By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
ne thing got me into both playing computer games and making them: story telling. Like many designers, I don't hold a degree in computer science: when I was in college I studied English and thought of myself as a sort of writer. Of course, even then I spent as much of my time playing computer games as using my word processor, and it was evident that unless I was ready to starve for a while, if not forever, I wasn't going to be able to have a job as a "writer." Inspired by my favorite games of the time, the Ultima series and their spin-offs like Worlds of Ultima and Ultima Underworld, I decided I would try to get a job making games, and still spend most of my time writing and being creative... oh how naive I was! The near death of RPGs, especially story-based RPGs, began immediately after I entered the industry, Myst just about killed the traditional adventure game with its "arty" lack of a strong narrative or sensible puzzles, and Wolfenstein 3D started the current trend of 3D games in which "story" is most often a little window of dry text popping up to try to get you to believe that you aren't just playing a bunch of almost unconnected levels. All of this came as quite a shock after the almost epic scope of the story of Serpent Isle (if you could get through it all - it took me two attempts), or the quality of writing in Gabriel Knight, where for the first time I almost believed in a game character by the end of the game (Gabriel's assistant Grace - it's harder to buy the main character of a Sierra adventure game because the developers always let the player force the protagonist to do silly, out-of-character things).
1998 has been perhaps the most disappointing year for me yet for games with good stories on the PC, although word on Grim Fandango is positive and Half-Life looks to be set to finally get some decent and involving story telling into 3D shooters. Up until now, though, the year has mainly been distinguished by the triumph of technology over story and even sometimes over gameplay itself, or by almost retro games like the last arrivals in the RTS glut which, if they pay attention to their stories at all, substitute cutscenes of varying degrees of flashiness and unexciting between-mission debriefings for any more worthy techniques. Given that story telling is the primary reason I make and play games, you might think I'd be considering leaving the industry altogether and maybe even giving up my hobby - but I have found that story telling in games is not actually not dead at all, and in fact there are games out there which advance the art of story telling in as significant ways as some of this year's PC games have advanced technology. It just so happens that these games are all console games.
If you play anything on consoles at all, you probably already know that a strong contender for best game of the year on any system is Metal Gear Solid (MGS) for the Playstation. (If you don't play console games, and you call yourself a hardcore gamer, I'm hereby putting your hardcore license on probation.) Almost as strong and my personal favorite game of the year is Xenogears - both, coincidentally, released on just about the same day. Each of these games advances the state of the art of interactive storytelling in a way that any number of full motion video games and cutscene-laden Myst clones could never approach.
The most important facet of both of these games is their use of real time 3D environments. Xenogears uses 2D characters although they restrict the camera well enough that the 2D and 3D elements don't wind up clashing very much at all - in fact the 2D characters and occasional mixed cel and rendered cutscenes lend to the overall anime feel of the game in a way that Shogo could only dream of. Metal Gear Solid is all 3D. And before you SLI-having, vsync-disabling, 1024x768-resolutioning accelerator jocks go running for the hills at the mention of the Playstation, MGS manages to attain a more consistent world than almost any PC game I've seen this year, while Xenogears, while somewhat pixelly even for the Playstation, serves up some of the most beautiful and interesting towns, cities, and dungeons that I've seen in any RPG, with the most intricate and epic story I've played yet.
Let's look at MGS some more: the only elements of this game not rendered in real time 3D are some parts of some of the cutscenes, and the radio sequences where the main character talks to his boss and other people for information (which are presented on a fairly bland green screen featuring hand-drawn portraits of the characters with animated mouths and not much more). What the developers of the game have managed to achieve by relying completely on real time 3D, and no doubt through a lot hard work, is to make a game that looks more cinematic than any previous title - and I do mean any. Many computer game developers have begun to fancy themselves film makers, inviting the correspondingly greater evil of film makers fancying themselves computer game developers, but the attempts at making films in computer games have been about as artistic and cinematic as a direct-to-video sci-fi travesty, especially when they have relied on completely pre-rendered cutscenes to do their cinematics.
My rant about rendered graphics: although apparently much of Hollywood hasn't figured this out yet based on the special effects Oscar awarded to the shoddy and inconsistent Titanic effects, in my opinion computer graphics (CG) effects in movies are still too plastic and artificial to do much more than be used in restricted conditions and for short segments (the Jurassic Park movies which are regarded as CG masterpieces used plenty of models and puppets as well). It's no coincidence that the all-CG movies out there have chosen to focus on toys and bugs, shiny things which we don't expect to display any emotion - take a look at how awful the humans in Toy Story look. Geri's Game, the Oscar-winning computer generated animated film this year, was done in an exaggerated cartoon style rather than a realistic style, because the few actual artists making computer graphics (as opposed to the many aesthetically-challenged technicians spewing out CG drek for the latest Hollywood effects fest, or ruining Star Wars with crappy additional scenes) understand that computer graphics are not ready to replace reality. CG probably will be able to substitute for reality eventually, but not for some time yet, and it seems even then that it's going to be tremendously labor intensive to model all the nuance of a human body and face.
