The Narrative of Video Games (Version 2)
Posted on Saturday, April 3 2010 @ 10:53:04 Eastern
This is a re-write of my Narrative of Video Games Blog that I have tinkered with for the past few months. Enjoy it guys, this is the entire article in full.
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, and impressionable children; the “Bit Wars” were raging, and the birth of fan boys blossomed into the intellectual (to put it nicely) masturbation that we see now on the internet. We have seen 8 bit 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, fruitful, and impressive over the past generation, but in this shuffle of technology with improving graphics, sound, and controls in various ways, one thing has always stood as a problem with games today. Something that has been left in the dust of the tech boom that is slowly, yet surely, catching up, 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 the Amish in a shopping mall, 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. Add a score meter to measure your progress and you have a game of skill over a narrative experience.
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 blog 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. It also gave birth to exposition and character development, again with RPG’s pretty much leading the pack here. 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 yet sufficient back story 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 magical macguffin, and so forth pretty much dominated these storylines, still well masked thanks to well done gameplay. Even a few of the more elaborate stories, like those found in “The Legend of Zelda, 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 in many games today and some people tend to get touchy when this is mentioned. Most stories in video games are, at best, and at worst, rejected plots to B-movie schlock that Ed Wood would blush at. Now I’m not implying that games like “Halo,” “Final Fantasy XII,” or even “Super Mario Galaxy” have, at best, a mediocre storyline. I’m downright saying they have them. But let us back up a second before the firebrands come to roast me on a spit and explain what I mean.
If you really think about it, storytelling is more of an art form, like everything else in video games. Telling a story that is complex, productive, and emotional while letting players control the protagonist’s fate is difficult to accomplish. A lot of it is the art of telling a story in general, narratives, plot, characterization and other literary constructs that can be added to a game. But other factors need to be considered as well, since kind of like adding havoc physics or motion controls into a game. Just because it’s in there doesn’t mean it will work. A poor story can drag a game down, depending on how convoluted it may be. 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 phenomenal in it’s representation, 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 sword and sorcery 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, so much so that I doubt most action plat formers would be using auto-jumps and Z-targeting systems.
Tim Schafer’s “Psychonauts” is the antithesis of Shigeru Miyamoto’s “Zelda”. It was well designed yes, but had rather generic gameplay elements, including old school plat forming and relatively stiff and rudimentary 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. In fact, the narrative was complimented by the design of the game, showcasing two ways to tell a story; one through words, and one through visuals. It has become a cult classic that deserves recognition because of its saucy banter and clever design, a true pillar of smart storytelling.
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 more recently “Wet”. These games make no mistakes to what they are, and relish in it in their design, whether it is a throwback to the world of Grindhouse cinema or a tribute to Frank Miller pulp comics. These type of games work because, despite their controls being stiff or their designs wearing thin after a few hours of gameplay, it is just pure, unwashed fun you are dealing with. 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 never experienced something like “Dune.” It is laughable frankly to see it compared to the “Star Wars” by some gamers, because “Star Wars” was at least a great story that had a fair amount of 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 its design over its story, both on and offline, but it hasn’t done much to draw people into its 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.
And now that I officially pissed of Microsoft, let me explain this more. As a player of the “Halo” games, I can appreciate the gameplay over the story. But the problem’s that do arise from the “Halo” games is that the story seems shoe-horned by the developers as an excuse to partake in epic space battles across against the Covenant and the Flood. The presentation is a major problem, and the real contribution to the plot is just an abstract device for you to continue forward. There is no real emotional attachment, despite characters dying or the epic music in the background blaring during those tear-jerk moments. It is augmented by the fact that all the secondary characters, Col. Johnson, the Arbiter, the Prophets, and so forth, never go beyond their character traits. Col. Johnson may be a bad-ass, but that doesn’t make him a great character. The same goes for the Arbiter, who arguably could have had the best storyline in the entire game; losing one’s faith and redemption from those mistakes. That was brilliant, but it was handled terribly due to bland writing and character turns, and keeping it within the cut-scenes.
