Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Play Me A Story

Recently I discovered an amazing piece of literature, a weighty tome that held the answers to many questions that had been plaguing my mind; how the world was the world created? How will it end? If I hold Ctrl and Right Click what will happen?

Of course all the literary scholars among you will know that I'm referring to the incredible instruction manual for Sid Mier's Sim Earth. Not so long ago you would feel short changed if a PC game you purchased didn't feature over one hundred pages, partly this would be because it would be hard to work out on your own that B+Y+Alt = Walk Forward, but also because this is where the meat of a game's story could be found. However, despite liberal use of expository paragraphs in these gargantuan manuals PC gaming had the upper hand in presenting games as a medium for story telling for a long time, and it is only in the past ten years that home consoles started to surpass their all powerful brethren.

Generations ago on consoles such as the NES there would be no clues in-game as to why your 8-Bit dude was making widows of hundreds of  lady goblins, any story would be explained in broken English in the manual, or would have to be left to your own imagination. Even the home gaming power house Super Mario Bros. had no in-game explanation of what was happening beyond "our princess is in another castle", for all we knew Mario could have been an assassin tasked by the princess to commit numerous acts of regicide in a brutal coups d'etat that left countless brown mushrooms squished and turtles de-shelled. Maybe developers were too busy pushing the gameplay side of things to get too wrapped up in the intricacies of story telling, or maybe back then the media wasn't up to the task. Gaming has come a long way since those days, now more than ever the medium is poised to weave plots far more complicated and intricate than anything you'd be able to find in a booklet, the focus is no longer just on gameplay. Alan Wake, Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2 and Heavy Rain are four games that have this heavy focus on story telling, they also happen to be some of the best new releases available on the two major platforms. What is fantastic about these games is that they each deal with the task of telling tales in very different ways, but none of them feel inferior to the others.

Alan Wake is a fully guided experience, it's no surprise that a game about a writer has a lot in common with reading a novel, in that the story isn't open for interaction; the player has no more control over the plot than a person reading has when running their finger along the page. This may sound like a negative statement to some, but the story is so carefully paced that interaction would have done more harm than good. The story also relies heavily on mystery and suspense, the torment that Wake experiences is not optional, there's no 'be badass' button to press, all the player can do is continue to steer Alan down this path. The lack of interaction creates a far better sense of the unknown, not having to a preconception at the back of your mind as to how you want things to play out adds to the foreboding and claustrophobic atmosphere.

Red Dead Redemption takes a similar format to Alan Wake, the plot is pretty firmly fixed and doesn't allow any interaction. However outside of the cutscenes the player has complete control over the characters personality, if they want John Marston to be the most notorious outlaw in the west then they are free to do so, similarly they are free to turn him into a shining beacon of honour and justice. Often the sub-plots will allow moral choices to be made, for example they can choose at one point to give to a nun collecting money for an orphanage or they could choose to tie her to the back of their horse and go for a little ride, then loot the corpse. Neither of these decisions will effect the way or the path that the main plot takes, the morally just player will be on the same quest for revenge that the wicked outlaw is on. Thankfully the characters and writing of these set moments are so fantastic that it doesn't feel like a burden that you have no say in what is happening.

Heavy Rain evolves the concept even further; the player has control over the characters actions and dialogue throughout the game, and is able to effect the plot in small ways, but there are some elements that will remain the same regardless of their actions. The plot always plays out in the same way; the identity of the Origami Killer is going to be the same on every play through, the order of the investigation will always be done in the same way, there is no way to adjust the flow of the game. As with the Red Dead Redemption and Alan Wake this doesn't harm the game in anyway, the linear nature serves the same purpose of driving everything forward to the exciting conclusion, if anything the game would be much less fun if in the first few minutes you could point out the killer and bring it all to an early and unrewarding close.

Mass Effect 2 presents story telling in a completely different way, there are a few moments that will happen regardless of player input, but the vast majority of the plot is in the hands of the player. Every line of  Commander Shepard's dialogue is under direct control of the player, as is the order and outcome of the missions. All of the major decisions are made by the player, it is at their discretion if Shepard commits genocide, who he is loyal to and ultimately who lives or dies in his crew. Despite being able to choose how the adventure plays out the story of the game doesn't feel fractured, and still captures the same immersion as Alan Wake's 'set in stone' plot.

As I mentioned previously these four games are some of the absolute best titles available at the moment, and despite being so different from each other in their methods, have some of the most engrossing plots in gaming today. It should also be noted that all four have extremely high quality voice acting and direction, and that goes a very long way in making the experience more engaging, take a look at the newly released Alpha Protocol for an example of a decent plot let down by unenthusiastic voice work. They also have something else in common, they are all incredibly enjoyable games just to sit and watch, a viewer without the interaction can get as much pleasure from the experience as the gamer. The days of the single player straight up no-brainer game are coming to an end, as consumers we expect more for our $60 / £50. The production values of games are meeting and exceeding those of major films, so it is only natural that the quality of the experience should meet that of a major motion picture.

In fact some game plots are so fantastic they could be turned into full blown novels, and while they're doing that they could print the controls in the back of those novels and put them into the games box...

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