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Power Member - Level 10
The comparison between movies and
video games validates itself with almost every major release. The narrative
boundary between interactivity and rhetorical storytelling fades as games adopt
just about every technical aspect of film. The game developers who create story
sequences must go through a similar process of design and execution that
directors and cinematographers in the film industry must understand: dramatic
camera angles, lighting, pacing, framing just to name a few. Almost every AAA
game released approaches their narrative presentations in a similar fashion,
but is that really a good thing?
The most important part of a video
game is, without a doubt, the game part. If you're not interacting or playing
with something, then it becomes difficult to call what you're doing a game.
Certainly a fine story is a welcomed-and, in modern gaming, expected-addition
to the medium, but it is not the defining aspect of video games.
Too many games desperately try to
imitate movies when it comes to storytelling. I'll use one of my favorite games
of the year, Uncharted 3, as an example. I'm not saying there's anything wrong
with Uncharted, by the way; it is a superb game both in narration and gameplay.
However, I felt like I was watching Uncharted
for far longer than I should have been. The cutscenes in Uncharted are
entertaining to watch, and not many people are going to argue against the
overall presentation of the game. But why does a game need to remove
the player from the action completely just to tell a story?
As entertaining as a cutscene might be, we're basically sitting at the sidelines while they go on
Every time I watched a cutscene and
lost control over Drake, I felt removed from an experience from which I shouldn't
be removed. In Uncharted, I'm Nathan
Drake. I'm making leaps of faith and taking
cover in frantic firefights. I'm finding
priceless treasures and discovering ancient ruins. For most of the game, that
kind of immersion is executed brilliantly through gameplay. With cutscenes,
though, that immersion is quickly stripped away in favor of something
reminiscent of a traditional movie.
There was a time where I glorified these
non-playable game-movies. I specifically remember feeling rewarded with
cutscenes when I first played Final Fantasy VII. Perhaps it was because of the massive
difference in visual fidelity between the gameplay and the CG movies at the
time. Perhaps it was because the cutscenes were fewer and farther between than
the rate at which most modern games deploy them. I'm not entirely sure, but I know that
when I get a cutscene in a game now, it takes a lot of my patience to not skip
The frustration comes when you
realize a lot of what you see in a cutscene could be gameplay. Perhaps exchanges of dialogue wouldn't make for
the most exhilarating levels of a game, but occasionally cutscenes expand beyond
fleshing out characters and plot. All too often you're forced to stand aside as
a character you should be controlling gets to engage with action that could be
incorporated into gameplay. For this example of narrative and gameplay synthesis,
perhaps Uncharted isn't the best example. Most of the griping actions sequences
have some kind of interactivity, even if it's something as simple a single
button to initiate a dramatic event.
Video games have already proven that an engaging narrative
is perfectly possible without completely taking control away from the player,
though. It is a method of storytelling that is a forte of Valve's. Most
recently, Portal 2 did little in the way of removing the player from an ongoing
narrative. You were Chell the entire time. Sure, occasionally you would be bound
by something, only able to control her point-of-view, but the game never makes you
lose total control.
No game has done it quite like Valve's masterpiece, Half-Life 2. Completely told from the perspective of a stoically silent protagonist,
Half-Life 2 seamlessly told an engaging sci-fi story without ever forcing the
player to completely step away from Gordon Freeman. That kind of interactivity is
what really made the game so appealing. Every moment that would, in almost any
other game, make you watch a short film while your controller sat idly in your
hand afforded you the ability to be an active participant in the scene.
The seemingly perfect mesh of gameplay and narrative does
show its limitations in Half-Life 2, though. Stripping away autonomy has its
benefits in video games; you don't have to deal with the silly, unpredictable
behavior of a human controlled actor in your movie. One of the opening
narrative progressions of Half-Life 2 has the player meeting up with some old
friends while they talk through the beginning steps of their plans. Normally,
you would expect Gordon Freeman to sit by his cohorts, taking in every word
they had to offer. That's how the story has to progress, right? The protagonist
needs to be, at the very least, paying attention.
Well, I wasn't.
My Gordon Freeman was far too busy trying to get a
teleporting device to work on a tiny cactus. Once he got bored of that, he
jumped on some crates and tried to hop around this fence that totally looked like
it had an opening (it didn't.) Then, even as dramatic events were being unveiled, my Gordon Freeman tried to balance stuff on the
characters' heads. Simply put: my Gordon Freeman is a crappy actor. Luckily, he
didn't have any lines to remember, but you can see where this kind of problem
might taint an otherwise fluid story.
This is why we can't have nice things...
Some games have managed to blend gameplay and narrative
without focusing either extreme. Heavy Rain is a title that
blends the ideas of interactivity and visual storytelling in a very unique way.
You are basically doing more watching than playing in Heavy Rain, but the two
actually mix together in a manner that really blurs the line between them.
The result is a game that benefits, rather than suffers,
from a strange kind of identity crisis. You never really lose the feeling of immersion,
yet you never really get full control of a single character. It's an intriguing
approach to video games.
More video games need to start allowing the player to be an
active participant in the story that unfolds. Rather than having gamers watch
short films with video game sections in between, players should feel immersed throughout
the experience. Video games need to embrace the interactivity of the medium;
gamers don't need to watch a story-they need to play it.