Why do so few video games have truly great stories? We have some suggestions for developers and share some of our favorites. Plus: Roger Ebert breaks our hearts, and Chi and Tim finally have a reason to talk about Wing Commander. Brad is thrilled! Featuring Chi Kong Lui, Brad "Likely Going To Hell" Gallaway, Richard Naik, and Tim Spaeth.
Tim Spaeth: Here we go, folks: GameCritics.com podcast number 33. I'm your delightful host, Tim Spaeth. Let's say 'allo to the cast, starting with our founder and owner, Chi Kong Lui. Hi, Chi.
Chi Kong Lui: Hey, Tim. What's up, guys?
Tim Spaeth: Great to be back with you. Also joining us, Brad Gallaway.
Brad Gallaway: Hey, gentlemen.
Tim Spaeth: And pinch-hitting at the eleventh hour for the missing Mike Bracken, who has other, more important business this evening, welcome back to the show Mr. Richard Naik.
Richard Naik: Gute nacht, gentlemen.
Tim Spaeth: Great to have you, sir. I keep meaning to say this, but something I'm very proud of is that we are one of the only video game podcasts—if not the only video game podcast—to provide a written transcript of our show for the hearing-impaired. The transcripts are prepared by our colleague, Tera Kirk, who is also a game reviewer and just a fantastic person who does these transcripts in her free time, completely free of charge.
I just wanted to thank Tera and remind people that these transcripts are out there. I think she probably spends as much time transcribing the show as we do preparing and recording it. Major, major props to Tera. Just wanna remind you you can find those transcripts at GameCritics.com right along with the episodes at the podcast links. Our thanks to Tera.
Brad Gallaway: Absolutely thanks to Tera. I don't know if you guys have ever transcribed anything, but I have, and man. It is the most painful, tedious, hateful thing I've ever done. So I'm just blown away that Tera does it for free every time we do one of these shows. Yeah, I absolutely agree with that, Tim. Major props to Tera.
Tim Spaeth: Our big topic this week: The art (yes, I said "art") of storytelling in games. But first I thought we would read a letter from our mailbag. We haven't done this in a while. I have my assistant Phillipe here; he has reached into the mailbag, pulled out a letter, he's handed it to me. Thank you, Phillipe. I appreciate that. You smell great today, by the way; what is that fragrance? White Diamonds. That's the Liz Taylor perfume? Well, you smell great.
Richard Naik: Dude's got expensive tastes.
Tim Spaeth: No; I think it's a Target fragrance. It's 19 bucks at Target.
Richard Naik: Shows you how much I know about perfume.
Tim Spaeth: Why do I know that exact price? Anyway, here's the letter. This letter comes from husker75—probably not his real name. He writes:
"We are all sick of Roger Ebert's declaration that games will never be considered art. He's at it again. Nevertheless, as the Internet's preeminent defenders of games as art, I would appreciate your take on the latest Ebert controversy. Thanks very much. PS: It would be awesome if you guys could do a segment on Microsoft Game Room. Preferably make it at least 45 minutes long.
Hm. Interesting. [Laughter] We'll come back to that second part, but let's talk about Roger Ebert. Chi, I'm gonna pass it over to you. We talked a bit before the show; you had something of a unique take on this: that our listener maybe buried the headline, missed the point a bit.
Chi Kong Lui: It's not so much the letter-writer missed the point. As he said, this isn't the first time Ebert has made this proclamation that games aren't art. What was kind of funny about the way he did it this time was that he had somebody refer him to Kellee Santiago, one of the founding partners of thatgamecompany that created the lovely game Flower. She gave a conference speech and made an impassioned plea about moving on from that [debate] that games are art.
It was bizarre, because Ebert said he liked her. He thought she was a good personality and charming, on and on, and then proceeded to just troll every single thing she said and rip her to shreds, and just really made some of the most ignorant and bizarre comments. As most of the readers at GameCritics know, I'm a big fan of Siskel and Ebert; Siskel's death was what inspired the creation of GameCritics.com. I've always admired Ebert as a progressive-minded hero, and everything he wrote sort of just shattered that. Really, just a lot of ignorant, wrong-headed statements.But before we get into some of the grisly details, I wanna hear what you guys have to say about it first.
Brad Gallaway: I agree with you, Chi. I used to hold Ebert in really high esteem. He's done a lot of things in film; he's been one of the preeminent voices that I look to. He's up there in terms of film criticism, and I think he's done so much for film. But I just am really shocked at the level of the trollishness that he's behaved with on this issue. For someone who is an unarguably intelligent, well-spoken, respectable individual, I can't believe the level that he's stooped to when it comes to games.
It's almost like if Martin Luther King had turned around and said: "Well, I hate Jews." That would pretty much shatter everybody's image of Martin Luther King. To me, for Ebert to be a defender and a proponent of film for all these years, to turn around and say: "You know what? Games are not art. They're never art, and people who like games suck," it totally undoes all the respect and all the admiration I had for him. Honestly, I'm just hatin' on the guy right now. It's pretty bad.
Chi Kong Lui: Some of the things that he said were just…he came off like a complete fascist, or those media watchdogs that complain about music having profanity or [that it's] destroying our culture, and never listen to the song. And then [people] are like: "Well, don't you think you should listen to the song so that you know what they're talking about?" "Oh, no, I don't have to listen to it. I've heard people talk about it. That's how I've formed my judgement." And that's what Ebert's basically saying.
