[22 October 2010]
Commentary tracks are considered a standard special feature for any DVD, some even offer multiple tracks. For games, this kind of look behind the scenes is still treated as something rare, usually reserved only for “special editions.” Yet, they’re slowly becoming more common, so perhaps it’s time to point out some of the successes and failures, looking at two cases in particular: Alan Wake, and The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Special Edition.
The commentary in Alan Wake does everything wrong from the start. It’s only available in the Special Edition of the game, which essentially means that it’s locked behind a pay wall. This naturally results in fewer people hearing it and talking about it, and it’s certainly worth talking about.
To play the commentary track, you have to first install it from the Bonus Content disc to a hard drive, then go to the Options menu in the main game and turn it on. At certain points in the game, a little video of the developer will automatically pop up in the corner of the screen, and the game’s sound is turned down so that you can hear what he’s saying. While playing with the sound like that is a nice touch (since this video plays automatically, there’s no way to reactivate it once it stops), if I want to hear it again I have to restart from a checkpoint. This is a frustrating omission, since even on a DVD I can rewind or pause the movie if I miss something in the commentary.
However, missing part of the commentary is only a problem if the developers are saying something interesting, and this is Alan Wake’s biggest flaw. The commentary itself is the worst that I’ve ever heard across all forms of media.
At the very beginning, the man in the pop up video suggests you beat the game first since he’ll be spoiling the plot, and he’s not joking. Nearly every piece of commentary throughout the entire game is just a rehashing of plot points and character motivations that the game already makes clear (since it actually is a well written game). The commentary offers no insight into the development process and no talk of inspirations behind the story. For a game that was in development as long as Alan Wake, one would think there’d be at least a couple of interesting “behind the scenes” stories to tell. But if there are, it seems like Remedy doesn’t want to talk about them.
One factor contributing to this awfulness is the fact that, for the most part, the videos just show one person talking about the game. Any commentary works best with multiple people since they play off of each other, reminding each other of stories to tell. With just one person talking at a time, the entire commentary sounds forced, like all of it was written ahead of time. It sounds more like a kind of PR speak than an actual discussion of the game.
Compare Wake‘s commentary to that of The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Special Edition. Again, the commentary is reserved for the Special Edition, but in this case, every edition of the game is a special edition since the “special” just relates to the fact that this is an update of an older game. As part of the normal game, the commentary was a major selling point and was actually mentioned in some reviews. The commentary track was reviewed along with the game itself, so before I even started playing I knew it would be an entertaining listen. As a standard feature in the game. it was discussed about openly, so other developers could easily learn from its strengths.
Again, the commentary is activated from the Options menu. As you travel the islands, a prompt will occasionally appear in the corner of the screen. Hitting that button activates the commentary track, which keeps playing until it ends or until you leave the screen. By putting the commentary behind the button prompt, I can activate it whenever I want, as many times as I want. If I miss something in the conversation, I can even skip to the end and immediately replay it. Also, the commentary for that screen stays active for the entire game. So I can listen to it as soon as I see the prompt or wait several hours; as long as I can visit that screen, I can listen to the commentary.
And this commentary track is worth listening to. It brings together the three creators of Monkey Island to talk and reminisce about their game. Since there are three people included in each piece of commentary they constantly play off each other, joking with one another, arguing, and the like, so at times it feels like I’m listening in on the conversation of friends. It’s engaging and personable and makes me want to hear more.
The group also offers interesting insights into the development, addressing things like why Guybrush’s pants fall down in the graveyard and who is responsible for the spitting contest. They talk about what they liked and disliked about the game, and we get to hear Tim Schafer worry about the scope of the puzzles and how the game was purposefully designed to make you visit all three islands.
The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Special Edition has a great commentary track, and hopefully more games will follow its lead. Unfortunately, Halo: Reach also hid its commentary track behind a pay wall, only including it with the Legendary Edition of the game, and—being the high-profile game that it is—if future developers/publishers decide to include commentary, they’ll likely follow Bungie’s lead. Thankfully, there are at least two developers willing to make such special features free: Valve and Starbreeze. You can download a free commentary mode for The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (the version on Assault on Dark Athena) from Xbox LIVE and PSN, and Valve has included a commentary mode in all of its games since Half Life 2. I haven’t heard these tracks yet, but if they’re anything like the one in Monkey Island 2, then perhaps there’s hope yet for the future of in-game commentary.