The Sunday Papers

By Kieron Gillen on June 21st, 2009 at 2:19 pm.

Sundays are pain and a list of reading about games without a pop song. But mainly pain.

Failed.

.

78 Comments »

  1. soviet_ says:

    The Pixar story was heartbreaking

  2. l1ddl3monkey says:

    Liked the Kane and Lynch article and I’ll be interested to see what other titles they cover in this series of editorials. Pretty much mirrored my own feelings on the game; Game Crap, Story OK, Characters Brilliant.

  3. Sinnerman says:

    Re: less story is more. My favourite games are not heavy on dialogue and cut scenes at all. This is one of the reasons that Dreamfall completely fell flat with me despite it being a RPS favourite. Too many really long talky bits and not enough meaningful interaction with the game world. One of the best things about the old Lucasarts adventures to me was that there was lots of interaction. You spent way more time exploring the world than exhausting conversation trees. I also don’t like long cut scenes and story books in Mario games.

  4. Jonas says:

    “If you reduce something to rock or suck, or turn even a shitty game into just a gag, you’re closing so many doors.”

    I highly agree with this, but we can still make fun of DaiKatana, right? Right?

  5. Nobody Important says:

    KG needs to do more interviews. SUPERSTAR!

  6. Wirbelwind says:

    I love that Bow, nigger article. I really do.

    Good ol’ Jedi Outcast.

  7. jalf says:

    I’d like to nominate Alone in the Dark (the new’ish one) for the “good things in bad games” thingy. :D

  8. Solaris says:

    Great to see some Shellac love here, did the DJ play any Big Black?
    The article on minimalist stories was great, about halfway through I suddenly realized that all of my favorite games rely more on atmosphere than plot.

  9. AlexW says:

    Less is more: I know it’ll make little sense, but I actually really like the console Zelda’s presentation in this respect. The art style reflects Link’s emotional state – in OoT, we see a progression from happy childhood memories in primary colours to the depression and suffering in the adult dismal shades; in MM there’s a greater tendency towards world-weary browns, but there is also a continued wonder in the strange and fantastic sights; WW shows us a sheltered youth that is so overpowered by the horrors of the greater world that some real nasties appear as caricatures (Redeads being a good example); and TP is shown through the eyes of an experienced, realistic young man that finds the world of magic weird and at odds with his perceived reality.
    Protagonist personality shown through their perception of the world is a tremendously interesting, powerful, and subtle method of conveying a sense of immersion.

  10. Jayteh says:

    Some good articles in there, cheers for all the links

  11. SirKicksalot says:

    Pretty much any “minimal story” is better than Fallout 3′s.

  12. karthik says:

    Oww, man. The Pixar story was heartbreaking. Now I have to go see Up.

  13. Chaz says:

    Interesting article about Kane and Lynch. I actually enjoyed the earlier parts of the game. I thought the jailbreak, bank robberies and the nightclub scene were quite atmospheric and entertaining.

    As with the article I also enjoyed the characters of the two main protagonists. Yes they were a couple of complete bastards, but it fitted because they were supposed to be hardened criminals. I thought the story was quite good overall and a bit more hard hitting for an adult title than the usual video game trash.

    Shame the game was let down by the clunky mechanics, and those last few levels set in South America where it turned into a poor mans Ghost Recon were very uninspired and rather quite bad.

  14. n01d34 says:

    Less is more: A lot of the writer’s problems with Fallout 3 have little to do with how verbose the game is. For example, when he points out that when you shoot certain people in the face they keep on talking like nothing has happened. If the game just let you kill plot important NPCs then it wouldn’t be an issue. Of course that would mean the player could potentially get themselves into positions where the game is unwinable but hey you shoot big important NPC guy in the face what do you expect. That’s what save games are for.

    Of course the designers could just ensure that the game remains beatable no matter who you kill. Like in say Fallout 1.

    Now if the writer’s real problem is that the dialouge is so bloated, waffling and directionless that he gets bored quickly (and thus starts shooting people in the face to deal with the boredem) then yes he has a point. But really that’s just good writing and has nothing to do with games as a unique medium. Actually if games imitated Hollywood narrative more they’d be less heavy on expositional dialouge (Which in both film and literature is looked down on severely.)

  15. Toby says:

    On minimal story, the chap should have mentioned the Silent Hill series- the second at least being a perfect example of the world being formed through the character, like the nurses representing repressed sexual desires etc. Wonderful game, still looks brilliant on PCs though the action is so very broken.

