You know what you do when you can’t decide what game you’re going to cover in your next blog post? You look at what you talked about a year ago and revisit that franchise.
Now, the Metroid series knows its atmosphere; we’ve covered that. Super Metroid is arguably the penultimate atmospheric game of the franchise, but each of the others offers its own in-depth mood, too. This mood is most successful when imparted through subtle details and audience-driven discovery. The eerie isolation of Metroid wouldn’t work if people were telling you what to do all the time.
Let’s talk about MetroidFusion, agame that straddles this fine line of audience intuition – though less in atmosphere and more in its plot. See, investigating a parasite-invested space station has its own creeps and curiosities. Though much of Samus’s mission is directed by a rather demanding A.I., and her exploration is broken up by long reminiscences in elevators, the atmosphere still generally stays true to what’s been established in the franchise.
You’ve got hints toward surprises to come – a sense of dread, for example, when you view Nightmare rushing by in the background of Sector 5, obscured behind glass. Yes, this is something you’re going to freak about later, the game seems to infer.
Metroid Fusion has more plot and set-up than its sisters in the franchise, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing – when done right. And Fusion definitely has its moments done right:
In this moment, the real Samus has only just descended the elevator into a new section of the space station. There are no words, no explanations, just this shot of a duplicate, sinister Samus prowling about – and we know from playing up to this point the X-Parasite is capable of assuming the shape and features of its host. This has been demonstrated through (some) text and encounters with enemies. When SA-X appears on stage, we know what’s goin’ down.
This is the value of showing a point of the plot. It lets the audience develop their own conclusions and emphasizes their emotional reaction. It respects the personalized experience.
So it’s rather disappointing that this very same game also falls into the “tell” pit.
THIS, right here. Ugh. The hint of eventual betrayal. It’s a cheap, cheap trope that ruins what could’ve been a punchier reveal down the line. Contrary to what some seem to believe, this peek into a team member’s unexpected duplicity does NOT bring tension to the story, nor shock value for the audience.
Telling in a story is like vicing a person’s head in both hands and forcefully turning it to where you want them to look. There’s no personal discovery attached and therefore no authentic reaction. If anything, the audience is probably annoyed by your fingernails digging into their scalp.
In this instance, you could probably completely remove this offending cutaway scene in Fusion, and the story wouldn’t suffer a bit. When the moment arrives, we’d share Samus’s experience of the unexpected, and therefore empathize with her shock and anger. As it is, we watch the scene play out and sit back with our popcorn, disengaged until it’s time to press buttons again.
(I realize this might be an exaggeration, but I’m trying to get a point across here!)
It’s better to keep your audience clutching that handheld or controller. To do that: Show, don’t tell. Their attention must stay trained on the story with subtlety; what effort do they need to present when everything is spelled out to them?
Metroid Fusion is the property of Nintendo. You can purchase it to play via the Wii U or 3DS Virtual Console.
We are in that season where the horrific, grotesque, and frightening wrest center stage from every other genre style born of the imagination. In some expressions of the Halloween spirit, there’s very little nuance. The image of an ax buried in someone’s head, blood-soaked skin and clothes, malformations presented to shock the audience, or worst of all – CLOWNS. Yes, the doors open to the most extreme degree of unpleasantness this time of year, and I have to give some creative endeavors credit just for shock value.
But anything in large doses will soon create desensitization, or just plain old “squick” – not true unsettling terror. If that’s what you hope to achieve for your audience, more power to you. If you want to create an honest-to-goodness, scare, however, might I suggest…mixing your genres?
You see, Earthbound isn’t a horror game. In no fashion is it even advertised that way. But good gravy n’ biscuits, it will leave you scarred. Y’all fellow fans know what I’m talking about. But wait, others may say. It’s a game of silly word play, goofy enemies and bosses, and quirky NPC’s. This doesn’t compute. And I answer – EXACTLY. The majority of Earthbound plays out in light-hearted tones, several ludicrous premises strung together for maximum absurdity. It’s a story of boyhood adventure, coupled with comedy, coupled with HOLY FRIED BEANS WHAT PARALLEL REALM OF DISTURBING RANDOMNESS HAVE I STUMBLED INTO?
See, this game never lets you settle down. As soon as you think you understand its mood it breaks free and gleefully screws with your expectations. Were you enjoying that escapade in the mines fighting silly moles? Well, now get ready for melting Dali clocks, weird NPC speech patterns, and completely disorienting map mechanics. And an eerie gold statue will absolutely destroy you in your attempts to escape.
