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Game Stories Demand Focus

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 16 Aug 2011 16:00
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Several metric yonks ago I devoted this column to a brief glossary of elitist asshole game critic buzzwords, and one of those was "focused." Meaning a game that concentrates on making a few things spectacular rather than splash out all over the place and make a big mess. This can apply to both gameplay mechanics and story. Halo has simple gameplay mechanics and a big massive epic story that I could give a shit about, whereas a game like System Shock has overly complicated gameplay with a tight and interesting story.

After playing The Bastion and realizing how much I'd enjoyed the story aspect, it occurred to me that virtually every game I consider well-written demonstrates good focus in the story department. The running theme seems to be that they concentrate on a small group of characters with intriguing personalities and motivations, all mutually connected to the central plot. Silent Hill 2: James Sunderland only encounters four other characters in his journey, all of whom reflect a facet of the darkness inside him. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time: the Prince's actions result in the deaths of everyone except himself, Farah, and the scheming vizier, all of whom desire the Dagger of Time and have their own ideas of how to fix everything. This tight focus allows the game to establish its characters without having to fall upon obvious tropes like "because he's the bad guy." Even the evil vizier's desire for immortality is shown to be motivated by his constant coughing up blood.

Conversely, games that attempt to have huge sweeping epic stories about multiple factions fighting for the future of all lifekind tend to fall kind of flat for me. Often they fall victim to the George Lucas fallacy that sheer spectacle is an adequate replacement for interesting characters. I don't care if your wisecracking action hero must overcome a speeding train full of angry bears by doing a triple backward sommersault while firing rockets - none of it is an ounce as interesting as a character overcoming their own flaws, and when I say "flaw", I mean a flaw that actually gets in the way of their effectiveness, not a flaw like "does not respect authority" or "has gung-ho tendency to run back into danger to rescue allies" or "can barely see over his own pectoral muscles."

I guess the problem with games, one I've mentioned before, is that it's hard to make a character flawed when gameplay necessarily depends on them succeeding at every turn. On the other hand, player-protagonist disconnect can make overcoming flaws all the more interesting. Lately I've been contemplating the notion of a main character with a phobia that's worked into gameplay - e.g. a hydrophobic character who slows to a crawl and loses all stamina when they move through or near water. In that case the player would be all the more invested in helping the character overcome their fear, since it impacts the player's fun, and any later misfortune the character undergoes would invoke the player's sympathies all the more since the two of them have had to work hard together to get to that point.

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