Friday, January 11, 2013

The unportalable: games as paratexts and products

Several years ago, I sat-in on a "games as literature" course, and promptly got into an argument with the instructor. We were talking about Portal, and he argued the dark metal unportalable surfaces seem "sinister" because of their color, rustiness, sense of alien materiality and permanence, lack of affordance, etc. (This was also an introductory course, so a lot of his effort went towards getting students to make critical arguments about games at all.)

I argued that interpretation was irrelevant, and that type of thinking was obfuscating how these surfaces actually function to players: in Portal you don't think to yourself, "that wall is scary," but you more often think "I can't portal there, let's look somewhere else" or "wow that wall looks cool on these graphics settings." To me, the wall material told more of a paratextual story rather than a diegetic story.

"Diegesis" refers to the fictive world inside the game, of GladOS and Chell and Aperture Science, and what happens during play. This is generally what we mean by the "text" as authored by game developers: it's the "game." Meanwhile, "paratext" refers to the packaging and format of that text. The Portal 2 box, the press / hype about it -- these aren't part of the "text" of the "game" per se, but these are textual elements that definitely influence how you interpret and read the game, often the domain of marketing and publishers.

There's a weird tension here because it's clearly not part of the "text" as written by an author, but if your copy of Romeo and Juliet was printed in baby-blue Comic Sans instead of black Garamond, and the cover featured a frat boy and sorority girl instagramming themselves, you'd absolutely feel differently about what this instance of Romeo and Juliet meant and signified. So it's part of the text, but it's also not.

That messiness is interesting, because here I'm arguing that the shiny metal wall material in Portal can definitely be "read" -- and that an in-game fragment of "text" can function in a paratextual way:

The metal walls are dark because it's a visual contrast with the lighter concrete of portalable walls, and it's metal because shiny metal is a contrast with matte concrete, so players can clearly distinguish between two different surfaces with two different affordances. Better visual differentiation between concrete / metal is like choosing a more legible font / type-setting / readable margins on your page. This is a formal paratextual matter.

However, the game industry did not develop normal maps and graphics tech because of HCI concerns, it was to make high-polygon details more performant by passing the cost to shaders and texture memory. This is like the book publishing industry working on "better fonts" and new papers and printing processes. (Without tablets, we would've had organic books by now.)

... Unless you really do believe that DX11 tessellation tech is about fundamentally changing how games play instead of making them look cooler? (If anything, requiring more expensive hardware makes these games less accessible and confines them to a hardcore market?)

So what is this paratext (e.g. materiality of an unportalable wall) saying, then? Like many paratexts, it seems to be saying, "buy me" to a specific demographic:
  • TECHNICAL POLISH. The metal wall is dark because that makes the shiny reflections pop, which show-off the contours of the normal map -- as the result of your decision to buy a console or computer with a DX9 graphics card that can render these effects. It justifies the graphics capabilities of the Source Engine to customers and possible licensees, and also reinforces the idea of game design as a complex profession. (Game design as a formal discipline *is* hard, but visual fidelity is not why it's hard.) Perceived production value and professional branding in the market is, I think, a paratextual matter.
  • ARTISTIC POLISH. The metal is slightly rusty because a perfectly clean metal wall wouldn't look "photorealistic" and a too-rusty wall looks amateurish and blatantly tiles. Subtle details show-off the resolution of the specular mask, as well as the texture artist's skill and competence. Again, these communicate professionalism and production value, both to game developers and customers, but in a less technical dimension.
(NOTE: Portal 1 is very interesting to consider in this lens of "production value" -- the environments are sparse and somewhat cheap to build, and it has spun that aesthetic into something unique and valuable, distinctive enough where other first person puzzle games can emulate it to benefit from brand associations with Portal. Minimalism as brand. However, I'm talking about only the metal wall texture here.)

Now, I'm not saying Ido Magal was thinking first and foremost, "how can I make this game look expensive?" He probably wanted to make it look "good" and fit with the rest of the art. But what does it mean for something to look good, with lots of detail? What do these complex art assets actually say to players, or more specifically, customers? We've internalized and accepted that this is just how video games work.

As I've argued in my "A People's History of the FPS" essay series on Rock Paper Shotgun, I believe a central tenet of AAA game design is to "look expensive" and this attitude pervades every aspect of AAA game production, not just the art.