Moonside is more surreal than frightening, you might say, but the unsettling moments continue to ratchet up over time, giving the slightest uncertainty to where this game will take you in the end. Slogging through the swamp hazards of Deep Darkness, then delving into the enemy’s secret base as the whirring of their machinery grows louder…
We’re gettin’ all Stranger Things before Stranger Things was a thing up in here.
Still, there’s been enough light-hearted humor to keep your expectations in balance, right? But every moment of unease serves as a hint – this game ain’t playin’ the “get out scar-free” card. Our final boss Giygas is nightmare fuel from start to finish.
Were you expecting this the first time you played? (And if you haven’t played…sorry for the spoiler. #ruinseverything) There was always lead-up and these moments of discomfort sprinkled into a mostly whimsical story so you were never quiiiiite ready for what would make your stomach clench. Mixing your genres. It’ll throw your audience around like rag dolls.
Naturally, there ARE other methods to properly give your audience a scare; this is but one of several options available to the storyteller. How do you think your scare tactics would come across best?
Earthbound is the property of Nintendo and Shigesato Itoi. You can play it via the Wii U virtual console.
Admittedly, I got into the Dragon Quest craze a bit late (like, just six years ago *cough*). It was Toriyama’s art that gradually drew me to the series. Though I don’t check out the anime scene too often anymore (except for Studio Ghibli; that stuff’s untouchable), Toriyama’s work has always somehow had a nostalgic pull on me. Chalk it up to my endless love for Chrono Trigger?
Now, Dragon Quest keeps things rather predictable in terms of overarching plot: Big Bad plans to destroy world, heroes stop Big Bad, turns out there’s an even Bigger Bad to defeat so we can enjoy more world-building and increase those skill points. DQ‘s charm has never been in its stunning plot twists.
But lemme tell you: it’s a champ at using RPG tropes for storytelling OOMPH (in-game pun possiblydefinitely intended).
Being late to the Dragon Quest fan base, my first gaming experiences were in the DS remakes. Dragon Quest V intrigued me with its focus on choosing a bride and eventually having a family (the Harvest Moon devotee coming out in me). Little did I know I would be struck most poignantly by the part of the game before those domestic elements came into play.
For the first few hours of the story you are sweet baby Hero (name to be supplied by you) – just, like, what, six years old? And baby Hero has all these fun adventures – exploring a ghost house, rescuing a sabre-kitten, saving the fairy realm from eternal winter – while through it all, there’s reassurance his father Pankraz will be just a step away, guaranteeing his boy’s safety.
We gamers are familiar with the occasional need to heal party members between battles, and any time our little DQV protagonist gets too far injured Pankraz will cast “Heal” while on the map without player input. I remember being so charmed by this action and the way the game used an RPG trope to develop character bonds.
“Aww,” said naive li’l ol’ me. “It’s so sweet his dad’s always there to help him.”
In case you’re wondering, now is the time to sense foreshadow and bereavement. Because in comes Ladja (our Big Bad), and he’s ALL about jacking up your feels.
See, this whole time Pankraz has been healing his son, he’s also been showing his AI prowess in battle. NOTHING can take this beast of a man down. Not even Ladja’s henchmen.
…unless, you know, Ladja threatens to kill baby Hero.
(To watch the entire scene – which I recommend – click here and start at about 10 minutes in.)
At this point the game (at least the DS version) could have chosen to display Pankraz’s sacrifice through its overworld sprites bumping into each other with a few unfriendly whacking sounds and flickering characters. Instead, we’re thrown into a battle screen, where – like before – we have no control over Pankraz…or his subjection to enemy attacks.
I can recall lying on my bed, DS in hand, watching this scene play out as I went cold. I screamed for the baddies to stop as Pankraz’s HP slowly sank to zero. (This type of behavior is possibly why my duplex neighbors don’t talk to me much.)
The common RPG inclusion of the Non-Player Character is used to dramatic effect here. You, as the player, should have control over the battle commands, but when they’re stripped away during Pankraz’s fight, you yourself feel the helplessness of the battle. You are in the place of Pankraz’s son, watching him be pummeled and yet unable to stop it.
I’ve talked before about gaming elements that can tell a story unique from any other medium. I believe Dragon Quest V accomplishes this in regards to emotional investment. Because there is such player involvement in video games, the grief can strike one hundred-fold when done right.
