Augmentology"...is a concise manual of reality for our digital age."

Mark Hancock,_Augmentology: Interfaccia Tra Due Mondi_

[Sponsored by The Ars Virtua Foundation/CADRE Laboratory for New Media]

Mass Effect Screenshot

It has been interesting to observe how the gameplay of Bioware’s Mass Effect continues to pop up in discussions about narrative in contemporary gaming. The 2007 Xbox 360 and Windows title seems to have entrenched itself as a benchmark for immersive storytelling. For those unfamiliar with the premise of the game, Mass Effect is a sci-fi action RPG that places the protagonist – a recently deputized intelligence agent – in the midst of an escalating intergalactic crisis. The most distinguishing feature of the game is a relatively nuanced conversation system that allows for interactions which can be steered in multiple directions. This extended dialogue scheme has potential implications for the story-arc. Noah Wardrip-Fruin has posted some thoughtful commentary on narrative in Mass Effect; rather than traverse that same territory, here are a few observations surrounding the design of the game.

The conversation interface (or conversation wheel) is a distinct example of tentative space. This interface, as shown in the screen capture above, allows the protagonist to navigate a range of possible responses when talking to a non-player character. As the player advances, they have the opportunity to develop specific characteristics that will allow them to intimidate or charm certain characters. The conversation wheel is one of the primary interfaces in Mass Effect; given the stiffness of the “action” portion of the game, it is definitely the most memorable feature. Gameplay in Mass Effect is essentially a long chain of conversations and “play” is characterized by deciding what to say next while the characters onscreen linger and cycle through their personal inventory of ambient gestures. Constraining and charming at the same time, a lull in conversation is a strange locus to find at the heart of a game.

Earlier this fall Variety announced that producer Avi Arad had optioned the movie rights for Mass Effect. This is interesting news considering that while the storyline defines the Mass Effect game, the player both designs and directs the identity of their character. The first task a player must complete in Mass Effect is “building” an avatar by defining their gender, appearance, history and disposition. In porting this franchise over to another medium, the protagonist is a blank slate for character development – even more so than is usually the case in game to film translations. One can’t help but wonder: will the development of the screenplay be nearly as interesting as the writing process that yielded the script(s) for the game?

Scaleform Lobby

The lobby is designed for localization and comes preconfigured with 10 languages. With minimal customization, the Scaleform Lobby can be integrated into a game’s existing network infrastructure.

The above marketing copy succinctly describes some of the selling points of the Scaleform Multiplayer Lobby. Debuted at GDC 2008, the Scaleform system is a skinable, customizable interface to coordinate matchmaking and hosting for online gamers. The Scaleform Lobby is just one of hundreds of the solutions that have been developed to facilitate networked gaming which has necessitated a range of logistics including user profiles, chat functionality, player ratings, multi-language support and social functionality. These parameters considered, game lobbies are spaces of negotiation and “collective configuration” that sit outside of gameplay but are integral to the management of it. These interstitial interfaces foster unique game-specific social contracts and communications standards which augment the construction of games by making the process collaborative. This short text is invested in scrutinizing the spatial, social and informatic quality of game lobbies and reading them as a prime examples of tentative spaces in gaming.

Multiplayer lobbies are spaces of organization where players can assemble, “party up” and organize the rules of engagement before committing to loading a map. Pre-game congregation has been a standard part of the ritual of gaming since the inception of networked and online play. In browsing the past protocols and platforms associated with communal play some worthwhile precedents to examine are The ImagiNation Network (INN), World Opponent Network (WON) and part of the functionality contained within digital distribution networks like Steam. While tracing this genealogy would undoubtedly yield fascinating results, this discussion is interested in the qualitative nature of multiplayer lobbies rather than the network architectures that underpin them. So what then is the spatial quality of game lobbies and how do players occupy them?

There are a number of interesting observations about multiplayer lobbies. As stated earlier, they are places of negotiation where participants assemble and determine the scope of play. These negotiations are usually semi-democratic (and occasionally autocratic) and often marked by lively and pointed discussion where the various players state, in no uncertain terms, what they feel the parameters of play should be. Demands are made, hosts booted and trash-talked. Despite this cacophony, an order eventually emerges, terms are agreed upon and play begins. In thinking about the “voice” that gamers adopt in these spaces a few trends emerge: first, depending on the platform, one might have to endure varying combinations of bigotry, homophobia and testosterone-fueled posturing. Noise aside, what is worth noting is the fact that players seldom, if ever, actually speak “in character” in multiplayer lobbies. Instead of acting as an extension of narrative, lobbies are a tangential forum for the discussion of game mechanics, play style and preference. If you ever want to get a sense of the idiosyncrasies and vernacular of a specific title, head straight to the appropriate multiplayer lobby.

In addition to functioning as a site of interaction, multiplayer lobbies can also be read in relation to another mediated space, one with an extensive backstory which spills across several mediums and traditions. A green room is a tertiary space in broadcast media or theatre where off-air/stage actors and participants can retire and wait. Multiplayer lobbies serve this exact function in gaming, but this contemporary iteration of the green room is more inclusive and participatory – anyone can end up in this space, they need only pick up a controller. This comparison suggests the possibility of a strange overlap between theatre architecture and interface design. As interstitial, social spaces that demarcate the divide between configuration and play, game lobbies are a unique region within game space, one that is not only passed through, but occupied.

‘ “Art Does Not Equal Terrorism” goes beyond the sound bites to find out what happened when an Iraqi artist came to Troy, NY only to be censored–not once, but twice.

First, Wafaa Bilal was chased off campus after his artwork was mis-characterized as terrorist propaganda by undergraduate bloggers.

When the exhibition was given refuge by The Sanctuary for Independent Media, the city government responded by shutting down the space.’

[From: The Sanctuary for Independent Media.]

[See: here for a contemporary Australian censorship example.]