“The true test of a game’s narrative is whether I’m willing to go grab a new beer while a cut scene is going on.”—me, on Twitter, being snarky.
I’m joking—mostly. I’ve just finished Crytek’s Crysis 2, a game supposedly taking narrative seriously enough to hire a screenwriter. I have little knowledge of Crysis beyond aliens and a magical suit, myself a Mac-bound computer user. Plus, with Crysis 2 debuting on consoles, I expected a decent summary.
Er, nope. Still, I’ve heard Crysis’ story was hardly water cooler worthy, but as someone who will play or watch anything with an alien (Independence Day is, no joke, one of my favorite movies—everever), Crysis didn’t have to do much to keep my attention; it only had to, at least, explain itself a tiny bit.
I knew something was afoot when a seemingly critical cut-scene (non-spoiler: meeting Gould) appeared, which propmpted me to lay the controller down and have a sip of beer. “Drats, ” I said. “Empty.” Instead of waiting for the cut-scene to finish out, I moved up from my seat and headed to the fridge for another beer. And then it stuck me: I’ve stopped giving a shit about what’s happening, huh.
Crysis 2 explicitly told me I should stop caring when it slapped “press A to enter game” seconds after starting the campaign. And the prompt never disappears. Homefront was similarly offensive, yet I’m supposed to believe these games are taking their storytelling seriously? And that’s without laughing at the concept of cut-scenes to begin with.
I’ll forgive Crysis 2 on some level, as the “cut-scenes” are basically maps with voice overs, allowing the game to load in the background. That’s not clear at the start of the game, however. “Press A to enter game” rather bluntly suggests the part of the experience I should care about does not exist there.
And even though this has nothing to do with the “beer test,” I’m going to groan anyway: please stop putting important story elements in collectables. I don’t give a shit about achievements or trophies or gamer points, but I do care about understanding the world around me. There’s an important layer of plot to Crysis 2 (is that where the screenwriter’s work went?) that I wasn’t aware of until after the game was over. They were hidden in collectible emails, things I found a handful of times by accident. Man.
(You know what I’m talking about, Resistance 2.)
What’s worse, the “beer test” is easy to pass, especially since most cut-cenes are pauseable now. The more dramatic application is the “pee test,” in which a game/movie/book grips you enough to put off doing the most essential of bodily tasks, seeking just a few more moments in the narrative’s world.
That’s a whole ‘nother story, though.
Locke: You saw the film, Jack. This is a… this is a two person job, at least.
Sayid: This argument is irrelevant.
Jack: Sayid, don’t.
Jack: Don’t. It’s not real. Look, you want to push the button, you do it yourself.
Locke: If it’s not real, then what are you doing here, Jack? Why did you come back? Why do you find it so hard to believe?
Jack: Why do you find it so easy?
Locke: It’s never been easy!
Kate: Maybe you should just do it.
Jack: No…It’s a button.
The Internet had a meltdown last night, following the evening launch of Sword & Sorcery EP for iPad. The Superbrothers and Capybara Games pixelated adventure includes a novel implementation of Twitter, one which the developers claim was intended to encourage player collaboration. Whenever a piece of dialogue appears, all of which are under written within 140 characters, you can share it with the world, complete with #sworcery hashtag. Within moments, everyone was #sworcerying, resulting in Twitter timelines filled with the game’s wittiest bits (“Bark!”) shared over and over and over again.
If you didn’t know what Sword & Sworcery was—heck, even if you did—the resulting flood could have been annoying. Cynically, though understandingly, the criticism quickly turned towards the game itself, figuring Sword & Sorcery had been crafted with an auto-Tweet function, ala Uncharted 2, wherein the game would send a short message to your Twitter friends after simply completing a chapter. That’s not the case, and I couldn’t help but laugh a bit at the folks, many of them good friends, getting upset.
The developers have only said the Twitter functionality in Sword & Sorcery was an “experiment.” I can’t assume the goals of the developer, but the resulting action did two things: create awareness for the game using content within the game itself (writing) and simultaneously expose a double standard about sharing that’s typically blasted against social networking driven games like Zynga’s FarmVille.
Consider the title of this blog, Push The Button. It holds meaning for what’s happened here. You do not have to share anything in Sword & Sorcery. It’s entirely driven by players. So far, I’ve opted to not share anything I’ve encountered, even though my Twitter account’s configured. Every few seconds, however, you are given the opportunity; the “tweet” button appears, taunting you. It only takes a single press and, voila, you’ve shared a humorous quip with the world. You’re not forced to see its impact on your Twitter feed; it just disappears into the virtual void. But it exposes an important relationship between designer and player and, also, game and player. Sword & Sorcery manipulated a bunch of players who more than likely would tell you they eye-roll at FarmVille players on Facebook.