Richard Naik: I think it suggests something along the lines that he just doesn't understand how gaming has evolved over the years. He still sees it as a kiddie thing, I guess.
Brad Gallaway: The thing that really stumps me is he's such a smart guy. Granted, he's old. Whenever you get old, if you don't keep that "young at heart" spirit within you, you're gonna crustify. You're gonna get all cranky and crotchety. You have to actively work at staying young at heart and being open to new things.
As an example of that, I just was watching the news the other day. There's a 99-year-old lady who just got an iPad, and she loves it. She's going through it and learning the features. That's a great example of somebody who is from an older generation and is able to at least try to stay current and be open to new things.
In terms of Ebert, it's like he doesn't even want to be open to the possibility that there might be something there. For someone so well-spoken and so well-read to take that attitude is shocking to me. Really intelligent people will admit when they don't know something, and it's very clear to anybody who's listening to this argument and what he's written that he doesn't know jack shit about games. Rather than say that, or rather than even saying: "I don't know enough to comment" or "I don't think they are [art] but I haven't done enough research," the way that he's just trolled off into the stratosphere has just completely turned me off.
To me, it's almost to the point of ruining his legacy. Now, everything he says and has said is colored by this. It just has ruined my image of him.
Tim Spaeth: We've said many times on this show that a major deterrent to games becoming accepted in higher circles of culture and society and art is time. I think this is a perfect example. Old people have to die, and we have to become the old people. Then this problem goes away. Ebert is not alone in his opinion.
This is really just a cycle, though, isn't it? A few generations ago critics were defending film as art and 50 years from now there will be some crazy new telepathy-based media that we won't understand, and we'll be the crazy old people who are out of touch. This has all happened before; it will all happen again. It's just that Ebert's on the podium right now.
Chi Kong Lui: I agree with what Brad was saying about how shocking it was. I never thought he was that guy. You would think, from his previous writing and from his knowledge of film, the history of film mirrors that of video games almost identically. At the origin of film, it was nothing more than a little game and special effect, and it's evolved to what it is now. That's what's particularly upsetting about it.
Richard Naik: There was a recent Penny Arcade that I think absolutely nailed it. The first panel says: "It's the job of young people to make things which old people despise. It's the job of old people like Roger Ebert to denigrate the work of the young. That is the system. Someday, we will hate them ourselves."
Chi Kong Lui: I hope I don't become that guy, but yeah.
Tim Spaeth: I will. We will all become that guy. It is a cycle. I have no doubt that we will all become that guy. We got an e-mail, though, that I wanted to quote. It's very eloquent, and it's from Malik G. He says:
"To people like me who have always grown up with video games present in part of my life, the question of whether or not video games are art is an unasked one—unasked because it's taken as a given by me and by my peers. Ebert's comments gave me pause to question if, when and whether video games are art, and for that I'm thankful, first and foremost. It's good for we who love video games to be challenged: not to be so insular and simply believe what we've always believed….I don't believe I've been moved to tears by any game. I've certainly been awed by beauty and not just technical prowess, cheered in triumph and not just from completing a game, and challenged morally and intellectually. That definitely sounds like art to me.
So again, that was Malik G. That's also his Twitter handle if you want to check out more of what he has to say. We wanted to thank him for contributing that.
Chi Kong Lui: The whole point of Kellie Santiago's conference was that this really isn't an argument anymore. I wrote about this subject in 2003, almost a decade ago by now. While Malik makes a good point about not being too insular, a lot of people have thought about this before and that's the issue. I'm 100 percent with Kellie, in that Ebert's just made himself completely irrelevant. We just need to ignore him at this point and move on and really worry about this topic as it is.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, I would agree with that. I definitely agree with what you're saying, with what Kellie was saying, and certainly with what Malik was saying. I think most of us who actually take the time to play games, unlike a certain film critic…It's like Malik said. It's not even an argument. It's just known.
That argument was over a long time ago and the only people still crying foul are people who don't spend any time playing games. Obviously, why would we want to listen to what they say? You don't take restaurant reviews on steak from a vegetarian, and you don't take art reviews from a blind person, so why would you listen to Roger Ebert's views about games? He simply doesn't play them and doesn't care to even investigate them.
I definitely think that the topic now is not whether or not they are art. They are—period. It's just for someone of his standing to take this really narrow-minded stance and to sound off so loudly, he is effectively at this moment the world's most powerful troll. He's got millions of readers. He's got more troll power than all the trolls on NeoGAF combined. So I think that's really the issue: He doesn't know what the hell he's talking about, but he can spout off and all of America hears what he has to say. To me, that's really the most offensive. It's kind of a crime that someone has a podium like that and he chooses to crap all over it.
Chi Kong Lui: And also, to Ebert's comment about why we care so much about what he has to say, like Mike says: "Come on, Rog. Do we really need to answer that?" It's totally shitting on our values and what we hold dear in life. The obvious thing is validation, but it's not just validation. Do black people protest [for] civil rights because they wanna be validated? That's part of it, but that's not the only reason. They're standing up for what they believe is right. That's what a lot of these gamers are doing, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Tim Spaeth: I do wanna mention that we did ask Roger to join us on the podcast tonight so that he could defend his position, but, well, you know.
