Last Thursday afternoon I sat on a panel at the Merging Media conference here in Vancouver titled, "A Tale of Two Worlds: When Film/TV-Game Worlds Collide." Fellow panelists included the current narrative director for the Halo franchise (Armando Troisi); the script writer for Steven Spielberg's Big, Vague, Not-Boomblox Videogame Project from a couple years back (Adam Sigel); the writer for the Avatar and Lost videogame adaptations (John Meadows); a guy who is currently making an MMO based on the Family Guy series (Ian Verchere); and a woman from New York who specializes in something called "transmedia" (Caitlin Burns). "Transmedia" was only the second most overused buzzword at the conference. "Gamification" was the first.
Talking with these fine people got me thinking about the role that stories play in videogames these days. Though more energy, effort and money is being spent on professional writers, producers, and motion-capture/facial-capture technology than at any point in videogame history, the stories that games tell, or at least are attempting to tell, somehow seem to matter less all the time. Case in point: put a gun to my head and ask me to recount the plot points for the following three titles and here's what I would likely tell you:
Gears of War 3: I killed a bunch of guys, then more guys showed up. These new guys were glowing, and I killed them, too. Then Baird said something stupid. Then Marcus takes off his doo-rag and reveals that he is, in fact, not balding at all. Then he stares remorsefully out at the ocean, apparently reflecting on all the Regular Guys and Glowing Guys that he killed. THE END.
Battlefield 3: I went to some vague Middle Eastern country/hot zone and killed a bunch of bad guys, then I went someplace else. I flew in a jet, and there were some nuclear weapons involved at one point. I had a few side objectives now and then, but for the most part I shot at the people who were shooting at me and/or wearing ski masks--anyone wearing a ski mask must be killed on sight!--and I continued to shoot at them until they stopped shooting at me. THE END.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception: Nathan Drake and his elderly, cologne-wearing gentleman companion go on a globe-trotting adventure to find treasures, and along the way, villains show up, because they want the treasures, too. Then Chloe, the sexy one with the dark hair, blue eyes and man's voice from the last game, shows up, which makes the game interesting for awhile. But then she goes away, which is sad. Then that milquetoast Elena shows up. Goddamn it, Elena, go back to buying old issues of Good Housekeeping off eBay or whatever it is that you do when you're not starring in/ruining an Uncharted game. Then I ran away from the same skittering spider horde about 42 times. I shot a bunch of bad guys, and near the end some Special Bad Guys with fire instead of heads (!) show up, and I shot them too. THE END.
The narrative thread common to all three games is this: I shot a bunch of bad guys. Which, after fifty years, is somehow the one story that videogames can tell really, really well. In fact, someone should make a game titled, I Shot A Bunch of Bad Guys. That might move the needle a bit. Digression: I also would like someone to make games called Exploding Barrels (self-explanatory), Cutscene (nothing but cutscenes), and H.U.D. (the head's-up display is so intrusive that it occupies no less than 100-percent of the screen at all times). Because the only way that we're ever going to get past these crutches is by exploding them. Digression two: Exploding Crutches would be a terrific name for an iPhone game. Someone please make it.
A cutscene was once revered as a rare, hard-earned treat. It was the apple pie at the end of the steak dinner, served to gamers for putting in the time and for playing well. I remember sinking entire nights into Street Fighter II (SNES) in my tiny apartment in Chicago in the early '90's, all in the name of achieving the game's "perfect ending." (See it here, along with an incredibly tense final two rounds between Ryu and M. Bison.) In order to achieve this ending, one had to finish the game on level eight--the greatest level of them all--without losing a single round. No small task, I assure you. Yet I did it. My reward? A static group snapshot of the game's roster of characters peering out at me from my 19-inch TV screen. Sprawled across the screen was the word "CONGRATULATIONS" followed by an exclamation point, which appeared to have been typed out by a bleary-eyed programmer only seconds before the game shipped.
No doubt I shuddered with jizz-blowing joy when I finally saw this screen. I probably envisioned myself among that group of elite fighters, thinking, Yes, friends, we have waged many battles since Thursday, or perhaps Wednesday. But in the end, once a champion has emerged (me), after everything is said and done, we shall always respect one another as warriors....
