Lately, there have been a lot of arguments that cutscenes are now unnecessary in games and that narratives do better if the player is given full control of the protagonist at all times. That's partially true. In some cases, namely First-Person games (but not all) the player is more immersed when he is constantly controlling the character. Half-Life and Bioshock come to mind as good examples. Even some third-person games do well without cutscenes. Although most 3rd person games do better with cutscenes because the player was never really taking the protagonist's role, rather helping him/her walk from A to B.
Anyway, I've always felt that some writers, if they want a story that truly becomes meaningful, have to take away control from the player at some points. A protagonist doesn't have to share views with the player or react the same way that the player would simply because the player holds his reins. A truly interesting character has his own thoughts and reactions. That isn't always true, but an exception is very rare.
So now on to this article and the words I wrote for it. I started playing Mother 3 last night. And though I'm only 3 hours into it, I'm really impressed. The simplicity of it all and how compelling the plot mixed with a fantastic soundtrack is really has me floored. Other than my accidental erasion of about 2 hours of gameplay by loading up an old (and only) save on my emulator, it's near perfect. Well, maybe not, but it's very good and I like it.
Within the first hour (and this is where I spoil), something brilliant happens that makes me want to give the game's ROM a hug. Western badass/Chuck Norris-wannabe Flint is the first character that the player really gets to start playing with. The story begins with Pigmask aliens coming down to the Nowhere Islands and starting a forest fire. Flint is asked to help save someone from a burning house north of town. And he goes and does so. So, he runs into a burning building and carries a boy out of it, running with him through a burning forest filled with smoke and flames. Now, throughout the time spent with Flint, he never says a word. All he does is do what he's told, running around and punching monsters into oblivion. He's a huge badass, only filled with the personality that I perceived him as having. However, at a certain point, it almost seems like this was intentional, and it might very well be. Later, it starts to rain, putting out the fire. Flint's kids and wife are supposed to be on their way home from grandpa's house. They don't seem to get home on time, so Flint and the townspeople start looking for them. Flint meets a dead-end during his search, and while turning back, is told that his children have been found. He and a group of other villagers gather around a fire to warm up the children, who were found in a lake. Pretty straightforward stuff.
Anyway, Bronson, a friend of Flint's, comes running over to the party with bad news: Flint's wife was killed. As sad music starts playing, Flint breaks down into tears. He falls onto his knees and starts crying. After a few moments, he stands up, walks over to the fire and pulls a large stick from the firewood pile. He smashes the pile into pieces and turns around. A friend tells Flint to calm down, which Flint responds to with a slash from his weapon. He then knocks out another man who tries to rip the log from his hands. Ready to beat Bronson over the head, Flint is about to swing when he is knocked out cold by a man with a giant stake.
My description was kind of lame, but there it is. It really got to me and surprised me in a way few games do. Instead of having Flint stare blankly at Bronson as he delivers the news of his wife's death, the writers had him react as a man who punches snakes on a regular basis would: violently. The entire time, Flint doesn't say a word. He just stands up and starts bludgeoning his friends in sorrow. The real impact comes from Flint's lack of personality before that moment. He does what he has to, without question or care. But once his love is taken into account, he's thrown into rage as all control is taken from the player. It really is an awesome moment.
Now I want to talk about an even less significant moment in games that really disgusted me. And it was in Saints Row 2, a game that doesn't exactly encouraging proper methods of disposing of unwanted relationships. But there was one moment that got to me, and I still don't understand why. It didn't make me sad and it didn't frustrate me, but it actually disgusted me. Which is hard to do in a GTA-style game, where all you really do is run around doing illegal things.
Anyway, at the end of the Ronin campaign, a series of missions revolving around taking out a gang made up of samurai-inspired bikers, there's a second-to-last mission where the player and his partner, Johnny Gat, have to kill the spoiled leader of the Ronin. Now, Johnny Gat and the protagonist are disgusting people who do disgusting things. They feel no remorse for the murder of hundreds and love doing it. The opposing gangs aren't even evil. If anything, the Saints are just as bad as the rest of the gangs. The Saints just want everything everyone else has.
So there's the mission where you have to kill the Ronin leader. There's a shootout at a cemetery, kill a bunch of dude, blah blah blah. The leader gets on his bike, you chase him down and shoot until the game moves to the next cutscene. That's where I had the moment. The leader starts begging for forgiveness, groveling at Johnny Gat's shoes and pleading for survival. The Saints don't listen. Instead, while he shouts and screams for help, the two stuff the leader in a casket and calmly bury it underground, letting him die from suffocation.
Now, that was another lame explanation, but it left me speechless. I stared quizzically at the screen, wondering "Really? Was that really necessary?" Of course, the Saints hate him for murdering one of their greatest allies, a singer named Ayisha (or something like that). And the developers wanted to take the Ronin leader out in a cruel way, distinguished from the rest of the faceless killings. But I was mortified. As soon as the game dropped me back in the seat of control, saying "alright, go find something else to do," I switched off my PS3. I lost all desire to play.
Ok, so maybe Saints Row isn't a game designed to inspire my inner pacifist, but I just wanted to get that off my chest.
Nobody else wanted to listen.
Now, if you actually read any of this, 1. Thank you and 2. Are there any moments where you've been awestruck/disgusted at what your own character has done without your control?