5 October 2007
Indistinguishable from magic
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.