June 18, 2009
As storytelling vehicles, 1st and 3rd-person shooters have grown increasingly conservative. Games like InFamous and Prototype bring big wow-factor gameplay (upgradeable superpowers, shape-shifting, Parkour movement, open dynamic worlds, etc.), but as stories they're cut out of the same tiny piece of cloth: dark conflicted male hero sets off to seek retribution or justice with requisite set of thrilling combat mechanics in tow. Lately, you can behave badly too. That's innovation.
Recently, we appeared on the verge of a breakthrough. Games like Mass Effect and Bioshock suggested an ethical dimension could be added to the mix, enriching the narrative and adding complexity to characters. So far, this promising element has been reduced to a binary mechanic, useful for enhancing replay value, but adding little to the experience beyond simple outcomes.
So what? InFamous and Prototype are a blast to play (I've finished InFamous, but not Prototype), and they're fun because of their gameplay elements, not in spite of them. Run/jump/climb around an open world, take on missions, accumulate awesome powers, and rain thunder whenever and on whomever I want. What's not to like? It's FUN!!
Yes, it's fun, and so was Crackdown, a game that understood its limitations and thrived within them, delivering exactly what it promised: a locomotive thrill ride of mayhem and destruction. You are a nameless Agent. A super-cop charged with tracking down and eliminating bad guys. As story/character go, that's pretty much it, and Crackdown proved that was plenty.
InFamous is an essentially empty experience because it fails to deliver on its own ambitions. InFamous aspires to be a video game with the thematic richness of a graphic novel and goes to great lengths in its opening minutes and in subsequent cutscenes to suggest its narrative elements matter: the plague, Trish, Cole's personality, his past, his relationships. But in the end these are little more than storytelling window dressing, a flimsy mystery-story framework upon which to hang the masterful and smooth-as-silk gameplay.
In InFamous, narrative depth is reduced to a plot twist, and the seemingly pivotal karma path - the defining aspect of the game's narrative system - proves to be little more than a simple-minded gimmick. Functionally, the story must explain how Cole got his powers, and it does exactly that.
The point I'm making here is that it's altogether fair to meet a game at the place it's aiming and expect it to live up to its own aspirations. While InFamous undoubtedly makes it fun to have a controller in your hands for a few hours, ultimately the game never comes close to exploring "the responsibility that comes from being so powerful." I don't often complain about review scores, but it seems to me InFamous has received an inexplicably wide berth given this gaping hole.
How can a game more closely integrate its narrative, characters, environments, and gameplay? What would such a game look like, and how would it differ from a game like InFamous?
Meet Zeno Clash, an authentically original and inspired fighting game made by a small team of Chilean developers on a limited budget. Zeno Clash steers clear of most narrative game tropes by creating a unique game world within a skewed moral universe that invites rumination and reflection. It's like no place you've ever been in a game.
What's that? Did I just say a brawler (with bad voice acting, by the way) made me think and reflect? Yes. Yes, I did. :-) I'll return tomorrow to explain why.