Friday, 6 March 2009

Tomb Raider: Underworld and narrative games...

I'll keep this brief - I'm supposed to be reading a script on this lunch break.

So last night Andrea and I completed Tomb Raider: Underworld on the PS2. Note the PS2 bit - what I'm about to talk about may well be different on other, more-advanced platforms. If so, please let me know.

I like games with stories. When they have good stories I think they can be more involving and even have more emotional depth than films or books - a huge generalisation, but the important word is 'when'. Most of the time the stories are rubbish. They usually just steal ideas from films (although as Andrew pointed out on the radio show the other night, The International marks perhaps the first occasion of a film stealing a set-piece directly from a game) and they very rarely make use of the immersive level of story-telling that direct audience interaction provides. Here are a couple of good examples of what I mean before I get onto the bad one.

In Hitman: Contracts there's a mission where you have to get up to the high level of the building, pick up the sniper rifle that's been left there by your contact and take out a target standing in the window of the opposite building. But when you pick up the rifle to take the shot you realise it's empty. And the moment you realise this you notice about fifty guards entering the building from below - it's a set up. But there's no cut scene to tell you it's a set-up, no voice-over, no text on the screen. You realise this important story point yourself in the moment it happens and then you have to deal with it.

There's a similar moment in the second Splinter Cell game. You're being led around town by a double-agent who's helping you get past various guardposts. But when you get to your destination your superior calls and tells you to shoot her. He won't say why, just do it. And I did. And the level ends and you never find out why. Now it could be that if I hadn't done it and just waited around the contact then pulls a gun and shoots you instead - I've never gone back to find out (the game as a whole wasn't that great really - the first one is better). But for one moment I understood what that character had to live with every day - the consequences of blindly following orders without question.

So those are old examples, but to me they represent what can be great about narrative story-telling in games. Anyway, Tomb Raider: Underworld did not do that. Instead it did the classic game thing of having three big story points. So you get a big chunk of story at the beginning, then you play through some levels, then another chunk of story, then finally at the end it seems like all you get is story. But these are cut-scenes - essentially short pieces of film in which the player has no control and just watches the character do stuff without their input. So basically you're watching a film (that to be honest isn't that well written to begin with) in which every now and again you get to make the character run around a bit.

A few years ago I was at a digital media conference where someone from a games company was talking about how game companies were starting to employ more and more people from the film industry - designers and special effects people and so on. And I'm sure they get proper writers too. But in a way that's the problem - writing a game shouldn't be like writing a film. It needs an understanding of the full potential of the medium and the sooner we get writers on games who understand that the sooner we can start thinking of games as an art form rather than distractions.

Oops, there goes my lunch break.


Christopher said...

I only real care about the story when I don't have to watch it. I almost always skip cut scenes. I did not buy the video game to watch a movie (there are exceptions but they are few).

Now if you can weave the story into the game just by playing the game, then it adds to the experience.

A good example of this is Bioshock which has no cut scenes (or almost none). The story just unfolds.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Christopher, and especially get annoyed when you can't skip the scenes, especially in some recently quite boring RPGs which think because they are beautiful the can skimp on the story. I am however liking the games where you can manipulate the hyper-narrative to a far greater degree than beofre, giving you a sense of sandbox, when actually there is very little freedom to do anything but unfurl the tale. Ages ago "Final Fantasy VII" did this (the others didn't so much) and recently "Knights of the old republic" had a stab and "Mass effect" almost got it right. But then this strays into my realm of interest where games are theatrical and not cinematic, and the audience are willing participants or co-producers of the story.

Chris Regan said...

I think opening scenes are important to set the tone, and end sequences are good to tie things up and make you feel like you've achieved something, but yeah, mostly cutscenes are just boring and a lazy way to tell the story. I rarely skip them though - I think I'm probably a bit different from most people as I do tend to play games for the story over the gameplay. Which is why I'm quite often disappointed. Sometimes, especially with older games, I think you could have a terrible game with an ace story - Realms of the Haunting had hours and hours of cut scenes in what was essentially a Doom rip-off, but the story kept me interested in the game.