Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Game Stories Demand Focus

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 16 Aug 2011 16:00
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But I digress. It's a particular sign of bad writing if the plot has to rely solely upon averting the destruction of the Earth or the entire human race - in other words, causes that a human audience that lives on Earth can automatically support. It just shows that the writer doesn't have the ability to create a character sympathetic in themselves that we want to root for. This is the reason that I find a lot of the new Doctor Who hard to watch, because all the big amazing epic episodes just seem to be about the Doctor having to save the whole planet. And the more times you fall back on that, the less weight it carries. After a character has saved the universe five times it's hard to feel that they're genuinely threatened by a dustbin with a gun.

This doesn't mean you can't have big grand apocalyptic elements, as is demonstrated by The Bastion. Superficially, the story is about a mysterious Calamity that reduces the world to rubble, leaving the last few survivors to scrape together some hope for the future of society. Now these are big themes on a big scale, but it's all going on in the background. Front and centre are the four main characters and the struggles they have with each other. Importantly, the major events (and retroactively some of the ones that led up to the disaster in the first place) are all rooted in the decisions of characters based on their agendas and personalities, not left up to faceless organizations or circumstance. Better that a character decide to go into the basement in pursuit of his goals than for the ground to simply crumble beneath his feet.

More relevantly for the interactive storytelling, The Bastion gratifyingly does all this largely within gameplay, not relying on cutscenes (except one or two little ones). Mostly this is done through the sexy (and possibly unreliable) narration, but there's an entirely dialogue-free sequence near the end that stays with me in particular. For reasons I won't spoil, the hero makes a sacrificial gesture that means he has to move slowly through enemy territory without the ability to attack or defend. All you can do is neck health potions as rank upon rank of enemies pour projectiles into you.

But after a while, they stop firing, one after another. They just watch you. As you make the final slow, painful steps to the exit, a horde of enemies watch from the higher ground, weapons still aimed and poised to fire. At one point, one of the enemies gives into tension and starts firing at you again, but he's slapped down by his leader, and the rest of the army watches as you leave unmolested, silent in appreciation for a selfless act of nobility.

What needs to be taken away from this is that it's all done within gameplay, never subtracting direct control of your movements and health potions. The enemy leader slaps down his twitchy underling with the same melee attack he'd have used on you in the field of battle. This, good listeners, is interactive narrative. A thousand words of story told in a few select gestures, backed by all the context of everything that's come before it, and trusting you to notice it without going to cutscene or taking away camera controls. It's all rather humbling, really.

Oh yeah, I reviewed From Dust too. Erm. Hey, dropping rocks on people is keen.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.

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