SIONL: Video Game Narrative Evolution

I recently got the first single-player DLC to what I believe to be the best game of last year – The Last of Us.  Entitled, Left Behind, my expectations were this DLC were sky-high.  And let me tell you – it didn’t disappoint.  Without spoiling anything (because if you haven’t played it, I am ordering you to do so now), it has a couple of plot sucker-punches and the bittersweet nature of learning some more about a story we already know is just so The Last of Us Left Behindfulfilling.  Not only that, but because this was smaller, they were able to pack more into the environments and bring the world to life in a better way.  If this is what we can expect from the rest of the single-player DLC to this game, Naughty Dog better believe that they have my business.  Also, if any of them are listening – do NOT make a sequel to this game that involves Joel and Ellie.  For real, you’ve perfectly finished their story.  Leave it alone.

But, as I was playing this DLC and exploring the world that the narrative created, finding all the little collectibles and conversation options, I got to thinking about something – narrative evolution in video games.  There are all kinds of games that have a paper-thin or piss-poor narrative, like pretty much every major blockbuster shooter, platformers that are more about gameplay than plot (like the Mario games, Banjo-Kazooie and many others, all of which are good games, don’t get me wrong) or games that want to be interpretative experiences, like my favorite game of all time, Journey.  And there is nothing wrong with most of those concepts, aside from the blockbusters shooters that think that blowing things up equals a reason to care.  A game should be its own thing.

However, there are those games that rise above what so many games shoot for – being a cinematic experience.  Modeling games off cinema makes sense, in a lot of respects.  People like movies.  People go to the movies.  Cinema is the last major cultural expression to gain the sanctified status as “art.”  A status that the gamer community has been arguing is something games have for a long time.  However, those who have actually studied the evolution of narrative in video games can tell you that shooting to be like cinema is wasted potential.  I don’t begrudge developers from doing that, but trust me, it’s wasted.  Now, this is going to be something of a long post, which I could see doing as a Master’s thesis paper, but I hope you’ll agree with me on this one point, if you read no further – video games shouldn’t shoot to be like movies.  They should shoot to be like books.  And they can.  If you read on, I’ll tell you why.

The early video games had either no plot or a plot that existed just to put the hero into the story.  Mario was in his games to rescue Peach.  That was it.  The original Legend of Zelda games weren’t complicated, either.  To be fair, as much as I love Ocarina of Time, it isn’t Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Timeall that complicated, either.  It is a beautiful story, but it is a simple one.  The plots were simple because they didn’t have a lot of complicated mechanisms to work with.  They had a simple control scheme and simple graphics to work with that couldn’t do the kind of narrative you’ll see in later examples.  It just couldn’t be done.  And a lot of those older games were good games.  For real, as simple as the plot is, I could play Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for days on end.  Hell, I have done that, when I decided to indulge some nostalgia and dust off my old N64.

There is an argument to be made as to when this changed, but in my eyes, the turning point was around the time when Final Fantasy IV was created.  A game that had a world that was very diverse, with each area having a culture all its own.  Characters who had their own problems and internal struggles.  Betrayals and manipulations that made the story interesting.  While the digital effects were retro, it still told a compelling story that got the player invested in the characters and the world it took place in.  The Final Fantasy brand capitalized on this in a big way.  You had games like Final Fantasy VII telling a very bittersweet story about loss, destruction and the frail nature of the world.

As the medium of story-telling evolved, something that evolved with them was how one could expand the mythos of the world that the game existed in.  The first great example I have for a well-explored mythos was in Metroid Prime.  As you went through the world, you could scan pretty much anything.  With most things, you would see a display with some random tidbit, that wasn’t worth much, but interesting.  Then, you would scan something and you would get an entry added to your logbook.  Organized into different categories, the logbook became your way to learn more about the various parties, flora and fauna and other aspects of the world that the game felt you needed to know.  It encouraged curiosity and to learn about this vast expanse that they gave you.  Wouldn’t you know it, it was a huge hit.  And this kind of retaining information about the mythos of a world would remain a central part of gaming culture forever.

