Video games

Present day communication in games

I’m not too impressed with Silent Hill: Shattered Memories so far as too many drastic steps have been made to the original, creepy ghost town. The Silent Hill I knew has changed beyond all recognition.

It’s saving grace is the inclusion of the phone, arguably updating the original game’s major oversight; we are now a generation of gamers who are always online, but most present day games don’t always reflect this.

Digital natives

We are among the first generations of digital natives, with smart phones and always on internet access it’s becoming harder to remember what living without the internet, or mobile phone technology was like. To those even younger than ourselves to which our reliance of technology is all they have ever known, the widespread absence of communication technology in gaming must be jarring.

There are a few notable exceptions of course, for all the debate the series creates Grand Theft Auto – particularly Grand Theft Auto IV, managed to present this aspect of our lives well, our tendancy to browse, our reliance on phones to communicate with others used as a primary way to stay in touch with the games key contacts. For the context of GTA4 ignoring massive aspects of our lives like the internet was just not conceivable, but there are a great many reasons why these devices are left out of other games.

Looking at some violent video game news online in Fahrenheit.

The survival horror case study

This brings me back to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. In life we pump the computing equivalent of gigabytes worth of information into our minds daily, through watching TV, browsing the internet; in truth even by playing a game we add to this total. Most games do not reflect this; as the thrills of adventure in or this case horror rely on a lack of information, the steady drip, drip, drip of slow perfectly paced moments of story and realisation. It does not suit the context of most games to have the constant deus ex machina in the form of a mobile phone in arm’s reach. How different would the outcome of the original Silent Hill been if Harry was able to look up call the police, look up Silent Hill online, or simply gain comfort from knowing he was contactable by still being tied to the outside world inexplicably?

Shattered Memories does at least try to answer some of these questions. I was able to attempt the actions that I would have tried in a normal situation; attempt to call the police, then attempt to call home. Although the method of of communication in Silent Hill is still pretty linear it does at least attempt to open up the world a little more. The inclusion of the phone does mean that Silent Hill is a little busier than I’d like, with more people dotting it’s streets, with Cybil the police officer, and other notable characters contactable at a moments notice. If anything the phone helped to tie up the game events more; allowing for a GPS system that marks Harry’s location, and a phone reception indicator that was able to point out quite obviously the stranger moments of the game where Harry is disconnected from the outside world.

Trying to dial 911 for help.

Video games often deal with wilder themes than most other mediums, such as the supernatural and spiritual, and as such we tend to take the stranger moments of video games on board without giving it a second thought. A modern device is a great way to give the weirder elements of the Silent Hill some credence, this is continued with newer elements such as the smartphone’s camera confirming elements that the naked eye can’t see.

And despite the lack of communication, electronic devices can still play a huge role in games. Radios and phones are used extensively in survival horrors such as Silent Hill to make a very tangible link to the enemies fought thus proving their physical existence. Although characters like Harry can’t always benefit from the intended use of communication devices they are still his first port of call. Even then video game settings often represent a desperate hour of need, the breakdown of society or isolation for single player games, in which case relying on older methods of communication such as the radio suits the tone of the game.

Shattered Memories has shown that including a greater emphasis on our media-savvy minds doesn’t necessarily mean a detrimental effect to gameplay. While the psychological moments of the game are well-touted the braver steps towards the inclusivity of technology hasn’t made as much of an impact. So why don’t more games do this, and it is simply a matter of time before most games do?

Harry looks at the school poster mentioning that electronic devices are banned.

Will games ever catch up?

While lots of games have some way for multiple characters to communicate, it’s rare for games to look at how switched on we all are, the real life impact of all the time we spend at a screen in one setting or another. FPSs ironically perhaps present this best, using in-game military connections to maintain cross-character links, this combined with the fact that in-game communication is such a given, often without explanation we as gamers tend to look over this theme entirely.

The internet is such a huge part of our lives and most modern day settings are going to find our always online “life in front of a screen” mentality harder and harder to ignore. I’d like to see more games make a half-decent attempt acknowledging some of the most open communication channels we as a civilization have ever had.

If you can please take a moment to point out more of the fabulous games that do.

One reply on “Present day communication in games”

Although I agree that freeing up restrictions on communications in games would be a bit more realistic, I guess it would be pretty hard to design it in a consistent gameplay option rather than something that’s only used in scripted instances. Imagine that you have a mobile phone in an FPS, and calling one of a number of contacts on that phone will give you one of a number of scripted responses. That would work, but then you’d have to multiply that number to account for the number of different scripted narrative turns that occur between the start and end of the game (so that the contacts aren’t just saying the same thing all the time)…. considering the potential amount of writing required, it’s no wonder that half of the contacts on Solid Snake’s codec were usually unreachable.
Even if that milestone was reached, the designer would then have to find a way to make the information useful enough to justify contacting others, but not so critical that a player can fail if s/he doesn’t contact the right person at the right time in the game. Something like the Ace Attorney series can get away with this as there are few fail-states during the investigation phase; the phase where you spend most of your time talking to the NPCs in the various locations. Granted, Phoenix talks to the characters directly rather than using technology, but it’s the same principle of having a network of contacts consistently available to talk to. So yes, I agree that games can at least attempt to put us in the shoes of a character who is widely connected to several other people all of the time – just as long as we don’t become overly dependent on our contacts…

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