Issues of Emotions: The Gutter of Cutscenes

Exploring subtle emotions in video games actors.

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The Gutter of Cutscenes: Pixel v FMV

There is a long-standing personal theory that the increase in graphical fidelity decreased the narrative complexity of video games. I have some evidence to support my claim, but I understand that nostalgia is a powerful effect. However, I question my initial opinion after watching the Youtube group Extra Credits’ video about A Case for Cutscenes. It isn’t that the increase in graphical fidelity has decreased the narrative complexity in games, but that the increase in graphical fidelity has decreased the subtle emotions imagined in earlier games. Where did this shift happen, and why did I amend my theory? Let me take you into the Gutter.

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Readdressing the Issue: Cosmic Horror

Unfortunately, another short blog this week. Or at least off-the-cuff article. My job continues its attempt to extract all my hopes and dreams, then fill the sucking abyss with the turgid mixture of hate, misery, and self-loathing. Because that is what makes a better employee: depression and resignation to oblivion.

Unmarked spoilers for Persona 5, Night in the Woods, and Kona in this post. I will put up a spoiler tag before discussion, but no other warnings after that.

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The Issue of Kona (2017) – Part 1

Please note: My laptop crashed and lost this entirety of this post I’ve been working on all week. The original version was about double in length and delved into more the story of Kona and where it failed. However, due to time constraints, I’m going to post this version and try to revisit it sometime in the near future.

Link to Kona’s Steam page: http://store.steampowered.com/app/365160/

Kona is a recently released Kickstarter indy adventure game by Parabole. In it the player takes control of private investigator Carl Faubert as he investigates the vandalism of a Northern Canandian industrial’s home in October 1970. However, on his way to the home Carl gets trapped in a freak snowstorm. Stranger still, the entirety of the area surrounding the industrialist’s homestead is missing. This includes the local homes, logging facility, and general store. Carl must solve the mystery of the disappearances, survive the story, and the case he was hired for.

Now with the introductions out of the way into the nitty gritty. First off, Kona is beautiful. I played the game on my PS4 as I do not have a computer capable of playing anything more advanced than a word document or a Youtube video. Even still, the rich white colors and harsh landscape found in Kona were breathtaking. So much so I beat the game in a single sitting. The small mysteries of the local townsfolk, the exploration of the outlying area, and the drive to get to the source of these weird issues kept me hooked most of the time.

To keep me informed of my investigation, a journal is provided to the player. It contains quest lines, character faces and details, and photographs taken during the game. The journal is beautifully rendered but is hard to read, more on that later. Any missing information on quests and the investigation are large blank areas outlined in red. Usually these areas are filled in once the player takes a photograph of a key piece of evidence according to the quest line or investigation. While I sped through the game, I ended up having to go back numerous times checking my progress on the people and investigation as I explored the area. Small bits of the community coming together to pain a partial image I could understand.

However, complicating your exploration and investigation of this beautiful setting is your characters need for warmth, stress relief, and health. In Kona, the storm I arguably your greatest enemy. As you wander the area you lose heat which causes you vision to slowly blur. If you run out of heat you die. To get more heat you must find a source of warmth. Sounds simple, but in Kona most all heat sources are extinguished. The player must rebuild these sources to gain back heat. This is simple enough, the game provides more than enough logs, fire starters, and matches. But the other complication is Carl’s carrying capacity. In addition to carrying the previously mentioned items, Carl also must carry around other items: guns for protection, health kits, steaks to feed the local wildlife, and other necessary items to solve the game’s mysteries. Don’t fear though, unlike certain other games your carrying capacity is fairly realistic. You can only carry a few things on your person at a time, and the simulated weight of these items are scaled well. To further simplify the issue the game provides an infinite capacity storage system in Carl’s truck. And that is all the interaction the player has with the gaming environment.

I had much more detail to dive into but as noted at the beginning my computer ate it for dinner sometime this week and I don’t have the time to re-write it. Summarily, Kona is good. It has some flaws in its narrative, but as it is a walking simulator in spirit with Gone Home and Dear Ester what it attempts and fails at makes it that much of a better game. To those interested the next two blog post will deal with creation of investigative narratives and Codices within said investigative narratives. All-in-all Kona is a fine first game. It tries new things and doesn’t stick to any safe design save for the end. Also, advice to the Parabole, please don’t reveal you monster in the trailer or in your game advertisements. You game is set in the Great White North, the howling winds of the snowstorm already invokes Ithaqua from the Lovecraft mythos. This is dipping into another article, but if you love your monster let it hide. Don’t reveal it before the game even begins.

