Home from the range

My wife told me “You can stop studying for your PhD now, you’ve done what you wanted.”

Last night I hit the end credits of Red Dead Redemption. My wife isn’t entirely right, but yes, reading about Red Dead Redemption was one of the “triggers” (forgive me) for thinking about what Cultural Heritage might lean about telling stories in three-dimensional spaces. In February I decided I had to actually play the thing, and went out to buy a cheap XBox and the game.

Since then, I’ve spent 47 hours, 4 minutes and 38 seconds playing the game, and 79 days have passed in game time. I won’t tell you what happened, even though the game came out in 2010, I’ve appreciated the effort more experienced gamers have made to avoid spoiling the experience for me, and its only fair I don’t spoiling for anybody who might still be looking forward to playing it. But I do want to collate my thoughts on what I’ve learned about games, space and story from this experience.

First of all, I need to unpack my disappointment and my elation. Lets start with the latter. Wow! What an amazing experience. I was so emotionally involved in this story I didn’t want it to end. Even thinking about for this post, I had to take a little break to play a bit more. I’ve even bought a number of tracks from the soundtrack album, which I’m listening to now.

My disappointment is that the story structure was not as sophisticated as I’d been hoping for. Essentially, you guide the protagonist, John Martson, along a critical path, with the story choices limited to wandering off on a “side quest” occassionally, or (more rarely) being offered a choice of which order to complete a small number of missions in (realizing that all the missions must be completed before the story moves on). The much vaunted “open world” nature of the game is limited to movement rather than story; you can wander the world reasonably freely, yes, and you can even have Marston spend his time hunting  – game or fugitives – gambling, or working as a nightwatchman or bronco-buster, to delay returning to the story. But eventually you feel compelled to return to the place marked by a nagging icon on the map, to start the next chapter in the story.

Some of the missions, helping a grave-robber for example, are so distasteful you might decide that John Marston is above that sort of thing and walk away. But then the story stops, until you meekly guide Marston back to the place where the grave-robber patiently waits. Now there’s something interesting going on here about the dissonance between the morals of the gamer and the character that only became apparent towards the end of the game. I chanced upon this recent post on a forum which summed up how some games might feel about that lack of control (spoiler alert) :

In this you run missions for Seth and West Dickens etc. Any sane man would have shot or dragged them to the sheriffs office shortly after meeting them. Oh sure, they eventually help you in your goal but you have no real way of knowing they’re going to come through. Only that they’re evil, stupid and terrible people. You end up murdering dozens of people…

And don’t get me started on mr horse rapist. Why is the only options given to you either return the horse to that freak, or fail the quest. Why can’t you just leave the horse with the woman when you find out and drag the freak to the sherrif, or put a bullet in him, or leave him lonely or whatever

I get they try and make the game quirky and funny, but why can’t they do that with people you have to kill, or bounty missions or just randoms you don’t quest for but you still encounter in your travels (like the flowers for the old man quest, or the cannibal) . Making you jump through hoops for the biggest degenerate lunatics you can think of just subtracts from the awesomeness of the person you’re playing as.

You didn’t see Clint Eastwood helping people rape horses and run errands for idiot con men in any of his movies. Nope, he shot people like that. That’s what made his characters awesome, and Marston a complete clown

Now maybe I’m naive, but I thought that was a guy who valued his horse more than his wife, not actually … you know … but he makes a point I recognise. Why should the John Marston that I control, do things I don’t want him to? Its like when you are watching a scary movie, and as our heroes decide to split up to search the place, or the young woman goes to  investigate that noise in the dark, inwardly you are saying “No! Don’t do that!”  If I were John Marston I wouldn’t do that, but of course I’m not John Marston. I’m watching a character in a game who, just like the characters I see in movies, or read about in books, isn’t actually as moral or as clever as I’d like him be. He tells us so though out the game, saying things like:

I’m many things, most of ’em bad

or:

My side ain’t chosen. My side was given.

We don’t read books or watch films about people who make the best, the most sensible, choices. Our stories about people forced to make the choices they don’t want to make. Our stories are mostly about conflict, external or internal, physical, social or moral. Our stories about the desire for (or resistance to) change.  The blogger r4istatic gets it:

Although he knows he has to be violent to achieve his aims, his real mission is to be a normal man – start a new life as a farm owner, leave peacefully. He’s got the skills of a trained killer, but he’ll use those skills sparingly, reluctantly. And for me, that’s the key thing. Whenever I’m playing the game, that character trait shines through – this is a man who wants to escape the violence. This is why, between missions, I’ll take him wandering throughout the landscape, lost in his own solitude, a chance to blend in amongst the townfolk, to drink in the saloons, to play Poker and Liar’s Dice, to search for treasure. This is why he’ll ride into the wilderness at sunset, look up to see the stars, and just live the life. He knows he’ll have to return to the main quest, to face his former friends – but he doesn’t want to. He wants to escape all that.

