Monday, February 8, 2010

Is it Story or Storytelling that truly makes a "tale" great?

How many times have you seen this on a forum "[Game A] has a terrible story, it isn't original at all! Just the same redundant crap we see all the time!" Well I hate to tell you "Junior" but at the end of the day a lot of it is the same redundant crap... at least in terms of raw "Story".

In his book "The Seven Basic Plots" Christopher Booker explains that there are only seven "Raw" stories that are repeated over and over again within literature, with or without the author of said work actually recognizing what is occurring. I'm not going to go into exactly what these 7 Plots are, the list is pretty easy to find on the internet, in fact I'll even give you a link:

According to this and similar theories like "The Thirty Six Dramatic Situations" as proposed by Georges Polti we can surmise that there ARE no original plots, not really. Every "raw plot" that can be written HAS been written, codified, studied, analyzed and hence can be predicted... at least that's what some people would have you believe.

At the end of the day I don't think it really matters. Expecting a story to be wildly original every time is a sure way to end up a horribly disappointed human being, especially when you realize that barring a divine act you WILL use one of the 7 Basic Plots and many of those Thirty Six Situations no matter what type of story you try to tell. The key to achieving peace with this idea is realizing that at the end of the day, this is NOT the element of Story that truly matters.

"Basic" plot is just that, basic. There are no characters in those 7 Plots, nor are there characters in those situations. They're just the raw elements necessary for the construction of a story, they aren't what make it enjoyable, meaningful or worth experiencing in anyway. Think about it like a building, at the end of the day all buildings will require, to some degree, a foundation, a superstructure, probably stairs depending on the size and height of a building etc. Any building that doesn't have these fails as a building and would not be recognized as such or used as such, and a story is similar. Yet when you look at a particularly attractive building do you pat attention to the foundation, the superstructure, the stairs? Not really I say, these are just the elements that make it a building, not the elements that make it an attractive one. In order to make these individual elements stand out, indeed to make the building itself stand out, something needs to be added to it. For a "Plot" or "Story" this is where "Storytelling" comes in, it is that "something else" added to a basic structure that makes a story memorable, enjoyable and worth experiencing.

Take my most recent favorite game, Mass Effect 2. At the end of the day what are you doing? Saving Humanity from Evil Aliens, a combination of an Against the Monster, A Quest and a little bit of a Journey and Return plotline. Not wildly original by any stretch, yet like its parent Mass Effect 2 comes across as wildly original in terms of storytelling.

You don't just Save Humanity from Evil Aliens, you take a character deeply rooted in a heavily realized fictional universe yet shaped through your personal choices and actions into either a virtual expression of yourself or a fully realized character in their own right. You find companions for this character, earn their trust and learn more about yourself in the process before triumphantly charging off with suicidal abandon to protect the universe and everything you care about because goddamn it you are a HERO and you will save mankind. This to me is the real "plot" of Mass Effect 2, not the simplistic and basic"Save Mankind from Aliens" story you might see on the surface. This belies the uniquely personalized yet cinematically sweeping style of storytelling that characterizes the game, you feel like that hero, you feel like this is your universe to save and that is what makes it different from a standard Humans vs. Aliens space opera.

Something similar could, once upon a time, be said about the classic "Lunar: The Silver Star Story Complete" for the Playstation 1. At the most basic level, Lunar is a game about a Boy rescuing his Childhood Friend from an Evil Emperor who wants to use her Innate Powers for Evil. Standard JRPG stuff right? Pretty much but the addition of warm, funny and likable characters with well done Anime Cut Scenes and the substantial amount of voice acting combined with a well paced set of revelations regarding the overall story makes Lunar something to behold despite its stereotypical trappings. Look at Bioshock, Half-Life, Portal and many other games out there. Many of them really aren't that original in terms of basic plot, but the method by which they convey their narrative, the Storytelling, makes them so much more than that.

Hence at the end of the day it isn't the story itself, it's the storytelling that makes something a truly great narrative. It's a combination of Pacing, Character, Presentation, Art, Dialogue or lack there of, Mood, Setting, Set Pieces etc. not just "plot" that makes something great and allows it to transcend the simplicity of the 7 Basic Plots.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Am I a Writer?

