Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bad Reality

I was going to spend this post talking about Tetris, and the glories of the physics minutiae to be discovered therein, but then I got asked such a mind-meltingly st00pid question that I had to nip it in the bud before it became an infestation. My sister, who is so profoundly ignorant of computer gaming that she requires even the most basic and obvious elements to be spelt out ad nauseum, wants to know how realistic a computer game can be before it stops being fun.

That's an interesting question, and at first my smart-ass answer was, "It's the same as in film, or books, or any other media that attempts to mimic real-world things. If you're attempting to convey an experience, how much do you change reality for the sake of improving that experience?" But then I realised that that was way too Zen and glossed over all the points that the question was capable of raising, so I decided not to mention it but instead make a genuine attempt at an answer.

The question implies that realism is a problematic thing in and of itself, which is only partially true.  Also, there are different kinds of reality warping, for different reasons:  abstraction or omission to remove unnecessary detail and reduce scope; added convenience to prevent frustration; unavoidable technical limitations, both in terms of computing power and the limited interface; artistic license, otherwise known as stylisation; and of course, Bad Writing.  Each of these points is capable of becoming their own post, as I've discovered from the 2,000-odd words that I cut out from the middle of this post, but the question my sister asked me was to do with Bad Writing, so I'm going to stick with that for now.

Take the example from Test Drive Unlimited 2.  You pick up missions from people on the side of the road, whose locations are marked on the map until the mission expires.  Their trust in you is utterly unexplained, they ask you to perform some paltry task, like driving them to a meeting on time, and then bewilderingly proceed to pay you thousands for it.

The reason for this is obvious from a gameplay perspective:  the missions are different to standard racing, so they provide some variation in the challenges you're given, and they need to pay thousands because otherwise they wouldn't be worth your time.  Your money is in the realms of thousands and millions and racing pays very well, so the game can't reward these tasks realistically because nobody would play them and they'd be wasted work.  So if the tasks and the rewards can't be altered, why not fix this with a liberal application of Writing?

First of all, to explain why these people are asking you to perform these tasks, just say that there's some agency, which may comprise of nothing more complicated than a guy called Steve.  Steve knows people, and if those people want a job done fast, they call him.  He then lets you know where the current jobs are available on the map, so if you're nearby, you can go find them.  If the job expires, that's because one of Steve's other agents beat you to it.  Easy write-up; no plot holes.  This is unexplained, so you can imagine Steve's existence in place of the silence.

The tasks themselves, however, are explained, and stupidly.  No-one would pay you that much for such simple work, unless there were a lot at stake.  There are a few basic kinds of tasks, which I'll rationalise in turn:

1)  Time Attack - This whiny guy needs to get to a meeting fast, and he doesn't care about anything else.  The only difference between this challenge and a Time Trial race with traffic is that you don't have to follow a specific route, and it's a pass/fail test, rather than ranked.

Better Explanation - It could have been left out of the game entirely, but if you need an explanation, he has an urgent delivery to make to a drug lord, and if he doesn't make it, he's a dead man.

2)  Driving - This whiny guy or girl wants to be somewhere urgently, but if you crash, you will incur their displeasure, and if you crash enough, they'll ask to be let out, and you will get nothing.

Better Explanation - This time you're driving the drug lord, so they won't risk death just to get to their destination, because no-one's threatening them.

3)  Jolt - This whiny girl gets carsick, so she wants a smooth ride home, but she doesn't care how long it takes.

Better Explanation - It's obviously a drug lord's lab technician who is manufacturing an illegal substance, and needs a consignment of a highly volatile chemical.  Too much vibration at once, and it will be ruined.  Perhaps it will explode; let the reader decide.

4)  Tail:  This whiny guy is concerned that his girlfriend is cheating, so he wants you to tail her to see where she's going.  Don't get too close or too far away.  Also, the girlfriend always turns out to be cheating.

