; they can doubt the truthfulness of the suspect’s statement, prompting Cole to threaten or berate them in order to obtain more accurate information; or they can accuse the suspect of lying outright and confront them with hard evidence that proves they are lying. The catch is that incorrectly gauging the suspect’s response leads to a failure of sorts. For example, if the player accepts a lie as truth, Cole will not press the suspect for more information which may have been critical to solving the case. Similarly, threatening a suspect who is telling the truth will upset them and might discourage them from sharing important information. While the system is far from perfect (its three-response design is too simplistic for its wide range of applications, since “doubting” a suspect can range from accusing them of leaving out a small detail to accusing them of being the ringleader behind an entire illicit operation), it requires the player to closely observe the suspect, consider everything they know about the case, and take control of information gathering. It requires that the player be actively engaged in the narrative, and it forces them to make decisions that have a real impact on how the story unfolds. I find this method much more interesting than the simple “go here, do this” storytelling that far too many games employ these days.

Interrogation requires that the player pay close attention to the suspect and act on their hunches.

In the end, L.A. Noire’s gameplay forces the player to really get involved in the story. The player cannot simply sit back and ride out the narrative, but must instead involve themselves in it. They must act on their constantly changing understanding of the case, and they must take control of information gathering. Additionally, the player’s performance impacts their understanding of the narrative—if you fail to find important clues or do poorly during your interrogations, then you’ll have an imperfect understanding of the case specifics (though, as stated earlier, you can’t really fail a case). It’s this sort of storytelling—the kind that integrates the player’s thoughts and feelings into the unfolding of the narrative, rather than delegating them to the sidelines—that I find particularly fascinating and which I hope we see more and more of in years to come.

Next time, I plan to shift my attention to Irrational Games’ 2007 title BioShock and take a look at how the story affects the gameplay, and vice versa.

Character Analysis: Cole Phelps from L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire is an action-adventure detective game from developer Team Bondi and publisher Rockstar Games. It was directed and written primarily by Brendan McNamara, who also wrote and directed 2002’s The Getaway. Unfortunately, I never played The Getaway, so I can’t really compare the two games. However, if you’re familiar with some of Rockstar’s games (I’m thinking Grand Theft Auto 4 and Red Dead Redemption), then you know that their more recent games tend to be filled with intriguing, complex characters. L.A. Noire does not disappoint in this regard. The protagonist is Cole Phelps, an ex-marine and veteran of Okinawa, who has recently risen to the rank of Detective within the LAPD. The game’s overarching plot involves corruption within the post-war police department, but it is also very much about Cole’s personal story. In fact, I would argue that one of the game’s strongest points is the complexity of Cole’s character. He is admirable at times, despicable at others, sometimes incredibly keen and sometimes downright foolish. I find him altogether fascinating because his complexity makes him seem like he could be a real person and not simply a character in a video game. I’ve decided to analyze Cole in order to uncover some of the reasons why I find him so interesting; this procedure may also offer some general pointers on good character building and development.

By necessity, MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW. Read ahead at your discretion.

We should begin our analysis with Cole’s behavior during World War 2, which we are shown via flashbacks throughout the game. Sometime in 1943, Cole signs up for Officer Candidate School along with a young man named Jack Kelso. It quickly becomes apparent that Cole has delusions of grandeur: he repeatedly expresses the desire to make a name for himself as an officer, which Jack critically identifies as “Custer’s Syndrome.” Animosity quickly develops between the two men due to their fundamental ideological differences; Cole wants to gain glory for himself, while Jack wants only to fight the enemy and keep his own men safe. Towards the beginning of L.A. Noire, the narrator offers a brief statement explaining the rivalry between Cole and Jack:

Cole Phelps and Jack Kelso. With some people, it’s as simple as chemistry. Two guys who should have been friends, but their personalities got in the way. Phelps—a good guy, but wound way too tight. And Kelso—a quiet man who could never walk away from a fight.

Jack Kelso: an honest stiff and a damn good Marine.

