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Endings: A Descent

Batman Arkham City

Last week my second 360 core model died the death. The first suffered the dreaded red ring of death. This one caught the lesser known but equally terminal error 74. Thankfully it was under guarantee so I got my money back and trade up to a slim model. The guy behind the counter gleefully recounted the tale of one regular customer who’d been through 13 of the old models before the slims arrived. Shame on you Microsoft.

There are three things I’m annoyed about after trading up. The first is that I didn’t have The Last of Us on my radar and get a PS3 instead. The most serious is the loud “ping” noise the console makes when you turn it on or open the tray with the console buttons. It’s loud enough to wake my kids up, so now I have to turn on the console with the remote and make sure I have the disc I want to play already in there before bedtime. I’m amazed gaming parents the world over haven’t registered screaming outrage over this.

The final issue is the save games that I lost. Yes, I could have got a transfer cable but that’s additional expense. A save about half-way through Bioshock was a minor annoyance because I didn’t care all that much for the game. Somewhat more dispiriting was the loss of a three-quarter done save of Arkham Asylum, a game I wouldn’t rave over but was certainly enjoying.

So I will now never see the end of Arkham Asylum. And what struck me, the more I dwelt on it, was the fact that I didn’t particularly care. I’d had fun with the game but after maybe ten hours with it, I was actually pretty much done. I was going through the motions just to see the story, which wasn’t enormously compelling in the first place, conclude. And the sudden removal of that pressure turned out to be something of a relief.

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It wasn’t so long ago that this idea was complete anathema to me. If I liked a game, I was damn well going to play it until it was finished just to get my money’s worth out of it. I pursued this goal doggedly even when the arrival of children seriously curtailed my gaming time.

I can recall in my one and only JTS podcast appearance (damn you, global time differences) relating the tale of how I replayed and replayed and replayed the notorious Meat Circus level of Psychonauts well beyond the point of enjoyment and well into the realm of fury and frustration. I felt compelled to overcome the challenge simply because it was there.

psychonauts

It’s a bit like staying with a film you’re really not enjoying until it’s done, except that it takes much longer to complete a game than it does a film. So while psychologically it might be the same, in reality it’s far more tedious and damaging.

And it bears repeating that, in spite of what repeated consumption of highly cinematic AAA titles might make us feel, videogames are not films. What differentiates them is the degree of interactivity and challenge that a game can give, making you feel part and parcel of the story rather than passively consuming it.

And that differentiator is key. Film started out like theatre, but evolved into its own art form when pioneers began to think about what it could do differently, and exploited those differences to make great movies. Games, whatever they share with cinema, are no different. What makes a great game great isn’t in the cinematics, it’s in the dialogue between the choices and actions of the player and the game.

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So if the story isn’t the ultimate arbiter of the quality of a game, why do so many of us feel the need to unreel the whole thing to the bitter end in order to feel we’ve properly finished a game. Surely the correct measure is the point at which we’ve become bored with the play mechanics.

When viewed through this prism a lot of other slightly troubling things melt away. It explains, for instance, why people carry on playing games even when they’ve finished them, whether it’s a replay on a harder difficulty setting, installing a mod, or just carrying on with goal-free experimentation in sandbox games.

It also throws into stark relief one of the ongoing issues with cinema-style games which is only going to get worse with the next generation. For a long time I’ve felt there was life in the AAA model going forward simply because there was so much cinematic space unexplored. Even the most thought provoking games at the moment are pathetically immature compared with the artistry of the best movies. And Hollywood has demonstrated time and time again that tired old formulas can remain surprisingly entertaining if delivered with enough flair and skill.

But my increasing disinterest in games for the sake of their plot alone suggests this isn’t going to be enough. The interactivity with the unfolding story that a game allows us is hugely powerful, and it strips storytellers of some of the most effective tools they have for engaging the audience. The challenge that’s integral to that interactivity has to be there too, properly integrated, and it’s here that AAA games are increasingly failing to provide innovation.

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The mobile model that’s been eating chunks out of consoles in recent years is precisely the opposite. It doesn’t lack in terms of mechanical creativity, but I find the lack of narrative and detail, of old-fashioned art, means many titles have terrifyingly short shelf-lives. What we need is for the next generation of consoles and PC games to grow and mature in both mechanics and cinematics, and perhaps most importantly of all to master that strange gray space that unites the two.

The forced ending to my time with Arkham Asylum has actually started to feel like a lifted weight. I can finally lay to rest the nagging ghosts of many other games that I almost played to completion but, for one reason or another, had to abandon. I just hope that it isn’t the seeds of an excuse to abandon the narrative appeal of games in their entirety.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

2 thoughts to “Endings: A Descent”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this recently myself, given the number of games I’ve rented and abandoned without finishing. I used to be a die hard game finisher too, but let me tell you, being a pro reviewer will take the wind out of those sails REAL quick.

    I think you’re on to something here that’s a larger “inconvenient truth” about video game narratives. With very, very few exceptions (yep, Metro 2033 springs to mind), even the so-called “best” video game narratives are trash- not only because they’re Z-grade genre fare that wouldn’t be out of place in a SyFy channel movie, but also because in almost no situation does the narrative match up with the action of the game unless you’re looking at extensive, low-interaction QTEs.

    Bioshock Infinite is as good an example as any. It’s been lauded as being “mature”, “deep”, and all of these things that it just isn’t because it’s about as literary as a Highlander sequel and as elegantly subtextual as a Fox News report. The story of the game isn’t Columbia, Elizabeth, Booker, etc…that’s the fluff. The story is “man murders people”. That’s the same story-defining action that is in almost every shooter. Doesn’t matter how you dress it up.

    So yeah, I’m kind of in agreement here even though I love Kojima’s approaches to story in games and I love the Batman tales in both Arkham games. Catherine had a great story, and the action of the game was actually a psychological reflection of the principle’s journey. Journey had an amazing, subtle, and almost secondary narrative. Bastion had a great story, very somber and reflective. So games CAN have good, compelling, and even resonant stories that drive you to finish…but not when you spend 10% of the game engaging the context, 90% of the game murdering people or chopping up dead bodies.

    So this means that I too no longer really give a shit about finishing most games to see the story. I’m really kind of more interested in games with thinner narratives and heavier emphasis on player skill development and play-generated storylines.

    The problem is partially that the cinematic style, which actually started out with a VERY unfavorable reception in the games medium (Night Trap, anyone?) has become a handicap for developers that are unable to tell a story through gameplay.

  2. If the hard drive issue is really biting it out of you. You can always get your hands dirty and dismantle your old hard drive case and stick the drive in where the new one would go in the Slim.

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