Thursday, November 12, 2009

Learning Narrative Lessons from Gaming: What Not To Do

There are rules that every writer involved in the crafting of fiction has learned through rout memorization or from seeing positive examples of how to do things from quality work. But there are times when you as a writer just need to see when things go wrong to fully sense why certain guidelines are in place.

I happened to have that experience with a game I've been playing, and I thought it was worth sharing. Now, some of you out there are likely thinking that picking on a game for having a bad narrative is like kicking a medium while they are down. I just think that they can get better, and in many cases, they do an admirable job telling a story while following the narrative rules other media follow.

And again, it is a learning experience for me doing this, so I am not going to complain. I also can't really fault the game in question on technical grounds because aside from the narrative problems, the gameplay was solid, so no complaints about that.

The game that made me think about all these issues was one titled Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, which is the sixth game in a long running series of Role Playing games (and the first title from that series to be released in North America). If you've played a modern role playing game with a lot of item synthesis, you have the Atelier series to thank for that.

However, despite the innovations which the series introduced into the console role playing game market, the story line has some real problems. Suffice it to say, if you are planning on playing the game, well, there are naturally some spoilers here, so you may want to skip this entry.

1. There is a character in Eternal Mana who is really fleshed out, has an interesting back story, an engagingly blunt personality and is generally so likably persnickety that they dominate whatever scene they are in. Is this character part of the main cast of playable characters? Are they an non playable character you keep running into wherever you go? No again. Who is this super rounded character? A shopkeeper named Veola who you meet in the first town you visit. For those of you who have played an RPG, the idea that a shopkeeper that doesn't travel is the strongest and most developed character in the narrative you are being led through says a lot. Especially since the six characters who make up your party throughout the game in different configurations are much less interesting and developed than this NPC. The best way I can describe this situation is by comparing Veola to another character who shares some of her traits.... 24's Chloe O'Brian. I mean, most of us really enjoy watching the super competent and blunt Chloe do her thing... but she isn't the main character... she needs someone compelling to be the supporting character for, and she has that with Jack Bauer and other characters around her. Now imagine if Chloe as written on 24 was the supporting character for a couple of lead characters as written for a crappy 1950's educational film. Scratch that... imagine Chloe was the most developed character in that entire world... even more developed than the antagonist. I mean, you can get away with something like that in postmodern literature or an art film (I could totally see David Lynch or Thomas Pynchon trying to pull something like that off for instance), but in a traditional role playing game... well, not so much. Hell, I think Atlus could have pulled that off in one of their Shin Megami Tensei games... but Gust/NIS sort of missed the boat on this.

1a. This is related to the above section, so I can't make it an entirely different entry. You see, the writer/producers tried to almost set up a love triangle between the lead male character, Klein, the lead female character Lita and the aforementioned Veola. What would happen if you were watching a movie where the male lead had to choose between a fleshed out, interesting neurotic romantic interest and a relatively flat and underdeveloped one. I mean, it is obvious which is the better choice, but as a player, you know who will win that battle based on positioning. So the basic gist of this whole first point is if somehow you lifted Veola right out of this narrative then for the most part everything would seem to fit together better because you don't have something which is calling attention to how seemingly undeveloped the other characters are.

2. As I mentioned earlier, even the antagonist gets sort of short shrift in all this. I mean, you as the player/viewer have to feel that there is some reason why you should be chasing the big baddie... and really, the things that the foe you are working your way through the game to fight just didn't do it for me, especially when you look at other games in the genre. I mean, Kefka was a villain... Sephiroth was a villain. Mull is just an arrogant prick really who in the grand scheme of things, aside from one final act of hubris, wasn't really evil. And I don't mean he was nuanced or anything like that. He was sort of flat too. There was never a sense that I needed to see that guy get taken down (like Officer Tenpenny in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas). The secondary recurring villain (who is not really a henchman) is a lot better, more interesting and yes, actually has some development as the story goes along. Of course, in terms of villainy, he is on par with a Dwight Schrute... not even the Diet Coke of evil. Yes, those of you who are familiar with the story know that I am mischaracterizing Beggur a bit... but only a little bit.

3. Like a lot of role playing games, Eternal Mana follows the tried and true method of structuring the narrative around a series of plot coupons which must be collected in order to get to the end, and it is only when you are near the end of that journey (I mean, right near the end) that you discover that you may be saving the world (because the menace at the end might not in fact destroy the world). First of all, that is a definite pacing problem... I mean, yes, you build to a climax like that by ratcheting things up, but come on, you don't just suddenly spring that on someone in the final act. It also doesn't help that when you get to the end, it almost takes you by surprise... because precedent indicates that the moment that you've arrived at is never really that ending point... it is a boss battle that is unbelievably the last battle of the game. And as I mentioned earlier, you really need a villain that actually pulls an ending together from its disparate threads, which he can't.

Now again, I don't hate this game. In fact, I was the person who started the entry about it at TV Tropes, so clearly, I have given it some thought. But point #1 in all this is just a full on narrative breaker in all this, and those other problems are sort of minor compared with it. As someone who has some minor aspirations when it comes to the written word, seeing something which clearly broke a lot of the rules was very enlightening. Figuring out why those points bothered me has likely made me a little more critical about the work I do now too.

No comments: