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Please rate this review: 999, a reflection on approaches to meaningful game narrative
High: Looking at the time and realizing that I had been glued to the screen of a DS game for a full day, again.
Low: Completing the fourth methodical play trough with the same results while looking for a way to trigger a better ending.
WTF: How can a "choose your adventure" type game with such low production values be so overwhelmingly enthralling?
I am not much for doing reviews, I feel doing something that has already been done a dozen times over, in better ways, on venues in receiving of much more exposure is something of a wasted effort, unless that is if you fancy you have something unique to offer. So what I usually do, instead of providing a straight face review, it to take a game that did, in my opinion, something interesting and try to discuss it as part of a larger theme. So permitting this increased scope will excuse the monstrous volume of what follows. I feel doing things this way is also in better keeping with the spirit upon which this site was founded.
999 is an interactive novel, which is to say it is one of those types of games that I often turn my nose up at, because they can all be pegged into that questionable class of games attempting to make their plot their main and indeed often, only, raison d'Ítre.
These sort of games are as old as video games themselves. You see this obsession with narrative that has swept across the gaming field lately is nothing new. There have always been plentiful of individuals with very warped views on the dynamics of the medium of video games who are of the opinion that these things that we call games are best adapted to serve mainly as a storytelling venue.
The most blindsided of these individuals are so convinced of this that they feel video games are somehow an incomplete entity until they can host a narrative to challenge even the best of novels. If bothered to be heard out these person will likely go on and on about how all games have embarrassingly poor plots, in which they are absolutely right, and how unless this is fixed then games are broken somehow, in which case they are absolutely wrong.
I would like to slap these individuals across the face with a dose of my own brand of reality if I could. I have always argued, and will always argue that video games are not, never have been, and never should be treated as a medium prime for storytelling. Video games are games, and games are a medium for interactive fun, not a digital version of something as unrelated as a book.
But then one might ask, if that be so, why are so many developers these days so fixated on improving game narrative?
A simple word, complicated meaning:
Well, I would argue that this is due to there being two ways that this subject of narrative can be interpreted as pertaining to games. Two interpretations that differ vastly in their definition and thus focus, and the fact that both are referred to as narrative is a rather troubling thing. It is troubling because one is, in my opinion, a completely wrong approach while the other is entirely a right fit for and makes sense in the medium video games.
In the interest of keeping things shorter let me briefly brush past these differences, because I know that no matter how much space I dedicate to their definition many are likely to misunderstand how I define them. You see, in my opinion, in video games, and in fact, in any medium with any narrative potential there exists two different forces.
To illustrate this let me make two simple examples, let us say that an author writes a story as a stream of text. Now, when one reads that story, depending on wither it strikes harmoniously with one’s sentiments or not, one will interpret it as either being good, or bad, just a binary outcome of one’s tastes reflecting on the text read.
If however, one were to analyze this story to see why one felt one way or the other about the story being told I think one can often, if not always, partition the dynamics of why the story was enjoyable into two different forces.
Narrative = Bare Plot + Presentation Technique:
One is the bare plot itself, the other is how the plot is told, or rather presented. You can have a good story, as long as one of these things are done masterfully, but most often, it is the latter that is most crucial and indeed what often draws most people to interpret a narrative as being a good one.
A truly interesting plot is something that is very hard to come by, and this, at that, is in that most literary medium of books. Let us take a favourite of mine, Count of Monte Cristo and dissect it into its two parts shall we.
The plot is that of a man wronged into a long imprisonment by a conspiracy of malefactors, then escaping, coming into extraordinary wealth, and using it to exact a long awaited revenge upon the wrongdoers. The plot once read, threadbare is nothing exciting, most revenge stories follow a similar template after all.
Where Count of Monte Cristo sets itself apart from other revenge tales, making itself into a timeless classic, is by the story presentation prowess of its author, Alexander Dumas. You see, while the plot is not that exciting in and of itself, in fact, even were I to tell you the detailed plot, and had you go into the book knowing everything beforehand, even the ending, none of the book would have been spoiled for you, because its strength lies in how the story is told not so much in what was told.
How the locales are described, how the atmosphere is established, how the characters are described, how a particular line is delivered, the timing, the panache, the showmanship, all in all, the presentation itself is what makes it exciting. This dynamic would make you want to flip those pages, even if you know the gist of what is about to transpire.