While I know this a very objective opinion to have, I still feel that “Halo” is a flawed game in terms of its narrative. Thankfully, there is still hope though, as story telling has become a new field for developers and publishers to tackle when designing a game. Many a rumor has gone out that script writers and authors are beginning to pen game epics, although that could lead us into the never ending pits of epic fantasies with talking cats or steroid-eating space marines. Clichéd as these may be, clever methods to make a story seem more palpable during gameplay have been made in recent years, which one would hope can lead to new trends in how a narrative structure is produced.
One shining example is total immersion of the story to the games design. Instead of relying on cut-scenes, games like “Bioshock” have done away with the in game vignettes and instead make the story flow while you play. Almost in real time, the narrative happens passively, allowing the players to discover what happened to the lost world of Rapture through survivors’ eyes, through visuals, and through cassette tapes found in the world. What adds to the experience is the emotional investment that you also gain from this; instead of being detached to the story like in “Halo,” in “Bioshock” there is a sense of dread for the main protagonist, especially during moments such as when he has to make a choice in fighting Big Daddies for the Little Sisters. Plus it also helps that the story is cleverly written, well paced, and actually had a plausible twist to it.
Another method that is rather popular now is dialogue choices and “light/dark” pathways, popularized by “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” and pretty much every single Bioware game since then. While these storylines can be epic and well told, it is the choices the character makes that determines what happens in the story, sort of a “Choose your own Adventure” style of game. These games have copious amounts of dialogue and choice to get through, and while sometimes it can be overbearing and have no pacing, when it is done right, say in “Dragon Age: Origins” or “Knights of the Old Republic,” it can tell a really complex and deep story that would invest you in the characters in a way that would seem impossible. Plus actions within the story can affect your choices for later, such as killing someone important or going out of your way to save someone’s life, to name a few examples.
RPG’s have been the trailblazers in many ways for complex narratives. While Bioware’s patented representation is just one example, Bethesda would be another developer to highlight. Their “open world” RPG games like “Fallout 3” and “The Elder Scrolls” series lead to the same choices, but this time in a free-forming way instead of a linear storyline. You can pick and choose what you want to do, and how you accomplish it. There are still problems with this type of storytelling though, namely the immersion you feel is limited to the design of the game; to get anywhere you need to interact with NPC’s and receive quests. But the payoff is worth the journey in this case.
Finally, storytelling without a story has also been done, creating visual treats that would explain a games background more than the dialogue itself. Valve has been a leader in this, with games like “Left 4 Dead” and “Portal” offering a story with little or no dialogue, fun gameplay mechanics, and visuals that explain everything. Seeing a dead body or scribbled writings on an exposed wall is all you need to know about those who walked the paths before you in these types of games. It makes the world more detailed and realistic in some ways, although the lack of a true structure is apparent after a while.
These are just some clever ways to expand on the narrative structure around video games that I have noticed personally. While it is objective as to what one should do when creating a strong narrative, in reality it is more about the content over the method. All of the games above, for the most part, have either a simple storyline or a complex and deep narrative that can take hours upon hours of couch-sitting to get through. They can be cinematic like “Halo”, minimalist like “Portal”, immerse you into the world like “Bioshock” or let you choose your path like “Fallout 3”. Presentation is one aspect that is being experimented on and has yielded great success for most games.
But for the presentation to be amazing, the characterizations and plot need to augment it. Going back to “Halo”, the supporting cast was paper thin and the motivations for the plot were excuses to have big battles, in one sense. There is honestly no right or wrong answer as to how you can make a story better, but for the most part, it all depends on the constructs of the story itself. If you can achieve a degree or emotion out of a characters death, such as Arieth from “Final Fantasy VII” or feel the surprise of a reveal of something major, such as the reveal of Darth Revan from “Knights of the Old Republic,” then the story, despite any flaws it may have, has done its job.
