Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Story and Character Driven Gaming

Six weeks since my last post. I'm really going to try harder to do this more often. Seriously, it's pathetic that I can't force myself to sit down and write something.

Lately I've been playing games that are heavily story driven. There are what might be considered more traditional types of games such as Tetris or Pac-Man, which are driven purely by their gameplay mechanics. If you move up the scale slightly, you have games like Super Mario Brothers or Sonic the Hedgehog. A wisp of a plot is there, but often you'll only find it by reading the manual. As you keep going up the scale measuring relevance of plot to the game, you start getting into games like Assassin's Creed and at the farthest extreme are games like Half-Life and Knights of the Old Republic. At this far end the story is developed simultaneously with, or even before, the gameplay. These tend to be the kinds of games I gravitate towards.

A lot of games that have recently come out try for a cinematic experience. Call of Duty 4's sole goal seemed to be to place the player into an intense and almost overwhelming action movie-ish war scenario in a modern setting. In my opinion, it does this almost flawlessly. The game starts with a coup in an unnamed Middle Eastern country that you view from the first person viewpoint of the deposed leader. It ends in slow motion, with the player dramatically (melodramatically?) taking out the coup's mastermind. In between is urban warfare, a nuclear blast, and heart pounding stealth action. It's a relatively short and self contained story. It's short enough to truly feel like an interactive action movie where you get to play the hero.

Games like Half-Life might be better compared to a TV show. There are over half a dozen games in the Half-Life universe. Some are part of the "main" story while others tell peripheral stories from other viewpoints. All of them take the time to develop their characters over time. I'm not a huge fan of most of what's on television, but of the shows I do enjoy, part of what I like is how the main characters are fleshed out over time. In some ways they become like old friends who you've grown to understand over time. Long series, or long games like those in the role playing genre, feel like this. Like other forms of fiction, you start to care about these companions and grow concerned about what happens to them. This is obviously something that's different for every game and every player, but for many the reason they keep playing is to find out what happens next to these people. An example from my own experience is a scene from Half-Life 2: Episode One.

At the beginning of Half-Life 2 you meet Alyx Vance, the daughter of Eli Vance. Eli Vance is one of the scientists you encounter in the original Half-Life. She's tough, smart, and funny. Notably, she's not hyper sexualized like most games portray women. In Episode One she becomes a valuable companion as you make your way through the game. She's highly effective at taking out enemies with you, she makes comments about the situation that are alternatively funny and insightful, and she cares about what happens to you. Up to this point, every sidekick I had ever been stuck with in a game usually did more harm than good. They tended to make me want to kill them myself rather than continue on with them. This was not the case with Alyx. She was someone I enjoyed having around. About 1/3 of the way through Episode One you and Alyx escape from an enemy installation on a train. As the train starts moving Alyx realizes that the car you're in is filled with caged humans who have been reduced to blind, insane slaves. There's a loud noise, the lights go out, and the train derails. When the lights come on, you're at one end of the train and Alyx is at the other. The cages have fallen over and the slaves are mindlessly screeching and screaming. Alyx is pinned beneath one of the cages with a slave biting and clawing at her face. You have to make your way to the other end of the car and pull the cage and its screeching contents off of her so she can climb out. There's an opening in the side of the car, and you climb out with Alyx following behind. Ahead is a door leading away from the area. You start moving towards it.

"Hold on a second."

Hmm? I turned around. There's Alyx, the zombie slaying badass who's accompanied me through a dozen or so hours of game, slumped against the wall and visibly shaken by what's just happened. A shriveled, screeching, shell of a person just tried to kill her, and she was helpless to do anything about it. I felt bad for her. This digital character, whose only link to reality is the voice actress and the person used to model her face, was someone I cared about and wanted to look after as much as she did for me. I wanted to comfort her somehow and was frustrated at the fact that the game had no way to allow me to do this. I rarely get attached to characters in a 90-120 minute movie. It happens slightly more often in TV shows, but it's still not common. Somehow a game was able to wring out genuine emotions from me other than frustration or the excitement. This is the kind of experience I want from all of my games.

I'm not saying that I ignore games like Tetris. Games that rely solely on gameplay are great and are among my favorites. But I'm a huge proponent of the idea that games can also tell meaningful stories about real people. For the most part, the primary driver of most games is violent conflict. Whether it's a first person shooter like Half-Life or an intricately plotted RPG like Mass Effect, the primary gameplay is combat. I'm hoping that within the next five years or so we'll see games that at least present other options as resolutions to problems, or make them the only options. No guns allowed. Storytelling in games is still in its infancy, and as the medium matures I'm hoping that developers and designers come up with novel ways of using games to present an interesting narrative. Where's the gaming equivalent of Forrest Gump or A History of Violence? Hopefully we'll see it soon.

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