Better for the telling

Bioshock Infinite: Irrational Games/2K Games 2013
I’ve written about games here before, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made my preference for fantasy RPGs obvious. I’ve also mentioned how I stumbled upon the idea that FPS (First Person Shooter) games aren’t always just about, well, shooting things. Yes, that is their play mechanic, but it’s like saying Assassin’s Creed was entirely about running round throwing guards off of rooftops just because it was part of the game mechanic.

I’m talking about storytelling.

I only recently played through last year’s Bioshock Infinite, and just… wow. You don’t expect that in a game. It’s taken me a while to get round to posting this because I felt I needed to get my head around it. It’s that sort of game. If you haven’t played it yet, I will give something away here, so *SPOILER ALERT* for anyone planning on playing it.

On the surface, Bioshock Infinite is an FPS set in a beautifully rendered city called Columbia which floats above an alternate reality America circa 1912. You get some exploration, some character interaction, and of course, gun battles boosted with Bioshock’s Vigor system (you find special powers that can be unlocked throughout the game, from being able to hurl fireballs to shield yourself before sending enemy bullets right back at them). However it is also a game that revolves around the idea of choices, morality and fatalism. Didn’t expect that, did you? (Or maybe you did and I’ve just set my expectations really low.)

It tells a story that is as immersive as the world of Columbia, while touching on issues such as historical racism, religious fervour, post-traumatic stress faced by soldiers trying to come to terms with their actions in war, the morality of choices, and space-time physics. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but the myriad of little details are what makes the characters feel cohesive and the world feel inescapably alive. The element of player choice does come up every so often, and as a gamer you want to know what difference to the game your choice has made. This is where Bioshock Infinite could be seen as being quite meta in playing on that desire, as well as using it to make what could be the most forcefully driven home philosophical point I’ve ever seen in a game. Do they make a difference? Does anything we decide to do make a difference in the end?

But that ending… Maybe you saw it coming. Maybe you spotted the plot twist within the plot twist. It’s enough to give you headaches just thinking about it, let alone trying to work out how the Burial At Sea expansion works (which I haven’t played/read about yet so SPOILERY possibilities A: it’s non-canon, B: there WAS another reality where the constants were in fact not as constant as Elizabeth and the Luteces expected, or C: a Dr Who wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey theory that involves time branching out in unexpected ways if someone tries to alter it).

This game succeeded in making me feel uncomfortable. Not just that I’m playing an FPS, but that it puts you in situations that could be more akin to a horror setting, ones which can leave you feeling a little shaken (very much like the first Bioshock, the consistently dark tone of which put me off playing). It also works to make you care. I’ve written about characters being important before, and the leads in this story certainly are. We’re drip fed details through things we discover or snippets of conversations. These details are important rather than just padding out points of interest. By the time we reach one of the big narrative sequences (“This is where we sleep…”) the game has earned the right to make me feel emotionally involved. Some games work too hard for things like this, and it feels forced. But Bioshock gets it right by steadily, subtly giving us everything throughout the game.

I’m not sure if the game has replay value. Knowing what you know after the first play through, it’s difficult to go through it again. I might replay, looking for any special story items I didn’t pick up first time round. I’ll also be on the look out for those little details, the ones that told you everything long before the narrative revealed itself. And perhaps, in a meta sort of way, you are meant to replay the game, knowing what you now know. I’ll think about it.

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Pretty but missing something

This is an opinion. It does not change your right to have an opinion of your own. Your opinion may also differ from the one expressed here. This particular opinion is about games, specifically of the PC variety.

I’ve been wondering recently what it is that makes some games really memorable. There are some on my shelf that I know I’ve played, but despite knowing they had a story I can’t remember a thing about it. With platformers that’s not so much an issue, you play them for the gameplay experience alone. But RPGs? Aren’t they supposed to be immersive as well as entertaining? And why is it that, to me, Neverwinter Nights 2 is far more memorable than, say, the original Sacred, Divine Divinity, or even my beloved Dungeon Siege 2?

Story? Check. They all had defined plots, which is quite important with these sorts of things. An interesting, believable (at least in the suspention of disbelief mode you assume for fantasy gaming) world? Check again. Of course Neverwinter Nights has an advantage there of being set in the D&AD Forgotten Realms, with all it’s geography, religions, races and magic planned out and established canon. But Ancaria, Rivellon and Aranna all had things going for them, being fantasy lands full of myths and legends of their own.

