Thursday, December 3, 2009

Video Games and Storytelling

This entry won't attempt to provide answers to anything in the video game world. It's really just a list of observations presented to evoke further ideas and observations.

I wrote my undergrad capstone paper on the narration of several storytelling media. Because film and prose have longstanding and ingrained systems for storytelling, video games are currently the most exciting medium to study. You will notice a lack of any discussion about turn-based games. Turn-based combat was created because of board games, with no better way to show combat. It translated to early video games well-enough, but there's hardly and excuse for it now besides nostalgia. Some of the more recent RPG developers have noticed this are revamping the turn based system. I'm excited about this because RPGs have, until recently, held the lead in the storytelling department for twenty solid years. Shooters used to have a concept that let you blow things up. Alien invasion: kill aliens. Hell breaks out on earth: kill demons. WWII: kill Nazis (this one hasn't gotten old). As time went on, we were gifted with Deus Ex: The Conspiracy, Halo 2, Max Payne and others. All of the sudden, shooters began developing linear storylines, albeit in a mission-style format.

The actual mode of storytelling is still evolving. The narration is controlled by the player. In 2009 we saw the release of the most anticipated game in history, Modern Warfare 2. It set the new standard for video game storytelling even though it wasn't a particularly original story. We also got the superbly penned Batman: Arkham Asylum, written by longtime Batman scribe Paul Dini (the guy who created Harley Quinn). From a storytelling standpoint, the highly anticipated Left 4 Dead 2 brought surprisingly little to the table. The first Left 4 Dead, though lacking a cohesive narrative, revolutionized video game storytelling with its 'director'. Valve created an Artificial Intelligence Director to adapt to the players' "stress levels." If your team is steamrolling through the zombies, which makes for pretty boring conflict, the 'director' will start throwing obstacles your way. It makes for a much more entertaining narrative. Bungie took Halo 3: ODST in a more innovative storytelling direction than its by-the-numbers-predecessor by creating trigger points that spawn playable flashbacks told from different points of view. The story takes place in the somewhat open New Mombasa, where the player can take different routes to the trigger points, and finally, the finale.

Infinity Ward, creators of Modern Warfare 2, take themselves too seriously to allow control of their story to be handed over to a player. You are in their reins from start to finish, being tightly guided from plot point to plot point. If you go the wrong direction, you will have to turn around. If you shoot the wrong guy, you will have to start over. Enemies are essentially in the same places, but have individual combat AI that lets them grab cover and maneuver according to their survival needs. However, there's not too much different in what enemies do between play-throughs. Don't get me wrong, that doesn't make it a bad game. You couldn't be in more adept hands.

The game borrows heavily from cinema for its effects, but employs a plot that could be taken right from TV's "24." I guess, technically, it is the plot from Red Dawn with introductory story development. It's preposterous, sometimes fun, sometimes disturbing, and all masterfully told.

MW2 borrows from a peck of action movies. Chances are, you will immediately recognize action scenes from the afore mentioned Red Dawn as well as The Rock, Black Hawk Down, The Matrix (with an assist from Point Break), and a plethora of James Bond films. You will also spot the more common plot developments coming a mile away: betrayals, prominent character deaths, character returns, and so forth. Some moments were truly surprising, but if you watch enough 24, you'll easily identify the formula and those "shocking" moments come few and far between. It doesn't matter too much in the end. The action scenes are expertly utilized.

A standout difference between most shooters and Modern Warfare 2 is that it lets you play through plot developments. The narration isn't ripped from the player's control. It doesn't jump to cut scenes with extensive exposition. You are allowed to walk around , interact with the environment while NPCs give assignments and exposition. The only time control is taken from the player is during voice-over briefings given on load screens.
The tactic isn't exactly new, it was used in some of the Medal of Honor games, but it is rarely used as extensively as in MW2. In the opening moments of the game, the playable character, Roach, nearly falls to his death while climbing a mountain. This scene takes place entirely in first person even though Roach is rescued and cannot do much to save himself. All the player can really do is turn roach's head. In other words, events happen to the player; the player cannot avoid them.

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