Brad Gallaway: It just came out like [noise.]
Tim Spaeth: That's just not classy.
Brad Gallaway: I wouldn't normally take a shot like that because I'm not really into making fun of people's physical disabilities. But when someone says he's too well-read to know about video games, I call serious bullshit on that. He earned that one.
Chi Kong Lui: Oh, man. We're all going to hell now. We're all going to hell in a handbasket.
Richard Naik: No comment.
Tim Spaeth: We have to take a break. When we come back, the art of storytelling. Stay with us.
In 2004, developer Warren Spector stood before the Game Developers' Conference and offered this challenge to the masses. He said: "Defend the quality of a single game's story against that of your average B-movie." No one took him up on the challenge. Here we are six years later, and I wonder if the response would be any different. I think it would be. That is our topic tonight: the art of game storytelling and game stories we love. The craft of developing characters, motivation, structure, narrative.
Now, Richard, it's convenient that you're here tonight. You recently wrote a piece for the site entitled: "Why does game storytelling have such low standards?" Let's start there: Why does game storytelling have such low standards?
Richard Naik: The reason I think [so] is because more often than not, the story is a very secondary aspect of game design and game development. Just think about it: how often is the game defined by gameplay mechanics or aesthetic? Just look at something like God of War. What's the story? Kratos angry—rawr! That's the story, and that's fine. That's all it needs. You look at other games: the story doesn't have to be some epic tale or even a good story, for that matter, for it to be a good game. This [piece] was inspired by playing Heavy Rain and it getting all kinds of praise for advancing the art of storytelling in games so much. I'm like: "No, no. No you haven't. It's still a terrible story."
Tim Spaeth: In the article, you name-check some games where you thought the story did work for you. Tell us about those, and more importantly, why you thought the story worked.
Richard Naik: BioShock does this great setting of the dystopia— why it's a dystopia, what exactly happened there. I've talked about Dragon Age before; it was my Game of the Year pick last year. It was just the most definitive RPG story you could possibly ask for: great characters, great background story, great epic fantasy lore kinda thing.
Aquaria is something that just does a very good job of weaving the story into gameplay without having to stop to take you out of gameplay to tell the story. It's something like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time did, where's he's just walking along and thinking to himself. Sometimes he's talking to the girl, sometimes he's not, stuff like that. And then The Longest Journey is my favorite game story ever. It fits the adventure game model perfectly. It's just great writing all around.
Brad Gallaway: I definitely agree that people in the industry right now need to change the way that they look at the way stories are implemented. It's exactly like Richard said. Most often, games are framed in terms of gameplay, game aesthetics, game design, game mechanics. Those are all well and good and they're all very, very important.
But at the same time, I really don't see that any of those things has to trump or push aside story. I don't see why story has to take such a big backseat. Honestly, speaking from personal experience, I know that writers don't make that much money. It doesn't cost that much to hire a writer. I realize that it's more than having a writer and incorporating [the story] into your game.
But it's really disappointing to see that so many developers treat it as an afterthought. I think that if they did take a little more time to really craft a quality story, it wouldn't have to override the gameplay. It would only supplement it. If you make a really delicious hamburger, a hamburger's great. Buyt if the bun is moldy and rotten, it takes away from the entire burger. The burger is still good, but you're not gonna enjoy it as much as you could if the bun was really nice and toasted and had sesame seeds. Why don't we continue to make great burgers like we've been doing, and let's just put a little bit more attention on the bun?
Tim Spaeth: I think in a lot of situations the writer comes in after the game is well into the design phase. I know that at Valve the policy is for the writer of the game to be in the room with the developer in the design sessions from day one. That process resulted in what I think is the game that has the best story from the last three years: Portal, which was written by Erik Wolpaw.
That is a game about essentially two characters: a test subject, and a mad computer. What works so well for me in that game is not just the writing—which is hilarious—and the computer's descent into madness as the game passes on, but also the elements of story that are built into the environment, that are built into the game itself: the notes that you find scratched into the wall by prior test subjects warning you that there's more to what's going on than meets the eye. It really helps build the mystery. I think Valve are masters at that. That policy of having that writer in the room from minute one works really well for them.
Half-Life 2 is a game that does that tremendously well. I know, Richard, you didn't care for it as much as I do, storywise. But really, the entire story of what happens between Half-Life and Half-Life 2 is built right there into the world if you look around. That's what I'm looking for: not just a story to be told in cut-scenes and dialogue, but to have it built into that world that I'm playing in.
Brad Gallaway: I do agree with the Valve philosophy of having writers on the ground from step one; I totally am down with that. I don't think that they are the best storytellers. I don't particularly care for the way they tell their stories, but I do recognize their attempt. I think it's a very valid one. To me, that's a really great way of telling a story in an immersive, non-verbal fashion.
It doesn't really work for me that well in their games. To have a mute protagonist and to have a lot of events which need to be strung together…like Tim said, you have to connect the dots. For whatever reason in those games, I just didn't really care to. But in other games I do. I think that style of storytelling is certainly valid. I don't mean to say that it's not.
My example of something of that nature would probably be closer to ICO, where the story of the game is there, but it's up to the player to make inferences and to absorb it from the environment. In ICO I think there's two or three lines of dialogue in the whole game—there's barely anything. There's not a lot of text, there's no cut-scenes, but the player who pays attention and just goes along with the game and really looks at what the developers have crafted, there's a really rich story to be told there. It just is simply not told by a cut-scene or text.
