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 Post subject: Heresies of Mimesis
PostPosted: Sun Jan 30, 2005 6:55 am 
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[I have, on occasion, been accused of male chauvinism for my use of
'he' to refer to both male and female members of the human race in my
writing.  Although, perhaps, not politically correct in the early XXI
century, long and ancient tradition has rendered it acceptable. Please
rest assured, I do not think of women as 'inferior'. I simply find it
awkward to use phrases like 'he or she' in my writing, and refuse to use
the incorrect pronoun 'they' to refer to single individuals.]


Heresies of Mimesis

I thought long and hard before choosing the title of this essay. Some
years ago I read 'Crimes Against Mimesis' by Dr. Roger Giner-Sorolla,
a psychologist from the University of Kent (although he was at NYU
when he wrote it). His article is a brilliant analysis of many of the
problems common to interactive fiction puzzles, and the possible steps
a game designer might take to ameliorate them. I re-read his paper
recently and began thinking of how the same ideas might be adapted to
graphical adventure games, and how I might prepare an essay thereof
which also included the word 'mimesis' in the title.

The mimesis of adventure games, whether textual or graphical, is
founded upon a single fundamental principle: that its world be
internally coherent. It need not be the case that a fictional world
conform to the same standards and rules as reality -- indeed, it is
often necessary that they define an entirely alien world -- but those
to which they do conform must be consistent and logical. Too often, I
find, it is the case that the plot, character development, and, hence,
the game's immersion, is subordinated to the illogical needs of
puzzle-solving. With careful consideration, though, it is my belief
that immersive and challenging puzzles can be logically integrated
into a game, subordinating them to the story.

In an essay intending to dissect and examine some of the shortcomings
of adventure game elements, it is certainly felicitous to show where
they 'get it right'. In his article, Dr. Giner-Sorolla cites a class
of problems which he calls 'Objects out of context'.  This, I have
noticed, is almost nonexistent in graphical adventure games; most
likely an artefact of the medium. It is unlikely that a graphical
adventure game player would accept a 'transwarp motivator' sitting on
an ordinary dining-room table with no explanation without some degree
of annoyance. Interactive fiction players, on the other hand, are apt
to be somewhat more forgiving, probably because the object in question
is not plainly visible, fairly crying out that it is little more than
a necessary element in an upcoming puzzle. Of course, the savvy IF
player is instantly aware that the fictional integrity of the game is
being compromised for the needs of the puzzles, but he is, I find,
more likely to suspend disbelief in such situations. Thankfully,
however, graphical adventure games rarely commit this heresy;
essential items tend to be in logical places where the player
character should logically be able to obtain them.

Nonetheless, the very act of collecting items from the game's world
requires some close scrutiny. First, though, we need to consider who,
exactly, the 'player character' is, and what his role is in the game's
world. For the purposes of my analysis, I propose two 'player
character' archetypes (Dr. Giner-Sorolla defines three archetypes in
'Crimes Against Mimesis', one of which I belive is unnecessary): the
'player' and the 'protagonist'. The 'player' is you, the adventure
game player, sitting at your computer issuing directives to a piece of
software and interpreting its responses. The 'protagonist' is the
principal actor within the game's world, and, partially, the avatar of
the player. To a certain degree, both player characters have the same
goals: to overcome the obstacles set in his path to achieve a larger
goal. Their motivations, however, are often radically different, and
therein lies the crux of this heresy. In precious few adventure games
is the collection of inventory items motivated by the needs of the story
rather than the needs of the puzzles. The protagonist's motivations
for the gathering of objects is, thus, often inherently illogical.

Consider King's Quest. Why should Sir Graham take a handful of pebbles
from a beach, or steal the bucket from a well, possibly depriving
other peasants of its use? The most obvious answer is that the plot
requires him to do so in order to complete puzzles later in the game.
Still, there is no logical reason, within the context of the game's
world, why he should do such things. For me, this remains one of the
most glaring heresies of adventure games in general. In all cases, I
believe, there should be a reason why the protagonist, not the
player, performs his actions. Perhaps the bucket has a hole and Sir
Graham cuts it down in order to repair it, then does so before putting
it to other puzzle-related uses. Maybe the good knight plays cricket
in his spare time and likes to practice bowling with stones in the
countryside. Regardless of the game, however, some careful thought
about the character and his potential motivations can allow the game
designer to integrate puzzles seamlessly into the plot and many of the
attendant descriptions of scenery. More than any other, I believe
addressing this issue would incomparably enhance the immersion and
realism of adventure games.

