Deus Ex Spoke To Me

37

Stories are subjective.  Sure, a lot of the internet will tell you otherwise.  Spend enough time online, it seems you start thinking that an opinion can only be valid when you get everyone else in the world to hold it.  By force.  I cannot tell you the amount of people I have seen flamed into oblivion because they praised/criticized the story of Final Fantasy VII in the wrong place.  But these people miss out on a whole lot of the good in stories.  They’re subjective.  They speak to different people in different ways.  And that’s awesome.

That does mean that somebody, somewhere, is going to enjoy some bad writing.  Something that may have been slapped together on a napkin that some writer accidentally spilled his eighth drink on could end up truly resonating with a reader.  It gets the fanboys up in arms, that OMG someone enjoys something they don’t, but aside from them, it’s a really beautiful thing.

I had that happen to me recently.  Deus Ex is a game with a lot of strengths.  The plot is not one of them.  Which might be a little unfair; I didn’t get the chance to play this game until the medium had gone through over a decade of advancement since, but still, from my perspective, it was a great game, but the story was pants.  It might be too far to call it bad, but it was lacking.  And, at first, it seemed the part that the writing was sloppiest was in the ending.  Specifically, the way the game handled the choice of three endings.

You see that?  I said ‘endings’.  That means spoilers ahead.

So there I was, hunting down the last of the evil spinoff of the group that would be the evil villains in many other stories, tracking them down because the main baddie kept taunting me even though I already dropped a nuke on them because apparently ruling the world requires a significant lack of judgement.  When all of a sudden, I became Mr. Popular.  Everyone started talking to me, using the communication hubs that had absolutely no reason to be there otherwise, wanting to switch me to their side because all of a sudden this whole peacekeeping mission now had me deciding the fate of the world with absolutely no buildup.  And all the options presented to me?  They came with some pretty serious downsides, and there was no way of blazing your own path through it.  The people who had secretly been running the world in spite of the fact that every single member we saw was completely ineffective and I knew them to be a bunch of clowns because I played Human Revolution first wanted me to create a power vacuum then join them in filling it once more, ruling the earth from the shadows for our own benefit.  The only people I really owed a favor to wanted me to destroy all the earths capabilities for long distance communications and plunge the economy back into the middle ages because obviously people can’t just lay cable for the internet again.  The AI spying on everyone and hacking everything wanted me to merge with it, to create a benevolent ruler with absolute power, because apparently my penchant for cattle prodding people in the genitals until they passed out, trapping people in enclosed spaces and smoking around them until they died, and breaking into every locked door I came across in an attempt to build up the world’s largest candy bar collection makes me the world’s best moral compass.

xAr3d1EyiPd2.878x0.Z-Z96KYq

Anyways, the problem I had here was that the choices seemed unreasonable, the people giving them weren’t exactly nuanced, they didn’t take into account my past actions after a game that had been doing that really beautifully throughout, and the way they were delivered, mostly out of the clear blue, left me a bit bitter about the option.  But then, something miraculous happened.  Turns out, I am really, really bad at health.  Who knew!  A lifetime of being tall and beautiful had trained me to seek out people’s attention, making me really bad at actually avoiding it when I had to.  Is this what it’s like to be normal-looking?  Man, I feel sorry for the rest of the world.  Anyways, this turned out to be a bit of a blessing, as the constant save-scumming I had to go through gave me time to think.  And that time to think ended up making me appreciate the endings a lot more.  By the time I got to the guy who laid all the consequences out for me, I had already started looking at the endings on a whole different level.

What really changes the way I viewed the ending was the time I was given to reflect on the state of the world as it was.  The three options you were given were all ruinous, but set against the backdrop of a world where Soylent Green would be panned for being too realistic, where the government pays people to commit suicide, where the United States walls off its slums and high crime areas, leaving them to devour themselves with no Batman to save them, where corruption exists at literally every level of government we see except for China, of all places, every single one of those options, horrid though they were, were far better than the status quo.  The options themselves, digging past the surface level, asked you to weigh values against each other.  Is it worth it to sacrifice individual freedom the world over if you can keep people safe?  Does it matter that people are being controlled from the shadows, that they are locked into invisible gridlines, if it allows many to prosper?  Is individual freedom valuable enough to set society back decades and replace it with chaos world-wide?

