Friday, September 4, 2009

Game Stories: Let's Do the Twist

twist Just because we’ve been writing about magazine design, comedy superstars, and solo movie-going does not mean that Charge Shot!!!’s giving up on games.  I, for one, still have some game-related topics kicking around in the old noggin.  And my recent completion of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed brought up a narrative device whose pervasiveness has started to bug me.

I’ve ruminated before on the limitations inherent to game narratives.  Sometimes, it’s the Uncanny Valley.  Others, its the process by which the protagonist levels up, reducing character development to a list of acquired skills and pumped up statistics.  But let’s assume you’ve got a game whose story overcomes the clichés of the medium and engages the player on a deeper level than “If you play for 10 more hours you’ll get an Achievement!”  I’m talking about the BioShocks, the Assassin’s Creeds, the Portals.  What do all these stories have in common?  The twist!

As someone who avoided all BioShock-related material and refused to watch Assassin’s Creed II developer videos prior to my beating them, I feel it’s necessary to warn those of you like me that this article includes spoilers.  It, in fact, hinges on them.  Just wanted to be upfront about that, is all.  I mean, if you didn’t mind when your friend told you that Bruce Willis was actually a ghost the whole time, then by all means, hit the jump.

Now, all good plots have twists of some kind.  Even if it’s just the minor details of how we get from Point A to Point Z (which is the only way to differentiate romantic comedies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days from Fool’s Gold, if that’s even possible).  So I don’t mean this to be an attack on all plot twists.  I specifically want to address a particularly kind of twist that seems to be cropping up more and more in games: the Guide-as-Antagonist.

What do I mean by this?  Let’s use the critically-acclaimed Portal as an example.  The player, controlling an avatar with no discernible character (in that she never speaks and is only seen through clever portal manipulation) so as to provide a perfect tabula rasa, is led through the opening stages of the game by a computer program, GLaDOS.  While the writers expertly foreshadow GLaDOS’ true goal – to roast you in a fiery pit – with the binary equivalent of Freudian slips, the player must still follow “her” orders until the penultimate moment of near-death. 

Now wouldn't you trust a nice young man like this? Other examples abound.  Take BioShock’s Atlas, a kindly-sounding gentleman who aids the protagonist by guiding him through the paradise-turned-underwater-dystopia that is Rapture.  About two-thirds of the way through the game, Atlas is revealed as the evil Fontaine, who’s been manipulating the player with the hypnotic phrase “Would you kindly…?”  Or Al Mualim of Assassin’s Creed, who uses the main character Altair to slay his rivals in the name of peace, when he’s actually masterminding a coup of the Holy Land.  And there’s BioWare’s Jade Empire, wherein the character’s master Sun Li winds up being the Big Bad after spending much of the game kidnapped and in need of rescue.

It is not revolutionary, of course, for plots to include characters with hidden agendas and false alliances.  24 regularly features a mole subplot (though they’ve all paled in comparison to Season One’s epic reveal).  The Departed, which gave Martin Scorsese his long-awaited Oscar for Best Director, had so many double-crosses it was almost laughable.  But these gaming-specific twists deal with something movies and television do not: player agency.

The ever-coy Alyx Vance. The games I’ve mentioned – each quite successful, I might add – exploit the relationship between player and narrative.  It’s rare these days that games simply turn players loose.  We have to be taught the particulars of the control scheme, lectured on how the minimap works, and have our hand held while we learn to navigate the menus.  To provide a guided narrative in a medium where the sole audience member can jump whenever he wants, look wherever he’d like, the developer gives us supportive NPCs to nudge us in the right direction.  Think Half-Life 2’s Alyx Vance, or Link’s pal Navi from Ocarina of Time.  Now imagine if they’d turned out evil at the end.  Because that is pretty much what these Game of the Year narratives are doing. 

Let me bring this full circle and go back to Assassin’s Creed.  Why did that game’s twist irk me enough to inspire a blog post?  Because I saw it coming twelve hours away.  What surprised me more in the game’s story was the encounter with King Richard just before the end, where he and Altair have a civilized discussion about how to bring peace to the Holy Land.  That’s impressive, to spend a whole game telling me a man deserved to be killed, only to have me shake his hand.  But BioShock’s twist caught me further off-guard (and thus I enjoyed it more) because they laid sufficient groundwork for the encounter with Andrew Ryan.  I was so focused on that moment I didn’t for a second consider that a twist might be coming. 

And that is the crucial lesson to be learned.  When we expect a twist, it never feels like one.  This maxim led to the downfall of one M. Night Shyamalan, once heralded as “The Next Spielberg.”  BioShock, Portal, Jade Empire, and yes Assassin’s Creed, these are good games, with good stories.  But if games continue to lean on the Guide-as-Antagonist for their plot twists, the stories will collapse under the weight of their own cliché.  A sorry fate for a great idea.