A lot of games this year have had great writing, from Portal 2 to L.A. Noire to (of course) Uncharted 3. But last year’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West remains one of the best written games I’ve ever played. Much of that stems from a script that goes out of its way to avoid exposition, always making sure to imply more than it explains. Two moments in particular stand out, and I still remember them vividly even a year after playing the game.
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There. I said it. And only half the reason was a controversial reader-grab. Nevertheless, even accounting for the nostalgia bias and the changing trends since Final Fantasy VII’s release in 1997, Cloud Strife is still an exceptionally multifaceted character. Of course, there is no one true measure of quality of characters (in games or otherwise) but at the very least, Cloud is one of the rare characters in games with depth, complexity, and a smooth, believable arc of character development.
The first time that the player sees Cloud, he’s vaulting out of a train and single-handedly dispatching a group of armed guards. He’s detached and impersonal, a sword for hire whose only priority is completing his job and getting paid. Cloud is set up as a masculine power fantasy. He’s an elite military specialist gone rogue against an oppressive “corporatocracy”, who is motivated not just by rugged individualism but also to protect the women that he encounters. He reacts to crisis with an aloof swish of his hair and a cocky slouch. For the first half of Final Fantasy VII, the player takes the role of this capable, slightly arrogant warrior figure.
Most video game heroes resemble Cloud after the opening credits. They are outlets of the same male power fantasy. But halfway through the game, layers of Cloud’s facade are peeled away. When he demands that Aeris or Tifa stay out of danger, he’s incapable of holding them back—and indeed both women prove well suited to dealing with danger and are even necessary to the quest. After all, Cloud is not hunting down Sephiroth, he is being led by him.
The following post contains plot spoilers for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception dispels any doubt regarding the series’ aspirations. Uncharted strives to step into the void left by Indiana Jones as popular culture’s premiere pulp-adventure series. It’s an impressive effort. Nathan Drake is a roguish charmer with the capacity for sentimentality and violence. He’s surrounded by memorable sidekicks, villains, and love interests. The game’s plot darts about the globe, giving players an opportunity to virtually explore exotic lands and defy death in spectacular action sequences. From tonal, thematic, and artistic perspectives, Uncharted is a welcome experience for those of us who have been waiting for another Indiana Jones since 1989 (like any rational person, I disavow The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s existence).
Unfortunately, the series’s very existence as a video game often proves to be its greatest undoing. For years now, I’ve argued that Uncharted‘s dual existence as a cinematic adventure is at odds with its devotion to the structure of a rigorous action game. Uncharted 3 is the clearest example of this conflict. Difficulty spikes and repetition clash with the story’s breezy cadence. At around eight to ten hours, Uncharted 3‘s campaign overstays its welcome, mostly thanks to its gameplay.
If video games often tell the story of the boy saving the girl (from another castle, from a very large ape, or whatever) by allowing the player to take on that gendered role of hero and protagonist, it does raise the question of what the end goal of a player taking on the role of the girl in this oft told scenario should be.
And, of course, it might also imply that the role of the girl in this scenario is to be taken.
Voice acting has become a staple in gaming that helps flesh out characters and setting. Abandoning the text-box provided a more intimate way for the game to connect to the player by expressing emotion and ideas in a way that they are more familiar with. The quality of voice acting in games is, of course, an area of contention, but when done properly, it adds brushstrokes to the aesthetics of the game. This is especially true for settings that benefit from characters having accents to imply nationality. The cultural politics that voice acting implies, however, often escape analysis. The default English accent is General American and deviations from this tap into a subtext that assumes an American player. How accents communicate information to the player exposes the subliminal effects of American ethnocentrism.