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The Importance of Game Narratives

While the rest of the internet has been creating a huge brouhaha over Mass Effect 3 and it's endings, I've decided to finally brave the fjords of another game and discover what dramatic secrets it holds.

...No, not Skyrim. I've played through as many possible narratives as I can in that game, and while I absolutely love the game and would willingly sink another 100 hours into it - as a whole, the game doesn't really have one cohesive narrative but a huge amalgamation of disjointed narratives that don't really add to your hero's story so much as enhance it (especially through loot, combat levelling, and learning a little more lore with every quest you discover your way through.)

Recently, after attending GDC, I posted a video of the latest 'prototype' of Quantic Dream's motion capture engine. Thinking I was being cheeky, I spent ten minutes doctoring one of the photos I took of David Cage and some random dude(tm) and used that as a header to poke fun at the "Press X to Jason" viral internet phenomenon that hit the web a few months after the game hit and everyone loved it, hated it, and generally laughed at it's awkward dialogue and hilariously scary looking children.

The dark truth I've hidden that puts my journalistic integrity into question is this: I've never actually played Heavy Rain before beyond that PSN demo, where I awkwardly walked into walls as Madison and then got killed by some creepy large dude in a broken down house.

So, while everyone else in the downtown Powell street Gamestop stood around eagerly checking out Kid Icarus for the 3DS, I walked in, proudly toting a recently acquired wooden sword (random GDC swag), and demanded to see the game for which empires have been won and lost.

Or uh, something.

"Uh, you're picking up just, uh...Heavy Rain?" The Gamestop employee - who I've probably known for years now yet still only vaguely recognizes me - asked me incredulously.

"Yep." I said, brandishing my wooden sword with a sneer so that the employee wouldn't remind me of other games I could pre-order or that trade-ins now included Ipods and Ipads for some reason. Of course, he still did.

Anyhow, after making so much fun of the game (often with my partner, who'd watch little clips of it and go, "Ugh, I see Uncanny Valley really hit that guy's face hard.") I finally decided to do at least one playthrough of Heavy Rain. I managed to keep all of my characters alive despite their insistence to pit themselves into the most dangerous situations possible, all up until the end - or I should say, my particular ending - where Scott Shelby was the serial killer because he had a shitty dad or something, and I pressed X to Shaun just enough to save him but that other idiot detective who is also a terrible voice actor failed to do anything except play with his little AR device and snort Triptocaine until his eyes bled, so that the psychopath cop ordered a swat hit on poor Ethan. Ah alas, the world is a cruel and unyielding mistress.

During my playthrough, I actually did get emotionally involved with the characters, barring the incredibly awkward and mannequin-like Ethan and Madison "Press X to vigorously hump and use thumb pad to massage off clothing" sex scene. Overall, I found the narrative to be relatively interesting and the plot twists, while not always totally feasible, at least tied in coherently with the overall storyline.

Which got me thinking - if a game that can be criticized as nothing more than a glorified series of QTE's can actually involve me so deeply into it's storyline - does that really give the angered fans of the Mass Effect series a fair leg to stand on when it comes to arguments involving the game's ending?

How important is a narrative to a game, and how important is it that the narrative is tied up neatly and offers an optimistic ending?

You see, I'm also a huge fan of the Mass Effect series, all the way from the very beginning. I have two Shepards - a male paragon Shepard - who, (spoilers ahead!) after having a fling with Liara in the first ME and then 'unmasking' Tali in the second one - decided he was actually really into guys all along and dated Cortez, and then sort of accidentally caused Tali to suicide herself because well, Casey Shepard was sorta responsible for the death of her people and the rebellion uprising of the Geth.

And a female Shepard - Queruluzz Shepard (my partner tells me she borders on racist, but I tell him that she borders on awesome), who is the greatest Shepard ever and managed to save nearly all of her crew in ME2 by simply being a bad-ass bitch. Her story is still not over.

I've beaten the game with the Male Shepard, and after watching the ending, I felt a mix of emotions. (Spoilers ahead, again)

In a weird way, I was glad that the ending was as hokey as it was. I was glad that some Starchild came out of left field and gave me such a simplified option that led to everything being pretty much ruined for everyone.

You see, what I love about storyline and narrative in games is the actual 'getting there' that it involves, the travel from where your character starts to what eventually alters and changes your character. The actual cut-scene ending created by the developers is almost always an after-thought. The various endings for the various characters in Heavy Rain went from "miserable pile of secrets" to "straight up retarded" - and really, the ending of that game for me came when Ethan finally saves Shaun and then gets brutally shot down. Roll credits.

