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LONG BLOG

The world won't change. All it does is turn. Now... let's dance.

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Welcome to Xandaça's Destructoid blog. I'm sure you're going to love it here.

That seems like a good place to start.

This being the first blog I've written, I've been straining every neuron in my brain to come up with something both fascinating and appropriate to write about on my inaugural expedition. I've been writing about games (as well as film and books - see my 'about you' blurb) for years and never encountered any shortage of topics, but there's an itch nagging at the back of my mind insisting that if this blog is to go well, I need to get its engines chugging with something special. Over the course of however long I keep this going for, I intend to offer my visitors a cocktail of reviews and essays on interesting games or the state of the gaming industry (from an outsider's point of view, of course), perhaps seasoned with the occasional update on any interesting ideas my most recent gaming activities might be kicking up. Nothing especially original perhaps, but hopefully the quality will be high enough to keep all of you informed, educated and entertained (as the BBC is supposed to be doing, presumably in between repeats of Snog, Marry, Avoid and Can Fat Teens Hunt?).

Now that I have it, the subject I've chosen to write about first could not seem any more obvious. I'm a novelist, whose overwhelming joy in life is devising and telling stories. As gaming becomes an increasingly visible and mainstream avenue of entertainment, both the role and nature of storytelling in games are becoming increasingly important and debated topics. What can games' stories offer that no other medium can? Are those advantages necessarily required to offer gamers a worthwhile experience? Is gaming even ready to be considered a valid storytelling medium in the first place?

ESSAY #1: STORYTELLING OR STORYPLAYING?

The most oft-stated advantage that gaming holds over other media is interactivity. It is the only medium where the person experiencing the story holds power over the manner in which it is told. Gamers are effectively editors, choosing the pace at which they want the story to progress, as well as which parts they deem as key to the best experience (some gamers are explorers, seeking out every nook and cranny for hidden rewards, others are speed-runners, many just casually move through events with no great desire to either go quickly or do any great amount of exploring: the variations are innumerable). Where a film or a book presents an identity to its users with which they can identify or not, players themselves make up a vital part of a game's identity. Even if you're vegetating in front of the TV with one hand on the controller and the other ensconsed in an XL-packet of Doritos while swearing at the cat to stop swaying its bloody tail down in front of the screen, you are still an active part of the experience.

But the notion of interactivity is broad at best and has been interpreted in hundreds of different ways by developers. Some of these show signs of how gaming can progress as a viable storytelling medium. Others, I feel, may prove detrimental over the long-term to gaming's claim to be a valuable and respected cultural form.

The worst offender in this regard are those games which continously challenge each other for the title of 'most cinematic'. I'm sure you can already see the problem here. Games are not films - they never will be and never should be. Films are constructed in a way that evokes emotion and sensation in their viewers in ways which games will never be able to replicate. Gaming's greatest asset - interactivity - is here also its greatest limitation, in that pacing, shot selection and to a great extent even mise-en-scene (aka: the elements comprising a shot, for those understandably not versed in film terminology) are out of the designer/director's control and thus significantly reduced in power. Let's take an example that many will hate me for (and perhaps even, given my mostly Nintendo-centric gaming life, used as ammo for accusations of fanboyism) but which is particularly relevant to this topic: the PS3's Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.



Uncharted 2 is fun, there's no question of that. But it also exemplifies a disturbing trend whereby developers, in aiming for 'cinematic' qualities, misunderstand what it is that makes a good film tick, why those same qualities can't be transposed to a game without losing their value, and which unique aspects of the gaming medium can be used in order to evoke equally potent emotions. As with using any game as an example, there will be some spoilers ahead, but I'll keep them from as early on in the game as possible. The game opens with protagonist Nathan Drake awakening in a pool of his own blood, in a train dangling over a precipice. It should be tense and exciting, but somehow isn't. In a film, the audience would be watching on helplessly as the hero scrambled to make an escape in the nick of time. In Uncharted 2, the player assumes control of Drake. The natural assumption would be that this means the player instantly has a greater emotional investment in the character, but in fact quite the opposite is true. The player has two pieces of knowledge that the film viewer does not have: the first is that somewhere in the setting will be an obvious way out, in addition to the fact that since it is not in any way made explicit beforehand (aka there's no timer, or suggestion that 'This train won't last more than a minute!'), the train will either not fall until the player has reached a safe point or will give the player an inordinate amount of time to find the exit before doing so. The player also knows that, should a mistake be made, all it will take is a button press to reset the whole situation. A film viewer might be assured that a protagonist will survive, but there is no guarantee that the train will not fall early (forcing the hero to adapt to the situation or invoke a deus ex machina - his girlfriend happens to be taking mountain rescue lessons that day!), and knows that should the protagonist make a fatal mistake, he's never coming back. It adds that vital whisper of danger and tension that the Uncharted 2 player does not experience. In actuality, several of the moments when Uncharted 2 wishes the player to feel tension actually take place during cut-scenes where the player's interactivity is taken away (think of when Drake misses his jump from roof-to-roof during a museum infiltration, only for a guard to look up and miss Drake's dangling body by a fraction of a second when cock-er-ney companion Flynn hauls him to safety).

