What is it that makes us remember a game? What does it take for one to leave a lasting impression on the player’s mind? Gameplay? Narrative? This article will look at examples from both the First Person Shooter and Adventure genres, in the hopes of establishing just what it is that gives a game meaning in the eyes of a player.
First, the Adventure games, starting with a renowned classic: The Longest Journey.
TLJ’s setting is deeply connected with its story… and what a setting it is: the twin worlds of Science and Magic, Stark and Arcadia. Two halves of a long since sundered Earth, held apart to prevent a cataclysm. Both worlds are varied and beautiful, with Stark moving from rusty canals to rain-slick streets, and Arcadia from sunny port-town to darkened forests.
They aren’t empty worlds, either. Although many characters get very little screen-time, they’re all well written, and well acted. It’s a varied cast too, with pirates and sorcerers, gumshoes and hackers. Moreover, the people that the player does interact with frequently all have very distinct personalities, and they all behave in a believable manner; every character has their own motivations, and most conversations contain a great deal of backstory about the character that’s being spoken with.
Together, characters and places weave a compelling tale. It starts simply enough, with a dream, and a normal day. By the time it’s over, it has spanned four worlds, and crossed time and space. It’s called The Longest Journey for a very good reason. It’s an epic. Joseph Campbell described what he called the ‘monomyth’, of the Hero’s Journey, a plot structure that has reoccurred time and time again in stories from across the world. He described it thusly: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
The plot of The Longest Journey matches this almost perfectly, following a pattern as old as storytelling itself.
The combination of the classical narrative with such a vivid world is deeply moving. The wonder felt at the first sight of a tropical island, the sorrow at a companion’s death, it’s made all the more real by the fact that the story it’s a part of is so vast and varied, and that variance is driven home by the stunning vistas of the scenery throughout the game, and the rich cast of characters.
If The Longest Journey was a book, Fahrenheit is a movie. A B-movie, that is.
The plot is… memorable, to say the least. It starts with the player stabbing a man to death in a bathroom, plagued by eerie visions. Immediately after this, the perspective jumps to a different character, and the player is now a police officer, trying to catch themselves. As the story continues however, reality fades further into the distance, until all the characters are stuck in the middle of a war between ancient Mayan oracles who secretly run the world, and an AI spontaneously generated by the internet.
Unlike The Longest Journey, the plot of Fahrenheit could hardly be compared to classical literature: it would be a stretch to even call it well written.
In an odd way though, the ridiculous tale becomes deeply engaging as it reveals snatches of the characters’ private lives. Lucas Kane, even while questioning his own sanity, still has time to get his ex-girlfriend plastered on cheap gin and seduce her with some blues guitar. Detective Carla Valenti goes home in the evening and is pleasantly surprised when her neighbour drops by to split a bottle of wine and give her a tarot reading. It’s these little interludes that make the characters seem real: they don’t spend all their time investigating murders or struggling with their inner demons.
New York, with plummeting temperatures and a thick blanket of snow, is a fitting setting for the grim tale and it makes those moments of respite seem all the more real. Although the player only visits a few places, each one carries a weight of feeling. The dusty, velvet draped house of the blind fortune-teller, the candlelit warmth of Carla’s apartment. The quiet stillness of the graveyard, the windy ruins of an abandoned fairground… For a B-movie, Fahrenheit spent a lot on scenery.
It’s that scenery, and the characters that play upon it, which give Fahrenheit its impact. Its weird story alone wouldn’t be effective; it would just be too hard to take it seriously. The reality of the characters, however, more than makes up for this.
Because of the connection with them the player feels everything they do, from the panicked confusion of an unwitting murderer in a gore-soaked bathroom to the grim determination of a man on the run.
Unlike The Longest Journey or Fahrenheit, Penumbra cannot be paralleled with a book or a movie.
It would like to be compared to the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, but unfortunately zombie dogs just aren’t as scary as cosmic horrors from beyond that drive one mad merely to look upon them.
The story starts with the hero receiving a letter from his supposedly dead father, asking him to retrieve a book from a deposit box, and burn it. Instead, he reads the book and follows it to Greenland. Instantly, he’s caught in a blizzard. Freezing to death, he stumbles through the snow until he comes across a metal hatch embedded in the ground. He bashes it open and descends into the caves below, whereupon it slams shut behind him, trapping him in a nightmarish labyrinth of indistinguishable brown walls and terrifyingly boring plot exposition.