As such the very best authors in history were often not ones that could think up very interesting plots, but those who could manage to present the same old plot points in an exciting way. Even the barest, most insipid tales thus could be breathed life into by master storytellers, be it in writing, or even in oral retelling.
You can no doubt imagine the difference it would make to have a rather mundane event retold to you by a person who would go about it in a dry straight faced manner and one who would imbue some manner of masterly theatrics in his delivery in order to make it more enjoyable to the listener.
This simple little distinction, I feel, is something I have had a great deal of trouble trying to explain to others, when I say that plot of a narrative does not matter so long as it is well presented people are confused as to my meaning, because they view these two things as one and the same.
But in my opinion they are not and this is because while plot does no change when going from one narrative medium to another, the dynamics of a meaningful or rather successful narrative presentation technique changes dramatically upon doing so. You can take the same plot and make a game, a book or movie out of it. However wither the plot is successful or not in each medium depends entirely on how it is presented each instance, and indeed the factors for success are completely different and in conflict of one another in each.
The reason why there in the field of games have been in these last many decades, and certainly in the last decade, present a great deal of wasted effort and time in pursuit of perfecting game narrative into novel like quality arises from an inability to distinguish between the importance of plot versus presentation technique, and the changes in the rules of successful presentation technique in the different mediums.
Narrative is a prevalent thing in any storytelling medium, the major three currently being film, literature and video games. The criteria for a successful approach to narrative however is very different in these three mediums, certainly few can argue that a book approaches it in the same way as, say, does a movie.
If a movie tried to approach narrative in the same way as a book then it would be a failure in the medium of movies, because its creator failed to recognize that the medium of film and literature do not facilitate the same approach. Film is a visual medium and therein lies its strength of presentation, it can convey the mood of a scene within a few seconds by the way that is directly displayed before the eyes of the audience.
In contrast a book might take many pages of very carefully selected words to instill the same theme of atmosphere into the minds of its readers. On the other hand literature enjoys the tremendous benefit of having the presence of a narrator that not only can explain things, or situations in detail by just writing them down, but also narrate the thoughts and emotions of characters, which in movies have to be done in more subtle ways.
Movies are an old medium therefore its patrons have long charted a balanced path across the strengths and weaknesses of the medium for all to follow. Although some film makers may chose not to follow this path for their own reasons, and their doing so sometimes creates interesting results, alas the vast majority of movie makers know how to go about creating a successful movie narrative and stick close by the lessons learned.
Few could honestly say that when they crave a good book that craving could be satisfied by a watching a movie or vice versa. This is because both mediums and what they each offer have evolved vastly apart from one another by virtue of their inherent differences.
Presenting the factions:
It this therefore a mystery to me how some 40 years since the rise of video games as a new narrative venue, there are still people who are very confused about what constitutes a good game narrative.
Most people who are unnecessarily concerned with this singular topic in the field of video games, I have observed, are the ones who do not possess the ability to recognize video games as a third and wholly independent narrative medium set completely apart from film and literature as much those two are set apart from one another.
Many people to this day cannot fathom this concept, and therefore their approach to game narrative is from one of two sources, they are either imagining that they are best utilized to make interactive books, let us call these the "choose your adventure" faction, and there are those who think that games are at their best when trying to be a movie that you control somehow, these we will call the "interactive movie" faction.
Usually people with affiliation to these two factions have some sort of connection to or strong affinity for these two medium whose aesthetics they are trying to shoehorn onto video games, and indeed they are often very confused about, or not at all understanding of the essence of what makes video games tick as an independent medium, they don’t understand what makes them fun, what draws people to them, they only fully understand one of the other two mediums.
What is typical of the game output coming from these confused makers is that there is in them always a prevalence of misplaced focus on parts that are almost wholly unimportant to what makes games essentially fun to play.
Rather most of their focus and energy has been focused on the film or literature derived narrative that they are so desperately trying to shoehorn into a video game. One can almost see present in these creators a strong presence of lament over the necessity for there to be any interactive, or game like part, to the end product at all, almost like they regret that games have to have any gameplay portions to them.
If the "interactive movie" fraction were to have their way every game in the world would be Dragon's Lair with a different settings and the "choose your adventure" fractions would just have you read lines of text at the end of which, if they were generous, you would be allowed to push one of several buttons to decide which alternate fork of the narrative path you will roll into next.
