Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Oh. Yeah. It's 2014...

Guess I should make a list of my top 5 games of 2013, then. Sure, it's July, but what the heck.

I picked the games on this list not just because I enjoyed them. The reason they're here is because of the way they each handled their story; from the quality of its presentation to the way it melds with the gameplay. I'll give a short rundown of why I picked each game, but I won't go into specific plot details. So no need to worry about spoilers.

Let's get right to it, shall we? And the top five are:

5. Outlast

I think you could say that the most important thing in a horror game is its atmosphere. Sure, you need spooky monsters and the occasional jump scare, but these don't provide any lasting sense of dread. A good horror game saturates the world with fear; it's in the sounds around you, the architecture, the color... often what you don't see is scarier than what you do.

Outlast gets this. Oh boy, does it get it.
I'm not even touching the actual story here yet. The way you experience it is what makes it unforgettable. From the environment to the body you inhabit as the player - the game is filled to the brim with terror.

One of the two things that stand out in how well the game immerses you in its world is your character's body. It's clear that efforts were made in making every head-bob feel authentic, as well as every step, crawl and scurry. You are not a floating, bodiless eye. Your hands and limbs are visible in almost every action you take. Try to peek around a corner and your hand will reach out to grasp it, slowly inching your head past the threshold. Crawling on the floor feels like you'd imagine it; clutching at a hiding spot so the baddies won't see you. This constant physical contact with the environment is a powerful anchor; it makes you very aware of the fact that you are a person, a frail and jittery person.

The other element is your camcorder. Its brilliance lies in it being your most useful tool, but also a constant source of the fear you experience. Sure, it lets you see in the dark, but do you really want to see what's out there? The game encourages you to use your camera often, and looking through it gives the game the eerie sensation similar to that of found footage films, making everything around you seem way too real.

And let's not forget about the location, of course - a fantastically detailed insane asylum whose every room and door could hide a potential horrifying threat. But it also does a swell job of telling the story within the story. It feels both wonderful and terrible to explore; wanting to dig around and find more about the world and its characters, but fearing the psychological damage it might cause you to try.

For scaring me senseless and doing it brilliantly, Outlast makes my list.

4. Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider did a fair job with its cinematic storytelling. It conveyed action and drama throughout the game both in captivating cutscenes and intense gameplay. But that's not the reason I picked it. The reason is, quite simply, Lara Croft herself.

When the first Tomb Raider was released millions of years ago, it was a huge hit. Lara became a cultural phenomenon. She was touted as a strong female video game character, and the fact that she became so popular made her all the more remarkable, solidifying her place in video game history.

But y'know what? I never liked her. She always seemed to me to be more male-oriented than anything else, as the most prominent element of her character was her sexuality. So you could argue that with her generic snappy dialogue and action-woman stunts she was indeed a strong female character, but to me she just wasn't a particularly good character to begin with. There have been many more Tomb Raider games since then. Some better and some worse, but Lara's always been the same, and I never connected with the series because of it.

Earlier this year, that finally changed. Lara Croft of the new Tomb Raider is a whole new woman, and one much more interesting than her last incarnation. Yes, this game is a prequel, or an origin story if you like. As such it's good but doesn't particularly stand out. But the transition Lara undergoes as you're playing her is astounding to experience. She transforms, slowly, through hardship, from a capable but frightened girl who weeps and whimpers as she is forced to slay vicious people who want to kill her, to a strong woman who stands up to a challenge and comes out on top against the odds. By the end of the game you yawp with her as she strides to battle, ready to fight.

Tomb Raider is on this list because Lara is now an actual character, rather than a mere sex symbol combined with boring action hero tropes. And I am so happy that, as far as I'm concerned, Lara has finally earned the place in history she received so long ago.

3. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers posed a bit of a problem for me at first. I knew I wanted it on my list but placing it turned out harder than I thought. The top two spots were easy to sort, but the bottom three proved to be more challenging. I felt that Brothers should be at number three, but I had trouble justifying that choice to myself. Both Tomb Raider and Outlast are excellent in their own right, and they each have a much more intricate story than that of Brothers, with more varied characters, locations and plot twists. In the end, Brothers won out because it has an incredibly powerful story that quite simply outdoes the other two games in every substantial way.

