Monthly Archives: September 2014

Yet To Do It Again

I’ve only played The Last of Us once. Well, only played it through all the way once. I started a New Game+ about a year ago, but still haven’t finished it. It’s odd, I know, considering how much I write about it (plus two final papers and counting). Oh, I play the multiplayer every now and then and I do look up cutscenes for reference, I just haven’t played it through again.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to; it’s just a big commitment. Not time-wise (though there is that), but emotionally. The Last of Us hit me to my core. It was a game that really affected me, one of those experiences that stick with you. Every time I went back to the story I knew what I was in for and, well, I guess I wasn’t sure if I was ready.

Not everything’s like this. I wanna give BioShock: Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line (both plenty dark and intense games) another playthrough if/when I have the time. Halo: Reach I’ve played the story a bunch of times, as with the Uncharted games and several others. So why not The Last of Us? I guess it’s similar to how I feel about Fruitvale Station. Again, loved the movie, not sure if I could watch it again for a good long time. It really stuck with me. Maybe I can’t easily go back to The Last of Us or Fruitvale because of the emotional commitment.

But what about something that’s not gut-wrenchingly sad? I’ve only watched Firefly all the way through three times. I’ve seen some episodes more, watching with friends and such, but only sat down to watch the whole series three times. Which I weird, because I love the show. Firefly, I think, is because it can be deeply personal. It’s the sort of thing that’s treasured and loved.

Which, again, doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’ll watch The Avengers or The Princess Bride on a whim, both movies I love. So why is Firefly this exception? I think this makes Firefly like The Last of Us here. I love both, and I enjoy both (I wouldn’t say watching Fruitvale was enjoyable, but it was still great). The thing is, I’m incredibly attached to both, and very much invested. I guess it’s not something I can take lightly.

So is this good? As you may have noticed, The Last of Us has had incredibly staying power woth me, and I keep up with any news concerning it. Firefly remains one of my favorite shows and I will quote it incessantly in conversation. So yes. They’re incredibly important and special stories to me. In that sense then, they succeed. I don’t have to watch them a lot, but they’re still there.

Apologies for the short and rambley post this week. Been swamped with a lot of pre-production stuff this week. And I’m still trying to find time to play Destiny.

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In Defense of Destiny’s Story

I talk about video games a lot on this blog, because I love them and play a lot of them. I also write about storytelling because it’s kinda my thing. Now, there’s a lot to say about video game narrative, which, honestly, can apply to narrative in general. Games are special because narrative — or even story of any sort — isn’t necessary for a good game (See: Pacman, or better yet,Pong).

But, contrary to what game designers like Jonathan Blow think, games can tell excellent stories. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is an emotional story that rivals great film and has found its way into many of my papers for school. Bungie too has told great stories through the Halo games. No, they may not on the same level as The Last of Us, but the original trilogy did tell a solid story, ODSThad great characters, and Reach was genuinely sad at times. All of these games are very linear and have a very traditional narrative. Which is great.

Destiny, on the other hand, is very loosely linear. There are story missions for you to do, but there’s no urgency with which you have to do them, and thus you can spend plenty of time exploring the world at large and taking on side missions. Story information itself is dispersed through the occasional story-focused cutscene and through bits of dialogue with your companion, the AI Ghost. This all to say, there’s very little in the way of explicit storytelling.

The game’s gotten a lot of flak for this. Here’s this grand expansive world with hints of incredible backstory, but where’s the actual story? Where’s the character development? Where’re the big arcs and twists? The story, apparently, feels too nebulous to be worthwhile. Granted, the gameplay more than makes up for it, but the way its critics see it, a weak story is Destiny’s greatest flaw.

But Destiny’s story isn’t weak, it’s open. Modern Warfare 2 had a woefully weak story, with underdeveloped characters and a plot that made very little sense. Sure, it was spelled out for you, but there really wasn’t much there. See, a lot of Destiny is conveyed through spatial and environmental storytelling. The very world of Destiny: the ancient ruins on Venus, the decaying colony on the Moon, the colonyships in Old Russia’s Cosmodrome; they all harken to something older and greater than what we see now. Mentions of the fall, of the Hive taking over the Moon, all this hint at something big. This is what Destiny does: the incredible world building does much of the heavy narrative lifting. Those scraps of story which, combined with the Grimoire accessed online or through the companion app, paint a great world for the player to inhabit. In there you go on these missions and carry out the main story, with lots of empty spaces in between.

These empty spaces is where you come in. Destiny wants you to use your imagination. There’s so much empty space in the story it’s easy to fill it up with your own ideas as to what happened. It’s like playing with your toys again, where you’re given the character and a little bit of story and let lose to make up how it plays out. This is the strength of Destiny’s story: Your imagination. Yes, it’s drastically different from a lot of modern — or even adult — storytelling, but it’s this open-endedness that sets Destiny apart. Here the player is free to create their own story. The nature of fireteams, the backstory of your Guardian, even some of the relations between characters, it’s all up to you.

This is what I’m loving as I play through Destiny, the freedom to wander through the world. I’m still not yet done with the game (almost finished the last mission on Venus) due to not only real life commitments, but also plain getting distracted by every Patrol mission and Strike in Destiny. But unlike Assassin’s Creed 4 where spending hours sidetrack hurt the plot’s pacing and any emotional attachment; Destiny’s side-missions and even competitive multiplayer feel like an addition to the overall narrative arch. It’s as if Bungie’s opening up a big sandbox and inviting you to play.

