Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Graded Blog Entry: "I Would Make a Funny Joke About Engineering Here but I Know Nothing About It"

Let me preface this entry by saying that my brother in law is an engineer. I have no idea what he does all day. All I know is that he works for a company called Hawk MIM, he used to make brake pads, and now he designs things that kill people. That's a hell of a jump, there. It just goes to show you how versatile engineering can really be, especially to someone who really wouldn't know his engineering ass from his engineering elbow (i.e., me). This anecdote serves one purpose: my concept of what engineers do (maybe you can help me out with this definition, Emily), as my brother in law says, is "make stuff."

With that in mind, I was pleased to hear that Zork was referred to as an "engineering narrative" today in class. This is because I can't find a better way to describe Zork, for reasons I slightly touched upon on my ungraded blog entry from sometime last week. Zork allows you, the player, to sculpt the story as you see fit. While there is most probably a "best order" in which the events of the game can be performed, by and large, the player can do the events in the game at the pace and in the order in which they so desire, and to me, this is what I perceive to be the "engineering" aspect of Zork.

The problem with the majority of films and books and video games these days is that they're all covered by one term: linear. It's the very nature of a narrative to have one particular path - it's impossible to have limitless branching options and completely unrealistic for most formats that don't involve audience response, like film or television. There is, however, one area of media that can begin to really reach to the nature of the "engineering narrative", and that is video games.

I don't know if anyone in this class is really an avid gamer, but there's a company out there that's pretty well known these days called Bethesda Softworks. They made a few games you might have heard of called Morrowind and Oblivion, two titles in their Elder Scrolls series. These games have always fascinated me, because they're just about as open-ended as video games can get.

To start, your character is completely customizeable. You decide race, religion, skills and weaknesses. There's a main storyline in there somewhere that's kind of shown to you at one point, and if you follow up on it you'll end up beating the game, but you don't have to. You can just do your own thing. Want to go around murdering people just for the hell of it? Feel free. Go on high adventure in the untamed wilderness in search of glory? You got it. Stand around a town, buy a house, and decorate it ever-so-quaintly? No problem here, either. And if you 'beat the game'? It doesn't end. You're still yourself, only now people like you a lot more for saving the world, and you can just walk around and still do whatever you want.

What makes these games "engineering narratives"? Simply put, you are given the option of deciding what you want to do with the narrative. You have to make your own story, and blaze your own trails in doing so. There are multiple ways to accomplish the same task in Oblivion or Morrowind. Here's an example: At one point, your character can find himself tasked with stealing some jewels from someone else. Now, were you a man of stealth, you could steal them from him when his back was turned or he was asleep. Were you a man of words, you could convince him to give or sell them to you. Were you lazy, you could just buy any old set of diamonds, as nobody's really going to know the difference, and were you me, you'd just whack the asshole with a broadsword and take them, like a man. But I digress.

It's this freedom - even in the minute details that don't really matter in the grand scheme of the game that make it feel so much like Zork. There are a plethora of ways to die miserably, but each of them teaches you something handy. Say, for instance, you find a scroll, and reading it allows you to jump to ridiculous heights. You decide that this is an awesome thing, and as such read it, and jump to a ridiculous height. I bet you didn't plan on what happens when you hit the ground, did you? You die. Better luck next time.

A lot of popular games these days, like Halo 3 and Gears of War don't really focus on immersing the player in the story. The graphics are great and the action is intense, especially multiplayer, but, is there really any room to experiment? You have one goal in the story laid out over the course of the game and are given one way to get there. There's no freedom. There's no room to make anything except what the game's developers solely intend for you to make, and as such, there's no way you're engineering least from my understanding of it.


Adam Johns said...

It's interesting - there were two people in the section of this class last year who also quickly moved to talking about Morrowind and Oblivion as interesting forms (extremes, almost, as you hint) of one narrative form.

I didn't use (or did I invent it?) the term "engineering narrative" that time around, but this clicks for me.

But what, in these games, are you making, if engineering is about making stuff? In any rpg, of course, you are making your characters, to a certain extent -- and also remaking the world itself. Here, Zork is a great example: after you drain the reservoir (by fiddling around with the buttons in the dam's control room), the game world is remade in a substantive way.

Your post opens questions. Obviously you desire/admire interactivity. What is it about the interactivity of these games that you find so compelling? And is it true that forms like film cannot offer substantial interactivity? As a film major (if I remember right) one question for you to ask is not only what film is, but what it could be.

Nice post, which (in a good way) opens far more questions than it answers.

Emily said...

HAHA! If you would have asked what the defination of engineering is to me, I would have said the exact same thing: "We make stuff".

I never really thought of engineering as a narrative until I read your blog. In engineering we are constantly faced with problems that must be solved accurately and efficiently. For example, if there is in need of bridge, is it better to make a truss bridge or a suspension bridge and also what type of material should it be made out of depending on the climate and landscapes.

Just as in the video games you must decide what your character will do next, engineers must decide what solution will be best for the people and the environment. There are so many variables in the world that we have to account for on a regular basis. If we forget one variable, something will most likely go wrong, just as in the video game.

PS. here is a joke about engineers that you could have used: "You might be a engineering major if you have no life and can prove it mathematically" -story of my life,lol