Firstly, the game's writers made a very smart decision in setting the game in an unnamed fantastical land, inhabited by characters that don't speak English or any other recognizable language for that matter. It gives the game a distinct mythical feel and a sense of timelessness, like a fable or a folktale.

Then we have what the game is probably most famous for; the fact that you control the two titular brothers at the same time. Its main function in-game is to solve puzzles, of course, moving the brothers appropriately to get past obstacles. More importantly for us, however, it has a great influence on the narrative. This mechanic emphasizes beautifully the way these two brothers work as one, and the bond they share. It's a refreshing mechanic that adds a lot to their characters. Without any words or scripted scenes, you simply see these two boys work together perfectly. You almost forget that it's you who are moving them. It's one of the most mesmerizing examples of interactive storytelling I've seen. But the game isn't content to leave it at that. That mechanic is the center of the relationship and interaction between the brothers and their world, and as the game progresses the mechanic does as well.

As promised I won't get into the story details, but I will say that even though the story relies heavily on this 'gimmick', it does so perfectly. It doesn't hold back, and takes the core idea of controlling two characters to the extent of its narrative potential.

For creating an amazing way for story and game to work together and then making that story flourish, I'm proud to put Brothers at number 3 on my list.

2.Bioshock Infinite

The Bioshock series has always been about big ideas; towering manifestations of human ambition tested against the reality of human nature. Bioshock Infinite undeniably lives up to that pedigree. Indeed, the floating city of Columbia is nothing if not a plethora of ideals made real. However, where the previous games centered on conflicting philosophies and the results of their clashing, Infinite places the heart of the story in its main characters, namely Booker and Elizabeth.

Booker is the first playable character in the Bioshock games to have a prominent speaking role. The game is experienced in Half-Life-esque manner, so we never get to see much of Booker; we experience everything that happens through his eyes. Just as in Half Life, this helps create a believable flow to the events of the story and keeps us immersed in the tale. Unlike Gordon Freeman, however, Booker speaks. Often. That in and of itself wouldn't be notable except that it is so wonderfully executed here. Since we never see Booker, there isn't a chance for him to give a visual performance; the entire strength of his character is conveyed through his dialogue. The fact that it is done so vividly and authentically is a testament to the outstanding writing and vocal performance. Since the game takes control fairly sparingly, much of the dialogue happens during gameplay, organically flowing from the actions the player performs. It's a wonderful approach that gives more context and narrative value Booker's actions. Of course, he's only half the heart of the story. The other half belongs to Elizabeth.

Far more than a run-of-the-mill AI escort, the character of Elizabeth is remarkable to behold. From the moment you meet her she'll be examining the environment, making comments and questioning your actions. She's a constant source of narrative development; her interaction with Booker and the way their relationship evolves throughout the game is possibly the most important aspect of the story. The way that relationship is handled during the game is absolutely brilliant. For starters, it's pretty evident that Elizabeth was designed with the intent of being less aggravating than AI partners tend to become. She can't die, for one thing. That already eliminates the majority of causes to hate your AI companion (there's probably nothing more annoying than having to reload a game because an AI sidekick died doing something stupid). If that wasn't enough, Elizabeth was also made to be useful; she will occasionally toss you supplies and ammo during a firefight, as well as locate strategic tools you can use to your advantage. These mechanics don't serve only a gameplay-related function, but they narratively help assert the notion that these two characters become a strong team. But even more engaging are the character-driven moments that happen incidentally, while simply exploring parts of the city. This type of character-building doesn't happen much in games. It's a technique that breathes life to the game's characters and gives them a strong feeling of authenticity. Bioshock Infinite executes it flawlessly.

