Thursday, February 19, 2009

Get your plot out of my game

Let’s get this out of the way: Halo does not have a good story.

But, but – no. Shut up. It may be long and contain many twists and turns, but so does my colon, and both are full of shit. You can’t get a glass of water in the gaming industry without tripping over an alien invasion storyline, and Halo manages to ruin the potential allure of “the other” by making them exactly like us. If you are at any point surprised by Halo, get your head checked. A massive tumor might be devouring your intelligence as we speak.

By and large, games have horrible stories. The most compelling plotlines are reprocessed versions of popular movies – Aliens is especially to be well-trodden – and to make up for their lack of originality, they inundate you with detail. Take Halo, my whipping boy of choice. Never has a flavorless plot been so festooned with confetti icing and plastic flowers. If you know everyone’s name, Bungie thinks, you’ll automatically care about them.

Wrong. Games aren’t books – they don’t have the brute power of print on paper, and they never will. What they do have is the benefit of immersion, and the more you foul that up with cheap narrative, the more the story suffers. The best idea is to do little to nothing at all.

In my opinion, Far Cry 2 has one of the most memorable stories in recent memory. Ah, you say, but Far Cry 2 doesn’t have a plot. You cheeky bastard. Far Cry 2 doesn’t have much of a plot, and what it has is a crooked skeleton of double-crosses and betrails. But it has story in spades. For example, take the jeep ride that begins the campaign. You’re driving from the airport into a country that everyone is fleeing, bribing soldiers at checkpoints, fording shallow rivers with their families. It’s complete and utter chaos, and all the while your cabbie is flapping his jaw, honking the horn, and driving like a man on fire. Zebras and gazelles are seemingly unperturbed by the strife – another government come and gone makes little difference to them. Minutes later, you collapse with malaria and are visited by the arms dealer you were sent to kill, who embeds a machete in the wall above your head.

Now that’s a story.

It may not have a smartmouth AI with purple boobs (here’s looking at you, Cortana); no, it has something better. It has pedigree. Its preceessors, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, are referenced, not ripped off. The story is told by your actions, with a bare minimum of intervention by the game. Instead of intrusive narrative, we have experience: the simple poetry of a beautifully rendered savanna, or a jungle lake at sunrise, seething with insect life.

Excepting the disappointing main quest, Fallout 3 is another game whose storytelling strengths are derived from a fully-realized world; again, Fallout 3’s pedigree lies in the well-established post apocalypse narrative, best embodied in novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Few soap operatics in the Capital Wasteland – certainly none that railroad you on a linear path towards the end.

If the voice of the novel is voyeurism, the vice of the game is escapism. The oft-sought and oft-lauded immersion factor, when executed properly, transports the player into a rendered world with uncanny totality. When I play Far Cry 2, I’m in someone’s version of Africa, no question. That’s real dirt on my windshield. That’s a real zebra, in flames. Why poke your story into the reader’s brain when they can fashion their own?

You open a novel and you read it from beginning to end; though not necessarily linear, the reader has no say in the plot, no input. In this way, some games are like incredibly sophisticated choose-your-own-adventure stories, the plot unfolding according to the player’s actions. The best games, however, step back to a distant narrative periphery, and let you revel in the fabricated world. I liked Aliens when James Cameron did it. Let me have my own story.