Justin Keever | Jul 30, 2014
*Update: As of Titanfall’s Latest Update (which went live a day after this was posted!) the pre-mission audio that I spend most of this piece talking about no longer plays. Too bad, as I found it rather interesting.
Nobody cared about Titanfall’s campaign. And perhaps rightfully so, as it was marred by awkward expository dialogue, a lack of a strong emotional hook, and a thematically muddled “man vs machine” ending that had little to do with the rest of the game’s plot. But perhaps most damning was just how easy it was to simply tune out: most of the major events and conversations between named characters take place during gameplay in a small skype chat window in the top-left corner of the screen, the pre-match cutscenes double as time to pick loadouts and burn cards, and PA announcements that play during the pre-mission lobby are often reduced to background noise as the player customizes their guns and titans. Strangely, though, where most people found flaws, I found meaning. Titanfall tells a story that is designed to be ignored. The game treats the player like the outsider he/she is, actively casting him/her aside in the narrative: as skilled as pilots are, the player is a disposable grunt; merely cannon fodder meant for distracting armies from the significant actions of the protagonists. Titanfall is about being an extra, an NPC: the plot doesn’t matter because you’re not a main character. You’re just here for the thrill of the fight.
You’re something of an outsider in Analogue: A Hate Story as well (that’s not the titular commonality, I promise), though you’re not nearly as divorced from the plot as you are in Titanfall. Christine Love’s game focuses more on generating a sense of physical and ontological separation. Analogue is about communing with artificial intelligence at a distance, using a computer as an intermediary device. In fact, Analogue is one of the few games that truly justifies, to me, the PC as a gaming platform because it is specifically about interfacing with a computer: Love built the game conscious of the typical uses and affordances of PC hardware, and structured an experience around what the player would physically be doing as they played. The oft-overlooked “interface” step between thought and character action (where the player physically, y’know, plays the game) becomes the game’s focal point. Simply put, Analogue is a game in about a person interfacing with an artificial person via a computer, which is played by literally, physically interfacing with an artificial person via a computer. When the characters onscreen appear to directly address you, the linear ‘non-player character → player character → player’ model of communication that occurs in most games becomes muddled, because there is no longer an intermediary between the player and the NPCs within a digitally modeled diegetic space. What occurs in Analogue is something more akin to pen and paper RPG dialogue, where the GM speaks directly to the players, who has directly taken on a role, rather than controlling a separate body in a digital space. That is to say, the characters in Analogue speak directly to the player as though he/she were the player character. I’d hesitate to dismiss this as fourth-wall breaking, because the shattering of the diegesis that so typically accompanies that sort of thing never really occurs – Analogue is dedicated to its fiction, never once giving the player a knowing wink. Instead, I’d argue that Analogue is built around expanding the diegesis of the game around the player, encompassing not just what is seen on the screen, but also the player who is looking at the screen and the physical environment around them.
That expansion of the diegesis is what Titanfall and Analogue have in common, and it’s something I was admittedly quite shocked to find in the former. But sure enough, the Titanfall campaign’s moments of downtime operate in a manner remarkably similar to Analogue: A Hate Story, dilating the game world to, in a way, physically absorb the player and their play environment. This experience isn’t constant through Titanfall’s campaign, obviously, but it does begin in Titanfall’s first moments. There is exactly one rendered area in the game that isn’t a battleground: the bedroom in which the game opens. Here, the player is informed of his/her role: he/she is a pilot, on the way to the frontier to be a career soldier. The player’s time in this bedroom is brief, but crucial: this visual representation of a non-combat zone opens up Titanfall’s world, informing us that the fiction does extend beyond a series of warzones. In this multiplayer shooter’s fiction, there are moments of peace, and there are places where the player characters simply wait. And they wait until the end of the journey is announced by the pilot, over a PA system. For a few brief seconds, this tutorial sequence makes leisure and anticipation an act of play, establishing a precedent for similar moments to come.
Those similar moments are the waiting room lobbies. In most multiplayer shooters the lobby consists entirely of non-diegetic menus in which the player is able to customize their loadouts, physical appearance, and the like. As much almost holds true in Titanfall, as the lobby does mostly consist of Call of Duty-esque customization menus and lists of challenges. However, in Titanfall’s campaign, these lobbies are infused with elements of the narrative, through the inclusion of audio-only PA announcements that inform the players of where exactly they’ll be going/doing in the next battle. Because these announcements play when the only elements onscreen are non-diegetic menus, there is no real rendered game space for that audio to inhabit, and nor is there a perspective for the announcement to be filtered through. What’s left is something of a paradox, because there is no diegetic space, and no player character, and yet there is a diegetic element present that directly contributes to the narrative momentum. The ‘non-player character → player character → player’ model of communication is muddled just as it was in Analogue, because there is no representation of a player character, or a space for a hypothetical player character to occupy. As a result, the audio has no choice but to infect the player’s environment directly: the illusion is not that a PA system is giving out an announcement in a ship, but that a PA is operating directly where Titanfall is being played. This operates on another level as well: despite navigating through diegetic menus, the player is still acting their role: I’d imagine that pilots would be selecting their loadout and choosing which burn cards to bring into battle during their downtime, after all. What’s more, the tutorial establishes the existence of comforting, home-like sites of leisure with similar PA systems. That precedent allows for the audio to take on an immersive quality, coloring the player’s physical environment to make it seem as though it were a part of the diegesis. The effect is less pronounced than it is in Analogue, and nor is it as relevant to the overall experience, but is nonetheless present. For 90 seconds at a time, the player does not inhabit a body, but instead directly takes on a role. Thus, tuning out Bish’s PA announcements becomes an act of play, contributing to the narrative as your player character engages with it, rather than a simple shortcoming. Titanfall takes whatever you may be feeling during those moments of rest, be it attentiveness to what your higher-ups are telling you or your eye-rolling disinterest, and makes it narratively relevant. Granted, this element of Titanfall’s narrative doesn’t connect me to the universe or characters any more than I would have been otherwise. But suddenly, my journey as a pilot means something to me, because it’s not a role I step into when the fighting begins and leave when the mission’s over: for as long as I’m in the campaign, it’s just what I am.
There’s still a question left, I suppose: why does it matter that Titanfall does something that Analogue: A Hate Story did before (and Christine Love’s previous game Digital: A Love Story evidently did even earlier)? In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t, really. Respawn certainly wasn’t influenced by Analogue when designing Titanfall’s campaign (but how cool would it be if they were!), and no one’s really thought about Titanfall since March. I’m probably insane to read into a silly mech shooter at all. But it’s a neat little commonality, isn’t it?