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5 October 2007

Indistinguishable from magic

I love video games. I'm terrible at most of them. But I'm a sucker for a game with a good story.

I love video games. I’m terrible at most of them. I suck at platformers, and I am well versed in the death animations of most first-person shooters. But I’m a sucker for a game with a good story.

I’ve played two games recently—BioShock and Halo 3—that are great examples of why I love good videogame storytelling. I’ve read comments in reviews of both games that laughed off the story elements as trite and shallow. Which they are, if you compare them to other media in the same genre. For all its freshman lit inspirations, BioShock is no Atlas Shrugged. And the core plot of the Halo series (aliens appear out of nowhere, threaten humanity with ancient but highly advanced technology that humans don’t understand, and a hero races against time and the forces of fate to save the universe from destruction) has been told so many times in so many forms in science fiction that it might as well be a paint-by-numbers template.

But that’s not the point. See, the actual story itself really doesn’t matter to me—it’s the telling that counts. And video games are getting really good at the telling.

Storytellers have been trying for centuries to make audiences feel like they’re in the story, not just listening to it or watching it or reading it. Video games started from the other direction. Games by their nature are immersive. You are the main actor. These things are happening to you. You are saving the princess. You are rescuing humanity from imminent peril. The challenge with video games over the years has been to make the actions you take in the course of the game feel like they’re part of a story, not just a random series of button mashing and puzzle solving. Traditional storytelling wants to put you in the story. Video games already have you immersed, the challenge is to put a story around you.

Coming from a background of traditional storytelling (literature, movies, etc.) it’s easy to write off games as a superficial medium because the stories themselves aren’t as sophisticated. But what games lack in nuances of plot, they make up for with the incredible power of immersion. When you feel like your decisions affect the outcome and the other characters (even if it’s just a carefully crafted illusion) suddenly even a plot you’ve seen a hundred times before becomes incredibly engaging.

I think it’s amazing how my generation relates so strongly to videogames. We literally grew up with the technology. When videogames had miniscule memory capacities and weak processing power, so did we. When videogames required giant leaps of imagination, we had enormous and active imaginations. We filled in the gaps. And as we matured, so did the technology. As our capacity for suspended disbelief dwindles, the technology is catching up.

The Halo series has a special place in my heart, because Bungie’s earlier space hero trilogy Marathon was one of the first games that opened my eyes to the experience of videogames as stories. I stayed up long hours playing not just to finish a level or beat a boss, but to find out what happened next. In junior high I read a fair amount of fantasy novels, those embarrassing D&D riffs with dragons and busty wenches in skimpy armor on the covers. But games like Marathon completely replaced them for me. They fulfilled the same desires to escape into a fantasy world, but they went one step further and actually showed it to me, and handed me the controls.

I just finished playing through Halo 3 last night. I was practically ecstatic by the end, and a little sad when I set down the controller. When Bungie first demoed Halo (at Macworld of all places, remember that?) I remember feeling like my favorite TV show just got renewed. Everything about Halo—from the characters to the weapons to the universe and the story—looked like Marathon, only with better graphics and a bigger budget. (Zelda has the same appeal for me I think. Every game is essentially the same, just bigger and richer and better-looking. You keep revisiting the same familiar places, but they look better every time.)

To their immense credit, Bungie followed through for old-school fanboys like me by trickling hidden references to the original Marathon games throughout the Halo series, and dropping hints about how the two games’ universes might be connected. It was too good to be true, and now it’s finally done. I feel just like I did when I read the last page of the last Lord of the Rings book when I was a kid. I can’t believe it’s over, and all I want to do is find an excuse to stay in the story. No wonder all those people dress up like idiots and learn to speak Elvish or Klingon or Huttese.

Today, Microsoft announced that Bungie would become an independent studio again, now that Halo is finished. It’s hard to explain why that makes me so excited—almost as excited as I was watching that first demo of Halo, before the Microsoft acquisition was a glimmer in anybody’s eye.

