To Tell A Story, You Have To…

[Slayn Bacon asks: What is needed for a compelling story in a game?]

Storytelling in gaming is still very much in its infancy, compared to other media both popular and not so.  It’s a bit of an interesting conundrum–as of recent years, some video games want to take gaming’s storytelling to the next level, but whether or not the industry is ready for it is still up in the air.  Many ‘mature’ themes are constantly been seen as ‘bad’ or ‘controversial’ when movies or TV can do the same with only over-protective mothers batting an eye.  Heck, most of these people probably watch Game of Thrones, and if that stays true to the novels, nothing that I’ve seen in a gaming story can top that grimdark series.

That may seem like rambling, but it’s difficult for video  games to tell a truly compelling story in some settings because of this aversion to certain (though not all) mature themes.  If I’m playing a gritty brawler involving the underbelly of society and how truly brutal it is, I expect the full spectrum of mature content to come with it.  I expect violence, death, sex, druggies, and pretty much everything else a child wouldn’t see–and an ESRB rating to reflect that so that kids don’t get their grubby hands on it (unless a parent lets them).  However, even the mere mention of certain subjects like rape instantly turn gamers against developers, even if other terrible crimes like (mass) murder go without so much as a peep nowadays.  But, now I’m actually rambling, as that is more of a U.S. society issue than anything else.

So, back on topic, I feel that a story is best told in the way it was meant to be, and all the good and bad that comes with it.  If someone wanted to create a thrilling adventure tale involving an Indiana Jones-style hero?  Well, besides being called an Uncharted clone, that tale should be allowed to be told in full, even if say a minor not-so-bad-guy is brutally crushed to death with a boulder that you in fact pushed.  If you want to just tell a story about the fantastical life of a fictional pony, why not be able to go for it?

But really, such a view is too idealistic.  Making video games is a business, after all, and while the indie community is rising to the challenge of bringing more thought-provoking titles, mainstream titles simply do not have that same flexibility (much like the indie/mainstream film industry at times).  Games must make a budget, appeal to a wide variety of people so it will sell, and make it out on time.  Sometimes games need to be toned back so that they will actually sell (as an Adults Only rating can many times damn a game’s sales), and other times the developers don’t have enough time and money to put everything they want in to their title.

Considering that, what is it that I feel can make a truly compelling story, given gaming limitations and giving myself more realistic expectations?  Well… most people know that I’m a fan of JRPGs,  Do I think JRPGs tell the best tales?  Sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed other stories from other countries and genres.  In fact, some of the most recent games I’ve played that I feel have a compelling story are not JRPGs, or were even made in Japan.

What is is, then, that made those stories so interesting to me?  The games strive to make me feel for the characters.  Let me take the example of a game I played recently that had a fantastic plot:  Telltale’s The Walking Dead.  I had not watched the TV series or read any of the comics, so I did not have the ‘fan’ potential going into the game, but the story was nothing short of great.  Lee was a good main character that many people could empathize with, but what really made the episodic title shine was with the choices you must make in this zombie apocalypse.  Many choices are extremely difficult to make, and the game will make you feel the results of your choice.  I honestly felt how Lee did throughout the game–I was shocked, I was enraged, and I cried.  Qualms about the game giving an illusion of choice when it may not have mattered in the long run aside, the plot in itself, and not taken in with the spoiler ridden Internet, was one hell of an emotional ride.

But giving me a choice of what happens to the story isn’t the end-all thing I need to have a great gaming plot.  Many of the JRPGs I play and love don’t offer me choices, or the choices are really of no major consequence.  In that case, instead of a character I can emphasize with, or choices that’ll bring the consequences of my actions to front and center, I would prefer to have an enticing world or setting to explore and learn about.  This can be done in any number of matters; either the world can be open for me to explore and learn its lore, or maybe it could be spoon-fed to me as I progress through the tale.  It hardly matters to me, but one recent title I played really gave me an interesting sense of its world and characters: Crimson Shroud.

It’s really an interesting thing; the game focuses on a small team infiltrating a monster-laden ruin in search of the ultimate magical artifact.  You never leave the ruins, and see the outside world–but through the Giauque’s inner monologues and other story bits give you a glimpse into a truly interesting world.  You never get to see any of it, but these little tidbits are more than enough to give you a feel for the world and its culture.  Instead for everything being laid out to you, you get an interpretation of the world from an individual whose seen the worst it has to offer.  Given it’s a pretty short game, I’m glad the title presents itself as is; otherwise, I may be disappointed that it never went any farther.   But, the way this title works gives me everything I need to understand what’s going on and the levity of the characters’ quest, but without over-explaining to bog down the tale.