Penumbra’s story begins unimaginatively, and continues in the same manner. What little plot revelation there is comes from diary snippets, and documents left conveniently lying around, but the writing is stilted and hammy, and so dreadfully clichéd that it provokes an attitude of profound cynicism. In comparison, Fahrenheit’s ridiculous flights of madness are more than a breath of fresh air: they are a positive tornado!
The game tries for an atmosphere of psychological horror, but it’s an abject failure. The unrelentingly dull, brown-and-grey scenery, coupled with a world that is all too obviously a series of game levels, ensure its failure. The Longest Journey’s beautiful settings inspired awe and wonder. Penumbra’s drab corridors inspire only boredom.
There’s only one human character other than the unlikeable protagonist the player controls, and he’s a stir-crazy madman. Sadly, he’s as poorly written as the plot exposition, and it’s all but impossible to care about who he is or how he went mad. What could have been the saving grace of this game, and the key to drawing the player into its story is, in fact, just another nail in its coffin.
First up in the FPS genre is a modern classic:
Half-Life 2, acclaimed as one of the greatest first-person shooters ever made, for a variety of reasons, foremost among them its setting and story.
The world is a grim one; a dystopic, Orwellian nightmare of a future. Humanity is a broken species, downtrodden under a harsh, oppressive regime called the Combine.
Citizens cluster in squalid apartments, trembling as their neighbours are dragged away by faceless soldiers. Officers stand guard at dark alleyways, while the sounds of blows and screams echo from behind them.
This is the first scene the player sees, and it’s masterfully chosen. As the game progresses, the player leaves the city behind, and ventures out into the wilderness around it, but it’s the memory of the brutalised citizens that lingers, providing an underlying motivation that remains in the background throughout the story.
In some ways, the way the player fixates on the people is one of the greatest things about Half-Life 2. The scenery is amazing; the decaying eastern-European slums of the city, the burning wooden wreckage of Ravenholm, the majestic vistas of the coast highways; it all exudes an aura of solidity and realism. Yet it fades into the background, a set behind the actors.
One of Half-Life 2’s most interesting features is its lack of a main character. The player takes the role of Gordon Freeman, but Freeman isn’t actually a character at all, merely a vessel: he is never seen, never speaks, and never performs any actions other than those which the player takes.
The main characters of the story are the NPCs, Gordon’s friends and allies. They all have strong personalities; all excellently written and acted. The characters that really matter though are the Vances: Eli, an old colleague of the player, and Alyx, his daughter. Alyx takes on the role of spunky female sidekick early in the game by rescuing the player from certain death. Eli takes on the role of ‘convenient plot device’ just a short while later, by getting kidnapped. It’s their relationship that provides the narrative impetus for the middle of the game, as the player follows Alyx in a desperate attempt to rescue her father.
Half-Life 2’s narrative is its greatest strength, and that narrative comes from the people. Almost all the player’s motivation comes from the characters: their hatred of the Combine, their pity for the citizens, the need to rescue their friends. This wouldn’t be possible if the characters, and the world they exist in, were not so masterfully crafted.
Deus Ex, despite now looking somewhat decrepit, is just as good as Half-Life 2, and for very similar reasons: its setting and narrative.
The world of Deus Ex is one of shadows and conspiracies. From the grimy alleys of Hell’s Kitchen, where a gang-lord reigns over violent drug dealers and downtrodden whores, to the luminous signs of Hong-Kong’s market, where triad thugs demand protection money as corrupt police stand silently by. Overlaid by an atmosphere of darkness and corruption so thick it could be cut with a knife, it paints a stark picture of a grim future. No-one can be trusted, and morality is a murky grey on the neon-lit streets.
The tone of the world is reflected in the characters that inhabit it. Sickly junkies wander the streets, looking for a fix. Pimps and drug dealers cluster in packs, laughing raucously. The soldiers the player work alongside approach their jobs with a naïve glee, convinced of the righteousness of the slaughter.