Still, there remain other, lesser heresies, which must still be
examined and deconstructed. Possibly the oldest, and paradoxically,
most venerated of these, is the heresy of 'context out of context'
(thanks again to Dr. Giner-Sorolla for the term). Even from the
earliest days of adventure games it has been fashionable to include
bizarre or anachronistic references and themes, to wit, Zork and
Adventure.  Presumably this was, and still is, done to add a sense of
whimsy or humour to a game. While an understated jumbling together of
milieus can be charming while the primary game universe remains
consistent, as in the 'Apprentice' series, doing it overtly can
quickly become tedious and tiresome, as I found in 'Flight of the
Amazon Queen'. Fortunately, the current trend seems to be towards
games which wholeheartedly embrace one specific genre. A particularly
frustrating consequence of the 'context out of context' can be the
illogical and genre-bending puzzles within such games. I can recall
once playing a game with a bizarre puzzle involving an 'ancient
Chinese steam locomotive'. I re-iterate, though, that such games seem
to be relatively rare, currently. The brave designer who attempts a
multi-genre game would be well advised to consider creating a larger
framework in which each genre and the puzzles within can be
presented to the player as internally consistent, and in which the
player's actions can be made logical, rather than attempting to create an
amalgam.

The heresy of the non-player character deserves special mention,
though within in modern adventure-gaming systems, there seems to be no
way to ameliorate it. The non-player character occupies an ignominious
place within the adventure game. Too often, he is little more than a
colourful sprite whose purpose is to advance the plot and provide
clues to the protagonist. Rare is the game which meaningfully
integrates NPCs into the plot and the puzzles the protagonist must
solve. Unfortunately, I believe giving non-player characters more than
an informational role in modern adventure games would require a degree
of sophistication beyond the simple dialogue trees and word lists of
the (admittedly impressive) authoring systems currently available.
Sadly, even the most interesting and realistic NPC of any game I have
played remains little more than a vehicle for its plot.

Ideally, NPCs would be complete entities unto themselves, with their
own motivations, personalities and reactions to the protagonist's
actions; agents capable of taking an active role in the game's world,
and affecting its parameters. To this end, I propose that the careful
game designer create fully realised character studies on paper, as an
author might do for a novel. These can then be used to determine how
and why different NPCs affect certain puzzles, and the plot in
general. Such characters could then be implemented, to the greatest
extent possible, with an authoring system. Above all else, dialogue
and the range of responses to the player's queries is essential to
making an NPC seem 'real'. This is one area in which traditional
interactive fiction often out-shines graphical adventure games; likely
another artefact of the medium.

The mimesis of adventure games is necessarily imperfect. Both the
limitations of modern authoring systems and the vagaries of their
creators render it so. It is, therefore, with some degree of
trepidation that I penned this essay. In an imperfect world of
imperfect games I can only hope that my conceits will not be seen as
an unduly harsh criticism of the community. I simply wish to offer the
considered observations of an enthusiast in the hope that they might
provoke discussion and, perhaps, improvement.

_________________
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-- The man's prayer


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 31, 2005 9:30 am 
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I think it's an interesting article.
However it could be improved by adding a couple of examples (e.g. the water pump in MI2 for context-out-of-context, or the bowl in the middle of the field in KQ1 for what-the-flip-is-that-doing-there).

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 31, 2005 9:25 pm 
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You're right, of course, but I couldn't think of any other good examples at the time. I'm also somewhat ashamed to admit that I haven't played the same breadth of games as some of the people around here. For example, I've never played MI2.

Overall, my intent was simply to outline some of the needlessly illogical and frustrating game elements which often detract from the story, and how they might be avoided.

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