I think it comes down to this. Microsoft paid for Bungie to make their blockbuster, and made it the biggest franchise in the history of the industry. Bungie has a history of making sharp right turns (compare Myth to Marathon sometime) with hugely innovative results, but I’m sure if Microsoft had their way they’d be cranking out Halos until aliens do actually invade Earth. Which would be fun, I’m sure, but a damn shame. Now that they can write a check to make whatever they want, it’s exciting to see that the possibilities are wide open.

Personally, I can’t wait to jump into the next story. In the meantime, I’ll be playing Marathon again. It’s been a while, and those graphics are looking pretty dated, but I think I can still fill in the gaps.

Comments

  1. 5 October 2007

    Jay B

    I’m currently playing through Bioshock and enjoying the experience it lays out before me, albeit it is clearly an experience that is “on rails.” I’ve gone even so far as saying that I’m not going to open my copy of Halo 3 until I finish Bioshock though I’m to the point where I’m almost afraid to go into that world again because it scared the crap out of me.

    Sure it’s panned for only having four types of enemies and has, as Zero Punctuation put it: “You have to do horrible things to little girls.” The former is just a way of saying “I have to have some type of stimulation every second in your world otherwise I will give it a 3.0 on IGN and all my MySpace friends will be right there with me if I don’t get 80,000 different types of monsters.” These were the same people that said World of Warcraft sucked because the pig you killed when you were a level one warrior is the same pig but with horns at level 70.

    The latter? Er. You really do have to do horrible things to little girls.

    I do like where the industry is going, same as you. They’re doing more with less and doing much more when it comes to engagement and experience than just what type of polygon counts they can push (I’m looking at you Sony.) Which is also why Nintendo is back and beating the crap out of everyone.

    The best part of this announcement? I want to see Bungie back in action on making gaming on the Mac rock again.

  2. 5 October 2007

    Ethan

    I think it’s amazing how my generation relates so strongly to videogames. We literally grew up with the technology. When videogames had miniscule memory capacities and weak processing power, so did we. When videogames required giant leaps of imagination, we had enormous and active imaginations. We filled in the gaps. And as we matured, so did the technology. As our capacity for suspended disbelief dwindles, the technology is catching up.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen this expressed so well. Brilliant post, Wilson.

    This is sort of a separate discussion, but I wonder how the “art vs. commerce” crowd would view the gaming industry. Never really thought about it before, but folks that natter on about the tension between the two poles might have a field day with video games.

  3. 8 October 2007

    Robert

    When the story form is changed in a way that it avoids being like all the stories that came before (with new nuance, unexpected developments, etc.), two things can happen. One: we are left completely out of the story but without complaint, instead admiring the “craft” of the thing. 2: we are brought in more than ever before, because we find it all so unpredictable, so different.

    The former is something I seem to find more in literature (and at times in movies) and the latter is something I find in movies more than literature.

    It’s weird. When I was a kid, I could play Zelda all day and go to bed dreaming I was Link. Can’t do that now. I can play Madden all weekend though, believeing (as much as one truly can) that I’m a GM of an NFL team (to be specific, I mean to say that I imagine more than the game actually gives me - I fill in gaps). Is it the graphics or who I am? Something about video games (and the word you used, immersion) that makes me wonder if it also has something to do with fashion. Not with what’s in, but with who we are and what we’re into. Look at those clothes you wore, back then. Part of it is the pixelated NES, part of it is Link. But to me, it’s all very different from movies and books. It has more to do with the participant’s selfhood.

    You can participate in books and movies, and they may even feel more authentic, and less “railed” than any game. But they exist without you in a way games don’t - even if that’s only the way we imagine it.

  4. 9 October 2007

    Another Robert

    I, for one, was rather disappointed with Halo 3. Especially when put side by side with Bioshock. First of all, let me just point out that in Bioshock, you do not have to do horrible things to little girls. You are given a choice and I, for one, didnt harm a single one of the little clone-like children.

