PSN’s Journey: A Breath of Fresh Desert Air

I used to be a skeptic of downloadable games.  With franchises like Mass Effect, Uncharted, Heavy Rain, and Mario utilizing increasingly impressive technology and greater productions to deliver such high quality gaming experiences, I felt the only way for the industry to progress the evolution of the video game was to just keep going bigger and grander.  After all, the industry has already gone through simple exploration and two-dimentional gaming.  We have already realized all possible experiences those games have to offer, and there is little reason to go back.

Well, this is what I used to believe, maybe not consciously, but enough at least for me now to realize I was looking at independent and downloadable games the wrong way.  Creativity will always offer us the opportunity to foster new stories and experiences, even if we use familiar tools.  This is what I believe now, and Journey on PlayStation Network was a vital component to this realization.

The first thing you might notice about Journey is its beautiful and distinct look.  Unlike many other good-looking games, Journey actually uses a very limited color palette as it takes place predominantly in the desert.  For the majority of the game, your screen will be filled with different shades of browns, tans, golds, and reds.  The colors of the sand dunes match those of the ruins they’ve nearly buried.  Normally this would make for a pretty boring presentation, but in Journey, the artists somehow blend these usually dull colors together in a way that gives them life and personality.  The soft lighting on the colors is used brilliantly to give depth and contrast to the world, without moving the game away from its abstract presentation.

But in reality, its not the look of the game, or any other single component, that makes Journey worth the ride.  Instead, it is how all the facets fit together to create an emotional experience, which is unlike any I’ve seen in games.

The presentation of the game’s setting is modest and calm.  Soothing even.  And this works perfectly with the gameplay, which is simple and fosters curiosity.  It rewards exploration rather than presenting the game as a defined challenge to be completed.  In the game, you play a roaming, robed figure (perhaps human, perhaps not).  You can do only three things with this character: walk, jump, and (this is a unique one)… sing!  There is very little skill required to play with these easy controls.  Instead, you are meant take in the environment and not focus on your character.  For the most part, you wander around each area, singing musical notes and activating ancient relics to release what appear to be living strips of fabric from captivity (think flying carpets, but folded in various shapes and sizes).  The vindication from freeing these floating beings becomes its own reward as they twirl and flip in the air to test out the new open space and are joined by a playful in-game melody, coming alive to show you that yes, you’ve done a wonderful thing.

As you release enough of these creatures, they work together and open a path for you to advance to the next area.  This is essentially the entirety of the game.  So simple, yet so rewarding.  With no spoken or textual dialogue in the game, Journey avoids giving any sense of urgency or obligation.  Throughout most of the game, a uniquely shaped mountain lies visible on the horizon.  It is your implied destination and a reminder that your journey has some sort of goal, even if you don’t yet care.

And why should you care when everything arround you is too interesting for you to worry about later parts of the game?  Early in the game as I explored a particularly large field of ruins, I noticed another cloaked figure in the distance, running in and around the ruins.  This character looked identical to my own and, just like me, was singing to release the floating fabrics all over the desert.  I approached it and, with no other possible solution, I sang.  And it sang back.  Its musical notes made the fabric of my own cloak light up, effectively “charging” it to allow me to jump higher and float longer.  Whenever I sang, the same would happen to him (or her).  So we wandered the level together, singing both for each other and for our magical carpet friends.  Sometimes I led, sometimes I followed.  The other character was neither indifferent nor dependent upon me.  My voiceless, faceless, companion acted like he was just another person sharing my same journey.  In fact his behavior seemed so human-like, I actually wondered if Playstation Network seamlessly matched players together during their campaigns.  That was how much this game made me believe in this comrade.

While later in the game, you do experience a bit more variety, both in gameplay and in setting, I don’t want to spoil the fun for you here.  In my opinion Journey is truly visionary and a must-play for all who want to learn more about the medium of video games.  The combination of the artistic exhibition of the desert, your intimacy with a fellow traveler, and a beautiful orchestral blend of flutes and strings makes Journey an unforgettably expressive experience that plays more like a flowing dream than a scripted video game.