In much the same way, Mass Effect 3 really ended for me the moment that Shepard made it into that weird part of the Citadel with all of the harvested bodies, pretty much nearly burnt to death and crawling ever so slowly towards the light. This is the apex of everything Shepard has fought for, and he's arrived at his destination. Whatever happens afterward doesn't really matter - it's no longer the part of the story that you're directly engaged in.

In fact, as hokey as the story was in the Gears of War series, I still managed to get a little emotionally involved throughout - and at the end of Gears 3, when Marcus finally takes off his stupid headband and actually looks almost like a normal human being for once - I had pretty much already stopped caring about the storyline.

Like a lot of things in life, I'd compare it to Total Recall. How many people really care to remember the really terrible ending where Arnie and that weird chick are standing on some martian landscape and they kiss and it might all be a dream and - oh, who the f**k really gives a shit, that was such a terrible cop-out?

And who remembers the alien chick with three boobs, or "I got fiiii' kids to feed!" or "TWWWOOO WEEKS!"

I think I rest my case.

Any storyline of any medium can still succeed greatly even without a nice ending that wraps everything up, where Hermione marries Ron and Harry marries Ron's little sister and everyone plays a round of Quidditch in the park or whatever.

Art is supposed to be an imitation of life (or perhaps life imitates art, whichever) - and as such, it can't - and shouldn't - always be neatly tied up with a pretty bow.

For the Mass Effect series, the developers couldn't possibly please every single fan with any ending whatsoever. A happy ending where Shepard saves the universe would seem like a cop-out to a great number of fans. Furthermore, what did fans expect to see of their beloved characters?

Here, let me give fans the ending to all of the characters of Mass Effect in a perfect world:

Shepard: Becomes a has-been hero who still goes onto late night shows like Craig Ferguson and runs that same tired joke, "I am Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite mouthwash on the Citadel."

Liara: Becomes a f***Ing space librarian, guys. Seriously. She gets older and decides she likes acquiring information more than having sex and basically creates a giant library on the Citadel that always vaguely smells like the pee of those stupid monkey creatures that you find f***ing everywhere in ME2.

Tali: Goes on to take many more stock photos of herself unmasked. Gets a short gig on that stupid sitcom that people seem to love and constantly plays at Gamestop. The one with the nerds, you know which one I'm talking about.

Garrus: Retires to a space rock in the Outer Rim, shoots debris from his trailer.

Thane: Dies. I mean... seriously?

Prothy the Prothean: Kills self, like he said he would. Has a sparsely populated funeral.

Samara: Finally Kills Bill.


Enough said.

Miranda: Starts a reality TV show, "Lovin' the Lawson's" where she and her sister do stupid daily shit and get drunk a lot and then she gyrates her ridiculously perfect body for the next 45 minutes.

Kaiden: Dies tragically, if not already dead.

Ashley: Becomes a Libertarian, votes Ron Paul.

Mordin: Replaces Masuka's role on Dexter.

That other Salarian, the Intelligent Design One: Joins Kirk Cameron on a very special talk show about bananas.

Jacob: Probably does bro stuff with James Vega, like go to bars and watch football games together.

James Vega: See above.

Jack: Gets fired from teaching for going off on rebellious student, inadvertently killing whole class. Marries Garrus and meths out in his trailer.

Cortez: Loves Shepard 4EVER. BFF. Also loves his sweet ride. Has to decide between the two at some point, goes with ride since Shepard is a has-been.

Urdnot Wrex: Repopulates the Krogan homeworld with babies, babies everywhere. Or doesn't. Either way, he goes mental one day and kills everyone, including himself.

Grunt: Oh, maybe I mixed the two up.

Legion: Starts a galactic 4chan. Trolls every known universe.

The Reapers: Start a band. Become a huge hit (people really love the blaring horns), go through the ol' sex, drugs and rock'n'roll standards, have a biopic made about their illustrious career.

Zaeed: Who?

Kasumi Cares.

All right, now that you've seen the true ending of the series, was it really worth it?

Or can you agree that the strong narrative of a good video game, the actual playthrough - is really what makes that game so awesome?
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About Casey Bone of us since 5:44 PM on 10.20.2010

Casey is passionate about all things video game, and has been this way since very young. His earliest memories involve trying to get E.T. out of a hole.
Xbox LIVE:RigbysFace
PSN ID:caserb
3DS Code:236356519256


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