I read an article by Andy Kelly on PC Gamer the other day that said the pursuit of the ‘concept of cool’ causes problems with games’ settings, and is why games aren’t as memorable or as popularly respected as other media. Basically, the argument made is that decisions that favor popular or flashy elements over realism are bad because “they’re indicative of a larger problem in game design: style over function.”
Yet this poses some serious issues for games. In both tabletop and digital media, games represent a method of conveying an interactive narrative, and certain issues will have to come up as a result. The answer is not always as simple as it seems. Andy Kelly uses the example of Stanley Kubrick’s wonderful film-making as an example of attention to detail and realism resulting in great narratives, but I beg to differ; Stanley Kubrick’s stories work because they are written with the quality and skill of Stanley Kubrick, and his focus on realism is merely a single way to create a meaningful tale.
Part of the problem with this mindset is that it encourages a deconstruction of otherwise good games just because they don’t make sense or they have some flaws; it doesn’t matter that characters dress improbably, because that is part of the art. We want, expect, and need our characters to stand out visually. It allows us as gamers, game masters, and game designers to produce instant connections between tropes and archetypes and the individual characters and events that dot our narratives. Ezio’s layered garb and walking arsenal set him apart as a character who is important; despite the impracticality of his outfit, it is immediately apparent that he is an Assassin, which is the entire point of all the Assassins in the Assassin’s Creed series wearing the Assassins’ emblem overtly; it tells the player who their friends are and who is initiated into the inner circle of the secret society.
I agree with Kelly in some regards; attempts to inject these symbols and motifs into games often result in ham-handed or unintelligible outcomes, but part of the fun of games falls between the suspension of disbelief and credulity. It is crucial to remember that things that we bring into our games should remain engaging and push players onward, and sometimes the experience of an event outweighs the breaks in a setting it can bring; the Tunnel Snakes from Fallout 3, for instance, which were one of the things that Kelly cited as an inappropriate element, are ways to remind players that the world of Fallout is not simply set in America after a nuclear war, but rather a world where the future America embraces the values and lifestyles of an earlier America.
To deny a symbol that so clearly foreshadows the future elements of the setting on account of it being a little out of place—the Tunnel Snakes’ leather jackets are the element that Kelly finds most problematic, along with their adoption of greaser culture—overlooks the role of those elements in establishing the setting. Fallout as a setting is only successful because it brings its player into another world, as most good games will whether they are digital or analogue in nature. Without these things games would be far less memorable—it’s part of the reason why Two Worlds isn’t as engaging and memorable as Oblivion.
In Oblivion, the second the plot starts off, the emperor is entering the cell of a prisoner (who happens to be the player’s character) to escape an attempt on his life aimed at extinguishing his bloodline entirely. The lowly cultists that attempt to kill him should not, in the setting, have even an ounce of a chance of killing him or his bodyguards, yet they manage to eventually assassinate him in plain view of the player. This establishes the player on a journey through the dark but often wondrous and fantastical world of Tamriel, yet it’s also something that would never actually happen. Despite being nothing more than a lowly former prisoner, the player is set on a path to adventure.
In Two Worlds, by comparison, the player starts off cleaning out a tomb with a couple of monsters in it. While it’s a feasible enough tutorial, there’s no introduction, no back-story up front, and it’s very hard to sympathize with the player character, even though they have much more of a background than the player character in Oblivion. Issues with the player’s ability to engage with their avatar aside, Two Worlds fails because it avoids these tropes and conventions; it has a deep and rich setting, but in an attempt to avoid an illogical introduction, it diminishes the player to the roll of trash collector.
It is not skill that determines the accuracy of the setting, but the quality. In his example of Aliens: Colonial Marines, Kelly scourges the use of logos and symbols throughout the game (and is likely right to do so) as a gap in the logic of the universe. However, one thing to point out comes from a quote from one of Alien’s artists, Ron Cobb, who complains about the shallowness of science-fiction films that depend on cool imagery over substance. The symbols in Aliens: Colonial Marines are shallow. A good game, however, utilizes these symbols in a deep and interactive context, where they take on the role of more than a homage and metamorphose into a functional part of an engaging and meaningful universe, even if their presence does not necessarily make logical sense when thoroughly analyzed.
So how can we apply this in our games and settings? Simple; when something works well, use it. I’ve found that in my games, players are less willing to nit-pick and get caught up on the minor inconsistencies that might result when they are having a good time, and part of the way to do that is to satisfy their desire to have things in the setting that they would actually be interested in. This doesn’t mean that realism has to be entirely disregarded, but having a character who is capable of breaking the rules of the setting or who has actually done something “impossible” means that there’s a mystery to explore and a new flavor to the world. It does not punch a hole in the game that makes it “less memorable” and prevent it from approaching the likes of 2001 and Alien, but it adds a new undertone and complexity to the setting.
There’s a single question that can be used to ensure that things make enough sense in a setting, and it’s something that every designer and game master should ask: “Does this make sense by itself?” It’s not exactly a profound question, but it’s important—when we see a character who is wearing eight layers of armor for a walk around town, we know that they’re adventurers. Players who see them will know that they’re either there to help or hinder the efforts of the party, and they allow us to direct attention and interest where it needs to go in order to further the narratives and plots we show our players, which makes them more memorable than an undirected exploration of an entirely “realistic” world.
If you’re interested in seeing a setting that applies the rule of cool very well, I’d suggest checking out 13th Age, which has a ton of interesting fantasy elements, and explicitly encourages characters with unique and interesting powers that don’t have to agree with the existing universe. The end result causes the universe to change and become more memorable (not less) on account of the interesting figures and imagery, rather than causing problems.