Unlike Half-Life 2 though, Deus Ex definitely has a main character, with a personality all his own. J.C. Denton, a wisecracking rookie agent who’s the prototype for a new form of augmented soldier. Furthermore, because the player can actually choose dialogue options, and change how J.C. interacts with the other characters, they feel all the more real.
Like everyone else though, J.C.’s allies are no saints. In the words of Nietzsche: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster,”. J.C.’s brother, whose own sense of morality leads to his betrayal. The agency chief, pressed into a corner by orders from above. The corrupt bureaucrat, who executes captured prisoners without mercy, before turning to the player and saying: “You saw nothing,”.
Eventually the player is forced to ask if they are even fighting for the right side.
It’s this question that occupies much of the early game; and the answer only reveals more questions. As the story progresses, it reveals a great labyrinth of conspiracies and corruption at the highest levels.
The player’s role through it all; bringing light to darkness and later challenging the conspiracy that was both his creator and the guiding hand behind the scenes of the world, is eerily analogous to that of Lucifer in Biblical mythology… especially considering that one possible ending is apotheosis.
Deus Ex has a deep story, one which asks meaningful questions about the nature of morality, and the price of freedom. More; it requires an answer of the player, as they choose how the story ends.
Most impressively though, is the fact that the game ensures the player considers their answer. The images of a broken world and the broken people who inhabit it, coupled with the glimpses the player has of the possible consequences of their actions, make certain that their answer is no idle choice, but a genuine reflection of their beliefs.
Crysis is a game that gets by on its looks: pretty, but with the depth of a postage stamp.
It’s a descendant of Far Cry, which was famed for its beautiful, sprawling tropical island environs, and little else. Crysis added an incredible physics engine, and graphics unlike any seen before, but that’s about all it added.
The story begins with the player and their group of clichés being airdropped onto an island where contact has been lost with a team of archaeologists as the Korean army takes over. As they move forward, it’s soon revealed that there’s an alien presence on the island; one which is just awakening. The player fights their way towards the centre of the island, then through the alien mothership and out again, then back across the (now frozen) island to a waiting aircraft carrier.
It’s not a brilliant plot; simplistic and shallow, it’s something that could be found in any one of a hundred action movies.
Sadly, it falls short of the Hollywood style it’s aiming for. The dialogue is stilted and horribly melodramatic, and the characters are shallow stereotypes, inspiring no real attachment: the hotheaded psychopath, the badass sergeant, the moronic admiral, the helpless archaeologist…
Unlike the pitiful, downtrodden citizens of Half-Life 2, or the gloating, corrupt bureaucrats of Deus Ex, they generate no emotions, and instead leave the player empty.
This might be forgivable, if not for the fact that the characters are supposed to act as the driving force of the plot.
That just leaves the scenery. Crysis is famed for its graphics, and justly so: the tropical vistas are rendered in breathtaking clarity. The unfortunate thing is, they aren’t actually anything very memorable. Stunning, yes, but so close to real life that they don’t stand out. Later levels, like the Gigeresque corridors of the alien mothership and the glacial wastes of the freshly frozen island avoid this, but even so, they somehow fail to form an emotional reaction.
Crysis isn’t actually a bad game, but it’s…forgettable. The player is given no real reason to care about the story, and so it creates next to no emotional response.
So, what lesson can be taken from these games?
It’s notable that in the majority of them, it’s the player’s relationship with the characters that gives the story its meaning. Though the setting is important, it’s the people the player care about that create an emotional impact. In Fahrenheit for example, the story itself is hardly Pulitzer-worthy, yet because of the characters it still captures the player. Penumbra—though its plot is more coherent and reasonable, if no better written—founders because the player feels no connection to it.
Crysis, meanwhile, provides a brilliant setting, but a bland narrative and bland characters, and yet is saved from being a bad game by virtue of its gameplay. Games do not require deep stories and well-written characters in order to be good: no-one would deny that Tetris or Peggle are excellent games. But they do need them to provoke deep emotions, and to create a lasting impression on the player.
The memories left by a game have a meaning of their own; as with any form of fiction, games can teach lessons that have a real value in life. Like Aesop’s fables, they can teach the value of mercy and empathy, or the dangers of pride and recklessness.
It is the story which creates the memories so many gamers treasure, and it’s the characters which give a story its meaning.
…Ultimately, games are about the people.