Final Fantasy XIII is a slow burn. It takes about four hours for the story to really get going, and then it stalls. At hour three the cast is branded as l’Cie and must run from the government. By hour 24 they’re still running. I didn’t notice this lack of plot progression as I was playing, only when I went back to the game after setting it aside for a month. Only then did I realize how little the plot had changed over all those hours, and I think the reason I didn’t notice that pause in plot is because during that time the characters were being developed instead.
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It has been foretold that in the future that when the world needs them most writers of video games will discover the most precious truth of all: putting prophecies in your game is lazy, weak storytelling. But for today at least, this terrible scourge of a tired, worn out trope continues to plague even our most popular, well reviewed games, even hardcore science fiction games that should be above such derivative mush. Yes, I’m looking at you Starcraft 2.
Before I lambast the otherwise solid Starcraft 2 for its laziness, let me lay out the case against prophecy. Prophesies usually come in two flavors: a hero will rise to defeat the evil whatever or a great evil will arise to consume us all. They usually come from one of two sources, an ancient civilzation now long disappeared that has left behind artifacts/codes/bas-reliefs that outline the prophecy or some lone prophet that no one is listening to until it’s too late. Obviously there are exceptions, but most games that I can think of fit into one or the other of these models. The problem with all of these cliches is that most of the time they’re simply used to add an illusion of gravitas to an otherwise typical situation. The world will end if the heroes fail. How do we know? Because of the prophecy. Oh, and only one person, the chosen one, can do it.
The last 10 or 11 months have seen an awful lot of twos. Assassin’s Creed II, Bioshock 2, Kane & Lynch 2, Mafia 2, Modern Warfare 2 were all fairly big ticket sequels, and with the arrival of a plethora of sequels, very often comes the discussion of the lack of creativity on the part of developers and lack of courage on the part of publishers in developing original intellectual properties.
Some of these titles received initially positive critical and fan response (though in some cases, this initial adulation faded once the “newness” of a follow up to a beloved game wore off). However, much as fans of movies often do, fans of video games also very often question the potential quality of follow ups, wondering if the creative types might find their time better spent working on a new idea, rather than merely attempting to polish up (or more cynically put, cash in on) an older one.
Unfortunately, for fans of particular creators, like Ken Levine or Hideo Kojima, or specific development houses, like Rockstar or Irrational Games, this medium (again, much like film) is one that is marketed on the basis of content recognition and much less so on creative recognition.
A common assumption about adventure games is the inherent superiority of the Lucasarts design method to the Sierra approach. In a Lucasarts game, you can never die (with a few exceptions) and can always backtrack to get whatever item you need. In a Sierra game, bizarre crap kills you all the time, and sometimes you can’t backtrack to get a key item. This means starting over or going back to an old save. The assumption is that backtracking automatically makes the Sierra approach inferior. This argument is a bit unfair because it presumes that all adventure games are meant to do is tell a coherent story. Ron Gilbert (Lead Designer for Monkey Island 1 & 2) explains in a blog post why death and getting stuck are terrible for story oriented games, “As the story builds, we are pulled into the game and leave the real world behind. As designers, our job is to keep people in this state for as long as possible. Every time the player has to restore a saved game, or pound his head on the desk in frustration, the suspension of disbelief is gone. At this time he is most likely to shut off the computer and go watch TV, at which point we all have lost” (“Why Adventure Games Suck”, Grumpy Gamer, 22 May 2004).
The issue is that Sierra games aren’t always concerned with telling a complex story, sometimes their games are just a collection of puzzles scattered around a fairy tale landscape. Most of the plots in the early titles are explained from the very beginning. In King’s Quest IV, the fairy queen explains that the magic fruit that you need is located to the East. In Space Quest 2, you’re there to stop Vohaul from unleashing his Insurance Agent Robots. In Leisure Suit Larry, you’re told to find love or the closest thing to it. You find a lot of the closest thing to it. You solve a lot of puzzles along the way, but that’s pretty much how each game ends. There is no character development or even significant supporting characters. These games are just a laundry list of side characters and references to various myths, television shows, movies, or other original material. From this perspective, death is not really an impediment to story because such stories are just archetypal. The puzzles are the heart of the experience.
Following up last week’s podcast on “Femininity and the Female Body in Video Games”, this week we decided to discuss masculinity and the male body in games.
This week’s contributors include G. Christopher Williams, Nick Dinicola, Thomas Cross, and our guest from last week, Kris Ligman. We discuss a variety of male characters, their body types and personas, and how they relay messages about masculinity to players. In addition to traditional heterosexual constructions of male bodies, we also consider some of the presentations of homosexuality and the masculine.