Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Interactive Dynamics Of Digital Feelings

When this man married his DS, we questioned the sanity.
But really, this only would happen with a video game.
"Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” Dr. Seuss


I’m in the process of replaying Mass Effect 2. I promise there is a scholastic reason behind this; my doctoral thesis focuses on immersion of interactive technology with film, so of course including cinematic video games seems like an appropriate thing to do. The concept of  “choose your own adventure” outside of the book series and games is not new. It’s been tested in the past with B movies and gimmicks from the likes of Walter Reade, AromaRama (pre-cursor to Smell-O-Vision) and ScareVision, where audiences would have a button to push during a sequence in a movie when a choice needed to be made. The projectionist would have a second reel ready to go for the film swap.

You still see this used today on a smaller scale at theme parks. Does anyone remember the Body Wars ride at Disney World? It closed down in 2007, but it allowed guests to select what “mission” they would undertake and their path with the push of a button. I never liked that ride. We always got stuck with the splinter removal task. 5 times. The other people in my group were clearly fascinated by wood.

As I continue researching and analyzing, going into stories like Assassin’s Creed allow me to understand the broad scope of what film is trying to achieve. It wants to be more immersive like video games. Even as the fad of 3D is fading once again, we’re seeing the industry push technology in that direction. Get the gamers into the movies.

Part of the issue that I’m seeing with movie trying to adapt to the changing environment of video games is that they are focusing too much on images, licensing, and getting the picture to look crisp. What they forego in the process is the story and characters. The Super Mario Bros. movie was nearly 20 years ago (oh holy sh*t…I just aged myself) and we haven’t evolved since then. The highest grossing series of films would be Resident Evil, which have almost no connection to the games. And…that’s about it. Hollywood and Western audiences have not been fortunate enough to see the Ace Attorney movie on a grand scale. You were lucky if you caught it at a movie festival in the states. From a film perspective, Hollywood hasn’t done a thing to incorporate gaming the way that it should be: an interactive and emotionally driven experience.

I bring all of this up in hopes to better explain myself. As part of my research I have been going back through games like Mass Effect, Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire and  even as far back as Chrono Trigger to explore possibilities and place myself in an audience mind-set. “How would I react if this were a movie?” Which also means replaying these games constantly to see alternate versions. It’s not a bad gig.

So it concerned me that I felt guilty about changing up my romantic interest on femShep. I never was gung-ho about the available choices in the first game. It just kind of happened naturally but I never felt a strong attachment to those particular characters. The ones that I wanted to know better on that emotional level I couldn’t touch. So for the sake of unlocking an achievement I chose Kaiden. Well actually I was manShep first and got Liara and the subsequent Overload achievement (it’s still funny). But this is femShep’s story right now.

When I first played through ME2, I picked Garrus as femShep’s love interest. And it seemed to fit the character that I had developed as well as my own personality. And the second time, and ME3 and the multiple plays, I had to choose Garrus. A part of me felt that it was the right choice. We had made that connection between gamer and character that made it necessary for me to see it all the way through.

So this time around I went with another choice. I tried to keep femShep loyal to Liara. I changed up her personality and play-style. She wasn’t as much of a Renegade. She finally had a family and was more focused on saving people’s lives, less on getting the job done and killing the bad guys.  She has a fling with Thane, but still wants to make Liara and her work. It was about switching up the experience and that’s what I’m doing.

But it wasn’t right. From the moment that I started charming Thane, everything felt wrong. From a personal stand-point, I have no qualms with Thane. His character is incredibly complex and I can certainly appreciate the time and effort BW went into making him for the short life he would have in the series. And if this were a different femShep, she would love him. But my new iteration of femShep couldn’t. It didn’t make sense. I still longed to have her with Garrus.

I felt horrible for cheating on a digital character in a previous relationship.

And that’s when it hit me. This is one of the missing pieces of immersion that movies have not grasped, and probably never will. Movies are a passive experience. We watch, we take it in, and we move on. Even if they are dramatic, non-fiction, documentary styles that force us to think about them, unless you are a movie critic or a film scholar, you’re probably not going to contemplate them for long.

We were suppose to have space babies Garrus!
Or at least adopt some Krograns.
Video games require us to constantly ask questions. From the complexity of moral ambiguity to something as simple as “do I go right or left”, these are the types of immersive elements needed that force movies to fall short of ever achieving their goals at being more like video games. Even with something such as Body Wars where it asks the audience to participate in selecting what “journey” they take, that is the most “interactive” as the experience will get. The rest of the ride doesn’t prompt the audience to ask, think, or question. You sit, you watch, and you make your way to Space Mountain in hopes that the line got a little shorter.

Video games prompt you to constantly ask questions. This or that, there or here, which weapons, who do I talk to, where am I going, why am I doing this, why am I following this character, why am I killing this person, can’t I save this one, what if I talk about these choices, etc. The list is endless. Most of this would be subconscious; I doubt few of us think aloud about choosing which path on a road to take, but these simple questions can lead to the more intricate ones such as relationships with digital characters. Something that seems so trite and passive now forces us to actively engage in the game. It’s not a matter of “this person is the female that’s following my character, therefore she has to be the love interest” like so many movies follow in the footsteps of a tried, but true, formula. Video games want us to think about our choices. You have partner A, B, C, who are you going to take along for the ride?

It’s these moments that give us the immersive aspect we crave for in video games. Movies are never going to be able to replicate this. Even my hope with Defiance, the Sy-Fy series connected with a video game that can potentially allow players to alter the course of the series, it still requires a video game element to allow for full immersion. The tv show alone isn’t enough because it doesn’t have the ability to prompt viewers to ask more questions. Why? It was never designed as such.

Television, movies, theater, these were all created as entertainment and to pass along knowledge without extraneous thinking required. Get in, get out, and move on. Video games also began as simple entertainment, but because of their elements of interaction are more in-depth then anything we have ever come to known, it has transformed our expectations and the way we involved ourselves in media.

Which is why I feel guilty about cheating on Garrus. Even though it’s a different game-a new Shepard-a new start, myself as a person has feelings for Garrus that I am indirectly imposing upon the new Shepard. The game has caused me to re-examine so many things about the story, the content, the characters, and everything in-between that I was having such a moral crisis about having femShep hook up with Thane.

Tell me a movie that can do that. Name one. It’s impossible. This is where immersion and interactivity falter. For all of the 3D and smell-o-vision antics, nothing can replicate the characteristics of a video game. The closest we have ever come is SecondLife, a game that I argue has a number of artistic properties beyond conventional gaming because of its ability to allow users to create almost anything within a virtual space, because it connects gaming with everything. Even then, film falters in this medium for lacking full interaction that a game compels us to follow.

So I’m replaying Mass Effect 2 again. I did my time as super goody-goody femShep and experienced the changes in gameplay. After all has been said and done, the scholastic side of me is satisfied. The human part wasn’t happy. I’m going back and getting my old team together. I personally won't be happy with progressing forward in my research without satisfying my personal player goals. Silly? Maybe. it's an ever-evolving question about immersion and where do we draw that digital line between reality and fantasy. But my answer is simple: Because I feel incomplete until I finish the game my way.

There is no Shepard without Vakarian.

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