Richard Naik: Yeah. I'll say that that technique worked really well in Portal. I totally got what you were saying there, Tim, with the stuff that's scrawled on the walls, all the radios and everything else left around the lab. I wanna say it worked fairly well in Shadow of the Colossus; it kind of tailed off near the end, but it did go pretty good in that game as well. Not so much in Half-Life 2, for the reasons I said in that article. But I totally understand that concept of telling the story through the environment, without words.
Chi Kong Lui: It's interesting you guys frame this topic in the context of the structure and the setting. When I think of storytelling or writing, I tend to think of characters. The first thing that comes to mind for me in the earliest days of the PlayStation is this character Jose Estrada from Front Mission 3. Do you guys remember that?
Brad Gallaway: I remember not liking Front Mission, but I don't remember Jose. Sorry.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] The background story of him really struck me. I don't know how [well] it holds up, and I don't know how the game holds up overall 'cause it's been quite a few years. I think one of the weaknesses of game storytelling and game characters in general is they tend to just bw caricatures. They take the characters we've seen in movies and books and they just transfer it over to games and think that's enough. They very often do not apply very good background stories, motivations, histories and that sort of thing. [It's] just: "He's a tough guy," or an ignorant-sounding ebonics guy from Final Fantasy VII. Why is he that way? It doesn't matter: he's black. That's good enough for video games. Unfortunately, that's offensive for a lot of other people.
Richard Naik: You didn't watch Advent Children. It was way worse than that.
Chi Kong Lui: I hate Final Fantasy VII for a lot of these reasons. I know this is shocking to people who grew up on Final Fantasy VII. Let's not get too distracted here.
Going back to Front Mission 3, what I loved about this character [Jose Estrada], it was a very different take on it. It was really very sad. What happened was his wife and child had died as part of a military accident that he was involved with, and he was filled with regret after that. I don't remember too many more details beyond that, but it wasn't your typical stereotype or caricature. On top of that, he was also Filipino. Even today, there's still not to many Filipino video game characters.
Brad Gallaway: Wow. He must be the only one, because I can't even name one.
Chi Kong Lui: A large part of the game took place in the Philippines, and there were two different major characters that were Filipino. Again, interesting nationality, unique backstory. It was really sad and tragic, and it always stuck with me. It was only one particular character in that game.
Later on, the two games that stand out in my mind are Way of the Samurai and Dragon Age: Origins. It's not a long list. Like Richard was saying about Heavy Rain, and for me it's Uncharted 2: people throw certain things up on the screen, and just because it sounds like good writing or it's progressive, people automatically assume that it's just brilliant.
There's just some basic Storytelling 101 things going on. You have to understand the plight of the character; you have to understand what their motivation is. Going back to Dragon Age, that just had it in spades. I can't think of a more perfect character than Morrigan, actually. That's probably gonna go down in history as one of my favorite characters ever. She's not sympathetic. She's completely arrogant and cocky and you understand why. She's been raised by this omnipotent witch and she's isolated in this forest. She's very powerful and she's smoking hot. It all makes sense. She goes out there and she's abrasive and at the same time, still has her moments of growth and development.
Richard Naik: That's actually what got me the most about the Dragon Age characters: not just Morrigan, [but] several of them. They will change and they will adapt based on what you do with them. Especially Morrigan; Morrigan will actually admit to having feelings, especially if you complete her romance subplot. You can actually get Leliana to renounce her faith. You can actually make Zevran into a very emotional character. In the very beginning when you meet him, he's this cold-hearted assassin. He's like: "Yeah, I might die, but whatever." He will actually change quite a bit if you complete his conversation trees.
Chi Kong Lui: The best part about it as that none of that comes out forced. It's ironic, because as you say, you make it happen so it sounds like it's automatically forced, but it's not. I think the game series out there that gets the most credit for being the "story" game series is Final Fantasy, and one thing I never get over about Final Fantasy is that everything is forced. Everything is completely stereotyped and they're all caricatures and you know this person's gonna die and it's gonna traumatize that person and give them angst and drama. What I love about Dragon Age is that despite the fact that a lot of it's player-initiated, it still comes out completely organic and completely believable. That's what I loved about it.
It's the same for me for Way of the Samurai. Every single character has their own unique ambitions, their own unique motivations, which fits well with the gameplay. The original concept of Way of the Samurai before it hit Part 3 was that the game would play itself if you chose not to do anything. The characters have to have that level of detail. Those are the two games that stand out to me as examples of great characters and good storytelling.
Tim Spaeth: I'm a little disappointed, Chi, that you didn't bring up Wing Commander.
Chi Kong Lui: Interesting you say that. Do you wanna hear my reason why, or do you wanna talk about Wing Commander first?
Tim Spaeth: No; I wanna hear your reasons why you didn't bring it up.
Chi Kong Lui: I love Wing Commander to death, as you know—probably as much as you do or maybe a little less, 'cause I know you're the biggest Wing Commander fan out there. [Laughter] The only reason I didn't cite Wing Commander was that it was in such early stages of PC gaming and they were just starting to develop some great characters there. But I didn't find that they had great background motivations. They had personalities that were better than most caricatures.