The reason I laughed at anyone upset over the #sworcery phenomenon was because they had no one to blame but their own friends for falling prey to one of gaming’s most fundamental mechanics: push the button. We all want to push the button; pushing buttons, at least until the last few years, has been our foundation of interaction. In this case, the temptation to push becomes exponentially more taunting; Sword & Sorcery exists on a touchable device. You’re supposed to push! Push! Push! Why wouldn’t you want to press it…you know, at least once?
When it comes to pushing buttons, players don’t have much will power. It’s understandable; we’ve been wired that way and Sword & Sorcery decided to play us like a fiddle. Well done, puppet masters.
I’ve had the pleasure of attending the Game Developers Conference for several years now, free of charge. Almost everyone else forks over hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars for the same privilege. And it’s exactly that: a privilege, one that I’ve come to realize I’ve been misusing, to my own detriment, because of the wrong priorities—albeit ones that have been largely out of my control (which I’ll get to in just a minute). GDC 2011 was the first GDC where I embraced what I should be: a student.
For five days, I sat, listened, took notes, and tried to let everything sink in. You shouldn’t have to be a respected game designer to talk or criticize videogames, but you should understand how they work and the processes behind their creation. The tension between games writers and developers has more to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of each side’s job, one that each could stand to learn more about. Many (most) developers are not given much access to the press, but GDC provides an excellent venue for the opposite. For reasons I think are entirely reasonable, that doesn’t much happen.
There was a meme going around GDC this year called the “no badge club,” in which several fellow colleagues reported not having enough time to even pick up their badge for GDC. Rather, they were swamped with appointments to check out games and publisher events surrounding GDC itself. There were enough games, from Batman: Arkham City to Battlefield 3, that you could avoid GDC entirely.
The problem? You can’t blame them. The games are around, other websites will be covering them, and not seeing them out means missing out on potential hits. Well, that and gamers probably want to hear more about what new villains are coming to Arkham City than moral reflections on social games. Of course, if you never expose readers to those ideas, they can’t demand what they don’t know is there.
What I’m saying is that it’s all very sad; a missed opportunity. I don’t know if there will be another GDC where I’m able to indulge nearly as much this year, but I hope so, I truly hope so, because I absorbed more over those five days, knowledge that is directly applicable to my understanding, writing and reporting about videogames, than I’ll ever get from the next year of publisher-driven press events.
2010 was a good year for well-designed games, though I have to admit that very few experiences embedded into my subconscious (like Flower did) after the credits. That’s a blog for later, but I wanted to share my second annual documentation of games I played and finished throughout the last year.
All told, the list includes 71 games.
Holy shit. 71 games.
There are a few caveats, of course.
- I’ve included some tiny, short (usually Flash) games in the mix.
- There’s no way to really “beat” Rock Band 3, only to play a ton of it.
- Downloadable content gets counted as a separate experience.
As for the list, here goes:
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
New Super Mario Bros. Wii
Every Day The Same Dream
No More Heroes 2
Mass Effect 2
Heavy Rain One
God of War II
The Misadventures of P.J. Winterbottom
God of War III
Beneath a Steel Sky (iPhone)
Just Cause 2
3D Dot Game Heroes
Mirror’s Edge (iPad)
Splinter Cell: Conviction
Sam & Max: Episode 1: The Penal Zone
Super Mario Galaxy 2
Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
Green Day: Rock Band
Red Dead Redemption
Sin & Punishment: Star Successor
The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Special Edition
Transformers: War For Cybertron
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game
Metroid: Other M
Dead Rising: Case Zero
One Button Arthur
Far Cry 2
Rock Band 3
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions
Walk to Die
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Medal of Honor
Super Meat Boy
Call of Duty: Black Ops
Kirby’s Epic Yarn
Donkey Kong Country Returns
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
Disney Epic Mickey
Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
Costume Quest: Grubbins on Ice
BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den
Cut The Rope: Holiday Edition
Give Up Robot 2
People are quick to dismiss Dragon Quest because it’s so “generic” — never mind that it’s the series that defined console RPGs in the first place, making it “generic” in the same sense that Super Mario Bros. is just a “normal” platformer.
—With a dose of sarcasm and biting insight, Jeremy Parish makes me completely rethink my own assumptions about Dragon Quest.
Using a book analogy, if a book starts awesome, and then abruptly ends, the response isn’t “I only spent 4 hours reading it!”. It would be “the story wasn’t fully developed, and I felt it ended abruptly.” Similarly, if a book drags on, people don’t say “it was kind of boring, but at least it has a lot of pages in it, so it’s great value.” They say “it dragged on, and I got the message in the first half of the book.” Time spent reading just isn’t mentioned, and indeed, isn’t the point.
