The humblest gaming bunch in the industry returns to deliver a special blend of goodies worthy of our dollars.
Announced today - in a unique turn of events - is the Humble Music Bundle. You heard correct, the super sounds of gaming musicians take center stage in this splendid offering from HB. As before, purchasers pay what they want, in exchange for content and charity support. What better win is there?
There’s a bit of a stigma attached to the word simple, when considering narrative. Simple implies a lack of depth, a text that lacks subtext. It suggests that the events contained within the media are to be taken at face value and face value only. This obviously isn’t the case, and in this week’s A Narrative Lens, we’re going to take a look at how a simple narrative affects games, with a particular focus on a common feature of such narratives; silent protagonists.
When describing a narrative as simple, it normally refers to how complex a narrative is. So, at one pole, we have games like Super Mario. Italian plumber rescues princess and defeats lizard. Simple. For a more recent example, a single character’s campaign in one Tekken game is a simple narrative. Lili enters the King of Iron Fist to eliminate the Mishima Zaibatsu. Bob enters to prove that his body is undefeatable.
At the other pole, there are games like Valkyria Chronicles, Catherine, the Assassin’s Creed series etc. Basically anything with more than a couple of major plot twists is considered to be more complex than simple.
Before we get stuck in, however, I’d like to make a distinction between what I believe to be the two types of silent protagonist. The first type I’m going to call semi-silent protagonists. These are your Dragonborns and SEES leaders; protagonists who don’t speak in any meaningful way, but can still respond to situations or questions. In the former case, the Dragonborn can ask and answer questions, and can make decisions regarding how they respond to most dialogue that they enter. Plus, they shout and scream and grunt and make all kinds of noises when fighting. The same holds true for the latter case; the protagonist of the Persona games – Persona 3 and 4, at least – can respond to key dialogue choices in a manner that the player sees fit.
The second type of silent protagonist I’m just going to call silent, because true-silent sounds like a D&D morality type. These characters are silent in every sense of the word. They don’t answer questions, they don’t enter dialogue. They may still make noises – Link, for example, and his characteristic “SEIYA!” – but they’re not going to win any singing contests in the near-distant future.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to be talking about the second type – silent protagonists. I’ll get to semi-silent protagonists in another article. Employing a silent protagonist is a fairly common tool used in simple narratives, for the simple reason of giving the player room to breathe life into their character.
Take Pokémon, for example. Any Pokémon will do, but I’m on SoulSilver at the moment so that’s my reference point. The player character is very clearly a silent protagonist, with the only exceptions to that being when they call out their Pokémon or responding to interviews – a feature which my silly side greatly enjoyed back in Ruby. For all major interactions, the protagonist makes no attempt at verbal communication.
This is a very important tool for the Pokémon series, as the use of a silent protagonist allows for the player to live through their character. They give them a name, decide their team, and then live through the protagonist as they journey through Kanto, or Johto, or Hoenn or wherever else. This type of silent protagonist is an excellent enhancer for simple narratives, as the basic events of the game don’t demand much from the player in terms of choosing how to speak to people, By taking that choice out of their hands, Game Freak drives the focus into the key narrative elements of the game – travelling the world and raising a team of Pokémon.
The silent protagonist also acts as an empty vessel for the player, giving them enough room to fill the events they experience with their own narrative. I was once told – and I have told many people – that a reader will always make themselves feel an emotion more than a writer can make them feel it. It’s primarily used with scaring a reader, but it’s true of any emotion, and it carries through to games as well, taking the form of a corollary to the ‘do, don’t show’ adage I’ve mentioned before. How the player reacts to a given situation is just as important as how the character responds to it, and in a simple narrative with a silent protagonist, how the player reacts is the only thing that matters. I’ve found myself verbally rooting for my team on a number of close occasions.
Not only does a simple narrative provide room for the player to breathe, it also allows otherwise inconsequential characters to contribute. Moving back to Pokémon SoulSilver, the use of the Pokégear allows for brief contact with trainers, your childhood friend, mother, and the two Pokémon professors. Whilst three of these serve mechanical purposes, the rest are almost strictly there to provide short relief from the constant travelling and battling. These ancillary characters reveal aspects of their character that serve to colour the protagonist’s journey and the player-driven narrative. From Lass Krise’s complaints about bringing a mini-skirt, to Picnicker Erin’s occasional wrong number, these calls draw attention to the organic world around the player. In Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, Game Freak attempted to mimic this with the Pokénav, allowing players to see which trainers wanted a rematch. Whilst this method did detail some aspects of the trainer’s personality, the omission of the call removed some of the narrative of the feature. After all, as in life, a text or alert doesn’t usually carry the flavour of a personal call.
A simple narrative can be an excellent way to give room to one’s characters, but it’s important to consider the benefits of a complex story. With all of these elements, they are tools that writers and developers have available to them in the creation of an effective narrative. Some combinations work better than others. After all, without complex narratives, we wouldn’t have the likes of Assassin’s Creed or Final Fantasy, or any other title with a complex and compelling narrative you can think of.
