mechanicsm and expression

A year after he wrote it, Joseph Leray’s essay on Shadow of the Colossus still makes a concise entry into one of the most important neglected aspects of video game design, namely, how the phenomenlogical experience of learning and utilizing the game’s controls can reinforce or undermine the emotional and narrative aspects of the game.

Take the grabbing mechanic for example. In order for Wander to grab onto things — ledges, walls, colossi — the player must hold down the R1 button. The distinction is subtle: You don’t just push R1, you have to hold it. The physical associations between holding onto a ledge and holding down the R1 button allow the player to always have a connection with Wander. Similarly, to attack a colossus, the player must press the O button once to raise his sword, and O again to strike. Again, the player is never separated from Wander and controls all his physical actions, that is to say there is never a rift between what’s happening on-screen and what’s happening in your hand.

This choice is inherent in the rest of the game as well. You have to find the Colossi, ride across an entire continent, and then figure out how to kill them. You have to want them to die. The game forces you to make decisions about whether or not to attack the Colossi, a choice you have to make over and over, at each step of the way. Even when you’ve climbed the colossus, found his weak spot, you have to choose again — will you push O a second time and strike? Will you push O a last time and actually kill the Colossus?

These moments can be incredibly poignant, and I would go as far as to say that Shadow of the Colossus is the only game in which “no” is an acceptable answer to those types of questions — all because of the way the controls are mapped.

If video game violence is ever going to serve a function beyond gory escapism, these are precisely the frontiers that need to be explored.  Shadow of the Colossus is still a unique game, one of the fewer-than-a-dozen currently existing titles which I would consider an “art candidate.” It’s lesson, I think, is especially applicable to RPGs, which given their narrative sweep are often classed amongst the artiest of video games. Unfortunately, their strategic take on combat tends to mechanize it to the point where individual confrontations can feel utterly meaningless – the gratuitous random encounters, the maze of menus.

One RPG I’ve admired for it’s integration of mechanism and theme is Persona 3. In this game, the protagonist’s combat skills are tied to the maintenance of social bonds with friends and lovers, but the final battle in the game, with an occultist embodiment of Death, turns out to be fruitless and irresolvable – in a sense, refuting the standard gamer’s approach to the title, which is to instrumentalize the relationships in service of combat strategy. The gamer is, effectively, challenged to find meaning in relationships which cannot “solve” the protagonist’s dilemma or assist him in overcoming Death.  The following game, Persona 4, takes this a step further. By forcing the player to choose how to allocate time between social relationships and combat/leveling, the game challenges the player to establish a set of priorities and preferences in which it is possible and acceptable to deprioritize the violent confrontations which are typically assumed to be the heart of this sort of game. Then, by extending the option to replay the game with perfect knowledge of its plot and temporal rythym, the player must decide what to do differently, whether they struck the right balance the first time through, whether they are happy with the relationships they cultivated. It’s not eternal recurrence, but it is enough to prompt some tough decisions.

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~ by staticandme on April 5, 2009.

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