At the core of these sentiments is one, that these individuals somewhere deep down are not accepting video games as a valid distinct narrative medium, and would much rather spend their time writing a book, or making a movie, and two, the fact that even if they do acknowledge video games as a valid medium they still do not understand the distinction of plot versus presentation and how a good meaningful presentation works very differently in video games.
If one does not understand this distinction then one cannot understand the overwhelming importance of presentation, and will therefore try to put too much focus on plot, which in their interpretation is something, that if done right, will require large volumes of, either text, or cutscenes.
About twenty years back, when the CD’s really took off as a distribution method for games, there began a time when long FMV cutscenes became prevalent in video games as a narrative tool. Before that adventure games and RPG's had been at the forefront with their walls of endless textual dialogue. As you can clearly see these two prevalent ancient video game storytelling techniques are both very much in keeping with the sentiments of those two confused fractions.
Alas in the very last decade or so there has been an organized movement away from these two old techniques. Forcing the player to sit through long sequences of none interactive cutscenes or forcing them to read walls of text is suddenly thought to be archaic and is shunned.
This shows that at least there is evidence of some sort of an awakening in the industry, but there is still a lot of confusion in place. Game creators still feel that in order for their game to have great narrative they need either the aid of the cutscene or the walls of text, so what they did, the sneaky confused bastards, was to discover clever ways to still have these but hide the fact that they are are there present unchanged.
Old product, new package:
A new game making trend gaining momentum in the last five or so years is to create the illusion that you are not watching a cutscene by having the cutscene take place in realtime, while giving the player control of their character all while the cutscene is being played around them.
One of the myriad examples of games doing this is Half Life, where the player character is often trapped inside an inescapable room while NPC automatons are going through their motions, furthering the plot by acting as talking heads all while the factual non interactivity of this cutscene sequence is hidden from the player by enabling him to be in full control of his character. All this while at the same time rendering them completely incapable of escaping or messing up of the cutscene sequence by doing anything stupid.
Well that is the newest incarnation of the cutscene, which has many permutations, some exactly like Half Life, other being more clever, like for an example, the starting sequence of Uncharted where the player character is accompanied by an NPC exchanging witty banter and setting up the plot as the player is prevented from sidestepping the sequence by forcing him to solve time consuming puzzles in order to further advancement of the game.
So that is it for the newest incarnation of the ambitions of the "interactive movie" faction, but what of the literary faction who are interested in presenting the player with lengthy lines of dialogue but are forced to hide the fact that they are doing so because walls of text have become inexcusably passe.
Well, the genius of their approach is not that much different from that of the other fraction, but it is different somewhat. I like to call their technique the tape-found-on-bathroom-floor approach. It is a common enough sight, you are controlling your character going through room after room and then suddenly, on the floor of a desolate bathroom you find a tape recording of some sort. You then proceed, if so inclined, to pick it up and then listen to it, either automatically or by way of some menu point.
The genius of this approach is that rather than the piece of text containing important narrated plot points being forced on the player by making them read it through walls of text it is instead turned into an audio stream which then can be played while the player is going about their business of shooting things in the face. Of course most players will find it difficult to pay attention to what is being said and concentrate on shooting fast moving things in the face at the same time. So either they will opt to ignore the narrated pieces of text, no doubt to the unknowing lament of the creator, or will pick these up and listen to them while running circles around themselves in some safe corner to take it all in.
This is all it took to make two archaic narrative mechanics not fitting well with the video game medium go from being contrived to feeling new and accepted, just create the illusion of freedom and you have players fooled.
Of course, well hidden or not, I will argue till my vocal cords break like so many overexerted piano strings that these two approaches are chiefly employed by game makers who unknowingly belong to the aforementioned two fractions, and those two fractions are very much confused about the true nature of successful video game medium narrative technique.
I like to think that if a similar sort of confusion was prevalent regarding how to best approach the film medium then there would likely be two fractions there as well. One I like to imagine as being that of the photographer who merely interprets film as a long series of photographs, and perhaps will think that film would be best utilized to display a long montage of beautiful stills. The other might be the theatre director who will think them as a perfect medium to record and distribute staged theatre plays, completely unchanged.