‘Till next time,
The second entry into Telltales Games’s newest franchise arrives with some gruesome scenes, explicit narrative, and tough decisions. Was it all fun and games? WARNING: Potential Spoilers.
The Walking Dead Video Game, Episode 2, releases without wasting anytime in the continued story of Lee Everett and his survivors’ journey through an overwhelming horde of cadaverous cannibals. The stakes are higher, with an ever mounting tension that seems to swell with every conversation. With spills, thrills, gasps, and holy-s%#@ moments left and right; TWDE2 delivers a non-stop adrenaline ride that leaves you pining for Episode 3. To wait, is agony.
Three months separate us from the aftermath left in E1. Our group of heroes are battered, and starved, with a will to live that hangs by a thread. The astriction between you and your fellow comrades is even more prevalent in “Starved for Help,” which couldn’t be a better title for this game.
If you thought decision making in E1 was difficult, be prepared for the most arduous choices in the series yet. For example, the opening sequence pins Lee, and new character Mark, between a trapped leg, a rock, and zombies. With a band of undead headed your way, you can must decide whether or not to free a helpless survivor out of a bear trap before the bloodless Z-Men get him first. Axing through the chained trap yields no results, and the device itself is rigged without a release latch. WIth the walking corpses inching closer, and his leg still unfreed, what option do you have left? Use your imagination. Yea, I did that.
Starved for Help brings a new foe to the forefront of the apocalypse: Bandits. It’s bad enough defending against the Z-Freaks, but now you must fend off fellow humans, bent on pillaging for their own survival. Can you blame them? It creates a welcomed sense of unnerving tension, and realism to the story, which brings out the true colors of our star cast, as desperate times call for desperate measures.
The flow of the story is much more fast paced than E1. The action, and conversations all carry more weight, and the intent to choose wisely becomes even more valuable. For the most part, each choice affects the very next scene, which really forces you to pay attention to every detail shown, and uttered. No stone can be left unturned or your choices can have grisly outcomes, as sides are taken, and trust is formed, or withered.
This escalation in causality rolls along like a rollercoaster before its inevitable rapid descent. By the final act of Episode 3, the gauntlet falls, and falls with swift might. Not only are your QTEs more challenging, but the s%#@ has the hit the fan so hard, that your only choice is to suck it up, and prepare for the most FUBAR’d damage control imaginable. I’m sorry, but there will be blood, and Daniel Day Lewis is still a raving lunatic.
Strong writing, equaled with superb voice acting, once again proves how immersive a game can become when its narrative delivers exceptional results. Throw in some shocking gameplay that will affect the fate of characters, and ultimately, the story; and you have yourself a caught in an causatum of epic proportions.
Like any good chapter, or Lost episode, you’re left with more questions than answers. Where does the group go from here? How is each person affected by the relentless turmoil, and travails of a Zombie apocolypse; let alone the most recent events? One thing's for certain, Lee’s group gets no more breathing room than Rick Grimes’s democracy-less camp. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Final Grade: A
An octo-plex of games for the taking, DRM-free, with a price tag of your choosing.
Hold onto your butts, because announced this week, is Indie Royale’s Summer Bundle. That’s right, San Francisco’s summer may not officially hit until September, but that doesn’t mean you can’t heat things up with 8 - count them, 8 - stellar titles, all for under $10 dollars.
PC, Mac, Linux, and desura (your guess is as good as mine) users are all welcome to grab hold of IR’s blockbuster bundle. Check out the list of titles below:
1. Harvest: Massive Encounter - A critically acclaimed, action packed RTS, with an emphasis on resource management, and exploration.
2. The Journey Down: Chapter 1 - A point-and-click adventure puzzler.
3. Serious Sam 2 - The hit follow up to the first iconic FPS. Fast paced action, and non-stop baddies are just a trigger pull away.
4. Gundemonium Recollection - Classic 2D side scrolling ballistics, make up for this balls-to-the-walls game trilogy.
5. Gundeadligne - The second game in the Gundemonium trilogy. Includes “Flip Turn” ability to flank opposition.
6. Hitogata Happa - The third entry into the Gundemonium universe. This prequel exhibits the action vertically, from top to bottom.
7. Acceleration of Suguri X Edition - Rock’em, sock’em robots with a heavy dose of anime-roids.
8. Dino Run SE - Race against death, as you try to outrun the inevitable doom of extinction in this 8-bit inspired side scrolling racer.
If these games weren’t enough, purchasers of TSB will each receive a beta bonus key of AirMech, via Steam. Additionally, if you pay $8 or more, you’ll also get a music bonus in, Pixeljams Vol. 1. In a word: Spoiled.
Furthermore, Indie Royale has recently launched it’s bundle collection page for bundle purchasers, past and present. “This is a page where Indie Royale purchasers can earn loyalty rewards, manage keys for already-purchased bundles and add already-completed bundles to their Wishlist for possible bundle reappearances,” said Indie Royale in a press release.