Top Five Video Game Stories

Most of us have fond memories of our first video game encounters.  For some of us, those memories may be old enough to feature the simplistic beeping and booping of Pong in the local arcade.  For others, it may include the iconic “wakka wakka” of Pac-Man’s insatiable appetite, or the catchy Russian dancing song in Tetris.  Most of our first gaming experiences had very little or no inclusion of narrative, (unless you started with “text adventure” games, consisting entirely of reading and typing text).  Mainstream games like Tetris and Pong have no story at all while others like Pac-Man or Super Mario Bros. have plots too plain to care about.  It was the early stages of video games.  The video game story was yet to be created.

Then developers began to use more writing in games.  As time went on, writing in games began to demonstrate some decent quality.  Big franchises like Final Fantasy, Starcraft, and even Grand Theft Auto told us more elaborate stories of numerous characters with complex natures and motives.  As video games matured, some franchises even started to grow stories outside the games.  Halo, Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, and other franchises had each developed their own expanded canon and mythos.  With these games, the player often will only experience one facet of a much more elaborate universe.

But the video game story still had not been created…

Why is that?  Because the stories in Final Fantasy and Starcraft and Grand Theft Auto are stories that can be put onto paper.  They can be made into a film.  They can be told in person.  They are, in fact, literary stories put into games.  They are great stories but they are not video game stories.

Video game stories can only really be told through the play of an actual video game.  They are stories that require intertwined game design in order to be experienced.

And finally, these stories have arrived.

It took a great amount of gaming evolution, but we as gamers are finally fortunate enough to experience true video game stories.  This is a complicated concept.  So to illustrate the video game story, I’ve listed my top five video game stories, with explanations as to what qualifies them as such, and why they are so great.

5.  Demons’ Souls (From Software, 2009; PS3)

The story in Demon’s Souls is heavy and difficult to understand at times.  Not a good start right?  While the on-paper story is a little weird, we’ll discuss how apropriate game design turns it into a good video game story.  To put the premise plainly, you play a warrior fighting your way through the fallen kingdom of Boletaria to restore it to its former glory.  Many other warriors have attempted this and lost their lives before you, and their spirits linger on.

These lost spirits are key.  When playing the game, you aren’t just told of these spirits.  Instead, they come to life through the magic of Playstation 3’s online network.  Other real players fighting in the same in-game levels on their own PS3s will often appear as ghosts in your own world (and you in theirs unbenkownst to you).  If you summon spirits to help you on your quest, other players can transfer to your game world and assist you, playing as the spirits of slain warriors before you.  Evil spirits that roam Boletaria can also manifest in the form of other players entering your game world (without your permission), this time in attempt to assassinate you.  Here, a novel multiplayer system lends perfectly to the setting and story of Boletaria.  This is just one great example of how a unique and ingenious game mechanic is utilized to deliver a video game story.

4.  Fallout 3 (Bathesda, 2008; Xbox 360, PS3, PC)

Fallout begins with a uniform prologue sequence, but the rest of the game is all in your hands!  As a post nuclear apocalypse survivor, you roam the wastelands of what used to be Washington D.C. trying to find a way to provide clean drinking water for the other remaining survivors.  The game world is completely open and so are your options.  Who you meet, the challenges you face, the type of person you become, and how you resolve the central conflict of the story all depend on your actions.  Every play-through will bring new experiences and new opportunities.  Will you save a small outpost from a nuclear attack and alienate the offending company or will you arm the bomb yourself and destroy the city?  Either choice has long term political consequences that will follow you throughout the game.  This is a role-playing-game in its purest form.  You are playing the role, and virtually nothing is predetermined for you.  That is what makes Fallout 3 such a great video game story.