Another traditional flaw of the entirely rendered sequence is bad camerawork. In early full motion video (FMV) games, most video decompressors couldn't handle updating an entire frame full of pixels, and so couldn't even support much camera motion, one of the basic elements of the language of film. Even now, many decompressors generate additional artifacts when rapid camerawork happens, or run at lower than 24 frames per second (film's framerate), and thus traditional tools of film making like rapid cuts or fast panning end up giving away the computerized nature of the rendered sequence rather than just being a transparent part of the story telling. Add to this the aforementioned rendering technicians churning out most of this stuff who have less film training than I do, and you also get the other hallmarks of the bad computer animated movie: the circling, swooping shot (I can only guess this was some built-in effect of the first rendering packages, and thus easy to achieve), the needless pan (really a derivative of the previous), and the "even Jim Jarmusch would have cut away already" shot where some supposedly fantastic animation (usually cleverly centered on the screen, or else coupled with the circling shot) just goes on and on and on... Much of this bad or just overly artificial camera work is also a result of the difficulties of working with rendering packages for even the aesthetically gifted. It can take so long to look at the results of your camera work, even in the preview rendering modes most packages offer, that there just isn't the time to essentially "shoot and reshoot" until you get just the right shot.
All of the above problems which usually plague pre-rendered cutscenes are absent from Metal Gear Solid. It is clear that by working with real time 3D the developers had the instant feedback they needed to tweak and re-tweak the camera movements until they were perfect, and that they had a clear understanding of the language of film, at least that of high quality action movies. And in a strange way, the basically outdated technology of the Playstation actually works to the game's advantage - characters have little in the way of facial features (shades of Interstate '76), but like good actors, display their emotions through their body language, and for the most part they've managed to achieve the perfect balance between subtly and exaggeration needed to make physical acting come through blocky polygonal models, and tied the different animations together well, both of which are the keys to making humans look like humans and not grotesque puppets (compare the generally smooth motions of Half-Life humans to the jerky, spasmodic humans in Shogo, for instance). The MGS world is low resolution, but it is a consistent resolution and has extremely tight art direction. PCs are capable of displaying really high res textures at absurdly high bit depths, but the result of all this display power is often one of the most typical side effects of bad art direction and world creation: textures mismatched in quality and style. MGS has a slightly cartoony feel as you might expect from such low resolution, monochromatic textures, but everything looks the same, and consistency of visuals is the first step to building a believable world. Put some believable photorealistic textures next to hideously ugly or overpainted textures (like the Jedi Knight outdoors levels), or paint up levels in garish, unrelated colors like some parts of Unreal or the later levels of Quake and you get a recipe for a headache, not immersion.
So the direction in Metal Gear is good, but even the best direction can't save a film, or game, with a bad story. It is here especially that MGS impresses me. I've come to expect computer games with plots thinner and dialogue worse than your average four color superhero comic book. The exceptions, where characterizations are somewhat mature and plots somewhat sophisticated, like Gabriel Knight and most of the later Ultimas, are extremely rare. Translations of Japanese games usually read worst of all, even when you can tell that it was probably good writing before an inexperienced English speaker got a hold of it. Yet MGS has an excellent translation which reaches the level of a great action movie, and in some respects exceeds it. The story is not high art yet, but before our industry can try for our own Schindler's List we should at least try to get to Aliens. Metal Gear has working melodrama, including the first moment in a video game where I was ever actually shocked at something that happens to a character - because by that point I had begun to actually know the character in a way that you only can through good story telling and writing. MGS goes beyond your typical action movie by taking advantage of the unique nature of narrative in computer games and offers a lot of optional background information (some fictional, some not) about your mission, your opponents, even nuclear disarmament treaties and policies, all of which will give you what you might get in a good thriller from the bookstore but which always gets excised or compressed to fit into a 100 minute summer blockbuster. The operator you radio to save your game in MGS even gives you a whole slew of different but relevant quotes from classic literature and philosophy, and even explains their relevance to you in a few concise words in case they go over your head. That all this information and clever text is set forth outside of the main flow of the story is to me what interactive storytelling is all about: in a book, if you need to or just want to educate your readers about nuclear weapon stockpiling, or present them with literary references, you have to find ways to do it without interrupting the narrative flow too much. In a movie, you just about can't. In a computer game, you can have the best of both worlds, and please all of your audience: the detail obsessed, like myself, will wring every last drop of dialogue out of the game, and the action-oriented will likely skip all the unnecessary talking and maybe even just speed read through the text of the necessary radio messages without even listening voice acting. And if I get into an action-oriented mood, I can ignore the accessory details for a while, or if the action gamer's thumbs are feeling worn out, he or she can take a breather and listen to what their advisors have to say. Incidentally, if you are worrying, the voice acting is quite good, and in my opinion competently-acted but well-enunciated voice acting does the job better than impressive but garbled readings by famous voice actors.