Mass EffectThe best usage of this medium is the Mass Effect series.  As the player goes through the world, reading computer screens, interacting with NPCs, getting to specific story points, talking to your crew or playing out certain missions, you would get entries added to one of the most efficient tools in the series – the Codex.  The Codex became synonymous with the series.  It was a tool that would give you additional information about things you had already gotten bits and pieces of in other ways.  It talked about everything.  It told you about the technology of the universe, the various characters, vehicles and life forms worth noting.  The Codex talked about just about everything.  It was a very comprehensive piece of data that the player could look back on at any time and read at their leisure.  It didn’t force them to do it, it was all up to the player.

A sign that the Codex was popular, and a medium that players could use to just read stuff was worthwhile came in Mass Effect 2.  There was a DLC mission called “Lair of the Shadow Broker.”  After completing the main mission, there was a new hub that could be interacted with and little Easter eggs to find.  However, the biggest sell of this DLC was something so small that the players love – the terminal with data about people in that universe.  It told you little details about your crew and the people who are important outside of them.  It could be anything, like a list of what Tali bought online, the improvements that Garrus made to ocular device that he wears or where Zaaed wants to retire, once the Suicide Mission is done.  Players flocked to this, because they wanted to learn about their favorite characters.  What’s more, they didn’t mind that all this was just stuff you read on a terminal.  We were fine with that.  In a truly “cinematic” game, that sort of DLC would have had no place.  The Codex wouldn’t have existed, because they would have assumed the players just didn’t care about the world and wanted to blow shit up.

Telling a story in film, there is a simple rule – show, don’t tell.  With video games, they can do both.  In fact, there are a lot of games that excel at doing both.  The Mass Effect series was most definitely one of them, however it isn’t the one that I believe did it best.  Still, it does pretty damn well.  Part of it is due to the central core of that series – player choice.  Learning bits about characters and the world around them and how they perceived the world happens very much from who you take with you into various places and on various missions.  I wouldn’t have heard the comedic bit that Garrus had about where is a good place to have battles if I hadn’t taken him with me on Mordin’s loyalty quest.  I wouldn’t have had Jack enjoying me letting the dumb little volus charge at the Eclipse leader if I hadn’t taken her on the mission to get Samara on my crew.  And in various places within hubs, like the Citadel and what-have-you, there were places where I could talk with various characters, depending on the game and which ones I took with me.

The Last of UsThat said, the game that I believe did the combination of dialogue and collectible log entries best is The Last of Us.  In this game, there is a very large amount of area that you can explore, amidst what externally-appears to be very linear gameplay.  That is skin-deep.  As you come across different things in different places, there will be a little triangle that appears above it.  That is a place where you can press the triangle button and initiate a brief conversation.  Doing so can either give character insight into things, such as Ellie remarking about the two suicide victims’ bodies in the hotel.  They can give back-story about a character, such as when Ellie remarks about a movie poster and Joel remarks have seen that film, which leads into the final category – narrative development.  You can learn a lot about perspective and the importance of certain things to certain characters based on what they say.  Plus, in many games, it doesn’t have to be that clean cut.  Hell, in The Last of Us, it wasn’t that clean cut.  Sometimes, there was no dialogue option.  Sometimes characters would just talk.  Sometimes it was important, sometimes it seemed trivial, but let us get to know the characters more.  It’s what made Joel and Ellie’s relationship so believable has it developed over the game.

Another great example is Halo 4.  While the gameplay was fairly typical, the thing that sold this game, to me, at least, was the story.  It told a very gripping story about the Master Chief and his decaying AI partner.  As the two would have little dialogues during the missions, as well as well-done cutscenes with dramatic moments, you came to care for both of them.  You saw the Chief and how, underneath it all, he was a lonely man whose closest human connection came from his AI partner.  You saw Cortana battling her own decay as you see her relationship with the Chief grow.  It was a poignant and beautiful narrative that, while cinematic in most respects, had just enough conversation elements to set it apart from a movie.

