Friday, May 27, 2011

Narratives killed the Video Game Star.

The message of any medium is only as effective as the vehicle used to deliver said message, and for that reason, any intelligent designs a video game has must be reflected in the designs of the game itself. With such a paramount importance on the design of the game itself, then, the actual gameplay becomes the most important aspect of any video game theory that would come after it, being that any theory must be backed up by something in the game's levels or something in the gameplay. Players that slip beyond the realms of reality into the virtual world take on a new role, a role that may or may not reflect how individual players would truly react, should this world be made into the true reality and not the reality inside. This principle is a principle that is glazed over by the opponents of video games as a whole, as they suspect anyone who appears with a genie flair into the realm of Fallout 3 (for example) and proceeds to murder every inhabitant therein encountered will react in such a manner if a gun is placed and/or otherwise obtained by the player and go on a killing spree. Video games are more than that. Video games are a tool in which a story can be told throughout the player's experience in the game, and the player can feel like a part of the story through the interactive medium that is the controller to avatar a la Avatar Blue Giant style. Doctor Karin Wenz introduces this idea as the "As-If" principle, "creat[ing] a situation in which the players of a game reflect their acting, mean[ing] they act on a meta level which is medial in itself" (Wenz), but this idea runs into the paradox of necessity, in which a player could be interacting in a way that the video game does not recognize, an example being bursting into the women's bathroom to examine the toilets in case any First-Aid kits were left in the cystern instead of sniffing the toilets for some illicit sexual thrill (thanks to Yahtzee, you demented game reviewer) (EscapistMagazine).

I suppose I should get to the actual Portal 2 content while talking about gameplay, but then again Portal 2 takes just as long getting to the actual game play that I can probably recite a lovely Chaucirian Soliloquay and still have enough time to change shorts before the gameplay actually shows up. Mind you, the story of Portal 2 is rather intruiging and filled to the brim with more amusing distractions than Disney world being set on fire, but the issue stemming from this burning wonderland is that the wonderland being burned is the actual Gameplay of the game itself, in that Portal 2 has taken the concept of Portal 1, a puzzle game in which a cheeky cheerleader from Hell's highschool berates you while you play around with technology so advanced that it defies discernable logic, and called up Bioware to place more cutscenes and narrative bollucks on the franchise than the buffet plate of a Sumo-wrestler at his favorite chowhall, and you may notice that I used Bioware in this comparison. Tour a Mass Effect Let's Play for a moment and you'll notice that the game-play is a bunch of words being thrown around between characters before being interrupted by a few gunshows and lovely Jedi powers before returning to the talking and the dialog, and this works for a specific reason: Mass Effect is DESIGNED to be a narrative-based game in which you command *Commander Shepard* on his/her (unclear really) quest to stop the known world from taking the piss. Portal 2, for reasons I cannot fathom except for Valve's penchant for taking a good idea the distance then kicking it off the cliff, begins to do the same thing.

I've harped on the story long enough, so lets turn to the gam----interrupted by another cutscene. Cutscenes, contrary to popular belief, are not video segments in which the player sees their avatar on screen conducting actions, but are segments in which the player loses control of the character and is forced to sit through whatever the game forces the player to sit through before the player can continue. The main difference between the two can be found in Portal 2 itself, in that the Cheer Captain of Luciferian High School can be cut off mid-insult while the player directs either the robots or Chell into the next test area, but cannot escape the conversation with the foreign exchange and mentally handicapped Wheatly during the nerd's systematic dismantling of the Cheer Captain's make-up, the lovely physics display at the introduction of the game, the conversation falling down the tube after the foreign tizzyfit, and other cuts that serve to further the narrative along but kill the core of the game, the gameplay. Taking the player from the interactive medium of running Gordan Freeman through the Black Mesa research facility into the realm of unskippable cutscenes gives the player a chance to pull back from the virtual realm and back into reality, where the game will be analyzed from the holier than thou perspective of a storyline-snorting analyst or dropped for a soda or a bio break while the cutscene drags on and on. Portal 1 understood that out of necessity, cutting corners and shelving narrative ideas in favor of delivering a bare-bones product that survives on game design alone. Portal 2's single player campaign, while undeniably amusing, takes on so much extraneous material that the gameplay begins to drown under the sea of Chell-Glados-Wheatly angst.

The actual game lives and breathes on dry land in the co-op campaign, where the robot team of Atlas and Peabody skips gleefully along from test chamber to test chamber, mechanically solving portals and learning new emotes with each achievement, adding a sense of tangible reward and love to the game that was the hallmark of Portal 1. To return to Dr. Karen Wenz, she refers to the idea of pacing as such: "We find variations in the speed of the narrative in relation to itself and measure effects of acceleration, deceleration, statis, and ellipses"(Wenz). Pacing is a phenomena that Portal 2 understands well in the co-op campaign, letting the player proceed as fast or slow as they can, but the single player campaign does not, leading into intense periods of deceleration as the player sits through the aforementioned cutscenes while the story is fleshed out via in-media resolution. Amnesia: the Dark Descent is an example of a game in which the gameplay did not suffer while giving out the story because the player would discover the story in the way that a detective would, finding journal pages and other mediums that serve to not only keep the line of immersion unbroken, but also provide a skippable medium. In short, the game design did not suffer. Puzzle games are not a genre in which heavy story communicated through unskippable cutscenes belong.

Game theory, whatever the approach, rests on the nature of the game and the design of the game. Narratives being such a pervasive entity as to infect first-person games kill the core that is the nature of a first-person game itself, to place the player inside the avatar so that the player can truly feel immersed in the action. The most popular examples of this ideal are the Call of Duty and the Halo franchises, which have garnered such an immense, dedicated, and strange fanbase that there have been deaths over arguments on which franchise is better. The primary reason for this is simple, the players can really feel like it is THEM who are accomplishing the tasks, because, even in the cutscenes, the avatars the players are supposed to control never actually *do* anything. Could you imagine how much the Mario games would suffer if a narrative team got behind the next Mario game? The Metroid series' latest addition, Other M, is an example of how narratives can KILL a game. The construction of Portal 2's narrative did not achieve that level of suicide-worthy franchise destruction, but Portal 2's single player campaign should have been a book, not a game. Video game developers need to realize one simple fact, video games are not books, and a narrative should support gameplay, not guide it.

By: Joshua Roosa.

Sources

http://dichtung-digital.mewi.unibas.ch/Wenz/30-Juni-99-C/english/writing
http://dichtung-digital.mewi.unibas.ch/Wenz/30-Juni-99-C/english/duration
http://dichtung-digital.mewi.unibas.ch/Wenz/30-Juni-99-C/english/games http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/1651-Silent-Hill-Shattered-Memories

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