I still don’t appreciate the way they were presented, and the framing around them.  The options did not come about it a well-written manner.  They do really speak to me, though, and caused me to think about the values I held.  In the end, I went for the chaos route, setting my people free at the cost of large government, business, and economy as a whole.  Personal freedom is very important to me, and that feels by far the most right choice.  Others will think differently, and that’s an awesome thing.  In any case, the game, for all the creativity and fun it offers, was not very well-written, but the endings triggered that same part of me that attempts to thematically analyze the Saints Row series, as wild and slapstick as they are.  I don’t believe they’d do the same to everybody.  But the ending choices, and the nuance behind them, rose above the rest and truly spoke to me, transforming them in my eyes into something far greater than anyone else may believe.

Random Thoughts on Avengers: Age of Ultron

avengers-age-of-ultron-trailer-comic-con-2014

I had the opportunity to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron last night, a whole four hours before it was officially supposed to be released.  I know, I know, it’s galling, such a thing.  Releasing movies early ranks among the level of software pirates, parking meter tricksters, and spree murderers on the scale of ethical lapses.  As you all know, I am a just and righteous man, so I was just going to stay home.  Unfortunately, I hang out with the wrong crowd, and my so-called friends kidnapped me and forced me to watch it.  How vile!  I am absolutely aghast that they would force me to counteract my morals like that.

But, while I’m at it, I figured I’d at least put my thoughts down on the film.  Not so much a review, no, with a film release this big, you can get those anywhere, and I like to think that people come to Lost to the Aether for something a bit different.  And also, they come here because I am so smart, handsome, and interesting.  Anyways, if you want the bottom line, I enjoyed it a little less than I did the first film, but it’s still a good movie.  Beyond that, well, here are some completely random and unconnected reflections I have on the movie.

  • So, a big change in the way the film delivers its story, whereas the first movie was all about the individuals coming together as a group, then the big, bad, world invasion, the second film breaks things down to a human level.  It’s more about how each character is as a human.  The first act sees a good amount of the team just goofing around with each other.  It’s a film about personalities, rather than the group as a cohesive whole.  The central conflict comes about because of a few character’s personal choices, the film goes out of its way to round out some of the characters who haven’t gotten much spotlight on them, and everyone gets their little moments to let their guard down and show who they are.  It’s a more human-level experience, that I think really works for the sequel.
  • Unfortunately, this is tempered by the characters still being really flat.  I think that just comes from the age we’re in.  Big budget films need international markets to find success, and deep, complex characters are a lot more difficult to effectively translate between languages and cultures.  Still makes for a worse experience overall, no matter how necessary it is.
  • Hawkeye has himself a long-term relationship.  I’m pretty sure that only came about to remove him as a candidate for Black Widow, after all the teases in the first film.
  • Instead, Widow’s with the Hulk.  I never bought their relationship.  Their actors are really lacking in chemistry.
  • For that matter, I don’t really jive with the way they handled the Black Widow in this film.  The past movies she’s been in, like the Winter Soldier, Iron Man 2, the First Avenger, she really added to it.  She had her own unique part in the conflict, she dealt with things in a unique way, and she actively contributed to the plot.  Moreover, she was distinct.  Irreplaceable.  In this film, Black Widow’s just here to be the woman.  She has two scenes offering some brief glimpses into her backstory, sure, but other than that, her point in the movie is the play the traditional feminine roles.  She’s the matching girlfriend, the emotional support, and the damsel in distress.  Her character has degenerated.  She was once a distinct figure in her own right, now she’s just the Smurfette of the crew.
  • I’ve never read an Ultron story.  I have no idea what his personality’s like.  I’m pretty sure it’s not like this.  But that’s not a bad thing.  It would have been pretty easy to have him be the big generic death robot.  Having him like evil Iron Man adds a bit more to the character.
  • I don’t think you can call something an ‘Age’ when it’s pretty much wrapped up within the week or so this film covers.
  • There’s deaths in the film.  I won’t say who or when or how, but yeah, people die.  The movie gets absolutely no mileage out of it.
  • And you know, I never thought I’d be complaining about this, but I think I’m just getting tired of the Whedonistic snark.  It’s all nice and funny when you sprinkle the dialogue with clever quips.  When everyone’s doing it, and they do it anytime anyone does anything?  It gets a little old.
  • The creators did some nice work in building some leads for future movies.  And not just the next Avengers, either.  I’m pretty sure we saw the creation of a villain for the upcoming Black Panther, for instance, and I didn’t even notice until I slept on it.