  16. Tom says:

    God i hate stories like that.
    Good ol’ Pixar though. Those guys can do no wrong.

  17. Taillefer says:

    I don’t feel like I can comment on anything else with that Pixar story there. Beautiful.

  18. sinister agent says:

    Huh. I thought Kane and Lynch’s hidden gems were its attempts at original levels (the bank, the nightclub) and the way that in co-op, the person playing Lynch would see things on screen that the other player didn’t whenever he had a bout of the Mentals. Didn’t really think about the characters much, I admit, but then I thought the first thing everyone did in games was to kill the first person who spoke to them, and other such evil thing, just to see what happened.

  19. solipsistnation says:

    @Jonas: Daikatana had a pretty decent set of levels set in ancient Greece… They were nicely designed and had a cool puzzle spread out across them. If they’d skipped the whole first world (sewers! tiny bugs that shoot you!) it would have been a much better game overall. (Then it would have been merely a mediocre game with some good bits, rather than an awful, awful game with a couple of okay bits.)

  20. MrBejeebus says:

    Gillen kinda put a downer on the rest of the day for me by putting that Pixar link in…at least she got to see her film

  21. solipsistnation says:

    As far as “less is more” in narrative goes, the more successful games mentioned there define the protagonist as a cipher, upon which the player can project his or her own personality, while the less successful games try to push context and personality onto the player that the player may or may not want to have. The original Fallout stories did tie the PC back to the village or the vault, but they didn’t tie it into the main PC’s father and involve a lot of family history stuff. The more successful quests in Fallout 3 are the ones where the player can run around and do random stuff the player wants to do. The less successful ones are mostly tied into the central plotline and are trying to channel the player down the plot pipe toward resolution rather than giving the player stuff to explore. (And that ability to explore can undermine the central plot. I missed finding 3Dog entirely because I stumbled into a quest 2 or 3 quests down from the 3Dog quest and it let me skip over the rest along the way. It was kind of confusing, really.)
    In Half-Life 2, well, Gordon Freeman is a TOTAL blank. It’s not much of a story, sure, but it isn’t told in an intrusive way. Even in Ico, while you’re playing a kid dragging a girl around, there’s no dialog and nothing to contradict what you, the player, think the PC is thinking. Last Sunday’s Riven article reminded me how well Myst and Riven do environmental storytelling.
    It’s kind of like cartooning versus detailed drawing– it’s easier to project yourself onto and sympathize with a low-detail cartoony person than a detailed drawing of a person. A game designer can make the environment as massively detailed and complex as you want, and tell very effective stories through the environment, but once the designer starts trying to impose that kind of detail and complexity on the PC, it becomes much harder for the player to sympathize with the PC enough to be able to drop into character and believe the story the game designer is telling.

  22. Darth says:

    After using Windows 7 for a bit of gaming, I’d heartily recommend it to one and all. Since switching from Vista my Empire: Total War crashes have disappeared entirely. Its a far more stable OS.

  23. me, ehem. says:

    That Simon Parkin piece got me thinking (tangentially) about Operation: Flashpoint. I remember playing the demo around when it first came out. It basically consisted of a five minute car ride, then a ten minute ride in the back of a truck before walking over a hill and being killed by dots on the horizon. I played it over and over, and the results were only variations on that theme.

    That still comes back to me sometimes as one of the most “realistic” (always a bit frought with these things) depictions of warfare. I was bored for a long time, then I was shot by someone I couldn’t see. I opened the map and I was in some place I’d never heard of and didn’t care about. It sort of sucked. But I imagine trying to kill while not being killed oneself rather sucks in reality. What sort of image of war is this compared to America’s Army or Call of Duty? I haven’t been in combat, I’m just a sickly civilian and whatever, but. It made me think.

  24. Frankie The Patrician[PF] says:

    Too bad I’m usually too tired to read on Sundays…especially at the end of the exam period…Stupid Phonetics and Phonology >.<

  25. ScubaV says:

    @solipsistnation & less is more:

    I disagree. I often find a lot of enjoyment in stories where the protagonist is already well-defined (see The Witcher and Deus Ex). The less is more philosophy tends to crop up a lot in sandbox games and I generally dislike/hate sandbox games for that reason. I prefer games that are like interactive novels: they have a strong, compelling central narrative (at the cost of some freedom on the player’s part) and have a definite end.

    Fallout 3′s main storyline was bad because of the quality of writing and characterization not the quantity. Besides, Bethesda has never been good at creating characters or storylines; their strength is world-building. And as for Half-Life 2, I personally think that Gordon Freeman is the weakest part of the whole thing. The awkwardness of the interactions due to his being mute outweighs the benefit of being a blank slate for anyone to project on. His “romance” with Alyx is especially laughable because of this.

