Tuesday, November 25

Bridging the Gap

Many games today are striving for a seamless, immersive gameplay experience. Alone in the Dark, Dead Space, and Mirror's Edge are good examples. But then there is the other side of the coin, the side upon which video games were built: the statistical, fourth-wall breaking presentation. These are the video games that know they're video games and aren't afraid to let players know too. RPGs and Fighting titles still use stat-tracking heavily. The immersive games, meanwhile, have rid themselves of health-bars and HUDs in the hopes that players can feel emotionally unified with game and character and maintain an unbroken, seamless gameplay experience. Why the intention is noble, and I think successful, immersive games, in shunning their other half, may be losing something that could be equally, if not even more affective, at emotionally reaching players.

Part of Metal Gear Solid's charm has always been its blending of the immersive and the statistical. In Metal Gear Solid 4, Snake wields a plethora of stat-heavy weapons, the HUD has a camo-index to show how well hidden Snake is, the solid-eye offers different vision modes, and so on. But Metal Gear Solid 4 adds another stat too, one that goes miles in creating a tangible, emotion connection between player and character: the psyche gauge.

In Metal Gear Solid 4, the psyche gauge keeps track of Snake's mental and emotional health. When engaged in combat or being hunted down, the alert phase switches on and a stress indicator appears on screen, displayed as a percentage. As Snake engages in combat, his stress level rises, and his psyche gauge depletes. A full psyche gauge means Snake is ready for battle. But as the gauge depletes, Snake becomes distraught, stressed, and nervous; the game screen blurs and Snake's hands begin to shake, making for an unsteady shot.

For gameplay purposes, the psyche gauge tells players they need to find a more comfortable spot soon or eat some noodles or Snake's combat performance will suffer. The gauge even has its own codec frequency, Rose, who as a psychiatrist, explains the psyche gauge in depth and will offer Snake help if players call her when the gauge is low.But the psyche gauge does more than just add a layer of difficulty. As players engage in battle, fighting enemy mercenaries, they feel a certain way. Players feel emotionally stressed when the alert phase is on, whether they're trying to hide from an onslaught of soldiers or shoot every one that comes. And Snake feels stressed too; his stress indicator and psyche gauge very explicitly display this fact. From personal experience and from Rose's explanations, players recognize that Snake's faltering mental state will soon cause him to perform less effectively. As a result, players react with worry and try to replenish Snake's pyche so as to both continue the game and relieve their own stress over dying in-game. Perhaps players also feel bad for Snake, as the psyche gauge allows for easy comprehension of his mental trauma in experiencing the brutalities of war. The psyche gauge, in so accurately and immediately representing Snake's mental health, serves as an emotional bridge between player and character, as players can directly sympathize with Snake's situation.

Players have a love/hate relationship with the story-telling style of the Metal Gear Solid series. The games are both lauded for their amazing cutscenes and wracked for their over-reliance on them. Not much changed for Metal Gear Solid 4; the game still employs cutscenes abound to relay story. But the psyche gauge not only bridges gameplay and cutscene, but also allows for a very real, personal connection between players and Snake.The genius that he is, Kojima chose to carry over the psyche gauge from gameplay to cutscene. In a good number of cutscenes throughout the game, the psyche gauge will suddenly appear and deplete a bar. (SPOILERS!) For example, in a cutscene with Naomi, Snake learns he is to die soon, only after living his last couple of weeks as a walking nuclear weapon. Snake frowns, sighs, and slumps hs shoulders, visually showing his concern. (End Spoilers!) But the psyche gauge also immediately appears on screen and depletes a bar, with a sheeeooo sound effect to boot. The obviously disappointing news and the excellent-quality graphics are plenty able on their own to show Snake's emotional distrought. But the psyche gauge, a feature heavily employed in gameplay, is what really allows us to connect. Having personal experience with the psyche gauge during gameplay, players are able to strongly emotionally connect with Snake's stress and disappointment through the gauge's appearence, and I would argue even more so than through the game's graphics.

The psyche gauge is first a gameplay feature. It tells players that they Snake needs to view a magazine fast or he won't be fit to continue. The true power of the gauge, however, is its direct and clear link between Snake and players; acts as an emotional correlation between the two. As a gameplay feature, the psyche gauge breaks immersion, but it more than makes up for the loss in its capacity for emotional bonding. And though cutscenes are often bashed for their robbing of player control and limited ability to emotionally affect players, the psyche gauge serves to blend cutscene and gameplay and is a tangibly-felt design.

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