Video games are a new medium for telling good, emotional storylines with deep characters. These games can be epic and sweeping, and most importantly, fun. Complex themes can be explored both tastefully and tastelessly depending on the tone of the game itself. Characters can learn and grow through the experiences in the game, as many a JRPG has shown us. And above all, the gameplay does not have to be compromised if done correctly. Be it a B-title game that is more about the action, but doesn’t shy away from what it is, or a sweeping piece that can portray three-dimensional characters in a setting you care for, games have come a long way from the simple pixel graphics that our fore-fathers once played. The narratives in video games can be clichéd or something new, but it is how they are told that that tells a story of its own for those playing it.
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Finally going somewhere!
Posted on Thursday, February 18 2010 @ 16:27:56 Eastern
It's been a while since I posted, but I have been busy.
With two new jobs....that are pretty awesome.
The first one is a teaching position with middle school kids that have high functioning (and in some cases lower functioning) autism. Rough work, but it's really, really rewarding. It's also steady, and frankly I couldn't be happier with that. I basically back up the teacher who does lessons, while I facilitate them, kind of like a TA, but with more power. The job is really fun, but time consuming and kind of tiring, but I love it (and id love it more if school wasn't an issue.)
My second job is not really a job, but something I have been looking forward to for a long time. I entered a contest recently for some off-shoot video game website that was looking for writers, and won (thank you "A Gay old Time") So they asked me to write for them!
Yes, it mean's I am officially (more unofficially, since i'm not being paid) a game journalist! I have already penned a few reviews for the site, and if time goes on, I might actually be paid for my work, or even better, be sent to events like E3.
Granted though, the site is small, twenty or so people know about it, and it is still going through growing pains with beta and what not, but hey, everyone has to start somewhere if they know no one!
If you want more information, PM me and I will direct you to the website, otherwise, and out of respect, I will likely not be posting any Vox-Pop blogs or reviews here anymore........
So I guess, that means i'm retired.....except for one more I HAVE to write, and that is Bioshock 2....
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The Point of Pointlessness: Or How I Stopped Worrying About the VGA's and Dropped This Bomb
Posted on Saturday, November 28 2009 @ 10:12:04 Eastern
As the holidays draw closer to us, three things happen. One, a ton of shopping for your respected holiday, but it Christmas, Chanukah, or Festivus to name a few, will likely get done. Second, you’ll get fat with all the food you will eat. Always. Lastly, it becomes award season for all the entertainment industries, which begin to pump out the best stuff of the year, supposedly, in the span of eight weeks before January.
So what does this mean for video games? Why it’s the annual Spike TV Video Game Awards, a piece of poop that for the past six or so years has airs on the “network for men” channel to promote the best video games of the year. With star-studded hosts like Samuel L. Jackson taking center-stage with some other B-list celebrities, the VGA’s have become a fixture for the video game world, a fixture that is more like a dark stain on the souls of mankind that needs to be removed to the depths of hell as soon as possible.
You might be wondering right about now, why am I so bitter towards something that can be seen as harmless? It promotes decent games all the time and it also gives us some credit as a medium. To which I reply with a snarky roll of the eyes and say you’re wrong. The Spike TV VGA’s is really more detrimental than you think, because what it does is cater to the lowest denominator for the audience in the end, turning what a night of deserving accolades should be into a political popularity contest for the masses to enjoy. Granted this is similar to the Oscars and the Grammys, but at least they hide it better. The VGA’s are just blatant about it.
So what is really so bad about it? Well, for starters, it’s the inconsistency of the reward categories. Last year, there were 25 categories for games to win awards in. This year, they added four more to the list, some of which repeat themselves. It also the categorization’s in the past that sometimes made no sense. 2007 was particularly bad, having “Best Military Game” and “Most Addictive Videogame.” As major categories. The categories seem to come and go as they please. “Best performance by a male/female” voice actor (which for some reason is ALWAYS A KNOWN CELEBRITY over an actual voice artist.) disappeared in 2007, when it was a part of the ceremony in 2006, and was later added in 08 and the upcoming awards show this December. The inconsistencies’ make it hard to track anything in terms of a narrative of the show. The only staples are genre awards (usually best shooter, action game, RPG and sport sim) and the two big awards (Game of the Year and Best Studio/Developer.)
