“The Year of …………” – Narrative

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The relationship between narrative and video-games has always been troublesome, so much so, that many scholars, designers and journalists vehemently oppose the notion of the two merging together. It’s a difficult conundrum to solve: interaction is based on notions of free-expression and free-choice, and narrative (especially in its dramatic form) is sustained by inevitability, causal relationships and linearity; the two seem in complete contradiction. Throughout the years, there have many attempts at blending narrative with interaction, but the simplest, most effective one today, is still the use of a perfectly linear storyline which the player experiences without any chance to intervene. The use of cut-scenes – small interludes in which the plot is explained via a cinematographic language – have become the cornerstone of video-game’s narrative expression. Last year, the cut-scene dogma was upheld in earnest, with very few video-games relinquishing it in favor of new approaches. “Braid“, Jonathan Blow’s indie title, is the only recent game that tried to translate some sort of narrative through more than just its non-interactive segments, and that is why it deserves a honorable mention. By using text to establish a meaningful narrative context, it challenges players to interpret each game-play exercise as a metaphor for a story –  one told through each level’s interaction, design and aesthetic elements. While most found it confusing or cryptic, I found it intelligent and heart warming. And it assumed a compromise which few have the courage to stand for: if the player wanted to decode the narrative, he had to forgo an interpretation of the semiotic language employed by the game, but if he didn’t, he could merely accept the game as a platformer homage with random text segments. But the main reason “Braid” gets this mention is because Jonathan Blow’s work truly is a meaningful step towards video-game’s true narrative expression, one that revolves around interaction, instead of clashing against it.

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But the paradoxical nature between narrative and interaction isn’t the only challenge developers have to face, as telling stories through non-interactive segments alone, is something which has eluded game designers and writers for years. A simple comparison with cinema, literature or theater, shows how much more infantile and poor video-game’s stories and narratives are, from all standpoints: from character expressiveness to dialogue writing. In that sense, my other choice for this category goes out to “Lost Odyssey“, for showing that even the most linear and cut-scene driven narrative can be used to make you feel… a quality we’ve come to deem exclusive to other art forms. Cut-scenes, now regarded as undesirable by a majority of mainstream media journalists, are the clay with which Sakaguchi works his fantasy tale, molding a human journey of self-discovery and tragedy, far more powerful and well told than any other game of the year. Unlike “Metal Gear Solid 4”, “Lost Odyssey” swings gracefully between action rhythms, dramatic segments and the standard anime comedy relief, using the appropriate cinematographic language,  thus harnessing the emotional power of a century of evolution in film devices (mostly absent from videogames’ formally constrained cut-scenes). Additionally, the “Thousand Years of Dreams” – the series of short stories written by Kiyoshi Shigematsu for “Lost Odyssey”, accompanied in-game by the delicate strings of Uematsu’s compositions – prove that even the most minimalist of expressive vehicles, such as text and audio, have a narrative potential still to be fully harnessed in video-game form. This is why Sakaguchi’s work is so impressive and important: it shows that game-design has evolved so much, and yet, designers are still are incapable of properly channeling the most basic expressive power of their means, in order to tell a simple story. “Lost Odyssey” tells that story… how many games have achieved that feat?

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  • Comments (4)
  1. Good text. Thanks!

    I think Braid does inherit more from the early Miyamoto than aesthetics and gameplay mechanics. If you take a closer look at Donkey Kong in the year of its release, it is the first game to convey a story within the very game environment: between climbing each level up to the ultimate goal, as I recall it, small story interludes would take place. It was up to the player to interact through the paths between goals or story developments. The fact that Donkey Kong did not have any cutscenes proper, unlike its predecessor Pac-Man, made it the first game of an age old lineage of games whose story is predetermined but also crafted in a way that the player feels like he is taking part of it on the screen – this was… more than 25 years ago.

    As for Lost Odyssey, I think that the introduction of a literary layer to the game might have enhanced its charm, no doubt, but has by no means provided any substantial evolution to the model we already knew from the previous Sakaguchi games – see Final Fantasy VII. An therein lies the key to the majority of his works, the fact that the powerful stories that have captivated so many players around the world are told by use of simple theatrical tricks, cinematographic sequences and literary explorations – moreso in this Mistwalker title.

    A similar situation can be seen in MGS4, whose storytelling mechanisms remain the same as the first Metal Gear Solid title, even if Kojima’s studio has took FMA to the status of a fine art. But at least in my point of view, it is nobler to deviate from game experience to an in-game cutscene that provides not a new audiovisual layer, only an alternative narrative method (highly inspired by the language of cinema, agreed) than the use of several distinct layers that we see in Sakaguchi’s game, wreaking of 32-Bit RPG hardware limitations.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • February 9th, 2009

    I think you’re completely belittling the narrative context of “Braid”. “Donkey Kong’s” narrative is equivalent to its face value, whereas “Braid’s” is completely metaphorical in nature, and that is what makes it important. It’s not the brief sequence in the end, or the textual references, it’s the way in which each element gives meaning to every action, a meaning, which unlike in “Donkey Kong”, has no literal translation – it demands a subjective interpretation of the player’s actions and the narrative context. I may be daft, but I could swear that in “Donkey Kong” you’re really supposed to save a princess from a monkey. It is obvious that “Braid” references “Donkey Kong”, but to insinuate that its value is merely derivative of “Donkey Kong” in every way, is to miss “Braid’s” point completely.

