Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Academatrix - DRAMA
“Tension relies on these two factors in combination – neither is sufficient by itself. Without uncertainty, the outcome of the game becomes a foregone conclusion, and the players become spectators. Without inevitability, the outcome of the conflict seems distant. Players are given little incentive to invest their emotions in the contest”. (Marc LeBlanc, Tools for Creating Dynamic Game Systems, 1999:445).
Based on a segment of game-play that occurred on February 01, 2009 – there were many more examples where I had personally encountered structural elements of uncertainty than inevitability. This is likely due to the fact that the Matrix Online’s story-world belongs to the narrative of the original movie trilogy where the nature of ontological reality itself is questioned and therefore, what is presented is a recurring and perpetual game-state (Leblanc, 1999) driven almost exclusively by aesthetically produced emotional content that is expressed in the form of “paranoia”. These irrational feelings of paranoia and ontological uncertainty form the basis from which an illusory game mechanical bias (Ibid.) is psycho-somatically perceived and apprehended on a hyper-real intensity.
The controlled pseudo-cybernetic feedback chain of Marc LeBlanc’s Dramatic Arc appears to have been inverted since it is the aesthetics (emotional expectations) of the game that influences the dynamics (behaviors) to the point where they are a by-product more of these aesthetic parameters than simply being technically derived from the core game mechanics.
In addition, it appears as if the players are meant to possess an emotionally distant attitude in order to more effectively contemplate the consensual hallucination of the Matrix and so, each player modifies their dynamic behavior for a more long-term form of “awakening” so that they can make living emergent history through their appearance in future “chapters” of the game. As a result of this long-term goal-fulfillment, the players on a localized level do not require the same sort of ludic incentives for an immediate competitive closure found in more conventional games built upon what Eric Zimmerman has called a “contest of powers” (Zimmerman, 2004). Therefore, all the game-play iterations up to now are gradually confirming the hypothetical assumption that the Matrix Online was created on a top-down level to emphasize uncertainty over inevitability since the players are encouraged to become distant spectators witnessing their own customized combat configurations rather than executing the martial-arts moves manually via their own agency.
For non-gamers (like myself), the Matrix Online allows casual players to focus more on contemplating the story-world than being distracted by the stress of actually playing the game. For those who are game-literate, however, the lack of agency causes too much uncertainty and therefore, an unsatisfying ludic experience.
What is odd about the Matrix Online in particular is that the players can become spectators with a complete aesthetic sense of uncertainty not only retained but reinforced. This experience subverts Leblanc’s notion that players only experience themselves as distant spectators due to a lack of uncertainty. Perhaps Leblanc decided not to consider the ludic dimension of “cognitive interactivity” (Zimmerman, 2004) that can successfully emerge out of an intentionally uncertain ontology.
Here are some examples from my recent game-playing experience that illustrates this methodical yet inherently biased cognitive emphasis of uncertainty over inevitability...
I – Combat related uncertainty...
“When taking or dealing damage, one player's damage influences are pitted against another player's resistance influences of the same damage type (i.e. a gunman's ballistic damage versus an opponent's ballistic resistance). Higher resistance versus lower damage means that the defending player will not take as much damage. When attacking or defending against attacks, one player's accuracy influences are pitted against another's defense influences of the same attack type.” (Matrix Online Wiki – Accessed online on January 31, 2009).
Here is a new example of close-melee “combat”. In this case, Distri easily kills this Non-Player Character (NPC) with a head-butt. Since head-butts seemed to have killed many other NPCs in one of the first regions of Metro World (the urban sprawl in the Matrix), one initially gains a sense of inevitability. However, this ego-fueling assumption is quickly shattered when a distant NPC kills Distri before she even has a change to engage her combat icons. In addition, many NPCs act like spaced-out zombies and do not make any effort to approach Distri unless she walks right up to them and initiates combat. It was quite a shock to see an NPC suddenly become aware of Distri’s presence from a distance and quickly engaged in long-range combat. The intelligence behind this one NPC seemed to be far superior to other NPCs that seem virtually lifeless, even when engaged in conversation. The inconsistency of any sort of game mechanical bias with regards to both combat mechanics and artificial intelligence implementations leads the player towards a very self-conscious state of paranoid uncertainty. In terms of the game mechanical bias, since the entire combat choreography is illusory and beyond the agency of the player – everything appears artificial and more in line with the Matrix’s story-world. There is not even the sense that a player has any handicap or spite advantages over the opponent since any perceivable ludic advantages seem completely arbitrary and not scaled towards more rational intelligence behaviors. The combat and NPC behavior follow from aesthetics rather than mechanics.
