Those Days Were Better Than These Days, Part Two: Narrative & Immersion
Conservatives talk about the fifties, liberals talk about the sixties, Muslims talk about the late seventh century, and gamers talk about Quake, and the SNES...
on Friday 02 July 2010
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Part Two discusses narrative structure and immersive factors in older games, and actually begins to mention the newer games.

At first one might be inclined to say that the narrative structure of older games was strictly linear, and that is mostly true but “most” is not an absolute. Star Control II (1993) and Fallout (1997) as mentioned in the previous article both offered various solutions to certain problems. Fallout going as far to have multiple endings for each settlement and town you affected—or ignored.

Star Control II (1993) and Saints Row 2 (2008) - these two games could not seem more different. One is about spaceships and galactic conflict, the other is about gang wars and evil corporations. At first glance, they are a bizarre juxtaposition... but when you take a closer look at them you will notice key similarities in their narrative structure and immersion factors. Both games follow a solitary protagonist rebuilding a lost army. Both games are cartoonish, with humor bordering on satire, both games give you a set of goals you can accomplish however you see fit with a pre-defined outcome, and finally both games are internally consistent. Internal consistency is the key to suspension of disbelief. There is absolutely nothing believable in either game. Star Control II ignores physics and biology completely, and Saints Row 2 ignores sociology completely. Neither world could ever, under any logical circumstance, exist. Yet we believe them... We believe them because neither world varies from its formula. They both establish a set of rules, and stick to it. This is one thing that is still alive and well in gaming. Half-Life (1998) was by far the most immersive experience I have had in video games, and this tradition carried on well into Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2008).

Not all is well, it seems. Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) fails in this pursuit of immersion, because it continues the plot of the first, yet ignores the previously established rules of the narrative. It is fair to remind ourselves of the slew of schizophrenic plots of the earlier epoch of gaming, including the Quake series, and completely ridiculous exploits of the SNES Star Wars titles. The perceived lack of consistency in modern titles could easily be explained by a lack of solid creative teams. It takes more people to make a modern game than it the relatively small teams who created the classics. The five-hundred employees who developed BioShock 2 (2010), for example, failed horribly in keeping it consistent with BioShock (2007) just as the relatively small team who created Star Control III seemingly ignored all of the subtle nuances of its predecessor (another issue for another day, but when we will stop thinking of prototypes as better than the final product? Who has ever built a war machine, but then decided it should be slower, clunkier, and less capable of performing its assigned actions?).

Clear breaks in immersion can ruin a game, some of which are narrative problems, others are purely mechanical. Controls must be consistent, as must the plot and narrative structure. Having a third-person free-running escape sequence in a first person stealth game will likely break immersion just as easily as having characters act, well, out of character, introducing new concepts before their time, ignoring old ones, and changing the control structure too drastically in different sequences.

Now for the good bits. Immersion in many ways is the key to good narrative. With it, the classic problem of making the audience care about the characters and protagonists is largely invalid. We become the protagonists, and we already care about ourselves—and the extensions of ourselves. Using this games could easily explore issues in a thought-provoking manner, tell meaningful stories and raise meaningful questions. For this to happen, as I've already stated, a great many things are required.

Part Three will follow eventually.

I like what you have to say on these topics, I'd definitely be interested to hear more. I agree with your comment about the 'solid creative teams'. One major difference between 'the good old days' and now is the size of the development teams. I don't know how the video game world works exactly, but I do know that when you have many teams working on individual parts of games, you could lose that seamless immersion that you mention. I think it probably depends on how the game's 'director' works.

The main point I'd like to bring up is that I think immersion is a much, much, more important factor in video games than narrative. Immersion is where the art of video games exists. Narrative is a form from the past, which video games use as a vehicle. While it is definitely still important, and can definitely be interesting, I feel like narrative is not necessary for a good game. One good example I can think of is Pokemon, which as a game is incredibly well thought out, well designed, and very immersive (if you get into it). The narrative, however, is relatively bad. That's what prevented me from getting into the game for a long time, I expected an RPG with a story, and instead found something that resembled an RPG with a story that seemed to barely exist. Pokemon is very immersive though. Its world is like you say, consistent. It always IS Pokemon. And the only way to really get into the game is by becoming immersed in its inner workings. And certain games have no narrative whatsoever, or only enough to set up a motivation for your character. If you think of Super Mario Bros. you begin the game with no idea about the story. Only after finishing the first world do you realize that 'Your princess is in another castle.' But the world is so immersive! That is why Mario (and Nintendo in general) seem to stand out above the rest. Each game is a total experience. I feel like comparing A Link to the Past to Windwaker is hard to do. They are completely different experiences. And almost every Zelda game is like that. Compare Zelda I and Zelda II. Almost entirely different games, but both completely immersive. Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask are similar at first glance, but structurally they are quite different.

Sorry, my comment is becoming an article. I'm definitely going to have to check out Star Control II, I've never even really heard of it.

[ Comment by Grant Centauri :: 19 Jul : 15:18 ]

I agree with most of your points. The reasons I tackled narrative and immersion together are because they are mutually inclusive.

Good narrative is required for immersion. The narrative of Zelda II was a direct continuation of the narrative of Zelda I (although I don't think Zelda I had much in the way of narrative). Hyrule, in general is a storytelling experience. The world, and it's rules are clearly defined (not speaking of mere rules of gameplay). The narrative can be subtle, like a background element, but in modern games it has to exist. If the world is clearly defined (excluding intentionally unclear subjects), and is consistent with itself you will have good narrative.

Likewise, immersion is required for good narrative. In games that contradict themselves, or break immersion the story (when one exists) becomes laughable.

Random side note: I may be mistaken, but I think Wind Waker and A Link To The Past occur at roughly the same time in alternate timelines.

[ Comment by RedConversation :: 06 Sep : 05:35 ]

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