Metacritical

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Posts Tagged ‘Trend

Shocking Discourse the Second

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Hello and welcome to the slightly (yet not egregiously) late second installment of ‘Shocking Discourse‘, part of a larger series  of posts regarding narrative trends of the last decade.  Today I’ll be discussing the rise of optional story content, which is another overt trend from the latter half of the decade.   In Levine’s games, optional narrative content is  essentially manifested through ‘Audio Logs’, which in both of the ‘Shock’ games are recorded remnants of the relevant society which has since undergone some cataclysmic disaster. These audio logs generally center around a few characters and are interspersed throughout the game, with most characters having arbitrarily gone to the same places that the player later visits throughout the game. For many people this technique has stood out like a sore thumb, for Levine hasn’t as of yet created a society where the use of the audio diaries seems believable.  A prime example of this is in the second half of System Shock 2, where a particular character who is attempting to escape the Von Braun seems to be taking an awful lot of time to leave meticulous audio diaries for the now brain dead population of the ship to listen to.  Bioshock runs into similar issues regarding believability when one of the characters starts to talk about her plans for assassinating Andrew Ryan in her audio diaries, which is a silly thing to do. [ERRATA: My memory has just conjured up the image of the player looting this audio log from the woman’s strung up corpse, so perhaps the game was being self aware here]. This particular element in the ‘Shock’ games has always relied on the player’s ability to suspend their disbelief, which is a shame, seeing as how little this is generally required in Levine’s games (which often seem to have the most coherent and thought out settings).

Ze Needle is Not Optional

Despite the lack of believability behind the technique however, none can argue with it’s myriad benefits, greatest of which being the ability of the player to choose whether they wish to indulge in this side of the narrative or not. Few audio logs in both games contain any essential gameplay information, instead being used to flesh out the world around the player by creating ‘human’ stories (which a world filled with splicers or hybrids intrinsically lacks). They serve to remind the player of what the war ravaged setting the now occupy used to be, as well as providing back story on the cataclysmic event which brought down the  society.  Audio logs also encourage the player to create their own pacing, giving players who wish for a lower tempo experience an excuse to just stand around for a little while, listening to logs.  Finally audio logs also serve as an effective reward for exploration. The same players who feel the need to explore an environment to learn as much as they can about are also the same sort of players who enjoy narrative, so rewarding exploration with narrative such as audio logs is a very effective technique for encouraging players to get the most out of a setting. This also places some audio logs out-of-the-way of the sort of gamer who merely wishes to breeze through a game’s linear path shooting things, by removing the perceived obligation of the player’s behalf to listen to these logs.

How does it feel, to exist only as an Audio Log?

As I mentioned earlier, (before losing my train of thought) adoption of this facet of optional narrative didn’t really become popular until after the release of Bioshock, after which audio logs seem to be the norm rather than the exception.  Far Cry 2, Dead Space, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Borderlands and even the legendary Halo franchise picked them up in its latest entry: ‘Odious Tea’.  The widespread adoption of the techniques can be largely attributed to two factors:

  • The success of Bioshock both critically and financially, which has led to many games which feature design which is heavily derivative of the title (and by extension, System Shock 2). Of recent titles, Dead Space seems most guilty of this, although theories have been put forward that it was designed to be a ‘consolised reimagining’ of System Shock from the very beginning, which might allow it to be classified as an homage in some respects.
  • Secondly and most importantly, game narratives in mainstream titles have become increasingly complex over the last decade. If one looks even the story of the original Halo and compares it to the dumb narrative of current times, Gears of War, it’s pretty easy to seem that tales have actually become more complex, when even the most basic (and garish) of tales now aspires to (slightly) loftier goals thematically.  While the Gears level game narrative has not yet grown complex enough to warrant the use of optional narratives, narratives that are a step up have become complex enough that many players no longer wish to experience the narrative in its entirity. In order to then cater to both the audiences which desire more from game stories and the (dare I say it) more casual players whom merely wish to ‘shoot some shit’  designers have been forced to integrate systems into games where story content is made optional, such as the inclusion of audio logs.

This is not to say that Audio Logs are the only form of ‘optional narrative’ that have risen among the decade or that the idea of optional narrative was invented by Mr. Levine. As in the last article, he has merely popularised a form of it. Probably the most prolific example of optional narrative from before System Shock 2 was the original Metal Gear Solid, where players can essentially access audio logs at will via the Codec. The only real functional difference between the two techniques is that Audio Logs don’t stop the game (allowing the player more control over pacing) and cannot include the protagonist as a participant in the audio.  The latest Prince of Persia also includes a system for optional narrative advancement, by allowing the player to talk to Elika at his own discretion, turning Elika into a walking two way audio log from a functional perspective.   By using Elika and the Prince as their own vessels for their optional characterisation, Prince of Persia manages to avoid the suspense of disbelief that’s required for most audio logs and definitely the Codec from MGS.  Although on the same note, both Far Cry 2 and Arkham Asylum both manage to integrate their audio logs meaningfully into the world, by making them either interviews or threats intended to be sent to someone.

If this is the Audio Log of the future...

Hope for the future of optional narrative content: MOAR. Also, I feel that writers will need to find a way to integrate optional content into the main narrative in a way that is more meaningful than many games manage, lest audio content become filler and increasingly irrelevant to the main story. Optional narrative must add the game’s main tale, not introduce its own. If it’s not adding to the main narrative in some way, it generally detracts by diluting the players attention from the more important content.

Tomorrow: Showing instead of telling a story.

Written by Aonshix

December 13, 2009 at 2:33 pm