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May 30, 2011 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Anomalous Materials: Narative and Gameplay

It was the release last week of Rockstar’s (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption) new title, L.A. Noire that brought my attention towards what I hope is the cusp of a sudden leap forward for narrative and its relation to gameplay in video games. Narrative I don’t need to explain in great detail, but when I say “mechanics” I’m talking about what you do in the game, and how you do it.

The setting is post-war 1940s Los Angeles, and you take the role of Cole Phelps: veteran and newly recruited beat cop. The game chronicles Phelps’ rise up the ladder of the LAPD, from a boy in blue to a fedora-sporting detective, and does so with Rockstar’s signature flare for characterisation and a distinct visual style. The game utilises a new method of facial motion capture for its characters, making facial animation more realistic than in any game before. When you interrogate a suspect or witness, you call on them when you think they are lying, guiding the interrogation as you see fit. The mechanic works surprisingly well: at times my friends and I were absolutely stumped as to the honesty of the man being questioned. What is most unique about L.A. Noire though is how the mechanics of the game, all the actions that take you through the story are necessitated by the story itself, rather than vice versa.

Titles have grown increasingly varied in their balance between emphasis on story or gameplay in the latter decades of gaming history. Imagine a scale: on one end is a game whose full emphasis is on its gameplay mechanics, such as a rally driving game, and on the other end, a game whose mechanics are centred around storytelling. More often than not, sports titles or fighters have stories that are there solely and simply because a game needs characters. The story those characters have behind them is arbitrary and interchangeable, often downright forgettable (though not always: I’ll die a Tekken fan).

Last year’s Heavy Rain was lauded for the aesthetic of its intense murder-mystery- with-a-heart story and allowed its narrative to be shaped by your every action. However, its interface—the controller commands and on-screen prompts that guide you through the game’s actions—was criticised and welcomed in equal measure. You control characters through a system of prompts and ‘quick time events’ which many found annoying, alluding to the divisive God of War games. Personally, I found the interface worked perfectly for an immersive game like Heavy Rain, and though there may be similarities between the two interfaces, the context of the actions you actually prompt on-screen characters to perform is so vastly different I feel the analogy falls far short. A series of quick-on-your-thumbs movements that guide a woman through her apartment while she flees from the threat of home invaders in a realistic and nail-biting situation seems a much more appropriate use than simply “MASH X TO BASH FACE NOW”.

On their own, the interface and branching narrative of Heavy Rain and the realistic faces in L.A. Noire’s conversations work great. But they also herald the possibility of many more games that are intently focussed on telling a compelling story, and shaping new and exciting gameplay around those stories, especially if you are able to influence the outcome of those stories.

One of my main criticisms for both these games is that while your actions have the illusion of gravity within the game, they hardly impact the final outcome of the story at all. Obviously multiple endings would be hard to implement in something like a murder mystery; if the “whodunnit” were to change around depending on how you progressed through the story, it would pose some very costly and time consuming writing challenges. Though not insurmountable, it would likely cause a raised eyebrow or two at the publisher’s office. The solution there would be to branch out, find other stories and characters equally interesting and shape a game around them: imagine films like Children of Men or horrors like Event Horizon being moulded into an intense and personal gameplay experience using the technologies now available. The potential for these kind of narrative-based games is almost undeading when you think about it.

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