Meet Me Halfway: How Embracing Contradictions Can Create Better Games

Tom Mc Shea admires the beauty of compromise in a world of heated conflict.

by

'

The advice was given in earnest. Trust your gut. Look for ideas everywhere. Don't form habits. Davey Wreden explained the tricks he had learned while developing The Stanley Parable at the Game Developers Conference, and the utterance of these simple-to-follow truths made the esoteric endeavor of game creation much more palatable. Never trust your first idea. Stop trying to find your game. Develop a creative muscle. Pens scribbled and heads nodded as Wreden verbalized the keys to success. He cautioned that, no matter how hard you try to separate yourself from your game, it's still going to be about you. And, please, resist the urge to let the game mirror your life.

As Wreden detailed everything that allowed him to craft his Half-Life 2 mod, knowing chuckles emanated from small segments of the audience. When he excused designers for stealing ideas--because every idea is stolen--and then, moments later, warned that you should avoid using ideas that others have already come up with, it became clear that Wreden was speaking with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Every bullet point that he went over had a counterpoint that canceled out the first. And yet, instead of this convergence of ideas creating a murky presentation in which no lasting wisdom could be gleaned, quite the opposite happened. The chuckles turned to riotous applause, and the audience walked away with a new appreciation for the creative process.

Please, resist the urge to let the game mirror your life.

Contradictions should not be shunned. Sometimes, both sides of an issue, no matter how far apart they may seem, could be true. And to understand the truth, the entire truth, you have to experiment, push yourself to see past your instinctual response. Although Wreden centered his talk on game development, his ideas can be expanded beyond his immediate intentions. Conflict can lead to resolution, or at least understanding, so instead of leading the battle cry for a black or white extreme, see what life is like on the other side.

Jay Posey, senior narrative designer at Red Storm Entertainment, delivered a GDC talk on an intriguing topic. In his presentation, titled Tastes Like Chicken: Authenticity in a Totally Fake World, Posey explained how his team infuses military shooters like Ghost Recon and Rainbow 6 with realistic elements while still creating within the confines of an entertainment product. A balance must be struck between authenticity and realism, Posey argued, which requires a deft hand. It's important to sift through all of the aspects that make up a war experience, remove anything that could ruin one's enjoyment, and amp up the fantasy angle that makes the prospect of being a soldier so appealing.

While hearing Posey extol the virtues of this skin-deep authenticity, my initial reaction was disgust. So much time is spent on making sure the lingo is impeccable and the guns are perfect, while the action is pure fiction. The good guys gun down hundreds--maybe thousands--of evildoers during the course of the campaign, regenerating health in mere seconds after being filled with a dozen bullets. If they should fall in battle, they respawn magically from where their corpses once lay, which eliminates the overbearing threat of death that plagues real soldiers. Nothing about the combat scenarios in military shooters screams authenticity. They are intent on maximizing fun, even though the real thing is anything but. Listening to Posey explain how to make something authentic when he's peddling the same bloodthirsty fantasy as so many other developers made my blood boil.

Remove anything that could ruin one's enjoyment, and amp up the fantasy angle that makes the prospect of being a soldier so appealing.

And yet, despite my firm belief that authenticity in war games should extend to the action, there is an opposite point of view from my angry perspective. And trying to understand both sides helps you to better appreciate the topic as a whole. Posey explains that developers should try to capture the flavor of life's battles without turning games into a simulation. The audience, Posey believes, isn't looking for reality; instead, games have to exhibit what people perceive happens on the battlefield. That means anything that could be considered boring should be downplayed, while developers should play up the exciting aspects. This is the philosophy behind creating the authenticity in many modern shooters.

Ultimately, both of these disparate positions are valid. Games in which authentic aesthetics loom large and imposing, overshadowing the fantasy present in the action, make up a healthy contingent of the industry's biggest games. Not only do franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty set record sales numbers by using this approach, but they garner high praise from critics as well. Critical and commercial success; what more could you want? Well, the other side is unfortunately underrepresented. Aside from Arma, Red Orchestra, and a few others, there are strikingly few military games that dabble in authentic action. A balance should be struck, offering a grounded contrast to the over-the-top fare that currently dominates.

