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January 2011

Vintage Game Club: Loom

Loom Twenty years ago this month, Lucasfilm games (now LucasArts) released a graphical adventure game like no other: Loom. Led by lead designer Brian Moriarty, Loom's design team departed from the standard point-and-click adventure formula and devised a fantasy-themed game with no maps, typing, or inventory management.

Instead, the player adopts the role of an outcast weaver named Bobbin Threadbare who makes his way through Loom's strange and beautiful world relying only on his distaff and a collection of 4-note tunes he can play to cast spells.

All the music in Loom comes from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, and as the game progresses, the sophistication of the musical passages grows. Coupled with the game's lovely landscapes and clever writing, the music adds an aesthetic dimension to Loom that still resonates today.

Moriarty recently discussed the game's influences:

We found ourselves gravitating towards Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty as a model for the look and feel of the game. Sleeping Beauty has a very distinct aesthetic, unlike any other Disney film. The production designer for the film was Eyvand Earle, a painter known for his flat, stylized shapes and planes. 

The other major influence was Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake. ...The majestic sweep and melancholy atmosphere seemed perfect for a wistful story like Loom. All of the music for the game was transcribed note-by-note from Tchaikovsky's score. I also borrowed the swans, the owls and a few other elements from the scenario of the ballet.[1]

If you've always been curious to try a graphical adventure game, Loom is a terrific place to start. You can't die or get lost, and the game offers three difficulty modes for handling the musical notes. Players with no musical chops will have little trouble with Practice mode; and players who enjoy a challenge will find one in Expert mode, which requires you to play all the music by ear.

If you'd like to give Loom a go, now is a great time to do it because the Vintage Game Club is hosting a collective playthrough. We're a group of friendly folks who enjoy playing and discussing older games together, and we'd love for you to join us.

As I've mentioned before, we all have busy lives, and the VGC is a no-pressure environment. If you decide to start a game with us, but can't continue it, or if you post a comment but can't return to follow up, no big deal. The club is just a framework for bringing us together. We're here to have fun and broaden our knowledge and awareness of important games. All are welcome.

PC and Mac versions of Loom are available on Steam for $4.99. If you can find and run them, other versions are also available for Amiga, Atari ST, and FM Towns. We'll be happy to help you get the game running on your system if you ask for help in the VGC forum.

Happy weaving!

About the podcast

Recording I want to apologize to llsteners of the BG podcast for my sporadic release schedule over the last year.

When I began the show in '07 I recorded an episode every two weeks. I was on a sabbatical from teaching, so it was easy for me to maintain such a routine. When my sabbatical ended, I shfted to a monthly show, with an occasional flurry of confab episodes and year-end roundups.

Lately, my teaching and administrative work have grown more demanding, and parenting a running, climbing, "why"-asking child turns out to be far more time-consuming than caring for a baby who sleeps 15 hours a day. At the moment, I'm also in production for a play I'm directing, so time is an incredibly precious commodity these days.

Happily, I've been able to sustain my writing here - not out of a sense of duty or obligation, but because I love it so much. Like many of you, I think about games all the time. For me, writing is thinking, so posting essays here feels like a natural thing to do. It helps that I've learned to write any time, anywhere, which comes in handy when your kid decides to rise and shine at 4:00am.

I'll continue recording podcasts, of course, and I look forward to many more conversations with smart, interesting people. But I've reconciled myself to the reality that I'll make them when I can and not beat myself up for failing to maintain a regular schedule. I'm prone to dragging guilt around with me when I fall short of my goals, so I suppose I'm writing this now to help release myself from that self-imposed burden.

As always, thanks for reading and listening. Happy gaming!

What a beautiful world we've destroyed


Metro 2033 isn't a great shooter, horror, or stealth game, although it tries its hand at each. Its shooting controls are too loose, its horror elements too sporadic, and its stealth options too limited. If we measure the game's value on its technical or face-value design merits, Metro 2033 probably deserves its 77 Metacritic score.

But Metro 2033 is like a pitcher who disguises a nasty cutter. Everything about the windup and delivery looks like a fastball...until the ball lands in the catcher's mitt and the batter stands helplessly at the plate muttering "What was that?" 

Metro 2033 does the unthinkable among modern narrative games. It holds the player accountable for a battery of decisions made throughout the game, but it refuses to reveal an optimal path or permit the player to game the system by framing his actions as "choices." 

