Ludus Magnus – Episode One

I mentioned in my last post that David and I witnessed a rather inspiring presentation about the potential for Let’s Play videos for analyzing games. Well, so inspired were we that we had a go at making one ourselves:

It’s somewhat unfocused, as we decided to dive right in without much forethought for our first iteration. It owes a lot to the format of Prepare to Suffer with Paul & Mo, the channel run by the GLS presenters, and so basically comprises a novice player (David) playing a video game (Batman: Arkham Knight) in the company of a relatively veteran player (me). I don’t know if there is anything particularly great in our conversation, but hopefully there are the seeds of greatness.

The exercise certainly did prove fruitful for me, much as Paul & Mo had promised. I have become an increasingly isolated player of video games in the last few years, and I haven’t done much sharing of games in this way in a long time. Watching David, who doesn’t do as much gaming as me and is relatively unfamiliar with consoles (especially more modern ones), I got a chance to experience Arkham Knight from outside of my own cognitive bubble.

What this helped me realize is that, for all of the talk of AAA titles being defined by things like scale, cost, and violence, they are also incredibly complex by nature and place great cognitive requirements upon the player. I’ve played all the Arkham games before, and so was largely familiar with Batman’s evolving abilities and controls; I also stick largely to AAA titles, and play them mostly on consoles (currently the XBox One). As a result, Arkham Knight came relatively easily to me, and I was able to move through the early stages of the game without much difficulty.

As you can see from David’s performance in the video, the neophyte had a much steeper curve, and visual and audio cues from the game that seem incredibly obvious to me often flew right past him. Thinking about this divergence in experience made me realize that a AAA game like Arkham Knight requires the player to manage at least three levels of information in order to play it well:

1. what we might call the diegetic stream of information: the narrative of the game, the dialogue of the characters, the cues that set up Batman’s objectives within the gameworld itself. The Bat-signal gets turned on, so Batman needs to head to GCPD. A hostile APC roars by, and Batman needs to pursue it to gain more information.

2. the information provided by the HUD and other visual cues: these are visual signals that guide the player in pursuing diegetic goals, shifting them into a more ludic context by breaking them down into a series of discrete objectives. These are not necessary signals that Batman himself could see (although with all his gear, they might be). The story tells you to pursue an APC, and the game overlays a reticule on the target vehicle and arrows on the street to show you the best route to pursue it in the Batmobile.

3. I’m playing with terms here, but there’s also the haptic dimension: building a mental and physical knowledge of the gamepad and how it relates to Batman’s behavior on screen, actualizing that knowledge to make Batman pursue the ludic and diegetic goals, and thus combining the three streams into a reinforcing loop of play. The game also provides on-screen cues on which buttons to push (some contextual, some general), in a level of information that Batman (who inhabits the gameworld) certainly would not be able to see, since (theoretically) he has no knowledge that he is being operated by the player.

These are only the barest sketch of an analytical framework; there could be more streams of information in play, and any of them could be said to work in more complicated relationships at any point in the game. But watching David grapple with mastering the three streams helped me perceive the work I have grown able to do from many years of play of this type. A good example comes around minute 12, when David is tasked with pursuing the APC: in order to master the haptic stream and accomplish what he perceives as the ludic objective, he slows the Batmobile down to about half-speed and begins pursuing the arrows with greater accuracy. But the diegetic goal is to catch up to the APC, which is impossible without increasing pressure on the right trigger and speeding up the vehicle.

Theoretically he could have puttered around Gotham indefinitely without achieving the required objective.

A couple of interesting articles on the Batman: Arkham series:

Sinervo, K. A. (2015). “Mapping Gotham: Layering and Transmedia in Batman’s Fictional City.” First Person Scholar.

Walker, A. (2015). “Superheroes, Cities, and Empty Streets.” Giant Bomb.

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