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.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Next Up: Black Ops 2

Right now I’m working on my first major story analysis for the blog, and it’s about Black Ops 2.

I never thought that, of all game stories out there, the first mainstream one I’d be examining would be a Call of Duty sequel, but there you have it.

I stopped being excited about CoD games more or less after the first Modern Warfare (CoD4). I don’t mean that as a critique of the series’ quality; more that they simply came out too quickly - and remained too expensive - for me to think about buying them. However, since getting a PS3 I’d been toying with the idea of playing a big budget shooter on it.

I usually play shooters on PC, you see, and for me it’s really the optimal way to experience them. Nevertheless, the thought of experiencing one on a console intrigued me enough to want to try it out. Then Black Ops 2 came out and I decided to give it a go. After playing it through I have to say that, while the PC still wins in terms of control and comfort, the PS3 experience wasn’t half bad.

So I finished the campaign and now I’m mulling it over, trying to organize the typhoon that is my thought process. When that’s done I’ll post my conclusions. 

For now, here's a trailer: