Mass Effect 2


Narrative storytelling in video games often gets a bad rap. There are few vocal people who stand out against the mainstream gaming culture who find narrative storytelling a necessary step forward for the medium. Some developers are making strides toward improved storytelling, but convention and catering to mainstream expectations are still holding these developers back.

First-person shooters, in general terms, are the most underdeveloped of the lot, and many of them sell millions and millions of copies.  Certainly, Bioshock and its predecessors are exceptions, and worthy exceptions at that.  But these are not the rule.  Even these fine examples of design and narrative fell apart due to convention and cliché at the end of their respective journeys, something that proved disappointing to the players who found themselves caught up in Irrational’s cautionary tale.

How disappointing is it then, to those that value games as art and hold narrative progression in as high esteem as they do in film, that a game such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was hailed as an innovator in storytelling?  How much of a letdown was it to find that the game offered nothing more than spectacular set-pieces and nothing that the hungry masses hadn’t seen before in countless action films?

Such an argument deserves justification on my part, and that justification comes from my background as a gamer and a person.

My parents – particularly my mother – always stressed the importance of story.  For one reason or another, fiction became an integral part of my being, and that inexorable sense of story came with it.  The games that I found too shallow or predictable may have been played, but fell to the wayside in the deluge of stories that I’ve found myself in, in books, film and gaming as a whole.

As a gamer, my growth began in the medium at an early age, as many do.  As a child, narrative didn’t mean much to me; I found it as uninteresting as I found hopping on Goomba’s heads exciting.  This was through early childhood, and things were bound to change.

In prepubescence, then later in the growth to my teenage years, I found myself captivated by genres that have since fallen to the wayside.  Adventure gaming, in particular, held my interest for long periods of time, and not for reasons of methodology or design but simply for the stories that they told.  So far ahead were they in the realm of character development and growth that many games are still playing catch up to this day simply based on the writing that they employ.

I remember quite clearly seeing a friend of mine work through Final Fantasy 7, and later Final Fantasy 10, and not quite understanding the draw.  The games seemed vast experiences to me, a game that practiced exclusivity on those not versed in its ways.  Progression through games such as those on my own time – and more importantly, as I have grown older and matured in my tastes – has revealed my main issue with many JRPGs in general.  Mired as they may be in aging mechanics (which, depending on whom you ask, is either a very good or very bad thing), the main flaw with titles in the RPG genre is cliché.

Certainly, this isn’t just an issue with RPGs, but let’s focus there for a moment.  The vast majority of these games are literally tens of hours long, many exceeding one hundred hours in playtime.  While I’d be delusional to even suggest that all of this time is spent with story exposition (it’s not, and it’s not intended to be), much of the story exposition is formed by convention.

Anime and manga play a huge part in the style and progression of RPG plotlines, from the events portrayed to the archetypes represented in the characters of the game.  This is hardly a negative thing, but it hinders both the accessibility of the game as well as innovation in the storylines.  Games such as the Shin Megami Tensei series, as well as some of the less-popular, more bizarre fringe RPG titles have done much to attempt to undermine the status quo established by industry juggernauts such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.

In some part, they’ve succeeded.  Battle systems have evolved slowly but surely, successive iterations refining and innovating stagnant mechanics and stale trends; games have grown and expanded in scope, while refining vision and narrowing focus.  Ambition has flared.

Still, it seems that much of this ambition has resulted in something of a deadlock for narrative progression in RPGs.  Even the most successful of games has a hard time breaking out of the cliché that its predecessors and influences have established, so expecting too much from one game or one genre could be considered too much.  A major problem for games in general is that they’re far too self-referential, and RPGs are no different.

What I mean by this is that game developers, for the most part, draw inspiration from other game developers.  Successful games in the modern era have been successful either because they’re part of an established franchise or because they attempt to draw inspiration from other sources.  A game like Uncharted 2, or, yes, even Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, draws its influences from both the world outside gaming as well as other games in their respective genres.

This is key, in my estimation, to narrative success for a video game.  Influence is necessary (T.S. Eliot famously said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal…”) but wholesale imitation is another thing altogether.  This concept goes further than narrative and into gameplay itself.  In the past ten years, we’ve seen light bloom and motion sensing and ragdoll physics and regenerative health all spread like a venereal disease, popping up in places that they shouldn’t be, sometimes to the detriment of the game in question.

