Just under a year ago I wrote my first article for The Escapist, bemoaning the state of story, character and dialogue in gaming, elements almost invariably relegated to the nether regions of planning, somewhere between settling on the audio effects for blood squelching and deciding what hilarious nicknames to give the developers in the end credits.
As a flip-side commemoration to that piece, it's time to offer praise where praise is due. Here then, a little late for the Oscars, is a selection of categories and awards for story and character as arbitrary as Forrest Gump's defeat of Pulp Fiction in 1994. If you have better suggestions, let us know.
And the winners are ...
Best Character: Kazuma Kiryu (Ryu ga Gotoku/Yakuza - PS2)
The most nuanced, well-written and downright coolest character in gaming today, Kiryu makes a mockery of adolescent character sketches like Solid Snake or Master Chief.
This is a character with a violent past, realistic friendships and relationships, dictated and constrained by honor and obligations, and is voiced by someone who actually sounds human. He is something unexpected in gaming: a character that feels as real as one in a book or a movie.
And if that doesn't meet your definition of cool, he also gets drunk and passes out, has a seemingly infinite number of sexual puns to use on hostesses, glasses thugs on a daily basis and punches tigers in the face. What's not to like?
Best Concept: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (N64)
An oldie, but a relevant one in the wake of Twilight Princess. Zelda has never been about the story, a point hammered home by a trip down Virtual Console-sponsored memory lane. Even the seminal Link to the Past is introduced with a plot more at home on the back of a napkin than a produced videogame.
While Majora's Mask was no exception, it was nonetheless the kind of refreshing, brave jump for one of the world's biggest-selling franchises that, after the fan service that was Twilight Princess, may never be seen again.
Majora's time-traveling structure was unusual and confusing, and its tacked-on save system threw off even those who loved Ocarina of Time. But those who stuck with it were rewarded with one of those very rare games that realized gaming's storytelling potential.
Whereas the plots of most other games could easily be taken from any fanfic nonsense, Majora's brain-bending jaunt back and forth through the same three days is the type of thing that just can't be done in any other form of media. And the sense of impending doom, the sadness that tinges the game from beginning to end, the fact everyone dies several times during the game and the sheer trippiness from beginning to psychedelic end make this the best story concept in gaming in the past 10 years.
Sure enough, Nintendo's bravery was rewarded with sales less than half of Ocarina's. Just like Psychonauts and Clover Studios, in the gaming world no original deed goes unpunished.
Virtual Console version now, please.
Best Story: Eternal Darkness (Gamecube)
A true case of a captivating story overcoming gameplay flaws, Eternal Darkness's plodding combat and magic systems were old, even when it was released, but the chilling Lovecraftian storyline will haunt you for years.
As with Majora's Mask, Silicon Knights realizes that games are not held to the same story laws as TV and movies. When everything is virtual it's not considerably more difficult to have a storyline that spans 2,000 years than to have one that apes the latest action blockbuster. And that's exactly what Eternal Darkness offers, opening in ancient Rome moving through medieval times, WWI and the present. Yes, the story is ripped shamelessly from the pages of H.P. Lovecraft, but if you're going to be derivative, you might as well rip off the best.
Best Adapted Screen(game)play: Okami (PS2)
Despite being beautiful enough to make not just real men, but Jack Bauer-level real men weep, Okami was just that little bit disappointing - perhaps because its gameplay could never hope to match its looks.
Okami ingeniously throws together Japanese religious myths and fairy tales, a little like what Shrek might have been if it included some Biblical myth. The more you know about the inspiration behind the games character's and events, the more fun it is, leading one to suspect that for a Japanese gamer, Okami is very fun indeed.
From the use of Amaterasu herself, the sun goddess progenitor of the Japanese royal family, to casting Issun Boshi, a Japanese equivalent of Tom Thumb, as the game's Jiminy Cricket character, to using the Japanese Imperial Regalia as weaponry, Okami wonderfully lumps together millennia of stories to create a game world far deeper than most. For the interested, there's an excellent roundup of the myths and stories used here.
Ironically, Okami was better received in North America than it did in Japan, where it sold about five copies. There may be a pattern forming here.
Best Dialogue/Voice Acting: Ryu ga Gotoku (PS2)
Problem: Most games have badly-written dialogue that sounds unconvincing when recorded.
Solution: Get a famous professional writer to write the dialogue, then have some well-known actors record it.
Ryu ga Gotoku did it. Why can't anyone else?
Best Comedy: Red Steel (Wii)
There is some debate over whether Red Steel's dialogue is the result of some ludicrously poor writing or intentional B-movie comedic brilliance. It matters little - it's hilarious either way.
Red Steel's basic premise is actually quite interesting. In a world of ultra-tough space marines it's nice to see an "average guy" be the hero, but when it's obviously been written by French developers who know little about America and even less about Japan, it doesn't hang together at all.
Thus Red Steel is a constant stream of belly-laughs: the senseless enemy shouts of "murderer"; the Japanese translations, in which yakuza might as well be saying, "I am certainly to give you the shooting of a lifetime, my dear fellow"; the cut scenes that actually appear to have been made with cut-out construction paper. Rushed? Certainly. And sometimes we're glad they didn't wait.
When the Music Plays, Get off the Stage
And there you have it, folks: a few games that broke the mold and gave us stories worth remembering. While they may not be Shawshank, they're definitely a step in the right direction, assuming they start selling better. We can only hope.