In other words, the game offers its best ending only to players who genuinely earn it, according to the game's self-defined ethics system. The rules of that system are not imparted to the player via good/bad/neutral dialogue options, nor does the player receive behavior prompts from NPCs or reward/punishment for specific choices along the way. I like the way Christopher Thurston puts it on his blog Exit/Warp:

The solution to the game's macro-conflict is determined by the outcome of dozens of micro-conflicts, implicating any game with a push-button solution to an ethical impasse in a kind of hypocritical ambivalence. A man is not only entitled to the sweat of his brow, Metro says, but to the formation of his identity. Who you were before doesn't matter: what matters is what you do now. All of it.

And so in Metro 2033, you enter a world whose inhabitants live precarious lives, driven by altruism, greed, self-preservation, and fear. You are in the same boat (or, in this case, gutted Metro tunnel), and the game presents a variety of apparently inconsequential choices that, over time, define you. In the end, the game itself - or more properly, the world Metro 2033 enacts - determines whether or not you can be trusted to make peace. It's an especially startling and resonant ending because you never knew you were being tested.

In Metro 2033, stopping for a moment to strum a guitar - a simple act of beauty amidst dank chaotic suffering - will take you one small step closer to saving the world. Stopping to listen to a mother's plaintive cries (no button prompts, no exclamation mark above her head, no apparent feedback) is another step. 

Sadly, the game occasionally marks these events as "Achievements," which diminishes the meaning of such moments. It's an odd, incongruous concession to the absurd assumption that every game, no matter its nature, must reward us like trained seals at regular intervals. Fortunately, most of Metro 2033's Achievements are tied to combat-related events ("Kill 30 enemies using revolvers.") rather than the quietly consequential choices made along the way.

Most games present NPCs as information kiosks for the player. Metro 2033's NPCs play this role to some extent, but mostly they seem to exist separate from the player's presence. Kids draw pictures on the floor, share half-informed stories about mutants, and worry that their fathers haven't returned. Refugees sit around makeshift fires, sing and listen to guitar music, and awkwardly joke about their circumstances. 

Sure, if you look for the seams, you'll find looping dialogue and animations, but if you behave naturally and let your curiosity guide your movement through its environments, Metro 2033 will reward you with a rich array of characters and situations that seem impervious to your arrival. You're helpful, but you're no savior.

Metro 2033 leaves room for fear and doubt. A commander orders his men to take their positions, then follows with a quiet "I hate this so much." The artifacts of war, including shrines to lost children, are discovered along the way. The game communicates the human toll of war more convincingly than most. When you come upon the aftermath of a massacre, Metro 2033 unsettlingly expresses the moment. Something about the way the bodies are strewn about and disfigured. Disturbing.

A sergeant makes a stirring speech about holding the line against an advancing army of mutants. He exhorts the men to think of their children back home. They gird themselves for a fight...and they're immediately overwhelmed by a supernatural force. A few men survive, and as the mutants are about to arrive, one of the men begins to sing. It's a moment of fear and desperation few games manage to convey.

"Even the Apocalypse didn't stop us from killing one another over ideology." --Narrator

Late in the game, a philosopher named Khan observes, ""You reap what you sow, Artyom. Force answers force, war breeds war, and death only brings death. To break this vicious circle one must do more than act without thought or doubt." 

This statement applies to the in-game narrative, but the player soon learns to appreciate its extra-game resonance as well. One can blast one's way through Metro 2033 and watch the nuclear missiles fly at the end. But if you want a different, more hopeful ending - and more importantly, a more meaningful experience as a player - you must pay more careful attention to the people and world around you. You must "do more than act without thought or doubt" - and that's an approach shooters rarely ask us to adopt. Metro 2033 turns our conditioned FPS expectations on their heads, but refuses to announce its intentions. In a game full of anomalies, it's a perfectly anomalous approach to game design.

We've seen games struggle to embed an ethical dimension into gameplay using all sorts of techniques: binary choices, branching paths, virtue points, etc., and I don't mean to suggest these are all silly failures. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age employ systems many of us have found engaging and enjoyable. Metro 2033 tries another way, and it's a refreshingly unexpected change.

We struggle to quantify the artistic value of video games because we don't have a reliable means for measuring intangibles, such as an uncommon authorial voice or an interactive system that conveys a distinctive ideological sensibility. Metro 2033 isn't just another genre mash-up FPS, but unless we account for these intangibles, it may seem to be just that - even to players who plow through to the end.

