September 16, 2013

Jon's Take

My friend Jon responded to my Red Dead Redemption post, and below is part of his response. Although I don't think the save and skinning mechanisms function in the way he rightly defends (allowing the player to choose when to pause the action or participate in restful sequences, like the campfire that pops up occasionally in RDR, is a better choice), it's a great defense of rhythm in storytelling:

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For those with the time to invest in a good game, bookending a play session with mundane events can have a grounding effect on the player, much like cracking open a book and thumbing to the bookmark, or closing the book and setting the bookmark and putting it back in its place.  While these actions may be repetitive, they can be purposeful and even artful.  Consider TV: Aside form the traditional action-packed intro-sequence with theme song, and the outro-sequence with credits, a serialized art form can employ things that get you in the mood for the upcoming show.  Specifically, consider Mr. Rogers returning home, and changing into his "around the house" clothes and singing to the audience.  It's the same every time, but it's a pace-setting technique that allows the viewer to bring to mind all the feelings and thoughts they had the last time. 

It's only the most puerile games that needlessly suffer from the desire to keep everything at 11 the whole time.  If you're going to have good action beats, you have to have good slow moments in between.  If you made a movie full of jump-scares and gunfights, with no heart and no feeling to it, you're unable to reach the same kind of tone that I think Rockstar was looking for in RDR.  So, while the written word avoids repetition, look to other mediums to see its power.  Imagine the Latin Mass where every 15 weeks everything needs to be replaced.  Picture Babylon 5 without "It was the dawn of the third age of mankind."  So, while some repetitive elements can get in the way of the enjoyment of a game, or merely pad out the length of the game, I wouldn't say that an option to manually save with in-game metaphors is a storytelling problem.  On the contrary, it's a storytelling element that suffers from pacing/timing elements.  If it were the *only* way to save, I would partially agree that some better editing of that sequence could improve it, but it's these tiny slice-of-life elements that elevate the medium beyond that of mere words on a page. 

Reading the same paragraph detailing a repetitive sequence, at the start of every chapter would be frustrating.  You'd zone out after the first sentence.  But as part of much longer experience you're controlling and participating in, as a bookend to your experience for the day, repetitive sequences can reinforce, or allow for the computer to load things in the background (think of criticizing stage hands for moving scenery between scenes - just to pad out a play's runtime!), and allow for the player to make a mental note of what they're going to do the "next day."  Will they advance the Main Plot, go for some side missions, gamble, break in some horses, achievement-hunt, or see how long they can evade the long arm of the law?  These brief respites are intermissions that allow the audience to take an account of what has happened and what may yet happen.  Only in a game, the audience pulls triple duty as director and actor.  Also, save points are typically action/conflict free, and allow a small oasis from the chaos of the rest of the world.  Even for the grizzled, conflicted protagonist, living on the fringe of society, even he has a place to hang his hat, at least for a moment, free from the cares of his world. 

So while we can argue the execution of such scenes, including the ability of the player to skip them, I think they hold weight as a storytelling device within the context of their medium. 

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