Eventually, Jack drops out of OCS and joins the 6th Marine Division in order to “fight the real enemy.” Cole remains in OCS and ships out in time to participate in the Okinawa campaign in April 1945. He graduates as a lieutenant, which gives him immediate authority over the enlisted men in his company.

Despite his extensive training, Cole is an inept leader of men in combat. He shows an obsession with the chain of command as well as an insistence to handle any combat situation with its appropriate “textbook” solution. His constant mantra, “We’re doing this by the numbers,” appears to obscure his apparent inability to rethink battle plans and effectively strategize under pressure; as a result, many men under his command die needlessly. Throughout the campaign, Cole frequently encounters Jack, who has advanced to one of the sergeant ranks. Jack has proven himself to be an effective leader who prioritizes his men’s safety and formulates battle plans that minimize risk while still getting the job done. However, Jack’s abilities are often overlooked by his commanding officers because he does not attempt to put himself in the spotlight as Cole does.

Later in the campaign, Cole’s intelligence gathering unit is nearly eradicated due to casualties, and it is folded into the 22nd Marine Regiment for participation in the upcoming battle to capture Sugar Loaf Hill on Okinawa. During the assault, Cole becomes pinned down in a foxhole and chooses to hide instead of continuing the advance with the other men in his regiment; he remains hidden all night until reinforcements arrive in the morning. Jack, arriving with reinforcements from 6th Division, finds Cole and berates him for hiding throughout the battle. However, Jack’s CO discovers that Cole is the highest ranking officer who survived the battle and awards him the Silver Star in recognition of his bravery; Cole accepts his medal and promotion with just a hint of dazed reluctance.

Cole’s behavior during the war gives us enough information to determine his base characteristics. By and large, he is a man who tends to behave according to custom, rule, and expectation. This tendency results in his “by the books” attitude, but it also makes him an honest cop who always strives for a just conviction—he is never content to charge a suspect in order to make himself and the department look good if he believes the real perpetrator is still at large—and who does not buy into the corrupt dealings of the LAPD. He is also a proud man: he believes he is exceptionally skilled and has no qualms with showing himself off. One of his partners once calls him out on this, saying:  “Hubris disguised as humility. Kind of your trademark, don’t you think?” His partner may have been right to accuse Cole of putting on a show of humility, but it may also result from genuine shame; despite his show of confidence, Cole is also ashamed of his cowardice during the war, especially on Sugar Loaf Hill, and wishes that he had been more like Jack. Cole’s and Jack’s paths intersect late in the game, and we discover that Cole looks up to Jack even though he never admits it—he is too proud for that. He even apologizes to Jack for their years of rivalry, but it comes out awkward and somewhat forced. Cole and Jack have a very pained relationship—not quite friends but not quite enemies, either—and Cole always treads softly and self-consciously in Jack’s presence.

Let’s break Cole’s character into two key attributes. Cole is:

–          Proud, but also conscious of his shortcomings

–          No-nonsense, strait-laced and “by the books”—qualities that sometimes hinder his performance

Cole does not change overtly until near the end of the game, but there are signs early on that he is undergoing internal turmoil. Roy Earle, Chief Detective of Administrative Vice, introduces Cole to Elsa Lichtmann, a German refugee, popular jazz singer and struggling drug addict. Cole is married with two children, but he is obviously taken by Elsa as he repeatedly visits the Blue Room club to listen to her sing. Eventually, Cole begins an affair with Elsa. Roy blows the whistle on Cole’s affair in order to overshadow a scandal within the LAPD that is about to come to light, and Cole immediately becomes a social outcast (the extreme reaction of the general public makes more sense when we remember that the game is set during the early years of the Cold War, when “anti-American” behavior was severely scrutinized). Obviously this is a huge blow to Cole’s pride: his reputation is tarnished because he fell for a woman.

Elsa Lichtmann: a good-hearted woman caught up in a hell of a mess.

Cole’s relationship with Elsa deserves further attention because it suggests some fundamental changes in his character. Cole and Roy have an interesting conversation in a DLC mission that occurs just prior to Cole’s initiation of the affair. The two are discussing a suspect in the case they are working:

ROY: That old boy really fell for that broad.