It's funny to me now to remember a time when I would have worked so damn hard for a photo of a bunch of characters, a word, and a piece of punctuation.
But I did.
Not all that long ago--maybe two, three years ago--whenever I would trigger a cutscene in a game, I would put down the controller, sit back, and really soak it in. I would think, So that's what happened after I shot all those guys. I ran that way and exchanged lines of terrible/inane dialogue with a non-playable character. Ha, ha! I once chastised a fellow gamer after he confessed to being a chronic cutscene-skipper. "Without the story, without context, you're not doing anything other than pressing some buttons!" I said excitedly, waving my arms in his direction like a crazy person. He wasn't convinced.
Yet now, every cutscene in every game has somehow become little more than an opportunity for me to check email or scan Twitter. It's true. No matter how brief or pithy it is, no matter how many best-selling science fiction writers were hired to punch up the dialogue, or how cutting-edge the facial-capture technology is (Heavy Rain featured a record 7.6 different kinds of frowns), watching a cutscene almost always results in me waking up on my couch half an hour later feeling as if Dexter Morgan has chloroformed me. Even the cutscenes in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, which purports to be the ultimate realization of cinematic videogame experiences (remember these commercials?), seem to somehow matter less--far less--than the cutscenes did in Uncharted 2.
So what has changed over the last couple years? Why is it so damn easy for me to ignore this stuff?
Maybe I'm playing too many games these days. Which is a possibility, because right now I am consuming an almost inhuman amount of content each week. Or, maybe I'm simply tired of having my supposedly interactive experiences abruptly turned into one-way streets. Or, maybe it's the superfluous nature of cutscenes, i.e. watching Marcus Fenix stare out at the ocean matters less, or feels less purposeful, than shooting at the Glowing Guys. No matter what it is, relying on cutscenes to do the heavy lifting when it comes to telling your game's story feels old and lazy to me. Games--and I talked about this during the panel last week--need to stop trying so damn hard to ape film and television all the time. The goal should not be to make a game look or feel more like a movie; the goal should be to figure out what games can do that no other medium can.
Games have gotten into the habit of telling us things instead of showing us things. They explain away whatever mystery they might have had. Nothing is ever subtle, or left to the imagination anymore. Every game tries to out-cutscene the game that came before it--we need more dialogue! more motion-capture! someone turn the money hose back on!--and the result is a kind of cutscene arms race which can only lead to a wasteland populated by legions of blank-eyed, Twitter-checking gamers.
Gamers are among the smartest, most imaginative people I know. All we ask for, all we need is a little narrative nudge. We can fill in the blanks for ourselves. Trust me, Game Developers, we can handle it. We're glad to do it.
I recently played a game titled Kirby's Return to Dreamland for the Wii. One particularly memorable moment involved me defeating an enemy by--get this--sucking a second enemy into my mouth (press the 1 button) and blowing him at said enemy. (I know!) After doing this, a star-shaped hole suddenly opened up in the center of the screen for no apparent reason. I thought, Why not? and I jumped into the hole.
The star-shaped suck-hole (another great name for an iPhone game: Star-shaped Suck-hole) transported me to another "land" where an encroaching purple cloud threatened to kill me. Question: How did I know that the cloud would kill me? Answer: It was a particularly evil shade of purple. I ran/waddled away from the purple cloud, navigating obstacles and using my suck-blow attacks on enemies as quickly as I could, attempting to always stay a few steps ahead of what I was sure would be my doom.
No, none of this makes any sense whatsoever.
Yet there is a self-evident logic inherent to the experience. The game creates its own unique visual language; it has its own set of surrealist rules (example: purple clouds are bad). It has a tangible sense of discovery and wonder. Best of all, it evokes a specific feeling--the feeling one gets when something shouldn't make sense, and yet, against all odds, somehow does--that is, to my mind, far more powerful and exciting than even the mightiest of mo-capped Hollywood-grade cutscenes.
So exactly what kind of narrative is this? I'll tell you what kind: it's the kind of narrative that games can do, and should do, more often.