Maybe I'm gonna recant that, 'cause as I'm talking I remember Spirit Tanaka having this long history. She's the one that stands out, as far as having generations or something like that.
Tim Spaeth: Yeah. That was gonna be my counter-argument, was Spirit and her story that evolves through the two games, culminating in her noble sacrifice. I can't remember the exact details, but I know she sacrifices her life in an epic mission cut-scene, and that propels the plot in a different direction as she inspires you to greatness.
Chi Kong Lui: I guess also those Ninja Gaiden-type cut-scenes just don't do it for me, as far as believability. Again, it was great for its time and I love those games, but it's just not the same effect as Dragon Age and Way of the Samurai.
Brad Gallaway: Not to get bogged down in the details, but it sounds to me like the common thread between all the things that you guys just name-checked was the writers of those projects really took the time to connect on at least a small level of humanity. It was not just a caricature, but these characters had little bits of humanity that a player could connect with on a personal level. I found that to be very true in Dragon Age; I found that to be very true in the first Mass Effect, and even in some parts of Mass Effect 2.
I think all the best games that really succeed in that kind of storytelling just take a step back and they realize that it's possible to add little bits of humanity in addition to having really solid gameplay. The two things are not mutually exclusive. Even Gears of War, which I think is really derided as being a macho, balls-out testosterone fest…In Gears of War 2, even though that game had its own issues, I really thought that the big scene when Dom gets his big revelation in the middle—
Chi Kong Lui: Just spoil it, dude. It's already been spoiled for me and I haven't even played the game yet. [Laughter]
Brad Gallaway: Okay. What happens is, Dom the secondary character is looking for his wife. A large part of the game, they're talking about: "We gotta do these missions. We're gonna do XYZ, but if we get the chance, let's look around for my wife. Maybe I'll find her, maybe I won't." He's a soldier; he's rough; he's tough. But when they finally do catch up to his wife, even though I didn't feel like it was really done all that well, I really admired the fact that they even tried. To me, that was a step in the right direction.
You can criticise Gears of War for lots of things, and even I've done it myself, but I do wanna give them props. One of the things that I really thought was the best about that particular scene was when you finally do find Dom's wife, she comes out of this containment/jar/prison-thing, and she looks beautiful: she's fully dressed, her hair's really great. I remember looking at that and thinking: "What are they doing? How is she looking so beautiful? She's in this prison underground, and there's monsters. What's going on?"
In the very next sequence, you see her as she actually is: she's totally scarred, she's bloody, she's beaten. For them to even think about showing her the way that Dom would see her after missing her for so long, to me, captured a really special part of who that character could've been and kind of was. I think if more developers took the time—if you can do a little bit of romantic emotion in Gears of War, you can do it in any game, as far as I'm concerned. You can at least make the attempt. I think that not enough games really even make the attempt. It's not hard to add humanity wherever you can, and I really wish that people would do that more.
Richard Naik: Just to piggyback on top of that: It is good that they would make the attempt, but this gets it back to some of the reason why I didn't understand why Heavy Rain got accolades for great storytelling. It's like the fact that they attempted to tell this great mystery story about this dad doing anything to save his son, or in some other games, there's an attempt to have an epic story. You can attempt to have an epic story, fine, but it's not good. And if it's not good, then it's not good still. An attempt does not make good.
Brad Galelaway: Right, right. I definitely agree, but I think the difference between Heavy Rain and Gears of War is that with Gears of War, I don't think anybody expected anything besides lots of running and shooting—which is a pretty big difference. For me, the fact that they tried to even get that little bit in there showed that they were really trying to step up their game, which was really appreciated.
But with Heavy Rain, that game was built, conceived, advertised…that game lived and died on the fact that it was "cinematic" and rich with story and that it told this emotional tale. To position itself like that and then to drop the ball as often and as thoroughly and as hard as they did was why everybody hammered it so hard. If you tell everybody in the world you're the best dancer and you get up and you've got two left feet, you look like an ass.
For Gears to do that little bit with Dom's wife, I'm giving them props, which was great. Nobody expected anything but bullets. But with Heavy Rain, I think we all expected at least a serviceable story. That game has so many plotholes and problems, you cannot take it seriously.
Tim Spaeth: Brad, I'm looking at your top 10 games of all time, and you've gotta have some story-related thoughts about your number one: Snatcher.
Brad Gallaway: Oh yeah, absolutely. I was actually gonna bring up Snatcher as an example of old-school storytelling. I think we've changed modalities in certain ways, like you guys were talking about with Half-Life: the immersive, non-verbal storytelling is a newer thing that's only been possible due to advanced technology and more detail in environments. I do think it's great, but back in the day, you couldn't really do that all that much. So you had to rely on really good cut-scenes, clever writing to stand out from the crowd.
For those of you who don't know, Snatcher is one of Hideo Kojima's earliest works, if not his earliest work. I'm sure he's done smaller things, and I'm sure we're gonna get e-mails saying: "What are you doing? You don't know nothing about games! That was not it!" If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but I believe that Snatcher was his first big-budget project.
That was a very traditional graphic adventure where the game, just like Heavy Rain, lived and died on its story. If the story in Snatcher would not have been good, it wouldn't have really gone anywhere. But it did. The characters I thought for the time were extremely well-done, really well-rounded. They had little bits of humanity, little bits of humor in between the action and the horror. There were lots of little clever bits that you could come across. It showed to me that Kojima and the rest of his team really did take the time to craft these characters as more than just stereotypes or caricatures.