  26. Snuffy (the Evil) says:

    I <3 Pixar

  27. Chis says:

    SirKicksalot: Have you played Prototype?

    … Uh, come to think of it, they’re equally cliche’d and unlikeable.

  28. malkav11 says:

    Yeah, I’d be willing to agree that less is more in storytelling -sometimes-, but mostly I think it comes down to the skill and desires of the folks making the game. It’s not really fair to make the point by comparing games with brilliant storytelling that happens to fit his argument to a game that, whatever else it may have going for it, has never ever been cited for the brilliance of its main plot. Sure, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus do great things with little narrative, but games like Torment and The Longest Journey do great things with a metric ton of narrative.

  29. Xercies says:

    You seem to be whoring yourself Kieron this week…. :)

    And less is more on games narritive, I’m on two minds on this sometimes yes less is more and yet sometimes i do like to follow a narrative that the developers create. That’s why I love JRPGs which is very restrictive gameplay to lots of narrative.

    Morrowind was great with the world narrative, you knew what the world was like. The story narrative is to be honest usual RPG destiny rubbish but it didn’t detract from the game since the world was so great and atmospheric.

  30. Duoae says:

    Regarding story in games i think it’s a highly subjective thing – as long as however much writing there is, is actually good.

    I’ve enjoyed many games from ones were the world story is ill-defined but the game story is better defined to others were the game story is very defined and the world story is ill-defined. Ultimately, for me, it boils down to how the story fits in with the game mechanics and the player’s interaction with the world.

    e.g. In Fallout 3 – the whole ending was so jarring because the rest of the game was very non-linear and provided a lot of choice.

    ICO – you never knew much about anything in the game world so it was never important that you didn’t know exactly what was going on – though it is possible to work out the jist of the world story.

    Zelda – each Zelda’s story is well-defined but the world story and how they all interlink is very vague and therefore interesting…. leading many people to try and work out timelines etc, despite each game story being pretty average at best as far as writing quality goes.

    Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series – i enjoyed most of the story for these games because i thought it integrated itself well into the game… it provided motivation and context.

  31. Frye says:

    Despite its flaws, Prototype isn’t quite as bad as RPS readers make it out to be. If you buy one game every 6 weeks, you might want to skip it, but personally i am so much in love with free-roaming-attack-anything-you-see games that i gladly take its flaws.

  32. Kadayi says:

    Re: Kane & Lynch I actually quite liked it during the early levels if nothing more than for the fact that in scenes like the nightclub the developers were attempting to portray a high degree of granularity in terms of AI numbers. It wasn’t entirely successful (not enough variation in the NPC models), but there was something distinctly impressive about wading through packed hordes of dancing revellers, rather than the usual half deserted environments we usually encounter in gamescapes.

    @kieron

    As regards Tom Betts article on ‘story’ in games, I think the pertinent response to his complaints about spoken narrative in games such as Fallout 3 is simply how would he go about fixing them? I think it’s a bit of kop out merely propose that developers don’t go there in a ‘There be Dragons!!’ manner, and simply eschew them in favour of games that focus purely on spatial navigation over storyline (I loved ICO & SoTC as much as any man, but they are linear puzzlers. Having ‘beaten’ them I’ve never felt the need to revisit them, unlike say Deus Ex or Mass Effect). In fact there is something vaguely narrow minded about drawing the conclusion, that these narrative problems can’t be fixed. I think there is a real design challenge there, why shirk away from it, why not instead embrace it?

  33. Lewis says:

    Need to muster up enough post- Leeds 10k Run energy to read through the minimalist narrative piece, but I immediately think of Christos going on a podcast about videogame storytelling and totally throwing the hosts off-track by claiming Super Mario Bros. to be the finest example of game narrative in the medium’s history.

  34. Dr Gonzo says:

    I really enjoyed Kane & Lynch

  35. solipsistnation says:

    @ScubaV: You think JC Denton was well-defined? Sure, he has some backstory, but he starts off as as much of a cipher as Gordon Freeman. I’m willing to bet that your JC Denton doesn’t do the same stuff my JC Denton does. There’s enough latitude in the choices available that you can pretty clearly define the character as you want, even though he starts off with a name and everything.