 

Kona Score: B+.

Pros: Excellent Atmosphere, Beautiful Environments

Cons: Poor Investigation Journal, Investigation is not solved by so much as told to the player.

The Issue of Time: The Secret Character of Life is Strange.

A hipster and Time meet in a diner at the end of the universe.

A few days ago, my partner finish their playthrough of Life is Strange (2015). At the time, we observed how the nightmare sequence in the final episode was jarring. While goal of the sequence is to ease the player into the penultimate decision of the game, there was something about it that felt odd. The voices, the characterization, the imagery, all of it seems to be a bit too pointed to be constructed from pure unconsciousness. It felt more directed, but unfocused, like throwing darts at a board and never quite hitting the mark. I could not put my finger on the issues during the sequence, not until Max, the main character of the game, had a dialogue with her doppelganger. Then it all cliqued, the sequence was odd because Max was not talking to herself. Her subconscious was not constructing a nightmare from her guilty over her actions in the game. She was talking to someone, someone who was with her for the entirety of the game, someone who could not get her attention until the climax of the story. She was talking to Time.

To those not in the know, Life is Strange is a video game about a teenage girl, Maxine “Max” Caulfield, who she develops time powers to save her friend, Chloe. The game is split into 5 episodes which take place over a single week. Over the course of the game Max must navigate the social ecology of her private school, Blackwell Academy, while trying to both keep Chloe alive and solve the disappearance of another student, Rachel Amber. Now the conventional interpretation of the game is that the final sequence is purely a nightmare, namely due to the section being called Nightmare. However, naming convention does not disprove my theory Max is talking with a personification of time.

The order of the nightmare sequence is as follows: 1) An opening sequence from the beginning of the game in a photography class which is interrupted by birds flying into the window killing themselves until their blood lights the room red. 2) A dormitory hall, where Max encounters or embodies character who died or could have died over the course of the game. 3) The reverse of the opening school hallway sequence from the first episode of the game. 4) A maze created in black space made from the locations and individuals Max has had to navigate throughout the game only experienced in reverse of her expose to them. 5) Max trapped in a snow-globe being forced to relive a scene from her past where she chooses to not to intercede and save an individual due to the disastrous personal results it has on the present timeline. 6) A torture dungeon and photography studio used by the antagonist of the game. Here she watches phantom-versions of Chloe, the individual she has spent the entirety of game saving, making disparaging remarks about her to various other characters in the game. 7) A dinner, where Max hears everyone plead with her to be saved only to have a conversation with a doppelganger about the fate of the world. 8) A walkway in black space highlighting the key moments between Max and Chloe over the course of the game.

These sequences have a method to them: They start forewarning of great disaster (1); It then has Max interact or embody characters who have died or might have died due to her actions over the course of the game (2); Physically makes her backwards to the beginning of the game (3). From there (4) has her reverse her physical progress in the story back across fractured areas of the game she explored, all while having to navigate a maze of exaggerating characters she has spent the game interacting with. (5) Has Max being confined, forcing her to relive a per plot decision this time as a reminder of the importance of this action. (6) has a phantom Chloe attempt to force Max away by being uncharacteristically both hostile to Max and friendly to other characters he is actively hostile to during the previous sections of the game. (7) has the player has walk past and heard the cried of all the other intractable characters of the game ask not to die, which then culminates in another phantom character, this time of Max herself, try to converse the player to let Chloe die. (8) ends the nightmare in a literal walk down memory lane of Max’s interaction with Chloe throughout the game.

This read like someone trying to convince the player to give up and let Chloe die, does it not? To let go of youthful stubbornness of trying to save a single individual at the cost of city. Looking at the sequence again. There is a coldness directed at Max that feel alien. All the individuals she has encounters in this sequence do not fit with what we have come to understand of them. These exaggerated caricatures strike as an attempt to scare Max into leaving and giving up her quest. That is until (7). Up until that point all the character’s talk at, but never with, Max. She is a casual observer in the scene, observing but never interactive. Then in (7) we have 2 conversation with characters, Nightmare Max (NM) and Nightmare Chloe (NC). Both have dialogue with and physical interact with you. This is where we encounter Time. Both NM and NC are Time talking to Max and itself.

The core to Life is Strange’s narrative success relies on its characters. They start as flat stereotypical clichés, then become more dynamic and realized as you interact with them and discover the history. Think how Time is portrayed in other time travel and death-defying media. It is a cold, brutal entity. It moves forward inexorably and actively searching for a means to restore any alterations to its path. If Life is Strange’s challenges character stereotypes would it not do the same for Time itself? The answer it the cold, brutal entity would reveal itself to be outside the understanding of humanity. An entity of a higher reality trying to communicate to something too stupid and imperfect to understand it.