Speaking of celebrities, they put a lot of emphasis on them over the games themselves, and even less emphasis on the game developers and producers. Unlike a more stable award show like the Interactive Achievement Awards (IAA), the VGA’s try to make things as flashy as possible for everyone to I guess enjoy. The celebrity hosting, cameo’s and promotions for the celebs in-game essentially mask the purpose of the awards at times; which is honoring the hard work the developers did. Granted, the VGA’s used to have a designer of the year award, but that was dropped for two extra categories for the celebrities. In fact, of the 29 categories, five of them deal with celebrity voices in game, and some of these categories are repeats of themselves, like “Best voice” and “Best Male/Female performance.” The choices are all different, however, so perhaps it was just a bad ploy to get more celebs in the running.
Then we get nonsense categories like “Most Anticipated Game.” I mentioned this briefly above, but when your award show is going to hand out an award for a game that was not released yet, and is all about hype, there is a problem. In fact, a lot of the games nominated are usually the result of hype-fueled debates. These categories take away from the show, turning it into the prom contest we don’t need to see.
Another problem is the timing of everything. Most award shows begin around February, with selection throughout January on the previous year awards. The VGA’s seems to do things in December, and selects games in November. The timing is way too short of a deadline to pick a good list, and since the year is not finished yet and three of the five games up for game of the year came out literally within the week of the nominations being announced, it is hard not to draw conclusions over a major problem of biased nominations. The three games in questions, “Modern Warfare 2,” “Left 4 Dead 2,” and “Assassins Creed 2” were all hyped up to be the best games of the year, and while I am sure each has its own strengths and weaknesses, the fact that they came out days before the announcements of the nominations is a major problem. It once again seems to be more about hype over results, and while many gamers will argue for one over the other, the simple fact that other games which are just as good, or even better in some opinions, were left out on the cold.
And perhaps the most damning thing the VGA’s can do is being biased. As I said, the Oscars and Grammys do it all the time, but nine times out of ten they can mask it. Here, it’s blatantly obvious ALL THE TIME. Take, for example, “Muramasa: The Demon Blade.” While it was a really niche title in terms of it’s play style, and it was on the Nintendo Wii, it was beautiful, frantic and overall fun, an experience this year that is being overlooked at the VGA’s because it was not nominated in any category. Even for “Best Wii Game” it was shut out, and instead we get “Madworld” and “Wii Sports Resort” two games that, while good, paled in comparison to “Muramasa.” The inclusions of these two show something about the VGA’s. For one, they rely on bigger name companies, SEGA and Nintendo respectfully, over an obscure developer like Vanillaware and Ignition entertainment. It also shows a major difference between tastes of gaming; “Muramasa” was a Japanese developed game which looked the part, the latter were games that looked more western, or at least not as Japanese as they could have been depending on the company like Nintendo and Sega. Lastly, one can argue that “Madworld” is included just because it waas rated M filler game that was on a Wii. This can bring up a whole new debate if it win’s best Wii game over the likes of “Punch Out!!” and “Super Mario Bros. Wii," although to be fair this is unlikely.
But the shafting of “Muramasa” is not the only oversight. Other great games this year, “Dragon Age: Origins,” “Scribblenauts,” and “Blazblue” each got shafted in their own way. “Dragon Age” is up for best RPG and PC game, but not game of the year, developer of the year, and best cast. “Blazblue” is only up for best fighting game this year, and not for soundtrack and graphics. Lastly, “Scribblenauts” was shafted by being nominated for best Hand held game only, and is not up for any other categories like best developer, which it could be nominated for.
Now granted, the majority of the games nominated were chosen for a reason in their categories. And this is where varying opinions as to why these games are up for game of the year, or why other games are not nominated at all. But, it seems to me at least, the bottom line always comes down to two things, money and ratings. To put butts in front of the boob tube they need to pick the big draws. There is no denying games like "Modern Warfare 2," which had so much pre-release hype and sold around 2 million copies on launch day, is a big draw. It puts any Wii game nominated for "Wii Game of the year" to shame, in fact I doubt those five games combined can even be half of what "Modern Warfare 2" has sold in general since launch. There is nothing wrong with popularity in this sense, but it is the business-like mentality that lets games like "Muramasa" slip by. It is more about the bottom line over the merits of the game; to sell it for viewers at home they put the AAA titles, whether they deserve it or not, up for nominations over the little guys which, to some gamers, should at least get some degree of recognition for their hard work.