Part of my keeping it at number one is nostalgia for those bygone days, but I actually did play it again not too long ago, and I was really impressed with how well it held up. If you take the technical aspects that don't hold up so much out of the equation, the voicework and the writing and just the craft of the storytelling itself—the traditional, old-school, non-interactive, director telling you what he wants you to see storytelling—it was all really, really well-done. In fact, I would hold that up as probably superior to anything Kojima has done sense, including the entire Metal Gear series. If anybody gets the chance, I would definitely recommend that as a great example of old-school storytelling.
Chi Kong Lui: Did you dig up your old Sega CD to play that?
Brad Gallaway: I did, a couple years ago. I was moving, and I came across the box that it was in and I hadn't seen it in years and years. I was like: "Oh, my God. I hope it still works." And it worked, and I was like: "Okay, I'm gonna play it one more time, because if I play it two more times it's gonna break." And then it really held up; it was really cool. I love Snatcher. I totally wish that they would re-release that. It so desperately needs to be re-released. I'm sad that it hasn't been more widely available.
Chi Kong Lui: Tim, I'm actually disappointed that you didn't go on a little further. I'm disappointed by your general counter for Wing Commander. I expected more out of you there. Did we cut you off short? Was there more to the argument? If you had to just frame it as how you would frame it, what was your big thing? You didn't even get into [parts] three and four.
Tim Spaeth: In the early '90s, the promise of games as movies was something I really bought into. When I saw, for example, the first footage of Rebel Assault (if you remember the old Star Wars CD Rom games), that was something that I was entranced by. The idea that I could have an interactive movie, full-motion video, all that stuff I completely bought into just as a techonologist, and to be able to see something like that on a computer screen.
Wing Commander 2—which I know predates the full-motion video—still maintained the open mission structure of the first game. You could still fail; you could still lose the campaign. But it brought more scripted characters, more cinematic moments that I found more compelling than the first game. I was going to give the example of Spirit. If you lost a wingman in the first game, people might've mentioned them once and then you'd never hear about them again. But they died because you didn't play the game well enough. To me, that wasn't as impactful as Wing 2, where a character would die as a result of something scripted—Spirit's motivation, Jazz turns out to be a traitor and you foil his plans to sabotage the fleet and you find redemption. The story was just more epic, I think, because it was scripted. It was just infused with drama.
Chi Kong Lui: Let me ask you this, and I think this is where we'll start to disagree about Wing Commander 2. Do you think the story in general holds up?
Tim Spaeth: I think the story of Christopher Blair—that he had been branded a traitor, that he lost his standing in the fleet and that he was standing on some backwater mining station for 10 years—to me, that was a huge deal coming to Wing Commander 2. The story of his redemption was a much more personal story that I connected to more than the more, frankly, generic space war battle against an alien race story in the first game.
Chi Kong Lui: Interesting.
Tim Spaeth: It was just a grander story, but also a more personal one. A lot of that had to do with the technology. In the first game, you were only on the Tiger's Claw. In the second game, you were going from station to station, from capital ship to capital ship, based mostly around the Concordia. But it was just a bigger game. They could put more characters in and more locations, more ship types. It was just more epic.
Richard Naik: I felt almost the exact same way about Dark Forces and Dark Forces 2. I remember in the original Dark Forces, you're Kyle Katarn and then there's robot Stormtroopers, and that's basically it: there's no story. When I started seeing some of the previews for the second game, Jedi Knight, they said they were gonna have live action video sequences, there was gonna be this story arc about Katarn's father and there were gonna be these seven Dark Jedi you were gonna fight. I was like: "Man! This is gonna be an awesome story!" I couldn't wait to get into it.
The live-action stuff was so awful. It was just so poorly acted and just…bleh. Think about the [Star Wars] prequels: it was actually a little bit worse than that. It was terrible.
Tim Spaeth: The only games that really lived up to the promise of full-motion video, in my mind, were the Wing Commander games, three and four. I didn't care for the fifth one, but three and four were the only games that really captured the potential. That's just because they threw so much money at it at they were the best looking games. If you go back and watch Wing Commander 4, there were a lot of big name actors. Not just Mark Hamil, but Casper Van Deen from Starship Troopers.
Brad Gallaway: Oscar-winning Casper Van Deen.
Tim Spaeth: Oscar-winning Casper Van Deen. A couple West Wing cast members can be found in there. That's an acting master class, my friends.
Chi Kong Lui: I think, Tim, where you and I differ with Wing Commander 1 and 2 is that I thought the plot for Wing Commander 1, while primitive, is nicely understated, I'll say [Laughter] and organic. It's not meant to have epic plot twists. I respect what you're saying with Wing Commander 2, but for me it's a little bit forced: the whole "He's a traitor and this guy's a double agent and somebody has to die and it's a happy ending and redemption." That all felt a little too heavy-handed to me.
Tim Spaeth: Yeah. I definitely can see where you're coming from there. I think part of it as well was just the presentation of that game. For me, it was my first game with a speech sound card, so I'm hearing all of the dialogue played back for me and it really just put me into that game. It will probably be in my top 10 for the rest of my life.