And, that’s about all I got right now.  ‘Till next time.

Flavor Matters

With most creative works, whether video games, books, movies, whatever, it’s often the little touches that really make the whole experience.  You can have a great plot, excellent gameplay, perfect cinematography, whatever, but if you ignore the tone, atmosphere, visual details, continuity, all those small details, it’s going to drag your whole work down.

From a creation standpoint, it’s really easy to forget that.  It’s just habit to try to direct the audience’s focus wherever most of the creator’s efforts are going.  After all, I just delivered this big shiny fight scene with such vibrant imagery!  Did you see the way Brick Stronggroin just shot that guy’s head into the air where it exploded like an Independence Day firecracker, before he stagedived into the Sea of Tits?!  That’s high art!  I should be showered with awards!  So what if the costumes are not really appropriate for the tone of this work, or the soundtrack at this part is all bloopy reggae jams?   Who cares if I had previously established that Brick hated explosions of all sorts owing to the death of his entire home planet in a freak explosion accident?

The thing is, creators experience a work differently than consumers do.  Creators, even when going back and reviewing their own creations, tend to look at it piece by piece, breaking it down by its components, and naturally giving more importance to the little bits they spent more effort on.  So it’s easy for creators to forget the impact of all the little touches, such as internal consistency, the atmosphere they’ve built, continuity, and all that jazz.  All those little pieces combine to form the flavor of the work.  For consumers, who, unlike the creators, usually view a work as a whole, more concerned with how well the parts work together than the quality of each individual bit, flavor is generally just as important as every other component.  Flavor matters.

Fallout-_Brotherhood_of_Steel_Screenshot

A great example of that comes in Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel.  There is a game that is just reviled.  It’s hard to find anywhere that has anything good to say about it.  Fallout fans are absolutely disgusted by its existence, even nonfans have soundly marked it as decently below average, and its sales were incredibly low and likely a large contributing factor to Interplay’s bankruptcy.  Perhaps most damning, the owners of the Fallout franchise has determined it completely non-canon, in spite of the fact that it seems to have fewer plot inconsistencies than Fallout Tactics, its fellow side game.

I played Brotherhood of Steel recently.  If you take the flavor out of the equation, this is a decidedly average game.  The gameplay is uninspired but doesn’t have many major flaws, the visuals are functional, the controls are tight enough, and the plot at least makes sense.  Compared to its contemporaries, the game at least hit par.  Without the flavor, it doesn’t nearly deserve the heaps of scorn it’s gotten, and it’s probably worth at least a few points more than reviewers have been giving it.

Yet, even so, the game is rightfully remembered as downright foul.  And it all comes down to flavor.  The flavor in this game is so bad it drastically impacts ones enjoyment of the game.

For the Fallout fans, the flavor inconsistencies are obvious, even as the plot roughly matched up.  Fallout is almost defined by its retrofuturist aesthetic.  Everything is built around the 1950’s idea of science fiction.  And yet, in Brotherhood of Steel, the characters look as if they walked out of the pages of Heavy Metal magazine, the soundtrack was a decidedly modern roll of droning metal, and the game featured product placement from a brand that didn’t even exist until the late 90s.  Even ignoring the other games in the Fallout series, the flavor was wildly inconsistent in its own right.  Matching the 50’s aesthetic with all the features mentioned above just creates a level of cognitive dissonance that’s absolutely baffling.  Moreover, the game swears so much the English language itself starts losing any meaning, the soundtrack is flatout bad, even without the dissonance, and the visual design is flatly uninspired.  The game is bad.  And it’s bad because of its flavor.  It’s bad because this one link in the otherwise average chain is so very, very poor.

