Telling Stories.

The website and blog of writer Austin Wilson. Comics and prose. Stories from wherever they may appear.

Digital Emotion

Digital Emotion

I cried while playing The Last of Us on PS4I cried a couple times during Gone Home. And those gaming experiences are pretty dissimilar too. One has a lot of guns, action, and survival/horror scenarios. The other is pure exploration, a slow creep through a house, nothing to keep you company but objects and the stories that unfold as you pick them up. 

It's not a shock to cry anymore. Age brings that along, so says every old person ever. Or at least the ones who cry. I'm an expert at this point. I'm old now. I'm 32 as of the very second I'm typing this, which is not actually "old". It's older than I used to be. Maybe that's the definition we're constantly relying on, especially when we're using that word against people (including ourselves). Young is what we were, old is what we are, and confusingly it is also what we will be.

Most of the time when I "cry" over a piece of art my eyes are moistening. They fill with water, though no tears actually spill over. I'd say it's a 70:30 split. The two games previously mentioned fell into the 30% where I was actively crying, I guess maybe more aptly it could be called weeping. Tears rolled down my cheeks.

It's only a big deal if a game - or movie, book, album, painting, etc. - fails to make me cry when I can tell the creators set out looking for that exact response. This of course is annoyingly revealing about me. It's a mindset I end up contradicting during practically every movie I watch. Of course the writers/directors/actors in every romantic-comedy want me to cry. It's within the very DNA of the genre. I'll write more about this - specifically the agreement audiences enter into with storytellers before the story even begins - but for now let's talk about war.

My video game history has a lot of First Person Shooters (FPS) in it, including at least four Call of Duty entries, and the Helen of Troy of the genre (for my generation anyway), Goldeneye. I arrived at the Battlefield franchise kind of late, either starting with the second or third (maybe fourth?), I can't remember. They're paced so differently from Call of Duty (CoD), both the single- and multi-player modes, though it's much more obvious in multi-player. When I originally encountered the franchise it looked like nothing more than a copy of CoD, so I avoided it. When I did venture into one of the Battlefield games I found a lot to appreciate and enjoy. It has some of the best sound design in any video game, for one, and yes, it's a game that manages to make war feel at least a little real. This last thing is an achievement, since I'm usually playing them from the safety of a recliner or couch, far far away from any active war zone.

The newest entry, Battlefield I, takes the player into the trenches and skies of World War I. Everything in the game has the patina of history on it, even though, shit, all of this stuff is not really that far in our past. The war changed the world in so many ways, some unknowable, others very obvious. The game works at enumerating some of those changes in the Campaign mode, which this go-round is known as War Stories.

They're so freaking cool from a storytelling standpoint because it feels like you're controlling a mini-series, a two or three part drama. There are title cards and small prologues to set the stage with all the pieces of history. Short cinematics introduce the stars of the stories, transitioning into gameplay, where any sort of emotional resonance is destroyed immediately by the totally rad explosions!!!

Truly the games do tiptoe close to creating connections between the player and their characters, but the game just isn't set up to continue down that path. People are mostly buying FPS games to play multi-player, and the Campaign takes a backseat. It's usually pretty obvious the developers know that, too, as the campaigns are either short, bland, or completely non-existent. In 2014 Titanfall had no single player mode (though its sequel has a campaign I haven't completed yet), and in 2015 Star Wars Battlefront didn't either.

In one of Battlefield's War Stories we start out with either a character modeled to look like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or it is an actual un-credited appearance of the actor. The writers avoid having him speak for as long as possible, eventually succumbing, and players hear a pretty awful British accent, which convinced me it was in fact Gordon-Levitt stopping by for a cameo. And I like him! But whoof, it's bad.

This story, titled Through Mud and Blood, takes us through a battle set in Cambrais, a really real world place in France, where a really real battle took place. The writers and developers and motion-captured actors try to establish an emotional bedrock by showing us the main character of this short, Danny Edwards (Gordon-Levitt?), staring at his fresh and blood-free chauffeur gloves in a future after the war, then flashing back to the battlefield. It sets up a callback later, with this passable visual echo, but emotionally it's stunted because in between all of that...

HUGE FUCKING TANKS SNORT AND GROWL, THEY PUMMEL SKULLS AND COUNTRYSIDE WITH HELL FLAMES. NO BODY WILL BE UN-TORN. HELL FUCKING YEAH SHOOT EVERYTHING, HEY HEY, BLOW UP THAT GODDAMN HOUSE OVER THERE. YEAH! ROLL OVER THE DEAD BODIES, POUND IT ALL TO DUST, DELIVER THE WORLD UNTO MURDER. HERE'S A TROPHY FOR YOUR ACHIEVEMENTS, YOU KILLED EVERYTHING IN UNDER FIVE MINUTES, SOMEONE WILL GIVE YOU A PLAQUE AND STATUE.

It's a weird experience. During the prologue War Story, Storm of Steel, the screen tells us World War I was supposed to be the "war to end all wars" and then says, "It ended nothing." Maybe that would have some kind of impact if the words weren't on a screen seconds away from letting us romp through the barbed wire and muddy trenches. Dice, the game's developer, didn't fail, and I don't think they shouldn't have tried to bring emotion to the game, in fact I think the opposite. It's a cool idea, one I hope they end up figuring out how to achieve better in the future.

There's a short War Story called Avanti Savoia, following one Italian soldier and his search for his brother on the hellscape of a northern Italian battlefield. We never see the face of the narrator during "present day" when he's describing the search to his granddaughter, but we do see him in a flashback right before...

HE DONS FULL BODY ARMOR AND STOMPS INTO BATTLE CARRYING A FUCKING CANNON. IT PUNCTURES CHESTS AND FACES. SPRINKLE DEATH AROUND YOU, SEASON THE EARTH WITH ALL THE MAYHEM.

Of course the story ends with finding your brother, it's sad, yes, but the impact is much less than another game could maybe achieve. You're so thoroughly covered in the grit and blood of your own joyful action hero outing that the sadness is a joke, kind of. Not like "ha-ha," and not like a travesty, but it is funny because of the juxtaposition of how you arrived there, and where there actually is.

I think part of the disconnect is that during gameplay you have no face from which to draw emotion. Not only are you a bodiless set of arms toting various weapons, but you are voiceless except for the random grunt or small spot of exposition, which usually comes during in-game cinematics, rendered with the game engine.

The cinematics outside of the game engine are glorious, they're beautiful feature film-level pieces of animation, complete with expertly rendered faces, including some of the most realistic emotions I've seen in any recent game. All of that goes away as soon as the actual gameplay starts though.

I do wonder if there was a third person perspective, maybe over the shoulder, we'd more thoroughly connect to our character, even if we are slaughtering people left and right. Part of why The Last of Us is so successful is the interactions between Joel and Ellie, dialogue exchanges which come during the gameplay, and not exclusively through unplayable cinematics. Even if you're just walking around, guiding Joel through a developer/writer-determined path, you are in fact making the story move. That way, when something negative happens and you see it affect  the "You" on-screen, plus anyone you've been interacting with, the hope is a sense of responsibility is created.

Battlefield I never achieves this responsibility. It manages to highlight, for the briefest of moments, how horrible war is, and how massive and uncontrollable World War I was, and felt. They can't break free of their joyous celebration of guns and mayhem though, because that's the whole point of the series, of the acts they're allowing players to engage in. The War Stories would make more sense released on a separate disc, under a different name - maybe "Battlefield: War Stories" hmmm? - but within this game they seem misplaced.

Scared, Hopeful.

Fearless Future

Fearless Future