Which reminds me of Rob Gallagher’s paper in the journal Games and Culture fulsomely titled No Sex Please, We Are Finite State Machines: On the Melancholy Sexlessness of the Video Game, wherein he observes:

Video games are unique in the field of consumer software in that they intentionally resist their users, establishing barriers between the operator and their goal.

So the answer to the frustrated gamer above is yes, of course the game designers know you don’t want to have to deal with “evil, stupid and terrible people.”  Your goal is to be able to live the noble frontier life that John Marston aspires to. Your distaste for the people you have to work with to reach that goal is one of the barriers the designers have cleverly put before you. You must make decisions you’d prefer to not make, and so you are forced to empathise with the character of John Marston, dragging you kicking and screaming into emotional engagement with the story.  (That said, you are wrong about Clint Eastwood. His characters are always having to co-operate with people they find distasteful – “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” case closed.)

An Aside: This idea of challenge and difficulty as a driver of emotional engagement feels a little scary when it comes to interpretation. A gamer has completion as an ultimate reward and goal, a leisure visitor to a cultural heritage site doesn’t share the same motive. Many cultural heritage sites want their visitors to have an enjoyable time. Then again, I’m chided by David Uzzell and Roy Ballentine’s paper Heritage that Hurts: Interpretation In A Post-Modern World, who say:

Interpreters are generally willing to claim credit when visitors leave a heritage site having had a stimulating and enjoyable educational experience. Should they not also take responsibility for other effects, particularly those which are intended. How does one cater for those for whom the interpretation provides a powerful, evocative and emotional experience? What responsibility do interpreters have for the reactions of people who may have found the interpretation moving or even traumatic? Such visitors need to be catered for as well as those for whom a place or experience is simply an intellectual encounter with the past – one which evokes little or no emotional connection.

I’ll leave that thought for another day.

Back on topic, the other power that restriction of choice gives the game developer is control over pace. Hollywood has taught us that the secret of good storytelling is timing, and Red Dead Redemption’s timing feels like it its drawn directly from the pages of Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. A example of this that I’m still feeling even now is the last “Act” of the story (though talking about Acts in an experience that lasted me almost two solid days feels inappropriate). His enemies defeated, John Marston returns to his farm and family. There follows a glorious summer of herding cattle, breaking horses, and hunting with his son, that (by this time) you want to last forever, despite the nagging feeling that a denouement is inevitable. Here the game manages something that would be impossible to do in film. This period stretches far, far longer than a film director could get away with, and as a player, you become complicit in extending something that would be boring for a cinema audience. You find any job you can for Marston, to distract him from that nagging icon in the corner, until with a heavy heart, you let him respond to his son’s call.

But this control over pacing the story frustrates me in a way too. The difference between this game, and something like Civilization, is that the world beyond John Marston’s range of vision ceases to exist. Or rather, it freezes while he’s gone.  I genuinely hoped before starting this game, that the people around me would go about their business even when Martson wasn’t around. But the graverobber doesn’t just get on with the job, or find some other sap if you refuse initially to help. Even worse, he doesn’t even start robbing graves until you turn up to witness it. Once you twig this, the world becomes a little less immersive.

So, though I LOVE Red Dead Redemption so much I don’t dare start another game for fear it won’t be as good (any suggestions gratefully recieved – remember it has to be about strong story-telling and free roaming), I’m also painfully aware that it’s not brilliant enough to base the future of cultural heritage interpretation on.

What have I learned though, to inform future interpretation projects? For a start, that we could be cleverer about thinking of the story as a critical path, moving on as certain conditions are met. I’m convinced its not just about places visited, but what story elements have already been experienced. I’m also reassured that the algorithms behind it are not rocket science.

I am persuaded, by both Red Dead Redemption and Dear Esther, that music is a much underused tool in interpretation. I was discussing this earlier with week with the curator who looks after the Wey Navigations. Though my little project there is text only, we agreed how much music might improve the interpretive experience. Now this needs to be handled with care – part of visiting heritage sites is about the real, the authentic, and that includes the sounds you hear. On the Wey, for example, the sounds of nature and running water. Giving music a more prominent role in interpretation with it turning into muzak is something I’m not confident about.

I should think about some sort of collaborative project in this regard. Luckily for me, Southampton University has plenty of potential for such a collaboration.

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