It’s easy to go too far with this.  I think everyone can remember finding some discussion somewhere where one consumer placed flavor so far above everything else in terms of importance that the slightest inconsistency absolutely shattered their suspension of disbelief and their enjoyment of the piece as a whole.  Even so, flavor matters.  Flavor is an important component of enjoying a work, and it’s not one that can go ignored.

The Persona 2: Innocent Sin Retrospective, Part 4-Plot and Themes

persona2portablebanner

Part 1-Introduction

Part 2-Gameplay

Part 3-Setting and Tone

Part 5-Player Characters

Part 6-Other Characters

Plot

So, plots have always been more important in RPGs than in most other genres. If you’re going to be dragging the player around for like forty hours, if you’re going to be making them read a light novel’s worth of text, you got to have something going on to provide sufficient drive for all that. The Persona series in particular is known for being the more plot-focused branch of the whole Megaten franchise. So how does Innocent Sin stack up? Well, it’s got some growing pains, but you know, it’s still making a lot of steps in the right direction, and it’s definitely worth the experience. Namely, Innocent Sin uses something that you don’t see too often in video game storytelling, and that I raved about last time in the tone section. It has some subtlety to its storytelling. It doesn’t present everything up front, you’ve got to absorb and consider to get the full picture. Granted, the amount of actual depth there is pretty limited, but hey, for a PS1 era RPG released when everyone else was scrambling to catch up in the wake of the Final Fantasy VII bombshell, it does pretty well for itself.

gfs_15796_1_5

The plot in Revelations: Persona was pretty lacking. It was certainly there, but didn’t really aspire for more than to be a simple justification for the gameplay. Well, the Persona 2 duology has a lot more going on. Not only does the plot have some degree of focus in this game, but it actually goes back and makes the Persona 1 plot retroactively better. It’s Eternal Punishment, the second game of the duology, that relates more to Persona 1, but Innocent Sin still sets the groundwork for it. Namely, it makes Nyarlathotep, who you may remember as being one of the bad guy’s persona from the first game into his own separate entity, a master manipulator and the main villain behind this game. As it turns out, the last game was just part of a greater contest between him and Philemon regarding the whole destiny of mankind. They’ve taken the rather shallow conflict of last game and added a bit of depth by tying it into something greater. A really smooth way of handling it, in all. The plot here ties the series more closely to Jungian psychology than the original game had managed to. Of course, there’s the titular personae making themselves apparent, but the game also introduces the elements of shadows, those parts of yourself that you don’t want to acknowledge, and the idea of the collective unconscious, one of the more major tenants of Jungian psychology. The collective unconscious drives most of the game, in fact, giving rise to both your ultimate enemy and your most powerful ally, as well as granting rumors their reality-warping power.

