Editor's Choice
Symphony of Play

Ollie Barder | 24 Nov 2009 12:23
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Most narratives in film and literature aren't embedded with complex logic on how their audiences must parse them. For instance, virtually all films expect viewers to watch from start to finish - while the scriptwriting and post-production editing is by no means straightforward, the viewers' path through the story is fixed. In short, the viewer doesn't perform the story; they experience it vicariously. But as much as recent games have tried to tell stories with the emotional trajectory of Hollywood action movies, the way they require players' active participation to move the story forward creates an entirely different experience.

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The fact that games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band emulate musical performance so convincingly, though in a technically toned-down manner, is not a bizarre coincidence. The "rules" of musical performance are fundamentally linked to the various scripting and coding languages used to build games. In that, reading the various commands in a game like Guitar Hero as they stream down the screen is effectively a simplified form of musical notation.

So when players level criticism at the jarring effect of "cinematic" cut scenes that wrench the game from the player's hands, their reasoning is ultimately quite sound. These narrative devices are actually foreign bodies that don't fit neatly into the experience of play. Despite their best attempts, they're almost always less effective at communicating the intended mood or atmosphere than via the act of playing the games themselves.

This is often why film critics direct their ire at gaming: The critical tools at their disposal are only applicable to the passive experience of narrative. As such, they're responding to the disjointed and decidedly modular approach that many games take toward storytelling - clear a room of enemies, watch a cut scene, wash, rinse and repeat. In other words, they object to the way games try halfheartedly to be movies. Unfortunately, despite the plainly obvious criticism that this approach doesn't work, games still try to use it.

The major issue is that in order to tell a fixed narrative, the underlying gaming logic has to be reined in so as not to interfere with the plot. This normally means that the structure of a game will be standardized, either in terms of base ruleset or by its overall structure. The above "clear room of enemies" example is notable, as its very shorthand denotes an unfortunate commonality currently seen in gaming.

You wouldn't interrupt a tone poem with spoken word segments to tell the story; you'd use the vast array of musical tools to do that seamlessly instead. Equally, games should look to their own compositional toolset and build a narrative around the techniques that have already defined the medium.