Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

Drake and his Fortune

Posted by flagg49 on June 8, 2009

So, here I am at last, the Other Blogger, of close genetic relation to the main one.  I’ve been working on a few other pieces, but I’m a desultory worker at best, and this is the first one to get done.  Which means that there are several other self-introduction paras floating around my hard drive, but I’m relieved to be able to scrap them all and just begin.  And this article makes a good beginning, because it introduces one of the most salient facts about me as a gamer, something I share with Tom:  I like stories in games.

That’s a statement that needs unpacking.

I like games that have narratives.  It doesn’t really matter what kind—extremely modular RPG-y, openworldy, fairly conventionally plotted, whatever.  I don’t even really know how to define what I like, except that it’s stories, and it helps me say what kind of gamer I’m not.

I don’t like bad writing or stories written apparently by five-year-olds, which, as I think Tom has had a lot of occasion to observe, is what you get in many, many games, from small titles where story’s supposed to be peripheral anyways, to supposedly AAA titles that get praised for their stories all the time (Infamous, GTAIV).  I also am not of that avant-gardey school of bloggers and developers who thinks that stories are old fashioned and that the future of interactive entertainment is post-narrative (Johnathan Blow, Tale of Tales, although I really want to play The Path and will hopefully write about it?).

That’s vague, I know, so I’ll try to flesh it out a little more by discussing a game I just now finished, at Tom’s behest, Uncharted:  Drake’s Fortune, which I deeply enjoyed. I liked it both because it tells a better story than most games, and because it was so—to use a word that seems invariably to come up in the reviews—“polished.”  I think the two are related, and I’ll be trying to say why.

I should also say before beginning that I’m sometimes (technically, ostensibly) a grad student in English literature, so that colors my readings in a lot of obvious ways.  (It also makes me interested in what seems to be the burgeoning academic literature about video games and narrative, some of which I’ve been getting into and which I hope to write about soon).

Drake’s Fortune is like a movie.  How?  For obvious, it perfectly apes what one of the designers tactfully called “adventure serials,” by which is meant, Indiana Jones.  In fact, I’d say it’s better at doing Indy than Fate of Atlantis or Emperor’s Tomb (both of which I loved).  It doesn’t have Harrison Ford or any of the actual IP, true, but it does have two things:  it shamelessly, excellently takes the humor and many of the actual set-pieces from the Indy films and puts them into its own fairly plausible adventure/treasure scenario, and it’s paced and structured more like a movie, and more convincingly like a movie, than any game I’ve played.

The tropes it takes from Lucas’s films are just those things that can’t transfer into the older adventure-game medium of Fate of Atlantis or the technically more limited world of Emperor’s Tomb.  Characters who impress themselves on the player not by means just of typical dialogue, but by their filmic, onscreen appearance in well-written cutscenes, in which they quickly present themselves to us as stock types with the required attitudes—devil-may-care treasure hunter, plucky girl reporter, possibly-traitorous older male companion.

The narrative moments by which they’re characterized are perfectly Indy, too—Elena Fisher yanking out the bars of Nate’s prison cell with a truck might not quite be as good as Karen Allen getting Paul Freeman’s brilliantly villainous Belloq drunk in his desert tent, but it’s the same idea.  This is, for lack of a better word, Spielbergian characterization—a quick dramatic episode tells you everything you need to know about a character, and makes them winning or villainous at the same time.  It makes possible a great economy of storytelling—action happens at the same time as characterization—and it also has a feel to it, for the viewer, that’s impossible without certain tools of the cinematic trade—quick cuts, fast-paced banter, impressive action scenes, and characters who visually and verbally emote in a believable way.

In other words, Drake’s Fortune tells us about its protagonist and his friends and foes with speed, directness, and winningness that can’t happen without the game’s fairly static, movie-like cutscenes.  There are strong arguments against this kind of thing, which usually come from that anti-narrative-in-videogame camp.  This claim goes something like:  this isn’t what games do well, and they shouldn’t try; aping other media ignores the medium-specific potential of video games.

I’d go along, up to a point.  “Doing narrative” in this especially filmic way no doubt makes unavailable a lot of the more interesting things that video games can do and are beginning to do.  For instance, and open-world shooter/platformer like Infamous lets you organize your progression through the various parts of the game in a much freer way, from the kinds of interaction you have with NPCs (if I can call them that) to your style of play to your navigation of the game’s map to your organization of its different narrative nodes in your own play experience.  (And this is only the beginning of the potential for new-narrative or anti-narrative, according to some.)  In Drake, all you can do is go through in a straight line.

