Friday, December 5, 2008

Digital Diversions

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, hasn’t it? I could bore you with details of my recent exploits, but I’d rather talk about narrative. A couple of things have crossed my palate recently, and it seems appropriate to share them here.

Video games are as much a medium for storytelling as they are for personal distraction or strategic exercise. Take the latest Ace Attorney game, Apollo Justice. This is the first game in the series starring young rookie defense attorney Apollo Justice, a young man still trying to find his precise fit in a cutthroat world or legal acumen and detective skills. For those unfamiliar, the Ace Attorney games make the player interview characters, examine scenes and evidence, and present their findings in a way that brings each case together to reveal the who-what-where-when-why, and this game delivers this gameplay.

It expands on the older series by including a wider variety of ways to interact with just about everything. This isn’t just about gameplay, it’s also about story. Story is incredibly important to this series of games in that with each case you take on, you’re thrown into a different story and have to piece everything together so that by the end, all those bits that made you scratch your head and wonder how the Japanese can be so fucked up ACTUALLY makes some sense.

And it is with story that Apollo Justice screws up. This is the second version of the Ace Attorney series of games; the first followed another rookie attorney, Phoenix Wright. Through three games players guided him as he lost his mentor, watched adversaries become friends, friends become murderers, murder victims become accomplices in framing their mother’s rival’s daughter for murder only to be foiled by her secret twin sister that is in love with you and oh sweet Jebus I am not making this up.

The point is, Phoenix Wright was an unforgettable series and the follow-up character had to be just as strong and tenacious to exist out of Phoenix’s shadow. Instead, Phoenix Wright is in the game. All the time. Literally taunting you. Where I can only imagine the production team intended his presence to act as a transition to guide the player into being comfortable with AJ, instead it only reminds us how much PW could do at the end of his series and how little AJ actually accomplishes for himself.

Narrative and gameplay don’t always exist separately. Take the latest Prince of Persia installment: no Sands of Time (something of a mercy for my own sake) and no goatee, a completely different set of characters, setting, everything. The gameplay’s different as well, in that instead of being able to, in essence, call a certain number of mulligans, you’ve got a partner ready to grab you when you do something wrong.

Here the narrative-gameplay dichotomy is a much trickier balance – in previous games, if you messed up too much (or in certain cases, just once), your character died and you had to reload the game to an earlier point. In Sands of Time, when this happened, your character ADDED context by telling you “No, that’s not right” after you died. The story they were telling had your character do everything right the first time because A) you’d be dead and unable to tell your story otherwise, B) the world would be gone and no one would hear your story otherwise, and C) your character was a muthaf*&^ing badass and didn’t need more than one chance to beat insurmountable odds, save the world, and woo the girl.

In this latest installment, you do not get mulligans. Instead, if you mess up, your partner covers for you, and you can try as many times as it takes to get it right. Does this make your character then fallible? Is he less capable, less deserving of your time and energy? Is this worth worrying about when the time and frustration of reloading after a grizzly death is done away with? Is playing the game and enjoying the interactive experience more or less important than the story’s main character truly risking life and limb? The game’s been out two days and I’ve already had debates over this, and the truth is I can’t bring myself to answer these questions definitively. I would like to see the character I’m playing experience some anxiety over whether or not he can make this next jump and live, but I’d also like to have to go through less frustration myself to see him make that jump.

If you couldn’t already tell, yes, I am using this blog to justify my recent playing activities. I publicly shrugged off video games a few years back to focus on writing. That didn’t work so well, in that instead of writing I found other ways to not write. Now I’m trying something different: I’m going to play video games and then write about it. So far, not bad.

I AM still writing the novel, tentatively called WordWorld (I hate the title, but I need a quick way to refer to it). The plot’s coming along okay, but I find my characters are coming off a bit flat, and I realized that for every other story I wrote with them, they’ve never grown within them. They didn’t have to, the stories were too short, but I can’t get away with that here, so I’m trying to figure out where I can make them change from beginning to end without losing them. I fully admit now, thinking I could write a 50,000 word draft of this in a month was really freaking stupid.

Next time – why I’m making an effort not to swear in this blog even though I really fucking want to.

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