    As to “Lost Odyssey”. I think that the language present in “FFVII”, though structurally similar to that of “Lost Odyssey”, is much simpler and constrained. Writing quality, film directing, character expressiveness, mise-en-scéne… everything is more evolved in “Lost Odyssey”, on a technical and artistic level. To compare the two is like comparing “FFVI” with “V”, sure they use the same narrative devices, but there is a world of difference between the two. So yes, Lost Odyssey uses cut-scenes, FMV and text, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t much more evolved in its use of those elements than “FFVII”. But even if it were, Sakaguchi’s work is not important because of its form, which is deliberately backwards thinking, but because he employs the elements he has to their fullest potential, achieving a level of quality that I’ve come to expect from literature and not video-games.

    As to the visual fragmentation, I agree it is a flaw of the game. But what we must ask ourselves, regarding the comparison between “LO” and “MGS4” is what is more important? A well written, original narrative, that focuses on emotional themes rarely seen in video-games, achieving its purpose with plenitude and elegance, even if using narrative devices that are 10 years old… or do we prefer a silly plot, designed to please fans, that lacks any emotional punch whatsoever, but which uses, in a more consistent manner, better narrative devices? On one hand, you have a heartfelt story about immortality, love and death; sure, there’s the occasional Anime silliness, and the overall-plotarch is a tad simplistic, but it has endearing, multifaceted characters, who are consistent in their personalities, and there are no big plot-holes that I can remember. [mild MGS4 spoilers ahead]On the other hand, you have: burping monkeys; a soldier that keeps crapping his pants (for 4 games now) and… who gets married with the love interest of the main character (!!!), in a a “Mr and Mrs Smith” ballet, with Hollywood cheesiness included; you have the resuscitation of characters who were dead for 20+ years (in both diegetic and NON-diegetic time); you have the bosses, a trademark of the series, reduced to overly sexual pieces of meat, who’s back-story is as dense as the narrative context in which it is explained; you have one of the worst endings I can recall in video-game history, so full of moronic plot twists that I wished I could kill Kojima for destroying such powerful ideas and stories in favor of pleasing the *fans*. Hell, I prefer “LO”, but if you prefer “MGS4”, there’s nothing I can do to dissuade you on that point. Personally, I find the comparison absurd.

    As always, thanks for your comment!!! Keep it coming 😀

  2. I did not belittle Braid. All I stated was that Blow’s game had inherited more from Donkey Kong than what is superficially acknowledged, then proceeded to digestive description of the game’s relevance in its day. Due to my outmost respect from Miyamoto’s game, whenever I engage in a comparison that places Donkey Kong on one of the ends, I’m most likely writing one of the greatest compliments that could ever be granted to any existing game: Donkey Kong was, in its day, the apogee of narrative in the videogame medium; presently, Braid has evolved such basic concepts into a unique and fully-fledged artistic vision. Such is the weight of a 25 year old process of maturation.

    As for the fact that Sakaguchi does reach a high level of quality, as that which is most commonly seen in a good piece of literature, it is only because he is, in fact, often pasting a literary work on the screen so players can read. From a technical standpoint, Lost Odyssey is very much like any Final Fantasy game, given the small improvements that this generation of consoles has produced – thus more coherent and expressive, irrefutably. It had the opportunity to focus exclusively on the narrative, as the game did not provide any substantial leap elsewhere.

    As soon as I hit the “Post Comment” button I figured that you might feel impelled to misinterpret my words. I did not compare the quality of the narrative per se in LO and MGS4, since that is beyond discussion: it is essentially a matter of taste and opinion. What I tried to debate was the model of narrative expositio, and in that sense I wonder that MGS4, like all the MGS games, are still a notch ahead of the Square-Enixian model, mostly because they do not overload the player’s senses needlessly by means of heterogeneous visual and storytelling layers. While both recur to non-videogame resources in order to tell their tales (cinema direction and editing, theatrical character positioning, character presentations and dialogues, etc), I for one find MGS 4 to be more consistent. As for the far-fetched nature of Kojima’s story, well… if it ever comes to a point where Sakaguchi must create a fourth (direct) sequel to his Lost Odyssey game, then we will be in a position to talk.

    Please let’s desist from replying to each other’s comments. It’s a bit tiresome, at least for me – I’m sorry, I know you love a good fight…!

    • ruicraveirinha
    • February 9th, 2009

    I perfectly see your point regarding the “squenix” model, as you so eloquently put it. The thing is, I don’t think you can be fundamentalist about it, and assume that it always hurts the game to employ those layers, because they can be put to good use, and achieve results impossible to attain without that same structure (as is the case of “Lost Odyssey”). Is it less consistent for that fact? Sure, I agree with you. But there are much more important flaws to point out in video-games’ narratives, that I think the last thing we should worry about is if it uses FMV or in-engine cut-scenes, text, or whatever. A game is not bad because it employs those methods, nor is it good for not using them. The same happens in every other medium, so I don’t know why video-games should be any different.

    Oh, and nobody forced Kojima to make 4 (direct sequels), did they? Sakaguchi, on the other hand, participated in more than 10 (non-direct) sequels, 1 direct sequel, and shockingly, he never resuscitated dead heroes or married princesses with farting idiots… no matter what the fans asked for… (and they did ask for a lot of things)

    P.S. It’s not a fight to me, you know that, it’s just healthy debating. If you say something I disagree with, I’d like to able to reply to it, just as you do as well. But don’t feel obliged to comment or reply in any way, if you don’t want to, I’m cool with that.

    I love to hear from you. Big Hug!

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