Arkham City: Surprise!

The first time you arrive in the museum in Arkham City, there’s a great big fucking dinosaur that rears up out of nowhere and roars at you. Surprise! It’s mechanical, so it doesn’t do anything, but the first time it happens? Fuck me, that’s unexpected. But every subsequent time you play the game, it won’t have the same effect. It’ll diminish, get less impressive, and eventually you’ll stop even noticing it. I’ve talked a bit about replay value and how narratives change the second time round, but today I want to talk about it a bit more. Is there anything to be done about it? How can we avoid or take advantage of the issue?

The first thing to notice is the distinction between the player and the character. This might seem obvious, but designers don’t optimise things so that the protagonist gets the best point of view. Everything’s oriented towards you as player. The most obvious (if slightly crude) example of this is pornography. Nobody gives a shit about what the actors can see. The camera work is oriented towards giving the viewer the best, uh, view. In the same way, there’s a distinction for us as viewers when we approach this scene in Batman, because the surprise is meant to be for us. The scare is for us – and as we get more accustomed to it, it loses its effectiveness. When that happens, something needs to take its place.

As is suggested above, one of the things that changes in replays is that the core physical reactions diminish. When you know there’s going to be a shock, and you know exactly when it’s going to happen, it’s not as shocking. This, curiously, is the reason why you can’t tickle yourself. The fear response belongs to instinctive reaction, which doesn’t kick in when you know what’s up. Try watch the trailer for the new It movie – if you’ve not seen it before, you might notice that your body reacts differently between the first and subsequent viewings.

So on the one hand, yes, that sort of core instinctive response shrinks after subsequent viewings. You’ll also notice that your approach to suspense changes. Think about, say, a murder mystery – say an Agatha Christie. When you’re watching it or reading it for the first time, you’re trying to piece the clues together, figure out what’s going on and who the murderer is – and as an approach, that’s not necessarily unique to the mystery genre. It’s part of the process of reading: we actively try and make sense of what’s going on. We organise, create patterns, infer and predict. It’s most obvious in the mystery genre, but that’s because we have this understanding with the writer – we know that they’re going to withhold a key piece of information, and we know that the book is about working up to that revelation. Once you know what that revelation is, you don’t have to work as hard to piece things together. On second or third viewings, you’re really just observing how the details tie into the overarching picture. We get kicks out of moments that significantly shift in meaning – there’s a particular moment in Dollhouse I’m thinking of, when the head of security (Laurence Dominic) asks the doctor for whiskey.

So when we say that your approach to suspense changes, what we mean is basically just that you know what’s going to happen. Not knowing is (arguably) key to the instinctive fear reaction – it’s that immediate jolt of adrenaline that really makes it memorable. Because you know what’s going to happen, you’re not really going to get that same jolt in the same way. The initial intention can’t be reproduced in later viewings. So it has to take on a different meaning. If it’s only got the one meaning (that is, if it’s just there for shock value and nothing else), then in subsequent viewings it comes across as artificial. The dinosaur rears up and shouts at you, and all you’re really thinking is ‘uhuh, yup, cool, great job’. Again: if its meaning within the narrative is limited to this one first-time-only effect, then as a designer you’ve actually wasted that moment in every subsequent playthrough.

Given that premise, what possible solutions are there? I’d argue that this is where you start looking for additional meanings to add to your shock moment. So, for example, with the dinosaur, there might be a hypothetical ending where you blow up the museum and the last thing left standing is the dinosaur, so you’ve got this cutscene where you’re standing in the rubble of the museum, and the dinosaur’s still intact through some mad coincidence – so the last shot is just the oblivious dinosaur model as Batman walks off into the distance. It’s just a hypothetical – really the important thing is that you’re book-ending the scenario. The dinosaur is the major focus of both the start and the end of the museum segment. Alternately you might reprogram the dinosaur and ride through the museum on it – I don’t know, it’s Batman. Use your imagination.

The point is that you can tie it into other things. Those things can have practical function within the narrative, or they can just be neat symbolic or structural things. You can create a change in perspective: the dinosaur roaring could turn out to be the start of a timer on a bomb, so that on second playthroughs you see the roar in a different way. Alternately, (and this is completely out of character for Batman, but we’ll follow the thought,) you could make the surprise have significance for the character. Maybe it scares him so badly that he reconsiders his life choices and becomes a piano player in a bar. Again – there are options. What’s important is that what plays out on the screen (the surprise of the dinosaur appearing) has further significance beyond the superficial surprise to the player. In some ways, that’s the only thing I’ve ever said on this blog. Well, this half, anyway.

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