By the way, if you decide to try Metro 2033, I encourage you to choose the Russian voice-track with English subtitles. The Russian actors bring a gruffer, too-many-cigarettes characterization to their roles that enriches their portrayals. I found them more convincing than the English-speaking cast with Russian dialects, but both deliver solid understated performances.


Late to a party nobody threw


Metro 2033 forces me to examine why I choose to play certain games, but not others. It makes me consider the degree to which I'm swayed by games press coverage, social media chatter (or silence), and the critical light we collectively shine, or fail to shine, on individual games. Since its release ten months ago, Metro 2033 has existed mostly in the dark, and that's a shame.

This game did not fly under my radar. I knew all about Metro 2033. I saw the screenshots, visited the website, read a few reviews...and cavalierly dismissed it. Another derivative shooter. More post-apocalyptic wastelands. More plucky humans blasting mutants in subway tunnels. 

In other words, more Fallout 3, but with a survival horror twist - because mashing up genres can cover up a lot of recycled ideas. Oh, and it's made by a Ukrainian developer (4A Games) I've never heard of. So, yes, dismissing Metro 2033 was a no-brainer. With so many un-played games on my shelf, why would I choose to bury twelve hours into this one?

What a cynical player I've become. When you've suffered through enough bad games, I suppose you inevitably build a defense shield to protect yourself from harm, and self-protection is the primary function of cynicism. But I hate it. I don't want to be this way. I'm not convinced that a critic's credibility hinges on a prerequisite cynical sensibility.

The broad conversation about games among gamers is generally laced with cynicism, and I understand why. Buyer's remorse stings at $60 a pop. But if we're honest, I think we might also agree that negative, snarky discussions about games persist because they're a fashionable way to talk about games. For some people, it's the only discursive equipment they know how to use.

I blame only myself for overlooking Metro 2033. I like to think of myself as a free-thinking independent gamer. I've often tried to champion games here that I consider unfairly ignored. I enjoy discovering off-the-beaten-path titles recommended to me by friends and readers. These days, I receive email and download codes publicizing all sorts of games I might never otherwise play. I see myself as generally detached from the short-attention-span gabfest that characterizes our discourse about games.

But who am I kidding? I'm part of that gabfest. It's fun to sing the praises of unheralded games when they come along, but such discoveries are rare, happy surprises. Most games don't rise above mediocrity, and the sheer volume of releases forces me to employ a filtering system. I can't play everything; nor do I want to.

And so I rely on a system that is deeply flawed at best. I read press releases; I scan preview coverage to see what's coming; and I follow the advice of trusted reviewers and Twitter chatter (plus my own curiosity) to help me sort out which games to play and which to avoid. Sometimes that system works, but other times it fails miserably.

In the case of Metro 2033, it resulted in a collection of impressions based purely on feature descriptions, genre classifications, and comparative analysis. The actual experience of playing Metro 2033 has little to do with any of that stuff. The things that make Metro 2033 unique and worth playing are the very things routinely overlooked in most critical accounts of the game.

Outstanding games (books, movies, etc.) have failed before, of course; but when it happens, it's worth asking why. Metro 2033 is a game "victimized by consumerist reviewing," as Patrick Klepek put it to me via Twitter, and he's absolutely right. There may be other contributing factors, but the critical response to Metro 2033 certainly did the game no favors. It's not a question of Metacritic numbers. It's about how we discuss and convey a game's distinctive merits when those merits can't be quantified.

To understand and appreciate Metro 2033, we must detach our perspective from all the ways it can be itemized relative to other games. I'm hardly the first to suggest we're not very good at that yet. Until we improve, ambious and striking games like Metro 2033 will continue to be unfairly ignored.

In my next post, I'll explain why Metro 2033 succeeds so impressively, and I'll try to offer a way of seeing that accounts for the in-world moments, places, and encounters where its qualities shine most brightly.

The bedtime game


Last week our 3-year-old daughter Zoe moved from her crib to a "big girl bed." Some kids make this transition smoothly, but not Zoe. After discovering she could climb out of bed any time she liked, Zoe decided to fully exploit her newfound freedom. And so for six consecutive nights, Zoe exercized that freedom at all hours, and we became sleep-deprived zombies. Through sheer desperation, we also became game designers.