2109678-169_shin_megami_tensei_innocent_sin_psp_gameplay_082611_wheel_fortune

The narrative generally takes place over three phases. Or acts, if you’d like to fit it into the traditional structure. All of them are mostly conflict-driven. In other words, the plot’s drive works like almost every other game you’ve played before. The first starts off mostly down to earth, introducing you to your characters and setting up the conflict with the Joker, the cell-phone based wish granting genie that’s pissed off at you personally for something you don’t even know you did. Essentially, the first act is focused on building you into that world and your characters, and most of the conflicts are pretty interpersonal ones centered on relatively familiar locations. Your main is at the center of the first act’s plot, although each of the other characters get their own moments of focus. In the second act, Joker starts up the Masked Circle, a group of terrorists who serve as an analog to your own party. There, the conflict starts to expand a bit, as the Masked Circle are attacking the general public within Sumaru City, but thanks to them being largely focused on fighting you, and them being built of members that correspond to your own, it’s still a very small, personally-scaled conflict. Here’s where the idea of the global-destruction gets built, although it doesn’t really pay off with the Masked Circle. Your main, thanks in large part to being the silent lead, starts taking more of a backseat during this section, and the other members of your party end up leading more of the general happenings. And then come the Nazi’s. As often happens when they get involved, things blow up from there. The consequences finally hit the grand scale the SMT series is known for, with the Last Battalion and the Masked Circle duking it out over who’s going to rise as gods over the freshly devastated Earth. The character focus at this point shifts pretty squarely from the traditional members of your party to Jun Kurosu, the new member to join your squad in the final act. One thing to note here is that due to Innocent Sin being the first part of a duology, while most of the individual plot threads do end up wrapped up by the end, the overarching plot only just gets started here. You still end up creaming most of your major opponents and leave both the Masked Circle and the Nazis on the ropes, but you don’t beat all of them, and the game ends on a massive cliffhanger leading into Eternal Punishment. As for how the next game handles the lead, well, we’ll talk about that next time around.

Continue reading

Crafting the Experience vs. Sidequests

Imagine you’re reading a book, or watching a movie, or whatever you’re into. It’s still in the exposition, and the hero’s just received the call for some big epic quest. Oh, woe is us! The dark lord, Slapdick the Tormentor, ruler over these lands for the past 86 years, is now letting loose his last gasps of life on his deathbed! Normally, this would be cause for celebration, but in an effort to make sure nobody in the world outlives him, he’s engaged an ancient global-destruction magic! The mages of old, foreseeing this would come to pass, instilled a holy bloodline with the power to cancel that magic, but only by activating magic stones hidden in the most monster-infested dungeons around the world. Unfortunately, members of that bloodline were universally bad with women, and so you, Hammercles von Chunkmeier, are the only descendant left! You must save us! You’re our only hope!

And so, noble Hammercles sets off on his great and fearsome quest to activate the stones and save the world. Well, almost. First he has to tend his livestock, make sure they’ll be alright while they’re away. Then he has to write a farewell letter to his mother. Then, on his way out of town, the local cleric asks for his help collecting herbs for healing poultices, and what kind of hero would he be if he left his healer poorly stocked? And so on, for hours and hours of screentime or chapters and chapters of pages.

That’d be a pretty miserable story, wouldn’t it? The author would be completely ruining the experience there. It wouldn’t matter how epic the quest was, you’re just sitting through the granular experiences of this guy you’ve yet to find reason to care about. The pacing’s all ruined, the tension so masterfully built up by the intro is all gone, and your time is being wasted. Readers will experience a story as they well, through their own individual lens, but even so, it’s up to the author to craft it, to build things towards the story they’re really trying to tell. What was the author thinking?

I had that experience recently. I was in for an epic story, yet ended up just grinding through a huge amount of mostly-meaningless minutia. Save for one major difference. In that case, it wasn’t the author who had failed in crafting a good experience. It was all on me.

ss-003

Dragon Age: Inquisition opens up with some really massive stakes. The sky itself has torn in twain and is pumping demons out into the world. You’re the only survivor of the massive strike that caused it all, and the world can’t decide whether to worship you or blame you for it. What quickly becomes clear, though, is that you’re the only one with the power to close that tear and stop the demons from coming through. A really powerful opening, all in all.

Then, once you’ve gone through the starting mission, it dumps you out into the Hinterlands, a sprawling, expansive area with much to explore and lots to do, with no more direction than “Hey, go talk to this lady, then, you know, whatever.” It essentially leaves you at the mercy of the many, many sidequests in the region. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the developers intended you to just hang out there until you got bored and come back later on for another round of sidequests, what with part of the area being blocked off until later in the game, the few enemies too strong for you in the first round, and the fact that new sidequests keep being added as you progress. Thing is, they don’t really give you much in the way of guidance as to what you should or shouldn’t do. And I’ve been trained by hundreds of other games to always do all the sidequests, for they shall give you POWER. And so, while the world was reeling from the loss of its lady warpope, I was hunting rams to feed some refugees. While the populace lay in fear as to what would come out of the massive rift in the sky next, I was collecting herbs for some medicine. While the harbinger of the end of days moved his pawns around the land, I was racing my new horse. I was really good at it, too. Beat all three courses on my first try.

