Can a 40+ Hour Game Tell an Engaging Story?

I have trouble remembering the details of a movie plot a few days or weeks after I've seen it. However, compared to my retention rate of significant events in video game stories, my movie memory is outstanding. Even the shortest of plot-based games (typically some kind of shooter or action game) are 6-8 hours long at the minimum. When RPGs or strategy games stretch into the dozens of hours, played over many weeks or months, how am I to be expected to recall something that happened in the beginning of the game.

As much as some game designers strive to create cinematic experiences, the nature of many games as a temporally-longer medium inherently works against that desire. Movies routinely place a small character or seemingly insignificant event near the beginning of the film. This bit often comes into play as a significant factor in the conclusion. And in a roughly two hour movie, it's usually not too difficult to recall this tiny bit of information (usually with some help from cues in the movie itself. But in a game that is many times longer, this technique is not only impractical, but also would require a great deal of explanation to catch the player up to speed.

The demands (by some) for longer games as a return on a financial investment in them can actually be a detriment to the ability of game designers to tell a cohesive, satisfying story. Due to the high cost of games, many people commonly think that more game play time equals a better value, simply due to the resulting price per hour. True, a $10 movie ticket might be a $5 per hour value, while a $60 game is a $1-3 per hour value. But this often can lead to repetitive game play, and the developers tacking things on to the core package just to extend the length of the game for its own sake.

Just like with anything, longer isn't necessarily better. Even in movies, one of my biggest criticisms is that the editors should have cut it down a little bit, tightening up the narrative. Similarly, as games like Portal have shown, games can contain compelling narrative elements without taking weeks to complete.

In the PSP strategy game Jeanne d'Arc, battles between story scenes can easily drag on for over an hour. Since this game typically requires a generous time commitment per play session, I don't pick it up that often. Thus I have trouble remembering what happened last time, what I'm supposed to be doing, and how the characters are connected. On the other hand, Shadow of the Colossus is much shorter, only eight hours or so, and also has a somewhat simpler story that is paradoxically thematically complex and nuanced. Through my sixteen battles with the colossi, I always know that I'm trying to bring a girl back to life. The story is never lost in the game play.

Particularly as I get older, I find I don't have the time to sit for hours and be engrossed in a game. The longer a game, the more likely I am to put it down for a lengthy time and forget major details about it. This is a major detriment, I think, to games' ability to tell a story, which is of course but one of their many functions. How can developers get around this problem? One common way now is to try to integrate the story into the game play itself. More importantly, I think the community and developer mindset of "bigger and longer is better" is a huge detriment. I would much rather play a tight, compact game like Portal or Shadow of the Colossus over a 40 hour epic. Of course, I wouldn't want this trend to reverse too much, or I might end up an old man rushing through ten minute games before I fall asleep in my underwear.


A Great Recommender of Games

Despite my regular prowling of gaming news sites and blogs, most of my actual recent purchases have been recommendations made over on The Brainy Gamer blog. In particular, PS2 and portable games, since I currently have a grand total of 0 current-gen systems. I gave up my Japanese Wii upon returning to the states in favor of buying an American one so I could play games in English.

Anyway, based on Michael's recommendations, I have purchased Persona 3: FES, Parappa the Rapper, Patapon, No More Heroes, the greatest hits version of Odin Sphere, and played the demo of World of Goo. As far as I can tell, anything Michael recommends is pure gaming gold. He even made me want Yakuza 3 for what he assures is a brilliant story, despite my apathy towards open-world GTA-style games. There are quite a few other games he's mentioned that I'm interested in too, including Pixeljunk Eden, Zack and Wiki, and Gitaroo Man.

I'm not trying to be too much of a Brainy Gamer cheerleader, but Michael consistently has solid game recommendations, particularly for ones that are in danger of being forgotten. So check it out. I always look forward to his next update.


What do you do for fun?

What do you do for fun?

Well, sometimes I go horseback riding, or hunting, or go out to the bars. What about you? What do you do for fun?

Last night, I fought a mighty colossus. It must have been over 50 feet tall! First, I had to figure out how to climb up on the massive creature, by climbing the nearby colosseum and jumping on his head. Then I had to hold on tight, and hope he took a break from flailing wildly around and trying to throw me off, so I would have a chance to stab him right in his weak spot! Phew. It was one of the toughest yet.


Ugh, I mean, I like to play video games. Sometimes.

Although it did not occur, the possibility of the above conversation presented itself too me. Much of my free time had been occupied by Shadow of the Colossus recently, and upon being asked by someone I hadn't seen in years what I do for fun, I wondered what their reaction would be if I described my most recent virtual battle.

Granted, I don't know this person's familiarity with video games, but it's probably unlikely they're as involved with them as I am. This strongly reminded me of The Brainy Gamer's recent series of posts on not being afraid of "game shame," and trying to defend the value of "play." I really think Michael Abbott nailed at least part of the issue, when he identified that it's not just games that are seen as childish by the mainstream, but the idea of adults having fun and playing, whether it be a physical game, a video game, or just running around in the yard.

There is an embarrassing amount of game shame, in general, despite the proliferation of things like the Wii, and a variety of games aimed at a more mainstream audience. I've often thought twice about playing a portable game in public, or when many other people are around. To be fair, I think some of the poorly written encounters in video games are embarrassing in their own right. Thinking carefully about sitting through a cut-scene where a poorly-voiced scantily-clad elf throws awkward sexual innuendo at you while your girlfriend's sitting next to you on the couch.

Perhaps more importantly, why is it so rare for people to describe their game experiences, especially to non-gamers? On one level, I think it's because people without a background in video games will have no idea what you're talking about, so it can possibly be a dead-end conversation. At the same time, not all games are easily describable to others unless they have a vested interest in that game/genre.