    Halo 3, however, was a huge disappointment. Metacritic gave it a 94 with over 15 reviewers giving it a 100 rating. 100?? Of all the many reviews I read for Halo 3, this review: http://www.gamecritics.com/halo-3-review : is the only one I find to be accurate.

    Dont get me wrong, Halo 3 was enjoyable and I liked the end driving sequence, but games like Bioshock, Half Life 2+, and Splinter Cell have shown that the audience wants more than the same ol formulaic fight structure. Huge battle interrupted by a minute of travel to the next huge battle is fun… for but two hours. Thats how long it took me to put the controller down and not come back to Halo 3 for over a week. It surprised me. I really wanted Halo 3 to even partially live up to the hype. But to me, it took a back seat to Bioshock, Skate, and the disturbing Jericho demo. I guess I just craved something different.

    And perhaps that is where Halo 3 failed by succeeding. It succeeded in being another Halo game. But after 2 Halo games and a couple years of waiting, Halo 3 was just too familiar.

    In terms of immersion, I have to call out the horrible audio design in Halo 3. Okay, I hated the Flood but I have to give props to the texture mappers for making a beautifully gross level full of sphincter doors and glistening intestinal walls. But where the hell were the audio designers. When I walk through levels as disgusting as the Flood levels, I want some ambience. I want dripping goo sounds. I want the sounds of muscular contractions. I want slapping wet sounds which would help me feel immersed in the nastiness I was assaulted with visually. But there was nothing there. If you find a corner free of enemies (a rarity in those levels), put away your guns, stand still, and close your eyes, the audio gives no clues as to what kind of environment you are in.

    Sorry, I rant. I didnt intend to. Your article was a great read. I am responding to my disappointment more than your prose. I agree… immersion and story telling is key… I just find fault in the game you chose to praise. But I am excited for the future. Assassins Creed, Mass Effect, and Half Life 2 Episode 2 are just around the corner. Keep em coming, game developers. Just be sure to surprise us every now and then.

  5. 14 October 2007

    Wilson Miner

    I understand why people get disappointed by Halo 3, I just think it comes down more to expectations than actual quality. Setting aside probably the biggest hype for a video game ever, it’s a great capstone to a great series and it’s still one of the best overall games in the genre.

    Other games like BioShock and Half-Life 2 are definitely more groundbreaking, and each one shines in its own individual areas (art direction and emergent gameplay for BioShock and physics and new game mechanics for HL2) but they both have their own significant flaws. Not enough to weigh them down, because they’re amazing games, but they definitely sacrifice some aspects in order to make those big leaps forward in others.

    Really, Halo was similarly grounbreaking when it first came out in 2001. Things like the expansive feeling of the level design, the use of vehicles, the recharging shields mechanic (which almost every shooter that came after copied) even the dual-analog stick controls, which it didn’t invent, but certainly popularized. All of them big leaps forward.

    Obviously there’s room for both kinds of games, especially at the level of quality of all three.

  6. 19 October 2007

    Daniel Black

    I find that the fulfillment of videogames varies inversely as their degree of verisimilitude. The more effort designers expend on the look of a game only draws my minds eye to where they missed; and the actual gameplay and story elements are sold underdeveloped.

    Of course, it’s been a long time since I spent time playing, and I did enjoy Halo 2 (what little I played). Still, it’s probably not terribly unlike other media: you wouldn’t design a book jacket before writing the book.

  7. 21 October 2007

    James Wheare

    Hah, always fun to see my RSS feed gradually come out as old school Bungie fans. The story telling in Myth is probably the most immersive experience I’ve ever had with a game. Perfectly succinct and beautifully read narration, coupled with an incredible score, really made you believe you were the last remaining warrior in a hopeless struggle over the Dark. Besides the addictive gameplay (RIP bungie.net) and delightful physics engine I really got sucked into the mythology of that game (and subsequently Marathon) and spent far too many hours trying to unravel its intricacies and uncover its genesis from our own culture.

