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The Narrative of Video Games, Part 1
Posted on Friday, September 18 2009 @ 09:11:53 Eastern

Today it is hard to imagine a world without video games, let alone the style of games many newer generations have become accustomed to. Like in “Back to the Future, Part II”, the scene where Marty McFly plays “Wild Gunman” in the Café 80’s, a young kid exclaims “You use your hands?! That’s a kid’s toy!”

It’s stranger still to think that video games have essentially been perfected to the point where innovation is now more about control over graphical upgrades, something that is actually new in the industry, if you really think about it. When many of us were young, innocent children, the “Bit Wars” was raging, and the birth of fanboys blossomed into the intellectual masturbation that we see now on the internet. We have seen 8 turn to 16, 16 to 32 and 64, and 64 cartridges to CD technology, and finally CD’s to Blu-Rays, on the PS3, at the very least. The progression has been rapid and fruitful for all.

But in this shuffle of technology improving graphics, sound, and controls in various ways, one thing has always stood as a problem in video games; and that is adequate narrative structure, or storytelling, if you want to be less pretentious about it.

Going back to the 8 bit days, video games with stories were about as common as a surfer in Utah. That is, as obscure as you can get. The reason? Well, I don’t know. Perhaps it was graphical limitation or more about the gameplay in those days. Hell, some of the most successful and addictive games have no true story to it. Look at Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, even Guitar Hero in the modern day; it was all about improving yourself to go that extra mile that one time to make it count, building skill and coordination.

Now a disclaimer I guess is warranted at this point. A lot of the following has been discussed ENDLESSLY on various forums, be it videos, articles, other Vox Pop entries myself and others have made, and so forth. So if I’m regurgitating something said before, without giving credit to that person, I’m sorry. But in the end, were all fighting in the same corner for the same cause.

Video games began getting stories back in the day through exposition and minor text quips. RPG’s primarily led the way to this, with Final Fantasy and pretty much everything done by Square and Enix being an example. It was simple at the time, minor stories that drove characters, usually a group chosen to save the world and what not, and the rest was made for you to follow in a linear fashion.

Other methods of storytelling were usually through the game manuals and text, such as “Legend of Zelda” being a prime example. Everyone who read the manual knew that Zelda was the princess and was taken by Ganon, and our hero Link was there to stop him. It gave a small, sufficient backstory that has pretty much anchored the entire franchise to this day.

It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that stories began to become somewhat complex. Characters emerged to become emblems of adult themes, like Lara Croft (before she sold out), Duke Nukem (before he disappeared) and Sonic (before he sucked.) The simple stories of save the world, find the macguffin, and so on pretty much existed, but were still well masked thanks to well done gameplay. Even a few of the more elaborate stories, like those found in Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy VIII, had simple objectives, but were fleshed out with characters that can be personified more easily than previous generations.

But one thing is still lacking, and some people tend to get touchy when this is mentioned. Most stories in video games are pretty generic at best, and at worst, rejected plots to B-movies Ed Wood would blush at. Now I’m not implying that games like Halo, Gears of War, Final Fantasy XII, or even Super Mario Galaxy have bad stories. I’m downright saying they have them!

If you really think about it, storytelling is more of an artform, like everything else in video games. And telling a story that is interactive, productive, and let’s players control the protagonist’s fate, is hard to accomplish. A lot of it is the art of telling a story in general, narratives, plot, characterization and other literary constructs can be added to a game, but so can havoc physics and motion controls. Just because it’s in there doesn’t mean it will work. Conversely, a well written story can be a poor game, because while the writing may be similar to the works of Mark Twain or Edgar Allen Poe, the gameplay can suffer for being repetitive, bland, unresponsive or uninspired.

It is hard to strike a balance between these two seemingly polar opposites. For example, look at “Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time”. Some would argue that the story in “Ocarina of Time” was actually decent, and I would be among those to defend it. It had an epic feel, enough twists to keep us interested in the narrative, had little exposition and overall was told really well. But, in hindsight, what was really new about it? It was generic fantasy, taking cues from Lord of The Rings, old mythology, including Greek, Roman, and Japanese, and even a bit of surrealism from the likes of Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie. It blended it well, but it was still cliché and compared to great epics, not as memorable. What was memorable was the gameplay, being a powerhouse and innovation for 3-D adventures even to this day.

Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts is the antithesis of Shigeru Miyamoto’s Zelda. It was well designed yes, but had poor gameplay elements, old school platforming and generic combat. But its narrative was complex, creative, and it made the game stand out, in gamers eyes at least, more than it did in the general public. It has become a cult classic that deserves recognition because of its saucy banter and clever design, a true pillar of art like Ocarina of Time is. (but that’s another story.)

While both games I have mentioned each were great games and will always be so, what they lacked is a problem that affects even lesser games out there. Games heavy on design but light on story can have appeal as what they are, obvious, B-movie romps, like “God Hand”, “Madworld”, or the upcoming “Wet”. When these B-movie games take themselves seriously, like say….”Halo”, then it becomes hard to really enjoy the experience.

“Halo” is a decent game; don’t get me wrong, but anyone who says its story is amazing either never experienced something like “Moby Dick.” It is laughable frankly to see it compared to the “Star Wars” by some fanboys, because “Star Wars” was at least a great story that had depth, characterization and a real sense of tension and release. “Halo” is like a 5th graders interpretation of a massive franchise, more comparable to the riveting dialogue of “Predator” over anything else. It’s not good writing to make paper-thin characters. If anything, Halo revolutionized the FPS with it’s design over it’s story, both on and offline, but it hasn’t done much to draw people into it’s narrative. In fact, a lot of the excess, the novels, machinas, and other little tidbits created around the Halo games have fleshed out the story more than the games themselves.

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