Sunday, December 30, 2012

Lore and Story Telling

Another day, another post.  The following two emails are about a topic that is close to my heart: video game story telling.  Of course, as with all mediums, I have personal preference on how to properly tell a story, with the appropriate amount of subtlety and interaction with the player.  Hopefully the two emails seen below, as well as the commentary I provide can help detail my positions.

The following is from a commenter from my friend Simon Wu's website,  The member, named Whiplash, provided the following commentary on story telling:
I was listening through the podcast one night when I heard John Tarr's thoughts on the Mass Effect 3 ending. Him calling the stories "fanfiction" put a smile on my face. But then I remembered something he mentioned back in his Dark Souls walkthrough. He blatantly denounced that the game has no story, and although he's partially right, there really is a story to be had in Dark Souls. That, and he clearly hasn't watched EpicNameBro's lore series of Dark Souls. I saw his pretentious comment as sheer blasphemy of the nth degree. It got me in the topic-writing mood and began conceiving a topic to discuss about, which so happens to be the one right here.

To state that a game has no story without putting any decent form of effort to interpret the meaning behind the game is to cut off the opposable thumbs on your hands and attempt to grab an object without dropping it. Any form of entertainment has a story, no matter how minuscule it may seem. One person could manipulate the story and get a completely unique story out of that, while the other might just turn an eye from it, ignoring the "mindless" monologue that is a nouveau closet of the former's vast knowledge of the story that may hold great weight to the discussion.

Going back to John's mindless blabber about symbolism in games and how they are "fucking stupid" as he so elegantly remarked (spoilers, that last bit was sarcastic), he mentioned that we know of the symbolism of the green light in the Great Gatsby. But how did we learn of it? Through long brainstorming of the subject and learning what it may mean or what correlation it might have with atrabilious topics of social commentary or of dodgy, corrosive discussions of world views or of the like. For example, in Gulliver’s Travels, the story as a whole is a cleverly laid out satire and grim social commentary of many discussions, such as human nature and depravity, the European government in the 18th century, and whether mankind are inherently or gradually become corrupt throughout their lives. One does not just immediately "know" about symbolism in a story; it is recognized and learned through patience, hard thought processing, and research of things that may relate to the subject and use of imagery to assess a plot line.

Back to the topic at hand, games can have dark stories such as Gulliver's Travels or of the like, and you would be surprised at how many games can, and have, achieved this in their stories. At this point, I'm sure I've been given a lot of hate for what I said in Episode 10 of the podcast when I said I loved Final Fantasy XIII, but I feel the need to use it as an example once again. If you look at XIII in an objective standpoint, at first glance of the story, there seems to not be anything that would keep someone interested in the plot line, and this will turn off many people with a lesser mind. But I see the story with a different pair of contact lenses. I see a more dark and gritty shape, one that leaves a great amount of left over food for the brain. I can only assume I pieced this all together and hasn't been discussed before, since we all know the critical backlash of the game, but I digress.
Whiplash continues with a comparison and his own fan theory on how the story of the game Final Fantasy XIII is an allegory for " Slavery movement during the 16th-19th century in America."  That will not be included, due to lack of relevance to this post.  But he finishes his email with the following paragraphs:
And while I'm talking about Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, let me discuss about lore. I find that stories that are non visceral and full of substance are the type of stories that add more meat to the story than ones so easily discovered and completely blatant to the point that everyone and their children can understand the story. I don't like stories with extremely clear-cut content that just involve the individual to just hear what's going on in the story; it tends to ruin the experience for me when it comes to understanding what's going on, especially considering that half of the time the stories from "professional fanfic writers"—which isn't saying much— are just contrived to the bitter end.