So… either an empathetic character, decisions that give me meaning, a rich world, or a combination of the three?  Is that all?  Probably so.  In the past I would have said I would also want memorable characters in titles; some of my favorites like Final Fantasy IX thrive on its great characters.  However, nowadays characters are rarely original; with so many video games in general it’s hard to, after all.  I’ve learned to really look past characters themselves, as (with the case with so many JRPGs) they tend to fall into tropes to the point that many characters seem the same.  I don’t want that to ruin my experience, so character in themselves don’t matter much to me anymore if the game is trying to shine elsewhere… although, I still find character development an important step to many (but not every) tale.  They may be tropes for the most part, but they don’t need to be one-dimensional tropes as well!

I think that wraps this up pretty nicely.  Then again, many of the games I’m playing don’t even have fantastic or epic tales, so maybe I’m not even looking for a compelling story right now.

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What makes a video game… a video game?

[Slayn Bacon asks: What is the defining characteristic of video games?]

So, what is it that makes video games different from other forms of media?  What makes games different from movies, books, and television?  Well, to be honest, most people probably know the basic answer to the question:  Interaction.  In video games we are allowed to control the character, our avatar in the gaming world if you will, and steer the character to its story’s conclusion.  In a movie or television show, you simply watch the plot play out, and see its conclusion without any input of your own.  Likewise, in a book (for the most part), you have no say in how the story plays out, even if you physically turn the pages yourself.

Of course, this one simple word, interaction, brings up a plethora of new questions:  What counts as player interaction?  What games are actually video games, and which are really just glorified movies?  What about completely linear games?  Simply saying ‘interaction’ doesn’t really answer the question as is, so let’s answer these new questions then, shall we?

The thing about ‘interaction’ in games is that without it, the game would never complete itself in the instance of the person playing it.  You could leave a movie running, or turn of a TV show while it’s being broadcasted on a station, and the particular movie or episode would complete whether or not you were there for it.  Sure, decreased viewership could cancel a TV series or stop a much-needed movie sequel before its logical completion, but you yourself are not directly responsible for theses acts.  In gaming, if you turn a game off and never play it again, you will never personally the that game to its completion.  Mario will not save the princess.  Kirby will not eat to his(?) heart’s content.  Sonic will never stop Dr. Robotnik.

While there are other means of seeing the game and the ending other than playing it yourself, such as Let’s Plays and other forms of videos and walkthroughs, even if you yourself didn’t play through the game, someone else had to in order for you to look up all those videos.  Video games absolutely require interaction in order for them to be completed in some form or another, regardless if its you yourself that played the game, or another gamer that you’re watching play through it.

But still, what about games that are completely linear in nature?  What about games that, even with player interaction, leads to going through the exact same game with no changes to the exact same solution?  Well, for the most part these are still video games.  Let’s take for example Dear Esther, a semi-recent indie game that literally involves nothing more than walking along a path from one area to the next.  Exploration offers little results, and there is no fighting, or gameplay… simply a goal of making it to a lighthouse.  No matter who plays through it, you will hear the same dialogue, see the sights, and get the same ending.

However, it’s still a video game in the most basic sense of the word.  Sure, it may not be much of a game for the most part, since you don’t do much but walk, but it still requires interaction for you to complete it.  If you, or whoever you are watching, just stopped walking, you’d never to able to get to the conclusion of the tale.  If it were a movie, you would simply watch the character, detached from your player point of view, reach the end of his tale without any interaction on your part.

But that brings up a new conundrum–what about visual novels?  Visual novels are often contested in the gaming as to whether or not they are video games.  By their name, visual novels are essentially, novels with visuals to help enhance the tale; or, in other terms, a digital picture book of sorts.  However, many people consider these video games, despite the genre’s name and trappings as digital books, using the same word that I’ve been using through this entire piece:  Interaction.