From a gaming perspective, MGS also delivers, but this has also been the focus of the the mainstream reviews of the game, so I won't say much more about it here, except to answer some complaints I've heard about the extremely short vision range of the guards (you can run back and forth undetectably about 15 meters away from most of them even if they are looking right at you), and the disappearing bodies. I'm not perturbed by this stuff at all. I mean, in your average PC 3D game you constantly run at 30 miles an hour, turning on a dime, and complain if a game comes out where you move more slowly. While running along at speeds faster than most bicyclists can maintain you can instantly hover up and hold a dozen firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammo, and you're complaning about realism? In your RTS games you've already bought into half a dozen different phoney rationalizations for why you can produce from scratch a hundred complete armored vehicles in half an hour, in your RPGs you control characters who somehow gain, over the course of a month or maybe a year, the ability to take dozens of stab wounds without blinking, and the list goes on. It isn't possible yet to fully simulate reality, and all games make conventions for gameplay. In the case of Metal Gear, the third person top down view would become impossible to play with realistic sight ranges, and not only are disappearing corpses mighty convenient for a stealthy infiltration mission, but it just wouldn't be feasible on such puny hardware to leave them all around. If I'm having fun with a game, I don't have much trouble accepting whatever the rules of its world are. It is only an unfun game which draws your attention to its limitations by not giving you anything else to focus on. MGS is so much fun that you may not even realize it has any problems.
In order to wrap this up before it becomes two columns, I won't say too much about Xenogears except to give it my highest recommendation. It uses many of the storytelling techniques which Metal Gear relies on such as moving camera work and optional but copious background info you can ferret out to enrich your understanding of the world and the plot of the game. It is squarely in the tradition of other Japanese RPGs, right down to the many text-only conversations with occasionally poor translations, but these kind of games focus on large numbers of characters in grand, epic stories of the sort that you don't get outside of fantasy novels and the occasional anime series. In America, you just won't find a computer game, movie, or television show (with the possible exception of Bablyon 5) which can deliver as many epic battles, intricately twisted plots, and earth-shakingly cinematic confrontations with foes you've grown to despise after many skirmishes. Even the whole Star Wars trilogy feels small scale next to most of these games. Where Xenogears improves even on the Final Fantasy series is in its much more well constructed and well paced story. I love the Final Fantasy games, but in most of them I lose my sense of the plot's urgency when I step outside a city and can choose to wander aimlessly for hours even if I am theoretically on the tail of some villain or desperately trying to head off an attack at some distant castle. In Xenogears, the developers basically don't let you do very much world map wandering at all for many, many hours of gameplay. You can wander as much as you want in each new city or location you get to, but this doesn't compromise the pacing of the plot nearly as much, because you're in a confined location at a human scale, and by the time you're finally let out into full wandering, the urgency has slacked enough to make you feel ok about exploring. The other major plot distraction in the Final Fantasy games is the constant fighting - it seems like everywhere you go, it's just fight, fight, fight. Newcomers to these games are often turned off by the effect of walking a few steps, being pulled to the fight screen, walking a few more feet, being attacked again. Xenogears drastically reduces the amount of slogging you have to do in its first several areas by shortening the sections that contain random encounters, and you end up spending most of your time exploring cities and talking to people, or having plot advancing fights, of which there are many in the first several hours of play, another refreshing change for these games. Square has also pretty cleverly unified their two different combat systems (on foot and in your gear), so you can have battles against Gear-sized enemies while standing there in your street clothres, or you can stomp on pesky humans from the safety of your gear (and there are times when you'll have to do both). The story telling improvements, and of course the giant robot element done right in a way that no American developer has yet come close to, makes this my personal game of the year.
Hopefully this shift in story telling from the PC to the consoles is only a passing trend while the PC settles down in the realms of 3D acceleration and multiplayer, and PC developers will turn towards advancing the art of interactive story telling and making great games again, otherwise I may be switching over to console development in the future...
- Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff is a game designer on the game Trespasser for DreamWorks Interactive.
|Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1998 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.|