Turns out I’m not done with the idea of narrative in games. I’m probably shooting myself a in the foot a bit by not formulating this into an interesting, cohesive article that I can then sell for great profit, but these thoughts are coming to me in such a jumbled mess that I can probably still salvage something worth selling out of all of this, without retreading too much ground. This gets to be my blackboard and my notepad, public as it is.

So I watched The Town yesterday, Ben Affleck’s new film. And when I attribute it to him, that’s not just as a leading man; he directed it too. It’s a pretty good film, following a bunch of bank robbers in Boston, and slipping in and out of exploring the genus of a criminal, balancing that along with a love story and a few action sequences. Anyway, as is my wont, I looked up some reviews afterwards, just because I like to a) pander to my own ego and make sure that the critics think what I think, or, if they don’t, I get to feel elitist or some bullshit, and b) because I’m genuinely interested to see if someone else’s opinion can colour my view of the film and provide a new perspective.

Anyway, I got to Roger Ebert’s website, as I soft often do, and in his review there’s this:

“Yet I persist in finding chases and gun battles curiously boring. I realize the characters have stopped making the decisions, and the stunt and effects artists have taken over.”

Which got me thinking, especially after spending a thousand or so words yesterday working through the idea of a divorce between writer and player. And, in that light, the way I’m looking at the way narrative works in games is becoming more and more skewed. Ebert’s problem with the Town was that, for two reasonably long scenes, there are gunfights and car chases, and he finds that this completely withdraws him from the film, shattering the fourth wall and killing his suspension of disbelief. This is because we’re moving from well written, interesting, believable characters and into Hollywoodland, where car chases are always spectacular, where trained men with automatic weapons always miss, and it’s the screenwriter and stunt coordinators that dictate what happens, rather than the characters themselves. I’m inclined to agree.

But more than that, this applies to games too. Pick up a tight scripted, linear shooter and each gunfight is just noise filling the silence between the moments when the story is told. A gunfight isn’t a narrative device. An explosion doesn’t explain anything. Yes, they’re spectacular and exhilarating, but these are not things that really affect the story, not truly. Even in an action film, it’s not so much the gunfights that we care about, but the context they’re surrounded in. And, in the best of them, the film uses the action scenes and peppers them with dialogue and narrative progression, so they don’t disjoint.

So, in light of what I wrote yesterday, it’s not just player agency we need to take into account. It’s not enough to just shove a choice in the player’s face after he’s finished killing ten goons, or escaped the cops. The story can’t be divorced from the game itself, and the way it plays. They need to be interwoven, inextricably paired so that one cannot exist without the other. I’m going to use an example here, and it’s probably going to sound a little farcical, but bear with me.

I’m not sure how many people actually played Kane and Lynch 2, but I don’t think it was a huge amount. I certainly don’t think many people finished it. A lot of people really, vehemently hated the visual effects, either quitting the game entirely or turning them off in the options, because they obscured the action and made it difficult to play the game. Thing is, that was the point. IO weren’t trying to make a slick, precise third person shooter where player skill rang supreme. They were creating an aesthetic, an atmosphere. They were using all of those artifacts of bad compression and shitty film work, then coupling it with woefully inaccurate guns and frenetic, chaotic gunfights. Things were nuts, and every gunfight turned into this completely unsure, almost confusing thing.

It worked, on a level that no one was really paying attention to, which was a shame. What IO were doing was saboutaging their own game, mechanically, so that the players would have an experience. It was slipping a lens over our eyes that, while it made it harder to see, let us experience the world in a different way that we were used to. Sure, the game was flawed, but it was also incredibly bold and unique, which is a hell of a lot more than you could say for a good chunk of the medium. And, while it wasn’t directly tied to narrative, the story they were trying to tell was a gritty, chaotic crime tale, almost as hard to understand and get a clear picture of as the game itself. Might even have been intentional.

I think we’ve got tight controls down. I think we know you can code a gun to be 100% accurate. Now I want to see you letting your story start to mess with those numbers, start to influence the game just as much as the game forces the story to mold around it. An art direction isn’t just something for the level designers to get excited about. And level design shouldn’t be entirely up to the level designers. I mean, look at Pathalogic. Imagine how much less interesting and powerful that poor, broken game would be without that holistic approach to development it took, meaning that every single element of the game fed in to create this all encompassing narrative. Not perfect, sure, but it was a start. Pity it’s been all but ignored.

About Phill Cameron

I've graduated, had a look at the world, and spat. Now I'm devoting my time to moving from 3/4 of a games journalist to 9/10ths. I figure I can get away with 9/10ths.
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