So, are visual novels really games or not?  It’s still a very hard question to answer, and it’s because of that that it’s even a heated topic in the first place.  One can argue that most visual novels require interaction–the choices you make affect the visual novel and the ending itself.  However, that’s the same amount of interaction that you’d give to a choose-your-own-adventure book:  In those, you make decisions to lead to a certain outcome; the only difference between those and visual novels is in reality the visual aspect.  Some visual novels don’t even give you a choice in the matter; they are just stories that you click through until the end of the story.

In that case, it’s very hard to classify visual novels as games… however, visual novels are actually a pretty wide genre.  Take 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.  This title is predominately a visual novel, but there are also segments where you have to solve puzzles.  999 features apparent interaction and player input, even if the core of the game is reading through a story.  In that case, this particular visual novel can certainly be classified as a video game, even when other titles in the same genre are not.  So, um… I guess the grand answer to the visual novel question is ‘yes and no’.  It may seem like a cop-out, but saying it’s one or the other denies valid and truthful points the other answer things.  Besides, the world’s rarely clear-cut.

There might be more to talk about, but I believed I answered what I could think of well enough.  Video games require a certain amount of interaction to actually be video games, even if the interaction is small in itself.  It’s a simple enough concept, but deciding how much interaction is enough is difficult and debatable.  There’s so much more that could be explained, but I believe this wall of text has gotten long enough.  Until next time.

Review a Bad Game Day – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (GBA)

[Review a Bad Game Day is an event hosted by 1 More Castle, where bloggers and writers from all over the internet gather to rail on a bad game of their choice.  This is the second time 1 More Castle has run this event, and I decided to participate!  Make sure to check out the site for a bunch of terrible games people reviewed, too!]

Boy, did I make a lot of mistakes in my childhood when it came to game choices.  Back in the day, I had a Game Boy Advance, and was just SO excited about it.  Forget that PS1 and N64 I had lying around–according to me, all the quality games were on the handheld.  That said, even I could not stomach some of the portable’s offerings:  Games like Pinobee and Klonoa: Dream Champ Tournament made me upset, and my utter hatred of Lufia: Ruins of Lore was so intense I was wary of the entire series for years.  But this game is probably the single most terrible game I’ve ever (unwittingly) played.  This game was so bad that my brain hid away the mere memory of this game away from my fragile psyche, only to be brought back recently to haunt me.

And that game is The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Wonderful, you're still a completely useless hobbit

A little background information about this thankfully forgotten game before I get into it… Back when the Lord of the Rings movies were being made and were of course hugely popular, EA created The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, a tie-in game to the movie.  The game was a big success, and even got people to thinking that not every movie tie-in game had to be terrible.  Obviously, EA created another LOTR game in time for the third movie, everyone was happy, and peace was restored to Middle-Earth.

However, there’s a glaring flaw: What about the first movie?  Obviously it was too late for a movie tie-in… so a couple other companies decided to jump on the opportunity to make a Fellowship of the Ring game.  There were console versions of this game as well, but the Game Boy Advance version was very different, and developed by Pocket Studios, also known for their efforts in the GBA Incredible Hulk game and Army Men: Operation Green.  Yeah, these aren’t AAA developers here.  Oh, and the game in question was based off Tolkien’s original work as opposed to the movie license, so that’s a thing.

Oh hey it's Bilb--OH MY GOD WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOUR FACE!?

Okay, so the game itself… is a terrible, terrible mess.  Anyone that’s played the game for more than ten minutes will all tell you the same thing:  Fellowship of the Ring plays INCREDIBLY slowly.  It’s a turn based RPG, which is by nature a little slow, but this game takes it to a whole new level.  Watching an enemy sluggishly walk over, lazily smack your ally, and then move back to their position is painful to watch just for a battle.  This makes you want to avoid battles at all costs, since you can in fact see the enemies on the field… but due to GBA design magic, they’re pretty darn hard to avoid.

This alone would be enough to scare away a lesser gamer, but not I… well, at least not the younger, more foolhardy me.  I actually managed to get very far in this title, though I never was able to beat it.  Why didn’t I just finish the job, you may ask?  Well, the game was terribly glitchy.  Some glitches worked to your advantage–being a ‘I need a strategy guide for everything’ kid, the official guide itself told me of an incredibly easy trick to get infinite money given that you had a cart with the ‘right glitch’, like I did.  But with the good glitches come the bad ones, too.  Near the end, in what I believe was the final dungeon, I ran across a terrible glitch that wouldn’t let me exit the room.  The solution, according to the guide (as a sidenote, I commend the unfortunate Prima writer that had to write a guide for the game)?  Well, you’re just screwed.  Sorry, you got a bad game, you’re stuck there forever and every time you loaded it up it’d be the same.