But I’d differ with anyone who wanted to claim that Drake’s heavily scripted narrative and cinematic qualities make it a lesser game, either in comparison to other games of its genre or in the more immanent sense of saying that it would have been better with fewer cinematic twists—that it would have been a better game if it had been more of a game.

The frontier between narrative and gaming (and narrative theory and ludology) is a vague, battle-scarred one, and I haven’t yet read an account that comes close to satisfyingly explaining how they interact, either in theory or practice.  But I will say of Drake’s Fortune that it is, all on its own, an eloquent argument for the continuing co-development and integration of narrative with gaming.  Because the game’s narrative brings to the game itself a kind of player-investment that, in my view, simply cannot happen with blank-faced avatars of the Gordon Freeman variety, or by means of other, semi-narrative characterization (in-game voice acting, the character’s broader placement within the game world, etc.).

This is, of course, a quite subjective argument.  But here’s my subjective experience, and I doubt it’s uncommon:  the excitement of the top-of-the-industry-quality cut scenes and voice acting in Drake, and the fact that they’re completely endogenous to the game world (not an outside IP)—these things cause me as I play the rest of the game to invest in my avatar and his performance in ways that are impossible in more open, purely ludic experiences.

The argument about emergent narrative suggests, without much theoretical backing-up so far that I’m aware of, that players will invest in game spaces and in-game avatars, absent the impediments of narrative backboarding, in new and excitingly unimagined ways.  Possibly true, but outside this utopian speculation (in my view notably without any realization to date in an actual game…) we have experiences like Drake’s Fortune that take the energy particular to narrative and funnel it into a game.  The way you care about Nate and his friends has to do with the mimesis of their story and the way they’re presented to us, that as-if-they-were real excitement to find out if they live or die that we know from the movies, and all kinds of literature.

Moreover, the close connection of the game world to the story makes us care about them in different ways, more complex and interactive ones, than we can care about characters in books or movies.  I don’t have a good description of how and why this happens, but I can offer examples.  I know that it’s substantial and exciting to me, beyond just the you-are-there tingle, to have Nate say, at just the same time I do when a wave of new enemies come in, “I can’t believe this crap!”  And doing quicktime-event punching minigames against the final boss is more, differently exciting when I harbor some real dislike for the guy.

A trite explanation of this kind of narrative fueled involvement in games is ready to hand.  It comes from the early days of interactive gaming, of games featuring FMV  like (say) Wing Commander III and IV, but still gets used all the time in the rhetoric of world-simulation.  That is:  it’s exciting for me because I identify with the character, I feel like he’s me.  A species of this argument (which in its older form is so hackneyed as these days only to appear on the backs of game boxes or at E3) quietly informs, I think, the rhetoric of newer games, too.  I’ll care about what happens to Cole in Infamous or my character in an RPG because I think myself into his or her shoes—the distance between me and the characters is lessened by my investment in them; I lose myself in their world because I feel I’m a part of it.

But I think that narrative in games like Drake does something different.  I think I get excited about what happens to Nate because he and his world have a certain integrity and value for me that consists just in their not being me.  When I (again, this is pretty subjective, I’ll admit) read a book and get lost in it, I don’t identify with characters so much as I develop attachments to them like those I have in real people.  The same is true of movies.  And the ability to touch the world of the narrative through the mediating space of the game world is exciting in ways that I can’t begin to understand and haven’t read a good explanation of yet.

Something else that Drake does well is that it makes the game space unobtrusive.  By this, I mean that, while it was fun and challenging as a game, a lot of that fun consisted in the fact that few of the game mechanics became repetitive, and there wasn’t much especially difficult about it.  The game does what it does very well—post-post-Tomb Raider platforming, cover-system combat, vehicle chase sequences.  But I rarely did one of these things for so long that it became tiresome, or even that I began to think about the game-like, closed-world qualities of what I was doing.  (I can’t say the same for, say, Infamous, RE5, and others).  It even shifted genres notably toward the end, ducking for an hour or so into the cramped hallways of survival-horror before returning to run-and-gun/platforming for the finale.

In other words, the game mixed things up, was so well-paced, that I mostly didn’t experience the game as game.  The forward-drawing energy of narrative investment that literary critics talk about kept up its gravity in the game sequences, and the inherent desire-to-complete of each individual challenge or scenario got subsumed into that.