—Great quote from Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, a book anyone who cares for furthering videogame criticism should read.
BioShock 2 was by no means a bad game, but for long stretches of play—the middle, mainly—it was a very boring thing. There were forgettable environments with no lasting mark, characters whose presence felt mechanically contrived and slightly better combat rendered limp by repetitive Little Sister protection missions in pursuit of more Adam. And this comes from someone who, all told, enjoyed BioShock 2, a game whose narrative end held proper payoff. For Rapture fans, it’s worth playing.
It’s also worth buying—only $19.99 at GameStop, as of last week—for something even better: Minerva’s Den. It’s little surprise the downloadable content’s writer/designer, Steve Gaynor, was picked up by Irrational Games to work on BioShock: Infinite. Minerva’s Den captures the magic of Ken Levin’s original in a way the sequel didn’t, channeling the familiarity of Rapture’s iconic world to spin a tale that’s more emotionally charged than anything in BioShock 2. That’s less of a knock towards BioShock 2 than it’s a compliment to what’s been achieved in Minerva’s Den. It’s impossibly fantastic story grounded in an unreal world, and by the end, you’ve bought in, you’re invested—and touched.
I couldn’t help but start comparing Minerva’s Den to LOST. A broken, manipulative and downright magical paradise filled with wide variety of engorged egos jockeying for power over something they can hardly comprehend. There is a Chosen One, an individual that all others are watching with a close eye—and a knife in their back pocket. The comparison is even more paramount in Minerva’s Den, which may as well reflect a subterranean partnership between Andrew Ryan and the DHARMA corporation. Anyone who knows me can understand why Minerva’s Den would strike a chord.
BioShock’s twist stuck thanks to its simultaneous commentary on the nature of game design and how little say players actually have in the experience. You were shocked because Ryan—Levine—had been playing you like a fiddle all along. You felt betrayal, anger, and probably a pang of respect, too.
There is a twist to Minerva’s Den, one as grand and shocking as the one in BioShock, but one that doesn’t rely on the same parlor trick. Sure, you played a “character” in BioShock, but the story was ultimately the player’s own, altered by their interactions with the Little Sisters. The Little Sisters are present here, but simply as a gameplay mechanic. Minerva’s Den is the tragic story of one Milton Porter, mathematical genius. When the true nature of your mission in Minerva’s Den is revealed, the surprise meant so much more because I could step back and sympathize with the events I’d played a part in. The tragedy of Minerva’s Den is not yours, it is that of Milton Porter and The Thinker.
Something much more subtle is at work, too.
BioShock is a stressful game; Splicers and Big Daddies are always appearing, often from unseen shadows. But when Minerva’s Den transitions to its emotional payoff, the interface quietly disappears, a masterful nod to the player that it’s okay to move a little slower from now on, pull your sweaty fingers off the triggers and pay extra close attention to what’s hanging on this wall or laying on that desk.
I wish I’d played Minerva’s Den earlier. Take-Two should release the story and not require BioShock 2’s disc. Even gamers who consider BioShock 2 blasphemous should seek out Minerva’s Den. If there are no more tales from the murky and treacherous Rapture, Milton Porter’s provides closure.
(That said, I wouldn’t mind a series of Ratpure-set short stories like this. Would you?)
Phew. I sure played a bunch of games. How about you?
- Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
- Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions
- Freedom Bridge/Walk to Die
- Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
- Get Home
- Medal of Honor
- Super Meat Boy
- Costume Quest
- Kinect Adventures
- Kinect Sports
- Dance Central
- Call of Duty: Black Ops
- GoldenEye 007
- Kirby’s Epic Yarn
- Donkey Kong Country Returns
- The Incident
Here’s what some of you said.
“BioWare! Use Mass Effect as kind of a model, including dialogue trees, except speed up combat and make it more action-based.” —nickmichetti
“honestly its probably EA or an Activision studio.” —robkrekel
“If BioWare did this game, it would actually become real and we would live in a dream world for all eternity.” —dtraingames
“It won’t happen but I would LOVE to see Michel Ancel get his hands on Inception. He’d do it beautiful justice.” —StrikerObi
“Popcap or bust!” —_Thom_
“Given the WB connection and their shared experience with The Batman, Rocksteady seems an obvious choice for Nolan’s game.” —karobit
I’m with karobit. Rocksteady knows how to treat a license right, and while Batman: Arkham Asylum was sillier than Nolan’s interpreted universe, Arkham Asylum felt grounded. You bought into the world that Rocksteady built, which happens to be part of Nolan’s genius. He builds world, we peek inside.