Monday, 1 October 2012

Guest Post: Speech v Silence - Why Less is More

Hi there. I’m Will Swarbrick. I used to write stuff for Gamer's Guide to Life, SystemLink, and a few bits and pieces that are forever lost in the wastelands of the internet. Before my new life as a History student in the Midlands commences, and in a bid to make a break in this topsy-turvy industry, Mr. Jubert has kindly given me the opportunity to discuss something of a growing concern; as scripts for games balloon and burgeon, dwarfing their cinema counterparts, story and narrative is becoming a greater focus for game developers - but story isn't all about speech. Sometimes, the best narratives are those crafted with complete silence.

The brilliant Critical Path series has contained within its star-studded vaults enough groundbreaking philosophy and astounding psychology (as well as a healthy dose of pomposity) to make any gamer duck and cover for all the ideas flying over their heads. However, one video stood out for me. While previous talking heads spoke of the importance of extracting real emotion from players, Joseph Staten, Director of Cinematics for the Halo series (not to be confused with Joseph Stalin, Director of Mass Murder for the USSR) came out with:

"I don't want to play a game that makes people cry[...] I wanna make a game that makes me go 'Yeah! Did you see what I did to that guy! That was so good'. Maybe it's challenging to make you cry...but games that make you jump up out of your chair and beat your chest - when was the last time a movie or book made you do that?”

The man has a point. Roger Ebert's dismissal of games as an art form by asking the question 'Has a game ever made anyone cry?' seems to have struck a nerve with the gaming community, and now the great gold rush is for a game that grabs your emotion gland and forces those salty tears to stain your controller. While there are a plethora of brilliant games that can manifest a lump in your throat, just spamming a cinema screen with pictures of dying puppies and Instagram'd sunsets is enough to get the waterworks going and probably evoke a numinous experience or two. Staten’s point is that games are a unique medium, with the ability to summon up a greater range of emotions than your average silver screen flick. To make you, in this example, sad because of the actions of others seems facile in comparison to conjuring others feelings games are inimitable in creating - such as unadulterated joy or fist-bumping success from your own actions and decisions, from saving the known universe.

But it goes further than that - unlike the fixed and eternal stories in the cinema, players of video games don't need to be guided and channelled through a set narrative. The finger-slicing scene in Heavy Rain sure was a brilliantly sickening and horrific piece, but felt more like a slightly interactive movie than a game. Often, the best narratives and strongest feelings stem purely from the player's free will, without the guidance of a linear fable. Mass Effect 2 was a game I struggled to get involved with for the same reason friends adored it; the world was thick with story. It was far too heavy with speech - jogging around the cityscapes of outer space, it felt like I was wading through a sea of deafening dialogue. Every few steps I was ambushed by a sidequest here and a dialogue tree there, barely able to move for the various narratives that blocked my path like a paperback Snorlax. There was no space for my imagination to sprint free and start to pilot my playthrough, for me to attempt to suspend cynical disbelief and imagine myself as part of this world - I was simply being ushered through futuristic corridors without any real input of my own, spare for the choice between a snarky response or a kind reply.

Oddly enough, it was Limbo, a game tightly glued to x-axis, that offered me the most freedom. There are no sweeping monologues or tomes of text - not a whimper or a whisper. Not a single word is uttered during the whole experience, and it's all the more engaging for it. Why is there a gargantuan spider chasing a hungry-eyed boy? Why do a group of kids attempt to spear our hero? What the hell happened to the hotel? By providing a springboard for an active imagination to roam, the game allows the player's mind to fill in the narrative gaps and blanks.

Could any linear narrative capture the magic of Skyrim when stumbling across a giant swiping at a dragon as mudcrabs nibble away at his toes, before your Thu'um stains the sky charcoal as bolts of lightning stab all those below? Could a planned and penned quest evoke more emotion than John Marston being abruptly ambushed in the middle of the desert, a volley of revolver shots scorching the landscape with piercing roars, only for all to fall deathly quiet as your attackers bleed onto the dust? Or, hey, jump in a Police Cruiser in GTA IV and become a vigilante to see my point. These personal moments are so unique and unexpected that they hit much harder than normal narratives. Sometimes, all that's needed to tell a great story is whole lot of atmosphere and a pinch of imagination.

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