An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

July 21, 2006

Sam and Max: Freelance Storytellers

How many gamers play for the story? It’s a valid question – one that was asked by the charmingly schizophrenic hosts of 1up.com’s 1UpYours podcast. In fact, this isn’t the first time the writers and personalities at ZiffDavis have thought about this subject: Two issues ago, the writers of EGM wrote about the emotional power of games, and the drive for designers to make us cry. And news recently broke that Hollywood writers and producers (including Stephen Spielberg) are joining the ranks of the Wachowski brothers and Peter Jackson in designing/writing games and developing ideas.  Indeed, Aaron and I have written about our most engaging moments in our lives as gamers, and they revolve around storylines (whether they be in the game, or written outside). I wait at the start screen for introductions, and I never skip cut-scenes. I play for the story, and I appreciate the attempts by game designers to supply one. Am I an aberration? Is Aaron? Is Hollywood’s talent becoming misplaced? Are the writers at 1up, EGM, and CGW – what, with their seemingly unlimited amounts of free time and jobs that give them the opportunity to own every console and purchase every game - different than the norm? Who cares about the story?

For much of video game history, story has been either absent, thin, or laughably extraneous. Pac-man has no story. Space Invaders has a Snakes on a Plane quality, where all the details you need to know can be gleaned from the title. Even Adventure is more about giving people the experience of discovery and, well, adventure, than telling a story. Later, when Miyamoto shook the video game world through the development of a jumping game where high score didn’t matter, he applied a thin story about a kidnapped princess, her mushroom-headed retainers, and a giant snapping turtle. Eventually, however, we started to play games like Metal Gear Solid, Eternal Darkness, Splinter Cell, Resident Evil, and the Final Fantasy series – where storylines are integral and, if nothing else, create a tone for the overall experience where the gameplay takes on a more necessary and intense quality.

But the most popular games have little narrative aspects at all. Sports games? Even with additions like Superstar or Franchise Mode, there is no story. Fighting games? The most popular of the last generation, Super Smash Brothers Melee, was entirely too surreal for a story. Other games, like Soul Calibur, Tekken, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter have the obligatory “contest” that is universally ignored by players so that ass-kicking can be enjoyed without bother. First-person-shooters? Again, how many portals to hell/nuclear accidents can happen? Even the titles mentioned in the above paragraph have qualities about their gameplay that outshines their abnormally engaging storylines, putting them in the same category as Mario, Doom, Virtua Fighter as being a novel gameplay experience – just dressed up with a story.

One of the most entertaining combinations of novel gameplay with an interesting, well-planned, thoughtful storyline is God of War. Combining a fight mechanic that the creators of Castlevania are kicking themselves over not creating first, David Jaffe, the game director, created his own Greek myth. In it, the mortal warrior Kratos goes on a quest to avenge the death of his family (at his own hand), save the city of Athens, and kill Ares, the god of war. For Jaffe’s troubles, God of War was given countless awards and is considered to be one of the best PS2 games ever made. Jaffe’s response: “I no longer have any interest in making these kinds of games.”

Jaffe laments the difficulty in creating a game where the story, gameplay, and the character’s intentions are in concert. He says, “When you play one, you get - if you are playing a good action/adventure - one cool scenario after the next, one cool idea followed by a cool story twist followed by some jaw dropping art and level design. If done right, it’s a fantastic roller coaster ride that you never want to end. But when you make one, you struggle for days, working alone and with the team, to just create ONE of those cool moments; just ONE of those ‘oh sweet’ events. And then, when it’s done, you gotta get back to work and make another one and then another one.” He goes on to explain how conceptualizing a game in a moment is fun, but the tedious overseeing of coding, playtesting, and tweaking are so dull that he’d rather concentrate on developing something else.

Basically, David Jaffe thinks video game development is hard.

Fortunately, while Jaffe pouts, people interested in games with a well-written, engaging, and often-times hilarious story are in luck. Telltalle Games, formed by a number of Lucasarts alumni, has resurrected the Sam & Max: Freelance Police franchise from point-and-click-adventure-game-purgatory. After a stupendously fun debut in the adventure game Sam & Max Hit the Road, during which the cool-headedly verbose Sam and the crazed heroin-fueled Max searched the kitschiest areas of the American heartland for an escaped sasquatch (no joke), the crime-fighting, carelessly-homicidal duo are going to appear in a series of episodic games starting this fall. Each episode will be around two hours in length, with a new episode coming out monthly (monthly installments start next year).

For me, adventure games are the true showcase for story-driven gaming, so this news gets me excited. For other genres, gameplay features and the sense of freedom inherent in the game’s structure are the features that keep the sweaty butts on the mom’s couch. But for adventure games, the story IS the experience. And for people interested in stories being a large part of the gaming experience, the return of Sam & Max is like a chorus of angels set to a bhangra beat – awesomely quirky, and totally worthwhile.