Better Explanation:  Another drug lord is concerned that one of his lieutenants is a snitch, or a Judas, and he wants to know.  Follow the snitch/Judas.  And for goodness sake, allow them to be innocent once in a while.  Sure, you'll have to animate and voice act a few more seconds of content, but at least I would have a reason not to skip the cutscene, even if it's just to see the outcome of a virtual coin toss.

5)  Adrenaline:  This badass dude, who is somehow also very whiny, is unwell, and he wants you to thrill him with awesome driving.  Stunts like jumps, drifting and near misses are his cup of tea, and you need to perform them in quick succession to satisfy him.

Better Explanation:  There's a recalcitrant snitch that the drug lord needs to extract information from.  One of their favourite methods is to lock the snitch in the back of a car and get the driver to drive fast and dangerously until the poor sod breaks, soils himself, and decides that he'd rather tell them everything than die like this.

6)  Speed Limit:  This less badass, but equally whiny, dude is unwell to a lesser extent, and only requires that you maintain a particular minimum speed for a certain length of time.  If you drop below this speed, you have a short amount of time to reach the limit again before you fail.

Better Explanation:  You're transporting a drug lord through a rival's neighbourhood, and if you go too slow, he'll be recognised and attacked.

7)  Driving Convoy:  This girl needs her car to be taken to the mechanic's but doesn't have the time to do it herself.  She'll pay you anywhere from $10,000 to $65,000 on delivery, but damage reduces the fee.

Better Explanation:  The cars are stolen by a white collar criminal, Steve is the fence, and you're delivering the car to the mechanic who will clean it.  The buyer and the thief never meet, so there's deniability.  You're taking the risk of being found with the car, so you get the highest fee.

8)  Package (from the first game, but excluded from the sequel):  This guy needs you to deliver a package of undisclosed contents within a short period of time, and if you get pulled over by the cops, you pay for the lost package yourself.

Better Explanation:  This one is actually fine.  You're just left to assume that it contains the copious amounts of drugs that the many aforementioned drug lords must be selling to stay in business and pay your exorbitant fees.

I think that's all of them.  Do you see how every single one could be adequately explained by the judicious invocation of crime?  This is why so many street racing games assume a culture of criminal behaviour that underpins all of the action.  It's the obvious explanation.

But Test Drive Unlimited won't be having any of that.  It has to be different; upbeat; something for the whole family.  You do races for a reality TV show, some of which take place amongst traffic, and somehow it's all perfectly legitimate.  You don't live a life of crime, whining and bad attitude, you live a life of parties, whining and excess, and there are absolutely no illicit drugs or their attendant infrastructures anywhere to be seen.

The sentence in italics above is probably the best clue that this wasn't what the game's writers originally had in mind.  Why create this challenge?  It makes no sense, except in the stolen car scenario for which it is a perfect fit.  If I had to explain it, I would say that the fault for the game's Bad Writing lies with the producers.  They wanted the game to be different, and they wanted it to have the lowest possible age rating, so they could sell as many copies as possible.  But once this decision was made, there was no way to go back and change the challenges into something plausible, so they just said that you were giving people lifts and delivering their cars to the mechanic, left the prices as they were, and hoped people wouldn't mind.

And I don't really mind.  This case of Bad Writing doesn't change the game at all, and I can turn off the whiny voices.  It's not like anyone says anything actually useful to you.  And as for the stories they tell you about what you're doing?  I simply choose to believe that they're lying, and that my role in the whole expensive charade is to pretend to be a gullible, pliable fool.


  1. I think you hit the nail on the head (especially re the producers deciding "Let's not make a GTA clone," but then failing to come up with worthwhile story-based reasons to back up your actions.

    Bad writing doesn't make a game bad as a game, but it can make a game bad as art (Ontological Geek have devoted their entire blog career to discussing this idea of 'games as art').

