Narrative in Gaming (Part 2)

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 XIII, 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 IX 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.

In Part 3, resolution is discussed, along with ideas and thoughts on how to reconcile some of the more interesting elements of fiction and film with gaming.

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