There is a good argument for why this happens and why it will continue to happen: familiar mechanics are easier to digest and acclimatize to than new mechanics, and audiences as a whole tend to gravitate towards the easier, more familiar route.  Final Fantasy 12 is an excellent example of this.  A critically lauded game, it was criticized by longtime fans of the series for abandoning too many of the long-standing pillars of the series itself, from combat to story design, from characters to art style.  There’s no denying that it was an inventive game and not everyone’s taste, but to shun something like that simply because it wasn’t familiar and wasn’t what fans were used to?  That’s something exclusive to two groups of people: gamers and music fans.  In both groups, it’s almost repulsive.

A large factor in the problem of narrative storytelling in games is the general lack of maturity found in the games in question.  The Grand Theft Auto series has, as a whole, done much to progress narrative beyond what it once was into something mature and relevant.  This is a contradiction with the core design of the GTA games, to go anywhere and do anything in a sandbox city.

The moral problems presented to the player in the narrative arc didn’t gel with the player’s actions, resulting in a massive disconnect that continues to this day.  Combine that with the series’ penchant for immature humor (which isn’t a problem) coupled with an attempt at mature examination of dark subject matter (this is, after all, what Rockstar tries to do in almost all of its games), and you have a game sending mixed messages all over the place.

I’ll be the first to say that I appreciate what Rockstar does and tries to do in its games, both in regards to how the game plays as well as how the story plays out.  Continually pushing the envelope of what’s considered acceptable is a very good thing, and the tales that they’ve brought the world have been nothing short of captivating (even Manhunt, in its depravity, had social commentary dripping from its ears).

That said, the very real disconnect between linear narrative and player action is something that is perhaps the biggest flaw that the company has running through the games it creates; both Jimmy Hopkins and Niko Bellic are morally sympathetic characters, but the things they do (with Hopkins, the bullying; with Bellic, the criminality) and the corresponding actions in the story proper don’t always line up, and this prevents the titles from achieving what is hinted at throughout the narrative.

Like any technology or industry, video gaming has its innovators.  From the hype machine, the audience is lead to believe that innovation comes quickly and frequently, with the medium constantly evolving and in a state of flux.  Some prominent voices (read: Michael Pachter) seem to think that stability is something to be feared, so predictions of upheavals and new tech and the like are constantly on everyone’s radar.  And the mainstream press and gaming blogs pick up on it, because like it or not, such predictions are “news” in the industry, and aren’t something to be frivolously ignored, no matter the ultimate outcome.

The truth, however, is that the gaming industry as a whole – publishers, developers and consumers, as well as a host of other peripheral industries, such as gaming journalism and PR and marketing – relies on stability in games.  What is taken for innovation is actually an evolutionary iteration of established mechanics or tech, instead of something that is a full-blown innovation on established mechanics.

Did Resident Evil 4 innovate in its genre?  Absolutely.  Had we all seen essentially the same thing before in countless other titles?  Yes: the third-person shooter has been around for years.  A slight camera shift and paced aiming are not innovative, no matter how influential or impressive the game actually was.

This is seen across the board, and narrative is no different.

However – slowly – progress has been made.  No longer are we expected to rescue the princess from the castle with nary an explanation.  Now we are compelled to rescue the princess because and because and because.  Explanations abound.  But are they just the same explanations, repackaged and repurposed?

I’ve grown so weary of encountering the same characters in different games and scenarios.  Games are stuck and aren’t getting any better.  The Getaway was hailed for its story and how “Guy Ritchie it was,” but faltered on so many levels that it was rendered nearly unplayable.  Final Fantasy 13, hardly exemplary of the series as a whole, was in fact a regression for character in the series.  It wasn’t “retro” in the sense that Final Fantasy 9 was; it just felt like the developers had learned nothing from past mistakes and past successes. It’s almost insulting to see some of the character types present in the game, and how little they’ve grown almost twenty hours in.  And the secondary characters there?  Shouldn’t we as gamers expect just a little more from our games?

When a game deals with something meaningful is when I find the value in gaming, even if the game falters.  One of the reasons that I love God of War is exactly because of that.  Familicide and grappling with the immortal, as well as one’s own mortality, are all themes present in the game.  Yes, it is an unrepentantly bloody experience, and as one of my friends said, there is an hour of bloodshed for one minute of story exposition.  And that’s more or less just fine, because the game bears no illusions about itself.

But did God of War do anything new?  Not in the realm of cinema, that’s for sure.  And for games, it’s arguable.  Killing the vengeful god after the deity in question has raised your personal ire isn’t exactly an experience that many games have shown before, but the type of experience – throwing down an established authority figure in a generally iconoclastic fashion – is a road that many games have traveled down before, be it the angry king or the schoolyard bully, the mafia don or the backstabbing gangster.

