Sunday, December 21, 2008

Visual Storytelling in Videogames: A Meditation

I do not like having things spelled out for me in my media. I feel it's the author/creator's way of talking down to me. Anytime I watch/play anything that has to stop the action so there can be a big, long, talky part, it just rubs me the wrong way. Recently, there have been a couple of pieces of media that have done this, and I'm not all that happy about it. This is going to be a series of blogs, in which I'll address the items one at a time, so keep your interweb pointed to this space in the future, if what I write amuses/interests you.

In videogames, visual storytelling is something that used to be an absolute requirement. There was not enough memory in game media of old to cram in fully voice-acted, beautifully rendered cut-scenes. Hell, there was barely enough room for still images and crawling text. Ms. Pac-Man showed the relationship between Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man in a series of brief scenes between mazes, using in game assets (except the stork). Mega Man 2 explained the entire game with a brief spot of text and the use of a background image with a building in the foreground.

Well, that's all changed in the modern era. Most games rely on lengthy cut-scenes and dialogue to explain what's going on to the player. I'll pick one almost at random... Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

Now, before any fanboys go getting their panties in a twist, let me say that I loved MGS4. It was one of my Top 5 Games this year, and as soon as I finished it, I started up a New Game+. That being said, the 2nd playthrough was much more enjoyable. Why? Because I didn't have to sit through 7 hours of cut-scenes and dialogue. I knew where I was going and what I was supposed to do, and that allowed the gameplay to shine through.

For anyone who hasn't played MGS4 yet, it does a good job of wrapping up pretty much all of the loose ends in the series thus far. It plays out wonderfully, and the ending is satisfying. The gameplay is great, and the first three chapters used a lot of innovative gameplay mechanics that hadn't really been explored much in videogames until that point (following the guy through the streets of the "European city" was both tense and interesting).

However, the whole experience is muddled by the fact that every ten steps, there's a cut-scene. Why do there need to be so many cut-scenes? Would it not be enough to put some more visual cues in the levels themselves? Maybe some walking codec conversations? Something that doesn't completely disrupt the gameplay?

I understand that MGS4 is an extreme example, being that it's the last in a series of admittedly confusing games, but that doesn't excuse the fact that a 6 hour playthrough is not difficult on a 2nd time around, when the first time takes 15-ish hours. Now, of course, you'll be continuing less and getting stuck less, but the thing that cuts the most time is SKIPPING THE CUT-SCENES. The cut-scenes, which, while pretty are very dialogue driven and for the most part, have little action (which is for the best, because I really hate being shown something cool withoug being able to actually do it while playing).

Cut-scenes have their place, it's just not a place in front of gameplay. The cut-scenes in No More Heroes were excellent, and made me laugh almost all of the time. They added to the experience, and watching them wasn't a chore, as in MGS4.

Now, on the other hand, there's a recent game that does an absolutely brilliant job of telling the story with no cut-scenes outside of the opening movie. That game is Valve's latest; Left 4 Dead. Left 4 Dead is admittedly light on story (there are zombies, kill/get away from them), but what story there is is fully realized through in game dialogue (I particularly love the conversation with the guy in the church during Death Toll) and visual cues.

If you look closely, there is an entire world that is fully realized in brilliant detail in Left 4 Dead. The graffitti in the safe rooms tells the stories of those here before you, corpses covered with sheets tell of those who didn't survive whose friends didn't just want to leave their bodies to the elements, but couldn't take the corpses with them. It's all around. You just have to look for it, and that's part of what made Left 4 Dead such a brilliant experience. Valve proves that visual storytelling still can exist in games, the creators just need to sit and think.

1 comment:

  1. I'll just offer this one thought into the ver increasing use of fmv's in's the easiest way to show off their rendering abilities and the processing power of the system it's on. In order to generate the high level of graphics found in many of the fmv's into a controllable setting is immense. Their just being lazy. The think that irks me is this crop of games that have come out in the past few years that hold your hand through a lot of the game, telling you what action to take at what part, like God of War or Halo 3.