And this is what you can say separates the VGA's from other award shows. The Oscars, despite being political, at least nominate movies that, while for the general audience may not enjoy, understand, or like them at all, they get the recognition they deserve. Not every "Gladiator" or "Lord of the Rings" movie nominated would win either, sometimes we get the more obscure "Crash" or "The English Patient" over something more well known. It is debatable if they deserve it again, but the fact that they are nominated is recognition for the merits of the medium they are trying to present. For games, it comes down to partially what is known to be popular through sales and word of mouth, and partially what is familiar to the general population.
The Spike TV VGA’s are, in effect, the obvious popularity contest you would expect at a high school prom. The most likeable to the masses get’s the top billing, even when they don’t deserve it. The flashy celebrity appearances, the lack of respect for the developers, both mainstream and independent, the total exclusion of deserving games in numerous categories all concocts a disgusting potion that frankly is not worth our time as gamers. Yet the problem persists because now outlet’s like Gamestop try to promote the VGA’s as much as possible. There is nothing wrong with that, but when the popularity contest is getting more ink than the peer-reviewed award shows, like the IAA’s, there is a serious problem for the industry as a whole, because even the Oscars, for all of its political dealings, is peer reviewed. If we want to be taken seriously, the IAA’s, or an IAA-style award show needs to be pushed more over the bloated mess that the VGA’s takes on every year. We may not be able to stop it, but as time goes on and gamers grow up with their medium, I just hope that they discover how much of a stinking turd this award show is.
But you know what? What is the point? Everyone reading this knows that the VGA's are a joke, so why make this point. I guess there really is no point to the pointlessness, other than a plus one rant for my own ego to stroke for a week. But frankly, the fact that no one talks about issues like this is a problem if you ask me. Every year many games shout in disdain against the VGA's and other subsequent award ceremonies, so what is stopping these said gamers from showing it to others out there. There is no point to this, but I guess I shouldn't worry either, because everyone knows it in the end as well.
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Games Are Not Art: Response and Proposal
Posted on Wednesday, October 28 2009 @ 13:39:17 Eastern
Video games is such a diverse medium that it is somewhat easy to forget that differing opinions, however alien they may be to your own, are welcome for a critical debate. Recently, a forum user named Melaisis posted a rather interesting article title... read more...
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Arnold J. Toynbee
Posted on Monday, October 5 2009 @ 12:23:05 Eastern
Normally I don't do this, but frankly i'm tired and I figure if you guys like me, you can share in my pain.
For the past three weeks I have been preparing for writing an annotated bibliography on one Arnold J. Toynbee, a contemporary ... read more...
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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 “W... read more...
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At a Loss
Posted on Tuesday, July 28 2009 @ 13:10:42 Eastern
I have no right to complain about life, since I have lead a decent one compared to most, but I am just at such a loss as to what I even want to do with myself right now.
Ive been attempting for a year to get into teaching full time, and so... read more...
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Facing Changes, Choosing None
Posted on Tuesday, July 21 2009 @ 15:28:24 Eastern
They say that you are often harsher on the ones you love. When a family member did something stupid, or a girlfriend said something nasty, people push back because they have a deep affection for them, and eventually work out thei... read more...
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Digital Download Saga: Why it Will Initially Fail
Posted on Monday, May 4 2009 @ 10:22:43 Eastern
In the month of May, the game Patapon 2 will be released for the Sonly PSP. This is a game that will be very critical in shaping the future of gaming, even if it doesn’t know it. It’s not due to some innovative gamepl... read more...
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A Gay Old Time
Posted on Thursday, March 26 2009 @ 11:25:43 Eastern
As a gamer, you sometimes forget about the differences that people may have from each other. The stereotypes of gamer geeks and manchildren are somewhat eradicated now, because of am emerging casual market, and a lot of different gro... read more...
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