When you look at these elements and you see how rich and interesting they make the world of a game, the characters and our attachment to it, can you honestly imagine a film ever doing it justice?  For real, would you honestly think that a Mass Effect film could be good?  Sony recently announced that a The Last of Us film is being worked out, and I know that it is going to suck.  For real, there is absolutely zero chance that it will be good.  The reason is because the medium that the game was made it was perfect for telling the kind of story that it told – a story that was (and felt) long, with slow-paced development of a profound relationship that we came to believe in as we got to the end and we saw how far Joel was willing to go to save the person he cared about.  All video game movies have sucked, and to understand why this is, you have to realize something about video games – they can never be made into good films.  The reason for this is simple – film can’t rise to the potential that video games have.

So, what can?  What medium is there that can tell the kind of narrative that video games have?  Television?  Actually, that isn’t the worst.  Both The Walking Dead game (not the shitty one based on the TV show) and show tell comprehensive stories about a world that is complicated and a lot of characters.  TV has the same kind of character development and, thanks to the Internet, can have its own kind of Codex.  However, when thinking about translation of one medium into the other, it doesn’t work.  TV adaptation games have typically been as bad, or worse, than film adaptations.  So, if that isn’t the medium for this, then what is?

World War Z novel coverMy argument – books.  Think of how many books you love have been turned into piece of shit films.  I think back to the most recent book I love being turned into a piece-of-shit movie – World War Z.  A film that only shared the title of the book, I knew from it’s inception that a film like that was doomed on arrival.  See, the book is a story told from the perspective of a journalist who is gathering the stories of the people who survived humanity nearly going extinct thanks to the undead.  You already know how the story ends, with this story filling us in on the various stories and perspectives of the world it was based in.  Can you honestly see a book like that becoming a good movie?  So many perspectives, no central character and a lot of social and political commentary going on.  I didn’t, and I was still disappointed.

However, if that book had been made into a game, just think of what it could have done!  For real, the narrative structure of the novel would have worked much better, because video games are a medium where we accept these kinds of stories.  Hell, most gamers like to hear more than one perspective.  So this novel would have been a huge hit if it were made into a game before it was ever made into a movie.

A friend of mine showed me a trailer for another film adaptation of a book that is going to suck ass – The Giver.  It is a film that is done, in color.  The entire premise of the book was that that world had no color.  This film trailer has color all over the place.  How does that work?  Plus, there was no central villain in the novel.  It was a commentary about the lack of color and emotion that made the story profound.  The film, however, to keep to film standards, has a villain as there is color all over the place.  Pointless and it serves nothing within the narrative.  Now, just think if that story was a game before it ever became a movie.  The potential for that kind of narrative in video games would have made so many more crappy film adaptations more interesting.

The evolution of the video game narrative continues, and I am glad to see that it is getting better.  The latest DLC I played was awesome.  I look forward to more.  Gaming is becoming a medium that can outdo Hollywood and their dried-up rivers of ideas, if only we give it a chance.  What do you say?

Until next time, a quote,

“Because movies, when compared to games, are a much more regimented and controlled experience.  When you’re watching a movie, you’re seeing exactly what the filmmakers want you to see, in exactly the order they want you to see it.  But games are usually categorized as some level of freedom on the part of the player.  And if you give players any freedom, very often the first thing we’ll do is stop cooperating with your story.  We’ll do everything in the wrong order.  We’ll ignore all the things you wanted us to notice, notice all the things you wanted us to ignore and generally lay waste to whatever dramatic structure you wanted us to experience.”  -Mr. B Tongue, TUN: The Shandification of Fallout

Peace out,

Maverick

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