You'll notice I haven't spoken much of the actual storyline. That's intentional. I can't really go into it much without spoiling it. However, I can say that, true to Bioshock form, it's full of twists and turns, and will have you scratching your head long after you've played through it. Yet even disregarding the complex plot and symbolism, the core of Booker and Elizabeth's journey would be enough for me. What we have here overall, as well as in the previous games of the series, is a story that respects its audience and their capacity to comprehend big ideas. For all of these, Bioshock Infinite has become my favorite game of the series and it has earned the second place on my list.

And now we finally reach my favorite story of 2013:

1. The Last of Us

I suppose this doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who has played this game. If there is one game on this list that deserves a full story-post it's this one. There's simply so much to say about it. For now I'll try to be brief, since this post is already ridiculously late.

I don't like it when I give in to hyperbole, but in this case it's difficult to avoid since The Last of Us might actually be the best story I've ever experienced in a video game. Oh, I'm sure it has its flaws; things that could be fixed, writing that could be improved upon. Honestly, though, you could say that about anything. Regardless, The Last of Us has come the closest to delivering what I think is the optimal narrative experience.

The thing is that The Last of Us just gets everything right. Everything that has to do with the game; the level design, the player choices, the challenges - they are fantastic. The AI is actually one of the best I've played against. It proves to be challenging but completely beatable, if you play right. But a superb gaming experience is just the tip of the iceberg.

And now we come to the meat of it; the actual story. It's hard to talk about without revealing anything, because so much of what makes it amazing is in its characters, its setting and its wonderful plot. but I guess it should be enough to say just how impressed I am by the quality of all of these. This is a real plot, people. This isn't a series of missions strung together with a boss at the end. This plot is character-driven, multilayered, and designed to perfection. Naughty Dog really do have a knack for bringing life to their characters not only through the intricately woven cutscenes but during actual gameplay as well. The atmosphere seeps through to every facet of the game itself, and into everything you do.

It's not that it just works well on the technical level, either. We've seen games like this; games that have engaging gameplay, good writing, compelling characters and a great atmosphere. They aren't easy to create, of course, but we have seen the likes of them before. Games have mastered presentation. But in The Last of Us, all these are brought together to create a deep, rich and honest-to-god narrative. These characters don't just have good written dialogue; they are themselves written well. They have motivations, goals, faults. The story revolves around them. This. This altogether, is not something we see very often, and surely not something we see done so well.

I really could write a whole lot more but I have to end somewhere. For making an amazing game, merged beautifully with an even more amazing story, The Last of Us This is my top choice for narrative-led games in 2013. And with the PS4 version coming out this year, it might just well take my top spot for 2014, as well.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

An Able Parable

I think anyone who is interested in the way games tell stories owes themselves a look at The Stanley Parable. It's not perfect, but it's definitely a delightful way to ponder the concept of game narratives.

It's been touted as a kind of experiment exploring narrative within a virtual world, but structurally it's pretty run-of-the-mill. It uses a basic branching story structure, where each choice the player makes leads to another and so on. Stanley highlights these choices by making the narrator respond to each of them, and nearly all of them result in a wildly different ending to the game. But behind it all this is the exact same build as any multi-path story-driven game.

It's not the structure itself that's interesting, though, but the game's constant self-referencing and breaking of the fourth wall. These underline the game's focus; the conflict between narratives which attempt to tell a story within virtual spaces, and player agency which invariably exists to some degree within these spaces.

The choices and the endings that ensue are a lot of fun, and they all essentially discuss the same thing: the narrative fighting for control with the player. Of course, the game also makes it clear that as long as the player is in the game, she is under the control of the narrative and part of its design.

It's a point I thoroughly support. I think the game tackles gameplay and narrative in one of the best ways I've experienced and raises a lot of questions about the issue. I also think it answers more of these questions than it would care to admit.

Friday, November 29, 2013

In Dead Space 3, You Co-op Buddy Can Hear You Scream

There's actually not a lot I can say about the single-player story in Dead Space 3. That is, it doesn't do anything exceptional in terms of presentation or content. Playing it in co-op, however... well, that's a different issue. I've recently completed it with a friend and that experience was undoubtedly unique. The reason I found it so interesting is because, unlike other co-op games I've experienced, DS3 attempts to provide a story that changes based on the way it is experienced.

