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Another GDC comment: On interactive storytelling

Gears of War writer (gamewriter?) Susan O'Connor gave a speech on the GDC this year. Gamespot summed it up in three key points: Mirror neurons (players wanting what the characters want), throughlines (sounds like a theme+character arc kind of thing) and backstage storytelling (let the story go on in the background as you play). It's this last one that I don't agree with. It certainly works in GoW and plenty of other action games, but it's not THE way to write a game.

Storytelling shouldn't be the foreground, probably, but neither should it be the background. It should be the game. Granted, ludologists and narratologists alike have asserted that interactive storytelling is probably a contradiction in terms, but storytelling through gameplay has been done properly before. Fahrenheit comes to mind, or Blade Runner. Even Silent Hill, despite being a clssic online sequence/offline sequence game (i.e. "gameplay bit+story bit") managed to incorporate the action into the story.

And everybody always blames storytelling for the hardships of telling the story in a game, which is wrong. It's not all the storyteller's fault, it's the gameplay's fault, too. Take Gears itself. How can one create a truly interactive storyline when the only interaction the player can do in real time is shoot? There's no way. Games will become interactive stories when we start allowing game characters to interact with the world and characters in ways that are beyond physical struggle and destruction. You need characters to talk interactively, think interactively, feel interactively if at all possible. I have some high hopes for Mass Effect in this regard. I'll give O'Connor that the player should be playing while the story is going on, but he should be playing because he's an actor in the story, not because it's going on through background noise while the gamer shoots aliens in the face.


Let me give you an example of how this can happen in a clssic game format. I've mentioned Silent Hill, and this will be spoilers for SH2, so if you haven't played it and don't want it spoiled, stop reading (and go play it, it's a great game).


At the end of the game, Pyramid Head is revealed to be a representation of the main character's guilt over having killed his agonizing wife, cursing him to relive her death over and over again. You are given clues to this throughout the whole game, and when the main character finally realizes what's going on (a little after you, the player, do) there's a cutscene with the character accepting his guilt, then standing up and telling two Pyramid Heads "I don't need you anymore". Then the cutscene ends and, for the first time in the game, you are given the chance to kill the bastards who've been giving you hell for the last 8 hours or so. Then you face the ghost of your dead wife, who turns into a monstrous representation of herself tied to a bed. You take her out and she drops to the ground in pretty much the same position the agonizing wife was in the cutscenes. She calls out your name and the game leaves you no choice but to shoot her.


To me, this is one of the greatest narrative sequences in gaming, both for the reasons O'Connor mentions in her speech and for a couple different ones. Let's look at it in depth.


First, "mirror neurons" indeed. The designers give you an invincible monster and make you run away every time he appears in the game. Then a character develops internally, which gives him a tool to kill the monster, which is now revealed to be a representation of the character’s feelings. By the time that limitation is gone you want to shoot the things so bad that the final battle becomes incredibly climatic. You don’t only have to kill them to make the story go on and get to the ending, you *want* to kill them because you have a score to settle with the sword-wielding suckers, as a player. Granted, you can’t have every bad guy in games be a personification of the protagonist’s feelings, but that’s how it is in SH2, and it works beautifully. The fight becomes a meaningful turning point in the main character’s arc, solving a common problem in game narrative: The characters develop in non-interactive cutscenes, while the gameplay stays the same.


This concept is taken even further in the next sequence, where you don’t just feel the need for revenge. When you kill the final monster and the game drops it to the ground, leaving you no option but to shoot her point blank to end the game, they’re making you do something you don’t really want to do, effectively putting you in synch with the main character’s conflicting feelings. If this part was done in a cutscene it wouldn’t be half as strong. They’re making you pull the trigger. They’re making you not only interact, but act. Play the part.


That’s how it’s done. Not in cutscenes, though they work better than “backstage storytelling” most of the time, but in the gameplay itself. Acting during gameplay is best case scenario, the best place to put narrative in a game. Cutscenes are second in my book, then comes background story through sound bits or text.


O’Connor’s speech was actually a sample of what game writers currently think, at least in the west, so it was a sample of why game storytelling is awful overall. This is the baseline we need to rise in the future.

Serious games: reworking Square's concept.

Square went to GDC to talk about the game business and they came out with a press release about their Brain Training clones, but that doesn't mean they don't have a point.

