Gameplay Distracts & The Evolution Of The Narrative I.V. Drip

By James Hawkins in Unraveling Yarns
Monday, August 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm
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There has long been a problem inherent to first-person shooters. Per their general formula, they attempt to offer a bi-linear experience to gamers. Primarily, most first-person shooters are challenging and aggressive exercises in coordination, response, and precision, which the developers typically handle brilliantly. And secondarily, they are narrative conveyors -- producing stories swirling with themes of war, rebellion, and unrest. This second portion isn't usually quite as successful.

The problem resides in how these two facets have detracted from one another, with the gameplay aspect representing the bulk of the package, and the narrative shelved because of it. For me, the games have just been eight-hour long distractions from hour long stories. But a slow evolution in the first-person shooter genre has allowed for the narrative to shine, and sometimes even benefit from the gameplay that shares its space.

This week I'm going to look at a few of the most popular and lauded first-person shooters of all time, including Halo, BioShock, and Portal 2. It is within those three examples that we can understand the maturing of the FPS narrative.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Despite its immense quality and memorable characters, the entire Halo series has always been a display of game design and a generation-defining multiplayer. As stories, the games are largely dysfunctional and stilted. Halo has always had the potential to be much more than it is, but its lack of emphasis on narrative has made it a shallow, action-adventure title that neglects its very deep roots.

It is in the execution of this narrative that its potential is muzzled. The series follows a blueprint that often structures video games -- each level is performed as a series of tasks presented to the player, and upon reaching certain objectives the player is treated with a cinematic cutscene. In these cutscenes, we may be called upon to continue work in the same setting, working towards a larger goal, or jettisoned to a wholly different location to repeat the process. We never get rooted in a location, and our existence in that specific location is not vital to the story, the settings are usually just battlegrounds for our wars. If there is any semblance of a nuanced plot in those scenes, it becomes difficult to reconcile a few minutes of animated story for every forty-five or fifty minutes of combat-ridden gameplay. There simply isn't enough anecdotal content posited for the length of the games' trajectories.

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This is problematic because, in these types of video games, there is no narrator for the majority of the trip. In every other story-based medium, be it literature, film, or theater, there is someone actively telling or acting out the events therein, describing everything most vital. It isn't that the Halo story doesn't exist, it is that without a narrator, we are left using parts of our brain to also frequently analyze, dissect, plan, and execute mission objectives for the majority of the campaign, as well as understand what is occurring at the same time. We're expected to gather all the pieces over the course of a dozen hours and cull from that a meaningful and affecting story about a man saving the universe and mankind, all while trying to stay alive, manage ammunition, navigate labyrinthine levels, and extinguish the lives of many, many enemy combatants. I picture it like each level acting as a belabored page turn in a novel; one that is so demanding to manage, all of the words that were just read slowly slip away in anticipation and struggle for the next.

This has been elemental in video games for ages. It would seem that, over the longest time, video game narratives have been employed only to justify the events within the walls of the games themselves -- placing players in an all-out war give us a reason to shoot images of human beings in the head and feel nothing but adrenaline, or fly in a helicopter above renderings of beautiful, smoldering, shell-shocked lands that were whole before we arrived. But that isn't sustainable any longer. The medium has gotten to a point where it is becoming so realistic, and so visible on a commercial stage, the presence of a weighty narrative isn't only warranted, it is almost ethically necessary. To exploit the "adventurous" or "exciting" portions of war, for instance, a video game practically needs to be making some sort of measurable statement on its subject matter -- something that our maturing medium still struggles with on a very grand scale. So not only are their stories oftentimes very thin, they are told poorly and amateurishly.

Even more than that, though, narratives are becoming some of the only ways that first-person shooters can differentiate themselves from one another. Think about this: if you were to take out the narratives of Medal of Honor, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2, what would you have? You would have three games that are totally interchangeable, with only minor disparities in the graphics and gameplay options. And even still, the games' stories and characters haven't done much to prevent that, considering.

