Narrative Cranks: Genres & Narratives
Ideally, a good video game is a machine that is the culmination of all of its parts’ potential. Everything works to the advantage of everything else, at least most of the time, and for the player, the story’s job is motivation. Gameplay can motivate players on its own when done extremely well, but nothing in a game does this quite like the narrative. However, there comes the big selling point of a video game, the one thing that not only affects the narrative but also who’s likely to buy it: the Genre.
We’re all familiar with Genres in video games, and while we may argue about whether mechanics or themes should define them, there is no denying that they are there in very clear lines. Determining which lines we should follow is usually more of a problem than the existence of them. But how does a genre affect a story in a game? Why should this matter? A good story is a good story, no matter what medium or gameplay elements it’s told through, right? Well, today we’re going to take a look at three very popular and important game genres and how you can either tell an awesome story or screw it up badly.
Who Am I Shooting?
The First-Person-Shooter is, for the moment at least, the most profitable and popular kind of game out there, mostly for its competitive multiplayer elements. However, since the genre’s official inception in Doom, there has always been the need for a strong, single-player campaign with a story. Why? Well, for one, the campaign is meant to ease the player into both the control scheme and the weapons and their corresponding strategies in a low-risk environment (in this case, campaigns don’t affect online cred) before they move on to the multiplayer component. This is especially true for newer FPS titles, like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 or Battlefield 3. The result has traditionally been that the campaigns of FPSes have been bare-bones and clichéd in terms of story, though games like Halo and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare have had very enjoyable and interesting narratives. But today we’re going to briefly look at Goldeneye: Rogue Agent and Half-Life 2 as examples.
For those who need a refresher, Goldeneye: Rogue Agent was a console FPS produced in 2004, three years before Modern Warfare would bombard everyone with surprise nukes. The game’s gameplay was actually a bit different from what was around back then, predating the suit modes in Crysis. The titular Goldeneye (the name of the player character and the robot eye he is implanted with) can allow the player to wallhack, gain a shield, use an inferior version of the Gravity Gun, and hack into machines and weapons. The gameplay was mediocre-bordering-on-good in its time, but the multiplayer died out pretty rapidly. Goldeneye: Rogue Agent was a Bond game, but it did not have Sir James. Instead, you were a 00 Agent who said “screw this” and joined up with Goldfinger, who somehow got into a war with Dr. No, who shot you in the face, and…Yeah, that’s it. The game’s story straight-up gives you the motivation to play the game: your character wants revenge on a bad guy while being a “bad guy” even though you end up killing all the bad guys in the end. The story was confusing and mostly told in cut scenes and radio chatter (though that was more for objectives). While this may be a traditional way to tell a story in an FPS (as Halo pulled this off quite well), it is not ideal nor particularly effective unless done with an actually good story.
Now look at Half-Life 2, which I’m sure most of you have either played or watched someone else play, which came out the same year. The game’s narrative isn’t told through cut scenes or radio chatter. It’s told through the environment and your interactions with the other characters. Take the game’s first two chapters, “Point Insertion” and “A Red Letter Day.” In “Point Insertion,” after a rather cryptic and trippy speech by the G-Man (who identifies you and shows flashes of the previous game and what is to come), he leaves you on a train on its way into a weird city. This city is apparently run by robot cops and a guy who wants to look like Santa while weird, 3-armed aliens do the cleaning up. You soon find out what kind of a place City 17 is: long lines for crap food, scared and uniformed citizens, and random and tenacious police crackdowns for no discernable reason, all while it is “one of our finest remaining urban centers.” The next chapter begins after Alyx, the daughter of one of your old scientist buddies, saves your unarmed butt and guides you to your mentor’s hideout. There he keeps a pet Headcrab named Lamar and has a teleport machine that sends you on another trippy sequence before dropping you off just outside, your old undercover not-a -robot-cop friend handing you your first weapon and telling you to get through the sewers. Most of the content reserved for cut scenes in other FPSes, such as plot points, environment introductions, and dialogue, are executed here organically and in-tune with the control scheme the genre demands. If the first two chapters of Half-Life 2 were cut scenes or the important plot or gameplay information were given to you over your suit radio, the story would have failed somewhat at providing you a setting and a motivation to unscrew this world.
A Quest for Purpose
There are actually two types of Role-Playing Games, Western and Japanese, but they come down to a difference in focus rather than gameplay, though that is certainly part of it. Western RPGs tend to have more dynamic battle systems and customizable characters, while Japanese RPG’s (JRPGs) focus more on having static battle systems and on what is probably most important in any RPG, the story. For the moment, we’re going to take a look at how JRPGs tend to handle narrative, as they were one of the first genres to not only focus on storytelling but actually develop it in video games. JRPGs tend to be extremely linear, and thus extremely narrow in their themes, cast makeup, and level design. The main reason JRPGs are in decline, at least in the West, is because other genres are doing its once sole and unique job of telling compelling stories. However, JRPGs alone succeed or fail almost entirely on the quality of their stories, and to show this we are going to look at Chrono Trigger and Baten Kaitos.