Serious games is a good concept, it's just that I don't think it means taking the gameplay out of the game. Games could become serious by becoming a mainstream art form, like cinema and TV did early in their life cycles. So far games have restricted themselves, not only by designing gameplay structures that appeal only to a niche market, but also by creating stories and looks that appeal to that same niche.

Finding a way to tell stories through things other than competitive interaction with an AI (like FPS and current RPG's) is the next step in order to make games mainstream. So far, simulations, games that focus on creating a sandbox requiring little risk or skill, like Nintendogs or The Sims, have broken the niche, but narrative gaming has yet to achieve the same.

I do believe it can be done, though not by sticking to big men with guns or complex battle systems featuring what I can only describe as sexually undetermined teenagers. Games probably need more 30 something people trying to find the right person in their lives and pay the rent. They need family dramas, courtroom dramas (no, Phoenix Wright doesn't really count), and romantic comedies. There just aren't any stories beyond the stereotypes of Holywood action movies in the west or Manga science fiction in Japan. We need more. It's perfectly possible that games in the immediate future become a mainstream thing, like most people having pictures on their walls, but narrative games never go beyond comic-book geeky audiences.

The problem with that, if you just felt the impulse to say "fine with me" is that the moment those other, non-narrative games become reliable, profitable, and wrapped into a solid distribution environment, budgets for narrative games could go down with their sales and market share. Square is already opening a serious, casual division. Nintendo started it all with Touch Generations and you can be sure that there'll be more to come. And what's the point in a bigger and better Xbox if the real money is going to be on a Q&A game about interior decoration?

I don't think this trend will be easy, or even possible, to change, but when the second games crack happens and we're all stuck with text games, don't say I didn't warn you. 

Did Nintendo save the game industry? Another forum repost.

Now, actual videogame history, that's a discussion I can get into.

The NES hit US shores when? 85? That was 3 years after the collapse of Atari. The whole industry had crashed, the people involved had backed out, there had hardly been any videogames in stores for three consecutive Christmas seasons...

Remember, back in 1980 Atari wasn't backed by multinational money. It was an upstart. In the late 70's they practically asked anybody who walked past the street to come in and help them manufacture consoles, since they lacked the manpower to meet demand. That's one of the reasons the business collapsed, of course. We all agree, I suppose, that no single game can drive the whole industry to bankruptcy today, no matter how big a failure it is. But it was possible back then.

So would anybody have come up with a home console that was viable on the worldwide market? Of course. Sooner or later. The historical fact is that it was Nintendo who did it. Comparatively, Nintendo was a strong company. For starters, it was Japanese, and it had a longer history and more open windows for profit than Atari. They had the Pachinko market, they had the arcades, which survived better there than in the US, they had electronic toys, traditional toys, cards... Unlike in America, in Japan only the home market had taken a hit.

So Nintendo came up with the Famicom. In Japan, it was just a console. It was the best one around, technically, and it was a domestic product created for domestic tastes. It worked fine. The key to Nintendo's dominance over that generation and the next was taking their product to the US. It was a problem, because too many people had taken losses form the 82 crack. If you check the history books (there are a few good ones on Nintendo's rebirth) you'll see that they even had problems marketing the NES to Toys'r'us and the like. -Nobody wanted to carry videogames anymore. They thought home consoles would never work again.

What Nintendo did was very similar to what they're doing now with the Wii. They started changing their strategy instead of changing the product. They changed the name. No more "FAMIly COMputer". That sounds like a console. No, it's a Nintendo Entertainment System. Entertainment, not videogames. They bundled the Zapper and ROB to make it look more like a toy. Almost like the gamepad was an extra, and not the main way to play the games (sound familiar yet?). If you check out the ads for the time, you can barely see the main NES box in them. If you don't look closely you might get the impression that it's a robot that hooks up to your TV. An electronic toy, not a videogame.

You know what? It worked. They got the NES in people's houses. By the time they noticed the Zapper was kinda limited and the robot was pretty stupid, they were too busy playing Super Mario Bros. to care anymore. It's also worth mentioning that this episode is probably behind Nintendo's obsession with marketing videogames as a children-only product all through the 90's. They practically invented the concept. Heck, the concept saved their lives both with the NES and with the Game Boy. In fact, I'm not sure they were wrong in defending it so strongly. After all, once the PSX hit the market and videogames became something for young adults rather than small children Nintendo instantly lost its dominance of the home market.

