Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Storytelling (29)

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Breaking the World

This is a post about why I stopped playing Lost Sphear. It contains plot spoilers for the first few hours of the game. They are behind the cut. You have been warned.

I wanted to like Lost Sphear. I considered I Am Setsuna to be underrated, with much of the criticism levied against it unfair, so I had plenty of benefit of the doubt to give Lost Sphear. And at first, I really did enjoy it! Like I Am Setsuna, Lost Sphear has beautiful visuals and music. I immediately found its world comforting, its characters likable, and its storytelling compelling. The initial group of characters, their relationships, and their role in their town are well established and feel real enough to invest in.

But after a few hours, the story started going in strange directions that felt less grounded and less plausible.

Read more...

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Indirect Boss Fights in Platformers

I’ve been thinking about boss fights in platformers. Mostly because I just played Effie, a 3D platformer whose boss fights… kinda aren’t boss fights.

In Effie, you play as young warrior Galand cursed by evil witch Melira. Melira is the villain for the whole game and shows up for a boss fight at the end of every chapter. But you never fight her directly.

Instead, she hovers menacingly nearby while you deal with waves of normal enemies that she’s apparently summoning and/or traverse a hazardous platforming course. Melira’s only direct contribution to the fight is a telegraphed area-of-effect attack you need to avoid periodically. She does get a health bar, though - sometimes you deplete it just by defeating her summoned minions, other times by reaching and activating levers that trigger hazards she just happens to be in range of - and once her health bar is empty you win and (except in the final fight) she retreats. (The most perplexing encounter has you damage her by pouring wine on her and then when she’s had enough she escapes by diving into the vat of wine.)

So, okay. Is this a boss fight? It’s narratively framed as one. It’s a climactic chapter-capping encounter with the game’s antagonist in which she tries to kill you and you fight back until there is a clear winner and loser. And it’s also mechanically framed as one, challenging you to use your accumulated combat and platforming skills in a high-pressure gauntlet. The only thing I can point to that makes it not a boss fight is that you never really fight the boss - the encounter still serves every other purpose of boss fights I can think of.

But I think the fact that she doesn’t engage you directly undercuts her as a villain. She’s much less threatening if all she can throw at you is an easily-avoidable area attack and things you’ve defeated many times before. She’s much less impressive if you can compel her to retreat just by defeating a bunch of other enemies or if she repeatedly positions herself exactly where she needs to be in order to be vulnerable to triggerable hazards.

It’s normal for bosses in platformers to test you on combat and platforming skills that you’ve learned and practiced earlier, and thus in a sense not actually provide anything new and unique. Especially if the boss is supposed to be much more powerful than you and it would be silly to let you attack them directly. But I think it’s a lot more satisfying if the game finds a way to frame the conflict as a direct battle, even if you can’t use brute force.

I find myself thinking, for example, of Klaww, a boss in Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. Klaww is gigantic and you can’t just, like, walk up and punch him. So the fight is mechanically a series of platforming challenges in which you avoid Klaww’s thrown boulders and navigate platforms suspended over lava to reach him, where you don’t damage him directly so much as cause him to stumble and drop a boulder on his own head. It’s not especially cathartic because Klaww himself hadn’t been built up as an emotionally-significant antagonist - he’s just a gate you have to get through to proceed to the next area. But he still scared me the first time I played and the fight is clearly framed as you outmaneuvering a much stronger foe. I wish fighting Melira in Effie had felt that way.

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When a story is “good for a game”

It always frustrates me to see someone describe a game’s story as “good for a game”.

Video games are a young medium relying on young technology. They started with significant technical limitations which made it very difficult to do much traditional storytelling, creating a lingering negative perception of their capabilities. Even when a game rises above the average, it’s likely to be damned with faint praise that its story is good “for a game” but not as good as a proportionately high-quality book, film, stage production, radio play, etc.

And, like, this is sort of true. But it’s a weird and misleading way to look at it.

There’s the obvious objection that story is just one element of games. Comparing a game’s story to a novel is weird in the same way as comparing a game’s graphics to a painting or its soundtrack to a symphony. Taking one element from a multifaceted medium to compare to a medium that is just that element is kind of dumb. The more fair comparison is the overall experience - is playing the game an experience of similar relative quality as reading the novel, observing the painting, or listening to the symphony?

But this prompts the equally-obvious rejoinder that a game is still improved by improving its constituent parts. A beautiful game with a great soundtrack and excellent storytelling is more enjoyable than an ugly one with bad music and poor writing. So it can still be worthwhile to look at those parts and to use as measuring sticks the great works in media that focus on those elements.

The real objection is that these comparisons are always made in a way that completely destroys the core value of games as a medium.

Games are interactive and dynamic to a degree unmatched by other forms of art or media. Players don’t simply consume the experience of a game - they co-create it.

Jotting down a static plot summary of a game and seeing that it compares unfavorably to a novel is like taking the audio from a film - stripped of all visuals and cinematography - and seeing that it compares unfavorably to a radio play. You can’t remove the core of an art form and then declare it worse than other art forms that still have their cores. Converting it for comparison destroyed what made it work.

Do games have worse storytelling than novels? Maybe. But if so, it’s because they aren’t supposed to have storytelling. They are supposed to have storyplaying, and no novel has that.

(In other words.)

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Look How Far You’ve Come

One of my favorite game tropes is what I call the “Look How Far You’ve Come” sequence that shows up shortly before the ending.

It can be done a variety of ways, but in some manner it reintroduces areas, characters, enemies, or other story elements that you haven’t seen in a while, emphasizing what’s changed and what hasn’t, reminding you where your journey began and how far it’s taken you. It’s a great way for games to add weight, consequence, and meaning to your adventure and actions while making the ending that much more climactic.

One of my favorite examples actually comes from Dragon Quest Heroes II. (Minor spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph.) In the lead-in to the final battle, you essentially go through a nostalgia gauntlet - fighting groups of monsters from each area of the game, in the order you explored them. The fights are easy and clearly more of a reminder than a skill test, and over the course of them every single one of your accumulated party members speaks up about your travels together.

It’s more common for this sort of reflection to be presented in cinematics after beating the game. But I find it more impactful when you can actually play through it. Which of course is why EarthBound has the best ending of any video game, ever.

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