Monday, 6 July 2015

Abstraction, Simulation and Narrative Time

This post grew out of a conversation that’s happened between several people over quite an extended period of time, so apologies if I have to send you on a bit of a reading list to catch you up.

It more or less started here with Devon Carter’s Critical Switch guest episode about the role of abstraction in JRPG mechanics (which is basically essential reading if you want to follow anything I write on this blog, so get to it if you haven’t already).

Then Austin C. Howe had some thoughts about JRPGs on generation 7 hardware, which I Storified, where he discussed how more powerful technology had revealed some of the ways in which the classic JRPG form struggles with ‘realism’.

That prompted LeeRoy Lewin to write this excellent piece about how the basic abstractions of JRPG combat – HP, MP and XP – are bad representations of anything ‘real’.

Finally, and possibly independently of all this, Vincent Kinian reviewed Yuuyami Doori Tankentai with a focus on how it actually does address the real successfully.

Got all that? The key point I want to focus on is LeeRoy’s, that the mechanical abstractions in JRPGs don’t directly represent the things we ordinarily take them to. HP are a poor representation of health, or even endurance, because health is not linear or one-dimensional. XP in particular, to quote LeeRoy, models “the purest meritocracy, the most awful gamification, the idea that labor can transfer 1:1 value.”

If MP and equivalents are innocent in this, it’s only because they represent something that makes no claim to reality – magical power. Because it’s entirely up to an author to invent a magic system, we can’t gainsay the device of MP, but we can point out that it’s a formulaic and often uninteresting way of limiting power. To be fair, sometimes it doesn’t need to be interesting and is just an unobtrusive balancing tool, but I feel like there’s often a lot that could be done here that isn’t.

The more complex, player-engaging systems built on top of these stats – materia, GF junctions, sphere grids and so on – may be a little more representationally rich, depending on how they are contextualised[1], but the statistical foundation is poor in this regard. So why are these numbers so ubiquitous?

Convention, and the legacy of tabletop roleplaying games, makes up one major part of it, of course. Things are Done This Way because That’s How They’ve Always Been Done (and in the case of at least HP, the problem isn’t unique to JRPGs or even RPGs in general). But these stats do serve a function, or at least are a crucial pillar of a system that serves a function, and that function, I would argue, can be meaningful and valuable.

What JRPG systems – the stuff we think of as ‘systems’, the numbers bits – do is control the delivery of a story. They may do other things as well, but one persistent function is to determine when the story moves forward. Part of this is just to space things out, so you’re not just playing a novel (and to meet the ever-louder consumer demand for ‘value for money’, as measured in hours of ‘content’), but there’s also a crucial contribution that this makes to JRPG stories.

Pacing is everything. JRPG stories tend towards the epic in style as well as length. They are stories of big deeds, world-shaking changes. Worlds do not change overnight. Many forms of storytelling work just fine over short periods – one can hardly object to the near-real-time duration of Twelve Angry Men, or the one-night framing of Die Hard – but the grander the scale of a story, the slower it needs to feel like it moves.

The games industry is already bankrupting itself and driving employees to exhaustion to deliver games of sufficient length and graphical quality to keep ‘the market’ placated. As graphical standards continue to rise, representing the passage of time non-literally is going to get more and more important for delivering long-form stories.

This is where RPG mechanics, and particularly their JRPG versions, can shine. HP and MP represent the costs of time; the wear and tear of travel, the hazards and labour it involves. XP represents the benefits of that time – as LeeRoy pointed out, often badly, but I think this approach to them at least suggests some ways to complicate them into something more meaningful.

What is represented by these stats – perhaps it would be better to say ‘encoded’, since ‘representation’ implies something more explicit – is not really anything about the software objects to which the variables belong. What is represented is the world, the time and space through which these objects move.

If an encounter, or sequence of encounters, leaves your party on their last legs, you’re given the sense of characters limping into town, propping each other up, maybe dragging a stretcher, bags emptied of supplies. Backtrack over the same ground later in the story, and the easy passage, the image it conjures of marching proudly through the same gates with head held high, represents the sheer length of time it takes to master what was once marginal.

Here is where that stuff from Austin and Vincent becomes important. Taking stats to be directly representative creates misleading indulgences about vast gains in personal power and importance over implausibly narrow stretches of time. Austin’s point that realism is about more than just visual literalism, and Vincent’s that the sense of the real comes from the mundane, the stuff that happens between the fantasies, suggest that the way to get real value from explicit stats is to look at what they imply.

If a magic spell allows you to do ten times as much damage to a target as the strongest physical attack, but costs ten times as much to use, what does that say about the scarcity of that spell, the rarity of this casting? If a character is dying of poison and you’re out of antidotes, can you make it to the next inn or item shop in time? Frequent easy encounters that wear you down slowly suggest a long journey; fewer more potent encounters suggest danger and pain but less time; a surfeit of brutal fights implies that the world must turn a little longer before you can make it through.

The actual games could do a lot more to draw attention to this side of reading them, but that doesn’t mean that existing games shouldn’t or can’t be read in this way. It’s an approach that I’ve found useful particularly when looking at games that focus their narratives on journeys – I'm a broken record, I know, but Final Fantasy XII and Tales of Vesperia are both excellent examples of this[2].

[1] Some are much worse, particularly ‘relationship’ systems that reduce social ties between characters to single score variables.

[2] There are a couple of sequences in Vesperia where mechanical representations of the passage of time are directly contrasted with what cutscenes have told you about the time-frame of events, which show both how effectively good stat usage can suggest the passage of time and how quickly bad stat usage can undercut it.

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