Tying in with this section of my article, Mass Effect is a great example of what I don't want from a story. I don't want the developers to punch me in the face with the story and spill everything at me with what's happening before me; I want to discover the story in small chunks overtime, and have times where the story is, ultimately, left to the audience's imagination through atmosphere, NPC dialogue, item descriptions and specific items/enemies/etc. in key locations. I want more developers to embrace From Software's approach to story telling where the story is cryptic and unostentatious when attempting to find the story. It isn't something you just find out. You have to take part in learning and researching the story of your own volition. And that's what I love about lore like this: it gets the player involved in an NPR-like discussion of what's really going on in the story.
I soon responded with my own email, which was discussed in the podcast found here:
After reading the email, I have to say I completely agree with the writer's point about lore and story telling.  I haven't played much of Fantasy Fantasy XIII, so I can't verify the slavery allegory, but you know what?  I like that the game has the potential for allegory and a secondary meaning.  To me, that is when a story becomes interesting.  Take Monolith's Condemned 2: Bloodshot.  The game's story, by itself, is pretty awful.  It explains the mystery behind the violence in the game (taking away the mystery, and thus the fear that accompanies it), and inserts a terrible story of cults and ends with the main character with some strange Super Saiyan powers or something.  It's pretty bad.  However, when I played the game, I found that the main character, Ethan Thomas, with his mental instabilities, makes the story much more interesting than it is.  Because Ethan hallucinates entire levels of the game, one begins to question how reliable Ethan is as the first person narrator.  How can we trust if any of the game's events?  How do we know that the whole game is not an extension of Ethan's broken psyche?  This is where terrible stories can become fascinating character pieces.  So, I must say I LOVE fan theories.  And the best games are where there is room for fan theories.
I feel like I should clarify something, that was made I think too much of in the discussion that occurred in the podcast that discussed this email.  Of course, I understand that a game should not ONLY stand on a potential fan theory.  Rather, a fan theory should benefit a well crafted universe, showing the subtleties and potential mysteries of the universe provided.  For instance, the many theories about Lavender Town from Pokemon should not be the sole thing that makes Lavender Town interesting, but should benefit one's experience of playing through Kanto's creepiest town.  So while Condemned 2's story is still terrible, it did not bother me as much, due to the theory I listed above.
And games like Mass Effect, to me, don't have that.  You know why?  Because the story telling doesn't allow for it.  There is no mystery in Mass Effect, because they explain EVERYTHING.  The game doesn't value the intelligence of the player, and doesn't think that the player can piece together the cultures of the world they present (which, I must admit, is detailed and fascinating, though there are some moments of "shameless fan service", such as a race of incredibly beautiful alien women proud to be consorts and prostitutes and have crazy mind melding sex powers...yeah, OK.  Sure.  Whatever.)  Look at this video from Internet Celebrity Arin "Egoraptor" Hanson, where he describes how the Mega Man games let the player figure out how the mechanics of the game work naturally and without text or explanation.  If this technique works for gameplay, can it not work for story?  I say that it can.