COLE: She was incredibly beautiful, Roy.

ROY: Would you throw it all away for a woman?

COLE: Life has a way of making you pay for your pride.

ROY: You’re quite the romantic, Phelps. Stick with the percentages. Broken hearts are for chumps.

Roy Earle: crooked cop and all-around dick.

It would appear that Cole foresees what is in store for him. He knows he’s going to have an affair with Elsa and feels as if it can’t be stopped. Perhaps he feels that he is rightfully being taken down a peg; he will nearly ruin his life because he loves this woman. And there is sufficient reason to believe that Cole really does love her, since he stays with her for the remainder of the game. It also appears evident that he never really loved his wife, Marie, since he is willing to throw away his life with her in order to be with Elsa. If we remember that Cole often behaves according to custom and what is expected of him, we might speculate that Cole married Marie and started a family because that was what society expected of him. This is only speculation, and it is never directly supported in the game, but it suggests interesting character growth; perhaps Cole’s affair with Elsa indicates his “loosening-up” and a new conviction that playing by the rules and doing what’s expected of you is not always the right thing to do. Cole’s affair indicates that he is beginning to “see things from a human perspective, rather than the ivory tower he created for himself,” as Elsa puts it.

Cole has to swallow his pride when he falls for Elsa, but he also has to do it when he is forced to ask Jack for help uncovering a huge property scam involving the Mayor, the Chief of Police and the DA, as well as some other shady characters. If you couldn’t tell earlier, I think Cole’s and Jack’s interactions are the most fascinating in the game because we can feel the years of convoluted history between them. Cole has to rely on Jack, his old rival and “frenemy,” in order to restore his soiled name; however, he maintains a tricky balance between humbling himself and retaining his dignity, never being totally honest with Jack. He can’t quite bring himself to completely swallow his pride—not with Jack.

Cole’s final actions are also delightfully ambivalent, but they do suggest some meaningful growth. Cole and Jack head into the city’s sewer system and confront the linchpin of the bigwigs’ property scam: a mentally disturbed ex-marine who was traumatized on Okinawa when Cole ordered him to clear out a Japanese-occupied cave with his flamethrower—a cave that turned out to be a field hospital full of wounded soldiers and civilians. Upon realizing that his order drove this man insane, Cole insists: “It was war. For God’s sake, I can’t be held responsible for everything that happened!” However, he then allows Jack to mercy kill the marine—knowing that he will go to jail for life if he survives—even though Cole needs him alive to make his case. Finally, Cole helps lift Jack through a ceiling grate as the sewer begins to flood with rainwater; he insists that Jack go first because he is wounded. A torrent of water whisks Cole away to his death before he is able to make it aboveground, but he finally put someone’s safety ahead of his own. His dying decision was to save Jack before he saved himself.

*          *          *

So, what do we take out of this long and complicated analysis of Cole Phelps? Perhaps there isn’t a clear lesson to be learned. Cole is an interesting character because he is complex; like a real person, he often has conflicting motives and desires operating simultaneously. His actions are sometimes unpredictable because he is too complicated to be read like an open book—another quality that I consider very “human” and true to life. Finally, Cole is admirable at times and despicable at others—sometimes he is both at the same time. He is a man who tries to do what’s right but sometimes gets in his own way. He has made many mistakes and done things he regrets. He is neither a hero nor an antihero; his moral character lies somewhere in the gray area, as is true with most real-life persons.

In the end, I suppose I find Cole to be a fascinating character because he is hard to pin down. I dare say that his “characterness”—that quality of being obviously a literary production possessing certain defined characteristics—is overshadowed by his pervasive “humanity”—that quality of being too complicated to ever completely and permanently define. Personally, I consider this one of the best types of literary characters, and I imagine that most of you would tend to agree.

For my next post, I’ll examine the unique gameplay of L.A. Noire and consider how it affects the player’s experience of the story. Stay tuned!


