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.