I think the games I like most are where the player has to piece together the stories from the evidence presented.  Games like Dead SpaceBioshock, and Red Dead Redemption rarely or never openly explain what is going on.  They present a variety of evidence, and the PLAYER, not the GAME, is supposed to figure out how it works.  Bioshock's Audio Diaries are not presented in a neat and tidy order or feature an exact explanation of how Rapture went wrong.  They present a variety of viewpoints and opinions that are satisfying to listen to in themselves and are like the puzzle pieces to Rapture's grand and complex narrative.  John Marston in Red Dead Redemption never gives his life story in a "smack across the face" way that Mass Effect would.  Keeping things natural and sticking to the character's personality, the writers kept John's dialogue vague as to hint at how he is trying to forget his past.  Any concessions of his past are usually begrudging and terse.  You know, like a person would, rather than an exposition dump. 
Take a notice on the emphasis I place on player interaction and effort on the player's part to try and piece together the story.  When one reads a book, one is not explained the subtleties, allegories, references, and metaphors that make up a novel by Orwell or a play by Shakespeare.  The reader and the scholar are left to discuss and debate it.  Why should video games be different?
However, Dead Space is the best example of a "Show, Don't Tell" writing style that I have always been raised and taught to be the best form of story telling. After two games and number of movies, books, and comic books, the mythos and history of the game is still vague.  We still aren't sure what exactly the tenants of Unitology are, or what exactly the markers do. We certainly have a lot of hints and can try and piece together a theory, but if Dead Space was told like Mass Effect, I'm sure we would have someone explain every little facet of the Unitology religion in minute detail.  And then we'd read a codex article about it.  And then I'd lose all interest, because it feels more like I'm sitting through a Ken Burns documentary than a living, breathing world, where such things are supposed to be common knowledge. 
Once again, note that is a personal preference.  A lot of people responded to this email that they in fact enjoyed this kind of story telling.  While they realize it has no subtleties, they still can be interested and even engaged with such long winded story telling.  If you do enjoy this kind of story telling, that is perfectly fine with me.  I just can't find it interesting.  According to one commenter, I am in the "very vocal minority" about this issue.
The difference between the two is that games like Dead Space know that when you enter a new world, you are an outsider to this world looking in, and the characters in this world are carrying themselves without knowledge of their presence, so they don't care about explaining everything about their world.  Why would they?  Why would you detail everything that is considered common knowledge?  We certainly don't do that in normal day life.  And I know the Mass Effect argument is that Commander Shepard doesn't know the cultures that he encounters, but I've never liked that argument.  This guy, who is supposed to be the top military commander on Earth, did not learn anything about the cultures he would be interacting with?  WHY?  Was that part of his training?  Shouldn't it have been?  It seems like a bullshit way to try and fit in discussions of the various cultures.
Look, I'm not saying Mass Effect is a bad game series.  In fact, I hold ME as one of the most well designed games of all time, and applaud its emphasis on story and world building.  I just have A LOT of complaints with their execution of story.  Oh, it has it moments of tense or though provoking moments, but to get there you have to slog through hours and HOURS of standing around, staring creepily into an NPCs face, and listening to their life story or the tenants of Asari Culture.  
Apparently, the explanation for this problem I had is that while Commander Shepard can know about the military facets of each culture, he is unfamiliar with the other facets.  I counter with, why would he care?  Sometimes it is relevant to the mission he is involved in, but other times, it just seems like annoying filler.
At least RDR saved these moments for when you were riding on horseback so the discussions became the most interesting part of riding to missions with someone.  You could learn about the same things as Mass Effect (philosophy, foreign cultures, political discourse), yet your doing this while riding into the sunset, or on the way to or from a gun fight.  In addition, the dialogue is written and voiced in a way that seems natural.  Mass Effect's always felt a little bit stiff and robotic to me, like I was talking to animatronics from "It's a Small World" while RDR's felt like real people.
THIS right here I think is the most important point and the main problem I have with Bioware's games. I don't mind talking in games.  It has to be done, and it would seem unnatural to play a game where no one stops to have a normal conversation, but in Bioware games, this can make up over 50 to 60% of the gameplay.  THIS is where I find conversations to be frustratingly uninteresting.  Bethesda games, for example, have a tolerable amount of dialogue, keeping it down to about 5 to 10% of the game.  ONCE AGAIN, this mainly concerns personal preference.
Let me summarize my thoughts by using one of my favorite teaching examples of the last year: Skyrim.  Two moments in particular stand out to me as interesting storytelling.  The first is the opening minutes.  Now, the very famous Internet show "Extra Credits" has torn this moment apart, saying this moment presents too much information for a player at once, putting in too much jargon for a person to be comfortable or interested in.  I disagree.  I had never played an Elder Scrolls game before, yet, hearing all this stuff without an explanation for what it was, it made me WANT to know.  Who are the Stormcloaks?  Who are the Imperials?  Why is Ulfric so important?  By having the game throw me in the world without giving a damn of whether I knew what was going on is a risky move, but here, it made me very excited to explore and find out as much as I could.  The other example is, well, everything else in Skyrim.  Every cave feels like it has a story that one can make up in his or her head.  Why are the Foresworn in this cave?  What is this burned down house in the middle of nowhere?  Where are the inhabitants?  Who are the dead men that became Draugrs?  How does one even become a draugr?  Once again, Mass Effect would have probably had a five minute tragic backstory that would have killed my interest, but Skyrim doesn't have that.  It's silent, leaving me to ponder what happens.  It shows, but leaves the player to tell.  This is what Condemned does with Ethan's psyche.  While the "telling" of cults and superpowers ruins the narrative, the silent conveyance of Ethan's instabilities piques much greater interest.
Others have shared my interest in creating interest for the numerous caverns of Skyrim.
Maybe it is my educational background, but I have always found such things to be much more interesting than anything Mass Effect does.  Oh, Mass Effect has a great world, but it seems like they are trying too hard to throw in everything they created.  It's like when you gather quotes for a paper, you try and fit them all in because you put all this effort in, even if they don't fit or feel natural.  And that's when I lose interest.  Also, they could help to work on their facial modeling and animation.  I'm getting kind of sick of the "Bioware face." 
So I hope that clarifies my preferences in story telling.  I still perfectly accept all various points of view and preferences.  Yet this is just what I like and dislike.

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