We attempted to gamify the transition from crib to bed, but we proved to be inept designers. We saw the transition from crib to bed as an end-goal - a victory in itself. But it was our victory, not hers. Zoe needed a stickier, more tangible outcome, and imparting simple praise ("We're proud of you!") wasn't enough to keep her dialed in. Zoe needed a progression system that made sense to her, with meaningful feedback and a win condition. We lost a lot of sleep before we figured that out.

Pre-release hype
Zoe's bedtime game started promisingly. We began talking about a new bed two weeks before Christmas. We perused catalogs with pictures of children's beds; we discussed how all of her older cousins and friends sleep in beds; and we read books about bedtime. By the time we arrived at the furniture store to make our purchase, Zoe was pumped. We walked in the door, and Zoe immediately approached the sales clerk and said "I want a big girl bed!"

Downloading the demo
We looked at bed after bed, and Zoe laid on each one, pretending to sleep. Soon, however, she lost interest in shopping and discovered a more fun activity: hiding behind sofas and recliners, challenging us to find her. We refocused her attention on the task at hand (with threats of leaving the store bed-less), and she finally narrowed the field to two kid-sized beds. She tested each multiple times before finally settling on her choice. We bought it and arranged delivery in three days.

Personalized content
While we waited for the new bed to arrive, we let Zoe decide where in her room it would go. She chose a quilt from her grandmother to hang above her new bed; she chose a new blanket and pillow; and she helped us shop for a new night-light. Zoe was ready for her new bed. Better yet, she was invested.

Upgrading the hardware
On the day her new bed was to arrive, Zoe watched me dismantle her crib. This was a far more emotional event for me than for her. As I removed each bolt, I wistfully recalled assembling it before she was born. Zoe's concerns were purely practical. "Where should we put it?" she asked. "It's going to the garage for now," I told her. "That's okay," she replied, "It can get snow on it because I don't need it anymore."

Removing the shrink-wrap
Zoe was at pre-school when the bed arrived, so we had time to get everything ready. When she returned home, she ran upstairs, dashed to her room, and gasped "My new bed!!" Frenzied bouncing and running around ensued. She was thrilled. We were thrilled. The new bed was here. All was well.

Mission failed
That night Zoe eagerly climbed into her new bed. We read stories and tucked her in. "Do you like your new bed?" I asked. "Yes!" she exclaimed. "Go to sleep now, and we'll see you in the morning." "I will. Night-night, mommy. Night-night, daddy" "Night-night, sweetheart." 

We turned off the light, closed the door, and gave each other a silent thumbs-up. Another parenting milestone passed. ... Thirty seconds later, the door opened and Zoe emerged. "Mooooommmy." This game had only begun.

Somewhere around the 15th time Zoe came out of her room that night, it struck me that we had identified the wrong challenge. We thought the bedtime game was about convincing Zoe to embrace change and accept her new bed. We were wrong. Introducing the bed was an easy test. The challenge was keeping her in it. We had no game plan for this.

Over the next several nights, Zoe ran us ragged, repeatedly emerging from her room and forcing us to put her back in bed. On the second night, in the space of less than an hour, I returned Zoe to bed 23 times.

Every resource we consulted advised a simple trategy: do not let the child win. Return the child to bed, no matter how many times it takes, until she finally falls asleep. Stay on this course until the child eventually learns that bedtime means sleeptime.

After five nights of heeding this advice with no progress whatsoever, we decided to devise an incentive. We drew a chart with pictures of her favorite things - ice cream, an iPhone game, a photo of her teenage cousin, etc. - spaced over time. We explained to Zoe that if she could stay in bed for one night, she would be rewarded with a trip to Dairy Queen. More consecutive nights would bring better rewards, culminating in her cousin (whom Zoe worships) arriving at bedtime to read her stories and personally putting her to bed.

This incentive system worked like a charm, and the last thing Zoe said to me as I left her room that night was "I get ice cream tomorrow." "Yes," I replied, "if you stay in bed." "I will," she responded. And she did. (Well, she did get up twice for a drink of water - a familar canard we chose to overlook). We went to bed happy that night.

Final boss
Five hours later at 1:00am, Zoe walked into our bedroom. "I don't like my bed." We calmly returned her to her room, tucked her in, and reassured Zoe that hers was the best of all possible beds. The next several hours were spent replaying that sequence until she finally fell asleep for good.