Both approaches might produce something that vaguely resemble what we know as movies today, but neither will have tapped into their full potential. Of course that is not to say that there is absolutely no room for the sentiments of these two fractions in games. Any creative medium is nothing if it does not allow room to facilitate many interpretations that can exist in perfect harmony along side one another. Last thing we need is for games to be more alike one another, heavens forbid, we already have enough of that.
Lets get back to 999, shall we:
In fact many favourite creators of mine, and in fact my favoured game creations of theirs belong to either factions. I love Hideo Kojima's games despite he himself being so hopelessly stuck in the "interactive movie" fraction that his games can be surgically partitioned into two wholly self contained game and movie sections. Of course the reason why these creations of his hopelessly lopsided sentiments are worth anyone’s time in the end is because no matter the quality of his movie sections, the sections of greatest import to the medium of video games, the gameplay sections are still masterfully executed.
This is one of many ways that one can excuse any lopsided approach to a game from any creator with deep affiliations with any fraction. This then brings me back to the topic at hand, which is the game 999 which is burdened by such a hopelessly lopsided skew toward the "choose your adventure" fraction that while playing it, and being enraptured by it, I could not help to, at its conclusion, be reminded of my old musings on the topic of video game narrative.
999, is a great product, it will likely capture your interest from inception and force you to obsessively play though it several times in rapid succession all while hungering to find the correct path to trigger the best, or true ending, so as to unravel what it was all about.
The plot of 999 is very much structured as a whodunnit mystery and the game itself is an micro evolution of the text adventure genre, which has had many related offshoots in the evolution of game design as a whole. One of the newest incarnation of this genre which has been receiving much exposure this year is Heavy Rain, itself being a sort of halfway point between the "choose your adventure" and interactive movie fractions which have lately been increasingly merging into one entity.
Unlike Heavy Rain, though, which hides its roots well through a sleek interface with very high production values ,999 sits on the very other extreme of the spectrum. This is one game that is as if fallen through time so archaic are the mechanics of its interface. I do not know what Chunsoft, the developers of 999 would choose to classify their game as. But I would not be surprised if it were something in the vein of an interactive novel.
This is certainly how most who play the game would refer to it as and I would not blame them for doing so. The game can roughly be subdivided into two parts, one is referred to in the manual as the novel parts, and the other part, let us call it the puzzle solving one.
The game starts with a puzzle solving section which once completed will roll into the novel part, and this round robin method is continued until the game reaches one of many conclusions. In the novel sections you read text as spoken by the characters, who are in the most underwhelming manner presented by a largely static graphical avatar that is swapped in and out of the screen as each go about their lines of dialogue. Usually at the end of these long sections of required reading you are presented with the option of picking out one from a pool of choices that determine which puzzle you get to solve next.
This choice is important because it plays a great part in determining how the plot progresses, for as with any "choose your adventure" structured narratives there usually is one "correct" way through it all, while the other ones will usually net you a less than satisfactory end.
999 prevents the outcome of wrong choices to become a point of contention by way of clever presentation. Instead of making the wrong path netting you just a death scenario it only lets wrong choices affect the conclusion of the game. Thus even if you get the wrong ending by going through the wrong path you still got to see more of the story and learn more about the characters than you would have by just going through the right path the first time through.
999 makes a few more clever presentation choices that elevate it above most other products of the "choose your adventure" genre. For one after a bad ending you are allowed to overwrite your save with information about the choices that got you there, so all the options that you have previously picked are clearly highlighted in subsequent sessions, encouraging you to experiment with new choices each play through.
One more very clever presentational choice that 999 makes is that it manages to weave this mechanic of playing through the game, and making use of the knowledge you gained by your last play though to aid you in the new one as something of a crucial part of the narrative plot. This might sound confusing, but I suggest you play the game to understand what exactly this means.
I enjoyed 999 very much, in fact, despite Heavy Rain being a very similarly structured game that also benefited from much sleeker interface and production values that put 999's shoestring budget to shame by many orders of magnitude I found myself enjoying 999, despite all of this, more than Heavy Rain by the same orders of magnitude.
How an archaic shoestring budget game beat a multi million production:
The reason for why I liked 999 so much more will bring us back to my previous discussion of the two parts of what makes a good narrative. The reason why I feel that out of these twosome of games hosting a very similar game structure, 999 is the better, despite its shoestring budget and underwhelming interface, is because it presents its narrative more masterfully.