  36. ScubaV says:

    @solpsistnation: By those standards I don’t see how the protagonist of Fallout 3 would be considered confining. Each player can choose to do or skip any number of things in the game. You can even skip the main storyline (and probably should) and get a reasonable amount of enjoyment out of it, provided you like sandbox games. You’re free to impose whatever personality you choose.

    I agree the main storyline of Fallout 3 is terrible, but I don’t agree that it’s because the protagonist has a pre-defined father involved.

  37. solipsistnation says:

    @ScubaV: Okay, I think you’re right. It’s more that the main storyline of Fallout 3 was poorly written than because the character was too defined.

  38. Crispy says:

    As you asked, Kieron:

    “Detail is perhaps abstract or sparse but it is so necessarily, allowing room for personal interpretation.”

    I think this comment (specifically the second half) sums up my opinion on what he has to say. The less story you give the more down to personal interpretation. When the story is so obviously heavily invested in and when you have to take pauses from the interactive part of the game to listen to the narrative part, you eye is drawn to the the game’s foibles. This isn’t because the story is worse, it’s because heavy narrative allows you to focus on the other elements because your attention isn’t absorbed by doing.

    The same is true for me even when I’m supposed to be enjoying the active part of playing games, because as a tester I find it hard to break away from the mechanics of how a game works. I find it hard to allow myself to be absorbed by the game because I see it, warts and all, even when most other players would be occupied by things.

    So for me Fallout 3 is both a good and bad example of what the writer is hitting on, but doesn’t actually say. It’s a good example because the game uses a lot of heavy dialogue, and when you’re simply reading you still want to interact with the environment somehow because a game is not a book. It’s a bad example because a lot of the weaknesses the writer talks about could be found if you stopped and tried to find similar ways to break the game during the more interactive parts of the game – testers do it every day; it’s a type of ‘destructive’ or ‘ad-hoc’ testing sometimes described as PUB (or Psychotic User Behaviour). The weaknesses hit upon are present in most areas of most games, it’s just that most users don’t come across them because their activity is focused elsewhere; they are interacting.

    The truth is that narrative (in the traditional sense) and interactivity are diametrically opposed. One is about one-way communication where you are in the passive and the other is about a ‘freeform’ exchange between two parties. I can always choose not to talk to an NPC in an RPG, granted, but once I begin talking to them I usually have to see the conversation through and I’m usually limited to actions someone else defines, even if it seems like a broad spectrum. Interactivity in a more general sense is limited by the rules of the game world (such as the laws of physics), not by a game designer’s whim. I can stack some boxes in Half-Life 2 if I want to get on top of a shipping container, but after I retrieve and position the first box I can decide I don’t want to carry out my original plan and instead shoot it to smithereens. Then I can get a different box if I still want to climb on top of the container, or not as the case may be. But I don’t repeat any of my previous actions like you’d have to in an RPG dialogue tree; I don’t wait for the box to respawn in the same place and use it in exactly the same manner to accomplish a goal. (Ever had that feeling of deja vu in an RPG? It’s because it’s narrative driven. Getting stuck in conversation loops is like being forced to turn back and re-read the page you just finished in a book). And, in general, I don’t have to jump through any hoops to do what I want to. The world is forever changed by my actions, and my actions are unique.

    I think one way of getting around this dichotomy between interaction and narrative is to have a very vague story and present it in a non-interactive environment where it is the focus of attention and takes centre stage. This is how Braid does it; you can’t stack objects on someone’s head while reading the story in Braid, because it’s on pages that exist outside of the playable game world. The only interactive element in Braid’s story is how fast and when and in which order you turn the pages. I like the story in Braid. I think it’s simple and well-presented and optional to the gameplay, and I wouldn’t expect a puzzle game to have a mandatory story element so I think it works well. But I think there’s room for bigger storytelling in games and there are genres that work better for that.

    Another way to do story is to tell it through the environment. This doesn’t just mean posters and graffiti on walls and delapitated buildings, it could mean newspapers on tables and characters that try to talk to you, but who you can ignore or heed. The problem here is that you can’t keep any essential information here or you risk a big proportion of players missing it. Look at how Bioshock worked: whenever something really important needed to be said the player was simply penned into a sandpit areas with little or nothing to interact with. Then after the important stuff was said, the player’s cell was unbolted and he was let loose again to roam the vaults of Rapture.

    I think the thing to acknowledge here is that games can’t be very interactive and very narrative at the same time without making compromises. I don’t think the world is suddenly going to come crashing down for a gamer if they are thrust into a non-interactive state to watch a cutscene or read some lines of text. I actually find the times I’m given free rein during important dialogue (such as Half-Life 2) to be farcical – I end up doing stupid things and not paying attention because I can. So I actually prefer (well-done) cutscenes and interesting text in certain types of games.