One of my good friends has just "officially" become a professional writer. He's getting paid to produce material for a small, still in production game project which should be popping up in the sometime this year. It's interesting stuff too, tons of ideas that make me go "damn I wish I'd come up with that"and there's a large group of very talented people working on it, all of whom are also very likable.

Unfortunately I find myself livid with jealousy over my friends success in the writing field, mostly because that kind of thing was something I've always wanted from myself but never been able to achieve. This has led to a bit of soul searching on my part as I honestly cannot recall the last time I seriously put some prose to page. I haven't even given it a good attempt within the last several months, what with my workplace being thrown into chaos and my baseless melancholy crippling my creativity. All I've written are notes for my numerous Roleplaying Projects and the occasional discussion thread or review on The Escapist and even these feel like crap lately.

What have I become? Am I even a writer anymore?

I cannot recall the last time I created a character, established a scene, wrote an action sequence or even tried to seriously convey an idea or meaning through indirect means. I haven't even tried to prose up my Roleplaying notes, not since the summer and the last description piece I tried to write turned out like complete crap.

I am seriously down on this...

However I can only see one solution, I need to pick up the pen once more and kick my own ass until I actually write something I can look at with some measure of contentment. Yes sir, I must do this once more, I WILL be a writer again even if I'm only writing for myself.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Best of the Year 2009 Videogames Part 1

Well since it is January and it's been a whole year since I did any regular posting I thought I might enlighten all of you as to my favorites of the last year.

Video Games

2009 was the year of the Action/Adventure game, seeing an unprecedented glut of high quality releases all focusing around this hard to pin down genre that nonetheless endears as a mainstay of the industry and a favorite of this particular gamer and while there were some other major releases none of them really held a candle to the Action/Adventure titles that dominated the stage. Anyway here's my obligatory list of titles that made the grade this year...

In June gamers were treated to a one-two punch of Sandbox Superhero games, one where you play as a misanthropic mutant in a blood filled rampage through New York, the other where you play as an Electrical Superman who can choose the role of Hero or Villain while he searches for the secret behind the events that empowered him and that have been laying waste to his city. Infamous developed by Suckerpunch and exclusively for the Playstation 3 is the second of those. You play as Cole McGrath, a man who gains electrical super powers, destroys a large portion of Empire City, his home and must now contend with a bevy of superpowered foes in a quest to learn about the disaster and himself. Two things about InFamous really stood out to me, for one it's a 3rd Person Shooter rather than a Brawler and it's the only super hero game I've played that really makes you FEEL like a HERO. This is something that oddly defines the game in a way you might not expect as I noticed something about reviews of InFamous, those who took the Villain Path did not enjoy it much and gave it a low score. Those who took the path of the Hero seemed to get a whole lot more enjoyment out of the game since when playing the hero path you get to see your actions inspire the population of Empire City, they put up posters of you, rally against the supervillains taking over neighborhoods, clean up the streets and cheer you as you go by. You feel like a hero who has made a difference in the world, this city is BETTER and it's because of you and the choices you've made. I have yet to go through the villain path myself, but a friend assures me that it's not really worth it, being a Hero is where it's at and InFamous is good at conveying that idea.

Some thoughts on Storytelling in Videogames

With the recent release of Mass Effect 2 I've been thinking pretty regularly about storytelling methods in Videogames. See to me Mass Effect 2 represents probably the pinnacle in Player Driven Narrative, where the player can not only decide through their actions the outcomes of various stories but can also effect personality and relationships on a much deeper level than in most other games. In fact it beats out November's Dragon Age, a game soaked in choice and depth of consequence, purely through its focus on "personality" because unlike Dragon Age, in Mass Effect one actually gets the feeling that Cmdr. Shepard is a REAL character, not simply an extension of the players will. Yes you get to put the words in Cmdr. Shepards mouth, but those words are translated into the voice of the character, a character you define but one that is still somewhat separate. As I see it this is the key to developing a real "Roleplaying Game" in an electronic medium, where you play AS a character who is still a CHARACTER, not just an avatar for your actions.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In Defense of The Sequel

Now the standard intelligent reason for disliking sequels to popular videogames is the perception that they stifle more creative projects but is that really the case? Granted I know that both EA and Activision are incredibly guilty of this, spending money on more Madden Games and Ice Age sequels... but would they really innovate if you suddenly tooka way their ability to make Madden 2010? I doubt it, innovation doesn't simply come from pulling the numbers from the ends of games. Look at Mirrors Edge and Dead Space, finally EA tries something different, something non-sequelly... and then they still take a lot of flak for it.