Most, upon playing 999, will be quick to laud it for having a great story, by which they will likely mean that it has a good plot. But I would argue that despite 999's plot being at the very least much more creative than Heavy Rain's pedestrian Saw/Se7en like plot, it is still not really that great.
Even if one could argue for it being great, and ignore the fact that upon scrutiny it is burdened by a barrage of quirks, plot holes, and laughably unrealistic characters, even then I will argue that this is not why I like it better than Heavy Rain, or indeed like it at all. 999 is my favourite of the two, in fact 999 is one of my favourite games played this year because good plot or not, it is told in a much more exciting way than Heavy Rain ever was.
Heavy Rain's creator, David Cage, failed in giving you a story told in an exciting way because his focus in story presentation was solely based on fleshing out his characters, albeit often in very awkward ways. He wanted desperately for the player to get into the head of the characters, and wanted to create excitement by then having you to sympathize with these fleshed out characters being forced into these terrible situations.
In contrast it is clear where most of the effort in 999 was sunk, this being in its masterful unraveling of plot, in short the creators of 999 were the better storytellers. David Cage might fancy that his characters are more realistic than the cardboard cutout anime cliche archetypes making the cast of 999. He might even think that Ethan is the more sympathetic main character because the player is forced to go through the trite routines of his mundane life a family man before tragedy shatters it. But at the end these things don't matter in my opinion, remember, no matter how terribly grey your plot, no matter how cliched, if you present it in a masterful way it will appear much better than even the most dryly told realistic, interesting characters of the most creative of plots.
Unfortunately though, as is the failing of all "choose your adventure" games in both cases almost no effort went into any of the other aspects of the games. Namely those aspects that constitute the game portion of the experience. A such 999, similar to Heavy Rain, because they host nothing with any semblance of exciting dynamic gameplay, settle for gameplay sequences that boil down to memorizing which tasks to perform and in what order, which once figured out become nothing but going through the motions.
Because of this 999, like Heavy Rain, is completely vacated of any appeal for repeated visitation once all of the alternative paths and endings have been unlocked and duly watched. A truly good game is one you will keep coming back to, year after year, even decade after decade and it is still as fun as it ever was. In contrast I doubt I would want to play Heavy Rain or 999 ever again, given any stretch of time, save perhaps if I came to suffer from amnesia.
By the time I unlocked the last sequences in Heavy Rain I had become utterly sick and tired of going through the same sequences, doing the same things in order to get to the parts where I could provoke a fork in the path by doing things slightly differently.
Here though 999 trumps even the sleekness of Heavy Rain's interface by offering you something that Heavy Rain was in desperate need of, a fast forward button allowing you to rapidly fly past the parts that you had already seen once. Needless to say I played most of 999 with the button permanently held down.
In short I liked 999 because it had a well presented narrative, but sirs, do take heed now to not mistake this to mean that I am saying that 999 employed a good narrative presentation technique fit for the medium of video games. Nothing could be farther from the truth, 999 employs a "choose your adventure" literary narrative technique and despite this being an ill fit for the medium of video games, it is still so masterfully presented here that I enjoyed it regardless.
So what I am saying is that masterful presentation can make any type of game, despite narrative approach, exciting. Just because an approach to game making is an ill fit for the medium does not mean that the end product has nothing interesting to offer, and this is because the medium of video games is so very vast.
But the power of well presented narrative transcends games and applies to all narrative venues. Masterful presentation can pull whatever it is hosting straight out of the gutter of bad, contrived and even the most hole ridden of plots. It can mask all of these things and more from the viewer and make them think how great the story was, when in fact they are only lauding the way that it was told, not what was told per say.
Well, sirs, there it is, my long and off track review of 999, the way that I prefer it to be done. After all why do something that has been done a dozen times before unless you can offer a new and interesting approach to the subject matter.
That being said, if you cared enough to read this monolith of text you might now possibly comment that by jove, this fellow managed to speak generous volumes about the two approaches to creating narrative not meaningful to the unique game medium without at all discussing any examples of one being rightly tailored even once.
Well sirs, rest assured there are plenty of examples of that, and I will cover them, if permit be, next time we meet.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via EBGames and reviewed on the Nintendo DSlite. Approximately 20-30 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes completed 5-10 times.
Last edited by kamiboy; 01-01-2011 at 09:09 PM.