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.
The reason the books work so well is that they’re told from a third-person limited perspective and jump from character to character. In short, we literally get inside their heads. Such a technique is especially important for developing these characters because they all have a tough persona that they put on for others. This is where Gears of War and L.A. Noire meet. In both games we’re always outside the characters, and we only ever see them at their jobs. We only see the tough persona they put on for others, and we never get to know the real Cole Phelps or Marcus Fenix (or Dom, Baird, and Cole Train), making it hard to care when bad things happen to them. Tragedy isn’t sad when it happens to strangers. Introspective and stoic characters will always be a poor fit for gaming because they don’t naturally engender sympathy.
Further handicapping character development is that fact that the Gears games are action stories first, second, third, and character dramas—fourth. This speaks to the differing priorities of games and books. In the game, the action must comes first. In the book, it’s the characters.
However, this skewed prioritization isn’t necessarily bad. Games are driven by action. The player must always have something to do. Otherwise, we’re just passive observers, and we may as well be watching a movie. Gears has its priorities straight—action should be first—but it focuses too much on this top priority to the detriment of everything else. Like mystery.
In the games, people are so focused on survival that everything else becomes secondary. The player might ask, “What are the Locust? Where do they come from? What do they want?” But the characters don’t seem to care about such questions; they’re too busy fighting for their lives. While this is understandable given the context of the story, it stills comes off as bad world building, as if Epic just drew up this monstrous enemy because they looked cool. In the books, characters do ask these questions, or rather, they think about these questions. Nothing is ever spoken aloud, but because we get to see what they’re thinking, we get a much better sense of the world that they inhabit. Their natural stoicism hinders the games’ character development and world building: If the characters don’t ask the questions that the player should be asking, then it looks like the game is unaware of its inconsistencies. As a result, what is supposed to be a mystery comes off as a plot hole.
At the end of Assassin’s Creed II, after we listen to a hologram of an ancient alien explain the slave history of the human race and foretell the coming apocalypse, the character Desmond sums up the entire monologue with three words that effectively encapsulate what the player should be thinking: “What the fuck?” The player automatically understands that it’s okay to be confused because the character is confused. Since no one in Gears is ever confused or curious—at least outwardly so—the player has no way of knowing what aspects of the plot are mysteries to be solved later and which aspects are just poorly explained plot holes.
It’s notoriously hard to get inside a game character’s heard, save for literally going into their head a la Psychonauts. Bastion proves that narration can work in games, as long as you keep the writing short and to the point and the level design allows for it: There has to be enough space in the level or enough enemies to slow down a player’s progress, so that the narration has time to finish before the player gets far enough to activate another bit of writing.
Heavy Rain lets us see what characters are thinking as a kind of hint system. When we’re looking around a room or talking to someone, looking at a character’s thoughts points us towards certain items or topics of conversation.
It helps that Bastion and Heavy Rain go to great lengths to limit what actions the player can perform. Bastion is all about combat, and in Heavy Rain, we can only interact with specific, developer-approved items. These are not open worlds. Including an interior monologue or voiceover narration gets harder when you give the player more freedom because then you get into odd position of having characters justify player actions. People criticize Uncharted and GTA IV for having protagonists that are reluctant to kill even though the player will likely kill hundreds of people by the time that the game is over. The game never actually has to acknowledge this disconnect, but if the character was narrating his actions, then he’d have to justify actions that are blatantly out of character. It’s certainly an interesting challenge that I’d love to see some developer take on.
But Epic is learning. Gears 3 will supposedly have moments of inaction, moments when the characters are not fighting for their lives, so hopefully we’ll be able to see other sides of their personalities. And the game will jump from one group of characters to another, just like the books are so fond of doing. Of course, these changes also might be the result of Epic hiring Karen Travis, the author of the books to write the game, in which case she’s clearly showing the developer how it should be done. It’ll be interesting to see how the writer who handled these characters so well in one medium handles them in another medium that is not so friendly to introspection. Gears 3 is out in four days, and I’m way more interested in it now than I was several weeks ago.
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// Notes from the Road
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