Friday, June 12, 2009

Outside vs. Inside and Issues of Protagonist Progression

He's just a little guy... A recent, fantastic Gamasutra interview with the team behind BioShock 2 detailed the switch of perspective from that of an “outsider’s” to an “insider’s” story – meaning the switch from controlling an anonymous protagonist to a Big Daddy, the emblematic denizens of Rapture.  Because it’s BioShock, people aren’t just wondering how being a Big Daddy will change how it will play.  Eager fans of the franchise are trying to wrap their heads around what kind of story it will create.

But this Outsider vs. Insider question has implications larger than BioShock.  It gets right to the heart of interactive storytelling.  Games with any sort of narrative feature some sort of progression, be it simply a “Point A to Point B” journey or the leveling up of characters and amassing of increasingly powerful weapons.  We’ve come to expect the gameplay to reflect our advancement through the story, creating a parallel between the character’s journey and the user’s evolution as a player.

Does this always work?  Or are there flaws in this formula, and thus flaws in how we deliver narratives via games?

For the time being, let’s hold on to this Outsider vs. Insider thing.  They each present unique opportunities to storytellers, some of which simply cannot be afforded by other media.  Outsiders experience their environments for the first time simultaneously with the player, thereby justifying his neophyte status at the game’s start.  Insiders offer more back-story.  Non-player characters react to them with specific expectations.  There’s an inherent distance between them and the gamer, which can be either an obstacle or an asset.

Outsider stories are more common in most media.  Go the cinema and you’re bound to see at least two or three Fish Out of Water comedies on the schedule.  My dramatic training has taught me to regularly ask the Passover Question, or “Why is this happening right now, today?,” when reading plays for performance.  Stories told over an Outsider’s shoulder provide more for the audience to discover, offering more new information to engage the audience. 

That doesn’t mean Insider stories are impossible.  Many stories have chronicled the struggle between man and his surroundings.  Beckett’s tramps in Waiting for Godot have been Insiders for decades.  They yearn to be Outsiders and are disturbed/excited when strangers enter their space.  Jack Bauer, as much as he encounters the unknown, is actually so far Inside he’s become an Outsider, made a pariah by the very system that created him and calls upon him regularly. 

As you can tell by my shaky second example, Insider story’s are inherently difficult, especially in a medium dependent upon the interaction of an Outsider: the player.   An Insider I’m currently having issues with is Mass Effect’s Cmdr. Shepard.  Now, I’m a huge fan of BioWare’s work, especially KOTOR and Jade Empire.  I also feel that the ability to select a back-story for Shepard is a welcome innovation in an school of RPGs at which BioWare is the head of the class.  But there’s a certain incongruity in Shepard’s progression.  He starts the story as a respected member of the human military, talented enough to warrant special attention from a council of aliens interested in making him a special operative.  Why, then, does the player have the option to have ask inane questions of anyone he comes across?  Am I expected to believe a decorated Commander, known galaxy-wide for whatever back-story the player chose, doesn’t know basic information about the majority of the aliens he’ll come across?  I understand why these questions are here: the player doesn’t know this information.  He must discover it somehow.  But in the case of Mass Effect, it just doesn’t click. 

BioWare’s found ways around this in the past.  Jade Empire’s protagonist was a talented rookie on a mission to save his teacher.  KOTOR put you in the shoes of an amnesiac Sith lord.  BioShock used amnesia to similar effect, though the placement of the reveal (earlier than the end of the game) shook up the formula and helped stand on its own as a classic.  I’m sure you can think of some other notable amnesiac heroes given some time.  *cough* Cloud Strife! *cough*

Trope and cliché aside, rookies and amnesiacs abound in gaming because it eliminates irony from the users experience.  Critics of superhero games commonly cite the stupidity of having to unlock abilities: “Can’t I just start with all of Superman’s powers?”  “Wolverine can’t get better at regeneration.”  Much of the excitement surrounding inFAMOUS came from the promise of a unique superhero IP, promising all the fun of your favorite comics without all the pressures of canon. 

So what does this mean for BioShock 2?  I think they’re fighting an uphill battle.  Where was this Big Daddy during the events of the first game?  If he can use plasmids (which he most certainly will be able to), will he start the game with a full arsenal?  If not, why?  Wouldn’t he have had plenty of time to roam around the stock up?  Again, I don’t think this is impossible.  And if someone’s going to pull it off, it’ll be the people at 2K.  I’m just looking forward to wielding that drill.