Over on ihobo today, my response to Jed Pressgrove’s recent criticism of 2001’s Silent Hill 2. While I concede many of his points, it is substantially to defend the game (and the team behind it) that I wrote this reply. Here’s an extract:
When my wife and I went on to play Silent Hill 2, it annoyed me with its obvious staged linearity and almost total absence of what I, at the time, considered characteristic of game design. Where was the open structure of the first game? The tightly constructed progression? Why am I so constrained in almost everything I do now? So it was with some surprise that, after a few more playthroughs and considerable reflection, Silent Hill 2 eventually came to stand out as an exceptional case of game narrative. Indeed, I am hard pressed to find any game prior to 2001 that fulfils its narrative ambitions to the extent of this game – which is not to say that it is an unqualified success on all fronts. But then, my general view of game narrative prior to 2001, when Silent Hill 2 was released, is rather negative. There are signs of what might be possible… but they are rare, and almost always dragged down by an overbearing emphasis on puzzles or combat.
Thomas Grip of Frictional Games shared this paper with me, based on his GDC talk. It’s entitled “The Self, Presence, and Storytelling” and digs into some of the problems with maintaining player engagement in interactive narrative. Thomas also has a blog post setting the scene for the material.
As a thanks to everyone who helped me compile the material for my presentation on breadcrumbing and funnelling in games, here’s a link to the Prezi that resulted entitled Stories and Other Games, Part Four: Guiding. This is part of my module on Game Narrative at University of Bolton.
Every poll asking gamers to rate the best videogame character is topped by Half-Life's Gordon Freeman. But is Gordon even a character, let alone the best that games have produced? This question hinges upon what we mean by 'character', of course. The argument that Gordon qualifies – despite his lack of a clearly recognisable personality or identity – rests on the assumption that a player-character should be an empty shell for the player to inject themselves into… Trouble is, player-as-Gordon has precious little choice because his world consists solely of puzzles to solve, things to crowbar, or things to kill. So if this is the relevant criterion, it doesn't seem like Gordon has the substance to back up his claim to supremacy with any kind of legitimacy beyond popular mandate.
There are few aspects of being a game writer which are truly
rewarding, but the one shining jewel in the experience of writing for games is
the amazing transformation that voice actors perform in bringing a script to life. Good voice
actors – and there are many such people – can rescue a lacklustre script,
invigorate an average script and immortalise a good one. It is
not much of an exaggeration to claim that the appalling general quality of
videogames narrative taken as a whole would seem even more dire were it not for
the incredible work that voice actors perform in making dry text into living people
and tangible emotions.
My first voice recording sessions were for Discworld Noir, which was also my first videogame
script. I’d worked on the previous Discworld
game, but not in a lead role. I was lucky to get a truly exceptional voice
cast to work with. (I mentioned them briefly before, when I noted that three
out of four of them worked on Mirrormask).
I was also extremely lucky to have the Discworld
author himself, Terry Pratchett, edit the script for the game (while on holiday
in Australia) – with the minimum of tampering, Terry brought out the comedy in
the script, and polished my rough work to a neat sparkle.
Rob Brydon, a Welsh comedian now most famous for the BBC
comedy Marion and Geoff, provided the
voice of the protagonist, Lewton, and several other minor characters. Since the
game features a hard boiled monologue for the delivery of almost all
information, including error messages, Rob had to endure a grueling week of
recording several thousand lines of speech. One particular aspect of the script
caused ever growing frustration: a mistake in the way the shooting script had
been compiled meant that every door in the game produced a line of dialogue in
the script: “After all, a door is just a door”. After reading this line about
twenty times, it became Rob’s own personal hell. I can only hope that he has
successfully blocked it from his memory in the years since!
Nigel Planer, probably still best known as the moping hippy Neil in the BBC
comedy The Young Ones, was perhaps
the most meticulously professional in his approach to the recording sessions. He spent some
time getting the studio set up just perfectly to his requirements, then
delivered all the lines with comfortable aplomb. There was no doubt he had done
this sort of voice acting job many times before.
The voice of all the female characters in Noir, Kate Robbins, was a sheer delight
to work with. She completed all of her lines in a one day session, delivering
them with a glorious lustre and a seemingly infinite supply of accents.
Carlotta, the femme fatale of the
story, exudes a smouldering quality heightened by the lustrous accent Kate performed.
Most amazingly, the script called for the troll diva Sapphire to sing a song (a
pastiche composed and written by Paul Weir) which Kate recorded on the day,
from the sheet music, without ever having heard it before. Classy!
Finally, my favourite of the voice actors for this game was
Robert Llewellyn, most famous as the android Kryten in the BBC Comedy Red Dwarf (although he is also a writer of popular novels). Throughout the long recording
sessions, I was keeping myself sane by tallying a scorecard for whose lines
were getting the most lasts – mine, or those added by Terry in the editing
phase. (In the end, we broke about even). One line in particular has stuck in
memory: it came in Robert’s lines for the Butler, my favourite character in the
game. The Butler – a savagely deadpan wit – introduces Lewton (the protagonist) to the Library at the Von
Uberwald mansion, saying: “The Libraris Apocrypha is a collection
of obscurities and rare volumes from across the continent. If knowledge were an
animal, the Libraris would be a great dragon. Sir by the same scale would
be kebab on an ant’s barbecue.” It cracked Robert up so much, we had to take a
short break to restore order.
I’ve had many other voice sessions since then, but few so
memorable. It was, however, a great personal honour to record the narrator
script for Heretic Kingdoms: The
Inquisition with Tom Baker back in 2004. (Do I need to make it explicit that
Tom is most famous as the fourth Doctor in the BBC science fiction serial Doctor Who?) He arrived at the London
studio where we were holding the recordings as larger than life as ever,
and immediately launched into a discussion about the tone of the script, and
the use of the word “inculcate” in the introduction. Later, after recording
hundreds of narration lines with effortless aplomb, he launched into a random
anecdote about somebody he had been involved in years before, then straight
back into reading lines. There was something magical about the whole experience.
In the book I edited on Game Writing, Coray Seifert’s
chapter on voice actors is called “Adding Magic”. Undeniably, that’s what the
many great voice actors and actresses contribute to every game script they animate:
a miraculous, supernatural talent to bring mere words into spectacular life. Our
videogame stories would be utterly impoverished without them.
It is unfortunate that there are no great game stories. It
would be nice, when people ask what I would single out for excellence in game
narrative, to have some quick and easy retort; some title I could comfortably
pull from memory with the confidence of many days repetition. But alas, I am at
a loss to find anything in the literary history of videogames thus far that
aspires to greatness. This is not to
say that there are not good stories
in videogames, nor that there are not excellent writers and narrative designers
working in videogames – one of the toughest storytelling media around.
The thing about great stories,
in any medium, is that they are not simply of their time – they’re timeless. Great
stories can be told again and again, in many different settings and retain some
hint of greatness. This said, there can be a marked difference in quality.
Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai achieves
greater mastery of the cinematic form than Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars, despite the same essential plot (which
achieved its greatest commercial success in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven). Great plot. But as entertaining as Corman’s
sci fi hokum may be, it is significantly shy of the subtlety of Kurasawa’s narrative. Seven Samurai doesn’t just have a great
plot, it’s a great story; The Magnificent Seven does a decent job
adapting it to a Western, while Battle
Beyond the Stars is... well, fun.
And maybe that’s the problem. Battle Beyond the Stars, and practically any romping genre piece (space
opera, fantasy quests, treasure hunters and so on) can be fun, but can’t quite aspire to
greatness, because great stories, in the sense that literary critics mean,
are about the human condition – the ineffable essence of life; diverse enough
to fuel endless stories, and inescapably authentic. Most game stories are either silly fun, or clumsy revenge tales that facilitate violent power fantasies in the play of the game. Maybe fun stories are
better suited to videogames because videogames (or at least, their commercial
form) are about having fun?
Another problem – the seedy underbelly of videogames, in
fact – is the repetition. Would you like to be running down a corridor shooting
droves of enemies, or running through a forest hacking down droves of enemies
(and then a mine... a desert... dungeons...)? Or you could optimise an economy
over and over again, or drive down the street over and over again, or perhaps you could repeat a jump over and over again?
Repeat until you get it right. Which is fun – for a surprisingly large number
of people. 94% of gamers say they are okay or good at completing repetitive
tasks, and over a quarter of these say they find it very easy.
(Not to mention repetitive tasks are habit-forming,
essentially by definition: if you learn to do it over and over again, you’ll
keep doing it as long as it’s fun. And understandably, habit-forming games sell
better – or at least, sell more reliably.)
Most successful videogames involve repetition – either to
learn the skills to progress, or to hoard the supplies (including experience in
cRPGs) needed to succeed. Great stories thus far in history have never been as repetitive as videogames,
which makes it difficult to know how one would make a great story in this new
form. But I think we can be pretty certain it isn’t by any of the methods we’re
currently using – not by the tacked-on animated movie, neither by the well-orchestrated spookhouse ride, nor the pulp adventure story shuffled into a game. We have found many ways to make fun games, and indeed there are many great games, and some such games have good stories. But
still no greatstories, alas.
Yes, it’s unfortunate that there are no great game stories
yet, but isn’t it exciting to see how things might develop?