    I run (or ran really it’s so derelict) myth.bungie.org (handle: Gholsbane) and am just redesigning the journal pages to finally give this incredible story a worthy place on the web. Super secret sneak peak™ Powered by Django of course :)

    Needless to say I’m also excited by the announcement of Bungie’s return to independence, but I can’t help thinking they’ll never recapture the charm of their older games, and it’s not really their fault. The industry has changed so much in the last 10 years, the focus and demand these days seems to be on ever more eye bleedingly astonishing graphics, and less on a simple premise, expertly executed.

    I haven’t played Halo 3 yet, but I hope it’ll cut the sour after-taste of Halo 2. Initial reports seem encouraging, but always seem to include the qualifier “well it’s no Marathon…”

  8. 23 October 2007

    Wilson Miner

    James, that new Myth site looks incredible. I’ve often wished that sites like that existed for some of my favorite games - a recap of the story elements that I can retrace without playing through the whole game again. What a great idea, and it looks beautiful. And Django, to boot! You’ve won my heart. :)

    Daniel, Escapist had an excellent article the other day that makes a similar point about the Half-Life series. Part of what made Half-Life so compelling was the parts of the story they didn’t tell, and didn’t show. Half-Life 2 was a great game, and I’m really enjoying the Episodes, but I agree there’s something about those certain games limited by budget and technology and fueled by creativity and imagination that the audio-visual exposition overload of this generation of epics feels like it’s missing.

  9. 24 October 2007

    James Wheare

    Here’s another one for Marathon

    Marathon’s Story Page

    Scroll down in the left hand frame for terminal screens from every level in the trilogy. I had a hand in revamping these a while ago so they’re as faithful to the in game experience as possible :)

  10. 2 November 2007

    Daniel Black

    Wilson, that’s a great article. I’m a little more optimistic that game developers can still synthesize something more than billions of polygons and wobbly breasts.

    Somewhere, Chris Carter is getting an idea.

  11. 2 November 2007

    Wilson Miner

    Oh, I know all about the Marathon’s Story page. :)

  12. 6 February 2008

    David Eads

    Reading this, I was reminded of what a good year video and computer games have had. As someone said, Bioshock may not be gaming’s Citizen Kane, but it gets us a helluva lot closer. I would say the same about my current obsession, Mass Effect. If you like RPGs, Mass Effect is doing some absolutely wild stuff with story telling.

    What occurs to me is that we are in golden-age of video game entertainment, and some attendant social changes in how we perceive and consume our media.

    Bioshock and Mass Effect were for me the cause of much more excitement than Mission Impossible VI or whatever crap Hollywood was trying to sell this year.

    I believe that I feel about these games much like people might have felt about the upcoming Hollywood epic in the 1930s and 40s.

    Across the culture, gaming is the Grand Entertainment for young-ish people. I have spent a lot of time in various American ghettos, and if my experience is any indication, this is true across race and class boundaries. For everybody from my African American buddies in their early 30s from Chicago’s south side to the gaggle of Puerto Rican neighbor kids at my old place to the rich, very white, frat boys I met over Christmas, the exciting entertainment and highly sought-after entertainment have names like GTA, CoD, Halo, and BioShock.

    Bioshock may be not gaming’s Citizen Kane, but I strongly believe that 2007 was the first year that the possibility of a gaming equivalent of “Gone With The Wind” finally came into focus.

  13. 15 February 2008

    Scott Johnson

    So, no posts since this? Did you, like so many of us, become lost in the world of Halo3? Or one of the many other excellent games that were released last fall? I know I did! There were so many great games unleashed in the Sept/Oct/Nov 2007 timeframe that I’m still trying to catch up. The stories are great; the gameplay is even better.

  14. 15 June 2008

    James Wheare

    Hey Wilson,

    I just launched the Myth Journals site: http://mythjournals.com

  15. 8 December 2008

    joshua talbot

    I’m really out of the loop with H3 (pun intended :) But I’ve been a vocal advocate of Halo’s story telling strength for years. It’s the reason I bought an Xbox! Good read William. Thanks.