28 December 2009

The Video Game Experience

The sound echoes out as the elevator passes the second floor. Inside the three men surrounding you begin to load their weapons, as do you.
The elevator has almost reached it's destination. A man turns to look at you: 'Remember, no Russian.'
The doors slide open slowly and you follow the three men into the airport terminal. Families are queuing up waiting to check in and proceed to the three hour long wait for their plane. Husbands and wives are holding hands looking forward to their long needed holiday.
Suddenly, the room erupts in an explosion of gunfire and piercing screams. People are running for their lives; the others who aren't so lucky are piled up on the floor in a pool of blood. The three men proceed forward slaughtering everyone in their path. You remain stationary. Your finger hovering by the trigger.

What was your next move? Did you follow the terrorist's example to keep your cover? Did you watch the horrible scene play out in front of you, powerless to stop it? Or, did you not care for either option...it's only a video game, right?

Modern Warfare 2 exploded onto the video game market and flew off the shelves in November 2009. The Michael Bay-esque (a new term I would like to coin today) campaign takes the player on a number of exhilarating, over-the-top, 'SHIIIT!' screaming missions, jumping between a number of playable characters. Of course, the No Russian mission received a ton of controversy when footage was leaked prior to the game's release. The mission places you in the role of an undercover CIA agent in a terrorist cell, who must take part in one of the groups attacks on a Russian airport. The web became flooded with rumours relating to the mission's placement in the storyline and whether it was in fact a part of the game at all! A number of mainstream news outlets picked up on the story and offered biased and uninformed views on the matter. In some cases Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was labelled a 'terrorism simulator' that 'allowed players to organise and carry out terrorist attacks'. Of course no one with knowledge of controversy in the video game industry expected anything less. Yet, we as video game players were once again shoved into the damning limelight; like a dog who brings a dead bird into the house at the annoyance and disappointment of it's owner.

Unfortunately, the road ahead for video games as a artistic (or even accepted) medium appears very dismal if we continue to see responses like this when developers are taking genuine steps to advance our beloved hobby. It can be argued that the character motivation is slightly lacking (is it really OK to take part in a terrorist attack just to keep yourself undercover?) and the rest of the plot is quite ridiculous (as with any Michael Bay-esque piece).

However, I am not wholeheartedly condemning IW. I think it was a very brave move of them to include such a scene. At the moment, story is an area often ignored by the majority of games offering no real depth or intelligent construction. Whilst I am not arguing that MW2 has a deep and intelligent narrative like games such as Dragon Age: Origins and Grim Fandango; it is tapping into the heart of what makes video games a unique mode for storytelling. Rather than simply witnessing these atrocities played out on screen, we can be placed amongst them. Those willing to open themselves up and be immersed in a video game's world should have felt something from that scene (myself included). It was nothing I had really experienced in a video game before; building from crawling out of a downed helicopter in a nuclear explosion. Taking these steps to explore ways of placing the player into unique positions could be very interesting when a more realised story is involved.

I hope that future is not limited to just Milo though. I do find him quite scary...

24 December 2009

Once Upon A Time...

A travel agent at the Department of Death arranged packages for his deceased customers to reach their final resting place in the Ninth Underworld. When one of these customers fails to qualify for the premium package, a ticket on the Number Nine, he is drawn into a world of corruption, betrayal and love in the Land of the Dead.

Sound interesting? Unfortunately, it did not to the majority of video game players. A critical success, yet a commercial failure. Why was Grim Fandango so ignored by the majority of the gaming community? One that pioneered something often ignored in the development of a video game. A great story.

Storytelling was an area I was interested in since about the age of six when I wanted to be an author but has only just recently resurfaced after taking a film scriptwriting module as part of my degree. Nothing else on the course seemed to engage me more than developing interesting characters and scenarios for them to be involved in. Yet when I'm playing a video game, the majority of the time the characters seem shallow and the plot is completely illogical or irrelevant. It becomes an afterthought; a thin, unimportant incentive to get the player to the next battle, firefight or race. Personally I would love to see video games develop its intelligent implementation of story especially when the medium seems perfect to tell one.