Since the supposed balance between “damage” and “resistance” of the game mechanics are too confusing for the non-gamer demographic, there is a high degree of uncertainty as to exactly what kind of opponent one is up against. In one case, I was shot dead without being able to even approach my opponent and yet, in almost every other instance, I would at least be able to walk right up to the NPC for the purposes of engaging in the intimate form of close-combat called “Interlock”. Since it is only non-gamers who would appreciate the spectator-mode of combat – then one can safely assume that if SEGA’s (and Warner Brother’s) intentions were genuine, the mechanics were intentionally confusing as to provide the kind of uncertainty that leads to the illusory perception that there is some sort of game-mechanical bias at work that “randomly” (perhaps even frivolously) toggles between the opponent’s handicap and spite (Leblanc, 1999) capabilities for the sake of story-world suspense.
In this instance, Distri has activated an “evade combat” maneuver but her body language seems to indicate that she is still actively engaged in combat. It seems as if the game mechanical bias always keeps her body on alert and leaves her in an animated state of uncertainty just in case she receives some sort of miraculous handicap or spite advantage over her opponent. This screenshot also serves to illustrate Distri’s mellee halo which functions both as a marker for her intimate engagement zone but also reminds her of her intended archetypal path since the halo visually alludes to the abilities of a code-shaper. The so-called “tactic-booster” that she had just received from a recent corpse-loot seemed to simply act as a confidence boosting placebo since Distri was easily killed by every NPC opponent who confronter her after this one instance. This “tactic booster” then – unless it was used improperly by Distri – was merely an illusory “accelerator” (Leblanc, 1999).
In other words, the supposed game mechanical bias for each player is also a mystery since the combat moves are actually based around a “random dice roll” that cannot entirely take into account the pre-designed “damage” and “resistance” combat aptitudes. The only indication that one NPC was more powerful and had an advantage over my player was when another player warned me about confronting nearby “gangs”...I assumed since I defeated every other NPC easily that I would have no problem combating the “Bell Janets". Because of this, it is unclear whether or not one is in handicap nor spite mode since the combat seems completely objectified and distant from the player’s actions/agency once set into motion. Also, the leveling in the game seemed arbitrary as one could roam from one part of Metro World to just a few blocks around the corner to engage with an NPC of a much higher level than the player. Socially speaking, it is assumed that the only form of “cashing out” (LeBlanc, 1999) from previous ludic experience has nothing to do with the quantifiable measures of “levels” since all of the prestige - outside of the social standing due to one’s aesthetic appearance – is entirely dependent on intangible and truly “virtual” units of experience known as “information”.
This “information” is only showcased in any certain and visible way as a kind of pseudo-feedback mechanism (Ibid.) through the use of flashier tricks and abilities in combat which actually have no real bearing on accumulated effort since combat is simply a spectator sport in this context and not one that shows the manual gaming abilities of the player. For the most part, the Matrix Online was not very good at scaling the level of difficulties that reflect neither a positive nor negative feedback system. If prestige and “information choreography” are the main qualifiers for ludic progress in the game, then the dynamics (behaviors) are entirely dependent on the aesthetics for interpretation.
Strictly from a narrative perspective, this ambiguity between discernable causes and affects achieved through manually acquired and tested positive and negative feedback leads to a tense ludic situation that usually resembles a perpetual state of denouement. The substitution of combat-stress with denouement-driven existential angst is fine for non-gamers like myself who want to just hang out and explore the story-world of the Matrix but for game-players the experience is frustrating because one can either easily win or suddenly die without any embodied sense that the combat contains perceivable escalation (Ibid.).
Based on the game’s theme about “illusion” and virtuality, it appears that the designer’s aim was to also create pseudo-feedback as a kind of hallucinatory game-play experience perhaps to reinforce a highly stylized and symbolic kind of a “fog of war” (Ibid.) – whereas in this case, the “fog” is not produced due to a lack of a sense of spatial proximity and positioning but more to do with the “fog” that separates actual combat from socializing or from becoming paralyzed in a frozen narrative denouement.
In the case of “hidden energy”, the Matrix Online in general contains a lot of hidden energy (equivalent to “mana”) within the game-play in any instance. The energy is so hidden, however, it is usually hidden from the players’ own sense of agency. This energy merely highlights to the explicit “potential to score” (LeBlanc 1999:450) rather than any indication that the player is having any fighting advantage over the opponent NPC (genuine PvP combat has not occurred yet).
However, some of the hidden energy becomes manifest through the iconic representation of “melee zones” or “melee halos” that occur when a special archetypal power has been revealed. What is interesting is that because of the “random dice roll” that determines all the effectiveness of each movement combination, a player can only guess at the ludic progress in each combat through the aesthetically pleasing visual display of the halos that he/she produces when fighting. In this way, uncertainty is fore-grounded over any sense of inevitable destiny through the agency of the player. It is unclear at this time, however, if this uncertainty is beneficial to the game’s overall playability and player satisfaction.