There are other games that capture this investment even better, but of course – that’s to be left for another post. 🙂
Dragon Quest V is the property of Square-Enix. You can purchase it to play via Android, iOS, or Nintendo DS
More changes as I figure out my time constraints and capabilities: For the time being, I’ll no longer be writing Faith posts on this blog, but instead linking you to the “Christian Living” posts I write for Geeks Under Grace. These sorts of writings just take a little more meditation than I can muster twice a month. (Just listen to me whine.)
Please enjoy last month’s work on the site here, and be sure to check out anything else they have that might interest you!
Summer’s over, my life has some semblance of order, so I’m back in the saddle, baby! Let’s kick things off with another Series post!
We’ve looked at video gameopenings from a mostly technical point of view – grading them on how well they present their information to hook the audience from the get-go. So far, most of this has included what information has been presented in the opening, but now I’d like to look at how information can be presented to engage your audience.
For this entry in the “First Impressions” series, it’s aaaaall about appearances. So why not look to a completely gorgeous game?
The Galaxy entries in the Marioverse are straight up works of art: in detail, in setting, in music, in gameplay – man, don’t even get me started. They are such a package deal.
Now, on the story end of things…there’s not much to say. You know the drill: Bowser’s up to mischief, and it involves kidnapping Peach. Mario’s got to do his Mario thing and come to the rescue. The main appeal – I mean, aside from fun and challenging platforming – is in the worlds he traverses and not really in the development of the plot. HOWEVER. Super Mario Galaxy 2 in particular still manages to give us a clever treat at its intro.
Games introduce their stories in many ways. From throwing the player straight into the action to treating them to a Star Warsian text-scroll, it was often the capacities of the current console that dictated how the story could be told. Cinematics took root as soon as graphics processors could keep up, resulting in hybridized movie intros that made you perhaps forget you were, in fact, playing a game.
These days, games borrow from all aesthetics to introduce their stories’ premises. (It’s the wonder of the modern age!) In a world where it seems movies and FMVs rule all, though, Super Mario Galaxy 2 takes a different approach: it begins its story in an interactive literary format.
And that. Is. The freakin’. BEST.
Look, I have a bias, I admit. I run a storytime at my work, and I’m more than happy to gush over a wistful combination of children’s illustrations and sweet, simple text. There’s an art form to picture books that isn’t easy to accomplish (and isn’t appreciated nearly enough). Super Mario Galaxy2, I think, does manage to capture that childhood magic – platforming with a healthy dash of library corner. It’s like my dream come true.
Do you see how everything comes together here? First, the Mario series has a large market with the younger crowd, so this intro’s whimsical appeal works there in its favor. Second, there’s also a nostalgic draw for the players who’ve seen the series through its many evolutions over the past three decades. The game employs a storytelling device that pulls us back into our own childhoods, where we picked up the controller and zoomed 8-bit Mario through 2D worlds of wonder.
Third, and to tie it all together, the game treats itself as art. It’s Mario, sure – it’s a game about a short, round Italian plumber who’s best known for stomping Goombas and eating mushrooms – but it knows its legacy. And here, in a pinnacle point of its franchise, it celebrates that history shows that yes, games can be creative expression, in multiple ways.
(Just listen to the soundtracks for the Galaxygames while reading this, and you’ll know what I mean.)
You begin the game fully immersed from the start – aesthetically and emotionally. It’s a story that knows its purpose and knows how to honor its audience for their dedication to the Marioverse. Model your introductions to accomplish the same.
Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2 are the property of Nintendo. You can play both on the Wii or Wii U.
I’ve decided to take a summer sabbatical from this blog. This season is an insane part of the year for work, life, errands, EVERYTHING. Add a recent car accident that’s left me shopping for a new vehicle…and I rather think these articles can take a back seat for a couple months.
If I find a moment to post, I still may, so keep your eyes peeled. And as usual, you will still find me writing for Geeks Under Grace on a monthly basis. I won’t be completely off the grid!
Thanks to everyone who takes a moment to read these posts and offer a little insightful comment of your own. I’ve definitely appreciated the humble community this blog has started!
I am least-resistance material. Dodge rather than duel. It’s not so much rooted in cowardice as it is in convenience: a fight takes work, and I’d rather acquiesce. The less energy wasted, the better.
And I thought I was so ahead of the game, spiritually-speaking. A perfectly willing soul, ready to go along with anything. Isn’t a subservient follower of Christ the best follower of Christ? I wouldn’t dare be contrary to what I suppose is God’s plan for my life.
(Emphasis on “suppose”.)