I’m no doubt exaggerating a bit, but it’s at least close to true.  I wouldn’t want to make any kind of totalizing claim about narratives subsuming game challenges—that it ought always to happen, or even that that’s the best way to design games.  I love the completely mechanical, non-realistic qualities of many games.  Part of the problem with a lot of writing about games, I think, is that people feel the need to stand up normatively for one kind of solution to a challenge in game design.  Only this can be good!  Rather than accepting the obvious truth that there are a plurality of good answers in this still very young medium.

But I want to stand up for the particularity of Drake’s solution.  It’s a good one, and helps put the focus where it too often isn’t—on the craftsmanly, story-centric aspects of games that many designers appear to think don’t matter.  To return to the whipping boy of this piece, Infamous:  as Tom said better than I could, the characterization and story of that game are atrocious.  Where the game succeeds, it does so in spite of its barely-acted voiceovers and excremental narrative.

Not only is the story a series of fifth-order copies of video game and movie clichés, its scope conveys nothing more than the narrowness of what the writers (if such persons were involved, or dared to call themselves that) conceive of as mattering in stories and in life.  And this circumscribed little universe is, most notably perhaps, not one that includes women.  The female characters in Infamous are worse than afterthoughts.  The “girlfriend,” Trish, is a lifeless bore, and the “bad girl” character who mistakes you for her lover is so offensively stupid and reductive a caricature of femininity that she actively makes me not want to play further.  It’s hard to get invested in the cramped, airless view of reality that this game breathes.

And that, in the end, is what I like about Drake—the story, while not exactly innovative, takes us on an assured walk through a certain, deeply entertaining kind of world with certain, deeply entertaining characters taken from some version of life.  It turns us outward toward new things in the way that narratives do, rather than causing us to feel claustrophobic and shut in, and a little grimy, like we’ve been trapped in a box with dead animals for a few days, which is what the mental experience of playing Infamous most reminds me of.

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7 Responses to “Drake and his Fortune”

  1. Glad to see you back from E3. I must admit I didn’t read any of your posts from the convention, citing the fact that if I read any more future game hype I’d strangle myself with my nonexistent 360 controller cord.

    Well, this post and Michael Abbott’s post from last week on roughly the same subject are making me realize I need to play this thing, stat. Maybe right after Red Faction: Guerilla and Infamous.

  2. Oh shit, this was Owen and not Tom. I thought the “Tom” referenced was Tom Chick from Fidgit. Now I’m all mixd up. But I’m still going to play Uncharted, stat.

    • deckard47 said

      You should play it, I’m going back through it now (on Crushing mode, which is extremely difficult), and still enjoying it (I think this is the 3rd time). Even when it throws seemingly impossible situations at me, full of one-shot kill enemies, it’s fun. I’m very excited for the second one (obviously), it looks even better (especially the dialogue and cutscenes) than the first one, if that were possible.

      Also, I’m curious about your thoughts on the L4D 2 announcement. I think it’s awesome, I’m sure that they’ll continue to support L4D 1 as time goes on, and I like the changes they’re making. I guess there’s some kind of boycott? It makes no sense to me, I don’t understand what’s so annoying about them making a second game a year later.

    • Sorry about hitting Owen’s post up while I was drunk. I eventually read it in its entirety, but half of these comments are based on dizzy readings of a few paragraphs.

      I’ve heard the Drake’s Fortune cinematic qualities were polished enough to avoid annoying even committed ludologists, so I’m excited to experience it. As to L4D2, I Tweeted basically exactly what you said: “Making a sequel one year later in no way invalidates your $60 purchase. Go scratch yourselves.”

      I liken the problem to the issue of the music scene in Athens, GA. One summer, a d00d decided to give free house shows everynight in his basement. Somehow he attracted legitimately big names, and after three months of this people got used to not paying for good music. Now nobody wants to pay $10 for a show. Same thing has happened to Valve. If you give free shit to morons, you’re going to pay for it down the road.

      • deckard47 said

        I hope you enjoy Drake’s Fortune, it holds up pretty well, coming back to it now. I just saw a new trailer for L4D 2 at Kotaku, and I think it looks pretty awesome. I also like how their engine gets upgraded bit by bit, so I can always run their stuff maxed out, unlike every other graphics engine. It just looks better than the first, and if it had been an “expansion,” it would have been the prettiest, best expansion ever, the kind that never gets made. Whatever, we’ll all still buy it, and those 15,000 can fuck off. Also, it’s hilarious that you call him Owen. No one calls him that. I’ve won!

  3. Ah, also, if you’re looking for emergent narrative you can Google the word “machinima.”

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