Don’t get me wrong, the others were enjoyable games in their own right. It’s just that to me what set Neverwinter Nights 2 out was that it had all these things and something extra: characters. That probably sounds silly, as every game comes with its fair share of NPCs for you to chat with. But Neverwinter Nights 2, somehow, made me care. It was empathy with the characters that made them stick in my mind. Some people complained about the whole “20 questions” approach to getting to know your companion characters in Obsidian/BioWare games. OK, it can be a little clunky at times, but it’s entirely optional. I probably would have liked it more if there had been another way of getting more in depth about the characters during the game rather than just during the little lulls in the story. But even so, they gave me enough to get an idea of each character. They weren’t just “elven wizard” and “dwarven fighter”, they had personalities as well as tactical advantages. When stuck for picking between two equally useful characters, I’d include one in my party because I liked them or kept one out because I didn’t.

Another thing about the empathy idea is that it doesn’t always have to reflect on “the good guys”. Borderlands 2 surprised me in that it too made good use of characters. I did find myself caring about “the good guys” (although that could have been from the many hours spent researching the game), they went one up and pretty much forced me to have an opinion on the villian. He’s the character you really get to know, and unless you’re skipping the dialogue to get your FPS kicks uninterupted, you will think somethings about him (ranging right from “LOL” to “eww” to “woah, that’s pretty evil”). Respect to Anthony Burch on making a bad guy who isn’t just the “I’m gonna take over/destroy the world!!1!” type who you fight against just because the story demands that you do.

I’ve been trying out some online games, and it really does push home to me just how much I value those interesting characters. The games I’ve tried have been really pretty, well thought out, addictive levelling, a potentially good story in there… But something feels missing. NPCs are there to buy from or to issue quests. Character, in online games, is supposed to come from the players. But how often does that actually happen? And besides, if it did, it’d need to work both ways. I’d have to role play whatever character I was playing, which in some cases could be downright awkward. I don’t mind the usual RP part of an RPG (eg someone gives you the choice of good action, evil action, or neutral action. Pick one. Advance). But really. Someone comes to ask me how many wyverns I aim to smite before sundown on the 5th of Mirtul, I’d get a bit stuck. And that wouldn’t feel very fair on the RPers who were really trying to make an effort to give the world some of the atmosphere you’d expect.

To make a point, picture this: A buzzing city, full of warriors and wizards, pirates and clerics. It’s alive and thriving and wonderful, right? Not like those single player games with all their scripted extras pottering about the place. Then you enter the marketplace, get a troll (I mean literally a troll) pestering you for a trade request repeatedly and refusing to take “decline” for an answer, try to ignore the over-powered wizard riding a pay-item dragon mount who’s looking to sell his “Boots of Escaping+5” to the higest bidder, and then get hit on (if you’re playing a female character) by someone who doesn’t have English as a first langauge. You can join a party where the only contact between you and the others is a “thanx” before they kick you out at the end of the quest (which is probably better than the parties of mad-skillz-I-has-them players who just insult you). Yeah, atmospheric.

Yes, I know it is possible to find good people in online games. These are just some of the more disappointing experiences I’ve had in various games. It’s also possible to play a game in which the characters, save your own, mean very little (Dungeon Siege 2 <3) and enjoy it. But I think it's that feeling of empathy makes it something special.

In an online game, the world can move on without you. But sometimes it's nice to think that, while that single player game isn't going anywhere, those characters aren't just idle. They're waiting for you to come back.

Whose story are you dreaming now?

A Half Remembered Dream : Emma Scott

The very day after (or near enough) I did my last Dreamfall inspired drawing, I find out they’re definately making the next game!

Zoe, the main character, is what is called a Dreamer. She can hop between realities through her dreams, only now she’s caught up in the problems of two worlds. Everything gets mixed up in dreams, so how will she remember what is most important?

The pink and blue come from her in game costume, the two colours representing the two worlds. Fineliner with Photoshop colouring. I made this for Red Thread’s Dreamfall Chapters fanart competiton.

I haven’t been well recently, but drawing’s been a way to take my mind off it.

Find April. Save April.

Emma Scott : Dreaming, Falling

A little Photoshop doodle of Zoe, main character of the game Dreamfall: The Longest Journey.

I had a conversation about games, and it brought Dreamfall to mind. It’s a game that was a story. The graphic style was well done, the music and acting spot on. Maybe the gameplay could have been more interesting, but the story really made it worth playing. Except of course the ending. It’s been over six years. Fingers crossed it won’t be too many more to get a resolution.