Exit, enter, and the gold coin re-appears. Repeat until you break the game's concept of money.  It'll make it less painful, I swear.

So basically, after all those hours of gruelingly slow battles with character imbalances (look, I know the hobbits are weak, but come on guys), dealing with a subpar and glitchy experience, I finally called it quits on The Fellowship of the Ring.  Oh, and I didn’t remember a lick about the story, but the Wikipedia page mentioned something about Frodo selling Bag End, so obviously they got a few things wrong in that department, too.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for the Game Boy Advance… a game few probably even knew about.  For the few that do know about this godforsaken title, though, know that you weren’t the only one that suffered:  I did, as well.  There are some pretty terrible games out there, but it’s the ones that hint at being decent that really are the worst.  So, for that, this game gets this badge to wear as a symbol of shame:

The teal ribbon of poop!

SPECIAL BONUS ROUND!  Also, watch this unfortunate Let’s Player play this title for a bit:

Gaming Overview – July 2013

Geez, it felt like July lasted forever!  Well, it’s finally August now, and that means it’s time for another gaming overview.  I don’t have too much to say before I dive into the stats… so let’s just go ahead and do so.  Of course, I grab these stats from my Backloggery page.

WHAT DID YOU BUY?

Not as much as I thought, especially considering the Steam Summer Sales were this month.  I got Custom Robo (Custom!), Viewtiful Joe 2 (now more viewtiful!), and Baten Kaitos Origins (sequels are prequels!) to help round out my GameCube collection.  I picked up the Walking Dead: 400 Days episode (plot bridges!) as well.  In terms of downloads on the 3DS, I picked up Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya (what a terrible sword name!) and all the new StreetPass Mii Plaza games (now with tickets!).  Finally, on Steam this month, I got Organ Trail: The Director’s Cut (zombies!), The Witcher 2 (with subtitle I don’t feel like typing out!), Gunpoint (violence isn’t the answer!), and Evoland (gimmicks!).  There were a few other games, but they weren’t for me.  Oh, and I got Mystic Chronicles (Misty!) and Attack of the Friday Monsters! (it’s Friday!) for review.

It’s a hefty list, but not as hefty as I thought it’d be.

WHAT DID YOU BEAT?

When have I ever beat more games than I bought?

  • The Walking Dead: 400 Days (7/07) – It seems like a nice bridge for Season 2, but of course it doesn’t have the emotional impact a five episode story would have.
  • King of Fighters XIII (7/09) – It’s a great fighting game.  I’m very rusty at SNK fighters now, though… I couldn’t even complete all of Story Mode, though I got close.
  • Organ Trail: The Director’s Cut (7/10) – It’s Oregon Trail, but with zombies.  You can see my full thoughts here.
  • Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale (7/20) – Short, sweet, but great. You can see my official review here.

Yep, that’s it.  I really haven’t felt like playing games too much this month.

ANYTHING ELSE?

Let’s see, the end of July marks the official end of the A-Z Marathon.  Ultimately I failed the marathon, since I never completed an ‘X’ game, but 24/25 is good enough for me.  Organ Trail ended up being my ‘O’ game too, so it all went better than expected.  I didn’t make any real progress in my Summer Gaming Challenge (due to again not wanting to play games all that much), but I’m hoping to power through a bunch of the games this month.

Also, I finally completed Find Mii II, meaning I got all the hats. Yay!  Less than a week later the new games were introduced though, so it’s back to StreetPassing for me.

On Game Podunk, a lot of my articles went live.  Take a gander at 4 Odd and Unusual Handhelds from the Game Industry’s Past, Memory Lane: July Releases Throughout the Years, and 7 Completely Free Video Games Albums from June 2013.  Also, there’s my review of Attack of the Friday Monsters!, my preview of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and A Look at StreetPass Mii Plaza’s 4 New Games.  Whew, that’s a lot!  Now my backlog of articles are out, and now I’ll have to write a bunch to get the count up again!

I still haven’t written anything for The Dusty Corner, yet.  The blog tends to take a back seat to things, so I haven’t updated it in a while.

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That’s all for this month!  August has a ton of exciting new games coming to us, and also a lot of things I get to write about.  See you at the end of it all!