Come Tell Me A Story

By Ben

If there is one aspect of the medium that is video games that can be sorely overlooked it is plot. Thinking back to the early days, what story was to be had? We were presented with a lineup of ghosts of different colors, their names hovering with them, only to then have a “plot” introduced where a pizza with one slice missing got a bug in his ass and decided to eat them out of house and home. Perhaps they didn’t tip their delivery guy and the pizza enacted revenge for its master? Don’t take that as disrespect, early games like Pac-Man didn’t need plot, not any more than just a reason to put a quarter or two in at least. But like any art medium, video games grew and matured along with the audience that loved it. Today we have multi-million dollar budgets spent on game development, another few mill on marketing, and even more on DLC, servers, websites, patches etc. It would only make sense that the writers and plots attached to these massive financial investments would have also grown with their audience, but too often we find ourselves faced with a very different scenario. While video games may blow past barriers even film can’t touch, a good story is still a rarity.

(Alert: Spoilers appear in this article for Syfy’s “Defiance,” Ubisoft’s “Far Cry 3,” and Irrational’s “BioShock Infinite.”)

Let me preface this by admitting the thoughts I am about to express were brought in part not by video games, but by a similar medium. Like many, this past Monday, I watched the premiere of Defiance on Syfy. I was greatly impressed. Astonishingly impressed, actually. I was glued to the set. I was absorbed by the visuals, by the sounds, the characters; there was a real world here and I was living in it. Interestingly enough directly preceding commercial breaks a highlight of a scene to come was shown. Potential spoilers, I was immediately resentful of Syfy’s showing of their hand. I didn’t want to see what was going to happen via snippets and 30 second spots, I wanted it to flow naturally in the story while I flowed with it. I wanted to experience it first hand, in order, for the first time. The interesting thing is, after those commercial breaks those scenes came on and I literally forgot that I had seen them before. I was experiencing them all for the first time, even though I wasn’t. It was the story. I was so engrossed in everything I was watching and feeling that I was unable to process that I had just watched that same scene five minutes earlier. It all disappeared into a natural happening. The story was so strong and so involving that it didn’t matter, and in that moment I truly didn’t recognize that in essence I was watching deja vue in action.

Needless to say, if I hadn’t the resolve to turn off the TV when the premiere was over I would have sat through another two hours of the encore. In fact, if I hadn’t anything else to do Monday night, I may very well have made sure I watched it again. I’m very much a visceral kind of guy. I like action scenes, impressive visuals, and bombastic sound, but there is something to be said about good story. Defiance had a story that pulled me in and kept me enthralled from beginning to end. It got me thinking about how truly important a story is. Being the gamer that I am, it then got me thinking about story in video games. Then I starting wondering why I so rarely felt the same way I did about games that I did about Defiance.

Most video games have stories. Even the obligatory military shooter has some tale of foreign despots stealing nuclear arms for the thousandth time. So why is it that those stories, while competent and often written by well-known authors, don’t illicit the same feeling of immersion and passion about the world in which they exist? I think it may boil down to the idea that games being an interactive medium don’t necessarily require the same amount of immersion of the player as novels do a reader. The interactivity of a game essentially forces the player to become part of the story. This forced entry removes some need on the part of the writer(s) to win over the player. The absolute need to add depth to a story isn’t present when the person is experiencing it from within. The barriers are far viewer and easier to sidestep. Unfortunately, developers often exploit this inherent first hand participation and allow the story to falter in the face of adding new weapons, or amped up graphics engines. While not poor games by any stretch, developers released titles that are what amounts to well-done blockbuster action flicks. Undeniably fun. Beautifully crafted. Balls to the wall adventures. Yet, there is often much more that can be added if care is taken and skill applied.

I recently had the pleasure of purchasing BioShock Infinite on release day. I finished it only about 4 days later. Considering this coincided with assignments for school, work shifts, getting my son ready for school every morning, outlining articles for Nerdstafari, planning a vacation for my cousin’s wedding…well you get the idea. I was busy. I sacrificed a lot of sleep to play that game, not because I intended on reviewing it, because I loved it. From your first glimpse of the floating city that is Columbia you get a feeling of the time and effort spent on every aspect of this game. Then you get introduced to Elizabeth and everything changes.