A similar dichotomy exists in the realm of video game violence. Walt Williams gave a talk at GDC titled We Are Not Heroes: Contextualizing Violence Through Narrative. The writer of Spec Ops: The Line argued that the more killing that your character has to do, the more run-of-the-mill it becomes. Kill enough people, and it eventually becomes filler. Violent games are creatively too easy to make, Williams believes. Instead of imagining in-depth mechanics that let you solve conflicts through talking or other nonaggressive means, most games let you shoot, smash, or otherwise murder your opponent, and this is a tiring, predictable outcome. Williams argues that the blanket use of violence is wrong, and developers should look elsewhere to tell their story.

This is one area where the industry has done a good job of pleasing both sides. Many games follow William's advice. The violence present in The Walking Dead, for instance, fits within the themes of the game, so it's much deeper than mere gratuitous bloodshed. However, Mortal Kombat still satiates one's craving for unrepentant gore. Everyone has games to flock to, because there is no right or wrong side to this argument. Furthermore, games in which over-the-top violence is a main draw often have worthwhile aspects beyond the carnage. Take a look at Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Yes, you can slice enemies into tiny pieces, but the reason the game is so exhilarating is the incredibly deep and flexible combat. Games still have a tendency to relish in their violent trappings (see the high kill counts in Tomb Raider and BioShock Infinite), but video game violence is a case where two fully realized, contrasting ideas have made for diverse and intriguing experiences.

Embracing contradictions can be a scary proposition. However, if you challenge your own beliefs, you may be able to understand the world more thoroughly. Wreden did a masterful job of showcasing how two opposing points of view can work in harmony. By following in those footsteps, developers could create more diverse experiences that push beyond the expected games that flood the marketplace. And, maybe most important of all, people might be able to discuss their opinions without inflaming the other side. That's advice we could all use.

'

Discussion

48 comments
World_War_gamer
World_War_gamer

I haven't read a better article than this in Gamespot :-)

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

I thought I had a cool comment about the rhetoric of the article, but it turned out I was only caught up in its charm. A thoroughly enjoyable read both in itself and for the comments it has generated.

I do contend that war games benefit from both authenticity and fantasy. That's how it exists in the mind of every schoolboy who has ever fantasized about being a noble and glorious soldier; it's how I felt, and I was a big fan of R6's G36K but not Doom's BFG. In reality, there is nothing noble about killing and no glory in death, the only constants of war. Few in their right mind would enjoy real war or games about real war; one of your earlier articles convinced me of that. But boys will be boys, and so CoD will stay CoD, which I enjoy immensely. The only difference is I now think I'd most likely pee in my pants if CoD ever happened to me for real. Boys today will mark that distinction over time as I did, if they don't already.

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

Balance is good even though I don't think it's a necessarily good to balance games like CoD with realistic war simulations. Something is irrevocably taken away from soldiers in a gut-busting war. Because video games are so personal, more so than books or movies or even real-life-footage news, I don't know if it's a good idea for young people to experience the true grotesqueries of war in this way. As ironic as it sounds, I think despite its authentic guns and locations and everything else on top of gratuitous violence, there is still something resembling innocence in CoD, except "No Russian." And that mission only led me to discover something ugly in myself.

HHscxz
HHscxz

I've played this game for two weeks, but I don't like the task map is only in the US golden time. I still prefer Age of Wushu, which is far more interesting than this one.

SnakeEyesX80
SnakeEyesX80

"A balance must be struck between authenticity and realism.....It's important to sift through all of the aspects that make up a war experience, remove anything that could ruin one's enjoyment, and amp up the fantasy angle that makes the prospect of being a soldier so appealing. ",

 at which point Greg Goodrich sticks his head in the door, "Remember me?"

DeltaMike90
DeltaMike90

I'm glad to see Tom finally admit that authentic styling in a non-sim military shooter isn't necessarily evil.

GasparNolasco
GasparNolasco

About the violence and how it created 'diverse and intriguing' experiences in this last generation. It makes no sense. The amount of violent games we get now is a direct product of a heavily focus tested development and publishing model that has been chocking creativity and variety out of the medium in the last gen. Bloated budgets and AAA development costs lead us to this spot where, if your game is not a shooter, it is not going to sell enough to pay for itself -- so we have those weird creations where the excessive shooting feels tacked-on like Infinte and Tomb Raider.

Weird that the article mentions Walking Dead as a game where the violence makes sense in context like if it was a Column A and Column B situation, but fails to mention that "Column A" is basically just The Walking Dead. I can't see where current industry is colorful, varied and creative -- to me it look grayish brown and suffering.

stooj7
stooj7

As I understand it, this article is not so much about embracing contradictions, but constantly reminding yourself (when creating games, but even more so in everyday life) that there are other views that differ from your own but are equally valid. These different views stem from different social and cultural backgrounds and upbringings and being aware of the validity of these differing views keeps you from taking the moral highground against other views: 'I am right and you are wrong'. 

This reminded me of the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans Georg Gadamer. In short (and my teacher of philosophy will probably kill me for oversimplifying this) Gadamer's hermeneutics state that when you come in contact with different views, you should abstain from judging them. You should expand your own worldview so that it incorporates the other view, pick the best elements of both sides and form a new worldview based on both your old views and the one encountered recently. Ofcourse, you won't always redefine your own views just because you encountered one that differs from it, but being conscious about the validity of other views and why people act and behave the way they do helps in understanding each other and creating a world where dialogue and argumentation are how we solve differences, opposite the yelling and violence we tend to employ now.

So, all this ran through my mind when reading the first part of the article and I was pleasantly surprised, both because I didn't expect this much from a 'mere' gaming website and because I actually reminded something of the philosophy course so many years back. But then it happened: the philosophical debate about the validity other other views than your own went the way of the gun-debate: it's about violence in video games. While your argument about there being both 'authentic' and 'fantasy' shooters is not wrong, I found it to be a shame that you used these examples to link the philosophical thoughts of the first part of the article to something related to the gaming world. In and of itself, there is no fault in this article, but coupled with your earlier articles about (gun)violence, it seems to me that your are trying a bit too hard to spark the debate on this topic. I now have the feeling that you used the talk about different views that seem to be contradictory just so you could drag violence in videogames in (again).

All in all, I applaud your effort to show the philosopical side of (making) video games, I just don't like the violence-examples you used when seen in the light of your earlier articles.

JediLegacy
JediLegacy

I was curious as to that game "The Stanley Parable" and downloaded it (it is free). It's less than 30 minutes to play through all of its possibilities, but so profound in its philosophical questioning it lays to shame the Bioshock series in terms of metaphysics. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in teasing the brain cells.

Speedracer__89
Speedracer__89

Okay so what I got from this, is that, if two things coexist that are contradictions then they will make each other better. This would be the definition of a paradox. However paradoxes don't exist because two things cannot work together if they contradict each other. That would be the definition of a contradiction. So really what I think he wants to say is, it isn't two things that are contradictory but taking two things that don't at first glance compliment each other but actually put together, they will compliment each other. These are simply unknown complimentary thing. Correct me if I'm wrong or maybe I didn't explain that correctly.

rangeraa
rangeraa

"Well, the other side is unfortunately underrepresented. Aside from Arma, Red Orchestra, and a few others, there are strikingly few military games that dabble in authentic action"

Who wants 100 generic "authentic" military shooters?  We have all these clones of CoD and battlefield and not a one of them is necessary...  I'm more than happy that there are only a couple excellent military simulations... It's a niche market anyways.

jimrhurst
jimrhurst

This is very nicely done, tying together the commentary of several active and notable developers.  And you managed to turn the microscope on yourself for a moment.  A well-written and thought-provoking article, Mr. McShea.  Hats off to you.

Contradictions are hard.  And a lot of times, particularly in creative works,  it pays to simply know what you aim to hang your hat on and do _that_.  So living the contradiction within a single work of art is exceptionally difficult.  But as an industry overall, embracing and exploring both sides of a common divide can only lead to more diverse, fundamentally more interesting content for us all.

Derpalon
Derpalon

I'm finding Walt Williams' comments increasingly relatable lately. There's so much violence in games that it just starts to feel like filler. I found games falling into this trap even as recently as BioShock Infinite. With all its story bravado, the gameplay itself was fairly standard for a shooter, and by the time I reached the last 2-3 hours of gameplay, it just felt like an utter chore grinding through endless baddies to reach Comstock's airship. I realized at that point I was only really going through the motions because I wanted to find out what happened next in the story; not because I was enjoying the gameplay, and that's something I think is seriously problematic when at its core you should be playing a game for its gameplay, not just its narrative. I feel conflicted about BioShock because on the one hand I feel like the game deserves tremendous praise for how much depth the story has compared to so many other games, but the gameplay was just so standard, and arguably even boring towards the end. It seems like there is a significant lack of creativity where gameplay is concerned these days, because it should never feel like a chore to play a game which is supposed to be all about having fun in the first place.

Alexrmf
Alexrmf

a good point of view... we should always evaluate all aspects of things that surround us, including video games. 

monstachruck
monstachruck

Btw what's up with folks having trouble with this article?  It's in English...

monstachruck
monstachruck

I lean towards Mr. McShea's earlier opinion on the topic, although I think a lot of a person's feelings on this issue probably stem from what kind of gamer you are.  I've been playing games for over 30 years, mostly PC but I've had my tastes of the console universe, but I prefer feeling completely immersed in a game, and for that I need that extra bit of "oomph" in the depth department that many franchise titles don't contain, "depth" in this case meaning both the development of a meaningful story and/or immersive gameplay- I want to BECOME the character in the game, or atleast feel like I'm a part of a bigger world than the one we live in (preferably with an active, friendly gaming community), not just play til I win (or lose) and move on to something else.

tomelus
tomelus

Good one Tom.  I agree

Myst17
Myst17

I'd like to see that presentation, sound very interesting... or so I think I gathered... This article was far from easy to read (for me, at least), but I think I got the general idea. Sorry Tom, but this time I got lost.

Gallowhand
Gallowhand

Thanks for this thought-provoking article, Mr. McShea.

I can certainly agree that a more rigorous contextualization of violence is something that more developers could and should tackle for particular genres of games.  So many games have paper-thin reasons for going on a murderous rampage, often without consequences.  The medium has matured, and should be offering deeper experiences than that.

At the same time, we should not lose sight of the fact that games are 'entertainment', an escape from reality, and should remain fun to play at their very core.  There is nothing inherently wrong with the 'fantastical' elements if they make sense within the game world.  It's when they don't make sense and break immersion that the context becomes unglued, and the narrative quickly unravels.

chechak7
chechak7

Tom Mc  you are really educated ,i just understand 40% off this :D

Thegamer16
Thegamer16

Screw this garbage!!! What do you want Mc Shea?!! For us all to sit around a bonfire and sing Kumbayah?

lol just kidding. Good read.

pathosfire
pathosfire

I knew it, The Stanley Parable!  Great free mod, totally worth a download.

pokecharm
pokecharm

well said, Tom - very interesting article.

cornbread444
cornbread444

An article about games that's just about games?

Gamespot still has these?

DarckArchon
DarckArchon

Can someone please give me a short of what he meant ? i got lost half way thought

santinegrete
santinegrete

I admit that what helped me to move forward in Spec Ops The line was preference for combat shooting.

midnight_trashh
midnight_trashh

@GasparNolasco Agreed, it's the same with movies now. If you watch the older 80's and 90's movies they have better actors and more story in them, now the creatibity has taken a backseat and it's just people running around eviserating, torturing people, and trying to protray like its cool to be some kind of serial killer. I'm sure there are a lot of gamer fanbois out there who would disagree, I'm a gamer myself but I'm not blind or stupid enough to defend something when clearly the older movies and games were better.

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

@stooj7 Awesome. I now have at least some small exposure to Hans Georg Gadamer. Thank you.

I didn't get what you said about forcing video game violence and gun rights into a philosophical debate. My reading of this article was more superficial, and I only got that Tom sees a dichotomy in video game violence. I speculate the article may be seen as downplaying the problems with video game violence by those strongly opposed to it, but in the spirit of embracing contradictions, I daresay video game violence is both a problem and not.