Anyways, by the time I was done in the Hinterlands, I had done pretty much everything they had to offer there. I was twelve hours in without doing much of substance, way overleveled, and bored with the game. Luckily, it picks up strongly afterwards, but the point remains that staying there for so long was really harmful to my experience.

Xenoblade-Chronicles-Screenshot-3

It reminds me a lot of Xenoblade Chronicles. That’s an excellent game, one of my favorite of last gen, in fact, providing a really transcendent experience… so long as you ignore sidequests. Each area is filled with stuff to do, packed to the brim with small sidequests, that, if you try and complete it all, will totally choke out all the plot, the new characters, the action, the areas, with just their sheer mass. The sidequests in Xenoblade Chronicles are like an invasive kudzu to a tree, you, the player, have to carefully keep them in check or they’re going to smother everything else. And yet, just like in Dragon Age: Inquisition, that stuff is only there as an option for me. Even though I have the urge to do everything doesn’t mean the game is making me do so.

If I had made a story where the side plots and minutia so completely got in the way of my pacing, flow, and main plot, my readers would have rightfully blamed me for ruining my work. It was my responsibility to craft the experience, after all. But I’m not a game developer. The types of stories we’ve been talking about here are told in partnership between the author and the player. And maybe this time, it’s the player who’s been messing it up.

When playing games, I have a strong impulse to try and finish up any side content I can as soon as it becomes available. It feels shameful to me to move on with something left undone. But that’s not always the right way to experience the game. It’s not wrong of the developer to choose not to carefully craft the experience, instead leaving a great mass of content strewn over a wide area for me to enjoy at my leisure. It’s not even wrong for them to refrain from giving me direction and letting me make my own way through the great fog of content. A lot of great video game experiences have been built that way. For me, there’s a bit of a learning curve in being able to let things go, but in these games, I have the power to craft some of my own experience. As the player, I need to learn to use it.

The True Power of Artistic License

Artistic license.  The concept that a good plot is more important than a realistic depiction.  That which an author uses when reality selfishly refuses to accommodate what they need for the plot to work.

I was talking with Harliqueen a while back, when she was in the process of writing what would become Heart of the Arena. At the time, she was greatly concerned about historical accuracy, about making sure all the facts she was implementing to her story conformed as much to historical fact as she could make them. She wanted to ensure that her story stuck as closely to reality as reasonably possible.

At the time, I was struck by that. I’ve been taking the exact opposite approach in my own ongoing work, treating my subject matter with however much flexibility I needed to make the awesome scenes I wanted, and I’d been considering that one of my strengths. And you know what? I still do. Both approaches, that of perfect accuracy and of wanton artistic interpretation, definitely have their merits. It just so happens that the latter is serving my story a lot better.

Even from the outset, I have a lot of room, a necessity even, for utilizing artistic interpretation. While Harli’s tale draws its roots from Roman history, mine bases a lot on mythology and religion, a much softer science. Moreover, I’m drawing from both quite a few different cultural tales and faiths, and taking some inspiration from apocrypha as well, so I really need to implement a lot of ‘creative interpretation’ to ensure my story’s logic can integrate all these sources yet still be consistent. Even beyond that, though, I’ve been thinking that heavy use of artistic license, to the extent I’m looking at with my current work, could be a very beneficial factor in itself.

Basically, what I’m thinking is that a properly applied sense of artistic license can add its own layers onto the work as a whole beyond just what it allows for plot. A good, strong, consistent manner of deviating from what’s established by reality can help to establish an atmosphere and tone for the work on its own, helping it to stand out and creating its own unique. Pretty much any work based in any way on the real world makes use of some degree of artistic license. By being deliberate about it, though, and ensuring its applied consistently throughout, the author can take command of it to help make the work as a whole more unique, having a stronger overall design, and more flexibility in how to implement stories.