The next night was more of the same. We took turns returning Zoe to bed. We tried the soft approach; we tried the hard approach, but nothing worked. Neither of us us were sleeping, and we were losing our minds. Some parents lock their kids' doors. Some use gates. Neither of those options appealed to us. 

Help us, Jenova
In a state of desperation, my zombie-mind flashed on an idea - or, rather, an idea-man. For some crazy reason I thought of Jenova Chen. 

If you want to teach players not to do something, you don't need to smack them. You need to give them zero feedback.[1]

Negative feedback, Chen explained in a talk I attended last summer, is no less stimulating than positive feedback. Players often choose to "behave badly" in games simply to experience the resulting outcomes. If a designer wishes to dissuade players from choosing certain actions, he must associate no outcomes to those actions.

When Zoe walked into our room at 1:30am, was she essentially testing the system we had designed? In that system, she could interrupt our sleep at any time and receive a stimulating response, harsh or reassuring. What if we gave her nothing but dead air? What if, the next time she entered our bedroom after midnight, we simply ignored her?

And so the next night we went to bed and awaited Zoe's inevitable arrival. Right on cue, she popped in at 1:15am with "I don't want to sleep in my bed." We ignored her, and she repeated the line about ten more times. We remained still and silent. 

Zoe seemed stunned. She walked to both sides of the bed as if to examine us. "Daaaaaaaddy.... Mooooommy." Dead air. She paused for a moment as if to consider her options...then she turned, walked back to her room, closed the door, and slept peacefully until morning. In her new bed. Like a big girl. 

Thanks for the shut-eye, Jenova. We owe you one.




Every once in a while a game comes along that deepens your appreciation for skillful craftsmanship in design. Expressive and nuanced character animations. A fluid camera that rarely calls attention to itself. Dynamic lighting that feels naturally suited to every environment. Responsive controls that make the player feel one with his avatar. 

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is just such a game. Playing Enslaved has renewed my admiration for the extraordinary craftsmanship...of Uncharted 2.

Perhaps I should treat Enslaved more charitably. A game should be evaluated on it's own merits, and Enslaved is a big ambitious game with virtues to consider. Its voice acting (directed by Andy Serkis) is mostly high-caliber work; its post-apocalyptic environments adroitly side-step the over-familiar 'wasteland' look; and its last ten minutes deliver a narrative coda unmatched by any recent game I've played. If only those ten minutes had been worth the wait.

It's impossible to evaluate Enslaved as a stand-alone game because every element of its construction derives from antecedents. Its narrative structure, cinematic style, motion-captured character performances, gameplay mechanics, and environmental puzzles all draw from previous games (the Uncharted and Prince of Persia series most notably). Sadly Enslaved never manages to equal any of its inspirations.

Journey Speaking of antecedents, the game's story is loosely based on the 16th-century epic Journey to the West, one of the great works of Chinese literature. Again, it's easy to discern the influence of this source material on Enslaved, but none of the novel's thematic audaciousness or philosophical underpinnings find their way into the game.

I suppose we might credit developer Ninja Theory for being such a choosy borrower. I only wish these inspirations felt, well, more inspired. Sadly, they mostly come off as inferior knock-offs.

The differences first appear on a technical level. Enslaved's Unreal Engine 3 visuals simply cannot match those generated by Naughty Dog's proprietary engine for Uncharted and, especially, Uncharted 2. I rarely perform such comparisons, but after playing Enslaved for a few hours, I decided to load up Uncharted 2 and take a look. The technical gap between the two games was surprisingly wide.

In particular, U2's lighting and dynamic real-time shadowing are markedly superior, especially in canopied areas and locations with mottled light. U2's water effects, fabric details, and facial/body animations all stood out too. Enslaved's textures are muddier than U2's, and its camera is jumpy and less responsive.

Canned animation queues are a reality in video games (for now), but Enslaved exposes them far more nakedly than U2. For example, watching Monkey open a heavy door for Trip - an animation repeated ad nauseum in Enslaved - is a purely cut-and-paste event. The game appears to rely on a single animation sequence for nearly every repeated action.

So, why do these technical and, arguably, cosmetic differences matter?

