Saturday, May 9, 2015

#89: What Drakengard 3 Teaches Us About Lampshade Hanging

The longer I play video games, and the more I continue to look at them critically, the more I begin to see ideas and concepts that crop up repeatedly. Though they come and go, most reappear often enough that they can almost always be worth discussing. After playing through Drakengard 3, a sequel to one the craziest, darkest games I played as a teenager, I noticed that there was one otherwise minor element that only grew irritating because it occurred several times over the course of the game.

Drakengard 3 seemed to love having its cast of characters acknowledge its own problematic game design in their dialogue. The practice, known as lampshade hanging, is about as old as fiction itself. In all other forms of media, from books to TV and movies, it is commonly used to point out and diffuse narrative tension by pointing out imperfections in the logic and/or internal mechanics of a story. However, the differences between gaming and other forms of media make this practice less tolerable.

Chief among them is the inherent difference between a passive medium and an interactive one. When watching a movie or a TV show, the audience is not actively participating in the events of the narrative. Rather, the characters on screen are dealing with problems, with viewers merely acting as outside observers. Therefore, whenever some event enters the story that requires the hanging of a lampshade, it is the characters in the story that are affected, not those watching it unfold from the comfort of their living room.
In an active medium like games, this is no longer the case. Video games have their players actively take part in the events in question, changing the dynamic at play. Whenever a sufficiently “immersion-breaking” mechanic appears, then it is the player who will ultimately need to deal with it. This is the difference between Spider-man getting amnesia and losing his combat prowess in a comic book versus doing the same in a video game. In a comic book, the reader, as an outside entity, can look forward to seeing how he and any accompanying characters deal with this problem. Players of a video game attempting that same trope will need to be the ones who handle getting through this problem as the amnesiac superhero. This does not necessarily have to be bad, as it could serve as a good excuse to use the game's systems in new, refreshing, and interesting way.

Drakengard 3 shows an example of what happens when this goes wrong. Over the course of the adventure, protagonist Zero will encounter floating platforms that she will need to traverse in order to progress to the next area, in a game where most of the time is spent killing enemies in a Devil May Cry-style beat'em up. After the first few occasions, she and her companions begin to point out these sections by stating things like “I'm not a fan of all this precision jumping.” and “More jumping? Whose is the asshole who designed this place.” While it seems to be another of the many gags the game uses to balance out the otherwise dark nature of its plot, the act of highlighting how dumb and annoying the floating platforms are is meant to add humor, much like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon attempted to do with its tutorial. What both of these examples fail to realize is that although they acknowledge the inferiority of these mechanics, as a player, one still has to go through the sections in order to progress. Seen in that respect, the gag quickly goes from funny to irritating.

Yet, this is not the only reason why lampshade hanging is a more tenuous prospect in video games. When a developer feels that need to point out that one of their mechanics is “bad,” or at least annoying, it implies that they are aware of how irksome said mechanics are. Otherwise, they would not have been able to bring it to the player's attention. On its own, that fact may be insignificant. It is the conclusions that one can draw from that statement, and the questions it raises, that make it so damning. If the developers have this knowledge, then why would they not alter these mechanics so that they are not as bothersome as they are? Alternatively, why include them at all? Plausible and rational answers to these inquiries do exist, but to raise the question in a player's mind is unwise, because it seeds doubt in the designers'a ability, eroding the willing suspension of disbelief. Again, this is only true because of the interactive nature of video games. Other mediums don’t require any work or input on the part of their audience.

The same precision jumping example from before can just as easily be used to represent this point, but Drakengard 3 has other examples that illustrate it just as well. In one of the missions towards the middle of the game, the player, as Zero, is attacked by a Cerberus mini-boss. Once that enemy is defeated, and Zero attempts to move on to the next section of the level, the door remains sealed and another Cerberus enemy appears. One of Zero's allies reacts by saying, “I fear they've discovered Lady Zero's weakness, a dislike for repeating the same task over and over again.” This is meant to point out how silly it is to participate in the same battle two times in a row against the same exact mini-boss. Despite this, it made me question the game designer's reason for making the choice to have two back-to-back Cerberus fights. Was the whole point to just set up that one punchline? Were they also attempting to pad out the section with some filler content? The fact that characters point out this little problem make it obvious that it was not an accident, so what was the point?

Now, I do not mean to insinuate that Drakengard 3 is a bad game. Instead, it is emblematic of a tendency games have when trying to inject a little levity. In these circumstances, it is extremely tempting for designers to intentionally include ill-fitting mechanics that are common to its contemporaries, then point them out for a laugh. Tempting as it may be, this is a mistake. Attempting to make jokes in this manner will often serve merely to bother the player, rather than make them laugh.


JH_Pal said...

Giving Drakengard the benefit of the doubt, since most likely several of the story points and level design elements were derived from a lack of budget necessary to create much more than dressed up corridors, I would say it's trying to be a little more clever than funny with this technique.

I felt while I was playing that the whole game was quite cynical in general, seeing how all of the cast were depraved and driven by dark goals and how it lavished in it's own violent tendencies. Matching that sensibility with the fourth wall breaking dialogue I felt more like it was trying to criticise gaming than simply make a joke about it, making the player do boring and thoughtless tasks on purpose to intentionally frustrate them.
I'm not saying it fully succeeded in sending a meaningful message with that but it's the impression I got and I kind of liked how it added to the overall nonchalantness of the game's tone.

newdarkcloud said...

That's another really good interpretation of Drakengard 3, and one I mostly agree with. I do appreciate how self-aware it tended to be, much like the first game was.