Friday, November 23, 2012

"Look, behind you! A Three Headed Monkey!"

By Russel D McLean

I love a good story.

 I love to feel involved.

I don’t care about the medium.

Which is why I’m not going to talk books or movies or even comics this week, but I’m going to talk about computer games.

I’m not a hardcore gamer. I have an xbox live account I rarely use. I don’t care much for multiplayer because my skills are laughable. But I like a good game, although it should be noted if the difficulty curve is too steep or I wind up not caring I will just put them down. I don’t play to become a crack shot or to admore the technical capabilities. I play for a more simple reason.

But first, some background: I grew up on the Spectrum computer and would waste hours of my life playing Manic Miner, Dan Dare (one of the most under-rated sideways scrollers of all time) and, yes, the Batman (1989) movie game replete with ludicrous car driving and puzzle solving sections.

 And then I got a PC. And for a while I played Captain Keene and messed with Sim City. All of these games had basic storylines – here’s who you play, here’s their objective – but beyond occasionally looking nice (I did like Keene’s graphics and the evil bouncing balls) they were not much cop in terms of story. You shot things. You jumped around. Or in the case of sim city you occasionally got really bored and sent in a hurricane or alien invasion to liven things up.

But I soon discovered THE SECRET OF MONKEY ISLAND. And the jokes were great. And it was only at the end I realised the gameplay was not really that great. You merely chose the right response from a limited number of them and progressed through the story. The story. “I am Guybrush Threepwood. Mighty Pirate.” Guybrush had a personality (a dorky one). A quest. A path to follow. And a supporting cast. I played because I wanted to know this: What happened next? Does Guyrbush win Elaine’s heart? Does he ever become a mighty pirate? And is that really the second biggest monkey head he’s ever seen? I devoured the game. And its sequel. (and later its threequel). Why? Because the characters were fun (I still love Murray the Demonic skull from #3: “I will roll through the gates of hell…”) and because it was telling a story I cared about. Beyond solving puzzles, I wanted to know what happened next. (We’ll not talk about #4, by the way, which had about three good jokes and rubbish graphics - - the design was always an appeal with the MI games. Luckily Telltale games have recently resurrected the series with a rather successful instalment that also saw the return of Murray!)

 From there, I devoured Sam and Max Hit The Road* (again, Sam and Max were recently resurrected brilliantly by Telltale) and the excellent Grim Fandango. All of these adventure told stories. Stories with beginnings, middles, ends and some sense of character. It was an added bonus that you got to influence them. Of course, back then, there was no voice acting. Merely words on a screen and cheap animation. But it was worth it.

 I’m thinking about these old games because I’ve been letting off steam with some new games lately. I’ve found that First Person Shooters don’t really grab me (CoD: Modern Warfare was fun and then the difficulty level spiked and the story was absolute bollocks when you examined it; it really was aimed at the hardcore FPS geeks) and that the GTA games give you too much freedom. I spend so much time on the side missions that keep insisting on being important that I lose track of the story and stop caring. Especially because the characters are fairly one dimensional anyway. In fact I was getting bored with games again.

And then I played Max Payne 3. The story itself – a washed up ex-cop takes a job as a bodyguard in San Paulo, winds up investigating corruption and killing a lot of bad guys – is nothing new especially for a noir guy like me. But the gameplay was in service to the story. You felt like you were in the middle of Tony Scott’s MAN ON FIRE. Your character were drunk and on painkillers, blowing away bad guys like a machine and knowing that he has no choice in this because this is the only thing he knows how to do. There were attempts at pathos (not great ones, but they were there) and thank God there was some decent voice acting to sell you on the game’s reality. I played through it because I wanted to know What Happens Next. LA Noire did much the same, with a great script that somehow enlivened what should have been very dull gameplay (although it did commit a near unforgiveable narrative error near the end with a jarring POV twist that almost took me completely out of the game)

Two of the best Batman stories I’ve encountered recently were not in comics. They were: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, games I completed because the stories intrigued and delighted me. And by God, Mark Hamill is the second best Joker on screen*. These games had form, substance and sense of involvement that is unique to video games. They had rising action. They had character development, of a sort, and they really sucked me in. Giving me just enough of a feeling of freedom to think I was making a choice, but not offering me so much that I got bored.

But of course this isn’t always the case. GEARS OF WAR 2 promised “an epic story of betrayal and redemption”, and ultimately delivered a cheesefest of immense and sometimes laughable proportions. But, like a good action movie, I stayed for the insanely fun set pieces and ignored the often terrible script and the fantastically flat voice acting. And yes, while I’m currently enjoying the Stephen King indebeted Alan Wake, for a game with a lead character who’s supposed to be a writer, wow that dialogue’s fantastically cliché (and lets not start on the fragments of his novel scattered around the place) - - but its enough to keep me asking, “what happens next?” because that level of interactivity is what lifts games above the clichéd scripts, and explains why so few of them work when transferred to other mediums (Res Evil movies are the worst offenders, but also the Silent Hill films are so ludicrously pedestrian when I used to have to play the games only in the daylight hours I was so scared by them)

Computer games are evolving. They have the potential to tell intriguing stories on a cinematic level, although right now the scripting tends to be somewhere in the level of TV productions in the early nineties; showing sparks of potential but all too often treating the viewer/player with a certain amount of disdain as though they’re worried about people paying attention to what’s happening on screen and have to spell it all out.

But I think a Wire moment is coming. I think that slowly, games are becoming a legitimate and new form of storytelling. But developers have to balance between gameplay, challenge (I’d rather know what happens next than keep dying or failing at a task - - CoD, I’m looking at you) and script. They have to move away from cliché and into something new. They have to appeal to people looking for a good story and bear in mind those who, like me, may not be that interested in the challenge of shooting things and may be looking more to get into the story and the characters, to become part of the world and the narrative unfolding before them.

Will computers games have their Wire moment?

God only knows. But I look forward to finding out**

*The first of course being the masterful performance from the late Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT

**but never at the expense of spending time with The Literary Critic, of course.***

***I am not contractually or otherwise obligated to say that but just thought I'd throw it out there,

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