My point? That in the NES American launch Nintendo's creativity wasn't as much in the system (which was the most powerful videogame system in history) or the add-ons (which were all innovative and revolutionary), but in the marketing strategy. They could have very well failed in their attempt to resurrect the US market if they had just tried to launch a new home console, even with the same hardware. They had to look at the issue sideways and come up with a redefinition of the product's concept to make it work.

I know the trolls and fanboys are not reading this far into this or any other of my posts. They don't care, and it's fine. I happen to be interested in gaming professionally as well as from a gameplayer's perspective. I like gaming history, as I like film history. I am a student of media and communication and videogames' rise to popularity not once, but twice in just 25 years is a very interesting field of study in so many different levels.

So, from an educated perspective, and if any of you kids care to take a look at this, go read a bit about game history. It's loads of fun, you'll learn a couple of things about how your toys are made and who makes them. You'll find out why you think what you think (and, believe me, facts have very little to do with it). Who knows? You might get interested enough to pursue a career on the subject.

Because, in the end, the truth behind the console wars is this: There's no more difference between an Xbox and a PS2 than between your Braun blender and a Phillips one. It's all made by a bunch of people trying to lead a business to make money. They choose their profiles based on this, they decide the games and the strategy based on this. If you want to argue, if you really want to be belligerent and take sides, there's just one area in which there is (or at least could be) creativity, personality and ultimately art, and that is game design. And game design, as Ubi is so eagerly demonstrating this month, can be good or bad, no matter if it's for a Samsung mobile phone or a Wii.

Playing about something. A repost of a forum conversation.

I've been saying for a while that I hate the next gen look. Silent Hill was a grainy, dark game. You don't see that in this generation, at least so far. Everybody is too busy cramming more bump maps and reflections in their graphics to worry about how they actually look.

And yeah, sequels suck. Not as much for what they are, because some are decent games, and I'll always go mad for a good Zelda or Metal Gear, but for what they aren't. They're not new IP, new ideas, new characters, new stories. When will a game actually say something? Something new, if at all possible.

My number one problem with western games is they are all about fine tuning the gameplay without giving a damn about what you are playing about. I like that. Playing about something. That should be the future. That's what I like.

You see, gameplay is fundamental.  It's not a game without gameplay, but the notion that gameplay IS the game is ruining the whole industry.

Sonic the Hedgehog is one of my favorite 16 bit games. I just got it again for Wii and I'm having a blast 15 years after I first played it. It's no doubt the least playable game on the series, but it's the most charming. The music is better and more memorable, Sonic's sprite is cuter and the levels are straightforward. It's a better game, even if you can't spin dash and Sonic tends to get trapped on slopes when he has no momentum.

Do you think Silent Hill on the PSP, handled like a Resident Evil 4 clone, will be a better game than Silent Hill 3?  It won't, because the difficulty in handling SH3's character makes you feel more like a woman in danger than like an action hero. If you're an action hero, then you're not scared, then there's no horror. Worse gameplay, better game. SH1, 2 and 3 are about fear. Resident Evil is about shooting people in the face. Silent Hill is a game about something. What's more, each Silent Hill game is about a different thing. Fatherly love for 1, guilt in 2, fate in 3. They're sequels, but not clones.

You don't need to tell a story to be a game about something. Pikmin is about little things, nature and feeling lost. It's a great game, even if the playable elements are a bit rough. I haven't played Gears of War entirely, so I don't really know if there's a point to the game, but if the only thing that sets it apart is actually "cover, gore and shooting", then there's nothing that sets it apart, because those are simply playable elements.

That is the difference between what passes for good games in the west and good japanese games. Final Fantasy X shipped with a DVD full of extras when it first came out. One of the extras was a set of interviews with the designers, and one of the questions they were asked was "what is the THEME of the game?". They didn't mean the setting. The answer wasn't "it's kinda tropical and technological and stuff", the answer was "love, sacrifice".