The story (if there is one) in most other co-op games I'm familiar with usually revolves around one character, and is experienced individually by each player. In Diablo 3, for instance, the main quest is pretty much the same for all players but each player sees story clips that are unique to the character he's playing. There is never any acknowledgement of the fact that you're a group of people instead of just one. The same approach can be seen in other co-op games. One exception I can currently think of is Portal 2. That game has a co-op mode whose story revolves around both its characters. Besides them not being very talkative, though, that game's co-op campaign is separate from the main storyline. In that sense it's more along the lines of conventional multiplayer, I think. Resident Evil 5 also manages a a story with two main characters, but there the co-op character turns into an AI partner when the game is played alone.

Dead Space 3 goes in another direction; it wants to provide a proper single player experience that will adjust seamlessly when experienced in co-op. Thus, when played alone, Dead Space 3's single player story focuses entirely on Isaac Clarke, the series' resident protagonist. In this mode, John Carver is just another supporting character, albeit a more central one. When played in co-op, however, all the game's cinematic moments are adjusted to have Carver in on the action alongside Clarke. I like this approach because it doesn't sacrifice the single player experience for the sake of co-op. The developers intended to provide a decent story that would work when played alone or with a partner, without sticking a crappy AI who'd get itself killed most of the time (I'm looking at you, RE5!).

The problem is that even though it creates a seamless experience when playing as Clarke, the same can't be said for anyone playing as Carver (which I did). Even though the game's story moments are tweaked to accommodate two players, these moments are entirely focused on the character of Clarke. And I don't mean that only in the narrative sense. Literally, when an event happens, the camera shifts to Clarke, leaving Carver somewhere out of sight. To be fair, there are Carver-focused missions in the game that are exclusive to the co-op mode. However, they're not part of the main storyline; they can be skipped or even just missed while playing. The real reason this is an issue is because it highlights the fact that Carver isn't really relevant to the central plot. And it's true, in a way. Playing as Carver in co-op produces a sensation of being almost entirely disengaged from the story, and worse - like the story is intentionally leaving you out. It makes it clear that Carver's inclusion in the game's story to begin with is for co-op purposes only.

My guess would be that the story making sense in co-op came second to providing good gameplay experience. As a fan of stories I'm a bit disappointed, since that attitude effectively ruined my experience of the story in co-op (even though the gameplay was fantastic). I still like the idea, though, and I think that their approach could work if they adjust the story appropriately next time (assuming there is one). All I know is I would love to play a co-op game that embraces its two protagonists fully.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Few Points on Games and Narrative

About the TotalBiscuit video...

I got really agitated watching it. Couldn't watch a whole minute without pausing it and ranting to myself. That's why, by the end, I rushed over here to say I was planning on making a post about it, rebutting every point it made. But then I calmed down and realized I didn't want to write a vitriolic post. This kind of rage-filled commentary is what you'd find on youtube or on game forums... it's exactly the kind of douchery I wanted to avoid when starting this blog.

But it is understandable, you know? We devote our lives - our identities - to our hobbies and we are passionate about them. When somebody comes along who sees things differently and seems to look down on our beliefs, we take it personally. How can we not? So we defend our beliefs savagely, like a a wild animal protecting its young. But if you want to have a rational discussion of ideas, you have to let that reflexive anger subside. One of the things which plagues our hobby is excessive melodrama, and I'm hoping to avoid that here by writing calmly about everything, whether I agree with it or not.

I do owe you a rebuttal, though.
I don't want to write an inflammatory post dissecting the video's every comment, but I do stand by what I said earlier - that video expresses a lot of what I don't agree with in the discussion of game narrative.

So I'm just going to give a few points of my own about the topic. First, here's the video again:

The school of thought that this video seems to express is of a particlar elitist type I don't much care for. It has what I call the "should" syndrome. Just go ahead and count how many times the word "should" is used in one way or another in the video. The reason it annoyes me is because this doesn't relate to a discussion of games that are poorly made, rather it is a discussion of games not made the way the critic wants them to be. It's as if these games critics have a monopoly on what video games are meant to be, and any game that doesn't fit that ideal is looked down upon as a lesser product.

