Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Storytelling (26)

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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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Premature Thoughts about Haven

So, the folks behind Furi are now working on a game called Haven. Details have been scarce but there’s now a gameplay trailer and press release with some more information.

The game is definitely on my radar, but the aspect I want to focus on right now is this quote from creative director Emeric Thoa:

“The story of a couple fighting for their freedom, an established relationship: what love looks like when you’ve moved past the early seduction phase, when you can be your true self with one another… I don’t think that’s been done much in video games.”

I agree with this and I’m interested to see it done well. The plan for Haven is especially interesting given that Thoa describes the game as “Journey meets Persona.” It’s unclear yet what this means (if indeed it means anything; it’s very easy to just list some popular games without that proving anything about your own game) but I find the Persona comparison intriguing.

Modern Persona games place a large emphasis on character relationships, and it looks like Haven will do the same. But where Persona provides a handful of varied characters with whom the player can establish relationships (in the game’s terminology, taking the “social link” from rank one to rank ten) it looks like Haven provides a single character with whom the player can explore an already established relationship (the social link starts at rank ten).

This feels like a bit of a gamble - if I imagine a Persona game providing only one social link with the combined depth that’s currently spread across all social links, that’s an exciting idea if the expanded social link is with my favorite character and a disappointing idea if it’s with my least-favorite character. The depth really only pays off if the player likes the characters.

But this isn’t really a fair comparison. Persona characters can be varied because there are several with the same depth. It’s good for the characters to have distinct personalities with traits that will endear them to some and put off others. No Persona character is everyone’s favorite, but every Persona character is somebody’s favorite. If you’re making a game with only one relationship, now the pressure’s on to make that character broadly likable, in a mass-market homogenization kind of way.

So I’m a little concerned that the characters in Haven could end up generic with any controversial edges filed off - tolerable to everyone, but not anyone’s favorites. Unobjectionable but unremarkable. I hope this isn’t the case. There isn’t really anything in the trailer that makes it seem likely; I’m just concerned about the market forces involved.

What is in the trailer, though, is a dialog choice. This seems like a possible solution, if done right - if there are many such choices and they don’t drastically change the story (so that there aren’t right and wrong choices) but do change the character personalities and interactions so they can be more extreme and more to the player’s liking. I’m not sure if that’s where Haven intends to take things, but I think it could be a great way to handle it.

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I Miss Rivalries in Senran Kagura

Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal’s faithful retelling of the original Senran Kagura Burst’s story is bittersweet. It’s a reminder of why I fell in love with the series in the first place, but it can’t help but also remind me of the fact that the later games have gone in a different direction that I find much less appealing. While I’m enjoying it more than I’ve enjoyed a Senran Kagura game in years, it doesn’t make me confident for the next game in the series if the way they’ve found to tell me a story I like as much as the first story is to just… tell me the first story again.