A good menu can set the tone for the rest of the game to come, or when done poorly, it can be a nuisance that players try to skip as fast as possible every time that they boot up a game. Since the last time I wrote about some innovative menus, three more games have come out that I feel deserve special mention for how handle this normally bland part of a game.
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Stacking is a lighthearted, approachable game, but it takes one thing very seriously: layers. Rather than aim to please a certain type of player, Stacking‘s rule systems and challenges are structured to allow players to burrow down into their preferred level of engagement. In addition to being a fresh and innovative take on the adventure genre, the game’s storytelling occupies a rare niche. It’s a game whose story and humor appeal to a wide variety of audiences. Like the Muppets, Stacking’s storytelling, and especially its humor, is crafted in such a way to please youngsters (along with the juvenile impulses in adults) while also containing jokes that older folks can appreciate. Buried amongst Stacking‘s satire and cultural allusions is an even more specific layer that winks at folks who closely follow the medium. Any game about Russian nesting dolls solving mysteries and thwarting evil capitalists in a Gilded Age environment is automatically unique, but Stacking turns a creative concept into a coherent mechanical and thematic ideology.
It has become a kind of self deprecatory mantra of the games criticism community: video games generally don’t tell very good stories. Which is true. And we need to stop saying it.
Heard of that medium called the movies? Yeah, most of them are terrible.
Heard of film critics? Those guys know that movies are generally pretty lousy, but they don’t talk about it all the time, nor do they apologize for it.
I would love to know what’s going on over at Namco. It’s bad enough that they’ve released three titles with astonishingly similar gameplay in the last few months—Enslaved, Majin, and now Knights Contract—but the shameless way in which two of those three pay homage to classic literature has me questioning the taste level of its developers.
Both Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Knights Contract make deliberate allusions to classic fiction, the Chinese novel Journey to the West and German poet Goethe’s epic Faust respectively. Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, while not appearing to be based on any specific story, also alludes to the mythic traditions of several South American cultures. The way that these story elements get worked into the game differs from title to title but there is a remarkable continuity among the three in which an AI-managed tagalong character is in essence the center of the game’s narrative thrust, while the player character is merely his or her protector or harbinger. This serves the function of deemphasizing the player-character as a source of agency while emphasizing their role as enactor, much like the situation that Janet Murray presaged with her Tinkerbell scenario in Hamlet on the Holodeck (“Immersion”, pp.100-125. MIT Press, 1997).
In a book, the first person narrator is always difficult to trust. We read a story as told to us by one of the characters, who may or may not be telling the truth. Things are emphasized that may not actually be important, while other seemingly more important events are ignored. The narrator may even outright lie to the audience, seeking to elevate his or her own importance. (This is one of the fascinating things about The Sound and the Fury, for example. The narrators of the first three parts all carry their own biases into the mix, which makes it difficult to figure out what is going on until the introduction of an omniscient third person narrator in the fourth and final section.). A similar trick can be used in a movie, as the camera may follow one character’s version of events only to go back and contradict that very same version of events (such as in Fight Club or really any movie with a twist that involves a trusted friend’s betrayal). The narrator of a story mediates between the world of the story and the world of the reader/viewer.
Suda 51’s divisive masterpiece Killer 7 chooses to throw additional levels of mediation into its gameplay beyond merely seeing the game world through one character’s eyes (or more accurately the seven characters’ eyes). Killer 7 utilizes several sub-layers of mediation as the game progresses, including changes in art style during some animated sequences that add to the confusion of what the world of the game really looks like. The reality of the game demands that the player engage it through these additional levels of symbolic mediation in order to not just play the game but to understand what is going on in the narrative.