In the case of games and narrative, that means any game that chooses to tell its story in one way instead of another. To be more specific, it's a game that dares to commit the heinous crime of using cinematic storytelling, or - shock horror - dictate a situation to the player. That's it. Now, obviously I disagree with that opinion, but it's that attitude of arrogant dismissal that really upsets me. Like I said at the beginning, I do get where that attitude comes from. You can hear it in TotalBiscuit's tone throughout the video; It's something he's passionate about. But this goes beyond liking one genre over another - his attitude is one of exclusion, not inclusion, and that's why I find it wrong.

Here are a few more points:
First off, the whole argument that games "shouldn't" use techniques used in film or other mediums is childish - and that's putting it politely. Photography existed before film, and composition existed long before that. Likewise, text and language had been used to tell stories long before the novel ever came into being. So why are these modes of expression suddenly deemed lower? Are they truly lacking? These methods have been used for hundreds of years to convey and communicate ideas, feelings, atmosphere. Why on earth would you want games to avoid using these tried-and-tested tools? Why deny them that?

Which brings me to my next point - one of the great strengths of narrative-led video games is that they create a space in which events unfold. In this space, they can seamlessly combine both the visual bombast of cinematic storytelling, and the rich imagery of the written word. Why would we want to ignore this incredible asset is beyond me.

Lastly, claims that cinematic games can be watched instead of played and offer the same experience are plain false. If it were true, you could pretty much say it for any game. But that's simply not the case. A game's inherent interactivity (and it doesn't matter if it's Call of Duty or Skyrim), influences the way you engage it. Look at someone playing a video game versus someone watching a film. You can see they're not doing the same activity. Even if the game is linear, even if it dares to show you a cut-scene - these are additions that enrich the gameplay experience, they don't replace it.

So that's just a bit of commentary, and I hope it was sufficiently venom-free.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Bit of News

I hope you found the Black Ops II storypost interesting. While there's more that can be discussed about the game, I'm satisfied with what I managed to get through. And of course I'd be happy to join any discussions on the subject, if any should arise.

Next on my plate is Dead Space 3. I've recently completed the game in co-op mode and it is definitely worth a look.

Before I write about that, though, in my next post I'm going to discuss a recent video by TotalBiscuit. In it, he discusses gameplay and narrative. As it's pretty much all this blog is about, I was eager to watch it.

Here's the video:

Funnily enough, I found the video to represent most of what I believe is wrong with the discourse around game narratives. So I'll have plenty to write about it, when I get the chance to.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Storypost: Black Ops II

We kind of take Call of Duty for granted now, don't we? With it's yearly releases and over-the-top, explosion-filled stories, I think we've come to treat the single player experience as a silly byproduct to the multiplayer. But really, if you think about it, CoD has always cared about story. From its first remarkable cinematic representation of World War II, to that scene in CoD 4, the series has been experimenting with narrative since its inception. Black Ops II lives up to that pedigree by doing something fairly interesting with its narrative. Now, the story itself never quite reaches the levels of intensity that some of its predecessors accomplished, but it gets bonus points for trying something new.

This is, obviously, a First Person Shooter; an action game wrapped in a thriller full of intrigue and danger on a global scale. It's what we've come to expect from the series. CoD's action structure - particularly that of the later games in the series - complements the narrative style; each mission takes the player to a different exotic location or, in this case, a different time. The pacing works well within that framework;  a cut-scene or briefing sequence preludes an action-filled mission, which ends in another cut-scene, and so on. It makes the game story very easy to control.

There are game-related problems with this kind of rigid frame structure - most notably that it ends up being awfully dull as the game becomes way too repetitive. To alleviate this, BOII's missions will usually include a gimmick or two to freshen things up (such as swinging across a cliff, wing-suit flying, or playing for a moment as a rage-infused psychopath).