I hate A.I. characters during actual gameplay. Whether it’s my squad mates in Gears of War, Sully in the Uncharted series, or the nameless-but-loud-mouthed marines in Halo, A.I. serves one purpose: cannon fodder. Things were different with Elizabeth. Yes she helped you in combat, yes she had her little quips and sayings, and yes she could be a slight distraction to your enemies, but there was something more to her. I cared about her. Seeing her in distress as Songbird came looking for her or hearing the trembling mix of rage and fear of Comstock’s propaganda brought about in me a feeling of needing to be there with her and for her. She was a real character. BioShock Infinite did such a good job of making me feel for this girl that revelations that came later in the game hit like a heavy weight boxer. One particular scene regarding a potential future and a return to the surface for Columbia had my pulse race, not out of adrenaline, but because it wasn’t just Booker looking at a city in flames, it was me. And it was all Elizabeth’s doing. The writing had made me see this world not as one I was forced to play a part in. Nor was it one that I was involved in simply because I wanted to. I was a natural part of this world. I wasn’t an observer, or a person playing a game, I wasn’t even really Booker DeWitt. I was part of Columbia, part of Elizabeth’s journey and part of both the cause and solution to this world’s – for a time, my world’s – problems. The story was such that there, for the briefest of moments, was a true blur between the real world and the game. Because I was an active participant it meant even more.

BioShock Infinite had allowed me to step over that boundary into a new world and to willingly become a natural part of it. Far Cry 3 allowed me to see a world through the eyes of some one within it, all the while unable to stop them from getting hurt. Or hurting others.

Jason Brody begins his quest, with me the player along for the ride, as a trust-fund baby with no cares and even less responsibilities. I loathe those types of people. The twenty-somethings who have had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Those who have never had to want for a day in their life and who don’t appreciate a damn thing they have. And I’m supposed to feel like that with Jason. You are supposed to have this detachment. He’s part of the wealthy youthful elite. He and his friends are far removed from so many of us; you can’t help but view him as an outsider. So what if he parachuted onto a pirate inhabited island? Tough shit, Brody. Call mommy and daddy to get you out of this. You take control of the character, because you both want to play the game, and because of promises of becoming a jungle dwelling badass. So we go through the motions, B to duck, D-pad left to throw a rock, a first person perspective of your brother and protector being shot in the throat…wait.

Things took a serious 180 for me at that moment. Yes it was a bit clichéd of a scenario: The only character who can handle himself – a soldier – is killed right in the beginning forcing his younger brother to take the reins. But from that moment on you get more and more layers revealed from the character of Jason Brody. What starts out as contempt for this yuppie twerp slowly turns to pride as you help mold him into a fighter able to enact his vengeance. Then you see what he is capable of. Through manipulation by a local priestess, countless exposure to exotic narcotics and the need to fight and kill both human opponents and hungry predators Jason becomes something far removed from an irresponsible rich kid. He becomes a monster. All this comes full circle towards the end of the story. In order for him to gain the villain’s trust Jason is forced to violently interrogate a prisoner. Upon opening the door, this prisoner turns out to be his younger brother, Riley. Through outer monologue and whispers we get into the mind of Jason as he looks upon his sibling knowing fair well he is going to have to do some terrible things in order to make this look legit. A brief malfunction in the surveillance system and Riley is finally able to talk to his brother. What transpires next is both beautiful and terrifying. I had helped Jason become so cold and vengeful that he had seen no other goal than to finish his fight. Now I looking at the little brother of this character and even though I had my hand on the controller, I was watching Jason come to tears as he brother agreed to be tortured by him on film to keep up the charade. A few full bore punches and a thumb to a bullet wound and I had to set the controller down for a moment. This was Jason’s kid brother! Look what he had been forced to do to him!

It was a different kind of involvement I had with Jason Brody. Instead of taking his place, I watched him and guided him during his journey. I was there when he made his first kill, I rallied behind him for vengeance against those who wronged him and I encouraged him to become the monster capable of doing it. Then I had no choice but to sit and watch him be forced into hurting the last bit of family he had. It was partly my doing that brought the two brothers to such opposing positions; it was I who had walked with Jason and helped him lose his humanity. Now it was I who sat by and watched that humanity rush head long back into the picture. It hurt. I cringed worse than I have in years. I knew that though I was not a direct part of this world, it was my hand that guided it to where it was.

All this, both with Booker and Jason, the emotion, the attachment, the realism, it was all because of the stories. One I had become, one had I had befriended. These games had done something that even books can rarely do. They allowed me to forget I was being told a story and instead allowed me to become a part of it. I was a phantom inhabitant. Not just a casual observer, no. I was someone integral to the world, but just out of site. I developed friendships, connections. I felt emotional attachment, good and bad, to people and places. I could hear, smell, taste, see, smell, and feel the world around me. All this I experienced, when reality was, I was just sitting on my couch with a controller in my hand.  Graphics engines, voice talents, gameplay, these aspects all contributed to that level of involvement and their importance cannot be forgotten. What made my experiences with Far Cry 3 and BioShock Infinite different, more real, was that along with those technical attributes, I had a story that ran along with it at the same caliber.



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