Or maybe just a problem for some and not others, but that then becomes a social dilemma rather than a philosophical debate. Darn it, I thought I had something good. I think the article will be ok and won't provoke any new flame wars on (gun) violence in video games. It's either too profound for me, and I consider myself representative of norm, to form a clear impression or not opinionated enough to provoke an argument.

docampo
docampo

@stooj7Very nice post man. I don’t usually read long posts, but this one caught my attention. 

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

@Speedracer__89 I think you are right on, but I interpreted Tom's use of the word "contradiction" more liberally than its definition in classical logic. Video games are about their maker. Video game makers shouldn't make their games about them. Every idea is stolen. Game makers shouldn't copy other's ideas. They sound contradictory to the layman, well, at least to me, but they are not contradictory in the strictest logical sense. Initially thinking of them as contradictions and then struggling to reconcile them helped me to discover that "unknown complimentary thing" that made gaming better. That was probably Tom's intention all along, but you are still right on.

midnight_trashh
midnight_trashh

@rangeraa I hear ya. The older shooter military style games were much better imo. Delta force, delta force 2, Operation Flashpoint, Call of Duty 1, The industry makes shooter games for kids and are usually full of these vile socially retarded little shits yelling at one another over vent. I prefer Arma2 or Red Orchestra A shooter game for me doesnt have to be completly realistic, I just get so sick and tired of the game Corridor shooters, they are way overdone by now. I perfer open world.

JediLegacy
JediLegacy

@rangeraa ArmA and Red Orchestra...beautiful games that I've logged more hours on than any modern CoD clone for the sole fact that they provide a joy outside of the usual hum-drum corridor shooter.

theHydra014
theHydra014

@Derpalon My problem with Bioshock Infinite, after the gorgeous intro and fair sequence. When the violence started, I was pretty shocked, due to the happy warm feeling of hearing Goodnight Irene and God Only Knows. From there however, the game slowly slid downhill. 

My biggest problem with the game's combat is how repetitive it was, both with boss battles and enemy hordes. The first time I saw a Patriot, I was pretty terrified of it. It was creepy, cool, and a haunting enemy until I realized that you just shoot the back for max critical hits... After the 26th Patriot and run of the mile shooter enemies, the combat was just a blur that I really didn't care about. I felt like I was walking from one generic gun battle to another with little to no satisfaction being paid off. I thought the Handyman would be a great fight, turns but by the time he showed up, I didn't care. (Granted I played the game on '99 mode, combat still wasn't that  great) I loathed going into combat, because it brought me out of the game's world and reminded me I 'm just playing a bad shooter, with an amazing visual design. 

I loved the quiet moments, of waltzing through the fair, enjoying the beach, or exploring a creepy building. Looking at the videos of Colombia's history, finding recordings that brought this game's story together (Though recorded messages are still a troupe that bothers me because who puts a message on there desk saying 'Hey I got drunk, don't tell the boss. Secret loots is here.... Don't tell anyone.'').  The only thing keeping me motivated to go through the combat was Booker. Get the girl, repay the debt, simple enough with a character that I can get to know and hear his troubles. Though, the other characters in the game were something different, with the Luteces I really liked their rambles and back and forth banter. Comstock to me, was a shadow in his own city and Elizabeth was a character I just couldn't form a reason to care for her. Maybe it was the game's fumbled emotional pacing, maybe it's just I am too apathetic. 

I wanted to break free from the combat and just visit a fantastical place and see the story unfold before me. I wanted to know more of the world's mechanics and how everything is tied into a circle with the narrative. When all said is done however, the last half hour really made up for all those tedious hours combat and I got to explore a story that was worth it's wait, but that wait was really dreadful.