When we're doing Enslaved and the story and the character and everything we're not looking at other games, we're looking at movies and achieving that level of cinematic performance.(Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades)[1]

I'm perfectly happy to play cinematic games, and I agree with Sparky Clarkson's assertion that such games are no less viable storytelling vehicles than non-linear sandbox, or emergent-narrative games. But if a developer aspires to "that level of cinematic performance," it must take its medicine when we hold it accountable for falling short of that avowed ideal. 

Of course, no game has completely succeeded in this regard, but it's possible to look at a game like Uncharted 2 and appreciate the many important ways it does succeed. A while back, I wrote about how Uncharted: Drake's Fortune makes a virtue of its reliance on film genre conventions. I won't reiterate that argument here, but suffice it to say Enslaved feels less inspired by style or genre than adrift in a sea of precursors. 

Pigsy Enslaved's problems aren't merely technical. It stumbles with poor pacing and struggles to logically marry its storytelling and gameplay elements. The wheels come off when Monkey and Trip reach Pigsy's place and spend the next two chapters climbing everything in creation to track down spare parts. 

Pigsy's off-color quips and inexplicably sudden infatuation with Trip can't conceal the fact that the game and its story have lost their way. By the final chapters, Trip has devolved into an order-barking IT manager; Monkey is, yeah, basically a monkey who climbs, kills mechs, and mostly does what he's told; and Pigsy just keeps bringing the bluster.

Follow a gripping, surprise-filled journey as two dissimilar characters form an uneasy partnership in order to survive through a perilous, post-apocalyptic America.[2]

Enslaved's perilous travelogue story with "dissimilar characters" make further U2 comparisons inevitable, and here again Enslaved suffers. U2's wit, sure-footed pacing, and actor chemistry make Enslaved's feel forced and calculated by comparison. 

More significantly, U2's characters - especially its women - separate it from the gender stereotyped pablum of Enslaved. I might have happily ridden out the storm with Enslaved, overlooking its tedious fetch-quests, content-filler puzzles, and repetitive combat (heck, Uncharted 2 fell down there too); but ugh, those characters.

Trip2 Enslaved gives us a distressed damsel in a tube-top, a hulking silent-type hero who lets his elephant-sized biceps do the talking, and a repugnant, misogynist pig (literally a swine-like man named "Pigsy") who delivers the comic relief.  Of course, Enslaved's storytellers don't want to paint by numbers, so they toss in a few cursory twists. Trip is a smart techie who's handy with gadgets. Monkey has a soft side. And Pigsy ultimately plays the role of martyr.

But these bits of 'fleshing out' do little to diminish the fact that Enslaved wears its standard-issue male power fantasies on its sleeve. Lest there be any doubt, roughly halfway through the game - long before a believable love relationship has formed between Hero and Heroine - Monkey rolls up on his bad-ass Mad Max motorcycle and motions for Trip to hop on. 

She eagerly obliges, and the camera cuts to her face as she wraps her arms around Monkey, leans her head lovingly against his shirtless back, and closes her eyes with a smile. The big strong hero whisks the helpless princess away on his trusty steed. Their destination? Trip's daddy whom, she's certain, will know what to do.

In the end, I did share one empathetic sentiment with Enslaved's post-apocalypse survivors: there must be some kind of way out of here.

Backstory blues


Backstory ain't easy. Ask any writer. It's not hard to concoct a character's past. Outlining events leading up to a story is no problem. The hard part is plugging it in. How do you convey that information to your audience without pouring a bucket of exposition on their heads?

We've struggled with this problem for centuries in the theater. Sophocles used a Chorus to fill us in. Shakespeare relied on characters like the bloody captain in Macbeth, whose sole function was to describe (in vivid iambic pentameter) events that occurred offstage. In drawing-room comedies the "butler on the phone" technique conveniently delivered who/what/where/when to the audience within minutes of the curtain rising.

Film's native ability to manipulate time and space makes it a natural backtory delivery device, and many films (e.g. Memento, Inception) have creatively repurposed their expository elements as core storytelling. And as we've seen, when a filmmaker runs out of ideas, he can always fall back on the trusty (crusty?) flashback sequence.

Video games struggle with backstory. It's a problem of both conception and execution. Narrative games self-limit their facility for storytelling, partly because we relentlessly cling to recycled power fantasy tropes; and partly because we so often restrict our imaginations to interchangeable protagonists. Maybe serious gamers can discern meaningful differences among Master Chief, Marcus Fenix, Kratos, Tychus Findlay, and a dozen other hulking monotonic badasses, but those differences don't matter much in the long run.

