"We constantly have to revisit 'Why would Donkey Kong do this?' or 'Why would this environment be like this?' And then we start thinking: 'We're making a game about a gorilla wearing a tie.'"
-Michael Kelbaugh of Retro Studios on Donkey Kong Country Returns
"I have to say it's kinda scary how much you know about this game."
-Nicolau Chaud creator of Marvel Brothel
I was recently rereading a trade that I picked up 17 years ago called The Best of Marvel 1994. Sadly, if this was the best Marvel had to offer, you won't have missed much. It did attempt to showcase how Marvel was trying bring about a lot of emotional resonance in its readers. Something that I was attempted to draw parallels with in my other hobby.
Are there any games that highlight an emotional response in as poignant a manner as the books have?
I'd probably say no.
Not that I haven't had great responses from games, but the drama seems to be watered down by the gameplay. Whether its through the grinding or just the simple inability to showcase a dramatic follow through, I have been surprised that there isn't any game that tries to create something like this.
We had progressed through the Golden Age of gaming where stories attempted to recreate a sense of achievement and nothing else. We had moved through the Silver Age where games were finally defining where they were coming from. Now however, we are seeing some games try to push through and become something more. However we are still too reserved in some of our stories.
Which brings me back to this book. In one collection, there are a handful of stories that try to push across themes like loss, hatred, and joy. Themes that were broken down in to single stories and were told in an efficient enough way to be published in a "Best of" book.
Is there a video game counterpart to these stories?
There are quite a few games that give you the unbeatable battle. You fight an overpowered foe that you have no idea is unbeatable. So you spend all the hi-potions you were saving just in the hopes that you are chipping enough damage away from this supreme foe. He is then able to knock out your friends and just as the game over should appear, something happens. Whether its a new ally swooping in to save the day or maybe a miraculous item appears to smite the foe, some outside force wins the battle for you.
It's a simple scenario we've seen time and again. What about a battle that you could win, but chose not to?
The Incredible Hulk did just that. A Skrull hell bent on reclaiming his pride by dying a noble death, wishes to be destroyed by Earth's greatest monster. A long battle ensues between the two until finally the Skrull succeeds in landing a strike with his axe.
At this point, an enraged Hulk would have torn him limb from limb. This being Peter David's smart Hulk, he realizes that he doesn't need to succumb to his violent side. Instead he takes the path of least resistance. He gets on his hands and knees, clasps his hands together and, with a tear in his eyes, begs his Skrull attacker to spare his life.
The Skrull now disgusted returns to his ship to apologize to his crew for such a shameful battle. They meet his apologies with a heartfelt cheer as their great leader had bested one of Earth's greatest champions.
Why there isn't a situation like this in games is that grand battles aren't where the exposition plays out. Rarely do you see a bosses life story unveil in the midst of battle. Before and after seems to be the formula. Mass Effect tip toes on this by not choosing an option to cap the guy in the face, but it's not really the same. Really though, could you see any of our favorite heroes doing anything like this?
Likewise, Thunderstrike took the idea of your opponent to a different place. What if everything you thought about an enemy was on the money, but you were still doing the wrong thing by trying to beat him. A twist on a foe is surprisingly not a standard. However, this medium is always progressive. You are always proceeding forward, this would be a set back. Could a medium accept that?
Death in comics and in video games is often used and rarely emotional. Outside of Hironobu Sakiguchi, I can't think of many that have achieved this in the medium. Maybe Phantasy Star, but it's amazing how such an emotional moment is lost in such an interactive medium.
Mostly because we rarely see the moment build for us as death looms over our characters.
Games play out as if we are immune to disease. As if everybody in the world is carrying a Ribbon. Sometimes it is the opposite, that you are trying to save somebody with disease. You leave and they are left waiting for you to save them and make them well. You travel the globe and they never seem to get sicker until the final battle.
Spider-man Unlimited #3 is considered one of the best Doctor Octopus stories. Not only does it expand upon his back story, it creates one of the most heartbreaking moments in comics.
Spider-man is hot on the trail when Doc Ock steals a vile of HIV positive blood and a nuclear isotope. The doctor escapes, but Spider-man later traces him to his makeshift laboratory to do battle with this potentially contagious villain. In cramped quarters they duel. Though Octavius is only fighting with a few arms at any given time. He is mostly focused on finishing his little experiment with Spider-man only providing distractions to his plot.