Chi Kong Lui: As for three and four, I remember turning on the cheat code for both of those games and just ignoring the flight parts, just to watch the full-motion video sequences and to get the story. I was not crazy about the gameplay, and I think my computer couldn't handle the polygons at the time, so that didn't help, either. But I wasn't crazy about the flight engine at that point.
I will say this, and it's kind of a compliment to those two games. I don't think they were great stories, but to its credit, I wanted to see what happened. I think they held up okay. I don't think you'd really consider them masterpieces today, but they were certainly interesting contributions and I think they did full-motion video justice in a lot of ways.
Tim Spaeth: At the time, there was nothing of that scale and budget on the market, and they really stood out for that reason. But you're right: not great, amazing stories. Still, you go watch those clips on YouTube, they're still totally watchable.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] I will do that. ar Richard Naik: Tim, just to jump on what you were saying about how much more inpactful it was to hear the dialogue actually spoken, for me that was TIE Fighter. Just to reveal my inner Star Wars geek here, the big sell of the dialogue in that game was I actually got to hear Grand Admiral Thrawn talk. I'm like: "Man, this guy's gonna have an awesome voice!" He sounded like some alcoholic you'd run into at a bar at 3:00 am.
Tim Spaeth: I was gonna say: Thrawn was really unimpressive in that game.
Richard Naik: I know; his voice was awful. And he made all kinds of terrible tactical decisions, too. I'm like: "Wow. This is bad."
Tim Spaeth: We're done; Brad, take it.
Brad Gallaway: Are you done?
Richard Naik: No, I wanna talk about the TIE Defender, the best Starfighter ever. No, no. I'm kidding.
Brad Gallaway: I'm trying to get this thing back on track for those who have not played those games, myself included. A lot of people played those games, which is great and I'm all for that, but I want to bring it up to a higher level and continue the thread that you guys started. Number one, you guys mentioned budget, which I think is really important. Number two, Richard just mentioned voice acting, which I think is important, also. The third thing is the kind of scripted storytelling that Tim mentioned.
We've already talked about the immersive storytelling in Half-Life and ICO. I mentioned old-school storytelling like in Snatcher, where the player had no say in what happened whatsoever. But in talking about a more modern type of scripting. I think probably a good example of blending those things is the first Mass Effect and to lesser degree Mass Effect 2. I don't want this to be the BioWare cheerleading show, but it seemed to me that when Tim was talking about the epic moments that were scripted, I felt the exact same thing.
A lot of the end segments of Mass Effect once events start going. You don't have a lot of say in what happens—you do have a say over your team and certain decisions, but a lot of the larger, action-packed decisions are scripted. You really get a great sense of action; you really feel like you get swept up in what's going on, the energy level gets really ramped up.
The same thing for the end of Mass Effect 2. I think a lot of that game was a snore, but when you finally get to the end mission, you got all your team together and you start going through the base. Then all the sudden all these scripted events start happening and all these things start popping. It really shows the power of what good writing—good scripting, even—can do.
I know a lot of people these days are rebelling against scripting and saying: "Oh, no, no no. We need to have emergent, freeform gameplay which has no rules, and we need to have sandbox design, where I, the player, get to make all the decisions. That's valid to a certain point, but I don't think that negates the scripting type of philosophy. That's the way that books are; that's the way that movies are. I think that games are really lucky, because we can have great scripting in addition to letting the player have a certain degree of choice.
For example, Mass Effect: I think all of us have played that. Chi, did you play Mass Effect 1?
Chi Kong Lui: I started playing it, but I didn't get past 15 hours, I think.
Brad Gallaway: That game has budget; it has really awesome voice acting; it has awesome scripting. Do you guys think that the way that game approaches storytelling is just as valid as the other ones we've discussed? Do you like it more? Do you like it less? Why or why not?
Richard Naik: Just to compare and contrast that with Knights of the Old Republic, which does have a little bit more response to player choice. The ending of KOTOR is totally different depending on what side you choose, whereas in Mass Effect the ending is always the same. It's just a matter of a bunch of minute details like who is alive, who isn't, what sort of stature that you have at the end.
I think that scripted stories can be great. It's kind of how Dan was talking about on the Heavy Rain post-mortem. It's hard to come up with a story that works within the confines of a game a lot of the time. Trying to do that and taking into account player choice and how this can happen, this can happen, this can happen and the game has to respond can be insanely difficult from a writing standpoint. That's the value I see of a scripted story: "We're not gonna try to do all this stuff here. We're just gonna have a scripted story, have it hopefully be good, and everything'll be fine."
Obviously, there are ways where you can have that freeform thing. In Dragon Age, there's a lot of response to player choice. Mass Effect obviously has it. But there's also great examples of scripted ones, like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Aquaria, Wing Commander 2 like Tim talked about. (I haven't played any of the Wing Commander games, either, but I'll take his word for it).
I think both can work under the correct circumstances. But having a story that responds to player initiative, at least on the level of something like Dragon Age, is a much larger investment of development time and development resources.
Brad Gallaway: I would agree with that. But taking the choice out of it for just a moment, just having a good story that has a beginning, a middle and end that holds up is not really that tough. Granted, I haven't made a game, I'm not a developer. But at the same time, reading as much as I have, writing as much as I have, taking in as much media as I have, there are certain tenets to storytelling that if more developers adhered to, even if they chose to go the totally scripted route, I think that a lot of games could have pretty fantastic stories. Are you guys on board with that?