Now a question, how would such a being communicate? More simply, consider how a a third dimensional being could possibly communicate with a two dimensional being. One option would be to pluck the two dimensional being from its original space into a specially designed space to impart a message. But still this communication would be limited as it relies on two-dimensional information to describe a three-dimensional concept. The receiver would only be able to receive small chunks, or snap-shots, of information. To speak with a being of a lower dimension, the higher dimensional being must sacrifice the complexity of its message to converse with the lower being. A three-dimensional concept must become two-dimensional. To use film media as an example: a movie would simplify into a frame, which then could be decontextualized into a photograph.

Photography is a large part of the Life is Strange game. Every episode has hidden collectable photographs. Key scenes are shows at photographs at the episode collect screen. Even the main character’s goal and prestige at her school is her talent at photography. So extrapolating this ideas from the previous paragraph, in order for Time to talk to Max it must be converting higher dimensional data into three dimensions for her to understand. Time is taking slices, something to it perception something akin to photos, of the events of the game and attempting to talk to Max using these stills. This information is lacking and indirect because Time cannot properly convey its message due to lack of understanding by the lower dimensional. So instead, Time turns to altering its message and information to scare Max. To continue to photography metaphor, it is altering and exaggerating the objects in the frame to try and convey a more pointed message to its audience. This also helps explains the over apparent over-exaggeration of characters and places in the scene. Something outside of our understanding trying to communicate to Max, and to an extent the player, through caricature and emotion.

However, none of these attempt works. As described previously, sections (1) through (6) of the nightmare do not appear to affect Max. It is only in section (7) Time decides to personally talk to Max (7). But how? Back to the issues of transdimensional communication. We already covered how a higher being would communicate with a lower being: movie stills and or photographs. There is another way of communication thought, a much harder way. This involves the use of an object existing in both dimensions of communication. Just Human’s are three dimensional beings that experience time, the forth-dimension. Because of this we understand the concept of time and that things do not just appear out of nowhere. A building starts with a two-dimensional footprint but builds into a fully three-dimensional object. This is the reverse of making a movie into a frame; a series of frame makes a movie. It also is the idea behind 3d printing. A 2d object is rendered in 3d space by adding layers to it one at time. What in Life is Strange has possibly existed in multiple dimensions at once and has the capacity for use my an entire such as Time? Max herself.

Throughout the entirety of the game Max has gone backward in time, created multiple timelines, and created time travel loops with her powers. She has either partially elevated herself to a higher dimension, or, more accurately given a higher dimension multiple versions of herself to work with. Information Time uses to construct a more precise, if still limited, means of communicating with Max in (7). This also explains why the Nightmare Chloe character shows up to the conversation as well. Chloe, like Max has had multiple timelines formed around her due to Max’s actions, she also is the reason for Max’s stubborn refusal to listen to Time. While she might not have Max’s capacity for manipulating time, she has existed on enough time lines in the game to create a shell for Time to speak. And for Time to experience her perceptions. Therefore, the Nightmare Chloe defending Max in the diner is also Time.

The creation both Nightmare Chloe and Nightmare Max results in the being coming to understand why Max has caused the fracturing of the timeline. Much like how communicating with a lower being might result in an obfuscated message, beings of a higher dimension might not have a concept that the lower beings use. Film to photo loses the overall narrative, photo to film loves the intense personal relationship of the photo. With experience and information come understanding. Time, by embodying a version of Max and Chloe comes to finally realize Max’s resistance and apprehension. Time understands that Max knows her choices and, in order let her make up Max’s mind, creates (8). This section, while build like the Maze section (4), does not rely on exaggerated caricatures trying to capture Max. This section is almost literally, a walk down memory lane. All the key moments between Max and Chloe throughout the game are shown in still, with the audio from the section playing. Events from multiple erased timelines are there as well. The idea that Time now understands Max’s action, this final section becomes more poignant. Time is letting Max relive her week with Chloe as either a final goodbye or a reconfirmation of why she needs to survive, depending on the final choice. A choice you make outside the nightmare, of your own freewill next to Chloe.

In closing, this section of Life is Strange does a fantastic job of showing how to personify and the thought process of an entity outside of human understanding. It takes a complex concept, such as personify Time, and creates a powerful experience all while working within the themes of the game. It is my hopes future designers will learn from this game and attempt to create engaging experiences in their media of choice. As well as create more scenes showcasing the complexities of life and human interactions but from the purview of a non-human viewpoint.