  2. My word, what senseless drivel your sister passes off as "questions"...

  3. Okay, LOOK.

    One, I typed out a WHOLE COMMENT and BLOGGER ATE IT. *kicks Blogger REALLY HARD* So I was too miffed to try again, and then life happened and I only got around to try again until now.

    Two, I really hope you hung on (hanged on?... hunged on? You have failed me, English!) to those 2000 words, because my question was to do with all the gameplaying elements, not just Bad Writing. In fact, of all the elements listed, I am probably the least profoundly ignorant and requiring spelling on the element Bad Writing and its impact on any storytelling endeavour, so although that's what inspired the question, the question itself really was about ALL of it.

    Three, I appreciate the insight you provided there. Hey, you should go into game design!... Anyhoos, it does raise another question: given that they were clearly trying to avoid the drug/crime justification for the outrageous prices being paid for inconsequential tasks, what alternatives as a game/story developer would you offer? That's assuming, of course, that everybody doesn't recognise that the main draw of the game has virtually nothing to do with why you're doing these tasks at all. Clearly, if the tasks themselves are sufficiently engaging, you barely need an in-game justification for them at all.

    Four, which leads me to the clarification of my original question. What in a game needs to exceed a 1:1 correlation with reality, and to what extent, before it becomes worth playing? Granted, there will never be a 1:1 correlation between gameplay and reality, because of the distinction that actions taken in-game have no consequences in reality beyond the lack of showering, sleeping, and the loss of girlfriend/job. (Yes, for the purposes of argument, I'm excluding MUDs or whatever they're calling them now.)

    The example I was originally thinking of was that WWII bomber game, where you had to fly for HOURS just to get to the target. Realistic, yes, exciting, NO. At least, not to me. (Am I making this game up in my head, or did we actually have this when we were teenagers? I can't remember.) As far as I was concerned, not worth playing. (Not that that's indicative, since I don't find games worth playing generally.)

    So take a game that simulates rl as closely as possible. No save points, no health packs, 1 minute=1 minute, you have a crappy tedious job, a car that keeps breaking down, have to go grocery shopping, etc. How much needs to change before that's attractive enough to become worthwhile spending time and money on it? And, based on your far greater knowledge and appreciation of available games than mine, which elements tend to be the most attractive/likely to be changed?

    ctrl-a, ctrl-c, scowl@blogger, hit post....

  4. I did keep the words. There are only about 1000 of them on closer inspection, but there will be more soon, so I'll pretend that 2000 is the true figure.

    At any rate, I plan to address the limitations of the medium next, and that's probably more specialised to computer games than the others in the list I enumerated above, so there's something to look forward to there. Your question was useful in that it's given me a lot to say, so don't think for a moment that your ignorance is unwelcome here.

    Also, on games as art, want to address that soon, because I'm seeing it from another perspective. I used to see only the debate: video games R art!; R not!; R2!; D2!, and I saw it as a rather fascile and pointless exchange that would inevitably end when the folks on the negative side grew too old to remember what they were saying, and the positive side would be allowed to quietly become mainstream.

    I still see it that way, but now I'm content to simply ignore the negative side and engage in discussion that operates on the assumption that games are indeed a form of art.

  5. Oh, and on the subject of what alternatives I would offer the game developer, I can think of two.

    One is to go for the crime-fighting route, although it's still about crime, and I think Eden Games really wanted a more chilled, "on holiday in an exotic location," feel to this game.

    So in that case I'd go with your suggestion: just don't explain it. The races exist without real justification, so you could just make these challenges appear for no reason at all.

    Actually - and this is a third explanation if you're counting - you could get Steve (remember Steve?) to say that these people are super-rich and they're paying for top-notch service, which is what he's recommended you for. I don't know, it's silly, but it's better than a half-explanation.

  6. Mm, like the driver in the BMW short movies. As Clive Owen, of course you get to charge those kinds of prices.

  7. Heh, in the Adrenaline rationalisation, I was thinking of saying, "Hey, it worked on Madonna."