I've currently been playing Borderlands and whilst it is a fun and enjoyable game with solid gameplay it lacks any narrative depth. I am finding it hard to engage with the game for a variety of reasons all related to narrative construction.

The first is simply the premise, or the motivation for my actions. I am told a legend by a man named Marcus about a secret vault on the planet Pandora that is rumored to be full of alien technology, money etc. Adventurers and treasure hunters all flock to Pandora in an attempt to find it and claim the rewards inside. So the reason I am playing this game is pure greed? To uncover crazy alien technology from a vault that may or may not exist? Sounds like a wild goose chase from the start.

The second is characters. It is impossible to identify with any of them. I am introduced to the characters through their five second intro...things that tell you their names. The choice really boils down to my preferred style of gameplay. Do I want to: shoot things; shoot things from long range; shoot things from up close and punch them or sneak around and shoot things? So I chose to sneak around and shoot things because the phasewalk ability sounded fun. Now tell me some more about my character. No. 'Get off my bus,' is what I'm told.

Wouldn't it be more interesting if the game introduced us to the character's back story or a reason for wanting to find the vault? Granted, one character could want the loot for pure greed. Fantastic! Make him an anti-hero, the badass guy that we love to hate. Give one character a desire for fame, to be the first person to discover the vault. Suggest a past where they were always ignored and now they are out to prove they can achieve something. Suggest another character's parent/s went missing whilst searching for the vault themselves and the player is out to uncover the truth of their disappearance. These are three crude and quite simple suggestions that I have come up with on the fly but would at least be stepping stones for character development and provide a variety of different players scenarios they could identify with. Unfortunately I had to visit the wikipedia entry to find out some information on the characters, which was still immensely lacking. I see no evidence of it in the game unless it is revealed later but what would be the point finding it out later? Character motivation should be apparent from the early stages if not the start.

The third is the characters you interact with and the world of Pandora itself. The majority of this vast planet appears completely dead. The starting town of Fyrestone has one person in it and an assortment of empty huts. Where is everyone!? I find it hard to believe that this is a realistic setting. Where are all the other vault hunters? Why do there seem to be ten times as many bandits as friendly NPCs? I could discuss many other incredibly illogical choices on the world design but that would risk boring you.

So far I have met five characters: A robot that provides the tutorial and comic relief (he is quite funny); Dr. Zed, a questgiver, whose tasks I complete because there is nothing else to do; T.K Baha, a farmer who plays the same role as the doctor; Marcus who tells me some exposition and sells me things through his store and finally, the Guardian Angel.

Mentioned in passing by Marcus she is meant to guide people to the vault. She appears after I choose my character and asks me to do everything she says (even though I've just met her!) because she will help me find the vault. Brilliant! The legend is coming true, now let's go and find the vault. Sadly this is not the case. For the four hours I have been playing all I seem to be doing is killing bandits and killing skags. How is this getting me nearer to finding the vault at all? According to the Guardian Angel I am building a reputation with the locals. Yet my 'conversations' with them are completely impersonal and simply involve choosing a quest and then handing it in. Why should I be getting Baha's wooden leg off of a giant skag? I'm only doing these menial tasks for the unsubstantiated promise from the guardian angel that she will lead me to the vault. (She even says, 'Would you kindly...' at one stage which has already set alarm bells ringing!) I can understand slowly introducing the player like this from a gameplay perspective but from a narrative perspective it is laborious. Yet, I am forced to trudge along killing skags and bandits and ooh a purple...nice. Sorry where was I?

It is a shame that these flaws are alienating me from the game because the rest is quite enjoyable. I am not saying that Borderlands is a bad game, in fact, it is like the majority of games that lack a well constructed story with interesting and engaging characters. Currently, a number of developers are trying to push boundaries with storytelling in video games. The likes of Bioware and Tim Shafer at Double Fine to name a few. The amount of thought and care that goes into creating the worlds, characters and dialogue in games such as Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Brutal Legend and the aforementioned Grim Fandango shows promise for the future.

However, as this post is now reaching an incredible length I think I will leave it here for now. Narrative is a topic I am likely to return to again and again on this blog as it is an area that interests me the most. For now, I need to get back to eradicating the bandits of Pandora and finding more purples!