There’s a fine line there. Artistic license should only be applied where there’s room for it. That’s one of the reasons I have a lot more flexibility in working with mythology and religion than on other subjects. I’ll already be using a lot of various sources with a lot of internal inconsistencies, where there may not be in something like history. However, every inconsistency is the seed for some sort of interpretation. And by managing those inconsistencies and growing out of them creatively, I’ll be able to make my work a lot stronger than it would be otherwise.

Proper Pacing of the Video Game Narrative, Part 2

I had planned for a big, elaborate introduction here.  But then I got stressed and sick and now I’m having trouble just focusing on the screen, so nuts to that.  Here’s the 2nd part to this post, where we talk about pacing of narratives in video games.  Last time we established the differences between narrative and gameplay pacing, this time we’re talking about how to get the two to play nice together.

Recognizing Your Tools

Most mediums for storytelling have fairly standard tricks for quickly adjusting the pace of a work. Books can jump between characters to always hit the most eventful moments at the right time, expand on the description and dialogue when its time to slow things down, or merely give readers a sense of complex happenings rather than having them shown in full, depending on what rate the author’s wanting things to move at. Films can make use of montages to speed up the narrative passage of time, make a lot of jump cuts to instill a sense of speed, or linger on long shots and facial expressions when it’s time to slow things down. Comics and graphic novels have long used the space between panels to imply more things are happening than being shown without affecting the narrative flow, and used the number of panels on a page to control how fast they’re being read through. I’d say that nearly all forms of storytelling have a set of basic tools for brute-force controlling pacing, that nearly all competent creators are so well versed in just from absorbing other media of the type that they’re able to implement them without even thinking.

I don’t think, however, that’s the case for video games. At least, not so much as it is for other mediums. Storytelling has a comparatively brief history in gaming, and study into the medium’s capabilities has been lacking. They just haven’t been around long enough for creators to pick up en mass ideas of what works and what doesn’t; what tricks can be employed to mechanically adjust the narrative pace and what maneuvers have a harmful effect on the work. This is one major area that I feel designers’ constant need to look to films for cues in videogame storytelling is a huge feeling. Sure, some of the same tools might be in play, but only for cutscenes. And cutscenes should really only be used when the plot can’t be adequately served by the gameplay engine. Instead, to really advance videogames as a storytelling medium, developers are going to need to learn to use tools specific to this unique artform.

And what tools are those, exactly? Well, if I knew, I’d be off making money as a pretentious videogame auteur and this blog would be a lot more popular. Based on my knowledge of writing stories and common game structures, though, I can at least make some educated guesses.

Continue reading

We Used to Own This City! The Saints Row Retrospective: Saints Row 2

saints-row-2-cheats

Saints Row Retrospective Introduction hereSaints Row 1 here, Saints Row The Third here.

Saints Row 2. This is where it gets real. The first Saints Row was good and all, but this is where the series cut its teeth. You’ve probably heard of the Saints Row series being wild, chaotic, and proudly removed from reality, but if you started with the first Saints Row, you would understandably end up confused. “Why don’t I get to crash into things on a quad while on fire?” you might ask. “Where are the missions where I let lose with a septic truck?” “I thought I would get to kill people with a giant purple dildo!”

