In Which I Beat a Dead Horse – Narrative in Gaming (Part 3)

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.

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.)

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 in the beginning of this piece.  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 (and I admit, I have not yet played Heavy Rain) 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?

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