    My verdict: if you want narrative, don’t be afraid to restrict the player. As long as your narrative is compelling and the player is ready for narrative (genre, pacing, length, etc.) it is more effective to tie their hands and subject them to great storytelling. On the other hand, if you don’t need narrative, don’t spend too much time on it. What’s the story in Mario Galaxy… anyone?

  39. Crispy says:

    (Bring back the edit button!)

    Okay, that part didn’t sum up my entire reaction to the article, because I went off on a more important tangent afterwards/during.

    The point I wanted to make about that was that shorter/vaguer stories leave more to the imagination, which is more like a book where you aren’t told what colour the walls are painted in and how tall your main character is (unless they’re of abnormal stature). Less fleshed-out stories are a kind of one-way interaction where the reader needs (can choose?) to fill in the blanks and create their own story just for themselves. This is how you get huge opuses written about the deeper story behind Portal, or who the G-man is in Half-Life, when it’s mostly open to interpretation.

    But simple is not better, because I’d happily read through e-reams of text if the story were good enough. I just don’t think anyone wants to really risk making a game that long that blends awesome writing and storytelling with interactive sections. I don’t know if anyone knows if they’d like that. I would, but the sheer length it would have to be (interspersing narrative sections with gameplay but also being the length of a novel) probably makes in impracticable.

  40. Larington says:

    That misanthropic gamer article is really thought provoking, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  41. Xercies says:

    @Crispy

    Exactly, if your game needs narritive put some in, it would be better for it. If it doesn’t don’t try to put it in since its going to distract you and make the game less playable. Like Crysis i wish there was no story to that because the aliens ruined it and if it was just me going around Korean Bases until the end Korean guy then it would have been great. But with the rubbish story there that had to have aliens in it it became less great.

  42. Martin K says:

    @Frankie, I could have sworn your comment suggested you were studying Phrenology in some kind of official context, and the images that flashed before my eyes were both hideous and slightly arousing.

    Then I realised that I reed gud, and all was made well again.

  43. Howard says:

    Sorry to be a neigh sayer but: anyone advocating Windows 7 right now needs their bumps feeling. Windoze, in all its versions, is without doubt the worst example of an operating system ever to walk the earth. It is always staggeringly buggy and badly put together upon release and is, without exception, unusable until its first service pack. And yet here you people are telling us to use an M$ operating system while it is still in BETA?! Time to up the dose, boys…

  44. Kadayi says:

    @Crispy

    Lovely response. It does seem to me that Fallout 3 is the favourite whipping boy at the moment when it comes to narrative discussion, but as you rightly pointed out there are other means. I also think Fallout 3 doesn’t do itself any favours in that by and large the (facial) animations and voice work are sub par emotionally Vs say Halflife 2, VTM:B and Mass Effect.

  45. Howard says:

    @Kadayi
    You think that the facial animations of Fallout 3 are worse than those of Half Life 2?!
    Can I rent you glasses for a day: the world must look weird…

  46. Kadayi says:

    I don’t think they are remotely up to snuff compared to the stuff that can and has been achieved using Valves Source engine no, not by a long stretch. For the most part I found the characters in FO3 fairly lifeless, and that detracted from any sense of immersion. Still if you think otherwise that is your prerogative, I’m not here to persuade you otherwise.

  47. Maniac11919 says:

    @KG
    “There was a particularly great string of records, which started with the eternal Prayer To God by Shellac. Which I suspect some of you haven’t heard, so I’ll link here.”

    Seriously, Kieron, I love you, but keep your day job lol. That “music” is… Well… Let’s just stick to the games eh? :P

  48. Gap Gen says:

    Question: In a franchise-milking blockbuster origins move of the Kieron Gillen legend, which famous actor would play the part of Gillen? Would it be a Michael Bay-fest with explosions as punctuation, or would it be a dark, fantastical Guillermo del Toro adventure?

  49. Kadayi says:

    Cage & Bay or Perlman & Del Toro….

  50. Arathain says:

    So ‘don’t mention the war’ is taking a day off?

    The less-is-more narrative thingy is partly a well written way of saying “show, don’t tell”. Look at L4D, which is full of mini-narratives told by the environment itself. You don’t need to find journal entry to see someone made a stand here, someone left a dead friend there… I think it’s a clever stroke to let the main characters speak through their own personalities and reactions, rather than having any sort of backstory beyond what you can see from their clothes.