I hadn’t played Deus Ex: Human Revolution for weeks. Considering how much the central narrative revolves around mystery, conspiracy, and corporate intrigue, I resigned myself to suffering through a couple clueless hours before the plot sunk in again. But as the game loaded, I was presented with a pleasant surprise: written recap that I hadn’t really noticed before. The surprise isn’t so much the existence of a recap, but rather how effective yet unobtrusive it manages to be.
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Last week I wrote about the differences between the Gears of War games and the books. The latter succeed with characterization because we’re allowed inside the characters’ heads. In the games, we only see their tough, impersonal personas, which makes it hard to care about them.
But this is not to say that the books are above any criticism. In fact, they’re missing a very important element of the Gears universe: action (something which the games happen to excel at). The fact that both pieces of media complement each other so well makes me wonder if this is just a coincidence or some kind of expertly planned transmedia formula.
They really have do have something in common and not something as bland as just being games. But first a prologue: for the past several weeks, I’ve been reading the books based on the Gears of War franchise (specifically, Jacinto’s Remnant, Anvil Gate, and Coalition’s End), and they’re a lot better than I thought they’d be and for reasons that I never would have guessed.
These are not action stories. The first major action scene happens halfway through the second book. Rather, these are character dramas, and after reading the books, I’m more than a little angry with the Gears games for wasting this interesting cast of tragic characters. The story that Gears of War wants to tell is the worst kind of story to put in a game because everything that makes the story work doesn’t work in games.
In the last level of From Dust you get more powers than you’d ever thought possible given the strict limitations the rest of the game places on your godhood. You can create land, water, volcanoes, plants, tsunamis, and take them all away. It feels like you’ve finally come into your own. But then some disaster strikes, everything begins to sink, and you have to rush your villagers to the magical exit. Once through to safety, you find yourself back at the beginning, literally. You’re back at the first level with all your new powers stripped away.
It’s an interesting moment, if only because it’s so oddly rare in games: finding yourself back at the start. Many games are meant to be replayed, dangling the carrot of a “new game+” to entice us, but few acknowledge this repetition in their stories, even when it would make perfect sense.
Branching stories are popular in games, but they sometimes don’t make a lot of sense when the game is taken as a whole. Different endings and different outcomes of a choice reflect different themes, but even if each plot thread is meant to stand on its own, they don’t. By virtue of being in the same game, one plot thread affects our perception and interpretation of the other, and sometimes this can make for inconsistent characters and themes.