Only 6 days, and 12 hours left for you to become the owner of a spectacular indie game collection. The more people buy, the greater the price tag becomes. Pay more than the minimum, and the asking price comes down. Just buy early is what I recommend. Don’t think about it, be about it.
“WHEN WE HUNT, WE KILL. NO-ONE IS SAFE. NOTHING IS SACRED. WE ARE BLACKWATCH. WE ARE THE LAST LINE OF DEFENCE. WE WILL BURN OUR OWN TO HOLD THE REDLINE. IT IS THE LAST LINE TO EVER HOLD.”
This haunting creed is the first node in the Web of Intrigue, a narrative device in Prototype that provides a secondary glimpse into the events of the game. Welcome back to A Narrative Lens, and in this almost-weekly instalment, we delve into methods of conveying narrative; in particular, how the employment of alternative narrative devices can influence the way a player perceives the events of a game's central narrative.
As any writer, director, developer, or indeed any journeyman of media will tell you, there’s a huge number of ways to provide a strong narrative than through dialogue and visible action alone. In fact, it goes without saying that the most powerful narratives of our generation use those two tools as a launc pad for all the dynamisms of their events and participants. To name an obvious example, the way Ico and Yorda hold hands, or the not so subtle passive aggression in GlaDOS’s commentary of Chell’s progress. These are more than just simple physical gestures or basic taunts, these are keys to their relationship as characters, windows into their strengths and weaknesses.
Other alternative methods to delivering narrative can offer a second lens into the events that surround the plot. These devices, called focalisers, are normally found in a character’s point-of-view. For example, Kat’s narration in Gravity Rush is the only point-of-view for the narrative, biasing players towards her emotions and beliefs when considering the conflicts she encounters.
One of these alternative methods is the Web of Intrigue in Prototype. Let’s take a look.
The key method of gaining information and skills in Prototype is by consuming individuals to acquire their memories. If you need to fly a helicopter, you consume a pilot. Want access to artillery? A base specialist is what’s on the menu. Even Mercer’s mutation abilities stem from his consumption of a Hunter-class infected in an early mission. The very first character Alex consumes is First Lieutenant James Goodwin, who gives him the creed I mentioned in the opening paragraph. From there, the player can expand the Web of Intrigue by consuming key individuals – doctors, military personnel – in both missions and free roam. These individuals unlock nodes in the Web; key memories that expand Alex’s, and therefore the player’s, understanding of the background behind the outbreak.
The introductory node sets the tone of this particular focaliser. Everything about the Web of Intrigue relates in some way to Blackwatch, its precursors, and the viral agents it fights.
This focaliser is important. Bar the occasional scene with General Randall and Captain Cross, we only witness the game through the focaliser of its protagonist, Alex, whose primary concern is not Blackwatch’s history, but with finding the cause of his infection and getting revenge on them. As far as Alex is concerned – at least in the early portions of the game – these memories are essential for him reaching his targets. For the player, they offer a glance behind the curtain, conveying an understanding of the context for the outbreak.
It’s clear that this glance was intentional on behalf of the developer, and not just a tool for the occasional piece of fluff or factoid. There’s a meta-mechanical incentive for exploring the Web, taking the form of trophies for discovering the truth behind two major events and one major character. All of these are references in memories Alex gains over the course of the story, but these are only piecemeal hints at a much larger picture; indeed, you only receive the trophy by completing that picture by consuming individuals found in free roam, and not just by completing the story. Further, as the player’s understanding of the context increases, so too does their scepticism for Alex’s point of view. Even before they discover the truth, it’s made clear that Alex Mercer is a priority target, for what appears to be fairly vague crimes. Uncertainty is an important aspect of the Web, as scientists, personnel, and Alex’s colleagues all note his erratic behaviour prior to the outbreak.
Uncertainty is a major theme in Prototype, and is emphasised in the Web of Intrigue. Only by completing the Web can a player fully understand the context of the game, but even then a doubt lingers in the background because of one or two nodes that suggest that Blackwatch has realized Alex’s methods and begun to counter him. It’s suggested in a discussion that they began constructing false memories in agents to distract Alex, but it’s never quite clear who is lying.
As our understanding of the context dispels that uncertainty, and as the truth comes to light, the way the player sees Alex begins to change. He starts to look less and less like a victim, as his point of view suggests, and more and more like the perpetrator that Blackwatch is hunting for. Thus, his search for the truth brings a revelation that sets up his fall at the very end of the game, as he revives and takes up his mantle as the Blacklight virus.
Whilst I must admit some disappointment in the Web of Intrigue, as some of the plot points that it hinted at – such as the enigmatic PARIAH – were not explored in the sequel, its efficacy in fostering uncertainty in the protagonist creates a unique effect. Rather than blindly trusting the protagonist of this game, as we are wont to do in other narratives, Prototype stands out by employing a protagonist who, due to his circumstance and single-minded motivations, becomes unreliable and antagonistic, generating a rift between himself and the player that frames the narrative of its sequel.
Thank you for reading,