“The Year of …………” – Narrative
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.
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?