You may have heard of the 1989 Japanese arcade game Zero Wing. More likely, you may be familiar with the opening cutscene added to the 1991 Sega Mega Drive port, re-popularized about ten years ago with thanks to the internet. The intro is famous for its laughably-horrible translations from the original Japanese into English, resulting in lines such as “Somebody set up us the bomb” and “You have no chance to survive make your time.” I have selected one such line to serve as my mantra for this blog: as it becomes clear to the spaceship captain that the evil CATS has his balls in a vice, he desperately orders that all “ZIG” star fighters launch immediately to combat the menace; his solemn command, translated into English, becomes “TAKE OFF EVERY ‘ZIG’!!”

In my decision to begin this blog, I likened myself to one of these ZIG Fighters embarking on a mission “for great justice.” Like the ZIGs, I am boldly thrusting myself into a great void; they venture into the void of space, while I venture into the oppressive void of internet anonymity. The ZIGs embark on a mission to save the galaxy from evil, while I embark on a mission to make a name for myself, small as it may be.

Not coincidentally, that was a perfect segue into introductions. Allow me to utilize my meager knowledge of journalism to present you with the essential things you need to know about me:

WHO: Mark Wilhelm

WHAT: Student of creative writing and psychology at Butler University

WHERE: Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

WHEN: Right now, but also throughout the past 21 years, and hopefully for many more years to come

WHY: Because my parents had a second child

HOW: I’m well, thank you for asking

But while those are the essential things you should know about me, they aren’t the essential things you should know about this blog. You may have surmised from my header that this is “a blog about writing and storytelling in video games.” Well done, my friend—but alas, I need to say more about that.

You need to know that I’m intensely (yes, intensely) interested in the ways that video games tell their stories. I’m particularly intrigued by nontraditional methods—methods that do not directly mimic written stories, films, or other types of non-interactive media. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with those kinds of methods; on the contrary, I love the traditional methods and spend much time playing games that adhere to them. However, I’m always exceptionally interested in a game that engages the player in an unexpected way or uses a specific gameplay element to drive the story. These descriptions are very vague, but there will be plenty of time later for me to describe some of my theories and ideas about storytelling in games. For now, you really just need to know that this blog will focus on great writing, storytelling, and story elements in video games.

In exploring this theme, I’ll offer a mix of my own ideas along with analyses of great examples that have caught my attention and stuck with me. In truth, I expect that I’ll be analyzing video games much more than I’ll be proposing theories about good storytelling; writing students know (because it is repeated to them incessantly) that reading is an essential part of writing; this is because we teach ourselves how to write well by reading the writing of others. The same idea applies to video games: we can learn how to write good interactive stories by examining interactive stories that others have written. So, in order to understand what constitutes good writing and storytelling in video games, I’ll examine many individual games that have really impressed me in this regard. Maybe it’s a specific character, the plot, or the method in which the story is delivered to the player; whatever the case, I’ll attempt to analyze the story element in question and come to some conclusion as to why it works well. Through this practice, I hope to slowly uncover some secrets to effective storytelling in video games (as well as to amuse you, my faithful readers, and to simply discuss fantastic games).

However, more important than all of that (even the stuff about the metaphysics of interactive storytelling, as scintillating as the topic is) is my desire to initiate stimulating conversations about these games and to interact with others who share my passion for storytelling. The ultimate goal of this blog is to interact with other prospective game writers and build a modest place for myself within their community. Talking about what interests you is all well and good, but I’m hoping to make a career out of my interests, and the best way to start working toward that is to find others who also want to do this professionally. Therefore, I want this blog to be a place for discussion just as much as, or more than, a place for only my own thoughts and opinions. I’m hoping to catch the interest of my fellow gamer-writers and introduce some provocative ideas for contemplation and debate.

“TAKE OFF EVERY ‘ZIG’!!” is my personal self-command to make some noise and share my ideas with the video game community. However, I also offer it as a call to arms and rallying cry to all others like me. It’s a suggestion that you consider what I’m selling you, voice your own opinions and ideas, and thrust yourself into the world just as I’m trying to do. More importantly, it’s an invitation to band together with me as we try to make a place for ourselves in the video game community. In summation, it’s an order to defeat CATS and to grasp your future by the throat. Let’s not disappoint ourselves, shall we?

He is one smug bastard.