II – Cognitive Uncertainty through the Aesthetic Emotional Affects Induced by Paranoia...
This screenshot shows the kind of spatial paranoia that the interface of the Matrix Online provides as a psychosomatic game mechanical bias (Ibid.). In this instance, Distri has just entered a semi-darkened room with a lone NPC standing motionless, mute and unresponsive in front of his office desk. The NPC does not turn around or show any sort of body-language to indicate Distri’s immediate presence and yet in other cases, opponent NPCs have acknowledged Distri’s presence from a distance of a few blocks and have shot her dead on sight. Therefore as this documented example shows, it is uncertain as to the degree of this particular NPC’s intelligence and intentions. In the Matrix Online, there are at least 3 opposing factions that a player can eventually choose to align him/herself with and it is unknown as to which factions each NPC is also part of (if any as it seems like only the players align themselves with a faction with the exception of The Machines group). As a result of the personality and aptitude ambiguity between NPCs, the player is always left with a feeling of uncertainty as to how the NPC might react. If Distri sneaks up behind this NPC, will she be attacked? Will this NPC be responsive at all? Does this NPC have anything valuable to say or offer or will simply act as a kind of intelligent “wall-paper” or “prop” to provide a more compelling illusory experience of a story-world? In addition, a trace of Distri’s circular melee aura is appearing underneath the door that she had just opened. When a player recently opened a door or turned on a light-switch, an activation halo is left there. Perhaps this was intended for functional purposes to show the history of one’s recent actions but in the case of these story-world, it looks almost as if the halo is indicating a melee zone for a ghostly presence that might be lurking on the other side of the door. This ontological ambiguity is at the heart of the Matrix Online’s game mechanics and it can be safely assumed that the designers of the Matrix Online intentionally chose to make the connections between the player’s own agency (green activation melee halos/auras) and that of the NPCs as ambiguous as possible.
Here is a more detailed example showing the nature of the (non)-interaction with the NPC. It is as if the NPC is completely entranced by the illusory nature of the Matrix reality and is “un-awakened”. This screenshot also shows what the activation aura looks like once a light-switch has been recently activated by the player. To add to the uncertainty, there are books with titles on this office desk and throughout shelved in this small room and it is unclear if any of these items are “clickable” and provide any sort of game mechanical bias for the player later on in the game. It is possible that one of these hundreds of displayed books might contain text-string secrets related to ways in which one can “hack” into the Matrix and influence the game mechanics and dynamics in such a way as to provide previously unforeseen handicap and spite enhancing strategies– as this would be consistent with the conspiracy-level “aesthetics” that drive the experience of the game. The lack of genuinely activating, readable and loot-able objects and items might be indicative of an overall design flaw rather than an intentional display of uncertainty and suspense since Metro City is quite large and the designers cannot expect to make every embedded object or item readable and active for every player and NPC.
Regardless of its gestalt effectiveness, the Matrix Online reflects feelings of uncertainty in almost all ludic examples being presented to the player. Even in terms of the story-world, for example, one could argue that the entire emergent narrative progress within the game is ultimately uncertain because each “chapter” (as each historical period is called retrospectively) has a narrative formed entirely out of the combined mechanics, behavior (dynamics) and aesthetics (emotional impact) of all of the players on each server. Since this is an MMORPG, no single player can make any ludic impact on their own that is historically measurable with any certainty. An extreme example of this was a “chapter” where some players had actually permanently “killed” the famous NPC “Morpheus” who was one of the protagonists in the movie trilogy. This now-historic event has proved that even the original Matrix Trilogy story-line proposed by the Wachowski Brothers is not a narrative to rely on with any reasonable certainty. Although, neither of my characters have witnessed this particular dramatic-arc altering event, there is some drama enhanced within the emergent arc that is imbued with the narrative possibility that through the agency of either of my characters, I might be able to eventually create “history” as part of a future chapter in the game. It is from this spark of narrative agency that we begin to see hints of inevitability gradually emerge out of uncertainty. But, in the meantime, here are some rare examples where an inevitable game-state is foreshadowed.
III- Notification-based inevitability...
Due to the high-frequency of cognitive uncertainty that permeates both the game’s mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics as well as its story-world environment (dramatic music, climate physics etc), the main structural ways in which the Matrix Online has attempted to provide a tiny bit of inevitable ludic relief is through the use of pop-up window notifications.
