Inspired by L.B. Jeffries’s post last week (“Plot Twist Overkill in Indigo Prophecy, PopMatters, 15 June 2010), I replayed a fair bit of Indigo Prophecy, and as much as I enjoy the game, his critique of it is spot on. The game’s narrative downward spiral is infamous amongst the gaming community, and it stands as a powerful reminder of what not to do with a game’s story. However, the reason that its ending is so confusing and so infamously bad is because it has such a strong beginning. The first level of Indigo Prophecy represents the Holy Grail of branching narratives; it presents you with a problem and gives you a variety of ways to solve it. However, every choice has obvious pros and cons. Unlike most games with branching paths, there isn’t a “best” choice given the situation. The game’s lack of direction in telling us what to do and our own lack of certainty regarding what we should do make the opening scene of Indigo Prophecy one of the most memorable moments in gaming.
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The first time that I had to herd cattle in Red Dead Redemption I hated it. The first time that I had to break a horse I thought it was stupid. Riding along in a wagon, listening to someone talk while traveling to the mission site was a mixed bag—sometimes interesting, sometimes boring or indulgent. I loved this game, but those were the moments that had me groaning out loud and muttering my traditional “I hate you” mantra at the game over and over until those cattle got into the damnable corral, which makes it all the more amazing that the best part of this game and the moments that I’ll hold with me for the longest time were largely doing all the things that I hated in the beginning.
I’m going to go ahead and say it. I think that the final act of Red Dead Redemption is one of the great storytelling achievements in video games. I think that it uses the tools that are unique to games to present the player with an emotionally satisfying experience that I can’t remember ever having experienced in any kind of entertainment. Part of the magic here is that the game takes its time doing it. There’s nothing rushed about this final act with it’s homey pacing and everyday concerns replacing the constant mass murder that makes up most of the game’s missions. It is, I think, a daring decision in many ways, and it runs counter to how traditional stories (both in games and other media) pace themselves.
“For whom is the funhouse fun?”
—John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”
About four months ago, I wrote an essay entitled, “How Games Challenge the Tyranny of Authorship”. (“How Games Challenge the Tyranny of Authorship”, PopMatters, 17 February 2010). This discussion is intended to be a companion piece to that essay, so if you’re interested in the topic, you may want to check out the aforementioned link before reading this one. Or, check it out afterwards. Do what you want. I don’t want to force you into anything.
This week we’re a man down, but there’s no stopping us now that we’re hot on the trail. Nick, Tom, and Rick take on the world and game play of Red Dead Redemption in this spoiler-free episode. Does this Grand Theft Auto-influenced open world Old West extravaganza live up to its gaming pedigree? Or does it maybe exceed all expectations? Or does it depend on who you ask? As always, we don’t all quite agree, but we’ve all got a lot to say about the world of Red Dead Redemption.
This podcast is also available via iTunes.
Video games face a lot of interesting problems whenever they want to tell a coherent story. You need an enemy that does not create any moral dilemmas if you slaughter them wholesale. The main character has to be dramatically important to the point of ludicrous. They also need to have a blank enough personality that the average person can project onto them. Even the touchstones of game narrative have convoluted plot holes. Bioshock stops making sense after the third act depending on your choices. Uncharted 2 might be remarkable for having good writing and acting but there is still a drastic difference between Nathan Drake the character and Nathan Drake the person slaughtering hundreds of soldiers. Even these games ignore fundamental elements of gameplay like loading your saved game, artificial interactions, or the natural emotional distance that all players have from the consequences of their conduct. It’s funny then that there is already a movie which has tackled most of these issues by presenting a protagonist who is stuck in a time loop.
Groundhog Day is a remarkably pliant work of art. Bill Murray (Phil Connors) is stuck repeating February 2nd in a small town in Pennsylvania. There’s no explanation for it, he just wakes up over and over to the same events constantly. An article over at suite101.com points out numerous religious interpretations of the film (Kerri Carpenter, ”Groundhog Day: A Classic Comedy With A Moral Legacy”, suite101.com, 27 Jan 2010). Catholics see it as a parable for Purgatory, Buddhists identify with the themes of self-reflection that Murray’s character experiences because he can never change the world due to the time loop. Life always resets, and no one has any memory of the things Murray did except him. Mario Sesti points out that the film’s character arc is seeing Murray’s changing relationship with this situation (”Groundhog Day The Movie: Buddhism and Me”, P.S. A Column on Things, 20 Jun 2008). Murray is stuck in the time loop long enough to learn fluent French, the piano, memorize every person in town, every event experienced in the day, and every reaction to his conduct. Sesti comments, “[Murray] becomes increasingly less the hostage of his small-town world and more its creator.”
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