That is what I want from games. That's why the Legacy of Kain series is my favourite action saga in recent memory. The games are well designed, but nothing special and a bit repetitive, but by the end of Defiance I was so taken with the characters and the questions the game poses about free will and revenge that leaving it unfinished was out of the question. By comparison, I have never finished a Devil May Cry game, that plays and looks far better but isn't about anything other than a guy fighting lots of monsters.

That's what makes a game different from others. Personality, theme, art. Playing about something.

Revolution, Evolution and a bunch of things in between

I have a Wii now.

It's the third gaming system I've ever bought on launch. My first was a Sega Saturn. It came with a copy of Virtua Fighter and a Panzer Dragoon. Say what you want about the Saturn's small life cycle, but I had a blast with it. You couldn't play Guardian Heroes on a PSX, or Panzer Dragoon, or Nights, and I enjoyed a game of any of those far more than any number of hours playing Tekken or Gran Turismo. Sadly, the Saturn didn't have enough effort put into it by developers (it's not casuality that the Saturn remains the only unemulated console of its generation, since it was a very complex and powerful machine).

The second system I got on launch (actually imported it 6 months before it hit Euro stores) was a PSP. At the time I didn't have any portable storage medium or MP3 player, and at 249.99, with a copy of Lumines packed in, it was a bargain. Remember, the PSP came out at exactly that prize with no games. The fact that even paying customs taxes you can get japanese hardware cheaper than the european one is the reason why the Wii is still region coded, don't believe anything else they tell you. Nowadays, with a DS Lite in the house (also an import, also cheaper than retail), the PSP is my media player with an occassional game of Lumines or Tekken when I'm bored away from home or traveling, since airports can get very boring.

The Wii is number three on the list. I've never been a Nintendo guy, but I like the big N much better since it's become a small revolutionary company instead of the bullying industry leader it once was. Today, Sony and Microsoft are busy repeating the mistakes of the past while Nintendo is fighting for survival by going beyond the old dynamics. That's a good thing, even more for me than for most gamers. Being a former MSX and Genesis player I have a moral right to feel better than anybody from the PSX generation, but I'm also very bored of videogame genre conventions, bad storytelling and the same thing with better graphics.

So is Wii the Revolution? More or less. It's new, and it's all that you need to have a great time playing games. It's also full of potential way beyond what the launch lineup has done with it.  

People have been wondering how big of an impact will the graphics be for the Wii's life cycle (I'm looking at you, mr. Kassavin), and it's a legitimate concern. You see, there are two paths the Wii can take in the next year. One is the N64 path, the same the Gamecube took. The other is the GBA/NDS path. The first makes it a side note, a cheap alternative that is, at best, harmless and full of first party games for the faithful. The other is a state of mystical isolation from time, in which the system itself is a value. The Game Boy brand is like the iPod. It's the same things others are doing better, just more expensive, but also sexy, well designed and a synonim for its whole industry.

Obviously, the Wii is the first system that tries to bring that aura to the domestic consoles. It has the look, the innovation and the broad instant appeal of the GB. In my mind, what proved to Nintendo that this move is possible is the PSP. Back when the GB ate the Game Gear alive everybody blamed short battery life for the demise of the better system. Now, in the DS v PSP fight, with powerful batteries making the difference less relevant, Nintendo has seen that simplicity and mass appeal still works, even if the rival is doing things pretty much right. If the PSP isn't more attractive than the DS, and the GG wasn't more attractive than the GB, why should the Wii have a shorter life than the oldest "alive" system on the market today?

Next time I'll talk about Wii graphics and why PS3 and 360 graphics are ugly as hell. Also, why do Xboxes and Genesis work so well in the US and so bad in the rest of the planet and just how important is that?

Getting started... again.

I'm not a constant blogger. I don't see the point, most of the time, and a lack of perseverance writing a blog means you'll never have a loyal following to keep pushing you.

I have, however written about games more or less seriously in the past (I didn't get paid, but I got to keep all the review builds, which was cool). Again, I dropped it because I lacked the time and the sense of reward.

So what has changed? Nothing much, really. I just got a Wii, and I kinda feel like talking about it a bit. Plus, American gamers just don't seem to care enough about what we Eurogamers think or feel, and I'm always eager to try and change that.

We'll see if this blog sticks. Who knows? I might just find the time. I do need support and enjoy discussion, so if anybody reads this, feel free to contribute and get in touch with me.