Maybe the best approach is, when asked what I do for fun, to not just say I play video games, but explain why a particular game is unique or important. Explain how the art style, music, and grace of the colossi in SotC contribute to an overall melancholy mood, and a fear for the safety of your main character. This is something that's rarely achieved in any game. Or I could always turn on some personality mimicry and appeal to the other person's sensibilities.


Shadow of the Colossus is Both Beautiful and Haunting

Regardless of how anyone might feel about the game, Shadow of the Colossus is definitely a unique game. Personally, I loved it, despite the somewhat tragic emotional themes. And if SotC had achievements or trophies, I would have earned one for "Refusing to seek help." This was one of those rare games for me where I didn't get frustrated and seek out the answers, although I came mighty close on two of the colossi to giving up.

Despite occasionally clunky controls, it's an amazing sensation to climb to great heights and try to puzzle out the secret to overcoming each of your huge adversaries. This is almost an action/puzzle game more than anything else, and there's always a good chance something unexpected will happen. One moment, you're making steady progress up a colossus' back/leg/wing. The next, a sudden gust of wind or wild shake of their head sends you tumbling, scrabbling for a ledge to save your rapid descent. It's exhilarating.

Of course, these game play moments that cause your body to tingle are in direct contrast to the sense of impending doom you feel after the defeat of each colossus. I know the main character is trying to bring a girl back to life, but something's not quite right in this empty, desolate world. A mysterious voice warns in the beginning that this quest may be more damaging to the main character than he can possibly realize, but we plunge ahead anyway.

I really like that he's not your typical hero, either. Yes, he defeats all 16 colossi, but he's just a young kid, maybe a teenager. And this teen is every bit as awkward and gangly as you and I were at one time. He runs and constantly stumbles, can only climb for a certain amount of time, and must concentrate and build up his strength before plunging his sword into a colossus. He's neither all-powerful not perfect. It's quite refreshing, and all this comes across through game play and visual cues, with a minimal amount of video 'lectures' from the director.

But after beating all the colossi with few interruptions, it's then a little jarring to have to sit through a 20 minute ending/closing credit sequence. But on the other hand, I thought it was both perfect and poignant.

SotC is by no means perfect, but it's extremely fun and entertaining, and should leave with you something to actually think about when you're finished. Plus, it's quite short, which is great for someone like me who has increasingly less time for games these days. If you've never played it, it definitely deserves your attention. Just because the colossus has a weak point, does that mean you should exploit it?

----On a side note, and with small spoilers, part of the ending reminded me of the end of FFVII: Crisis Core. And here I thought Crisis Core was the first game to have that type of ending...


Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus has completely swallowed what little time I've devoted to playing games lately. Since numerous others have mentioned many of its merits extensively, I'll try to highlight what I have found to be most significant.

SotC feels like few other games to me, not necessarily because of the massive colossi per se, but more because the designers focused on a handful of mechanics (and colossi) and polished them to a glossy sheen. Nothing is superfluous, and both the world and your means of interaction with that world are ever-present from start to...well, probably finish, but I still have two more colossi to go. What this means, and what I think so few developers fail to understand, is that a smaller number of mechanics in a game which can be more carefully nurtured allow me, the player, to feel more immersed and get that world.

From the beginning of the game, with little in the way of fanfare or introduction, I know exactly what I'm capable of, as well as my limitations. I can run, jump, ride a horse, swing a sword, shoot a bow, and perhaps most importantly, climb. What the designers have done so well is take these handful of ideas, and create 16 variations with which I can use them to fell a mighty creature. Even the 1 or 2 colossus I found cheap and frustrating proved somewhat more unique and interesting in hindsight.

On an initial play through, there are no distracting side quests a la Zelda. The world is stark, barren, only containing your character, the colossi, your dead girlfriend laid out on a marble slab, and a mysterious voice from above. Barring a short cut scene at the start of the game, and minimal plot progression after every 4 or 5 colossi, you are truly on your own in this game. And you feel totally isolated. There's not even much in the way of a tutorial, with the first couple of colossi serving as learning stages on their own.

The stark landscapes and isolation are vitally important to the overall mood of the game, and (I hope) it's ultimate theme. It feels much more purposeful and meaningful as a desolate space than, say, No More Heroes. While Santa Destroy is empty, and can be read in certain ways as a commentary on the meaninglessness of many tasks in open-world games, the world in SotC are, I think, much more interesting emotionally. Killing a colossus means there's one less creature in an already empty world. How much more destruction am I expected to do?

I'm almost finished, and am extremely interested to see what happens after my final battle. I have a few more comments saved up, but I'll add those to my final thoughts on the game. I've read of at least one other writer that was unable to finish the game due to the emotional impact it had on him. I do question why I'm killing these colossi, these guardians, and what point it all serves. But I'm willing to press on regardless. I'll see if any of the mysteries are resolved soon enough.


Back in the Swing of Things

After more than 3 months, I'm finally ready to start writing again. Through a combination of being extremely busy with lifestyle changes and being more than a little bit lazy, I've neglected my blog for far too long. In July, I was busy preparing for an international move, from Japan back to my parent's house in Kentucky. August saw me settling in, wishing I had my own place to live, and getting ready for a massive month-long European vacation with my girlfriend. September was my 7 country rush through Europe, and then recently I've been busy moving and getting settled into a house with my girlfriend. So I've been legitimately busy, and now I've got the unenviable task of searching for a job (career?) and thinking about what to do with my life.

But writing about games shall resume post haste! Probably later today or tomorrow. I've most recently been playing Shadow of the Colossus, and before that Jeanne d'Arc and Daxter. I've got quite a few thoughts on those games, and I'm also going to try to think more carefully about what I'm doing with this blog. See you soon.