If you’re tired of mindlessly beating up large-chested women or shooting hell-spawn, I invite you to join me.

And if you’re David Jaffe, don’t worry: every episode will be great. The folks at Telltale Games are not as lazy as you.


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July  21, 2006 

Strange New World: Living In Second Life #1 

A few days ago, a short time before I headed to the Haute Couture fashion stores where I was to be shot several times and become annoyed enough to fly away, but right after teleporting over to the Lost Gardens of Apollo, an angel with a single black wing sprouting out of her right shoulder and wearing shiny leather pants came up to me, said hello, and asked if I had been to the Gardens before. I said no, but it looked like a great place. Then I asked if her lone wing was a reference to Sephiroth. She said no, and though she liked Final Fantasy she wasn't really clear on the reference, and then her second wing appeared, and I realized it's just that my computer is slow, and my internet connection weak.

Second Life, for those of you who aren't familiar with it, is an MMORP . . . something developed by Linden Labs. I say something because it rather famously doesn't fit the expectations most people would have for basic online gaming. It's massive, it's multiplayer, it's online, and there certainly is role-playing, but to say this is a game would be, well, not incorrect, but still kind of off. There are games in this game, but there are also houses, castles, red light districts, strip clubs, furry strip clubs, and all manner of silliness and seriousness one would expect from a much geekier reproduction of earth. A Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing World (MMORPW?) then. The map on SL's homepage suggests in a grand scale the kind of chaotic make-shift creativity that characterizes much of what someone would experience in their world. There are two or three major contiguous land masses, adjacent to a massive and geometrically precise archipelago of perfectly square islands, almost all which are separated by even and uniform expanses of open water. Close-ups of the map reveal development to have a kind of littered lunacy that would make any urban planner cry. Roads come from nowhere and return there randomly. Rivers don't come down mountains or vein between hills but simply flow because they are programmed to. Mountains spring up in spaces too small to fit strip malls. These odd arrangements make more sense with the realization that any resident of Second Life is not encumbered by any real physicality.  Any place of interest can be located anywhere, as all is reachable by teleportation, and architecture may now ignore such things as material strength, livability, or pesky gravity. Those Lost Gardens I mentioned feature relaxing lounges located hundreds of feet in the air in towers without staircases which are nevertheless easily accessible as every resident has the ability to fly. Classrooms (basically floating platforms with seats) gain a measure of privacy by being placed at similar altitudes. I haven't checked if there are underwater houses or activities, but if there aren't any yet there probably will be soon.

Aside from these perks, my second life has so far been a relatively lonely one, as the memory of interaction here, as it seems to be with any form of online gameplay, is poor. My initial encounter with another SL resident was with a child molester. To explain: Second Life wisely provides a slow introduction to their world; an island with signs explaining how to move, how to change clothes and the rest, basically all the hand holding and baby steps necessary to bring you into the world. As I stood at the clothing design area, spread-eagled with disappearing shirt and pants, a man came up to me and said I was "fine." And not the "You look well and without illness" way, but the way that begins "Damn, girl, you look . . ." I don't remember if I responded, but I don't think any response would matter, as he asked for a kiss. I lied and told him I was a fourteen year old girl. And that made him even more aggressive. Luckily, I had figured out the complex procedures for initiating flight (hit the "Fly" button), and put myself a few hundred feet into the air until he left.

After leaving Help Island and teleporting around looking for someplace to call a place, I teleported, entirely by serendipitous fortune, into New Citizens Plaza, owned by the group New Citizens Incorporated, who are devoted mostly to helping orient and train newbies like myself. And here is where, to bring back the vague point about memor I made earlier, things got odd. After asking some questions and receiving plenty of friendly answers I got into several long chats with the various people, furries and demons milling about, and was piqued enough to do the same thing the next few nights. Then I was offline for a few days, and upon my return saw mostly unfamiliar people, and those I did know weren't too quick in acknowledging my presence, which is not to say that these people were dicks, but that the relationships that spring from are as ephemeral as objects on a far horizon. If I were to be there every night for quite a while, or join some clubs, or such and such, enough of an impression would be created to require the proper hellos. The usual social obligations we have are softer, or more distant, and require more persistence to have weight or immediacy. In other words, if I'm going to get the respect I'd get just walking down the street and saying hi to people, I'd have to make a commitment to the place. This may be why Second Life currently has a little less than 350,000 residents, but I've never seen the "Currently Online" count go anywhere north of 8,000. After midnight, some places become ghost towns. 

Still, I am at least semi-seriously dedicated to having a second life, as it seems infinitely interesting. This is an RPG without hit-points or competition built into it, it is a social outlet without social consequence, it is a world without many of the world's rules, and although Stev may be better trained for this sort of thing, I have always been interested in stories, and this may be a new place where I can, with full awareness, write my own. Now if I can only stop having so much lag.

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