Chrono Trigger is widely regarded as one of the best RPGs on the SNES, and was among the last games SquareEnix (then Square) developed for Nintendo before they moved on to Sony. Its combat system was a modest advancement of the Active Time Battle system introduced in Final Fantasy IV, rewarding strategic timing and party composition. However, Chrono Trigger’s main draw was its story, a yarn about time-traveling adventurers seeking to put an end to Lavos, a world-eating parasite creature. This premise allowed for varied world-state locales, from the majestic and lost Kindom of Zeal to the post-apocalyptic wastelands of 2300 A.D., as well as a universal reason to visit them all. While the characters themselves are pretty much typecast, they’re all done extremely well, save Chrono, who doesn’t say a damn word the entire game. I seriously never understood the Silent Protagonist trope. Anyways, the characters fill their roles perfectly, and one of the only way JRPGs can be open and determinative, multiple endings, entered the main-stream gaming consciousness through this game. Chrono Trigger is a densely-packed, expertly executed fun tale, even though it’s populated with cliches, and it’s why the game is so fondly remembered.
A game that was just plum forgotten about is Baten Kaitos for the Gamecube. Like Chrono Trigger, it also had a decent, even fun combat system and gorgeous and varied locales, but it also had excellent art design and a fantastic music score. There were only two problems with the game: the terrible voice acting (which you can easily find on Youtube and is some of the crappiest I’ve ever heard), and its story. If Chrono Trigger is cliché done well, then Baten Kaitos is an epic fail with clichés. There’s an evil Empire with a makeup-heavy Emperor. There’s a bland, blue-haired hero who’s cocky and silent at the same time. A pure-hearted little girl in her 20′s with a precious and important McGuffin, and so on and so forth. Plot elements are similarly uninspired; the whole first half of the game is a fetch quest for the body parts of a deceased evil god (which, in the premise department, should be awesome). In fact, the two things that are actually unique about Baten Kaitos’ world are the locales (floating islands with, admittedly, decent or surreal themes) and the story reason behind the TCG battle system: items, spells, and even the dead god’s body parts are stored in Magnus, magical cards. However, the story itself is terrible, not helped by the voice acting, and Baten Kaitos stands as a cautionary RPG legend: you need a decent or well-executed story to actually be successful.
I Jump Because I Can
The last genre we’re going to look at is the Platformer, a genre not often associated with having or needing a narrative at all. And really, that’s kind of the point with these games. The narrative is pretty much in the setup and the ending, being largely unimportant throughout the actual game. One of the first games to have a recognizable story, Donkey Kong, employs this well: a big-ass ape (almost literally, Mr. Miyamoto wanted Ass instead of Donkey) steals Jumpman’s fiancé after breaking out of his cage, and you need to climb up skyscrapers to save her. However, game narratives have evolved from this humble beginning, sometimes becoming sprawling epics or psychological studies. Platformer stories have, outside the Indie crowd, remained largely true to the Donkey Kong model, as that tends to work best. Let’s see the most prominent Platformer series, the Mario games, tackle narrative with this model, first in Super Mario 64 and then in Super Mario World.
Super Mario 64′s story is basically this: Mario gets invited for some “cake” (*cough cough*) at Peach’s Castle, but when he enters he hears Bowser pull an Admiral Ackbar on him, revealing this to be his latest scheme for kidnapping Peach. Here, the Donkey Kong model pays off well enough, but throughout the castle there are little touches to remind you of your goal of star-collecting besides the level-goal-select screens. There are numbered stars on the doors inside the castle, the paintings match their rooms, and, most of all, the battles with Bowser provide further exposition and motivation. Goals are clearly laid out for you, not interrupting the gameplay, and when text boxes do show up, it is usually when you approach an obviously non-hostile character (most of the time, anyway) or after you have completed your goal. Super Mario 64 is a lesson in game design for many reasons, but it’s incredibly non-intrusive yet perfectly framed narrative using the Donkey Kong model is perhaps the least-learned.
Its direct predecessor, Super Mario World, however, pulls its narrative out of the game in the spots where it needs to appear. Most of the exposition is found in the game manual, not in the actual game. Mario and Luigi are on vacation with Peach in Dinosaur Land when Bowser comes in on his clown-copter and snatches her. The part of the story that actually makes it into the game from this exposition is just the latter half; no explanation is given as to why the Mario Bros. or Bowser are in this place, and the introduction of the imprisoned Yoshies is instead placed more prominently in the intro of the game. Yoshi has a house as the starting area and tells you of his dilemma when you first ride him, making this largely unimportant side-plot meant to explain a gameplay element seem like an integral part of the game’s story, which it really isn’t, as its resolution is merely the side-effect of rescuing Peach. The fight with Bowser at the end (which, by the way, has some of the freakiest pixel art in a Mario game) resolves the main conflict of Peach’s kidnapping, but the Yoshi subplot seemingly comes out of nowhere after most of the actual game to resolve itself with a “Thank You!” Super Mario World’s story isn’t bad for a Platformer, but it does not integrate itself within the game effectively, and when it does it’s in the wrong spots.
What Sort of Story Are You Getting?
The genre of a game, from heavy action, to cinematics, to gameplay, determines not only the kind of story the game has but how it’s ideally presented. However, there is one prevailing rule: the story should not interfere with gameplay. There are plenty of good games that have passable or even bad stories, but they are at least presented well. While there is night-and-day difference between Half-Life 2 and Rogue Agent, the latter’s narrative could have worked if it was integrated better. A better-written story might have made Baten Kaitos as memorable as Chrono Trigger. The Donkey Kong model of storytelling makes the difference between a confusing Mario game story and a largely unseen Mario game story. Genre is usually thought about before an actual narrative, and this is why: every genre has its own ideal presentation method, and if that method is tampered with, weird times are ahead.