Regardless of the repetitive gameplay, this structure seems perfectly suited to telling a story in a game - and it is, in a way. The problem this game faces is the same problem that all narrative-led games must face - balancing game-length with story-length. One of the challenges of creating stories for video games is that the story needs to be able to accommodate the obligatory amount of game time. Since the game's main story is independent of the game's world, they both operate in a different time, so to speak. That's why many games have side-quests and optional missions; to make a game more worthwhile, developers try to find ways to prolong the game experience without damaging the integrity of its story.

BOII has a crack at this - there are a few optional missions that go along and affect the main story, but for the most part the main storyline is the only one we have. BOII's frame structure doesn't allow for a lot of deviations. Unfortunately, what this means here is that a lot of the game's plot is pure filler. This includes playing multiple characters, in different times and places - all without it being necessary to the plot. To mask all this filler material, the game's briefing sections are presented in a tense Tony Scott style shaky-cam, the characters blabbering a hectic hodgepodge of names of people and places you can't possibly hope to remember, and practically none of which matter later on. The point of this, it seems, is to disorient the player with a tidal wave of supposedly important information in an attempt to imbue the mission with purpose. It makes the missions feel relevant even though they're not, and the developers manage to squeeze in another 30 minutes' worth of game time.

It's not the most elegant of ways to solve the story/game balance problem, to say the least. It's a shame, too, because a lot of the elements in the game could have been used for something more than just filler. For example, in one level you get to play as the villain. Think of the possibilities! Not many games offer the experience of playing from multiple perspectives, and as a narrative tool it's woefully underused. Alas, here it ends up as merely one of the aforementioned gimmicks. You play a level in a slightly different way to how you usually play. Game-wise it's refreshing but, again, offers nothing substantial to the plot. To be fair, there does seem to be some commentary about the villain's motivation; there is an attempt to humanize a type of character that is usually depicted as monstrous. As far as this level design is concerned, however, there is no play on points of view, no use of dramatic irony. Nothing. It's a wasted opportunity.

So yeah, BOII's story is nothing to write home about. Despite the lackluster presentation, however, the story does have a saving grace: its branching plot structure. It is by far the most intriguing aspect of the game's story. I'm not usually partial to multiple-end narratives - I find that allowing the player to affect a game's story does more harm than good to the plot -  but I do like what they did with the mechanic in this game. The only other game I could think of that does something similar is Heavy Rain. The way the game's plot proceeds, then, is determined by the player's actions. Certain characters may live or die, missions succeed or fail, depending entirely on how the player performs in the level. I like this method because it is feels more authentic and organic than simply offering the player a clear "choice" between options A and B. Another reason this method is interesting is because the actions that affect the plot in a "good" way are directly related to how well the player plays. In this sense, the plot branching acts as a kind of scoring system; the better you play, the better the ending you get. That's why this method kind of works - because there's a correlation between wanting to play well and wanting a good ending.

I say "kind of works" because even though this is a very innovative approach to storytelling (and scoring, for that matter), it's essentially anchoring the story to a game mechanic. I prefer to be free to enjoy a game's story without having my experience of it hinge upon my gaming prowess. Ultimately, I believe the story would be better off with a single plot that actually used all of its characters in an interesting way within the narrative, rather than use them as part of a complex system to indicate whether I've played well or not.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Reorganization Declaration

One of the problems blogs like this usually encounter (and why they often end up being abandoned), is time and content. Trying to constantly update with what you believe is interesting, quality content never ends up being as easy as you'd hope.

My intent was to provide an in-depth analysis on game stories. It's what I do in my head anyway, and I felt that looking at strengths and weaknesses of various forms of game stories and story-structures was a fairly unique thing to write about in the gaming circle. But, as with many aspiring bloggers, I have a job, I have a family, and other duties which must take precedence.

So instead of trying to force a format on myself that I can't possibly keep up with, I'm changing the way I'll handle my main story posts. They will be shorter, less structured and not nearly as in-depth as I'd like them to be, but they'll do what I essentially wanted them to do - focus on the story and spark a discussion of the narrative nature of games.

With that in mind, I feel hopeful in saying that the Black Ops 2 post - which has been delayed for a long time already - will finally be out within the coming weeks. Might not be soon, but it will happen.