Storytelling in Video Games

Posted in Gaming Commentary, Uncategorised

A lot of games have stories to them. And by “a lot of games” I mean “virtually every title nowadays”. Back in the day it used to be only RPGs that put much effort into storytelling within the game proper, but even the others still tried to sneak some story in through alternate pathways like the manual. If you read the manual to the original Metroid you’ll find all sorts of crazy backstory that could never have been known by simply playing the game (e.g. Samus is actually male).

Samus Aran
Samus Aran…
The primitive 2001 world map system of Final Fantasy X
…is apparently a dude. ‘He’ also absorbs enemy powers, just like Mega Man.

This is particularly amazing because at the end of Metroid the game reveals that Samus is a woman. I guess they didn’t read the manual.

Nowadays I think standards have gone up a bit. Not to say that every game is Shakespeare, but, generally speaking, everyone who works on a game now can agree on the gender of the main character (the occasional JRPG notwithstanding). It may not sound like much but is actually a huge step, and incidentally also one Shakespeare had to go through what with the only-male-actors thing.

I digress. Stories are in games, and they are generally a significant part of the gameplay experience. Unfortunately, due to the requirement of also being a “game”, video games tend to lend themselves towards story conventions that often weaken the story. The majority of video games, from FPSs to turn based RPGs, derive their gameplay from violence. This in itself isn’t the end of the world but it has two major implications: the storylines in video games must be action oriented (there will be no Citizen Kane for us, unless it is a game about trashing a room), and that they tend to involve a lot of fight scenes, which also tends towards lots of impersonal conflicts.

The important thing is not to miss out on the fact that characters are what matter from a storytelling perspective, not the faceless horde of cannon-fodder. Sometimes you can mix the two by throwing a really badass villain that can keep coming up whenever a faceless horde appears (Darth Vader and the Storm Troopers) and develop some characters and story that way, but that path only goes so far. What is more important is to centralize the characters into the climaxes of the story, and not to allow the epic scenes to become impersonal as well. If the story us about the fate of the world hanging in the balance of an epic battle, then that is a great story for having a huge fight where your character can kill a lot of Storm Troopers or Orcs or whatever. But the odds are the player doesn’t really care about “the world” so much as a few of the characters in it.

Probably the greatest example I can think of is in Lunar: The Silver Star. The solution to the epic, large scale, video-game-sized problem was unified with a threat to the main characters. Luna, a major character throughout the game until she is abducted part way through, turned out to be the incarnation of this goddess that the big bad guys wanted to use to rule the entire… never mind, you get it. In reawakening this goddess aspect of herself her own personality was erased, or at least buried underneath another personality. She is now hostile towards Alex, the hero, and threatening him. She also is a threat to the world. The important thing is that the player can’t just kill her to make the problem go away because that would be killing Lunda, and somewhere in that soul Luna is in trouble. There’s a great moment where you approach her after killing the villain and she shoots lightning at you (great video game moment: she’ll actually kill you if you don’t do something to reawaken her memories of you). It’s awesome because you know you want to save the world, but you really want to save Luna too, both for her own sake and for Alex’s. It combines the best of the epic and the intimate to create an emotionally engaging moment, and it is a template for how to do things right.

Genres that Just Died Out

Posted in Gaming Commentary, Uncategorised

Yeah, I’m a bit of an old school gamer. The last game I played was Mass Effect, but the game I played before that was the original Ogre Battle for Super Nintendo. Whenever someone whines to me about how hard Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry was I throw Contra in their face. As a side note: Contra being stupidly difficult is one of those things you can count in in life. I’d even say it’s a constant, like the speed of light. Let it be a rock to you in troubled times. When your world crumbles, your beliefs are tested and you are filled with self doubt draw strength from the knowledge that Contra is, and always will be, very difficult.

I like the old games a lot, so I may come across as one of those “things were better in the good old days” types. Universally they weren’t. But there were some things that were better back in the day, and that’s what I want to talk about. You see, back in the day video games didn’t take teams of 200 people 2+ years to make. The average kindergarten student could produce about 4 NES video games in a year. That’s how low production demands were. Am I using hyperbole? You tell me. The bottom line is that the advent of 3D gaming and production costs (among other things) have combined to murder a lot of good genres, or at least push them towards extinction.

Certain genres are doing fine. It’s the glory days of the FPS (you can tell this is the case because lots of terrible FPSs are being produced, trying to ride on the coat-tails of the good ones). Back when GoldenEye came out every FPS was almost identical and there were only a few standouts, but now there’s actually a difference between Gears of War, Kill Zone, and Left 4 Dead. They aren’t all the exact same game. Good for the video game industry. The bad news is that genres that used to be well represented are dying out.

“Platformer” used to be what “video game” was synonymous with. If you liked video games it meant you like Mario, and possibly Mega Man. Now Mario evolved into 3D and still has 3D platformers, so I’m not too disappointed in him. Mario 64 and Mario Galaxy were both awesome, so he had a solid transition to 3D platforming, and hey, that’s a great evolution of the genre. Nintendo also went retro and released New Super Mario Bros for the DS (which, as a console, tends to get a lot of retro stuff on it) which was an awesome 2D platformer. The problem is, aside from that there’s not a whole lot else out there, and we’re talking 3 major games in a span of several years. Sure Mega Man has been trying, but that series has been refusing to change it’s formula and is getting punished for it. It’s foray into the X-Box Live Arcade was successful but only as a retro game. The genre needs to evolve and can’t keep spitting out the exact same 8 robot masters and 4 Dr. Wily stages every game. Consider the gap between GoldenEye 007 for N64, and a more modern shooter like Left 4 Dead. Things have changed, and they have mostly improved by quite a bit. This is where platformers like Mega Man are in trouble. They haven’t bothered thinking of a better way to make a game within the same genre. No 4-player co-op, no formal time attack modes, no 9th robot master. Nothing.

It’s just not interesting enough or making good use of what’s available anymore. But that doesn’t mean that the entire genre is obsolete. Quite the opposite, many of the most fun games of the past were platformers and it stems from the fact that the premise is good. It just needs to be brought up to speed by keeping what was good about the old and incorporating entirely new elements as well as some of the components that are expected from all games nowadays such as decent story, collectibles, and character advancement.