Well, you don’t get to in the first game. That game has its moments, but it still leaves a foot in the real, the rational, the “mature.” It was content with its position as being “mostly a GTA clone” and did not stretch itself any further than that. Saints Row 2 was where the series got its wings, where it finally took efforts to distinguish itself from Grand Theft Auto and its many imitators. And although Saints Row 2’s gameplay did get updated, that’s not what really sets it apart. This is where the Saints Row character was defined. This is the game that established the insane moments, wild fun, and blatant, loving immaturity the series is known for. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Continue reading

Writing without the Reader: Reasoning Why Sleeping Dogs’ Plot Sucks Like a Black Hole

http-masonicgamer.comwp-contentuploads201208Sleeping-Dogs

As you may gather from reading the post title, I’ve been playing Sleeping Dogs recently. Considering that Square Enix puts the digital version on sale all the time, there’s a good chance you’ve played it, too. Somewhere, they probably have it on sale right now. I hear that if you bump into a Square Enix employee on the street, they will literally beg you to take their game. It’s really easy to get at a discount, is what I’m saying.

It’s well worth the price, too. The game is good. You won’t see much new here, but the game pulls its mechanics from some of the best out there. I enjoyed almost every bit of the game throughout. But there’s one area in Sleeping Dogs that’s just rotten. The plot. The plot of this game is so weak the rest of the game still steals its lunch money. The plot of this game is so stupid it had to repeat the third grade twice. The plot of this game is so foul… eh, you get the picture by now.

So what’s the big deal about this game having a bad plot? After all, video games have excuse plots all the time. Well, excuse plots are one thing, but Sleeping Dogs’ plot isn’t even coherent. But Sleeping Dogs’ plot is bad for a completely different reason than most sucky plots. When I was playing the game, the plot really felt like the designers had a complete script, but were picking and choosing what moments to include based on what they could make a mission out of, and just discarding the rest. There’s a thing an author can do with a work that I call ‘Writing without the Reader,’ literary academics probably have some smarter-sounding term for it, and the average person would probably call something like ‘Crap Happening Off-screen, Now Stop Making Up Useless Names You Dumb Blogger.’ But yeah, it’s essentially major events happening off-screen. You don’t always need the viewer present for every single important happening in your story. Some events you can have going on completely in the white space between chapters, and leave the reader to catch up on it by working through the results. It’s a tricky thing to get right, and not a skill I have yet, but better writer’s than I have used it effectively to streamline their works.

Continue reading

Sinners Welcome! The Saints Row Retrospective, Part 2: Saints Row

saints-row

 

Saints Row Retrospective Introduction here, Saints Row 2 hereSaints Row The Third here.

We’re moving forward with our Saints Row Retrospective project, finally getting into real games. Who needs that foo-foo introduction crap anyway? This is where it’s really at! Here’s where we get into the meat of it, where we really find out what Saints Row is all about!

So here we are, talking about Saints Row, the first game in the Saints Row series. Go figure. Saints Row establishes a lot of what the following games pick up on and run with. And by “establishes” I mean “rips off from GTA” of course. I give it a lot of guff for that, but really, lots of games were ripping of Grand Theft Auto by the time this came out and Saints Row did it better than one might expect. Its definitely built off of the mechanics and style GTA III started, but the developers really added their own bits to it and made something unique. On-foot combat was made into something useable. The irreverent tone was expanded upon even as most crime games, GTA included, ditched the jokes for the drama masks. The city you were terrorizing had much more for you to do in between missions. Saints Row added enough to the formula that discounting it as just a GTA clone is doing it a disservice. It’d be more accurate to simply call it “mostly a GTA clone.”

Saints Row is a sandbox game where you are responsible for inflicting as much chaos, destruction, and straight up weirdness on the city of Stilwater as possible. Your nameless, customized character, known only as “Playa,” is an enforcer for the Third Street Saints, and as enforcer, your goals are to end gang warfare in Stilwater by murdering each and every member of the other three gangs in the city. Along the way, you’ll commit no small number of major and minor crimes, mostly through missions and non-storyline activities. It’s a sandbox game. Those things are made for messing stuff up. You’ve got pretty typical driving and third-person dual stick shooter controls. They put them together in a way that’s not quite great, but it functions well enough to make thousands of bangers dead. The plot’s fairly straightforward. There’s only a few twists, and they’re mostly towards the end. But you’re not playing for the plot anyways. The game doesn’t expect you to. All it expects you to do is destroy, and it dedicates itself to setting up just what you need for that.

Continue reading