Once upon a time, after the somewhat disappointing reception Metroid : Other M had received, the corpse of videogame narratives has once again been poked in the retina. It seems ‘gamers’ just aren’t interested in the thought of evolving a classic franchise, that is, if you even consider cinematics to be a step forward. Back in the day though, games struggled to create the most basic of concepts, yet alone a cohesive storyline. Now the technology’s here and even the most whimsical ideas can be realistically achieved, so why does the space for well-driven plots still seem to be vacant? I’m not to implying all games are badly written, there are some shining examples of videogame narratives, but they’re in the minority, most of which were unsuccessful too, which inevitably leads to a problem – if developers see writing in videogames as more of burden than prosperity, they aren’t going to waste valuable time and money investing in it.
Some gamers may roll their eyes at the idea of ‘novelising’ such an entertaining pastime, but is all gaming’s destined to be is just a time killer? I mean don’t get me wrong, I adore games like Super Mario Galaxy, in which the plot’s about as thin as a paraplegic mountain lion and all the better for it. However, if videogames are ever going to move on as a medium, better storytelling ideally needs to be addressed. Let’s face it; if you’re searching for some delightful tales to indulge yourself in, you won’t turn to a videogame, which is a shame. Games actually do have a huge amount of potential for storytelling, near realistic visuals, beautifully crafted animation and the exclusive benefit of interactivity. Unfortunately, being an interactive medium is also why the narrative-hungry consumer has shunned videogames. It’s considerably more difficult to implement a story in cohabitation with gameplay; what if the players want to discover what happens by their own means? How can a narrative utilise interactivity? What if the player doesn’t care or understand the plot? Indeed, it’s a problematic issue, but I think most of the answers lie within how the story’s presented.
Firstly and most importantly, I believe creators should decide right from the beginning whether or not the game they’re developing requires the focus of writers. If you’re just making a game that’s mindless shooting and gore, don’t even attempt to contemplate a well-written story unless you’re trying to be funny. In the same sense, it’s pointless dragging in writers when the narrative has already been more or less established, sure they can clean up the speech and whatnot, but the general plot would still be a mess, it’s like making a shoddy house by yourself and then inviting designer to put up wallpaper, yeah, the wallpaper’s pretty and well done, but consistently falling through the floor does become an annoyance after a while.
It’s not just enough to write down a dynamite videogame script though; it has to be executed efficiently to have any impact. For example, I’ve always found text-based stories rather dull and underwhelming, regardless of how well written the plot actually is. Obviously for platforms like the DS, you’re very limited to how you outline what’s actually happening, in which case using text as a way of portrayal is perfectly fine. For consoles like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 however, it’s a different matter. I can’t imagine buying a book to discover only half of its text, whilst the remaining you have to watch on a DVD; it’s the same concept with games and storylines and it does make it all feel extremely disjointed.
That’s not just for text either; cut-scenes have been the downfall of more than a few videogame plots. Returning back to the Metroid theme, one of the key emotions Prime provoked was the feeling of isolation, there was little blockading the way of gameplay, yet its background chronicle is so intriguing and immerse I could spend the rest of this article praising it. You have to interpret by scans and action what’s going on, it’s not simply spoon-fed to you with a cut-scene every half hour or so, which is where I think Other M was slipping up. Although, I am currently waiting for my copy of Team Ninja’s Metroid iteration to arrive, so I suppose I shouldn’t point fingers till I see for myself.
There is a specific knack to creating a cinematic experience for a game and I’m not quite sure Metroid’s there at the moment. Personally I’m against just chucking in a video after every level completion, like switching on the television to entertain children while you stand outside and smoke, wishing you’d kept your mouth shut about looking after the neighbour’s kids…well, bar a few exceptions anyway. One of these being Uncharted 2: Among Thieves as the developers at Naughty Dog paid enormous attention to detail in the development and it does show rather beautifully. Each and every cut-scene was acted out professionally, captured and then rendered with its renown graphic engine, which means each and everyone cut-scene is genuinely ‘believable’, entertaining due to being full to the brim of personality, or just simply marvellous to look at.
A somewhat more controversial approach to story presentation can be seen within Heavy Rain as your actions dictate the next step forward, which also tantalises the prospect of another play through (just to see what happens if you do something differently). Having characters being able to die means you actually care for their safety and makes their possible departure that bit more emotional. In all honesty though, Heavy Rain wasn’t exactly flawless and its attitude of story first, gameplay second made it feel like a chore occasionally. That said, it wasn’t all just grey clouds for the sake of narrative, there were some glorious rays of light. I.e. the transition from gameplay to cut-scene is astonishingly unnoticeable at parts, everything feels connected and meaningful; sometimes QTEs are placed within scenes, encouraging you to always have to be engaged in the story progression, a technique also well used by Resident Evil 4.
Perhaps the greatest method of story presentation contained inside a videogame however, lies within the likes of Half-Life 2 and BioShock – two games that were critically acclaimed for both their gameplay and narrative, two games that were commercially successful worldwide, two games that were beckons of light within a dark, uninspiring, generic tunnel. I’m obligated to justify why these games showed the true potential of interactive storylines, but I can’t help assume that if you’ve read this far and haven’t began cutting yourself than you’ve already played at least one of these games, but I suppose there’s always one person in Burger King that doesn’t resemble Jabba The Hut. In essence, they put you in the shoes of the main character and there’s never one moment that cuts away from the eyes of the protagonist. You are Mr. Freeman; when a character yells “Hey Gordon, come over here” they’re actually referring to you as the player, it may seem strange or unspectacular, but it’s amazingly effective. When I first entered the realms of City 17, I had to check I was playing the right game, it actually feels like a living, breathing world and I can’t help but feel it’s because it didn’t boot you up the arse with an explosive opening cut-scene.
Anyway, I’m starting to ramble, but my point is this: If Metroid : Other M used the perspective akin to that of Gordon Freeman, would it have been any better? Forget the fact half the game is in 3rd person or arguably cheesy and start visualising the juvenile Metroid sacrificing itself through the eyes of Samus. Imagine if the NPCs had the distinctive charisma the likes of Alyx from Half-Life 2 retain and see you, not just Samus as their only hope. Contemplate the concept of our heroine staying silent (as most women should, am I rite guys?) and observing rather than giving strange elaborate poetry. If even just for a fragment of a second you thought it would make Other M a better game, you know it’s an important aspect that the industry needs to address, and that I haven’t been talking gibberish for the last few paragraphs. In conclusion, we shouldn’t go out of our way to flaw games like Other M, sure it’s not perfect, but it’s tried something different and I can’t help but admire that. Like the Metroid that saves Samus, Other M is a baby step towards the mature, true potential of videogame storytelling. Of course, there has been some early bloomers, but if we want to defend and mature this medium, the embracement of narrative is going to need to be a requirement for both us as gamers, and videogame developers. End of story.