Friday, June 24, 2011

Thinking: Gaming Narratives and Narrative Gaming.

Over at the Dissecting Worlds Two Towers we are engaged in sporadic discussion over the contents of our next batch of episodes, which in part consists of mutual wish-lists of stuff we want to cover, alongside a desire to keep it varied and interesting to listen to. In nearly thirty episodes (gosh!) I think we’ve managed to cover a wide range of bases, but it all that time, we’ve only covered one Gaming universe. And given how big the gaming industry is these days, that feels a little odd. 

Now obviously there is a lot of factors at work here – Gaming is a hobby still in its awkward adolescence and maybe doesn’t have the long history that comics or TV or movies have. My partner in crime, the Witch-King of Angmar to my Saruman of Many Colours, isn’t much of a gamer, and I had to pretty much force him play Mass Effect for the podcast we did on it. But I am a gamer, one who probably spends more free time a week gaming than watching telly or reading books, and I can’t think of many that I’d like to cover, largely because so few have enough narrative depth to get any mileage out of. 

So why is that? Well some of it is the nature of the beast – a lot of games have next to no narrative at all outside of “get gun, shoot baddie, smash crate” or “kill pigs for exp, level up”, or even “jump on platforms to collect mushrooms that help you rescue the princess.” and don’t need to. That’s not what they are about. A lot of games are set in the real world, or approximations thereof. A lot of games are so abstract expecting any sort of fiction around them is silly. But more than a few games but a huge amount of effort into their surrounding fiction and make a big song and dance about it, with wildly varying levels of success. 

Anyone who’s played any Role-Playing Games out of Japan will be well aware of the labyrinthine plots and worlds that these games bring with them, padding out already long games with hours and hours of elaborate cut-scenes and exposition, so much so that they can be like watching a very long movie in which you need to do the action sequences yourself. Western RPGs tend to live in variations of the Western Fantasy tradition – very recognisable to anyone who ever play Dungeons and Dragons – and led by Bioware as far back as the Baldurs Gate series seem more interested in personal “choice” in how you move through the world. For me, the former has stagnated over recent years whilst the latter has become more and more interesting, but ultimately what has made is so isn’t the worlds themselves but the increasingly complex way with which you can interact with them. 

Almost the polar opposite is the First Person Shooter, a genre that feels like it hasn’t overly evolved, gameplay wise, in about 10 years, bar the odd innovation like recharging health or sticking, Velcro-like, to cover. What it has done however, is tried to compensate for that by varying the scenery you wobble around in shooting people quite a lot. Besides the seemingly endless parade of World-War 2 and modern-day shooters, we’ve also seen a large number of surprisingly complex backdrops, that are really tangential to the business at hand. Halo sets great store by its (quite generic actually) Space Opera background to the point of tie-in books and extra merchandise, but there really isn’t much mileage in it compared to any of the backgrounds that it is riffing off. More successfully, Bioshock’s Objectivist Paradise of Rapture, along with its clever meta-narrative and striking visuals makes it the sort of game I would love to cover, alongside places like Half-Life 2’s City 17. 

This isn’t meant to sound dismissive of any of these games. After all, they’re games – the best background and plot in the world isn’t going to keep my playing if the actual gameplay is dull or clunky or broken. Starcraft II was hugely successful and great fun to play but its story is un-engaging and it’s universe derivative. The Darkness had great atmosphere and story but iffy controls and level design. I know which one I preferred, as a gamer, to be playing. But if I had to chose one to talk about, I’d pick The Darkness

But The Darkness is based on a comic. The Dawn of War series is based on a wargame. Knights of the Old Republic is set in the Star Wars universe. LA Noire and Red Dead Redemption are both stylised period pieces where you can point directly to the source material and talk about that instead. The Witcher is an adaptation of a novel series. Most MMORPGs are based on established properties and I’m not mean enough to pass on my World of Warcraft addictions to anyone. All of these have big, immersive universes or strong narratives (or both) but talking about them is largely redundant because I feel we should be talking about the direct source material, and what has built that. 

And I think that’s the frustration when it comes right down to it. Games can clearly put you in fictional universes in a way that no other medium can, and can tell great stories in the process. Many do, but as yet there are very few that are wholly of the medium, not imported from outside and adapted. I think it’s changing – I think there is a breed of developer out there that strives for it to change, to make universes and tell stories organically in the way that only that immersive experience can – but I don’t think it’s quite there yet. 

So I guess there is nothing else for it. I need to buy the Witch-King a copy of Bioshock...