Chi Kong Lui: Yeah, I agree with that 100 percent. Unfortunately, though, it's so rare we see that in video games. I think the prior king of scripted video games has always been Final Fantasy. That's always been its one moniker. But I think the title rightfully belongs to BioWare, if you ask me. I think they definitely are doing it in much more progressive and interesting, and sometimes more interactive ways, when it came to Dragon Age.
Tim Spaeth: Yeah. I don't think there's been a Final Fantasy with a logical throughline, beginning, middle, and end since probably Final Fantasy VI. You can make the [same] argument about Final Fantasy and Grand Theft Auto: the stories become incomprehensible halfway to three-quarters of the way through the game.
Chi Kong Lui: They started going awry with VI already, because that had one of the worst endings in video game history, where there was no ending. They just didn't know what the fuck to do with any of these characters.
Going back to what you were saying, Brad, about storytelling not being too difficult, I'm alwaya reminded of the epic 10-part YouTube review of Episode I that came out in 2009. That review perfectly encapsulated that: making a decent, good, classic story, it's been done to death to the point where if you just follow these simple steps, you should be able to do it. So it's not hard in that regard. And yet, it just baffles the mind how people screw it up time and time and time again.
Brad Gallaway: Exactly. We've got I don't even know how many years worth of literature. Game developers could pick any decent book, simply copy the plot points point for point and have a good story there. Like you said, it's not reinventing the wheel. It's simply following what people have done for decades. I'm not even gonna talk about originality and creativity. I'm saying we need to just get people down with the basics. Once they have the basics, then they can start getting all crazy with it. But we're not even with the basics level in most instances. It's pretty embarrassing, actually.
Tim Spaeth: I think we're all in agreement that it's a rare if not impossible scenario where a good story would harm a game. A good story can make any game, no matter what the game is, better.
Richard Naik: It's like I was saying before: God of War, it's not very good, but it doesn't really matter. Whereas in Heavy Rain, the story's terrible and it makes the game bad for it.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] I'm always reminded of Dead to Rights, a game that I proclaimed as a great 3D looking game. Then when it came out, the story was so bad that I did a complete 180 and just hammered that game to pieces. The story was just horrible.
Brad Gallaway: [Laughter] A game with great mechanics and great gameplay will still be a great game. But there isn't a game out there that wouldn't be better if they choose to incorporate story elements by making that story a quality story. There is nothing taken away by spending time [crafting] memorable characters, dramatic events and exciting action. That's only a positive.
Richard Naik: That's just some icing on the cake.
Brad Gallaway: Exactly. And if you're gonna bake a cake anyway, don't we usually put frosting on them? I think we do.
Richard Naik: I don't. I don't really like frosting on them.
Brad Gallaway: Contrarian.
Richard Naik: No, seriously. I don't like frosting on them.
Tim Spaeth: It gets in your moustache.
Richard Naik: Yes, it does, actually.
Chi Kong Lui: I've gotta say, I don't like the icing/cake metaphor because the cake can do without the icing. What we were talking about earlier is a more unique concoction, where it's more of a balance issue. The hamburger/bun metaphor from earlier works better for me than the icing/cake metaphor. It's not ingenious, but it works better for me.
Brad Gallaway: My metaphors are no good now. I see how it is. Not ingenious.
Richard Naik: We can just come up with some type of food dish and then invent a topping for it and then call that the story. It's like: "This is the anchovies on the pizza" or something ridiculous like that.
Brad Gallaway: I don't really care for anchovies; I don't know if that really works for me. But anyway, I think the takeway from all this is that no matter how solid the core you're building on, it can only be better by making sure that the other elements are equally as well done.
Tim Spaeth: And that's what I think we'll end on tonight. Folks, did yu enjoy the show? Frankly, I have no idea if you enjoyed the show or not. But you know how you can tell us? Leave your feedback at GameCritics.com. You can usually find the latest show pinned to the top of the homepage. Reemember also that the show is available through iTunes and the Zune marketplace. Leave us some reviews. Tell the world about us. We're trying to increase our celebrity. Really, that's the only reason we're doing this, I think, is the fame.
Richard Naik: I think that over all of our disagreements or anything we might have to say, we can all agree on the fact that Grand Admiral Thrawn had a terrible voice in TIE Fighter.
Tim Spaeth: I certainly cannot deny it.
Brad Gallaway: I would just like to say that if the industry put as much attention on telling a decent story as it did on particle effects and the latest bells and whistles, I think that would be something really to tell my grandkids about.
Tim Spaeth: Hear, hear.
Chi Kong Lui: Similar to what Brad just said, in preparing for this show, I went through all the games that I'd played throughout history looking at all the reviews. To be quite honest, I didn't find a lot of games in there that had great stories. It was shocking. Like Brad said, I would love to be able to see more games where I can honestly praise the story. We picked out a few good ones, but I think there could definitely be a lot more.
Tim Spaeth: I browsed my game shelf as we were talking there, looking for another game to talk about in terms of story—nothing. I'm right there with you, Chi. That's it; we are done. We wanna thank you for listening. I'm Tim Spaeth. It's been a pleasure. Good night, and bonne chance.
Richard Naik: How many e-mails are we gonna get like: "Dude, were you guys just like hammered that whole time?"
Tim Spaeth: Man!
But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).
Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.