He succeeds and as soon as he reads the results, all six of his arms drop. The battle is over. Doctor Octopus has lost. His cure for AIDS failed. Meanwhile, the only girl that has ever shown him true affection died in her hospital bed blocks away.
On the flip side of the coin, we see the youngest member of the X-men, Jubilee, deal with the powerlessness of losing somebody right in front of her eyes. She is left wondering how a group of people with the technology of the Shi'ar, the talents of some of the greatest geneticists, and the greatest minds on the planet can't save the seven year old sister of her teammate.
The troubling fact was that the girl's only surviving brother couldn't even be there for those final moments. Jubilee can only question if she can make an impression on this poor girl before it ends.
In games, we don't need to always be concerned with where the story will go, but how you can affect the immediate. Party members seem to be all but expendable, but when somebody else in the world dies, does anybody shed a tear. We play frag kill by the millions, but there are really only a handful of games that build a death that truly feels like an unjust death.
We however are never left with a true conclusion in this medium. As I read the days after the funeral of Madrox in X-Factor 101, I realize that I've only experienced a group of people truly mourning in one game. To see the effects of death and how the people react to it is a normal occurrence in life and in many other mediums. Sure there are subtle ways to bring it up in the rest of the story, but there really isn't anything like the raw emotions following the event.
I can only really list a handful of games that have these emotions and a large percentage are from Sakiguchi. To rely on one man to give me these experiences is sad in a medium with this much creative talent. I want to know that there are more games out there that can bring these ideas ahead.
It's not all doom and gloom here though. If anything, games present the unique opportunity of being more than a spectator to major events. There is no greater event than a wedding. It is a moment that brings friends and families together to celebrate all that is good.
There is only one truly great wedding in the Marvel universe and that is the wedding of Jean Grey and Scott Summers.
The wedding itself is actually not really the focal point of the issue. Instead we are treated to the entire event. The questions Xavier feels as he sees two of his students move forward in life without him. The wedding itself is elegant, but lasts only a few pages long. To see it then cut away to the idea that heart broken Wolverine would then bodyguard the event in secret is touching. He sits there ensuring that nobody ruins Jean's day.
All of the event is displayed. The garter and the bouquet throwing, an emotional first dance between Jean and her professor, and even the meal makes a cameo. We've experienced many different weddings in games, but have any of us ever really been a part of the event?
Did you really feel like you were enjoying the event of the wedding, or was it just the happiness of seeing two people get together? As simple as it may seem, there is more to develop than what we are experiencing. There is rarely a greater reward than the union of two people. The only real wedding I have ever truly remembered was the cut scene to Chrono Trigger's PlayStation remake. That was mostly because I had to sit through it every time I beat the game in New Game+.
There is more that gamers can experience in these events. We shouldn't be relished to a cutscene or just a simple ceremony. A wedding is more than the 5 minutes they are standing in front of everyone.
We can experience more. Gamers could truly enjoy a wedding filled with the friends and family of your travels.
Let's talk mechanics for a bit.
We've reached a point in games, mostly thanks to Hideo Kojima, where true stealth can be attempted. Punisher issue 93 plays the game a bit differently. A young boy lives on a street where gangs terrorize the local populace. They take from storefronts and demand compensation. The only recourse the boy has is to get the help from somebody who punishes the wicked. So he asks the Punisher to do exactly that.
So a new guy opens up shop on this bum ridden little street. He doesn't take any lip from anybody and chases away all trouble makers from his shop. He inspires a whole community. That is until he is shot dead right in front of his store. The gangs now confident to run the streets start bringing in bigger producers to the neighborhood and are confronted by a homeless man who proceeds to blast everyone associated with the gang.
They had been punished, but the victory was hollow. A good man had died that day.
I don't recall many games that portray me as the martyr. I've saved the world and lived happily ever after time and time again, but I haven't died and had somebody carry the journey for me. Halo: Reach hinted at this in one of their live action spots. I really do need to play some more of that.
Though I haven't had this experience in such a world that would demand it. Chrono Trigger played a small role with this and even Tidus waits until the end to say goodbye. With such a focus on a single character, it's harder and harder for the supporting classes to appear helpful.
While I'm on development choices, a true stealth game would be quite interesting. Spy Party seems to hint on this, but to have a character assume a role completely seems like a brilliant choice. No twists in the story to turn him in to a spy. Leave it known that you and your actions are supposed to represent someone you are not. Even when a consequence occurs. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 did this to controversial ends. It's an interesting mechanic that works well in gaming because we have always had a preference towards secret ops games.