And that’s exactly the point.  These games tell stories that aren’t new, and we don’t expect them to be that way.  But we do expect them to tell stories in new ways.  Half-Life 2 drove home the point of immersion in a game world and within a story by containing an essentially seamless experience from the moment protagonist Gordon Freeman steps off that train in City 17, to the final cliffhanger at the Citadel.

Games that have, historically, challenged convention – from Metal Gear Solid 2 to Killer7, from Earthbound to Contact – have not universally been successful.  Would MGS2 have been as big as it was had it not been connected to one of the biggest games on the Playstation?  Vagrant Story destroyed RPG convention and storytelling tropes, yet did remarkably well.  On the other hand, a game like Killer7 or Rule of Rose hardly sold at all; both dealt with hard subject matter and disturbing themes, including mental illness and pedophilia, and neither was exactly friendly to the player in terms of control or combat.

Would any of these games see the same success in this era of Call of Duty and Gears of War? Have our tastes been so diluted by this deluge of violence and gore? I’m not against any of that… but I find myself wishing tastes were refined and matured as opposed to constantly craving that adrenaline rush that certain games bring them. These are games that did something different and found varying success.  Somehow, that’s heartening for the evolution of the medium.

I tend to – often mistakenly – pride myself on not being a “gamer.”  There are other words, other definitions, that I would attempt to place myself in, were I to do that sort of thing, in some effort to put this thing called me in some preconceived box.

That is to say that all of the things that I write about gaming come first from a writer and a reader of fiction, and second from a gamer and a person who enjoys those experiences: the fun, the visceral, the intellectual pursuits that I seem to aspire to in my continuing journey through interactive storytelling and in some effort to find it.

There are those that would say that gaming itself could function without story involved.  This is absolutely, unequivocally true.  I have no preconceived notions of that.  Yet I would argue that we would lose an exciting, powerful, stimulating medium through which to tell those selfsame stories.

I’m currently working through Cormac McCarthy’s 1979 opus Suttree.  Already, I find that McCarthy has fashioned a world that, while dilapidated and full of sleaze and scum (I’m not many pages in, and already have found several references to floating used condoms on the river, in addition to a startling scene of gore and realistic depictions of vagrancy), has fascinating characters, well imagined and well displayed.  People who are not vilified or repugnant, but who have their own stories to tell and their own characteristics and personalities.  These are not the types that would be so easily stereotyped, but are instead lively and funny.  They speak in a realistic fashion and respond and react, moving in accordance with their environment, like McCarthy the author is some sort of puppetmaster god, pulling the strings from above so his morality play will unfold exactly how he wants it to.

Author Cormac McCarthy

This is how good writing plays out.  Words paint pictures in both the writer’s head and the reader’s, and the people contained within the words come to life and mean somethinganything, to the reader.  This is the way that it should be.  The author sets out to create a world that the reader is immersed in.  Day to day tasks are certainly not the way most would author a story, yet Joyce did it in his Ulysses, and in so doing, crafted one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.  We find that the racial tension so endemic of the South and the rest of the nation in the last two centuries of its existence found a perfect reflection in Flannery O’Connor’s writings, just as they did in Faulkner’s, just as they have done in McCarthy’s.  The Southern Gothic is quickly becoming a haunting, elegiac reminder of a world that was; the place that A Rose for Emily lived in is no longer there, and not just because Faulkner’s fictional city Jefferson died with him.

Writing – novels and short stories and essays and poems – all exist to reflect the world that we live in, but also to reflect our daily lives more perfectly, and to capture a point in time.  Recently, I’ve gone over some fictional writings that I wrote some time back.  Am I that man now?  Certainly not, but I remember him quite well.  Bob Dylan has said that he no longer knows the man who wrote his early work.  The creative is in a constant state of flux, just as the normal man is, and this constant motion dictates that the subject of the work – the emphasis of the soul, if you will – changes from day to day and minute to minute.

By their very nature, books and short fiction are essentially static.  Interpretations of meaning and intent may change, but these are all on the reader’s end.  The word – what is put down and recorded – is changed only for editing, or for authorial whim.  Some will choose to expand novels eventually, and some novels, such as Kerouac’s On the Road, are added to because of censorship when originally published.  This is the exception to the rule, however.

When turning to a fluid medium, such as film or music or even video gaming, things begin to change.  Something such as Ingmar Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is, essentially, a visual novel: we see the author’s intent and artistry through his work with the camera, and then through the words of the actors.  Intensely personal films are rare, however, and we find modern film to be more about telling a story or making a dollar, and less about the message behind the story itself.  Not everything, I have more than once said to a friend of mine, has to have a moral in it or a message to it.  This is certainly true of film, as cinema has become increasingly perverted with shallow, lifeless husks that we call “entertainment.”  (Certainly I enjoy mindless movies to some degree, yet these seem to be far more prevalent in theatres than the next Polanski or Scorsese work.)