Similarly for Final Fantasy, most of you don't like the games anyway... what are you missing out on? Square isn't suddenly going to make an FPS, that's not their style, they'd just make ANOTHER Big Budget JRPG under a different name, hell they tried that with Infinite Undiscovery and Last Remnant, both failures but for different reasons.
The Metal Gear series didn't stop Hideo Kojima from developing original ideas, after Metal Gears 1 and 2, he developed Policenauts and Snatcher, similarly after Metal Gear Solid he put out Zone of the Enders and the Boktai titles for the gameboy.

I suppose my primary assertion is that this hatred of sequels seems to be largely baseless. For me a "sequel" is an excuse to take and improve on a tried and true formula, granted in some cases they are unnecessary, and in others they are just attempting to capitalize on a well known and loved title. But ask yourself, would Resident Evil 4 have been any better if it hadn't been the 4th Resident Evil? If not another Resident Evil, what should Capcom have released instead?
That's the question I pose to the sequel haters, What do you want instead? What games are you missing out on? What is Final Fantasy XIII taking away from you? Removing sequels isn't going to magically bring you a flood of innovative and original games.

Not everything can be a "Psychonauts" or a "Brutal Legend", those are rare products made for us by the skilled hand of an artist, but games industry does not have a surplus of men like Tim Schafer. If you really must examine this to it's core, take Mr. Schafer's Lucasarts adventure games... The Day of the Tentacle was really Maniac Mansion 3, and the Monkey Island games reached 4 titles before finally dying out.

The point I'm trying to make is that innovation doesn't happen "in spite" of sequels, it just happens, and the next Metal Gear Solid game isn't really going to stop any true artist from developing their amazing idea.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Having Trouble?

Here is an interesting little application that provides tangible consequences for not writing. Personally I think it could be of great use and I intend to give it a whirl tonight. I'll tell all of you how it turns out.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Survival Horror: The Pinnacle of Videogame Narrative

The thought provoking article "Is it Art?" from the London Book Review by John Lanchester got the wheels turning in my brain regarding the importance of the Survival Horror genre to the idea of Videogame Narrative. Why is this you ask? Because few other genres in videogaming have the potential to convey so much story without resorting to lengthy cutscenes or conveniently abandoned narrative devices (literal devices, scattered around the environment and everything).

One of the reasons is that in Survival Horror, you can manipulate the environment itself into a brilliant narrative device. Every creature, every set piece, every message written in blood on the wall can help to convey a feeling, an emotion and a sense of story. Look at the pinnacle of the genre, Silent Hill 2, everything in that game is deeply rooted in protagonist James Sunderland's psyche, from the horrifying Pyramid Head to the Horrible Sexy Nurses to the vile straight jacketed things. They all serve a narrative purpose and all relate to the horrible revelations that drive James's quest into this dark place.

Similarly does Resident Evil 4 convey many "narrative" aspects through gameplay and environment. When we shoot our first mutated Spanish villager in the face only to have him glare at us angrily, it's clear we aren't dealing with ordinary rural hillbillies here, these are monsters. And later when you arrive at the shotgun wielding, head exploding phase, the villagers will suddenly sprout horrific doom appendages which will slice and dice you, leading to more questions and even a few answers.

Granted both Resident Evil 4 and Silent Hill 2 still often rely on cutscenes, but there is narrative outside of that, in the enemy design and environmental characteristics. I eagerly await the day when you'll be able to accomplish an entire narrative (except the "ending" and "epilogue" bits) without resorting to the movie like, medium breaking cutscenes that hurt the idea of "games" as a unique art form.