 

For more on spatial and environmental storytelling, read Henry Jenkins’ Game Design as Narrative Architecture. If you have a PS3 and want to play Destiny with someone cool, let me know.

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Background Details

There’s a building I can see outside my window that’s under construction. I’m not sure what it’s going to be or where exactly it is, but it looks to be somewhere in TriBeCa. The basic structure of it is there, there’s a crane going up the side, and it looks like the skeleton of a monolith as there aren’t any external walls up yet. There are tiny lights on each floor that glint in the daylight.

To my sci-fi-addled mind it looks like something you’d see in the background of Destiny, or maybe a new spaceship being built in Star Trek. It looks cool, almost otherworldly.

In other words, it’s something that could help tell a story. Visual storytelling (comics, movies, television, video games; anything that requires you to look at images) depends heavily on details to give life to the scene. Filling the background of the scene with details lends credibility and reality to the world.

This can be done in very subtle ways. In early seasons of How I Met Your Mother there were a pair of swords hanging on the wall of Ted and Marshall’s apartment. They were referenced on occasion, used once, but for the most part were sort of just there. That said, these two friends who met in college having swords on their wall added a sense of history to them, more so, than, say, a wreath would have (needless to say, Chekhov was probably very happy when they finally used them in a duel).

For all its epic-ness and grandeur, The Lord of The Rings films are filled with smaller, tiny details. Carved on helmets are runes which, should you have the bother to translate them from Tolkien’s appendices, say stuff actually relevant to the world. One of the buildings in the background of Minas Tirith is a ratcatcher, for example. Another one of these details is found in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, where Sam rescues Frodo from the orcs. There’s a lamp in the uppermost room which, if you look closely, was made from the helmets of Soldiers of Gondor. It’s a tiny detail, one that most people won’t notice, but it adds to the overall feel of the film. As I’ve said before, it’s these little details make a world seem real.

Which brings me back to Destiny and the spaceship-under-construction building out my window. Much of the game’s storytelling is done through environmental details. You’re not necessarily shown the story or the game’s background lore, but it’s there. When you enter Old Russia’s Cosmodrome you can see ruined buildings all about and, rising over the horizon, a huge spaceship with what look like futuristic space shuttles attached around the side. You’ve heard details about a Golden Age, expansion, and colonyships, but seeing that massive spaceship decaying in the distance adds a reality to it.

For a game so sparse on explicit storytelling, it does wonders with the little things. Item descriptions mention how the Titans raised the Wall or the exploits of some Saint-14. We’re not told more details than that, but, again, it adds to the feeling of depth and bigness of the world. Even things like seeing the crest of the Vanguards on a wall add further reality to it. The world feels like it’s breathing. These details make it seem alive.

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Becoming Legend

On Thursday a new trailer dropped for Bungie’s Destiny. In the vein of trailers for Bungie’s prior games (like Halo 3: ODST’s trailer, which remains one of my favorite pieces of marketing ever), it doesn’t really tell you much about what the game is like. It’s live action, for crying out loud, not a cutscene, or let alone actual gameplay. Which almost begs the question, how does the game even play?

Only, no, the trailer actually does an impressive job of summing up what Destiny’s gonna be. Rather than advertising actual gameplay, something that’s been covered plenty by news sites, the trailer looks at the tone of the game itself, while still teasing gameplay elements. How? Let’s get into it.

Right off the bat, we’re informed that humans haven’t been on the Moon in hundreds of years. That line alone tells us so much about the setting of the game. It’s obviously future science fiction with spaceships and such, so why haven’t humans been on the moon in hundreds of years? There’s a sense of awe and mystery conveyed, further enhanced by the long abandoned lander module and American flag. That we next see an alien base (that the heroes assault) further adds to that feeling of a mysterious future. The game’s action takes place after there’s been a massive shift in the status quo. The trailer doesn’t clearly say what, just that it happened.

This setting is further hinted at when we see them arrive on Venus: gone is the oppressive sulfuric acid atmosphere, instead there are verdant forests, rivers, and the ruins of a long abandoned structure in the distance. It’s mythic in the vein of The Lord of The Rings where the Argonath statues guarding the Anduin harken to an eons old civilization. Destiny plays with the same imagery and atmosphere, only this time in science fiction. Gone is the gritty and angst-ridden tone much modern science fiction takes, instead is an idealistic planetary romance, a direction that far too few storytellers take, in any form of fiction.

But what of the actual players? Here too is where the trailer positively shines. There’s banter between the three players throughout it, but, in keeping with the tone, it’s all very light hearted and full of a sense of romantic adventure. They make quips at each other which, sure, is a little heavy on the cheese, but mirrors the sheer fun of playing Destiny. Gameplay in the beta (released for a few days over the summer) felt a lot like how the players/characters in this treat it: it’s a power fantasy in a way, but more than that it’s an adventure. The social aspect of Destiny is played up here too; as a self-described shared world shooter, teaming up with friends (or strangers) is part and parcel to the game. The trailer plays up that aspect, and rightfully so as it’s one of the things that really sets Destiny apart.

There are a few other hints of gameplay in the trailer; summoning the Sparrow speeder-bikes, each class’s unique abilities, and, of course, shooting aliens. Like the setting and social nature, these are all part of what the game will be.

Destiny comes out on Tuesday. Even before this trailer I was excited, now that I’ve seen this, I can’t wait. Of course, there is that mountain of homework to get through, so we’ll see how things progress.

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