Director Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly

Turning once again to gaming, we have a medium wherein story is often fashioned after the basic idea of what the gameplay should be is proposed.  Obviously, this has affected works such as Gears of War, where developer Epic Games has repeatedly said, “The theme is destroyed beauty,” or something virtually meaningless like that.  Is the theme “destroyed beauty” because here we have a decimated culture and civilization that is shattering under the weight of repeated attacks from a violent, ugly menace?  Or is it “destroyed beauty” because that’s what some marketing team decided that the vaguely Greco-Roman stylings of the environs remind them most of?  If this culture was truly beautiful, and a developer intends to tell me just that, then why not explore this within the game?  Show me visually.  Tell me a story without telling a story, because therein lies the strength of the visual medium.

This is, of course, not to attack Gears.  I loved both games, but not because of story.  The main problem was that neither went deeper than the skin.  I don’t expect Final Fantasy melodrama, but I do expect a bit of character exposition.  In fiction, it helps to be subtle, but not vague for the sake of being vague; it develops character and establishes the point of the plot.  And in at least the first Gears of War, much of the plot seemed shallow in the name of the gameplay.  Which is fine, but carry no illusions about the title.  It was story-based in name only.

I really started thinking about this topic while playing Final Fantasy XIII last night.  I have, overall, no real problem with the game.  First it was too easy, then it had this wall of difficulty that will probably be a problem for some of the players who have never before touched a game of that type before, but overall, there’s not been much to complain about.  The game’s failing is its story, which is shallow in the way that I could only ever describe an anime as being.  This is to say that the characters feel so, for lack of a better term, stock.  I know and recognize and appreciate that many anime films and works in manga explore deeper philosophical and moral problems, and often introduce questions of belief and faith and love into the mix.  This is a great thing.  It uses its medium to attempt to address some of the larger questions of life that we all have, and does so with a stylish visual flair that is absent (or was, for a long time) in much of Western culture.

And XIII does this, too, to a degree.  It presents and attempts to answer – through its characters moving to some great, mystifying epiphany that eventually proves to its characters to work together and overcome the odds, because that realization will most certainly help out in the end – seemingly important questions of life that seemingly everyone has.  The problem is that this is done with gusto tending towards the cliché of the genre.  Certain characters must appear, and these certain characters are archetypal.  And archetypes aren’t so much a problem as they are an easy way out.  To write to archetypal standards is to place your characters in the most predictable of predicaments.  Writing against the archetype, or writing variations on an existing archetype, work to break cliché, and work to surprise the reader (or in this case, player).

I had a much warmer reception to the characters in this year’s Mass Effect 2, most of whom I loved.  Yes, the occasional cliché broke through, but most of these were genuinely fascinating characters, and their stories were involving (for the most part).  The writing wasn’t great.  In fact, it was far from it, especially if I am to hold it up to the standards I set for fiction previously.  But it felt far more real and more human than what I’ve been seeing from the newest installment of Square Enix’s long-running franchise.

Humanity does break through in some areas of Final Fantasy XIII.  Late game revelations regarding major characters are pretty impressive in their emotional depth and in their presentation.  But the ultimate problem with the storytelling that has been evolving in gaming as a whole is that the characters end up as archetypes or as cartoons, and neither is a substitute for human emotion.  It is my hope that eventually, gaming will move away from the idea of cinema as gaming, and will start to more fully embrace the heritage that it has, from a tradition that has Joyce and Faulkner and O’Connor and Dickens, as well as Citizen Kane and Goodfellas and The Godfather.  Collectively, this is the heritage that gaming has, because landmark films such as those were influenced by pieces of literature, and gaming has to do nothing but learn from both of these.  Literature  – books and novels and short stories – do a wonderful job of painting a picture in and of themselves, and until games start to see that the written word as well as the visual form can express and describe (and I’m not calling for games to have massive walls of text here), then and only then will we begin to see an evolution in the interactive medium.

The games that have influenced me the most are the ones that have resonated deep inside.  I have before called the ending of 2008’s Prince of Persia “Shakespearean,” and I mean every bit of that.  I believe games can do better because I’ve seen it done.  I know that developers can create something moving or shattering, because I’ve seen that done, and I’ll bet that you have as well.  It only takes a little more effort to create that emotional attachment to the character.

After all, I shed no tears for the Master Chief.  Did you?