In last week’s piece, I touched on video games’ nature as a storytelling medium, developing experiences and forming memories personal to the player, and that gaming is arguably the most interactive method of doing so. The immersion of transporting players from their immediate environments – reality – and planting their feet in the shoes of a new life in a new world, is encapsulating enough in its own right, yet immersion is intensified when it’s you, walking in your own pair of shoes, living your own life. Different people may play through the same game and forge different experiences to share. These may consist of the most micro elements of gameplay, focusing on tackling one particular problem, and others, the entire narrative! How is it so?
The striking majority of people in the UK are at least vaguely aware of the existence of the Grand Theft Auto series. The recently-released GTA V is considered a sandbox game, where gamers are, essentially, free to go and do as they please.
This core ideal of shaping a world to players’ whims has been duplicated throughout the previous decade; Sure, there’s an objective plot to go and complete, but by and large, people pay to muck about. You want to drive around in a Cadillac with LA hip-hop pumping out? You can. You want to joyride a helicopter? You can. You want to walk down the street and hit every coffee-drinker unfortunate to enter your somewhat vindictive vicinity? You can. It’s your story, your experience – alas not so much a narrative.
If we focus for a moment on gameplay as the main driver for developing a unique experience, we might see a more elegant solution. In the cartoonish, comedic platformer Super Meat Boy, you attempt to traverse levels created to push and provoke different playing techniques. If you need a clear analogy, think Mario, all shroomed up, with a slab of meat instead of a moustached plumber. Each time our protein-filled protagonist makes it to the end of the level, a replay appears, showcasing a collage of each attempt on that stage that resulted in death by falling into a pit, or onto giant spikes of doom, etcetera.
All of a sudden, you have a vignette that shows your journey, from encountering the level for the first time, to realising how to complete it, to reaching the end – a tangible representation of your evolution.
In Dishonored, you play as a vengeful bodyguard in a steampunk setting, where being betrayed and assumed dead serves to leave you free to dance between being a methodical, shadowy spy/assassin and barbaric, bloodthirsty stormer of city gates.
The nature of the game rewards creative use of your freedom, and so your experience depends on, and is augmented by, your playing style both directly and indirectly, as the world around you dynamically changes in consequence to your deeds. The atmosphere reacts to the choices you make not just implicitly as lifestyle (play-style) decisions, but also as concrete, binary options where there is no middle path and you have to turn left at the fork at the expense of the right path. This is another popular method of pushing the narrative, appearing in BioWare games such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age, as well as scores of other role-playing games. These decisions branch out into a finite tree of possibilities, where your character consists of a combination of certain choices. I suppose that is also the way of real life, however in what we call reality we often cannot see other roads we could have taken, so it feels more organic than such games.
There is another way, which I perceive as sheer brute force by way of overwhelming immersion. Attack the senses with a barrage of events that hit home, as that is what presses the series of events together into a story that lives in our minds. The most obvious manifestations of this come in the form of Michael Bay-like moments in blockbuster, common-denominator games like Call of Duty. The recent Tomb Raider reboot trades off its legacy of puzzle encounters for a culture of visceral, brutal emotional impact. Quick time events – in-game cutscenes with minimal but essential player input – are dispersed regularly throughout, in an attempt to strengthen the bond between the player and their avatar, Lara Croft. This is a trend that has gained popularity over recent years, with character and plot taking precedence over gameplay on the likes of Heavy Rain, though not without its fair share of criticism.
But ultimately, as Lara Croft transforms from refugee to survivor over the course of Tomb Raider, I feel it too – I’d feel like I was in the cart with Croft during the entire exhilarating ride; It can work. Bioshock Infinite, another major title, instead dazzles its audience with the sheer magnitude and depth of its plot, so as to be sure there would be something, however small or large, something every player could take away with them. This way would spark discussion on many topics, yet by extension, offers much to be missed too. The lack of simplicity, clarity and its eggs-in-many-baskets approach perhaps reduces its potential impact in the foreground of its plot.
Stories come in many forms. Braid’s tale of many tales leaves gamers awestruck, dumbfounded, inspired – not because of what happens, but the classy, clever way it presents itself is memorable. Limbo is similar in a way, as its lack of narrative drives gameplay. The desire to learn, to gain, to live, forms a wonderful adventure, yet an adventure too delicate to share, to translate well into a story to tell.
Then there is the world of multiplayer; Those larger-than-life moments of victory and failure on FIFA, moments you’d have to see to believe recorded on Halo, gameplay posted on YouTube. There’s no one way, and regardless of what you prefer, there’s joy to be found in the sharing of both dissimilar anecdotes and the same revelations.