Now I'm not a huge fan of Doom 2099, mostly because of this issue 13. However, it does bring up some interesting ideas in his battle with the Necrotek. The Necrotek is a beast of technology and magic that is trying to take one of the Eyes of Agamotto from a young boy named Vox. He happens to be a child that doesn't talk.
Interestingly, have we ever experienced a game where we play with a silent associate? Not just the quiet NPC or the mute boss, but an actual partner that says nothing. I defer to Phantasy Star II once again with Nei, but in a day where full body movements are realized, I can't imagine another.
The portrayal of a being made of technology led me to wonder why we don't have many more disruptions in gameplay mechanisms. I harken back to the idea of Raiden while he was most vulnerable or Eternal Darkness in its creation of 4th wall breaking errors. I question why our technology based games can't present great story telling mechanics based around glitches. Why a bug can't be purposeful.
We strive always for perfection and keep coming up short. How about we exploit imperfections for effect. Change a menu based on a characters emotion or enter in some jargon coding when something alters our characters perception. Fable III hinted at this and it can be expanded upon.
In the early 1990's we were privy to a few riots and even some gang related race wars. It wasn't the most pleasant of times, but most of us made it through it. For that fact, comics are always at the forefront of headlines. In Night Thrasher issue 6, we get to see our hero and his partner Rage stop an escalating act of violence between two different races. It's a simple story of how stupid race related violence really is, but it made me question one thing.
How come there are only a handful of games that actually focus on dividing units to conquer them?
However, Army of Two and some missions in a few SRPGs are the only ones that really push this isolationist tactic. Even still, there isn't much here to work with. In this issue, they pull two of the rival gang members away from the group in grand fashion and force them to fight each other. Obviously, without the pressure of the moment behind them, the two figure out how idiotic this war is and decide to just walk away.
I was just thinking how rare it is for me to win a battle with tactics instead of brute strength. Even in my beloved SRPG genre, it's usually strengths and skill that run through an opponent. Not the tactical fortitude of neutralizing small groups in the organization.
We are seeing a stronger and stronger push in enemy AI that allows this. Mostly this comes from games like Halo where the grunt AI is allowed to run in fear when they are overwhelmed. This mindset has slowly started to enter in to the enemy patterns and its moving forward. This situation seems like a natural progression to that idea.
I'm growing wary of always having to rely on the bulldozer tactics because of its efficiency.
Gaming has just entered its Bronze Age and if we look towards other mediums, we can see some of the places that the content can go. Stories are being expanded upon. Games are being created with fewer and fewer restrictions.
Much like the Bronze Age of comics, we can see stories getting fleshed out more and more. Topics that were formerly taboo are now being explored. As gaming pushes to expand itself, we as gamers will be able to showcase the rich content to those that once shunned it.
These are the good times of being a gamer as our entertainment pushes to create something of itself. However, we must be sure that the problems that plagued comic books in the 1990s doesn't happen in our industry. Marvel, DC and many others were publishing for the quick buck and it came back and crippled the market for over a decade.
There is the same potential of a fallout in the games industry. As long as game development still strives for quality over efficiency, we as gamers should see a long age of great writing.
If not, we could be facing hard times with over production that could hurt the video game markets. Just look to the peripheral based rhythm games as a warning sign. This cannot last and we all need to watch for patterns.
The Best of Marvel 1994 is not a trade paperback that I could recommend for many. There are good stories inside, but there are many better ones out there. It is a group of comics with tales geared for the short emotional burst from a reader.
It works well that way.
Of course, it only works well through retrospection. These stories aren't connected to anything that you would read today in a comic bearing the same name. Just the fact that most of the guys are wearing ponytails could turn many of you away.
However, it is easy to draw ideas from different sources like this.
The Best of Marvel 1994 did allow me to think on many of my experiences in games. Where I wanted them to be and what I would want from them. Comics are effective in creating the dramatic. Sometimes to its downfall. Though more often than not, the effect is quite engaging
Due to the interactivity of gaming, I believe we can experience these same elements in a richer way.
For those interested The Best of Marvel 1994 collects: Doom 2099 #13
Spider-man Unlimited #3
The Incredible Hulk #419
Night Thrasher #6
Uncanny X-Men #303