Here is a screenshot showing a pop-window warning for Distri as she enters the agent-monitored region of “Stamos” in Metro City. This pop-up window explicit informs her that a successful evasion from agent-surveillance can be inevitable providing that she finds the access keys that are embedded into various neighborhood complexes. Even with this plea for a positive inevitable outcome, the suspenseful chords evoked by the region-entrance music still proves that cognitive uncertainty is meant to be the most highly elicited emotional (aesthetic) response.
It is through the overt use of text-string warnings in pop-windows whereby the player can clearly comprehend a sense of the inevitability of the game mechanical bias being used to have the opponent NPCs catch up with the player. In cases where a pop-window warning is utilized by the designers, the player actually is allowed to exercise some agency in order to determine another ludic outcome. Although one can argue that the fact that these warnings might not be heeded by the player and therefore, may lead to a compounded sense of uncertainty rather than inevitability, the player is still faced with the inevitability of a binary decision process. Admittedly though, inevitable outcomes are much more scarce than uncertain ones as perceivable mechanics, dynamics or aesthetics from a competitive point of view.
IV – Remaining cues (and clues) towards dramatic inevitability...
The “STAGGERED” notification-halo overtop of either the NPC and/or the player usually reveals the final few moves left against them in combat before they “die” unless a “random dice roll” is rolled in favor of the losing character.
Once again, even this faint glimmer of inevitability falls easy prey to feelings of cognitive uncertainty since this dice roll can cause a sudden spite or handicap advantage for either the player or the NPC. If the random dice roll is not taken into account, the text-string descriptor at the very least, seems to function as a dramatic semiotic “accelerator” (Leblanc, 1999, P. 451) for the player since the appearance of this halo implies that a certain victory is at hand – but not necessarily imminent. In addition, there are similar semiotic halos that indicate exactly how much closer the player is to actually “dying” in the game. These warnings are in the form of additional text-string halos such as “off-balance” and “disarm” and other strings that are quite overt/explicit in terms of the text provided i.e. ”you are about to die” etc although in the case of this particular game-play segment, my character died before even having a chance to take a screenshot of the archived text...
At this point of the game-play, there does not appear to be any “decelerator” (Leblanc, 1999) of sorts yet but I am sure one will (or should) appear once my avatar, Distri makes her way across the city by achieving higher levels. Because this is an open-ended MMORPG where the history of the narrative is entirely player-generated and “emergent”, there might not actually be a functional reason to place a dramatic decelerator since that would require a more top-down narrative intervention from the games company. Therefore, it is better to add a plethora of accelerators of many descriptions in order for the player to consistently perceive ludic progress in a world that seems stuck in a meta-game-state of perpetual denouement.
Time-delimited quests also provide a very quantifiable sense of inevitability although these quest-giving NPCs were not encountered in this specific game-play session. This quantitative approach to measuring the qualitative and dramatic narrative properties of inevitability can also be applied to the inventory window where my player has collected 7 of 10 storage data-discs of “information bits”. It can be assumed with reasonable certainty that once all 10 of the discs have been collected from looting enough corpses, it will be inevitable that Distri will receive some form of “cashing out” (Ibid.) although the form this “cashing out” will take has not yet been experienced through the auspices of game-play.
In conclusion, the Matrix Online may suffer from a skimpy amount of non-reversible resources that usually endorse inevitable outcomes since most of the resources (even after death) seem to regenerate back to the NPCs from which they originated. However, even this immortal inventory is not quantified with any degree of consistency nor inevitability. Quests can be re-taken, for example and the so-called “non-renewable” resources do not seem to entirely dissipate when reincarnation. Again, because this is meant to be an open ended MMORPG dramatic narrative arc, the processes within the games, mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics were never intended to lead the player towards a game-state of completion. On the contrary, the Matrix Online is set to enhance a perpetual sense of contemplation and discontent in order to foster narrative aspirations that are harmonious with the theme of the story-world.
Perhaps the lack of genuine dramatic mechanics, physics and aesthetics (unless one mean “aesthetics” in the artistic rather than ludic sense of the word), ensures that the Matrix Online never reaches a climax and that the players can then treat the environment as more of a social space rather than a combat zone. Also, it might not be until Distri decides on joining a particular faction will she be able to witness first-hand any dramatic arc decelerators, cash-out schemes or additional examples of uncertainty and/or inevitability.
Leblanc, Marc. “Tools for Creating Dynamic Game Systems” (1999), pgs. 438-460 in Salen, Katie & Zimmerman, Eric (ed.). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. MIT Press, 2003.
MATRIX ONLINE WIKIPEDIA ENTRY - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Matrix_Online
Zimmerman, Eric. "Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games", pgs.154-164, in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Harrigan, Pat, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 2004