new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

My Manifesto: Contextual Narrative Through Gameplay

As a designer, I think it's fairly natural to develop an approach; a perspective from which to consider ideas. I've seen this tendency in my other fellow designers. Derek Daniels has a very tactile focus when he thinks about games. He considers what sort of repeated motions of activity a player's hands will undergo, and he dedicates focus to ensuring that each and every moment of the player interface with the game is fun. Eric Williams is a systemic designer. From the overriding rule set of the game world to the laws that dictate AI logic, he enjoys creating web-like mathematical road maps for the player, that once understood create entertainment through exploitation. Both of these strategies are very effective at making games fun.

For the last few years, I've been developing my own approach, primarily formulized through the games that I not only find both entertaining and noteworthy, but also vital to the future of game growth (it's not as dramatic as it sounds, trust me). Games as an entity have gone through many stages of development, from the early hand-eye dexterity tests to the heights of postmodern political exposition. But perhaps because of the comparatively rapid maturation of the video game scene, these two divergent focuses - the game made for its play and the game made as a narrative experience rarely ever meet (and even more rarely is that meeting successful). Sure, you'll have games that play great, and games that have effective story, and sometimes those elements even exist in the same game. But do you really have great games that succeed in merging their play and story into the same action?

When I'm playing Ratchet: Deadlocked, I am treated to enormously entertaining cut scenes, some of the funniest stuff I've had the pleasure of witnessing in video games. They're mostly television-esque newscasts poking fun at modern-day television news journalism. When I play the game, I'm mostly shooting stuff and jumping over gaps, actions I greatly enjoy. But isn't there some way for these aspects of games to become one? As a matter of fact, there is.

ICO is a game that haunts me. It's like a constant reminder of heights I haven't reached. In it, you play a boy who meets a girl. You're both trapped inside a castle, and you commit to helping the girl escape. This is mostly communicated through non-interactive cut scenes. For the next five to ten hours, that's exactly what you do - help a girl escape a castle. This is mostly communicated through play; holding this girl's hand, helping her get around to places she normally couldn't get to, occasionally swinging a piece of wood at shadowy monsters who would very much like the girl to stay with them. It is the most captivating, troubling, fantastic experience I've ever had in a video game. Everything in it is contextually dedicated to facilitating a constant narrative through action. Many developers fell in love with this game, and there's rarely a week that goes by where I don't hear it mentioned. Yet rarely, if ever, do developers actually attempt to recreate this technique.

This is most likely due to the mechanics that modern games typically employ. Western game development is largely comprised of driving, shooting, or some sort of sporting. The game mechanics that these genres employ just don't lend themselves very well to narrative. For gameplay and storytelling to truly integrate, new mechanics will need to be created. In 2005's breakout original IP, God of War, you play as Kratos, the hound of Ares, and the world's foremost kicker of ass. Hellbent on revenge for the slaughter of your family, you slice and dice your way through hordes of enemies until you finally reach the murderer of your family - yourself. In a moment best realized in video games, you (as Kratos) face down a battalion comprised entirely of copies of yourself. This clone army attacks not only you, but a facsimile of your wife and daughter. To keep your family alive, you must hug them and transfer your life to them. It is a powerful, touching, and wholly unforgettable sequence that elevates God of War from the best action game ever made to one of the best video games of all time, period. It serves as a shining example that developers are learning, and responding to the desire in the public for video games to live up to their potential as the true inheritors of the storytelling mantle.

So there you have it. In the future, I'll probably go into more detail about the different ways these two divergent aspects of video games can better be melded. I'll undoubtedly also talk about games that do a very bad job at reconciling their play and story, yet still enrapture me.

Thanks for reading.


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