Design a lot of systems, author a lot of content and side quests, spam the mini-map with icons; the implied man-hours and resources make Skyrim seem like it's "worth" 100 indie games. Have really huge complicated skyboxes and vistas inside your levels with many different moving parts. Choreograph complex cutscenes throughout your levels. Add a superfluous singleplayer campaign or a superfluous multiplayer mode that no one plays. Hook it up to an iPhone app / Facebook game ecosystem so you can buy hats on the subway. Don't forget to add a crafting and XP system. Everything is paratext.

So maybe it's never been just a graphics arms race. The now-ubiquitous open-world genre signifies a "systems / content design" arms race, escalating genre conventions to absurd results. What do we expect tomorrow's Assassins' Creed 4 to have, now?

This is a paratext designed to sell more paratext. It's a perpetual paratext machine. (When the text functions as paratext, then what functions as text? According to AAA, maybe nothing.) This is not to imply that paratext is "lower" than text, because it's not. I'm just trying to make a distinction between a fictional in-game narrative vs. an outside nondiegetic narrative that influences your interpretation.

I don't think this obsession with paratext is exclusive to AAA, and again, I don't think it's necessarily unethical. First, it's foolish not to think about the context for your work, whenever you make anything. Plus, indie games totally have their own notion of "value" too. The difference is that indie culture is fairly fragmented and we disagree what that value is, and where that value comes from:
  • Our ability to take risks and experiment?
  • Our relative diversity and ability to personalize our games?
  • Our quick development process and roots in communal game jam culture? 
  • Our earnest nostalgia for "simpler times"?
  • Our fluency in some sort of unspoken "language of games"
  • Our designs that focus on something other than photorealistic power fantasy?
  • Our freedom to address the world outside of video games / reflect political realities?
  • etc.
Plus, even if we did agree on the nature of our souls, few have been able to convert that "indie value" into financial value sustainably, e.g. the growing fatigue with crowdfunding / bundles... Overall, I think it's hard to apply a similar critique to indie games as commodities, as compared to AAA, when barely anyone's buying indie and we have to discount severely to sell anything. We can't "sell-out" if no one's buying us.

(To the degree that "indie" exists at all: personally, I think labels are more often empowering than oppressive. But if you, brave indie, exclude yourself from this conversation, then the indie label will definitely become as oppressive as you feared. "If you are silent about your pain, then they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it." -- Zora Neale Hurston)

I'm not saying art is always above money, or that art can't be expensive, or that AAA is awful, etc. It's not wrong to shout "buy me" in a crowded theater.

But, much like how an analysis of Oliver Twist might look at how Charles Dickens originally wrote it as a magazine serial so he'd insert monthly cliffhangers to keep readers reading, you do need to realize that a lot of your favorite AAA games were built with your wallet in mind and what you think is a compelling narrative with compelling mechanics is designed to be "compelling" in that way, to your demographic, even if you think you're above it. You are just as coddled as someone buying Farmville furniture.

Dishonored's "deep, literary" world of Dunwall started with Arkane's pitch to a publisher of an "FPS where you're a ninja assassin (except white, not Asian) with magical steampunk powers." Mass Effect's convoluted galactic lore is based on images of holographic space swords, space ghosts, and space magic, wrapped around a combat system where you shoot at a monster's face to deplete 3 different types of health bars. I've played / liked both Dishonored and Mass Effect, but I can also recognize bullshit.

The next time you miss someone's face and shoot a wall in Crysis 6, remember: it's not just a metal wall in a slum. It's a beautifully realized metal wall, dynamically tesselating on your polymorphic quantum computer. It's a signifier of labor, skill, graphical complexity, and investment, designed to convince you of that game's worth, since it's pretty much the same thing you were doing 20 years before.

And of course, we'll keep buying it. It's just a game, some fun escapism. Nothing affects us. We're unportalable.

TLDR; video game design, in itself, is also a really complex and nuanced form of marketing.

(Tangent: I think the narrative in Portal 1 is more or less a paratext, and doesn't really interface with the main "text" of Portal 1 -- a game where 99% of the game time is about understanding space and line of sight in counter-intuitive ways. Portal 2's narrative is much more of a "text" in that it's much more interested in how the test chambers are constructed or space is transfigured, and dedicates time to discussing the philosophy behind puzzle design and science as an "itch."... I do like Portal 1 better, though.)