The key issue I have with Uncharted 2 is therefore that the developers failed to realise that in trying to replicate a film experience in the game, they have overlooked the fact that failure in any of the game's scripted scenarios does not yield any consequences. For Naughty Dog's many achievements in the game, it would have done them well to think of how the gamer experiences the game as an active part of the story, rather than just someone watching it and moving from points A to B. I'm not suggesting the game should be any less linear or go for a sandbox approach (which can be just as linear as any other game, albeit in a more roundabout way), but if players know they cannot die, they should at least be forced to react to their mistakes with the carrot of salvation dangling in front of them. Imagine that the player had not been able to pull Drake up in time to avoid the guard's gaze: certain paths might have been shut off, guards would have been attracted to Drake's position and he'd have a more difficult road to success ahead of him. Instead of sneaky infiltration, maybe he'd have to fight his way to the tower where the first Macguffin was waiting for him (incidentally, there's no reason the plot twist that occurs at that point couldn't happen anyway in that situation). If you give a player's actions consequences, they will become invested in the game because they are forced to interact with it on a deeper level than simply pushing a stick forward. They will feel as heroic as Drake, because it is their choices that are making Drake heroic, not those of some invisible designer. In the not-as-good-as-it-should've-been comedy Clockwise, John Cleese's character Brian, in his increasing panic at trying to reach a conference on time, utters to his companion in tardiness the immortal line: "It's not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand." Game designers should take note of this: just as Brian will force himself to keep going as long as there is some hope of achieving his goal, so too will gamers persist through difficulties if they still see some potential for salvaging the situation.

A player knows that death is not a threat, so don't try and evoke sensations by pretending that it is one. Make players think, react and interact, staying ahead of versatile and dynamic design, and you will achieve cinematic levels of tension using a method that can only be achieved via gaming storytelling. It is no coincidence that many games which have worked the storytelling into or around the player's unique relationship with death, such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ("Wait, that's not how it happened...") or Majora's Mask three-day structure, have been among the most evocative and celebrated of recent times. If gaming is to achieve cultural validity in its own right, it will have to learn narrative methods which work for it specifically rather than trying to emulate others (I doubt cinema would have survived had directors continued to provide little more than filmed theatre performances, as was the case during the medium's earliest years).



As for the stories themselves, I think there'd be little argument that this is a key area where the games industry needs to attract talent and fast. From my outsider's perspective, it seems that most people enter the games industry with ambitions to be designers or artists rather than writers (I've never seen an advertisement for games degrees or employment bulletins citing writing for the medium as an attraction or required speciality). An overwhelming focus on tech can only be detrimental to the future of the industry: if no-one is making any effort to attract people interested in specifically learning how to write for the medium, the only people who will end up doing so are those unqualified, unable to make their mark in another industry, or in it for the cash (returning to my first point). I do not think that storytelling is essential to making a great game (most of my gaming is done on Nintendo platforms and they have scarcely deviated from their 'save the princess' template in twenty-five years!) but while the industry maintains ambitions of creating narrative experiences that stand alongside those from other media, it will need to start bringing in people who are talented in writing to its unique strengths. Right now, it's hard to think of anyone from the top of my head beyond Suda Goichi, Warren Spector or Jonathan Blow who might qualify in this area (Peter Molyneux perhaps, but while he definitely makes experiences unique to the medium, let's just say that from what I've played, his games tend to be better for the less story he's put into them).

Gaming also needs to start presenting ideas of its own: BioShock is often celebrated, but doesn't offer any new arguments on Objectivism or develop the philosophy in any other way than restating its core ideals and making unsubtle references to its creator. When gaming does offer ideas of its own, they are usually about the gaming experience itself. While there's nothing wrong with this, it limits the game's intellectual wealth entirely to those within its boundaries: a non-gamer would not get anything out of the ironic writing in any of the Paper Mario games, for example. Videogames are as capable as any medium of expressing fascinating and distinctive arguments on the world beyond its players' drawing rooms: Killer7 is as magnificently constructed an abstract treatise on the futile complexity of East/West politics as there has ever been, while Braid's ambiguous ending evokes the same reflections and interpretations from those experiencing it as any truly excellent feat of writing does.

Gaming as a storytelling medium is capable of great things, but as with any nascent medium, needs to come to terms with its own identity and develop its own language through which it can communicate and draw strong emotional responses from its users. There have already been many fine examples of great games telling stories in ways that only an interactive medium can, but a great amount of effort needs to be made across the industry to find and train the people capable of making this the norm, rather than one-off successes.

I hope you've enjoyed reading this and know that any counter-arguments or comments you might have are welcomed and looked forward to. I'll be waiting for them with a grin as wide as the truth.
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About Xander Markhamone of us since 3:08 PM on 02.07.2010

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I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.

In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?

My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.

I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!

Good gaming, everyone!