More disturbing still is how this year's two most massive, hyped games -- Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 -- are continuing to follow this trend. While fans in either camp will likely argue that the differences between these two games will be night and day, realistically they are splitting hairs. The differences between Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 are going to be negligible from a narrative standpoint, mark that, and it is especially evident in the epic promulgation of breathtaking real-life settings that each boast -- Paris, New York, London -- and the combat scenarios that have been shown inside each of those skyscraping metropolises. That is conjecture, yes, but the realistic mil-sim has been guilty of recycling storylines in even the most storied of franchises, and nothing yet has been shown to give me faith contrary to my experiences.

There have been a few first-person shooters that show the tipping point in the medium, though. The first that springs to mind is Irrational Games' BioShock, which decided to position players for a story of incredibly deep exploration, layering it with political and societal tensions, and characters that have profound motivations. And it was given to us with what I call the "Narrative I.V. Drip," a device that allowed creators Ken Levine & Co. to ameliorate the broken action-cutscene-action-cutscene method that has been utilized so many times before.

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The characters Atlas and Andrew Ryan serve as the prodigal narrators throughout, and represent one of two immediate story delivery devices that we encounter in our journey through Rapture. Atlas is constantly guiding us through the different subsections of the underwater city, and he identifies and vocalizes important aspects of the scenery and characters that we cannot necessarily infer from simply seeing them. Andrew Ryan suggests the "why?" and lends his cryptic thoughts on the meta-aspect of what we are coming to understand. These direct sources of dialogue are then coupled with the one hundred audiotapes scattered throughout, providing exposition on dozens of ancillary themes and plotlines -- threads that aren't crucial to the events unfolding in the immediate narrative, but rather in understanding Rapture and the humanity within as a living entity.

The narrative is then supported with gameplay -- as Jack, we are explorers inured with the fruits of the tumultuous land, and as we come to realize the science and fantasy that has ruined the civilization of Rapture, and become a part of it ourselves. We are boosted with plasmids, reliant on Adam and Eve, and ourselves become splicers to a degree. We're allowed to navigate a place that is constantly streaming story to us, and setting us up for twisting plotlines, gripping characterizations, and thrilling combat. And what we're left with is an engaging, brilliant incarnation of what Ayn Rand's wet dream-turned-nightmare might look like. Even more, what it might be like to walk inside.

Years since, another game has been released that feeds us narrative constantly, while embedding it in gameplay only really relevant to the overall story. That game is Portal 2. It takes a similar formula to BioShock and adds a deeper dimension of gameplay presence, while emulating the same narrative structure. We're instructed to proceed through our "tests" at Aperture Labs by Wheatley and GLaDOS, who fill us in on the history of the labs, and what has happened since we went comatose, years and years in the past. Our narrative is dictated by these non-player characters, and their motives are revealed slowly throughout the arc of the game.

But there's a section -- the famous Cave Johnson stage -- that we begin to live the exposition. The incessant conflicts within Aperture Labs, with its constantly malfunctioning equipment and vindictive creations, slowly wash into our psyches by way of Cave's voice. At the point where he's introduced, we're already well enough along in the plot to have a strong understanding of how the story is going, so each of his recordings slowly fill out more and more backstory of the place and its inhabitants. At a moment, he alludes to something that changes how we conceive a different major character in the game, and those surrounding us become instantly humanized. If we were not brought so close to those we encounter, the impact would be thin.

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The narrative is also totally imbued in the gameplay. Each level is under the watchful eye of an arbiter -- be it Wheatley, GLaDOS, or Cave Johnson (in preset recordings) -- and we must come to understand our role in the immediate surroundings to move forward in the level progressions. We learn how to interact with this alien place and as we familiarize ourselves we understand the world around us and our part in it.

I continuously go back to games like BioShock and Portal 2 because they try something none of these other shooters do: to connect me to what is going on inside these little worlds. I know the characters and the situations, I am enamored with the cohesiveness of their stories and the human personalities that populate them. They open worlds up to me that give me a sense of exploration, discovery, and expose me competent ideas that challenge me and strengthen me intellectually. Just like literature, and like film. Like all good stories, and like what video games should strive for. And most impressively, they can find me a good reason to stare down the muzzle of a gun, and to stare at those that look back down its barrel.

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Schivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.
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