But wait, you say. Kratos is a demigod, the son of Zeus; Tychus Findlay is a cigar-chomping marine with a shady past. They're totally different! Heck, Tychus isn't even the hero of Starcraft. Jim Raynor is the regular-guy protagonist we're supposed to care about in that game. He's nothing at all like Kratos!

And this is where so many video games fall down. Our knowledge of these characters is meant to be informed by rich backstories that delineate them in our imaginations. But this information is delivered so clumsily that we routinely dismiss it with a groan and a sigh.

Our connection to these characters stems from our interactive bond with them, and that's a good thing. But too often that unique relationship is seen as a free pass for storytelling artists (writers, actors, etc.) to produce unimaginative amateurish work. If a modern high-tech game is meant to be situated within a broad narrative arc, why rely on a rust-bucket backhoe to deliver it?

Stilted dialogue lumbering under the weight of heavy exposition, delivered via Film School 101 cinematics, makes for bad storytelling. Players demand skippable cutscenes, but not always because they want to resume shooting things. Sometimes they just want to stop the pain.


Our experiences with multi-installment franchises like Starcraft and Metroid complicate things. In the recent cases of Jim Raynor and Samus Aran (Metroid: Other M) their cinematic presentations defy our understanding of them, built through personal experiences from previous games. 

Starcraft II's bulked-up gotta-explain-everything Raynor and Metroid: OM's oddly submissive Samus feel incongruous to many players, and their writers do them no favors. Samus' ponderous dear-diary entries function like a backstory escape hatch, enabling Metroid OM's writers to dodge writing convincing drama inside the game itself. Raynor's jokey tough-guy banter fails to mask backstory-dumps and other storytelling crutches. For example, here's a stilted attempt at relationship building through tension and conflict.

Distracting your audience from an expositional deluge doesn't work either, but that hasn't stopped Hideo Kojima (and others) from trying. Kojima has employed an arsenal of tricks over the years, including most recently a little girl who cooks eggs, flashy in-game briefing videos, and user-controlled camera angles. None of these have managed to conceal the fact that we're getting fifteen minutes of passively-received backstory.

I don't mean to pick on Kojima, but he fares no better when he tries to embed backstory into gameplay. This dialogue sequence occurs as Snake makes his way to a mission objective:

[A bird's eye view of a large forest is shown. The camera slowly pans down to show a camouflaged Old Snake among the brush.]

Snake: Colonel, how deeply are they involved in all of this?

Campbell: The Patriots, you mean? Seizing control of the world's ID systems, and then using them to manipulate the economy and information flow... For the Patriots, that's the ultimate prize. You might say the Patriots are the embodiment of the war economy.

Snake: Everything that Solidus feared five years ago... It's all come to pass.

[Flashbacks of Solidus Snake appear as Snake slowly rises to his hands and knees and cautiously begins moving forward.]

Solidus Snake: The Patriots are trying to protect their power, their own interests... by controlling the digital flow of information.

Campbell: Now with the media and global opinion under complete control, not even the UN can stand up to them.

Snake: Then Liquid's insurrection is against them?

Campbell: Exactly. It would seem as though Liquid has taken up Big Boss's cause. An age of persistent, universal warfare. A world where mercenaries are free from domination. In a  sense, the "Outer Heaven" Big Boss envisioned is already a living reality.

[Snake lies back down on the ground and begins doing an inchworm crawl.]

Snake: You mean the PMCs and their war business.

Campbell: Right now, Liquid is a slave to the Patriots, forced to fight their proxy wars for them.

Snake: He must be dying to break free of their spell.

Campbell: Beneath the surface, a new cold war is brewing between Liquid and the Patriots over who will survive.

Snake: And no matter who wins, the world has no future. Until we stop Liquid and destroy the System, we'll never be free.

Campbell: ...Snake, what we call "peace" is an equilibrium kept in check by the war economy. Destroying the System means wiping out the information society... The end of modern civilization. Like it or not, we may have no choice but to protect the System.

We often encourage writers to "show, don't tell." Many gifted writers have violated this rule with positive results, but Kojima isn't one of them. The above passage is bad writing by any definition.

Fortunately, not every game fumbles the backstory ball. In my next post I'll discuss a few games that handle exposition more elegantly, and I'll propose some ideas for how games might continue to evolve in this regard. As always, your thoughts are most welcome.