Monday, August 07, 2006

Tell Me A Story

After last week’s grumpathon, I’ve decided that this week will be Positive Posting Week. I will not put up snark. I will not belittle. I will not bitch, whine, or tease. Blogs are already way too full of that… oops. I’m just not going to do it.

I’m going to kick off PPW with a post celebrating what on other days and in other moods I might disdain: story and plot in videogames. My thumbs have been known to grow twitchy during many a cutscene; it is so easy to skip ahead with “start” or “A.” I’ve played and enjoyed four Castlevania games in the last five years without knowing what the hell was going on (20th anniversary, BTW).

Yet some blog comments from David Jaffe, director of the excellent God of War, from a couple weeks back are really what’ve focused my thinking on this. Jaffe is sick of making games with stories. (His blog seems to be gone; here’s a link to coverage of his blog post.)

I’m sympathetic to many of his arguments, but in accordance with my decree of positiveness, I’ll skip right to the glories of game stories: Stories enrich many game experiences and they are the only way games can connect to our most complex and human emotions.

Clearly not all games need stories. Many board games don’t have stories. Most puzzle games don’t. But even games that are strong on simple, self-explanatory gameplay can benefit from including some story. Take Katamari Damacy, for example. This game certainly could have existed without context. You coulda been just a big ball rollin’ up littler things. But adding the story about the King of All Cosmos, who breaks the stars in a drunken accident, and having players’ missions be to collect enough stuff to make new stars ratchets the craziness up to more giddy levels.

I would even argue that simply giving games context, like putting the katamari on Earth, creates story. Human brains crave narrative and stories to contextualize experience. If a game doesn’t spoon feed it to us, we’ll fill it in if only hazily. Only very abstract puzzle games might be said to be without story, in my opinion.

But I also want to lavish praise on Shadow of the Colossus, a game that provided the single most profound experience I’ve had with a videogame. I’ve played games that were more exciting. I’ve played games that were more challenging. But I don’t think I’ve played a game that was more thought provoking. And I know I’ve never played a game that moved me, as Shadow did, before.

Shadow of the Colossus is an atmospheric game, suffused with mystery and dread, about a young man killing massive beasts in an attempt to bring a dead woman back to life. His mission is desperate. As players, we’re not even sure if the woman can be saved. The beasts we kill are magnificent. The first time I brought one crashing to the ground I felt that familiar sense of triumph. Besting enemies in games does that reliably. But I felt something new: a sense of regret, of real sadness. Maybe this quest isn’t all for good, I thought. What if my character is being tricked? What if I’m making a devil’s bargain?

Such feelings are rare in games, and they came about because of story. It helped that the land in Shadow of the Colossus was beautiful and living yet empty, making the player feel isolated. But I think all of these touches that create atmosphere are part of the story.

The story was also nestled in the rich history of game narratives. I was saving the princess—I hoped—but feeling less heroic about it than ever before.

This essay is really a plea in favor of moderation. As much as I love hearing game makers dedicate themselves to thinking about gameplay first and foremost, I also think we should remember the power of story. Let’s not cut off Mario’s big bulbous nose to spite his face. He may still platform just as well without a story, but where would we be without Peach, one of the archetypal princesses in need of rescue?

Well, this was a good, positive start. Maybe I’ll declare next week Short Post/No Jumps Week, to honor one of Mrs. Comstock’s requests.

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