My change of mind happened in a small moment, as brief as it takes to conjure a thought. I’d scanned through my task list at work and settled on what needed immediate attention. Meanwhile, dozens more synapses went wild in the background with other “to-do’s” for the day: Did I need any groceries? Would I go clothes shopping this evening or on the weekend? Get some writing done after work like a good girl? Or…hang responsibility and work my thumbs on the 3DS? (These moral dilemmas…)
In the middle of it all, some future-oriented thought wandered its way through the internal noise. I honestly couldn’t tell you now what it was, but I remember it arrested my attention. In knee-jerk fashion, I gave it a pious: “Yea, verily, do as thou wilt with mine life, Father.” That should’ve been the end of it, I figured – when clear as I can explain it to you I heard the words, “Wrestle with me.”
Now, there are certain Biblical stories I don’t necessarily forget; I just assume they’ll never apply to my life. Take Jacob, for example. That heel-grabber wrestled for his name, for a blessing, and for a future (Genesis 32:22-32); but he seemed a persistent sort anyway. I didn’t relate. That sort of supernatural tussle was meant for the aggressive only.
And yet here God had told me: wrestle. Over this small detail I’d rather brush off than face. It caused me at least to wonder if there was more to the fight than just petulance. Could such a brawl really change the mind of Almighty God?
In Jacob’s case, he gained what he insisted be his. Whether God would have given it with or without a fight I can’t say, but here’s the other thing I notice: the scuffle altered Jacob. He was given a physical keepsake to remember that powerfully relational moment. In grappling with another person, we often come away with a deeper understanding of both their character and ours. We’re left with a lasting impression; sometimes a bond grows stronger.
I’d never assumed a holy fight could be God’s work to shape me nearer to Him. Was it really more obedient, in some instances, to wrestle than it was to comply? As it turns out, I may not be as ahead of the game as I suspected.
So, new goal: Enter the ring more often – a type of exercise I never knew I needed. Let it bring changes in both life and soul.
I can’t honestly defend certain attempts at dialogue in video games. Between some bare-bones plots and early attempts at translation, there have definitely been a few “winners” over the years.
But you know, I’d wager there are far more novels on the market that boast worse conversation. Part of that is simply due to a disparity in quantity between the two forms of entertainment; but be that as it may – I’m here to defend the validity of video games as a study-able art form, and dangit if I won’t throw literature under the bus to accomplish that!
Wait…maybe I should reconsider my approach…
Two things your dialogue must, must, must do: convey a character’s communication style (i.e. personality) and establish how s/he fosters relationships with others. After that, your own personal flair is just gravy on the potatoes. Since we all differ in general communication style, it follows that authors will approach dialogue in their own ways as well. But in case you were looking for a little inspiration…
..here’s an unsung story whose transcript can’t be beat.
Now, in some ways this game (and others in its series) works against my argument for the brilliance of video game dialogue.
Stay with me here, though. See, Lufia II knew how to make dialogue work for its characters in a way that even some mainstream RPGs at the time didn’t manage. Oftentimes dialogue was relegated as a vehicle for plot: Characters could have personality and backstory, but these aspects mostly funneled the story and gave little wiggle room for expression. This in itself isn’t necessarily wrong, but it can sometimes make for clunky exchanges.
Lufia II‘s characters, by contrast, speak with a natural, conversational tone. They talk like friends, like rivals, like spouses. They don’t (usually) respond to each other in non sequiturs or in stilted fashion. You can actually hear the manner in which they communicate.
Our lead Maxim tends to be serious and straightforward; his wife Selan is direct and confidant; Guy is the wisecrack of the group; Artea brings solemnity. As the four primary party members, these characters receive ample opportunity to interact, fight, tease, and come to a stronger understanding of each other. Even the extended cast lend dimension and personality – however briefly they enter the scene.
Why is this representation of conversation so important? Well, Lufia II was one of the first games where I felt like I really knew the characters, and much of that had to do with the dialogue flow. They were presented as people instead of something like vessels for an overarching message or theme. Sure, they referenced the plot as necessary for the progression of the story, but Maxim and Selan would also just stop and squabble as a married couple on occasion, allowing a glimpse into their life unrelated to the hovering ultimate destruction of mankind. (It was all the rage in JRPGs back then, you know.)
Though there’s nothing wrong with dialogue used as a tool for plot, I like the tales that permit time for character expansion for its own sake. If anything, it gives more fodder for the fan fiction, right?
Lufia II is the property of Natsume Inc. You can play this classic game with a Super Nintendo and cartridge…or settle for the remake.