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

@Derpalon I haven't tried Infinite yet, but I felt that what you said was the case in the last few hours of the original Bioshock.  I was fighting tons of boring, monotonous high-health splicers and I was just grinding through them to get to the ending.

santinegrete
santinegrete

@DarckArchon mo4r Deus Ex-esque decisions and less CoD esque campaigns.

stooj7
stooj7

@Unfallen_Satan I did not say he forced the violence/gun debate into a philosophical debate, I said Tom started off with a philosophical debate about embracing seemingly contradicting views which he then suddenly turned into a debate about violence in video games. The part about violence was in the same spirit as the rest of the article, but seen in the light of his earlier articles, which also covered the overrepresentation of extreme violence in video games, I strongly had the feeling Tom wrote this article, starting with the part about embracing opposite/contradicting views, just so he could talk about violence in games, again. I found this to a shame, because this wasn't needed: the first part, which showed a more philosophical side to making video games (in general, not just violent video games) would have made a stronger impression if his the article continued in that fashion, and had not started talking about violent video games.

Ofcourse, if he HAD wanted to start a philosophical debate about  violence in video games, he should have started saying so. I thought he didn't, because he started off good, reminding me of Gadamer's hermeneutics, and then I had the feeling it got turned around all of a sudden and we were talking about violence, again. That said, I won't shy away from any philosophical debate, not even if it's about violence in video games for the 100th time.

grim0187
grim0187

@theHydra014 @Derpalon So someone didn't use his brain and approach combat from the myriad of ways available to you and its the games fault. Its the games fault that you blasted your way through with the same method and weapon instead of experimenting and using gear in creative ways. Vigors, vigor combos, skyline attacks, melee, vigor traps, ALL of these can be used to make combat as varied and interesting as you want it to be.

rangeraa
rangeraa

@theHydra014 @Derpalon 

I can't agree with everything you said but you hit the nail on the head when you said; "playing a bad shooter, with an amazing visual design".  The combat is clunky and the fighting becomes repetitive rather quickly.

blairstheman
blairstheman

@arc_salvo @Derpalon i do agree with you, but on the other hand i also disagree in a small way. By the ending point in the game (Original Bioshock) i had hardley utilized the crossbow at ALL, nor had i played with a few plasmids. I understand you cant really in full use all plasmids, but i still wanted to mess around with a couple i hadnt really used.

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

@stooj7 I disagree with your feeling about his motives. I don't believe his initial discussion on embracing contradiction was an elaborate setup for talking about video game violence and war game authenticity, but I think bringing that topic into this article is natural, maybe inevitable. It's a subject he's passionate about, and it fits well into theme of the article; I commented on that separately. I do agree that not talking about violence wouldn't subtract much from the article. However, because I formed some new opinions based on his discussion, I am glad he did.

What other example do you think would contribute well to the theme of the article? Or perhaps a different second part altogether. What would you liked to have read for the second part? I appreciate a different perspective.

grim0187
grim0187

@theHydra014 

Like I said, the game gives you what you put into it. Your vigors can be used however you want them to be used. There IS an advantage to switching to different gear. To CHANGE the combat. Theres even BUILDS in the official strategy guide you can create with gear to change how you approach combat. You cant blame the game for YOUR lack of creativity to use the tools it gave you. That's just ignorance.

theHydra014
theHydra014

@grim0187 @theHydra014 @Derpalon Because there was no point in experimenting. Your vigors supposed to be used in certain situations, for instance Bucking Bronko on multiple shooter enemies. Then to spice lift up you can follow through with Shock Jockie or Crows. There is no point in switch to different gear that provides an obvious advantage over others. The combat is a game of rock paper scissors, what works better on enemies is clear from the get go and I only need to switch to the answer. Why would I experiment if I found the best results. I put little though into my combat, because the game has little thought in enemy design.

theHydra014
theHydra014

@rangeraa One note I forgot about for combat is that it was too easy. I would die and conveniently be next to a vendor for ammo. During the boss battle were you had to go to 3 different locations, do the exact same routine. Run around fire rockets, go to vendor and causally buy ammo while a this boss is roaming around and then return to the game. If I would die? No problem, just get right back up with some cash gone and do it all over again...

Kingakarl
Kingakarl

@rangeraa I have a hard time agreeing that the combat was really that bad, with a story as good as Bioshock Infinites and the good weapons system(some what similar to the first bioshock) I really enjoyed it as a whole. Or, Maybe I am just shocked because I havent played a game that good for a few years.