3.  Mass Effect 2 (BioWare, 2010 360 Xbox 360, PC)

Mass Effect 2 is revolutionary in how it tells a story.  In addition to having a rich universe filled with history, culture, and politics; Mass Effect 2 sets the world up differently for each player based on their decisions, triumphs, and failures from the first game, simply called Mass Effect.  If you saved your alien sidekick in Mass Effect, you’ll find him in Mass Effect 2.  If you failed, well, you had better learn to let him go.  There are many significant decisions to make in the first game, and Mass Effect 2 stays consistent with all of them, giving every player a truly personal and tailored experience when they begin the second chapter.   The game continues your story from the previous entry, saving all the choices you made, big and small.  Mass Effect 3 continues with this mechanic, and applies your choices from Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 to the in-game universe.  The mind boggles at just how many various storylines can come from the experience.  I am several hours into Mass Effect 3, and look forward to posting my opinion on the controversial ending of which everyone is speaking.

2.  Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream, 2010; PS3)

You cannot “win” in Heavy Rain and you cannot “lose” in Heavy Rain. Instead, you merely play the game until your story resolves itself.  You play four characters in this game, looking to solve a serial killer mystery.  Like in Mass Effect, your choices, victories, and blunders all play a major role in the path the story takes.  But unlike Mass Effect, or any other game out there, if your character is killed, the game goes on!  The story adapts to that character’s death and continues with the remaining three.  If two of them die, the game adapts again, and so on.  There is no “revert to save” in Heavy Rain.  You cannot retry a scene.  Whatever happens in game, you are stuck with the repurcussions.

The conclusion will be what you earn.  Will you lose all characters to death and captivity and hear of the killer’s next victim on the evening news?  Will your cunning choices and quick reflexes earn you a more successful ending?  Maybe it will end somewhere in the middle?  It all depends on you.

For more on Heavy Rain, see my previous post “Why Everyone Must Experience Heavy Rain.”

1.  Braid (Number None Inc, 2008; Xbox 360, PC)

Braid is the best example of a video game story.  In fact, the game design is so central to telling the story, that to even describe how it works is nearly impossible.  Braid is a beautifully crafted and abstract platformer.  As the main character Tim, you must navigate through the levels and apply in-game time manipulation in order to complete the game.  The levels parallel the various stages of a tragic love story between Tim and his love interest, often referred to as “the princess.”  In between levels you are presented with poetic messages relating to both the overal story and the challenges from the upcoming level.  You come comes to better understand these scrpits and the story through the actual gameplay.

For example, one entry describes the effect of Tim’s wedding band on other women with its tendency to “slow their approach.”  The following level includes Tim’s ability to carry and drop a ring that slows the flow of time in its immediate vicinity.  It slows bullets, moving platforms, and even approaching enemies.  The ring is both a piece of Tim’s journey and a tool used to complete the level, but it seems to have similar effects in both.  One interpretation of this connection can be made that Tim sees other women as enemies or invaders and purposely uses the ring to ward them off.  Another can be made that Tim’s constant need to drop and pick up the ring signifies his inability to commit to his troubled relationship.  Regardless what it means, the game design itself is being used to convey this story.

Without spoiling anything, the final level of the game represents a specific event in the lives of the main characters.  As you play through it, you learn the motives of the characters based on their actions on screen.  However, upon completion, you need to use time manipulation to the entire level played again, but in reverse.  When this happens, you are given a completely new interpretation of the event, and you re-learn the true motives each character.  It is an experience that has to be played to understood, just like those found in the other games listed.

If you appreciate game design and have not played through these games I strongly encourage you to do so, because the video game story is being created.

Why Everyone Must Experience Heavy Rain

Greetings Gamers,

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  These words from William E. Hickson, while not his exact intention, are a very accurate description for the experience of playing through the narrative of a video game. 

In games we are given problems to solve, and as players of these games, we often fail to solve them in our first attempt.  When we fail, we disrupt continuity of the story.  As a result of our failure, we are presented with the “Mission Failed” or “Game Over” screen and must replay the scene until our outcome fits the game’s script.  The most common game-ending failure occurs when the player-character dies.  Most games cannot proceed after one of our blunders kills the main character.  But as you may gather, Heavy Rain is not like most games, and this is why everyone needs to play it.

In short, your goal in Heavy Rain is to find a notorious serial killer before he claims his next victim.  You play four characters, each carrying their own motives and providing unique viewpoints on the central conflict.  The journey in tracking down this killer is neither simple nor safe, and your characters can die as a result of your mistakes.  There is no reloading save points, there is no game over, and there is no “try, try again.”  The game can conclude in a multitude of ways, depending on your decisions and your reactions in dangerous situations.

