Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Da Art of Storytellin' (pt. 2)

The video game cutscene has a way of inspiring puritanism in games critics. Like its bastard cousin, the quick-time event, the cinematic interlude is a convenient shortcut for the designer to make the player feel like something is happening without having her do anything. And spending some time with Metal Gear Solid 4, which is barely a game, is liable to turn even the most tolerant gamer into a fanatic on the cutscene issue. Even the industry-standard letterboxing of a cutscene broadcasts the fact that the device is a maladroit shoehorning of an inherently passive technique, drawn from cinema, into a medium whose defining quality is interactivity.

In their defense, It's devilishly difficult to exposit anything of narrative significance while giving the reins over to the player. Even if you assume that the player is interested in a game's narrative elements, you must also assume that the average player of a video game is a creature of the Internet age, and that she lacks the ability to voluntarily direct their attention towards any event for a span of more than a few nanoseconds before she is overcome by the desire to interact with something else. (When you listen to the developer commentary for Half-Life 2, one is struck by the all the subtle artifice required to funnel the player's attention towards the significant narrative elements.) And in most cases, the problem is not one of execution: as Michael Abbott recently wrote in reference to Yakuza 2, almost no-one is really offended by a well-scripted and well-acted cinematic interlude. As the Grand Theft Auto series consistently shows, simple competence in the areas of dialogue and voice acting has a way of making matters of principle seem petty.

And yet when you play a game that manages to craft a satisfying narrative without relying on cutscenes, it's impossible to acquit yourself of the feeling that storytelling in games is at its best when it turns it back on cinematic convention and embraces the techniques that are most appropriate to the medium. I've been playing Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time over the last few weeks, and making my way through that game has served as a perfect illustration of how to tell a story in a game. Much like Ico or Half-Life 2, it's the kind of game that makes you say to yourself: “Oh, so this is how things are to be done.” Now, to be upfront, Sands of Time has a longish cutscene or three in it. While they're competently done they're rendered in a different graphical engine from the rest of the game, which makes them especially jarring despite their graphical superiority.

But the real lesson to be drawn from Prince of Persia resides in the wealth of different techniques the developers draw upon in order to convey a story without breaking up the action. One central conceit is that the prince is retelling the events depicted in the game to the player as she plays them, and this overdubbed commentary is a smart device. In other scenes, the prince talks to himself in the present tense about the events that have just occurred, speculating about the developing relationship between himself and the princess; in others the verbal sparring between the prince and princess transpires in the midst of the action. This sparring is consistently entertaining, especially since some of the funnier bits are clever nods to the artificial devices in the game's design, like the omnipresent slim cracks-in-the-wall that offer paths to the princess. Like the retrospective narration, it has a way of making the player feel like she and the protagonists are in on the joke together, and these fourth-wall-breaking moments in the swashbuckling repartee have a way of absolving the game of its numerous design tics.

The effect of the narration is kind of like the audio guided-tours you get at art museums, and I think this approach is an excellent way of filling in the narrative without taking the player out of the experience; it has a way of enriching the environment you explore without getting in the way of the environment itself. (Come to think of it, the audio fragments in Bioshock are almost guided tours to the doomed city of Rapture. You probably have to return that audio recorder at the exit.)

In addition, it seems to me that Ubisoft Montreal has learned the basic lesson grasped by the producers of every MTV dating show: if you contrive for the romantic interests to collaborate in some kind of activity, no matter how arbitrary or absurd, the romantic connection will seem plausible. Much like dating in real life, the mere act of being engaged in some activity together does ninety percent of job-- it provides fodder for conversation (like the protagonists' repartee) and a sense of shared purpose. Making female non-player-characters useful to the player is a device that has been so often used in games over the last few years now that it almost feels manipulative (there's something almost pavlovian about your relationship to Alyx in Half-Life 2), but in general the moments of shared danger and mutual triumph are key elements of the storytelling in Prince of Persia, and they are noteworthy examples of how you depict emotionally significant relationships through play mechanics.

Games, as a narrative medium, are still finding their way. Sometimes I'm convinced that it's only the hardcore who care about story anyway, and as games become a truly mass medium it seems we're witnessing a movement towards a gaming culture in which story is less and less relevant (Exhibit A: the Nintendo Wii). But I still hold out this hope that designers will continue to take the path taken by Sands of Time, and continue to invent ways of making the things we do with our hands seem like they are the significant doings of human beings.

P.S. Don't sleep on the embedded video; it's the best video from the best song on the best hip-hop album of all time, Aquemini. If you still need convincing, there is a puppet version of Slick Rick.


Nels Anderson said...

One of my favourite parts of Sands of Time is the relationship between the Prince and Farah. Unlike so many game protagonists, the Prince isn't a taciturn "badass" or an "edgy" wise-cracking teen. Similarly, Farah isn't a helpless bimbo or an icy femi-ninja.

As you said, their winking at the camera is absolutely fantastic and it's great to see games that can have fun without taking themselves so seriously. It even works within the framework of the game's narrative- if the Prince really is retelling the story, he's the kind of guy that would spice it up and make the tale even more amusing, dramatic and exciting.

The Prince got a lot more emo in Warrior Within and while they tried to replicate the same character dynamics, it didn't even come close. I'm sure you're aware, but don't waste your time on Warrior Within. *shudder*

Anonymous said...

Any reason you use the pronoun "she" instead of the colloquial "he" or even "s/he"?

If I didn't already know you were a PhD student, I would have assumed you were in academia for this reason alone, hehe.

Brian O'Blivion said...

I'm sorry, Pliskin, but the best hip-hop album of all time is Gangstarr's "Hard To Earn," hands down.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@nelsormench: I totally need to write an article on the virgin/whore complex in videogames, the helpless bimbo/icy femininja complex.

Based on what you and others have told me, I'm going to steer clear of the middle installment of the current PoP trilogy. I've heard Rival Swords is good, but I think i'm gonna hold out and try out that new game that's coming out this november. That shit looks hot.

@anon: I don't go for writing "womyn" instead of "women" stuff, or steering clear of the use of "man" to refer to humankind. So in my own bid to balance out millenia of gender oppression I use "she" after an indefinite antecedent. Besides, writing "s/he" is totally awkward.

@dr. toaster: I must differ. "hard to earn" isn't even the best Gang Starr album, it's "Moment of Truth." And with all due respect to Mr. Guru, there's no chance that any album with *him* on the mic is going to be the best of all time.

Manveer Heir said...

Wait a second... Aquemini isn't even the best OutKast album!

Everyone knows ATLiens is. Wheelz of Steel. 2 Dope Boyz. Come on!

I do love Aquemini however.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@manveer: I'll admit it's a close race because there are three really great Outkast albums. (you didn't even mention Elevators, my favorite ATLiens song) But I feel like Aquemini is the most consistent album, it's wall-to-wall brilliant; ATLiens kind of drags in the middle.

Anonymous said...

the prince talks to himself in the present tense about the events that have just occurred

One of the things I love most about this game (and I hope this isn't a spoiler) is how the game justifies this at the end; the mechanics of the game become completely inextricable from its narrative, and there's a beautifully deft flourish at the end to wrap it all up; the re-use of the running-feet from the first cutscene, and the understanding of when that cutscene takes place, is a real "aha" moment.

Jordan Mechner's article on writing Sands of Time, and the challenges of writing for games, is now available online. I don't always agree with him in it - mainly his "survival horror" comment - but he's a sharp guy, and when it comes to writing, his heart is in the right place.