At face value, this sense of finality had me curious.  How would a game with such dynamic plot development work without the element of experimentation?  As a completist, I like to see how the game reacts to different choices I make in a given situation.  After all, games are what allow us to experiment in a safe environment and perform actions that we (in the real world) would lack the means to execute or that carry too heavy of consequences.  Can this system in Heavy Rain really work?  It can, and it does brilliantly.

Because there are no do-overs, everything you do in Heavy Rain feels… real.  When someone in a typical video game world pulls a gun on my character, I may have a reaction if the drama is there.  But in Heavy Rain, when someone draws a bead on me, I am legitimately scared, frantic even.  For all I know, I may lose this character!  In fact, in my first play through the game, I lost two, and I can only blame myself. 

The in-game consequences are the most significant I have ever seen.  Heavy Rain provides me with the most authentic, the most emotional, and the most involving experience I have ever had with a game.  My suspension of disbelief never falters as I feel genuine triumph and disappointment.  The most impressive in-game facial animations to date combined with convincing voice acting only solidify the experience.  The choices I have to make are often torturous as they do not have prototypical black-and-white alternatives.  Also the results of these choices are not predictable, but neither are they unreasonable, so I never felt cheated.

Heavy Rain is comparable to the film Memento by Christopher Nolan.  The actual story is not great on its own, but the way in which it is told makes it spectacular.  Heavy Rain has its flaws and some damaging plot holes but the voyage is an incredibly rewarding one, whether you experience an utterly depressing tragedy (as I did my first time) or the satisfaction of a relative success (as I managed to pull of my second play-through).  Everyone who plays through this game can learn something about themselves, and this makes it a masterpiece in my eyes.

So then if the wise words of Mr. Hickson cannot help us here, what can?  It is in times like these we must seek the advice of my favorite fictional philosopher, who’s simple words sum up the perfect strategy for Heavy Rain: 

Do or do not.  There is no try.

The Next Generation of Stories

Greetings Gamers!

What a marvelous time it is for games. Or to be a gamer, for that matter, for it is only we who are aware of the storytelling renaissance that is taking over the video game industry.

No, not industry…

Art form.

But I don’t need to convince you it’s art, not if you’re reading this blog. What I am compelled to shout to the masses about is the evolution of the video game story. A few weeks ago, I attended a special seminar at my school, the University of Oregon. In this colloquium, videogames were discussed as potential academic study tools. Amid all the discussions regarding video game culture and the collective desire to see Braid in classrooms, Annie Zeidman-Karpinski, an associate professor and librarian at the U of O science library (which rents out games) asked us all a simple question.

“What are video games other than the next generation of stories?”

That summed it all up perfectly for me. Especially in the midst of this outrageous lineup of story-driven games. In the past few months we have experienced some of the most outstanding narratives in games (or in any visual media) that I have ever seen.

I have seen Nathan Drake suffer a perilous and cinematic journey full of high production action scenes and betrayals that were both surprising and numerous, though never trite. As Commander Shepard, I have forgone the opportunity to go to bed with the attractive and reasonable woman because I resonated more with the character growth of the vicious-looking convict. And right now I am still checking my pulse after barely surviving a bloodcurdling, no-do-over car chase on the freeway as a desperate father. I can’t wait to see how that story ends, especially because this particular one will be my own.

As I sit here, listening to the orchestral magnificence of Final Fantasy X and sorting through these different experiences from the past few weeks and from my life as a gamer, I remain convinced that the rest of the world is on the verge of discovering the potential games have to change our lives as music, literature, and film have done for so long. Add to this the advent of exciting new interfaces that don’t require a high gaming-IQ like Project Natal on the horizon, and I have never been more excited to be a gamer.

What a marvelous time it is for storytelling.

I can’t to see what Naughty Dog or BioWare or Qauntic Dream come up with next, or better yet, to see the next masterpiece from a brand new and unheard-of developer. It’s their time. Games are ready to explode.

The next generation of stories? Not for long.

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