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MARIO IS JUST FINE
I love good movies. I love good books. I love a good TV series. In general, I’m a huge fan of noninteractive media. Yet I skip through most cutscenes in videogames. Why is this?
When Super Mario Galaxy 2 released, some reviewers criticized its barely-there story. The game's story consists of the standard Mario Setup: Bowser kidnaps the princess, forcing Mario to traverse a bunch of abstract worlds in order to rescue her.
That is more than enough story for me, thank you. Games like Mario Galaxy simply shouldn’t have a complex story. It's hard to imagine a compelling narrative that explains why Mario must ride a giant hamster ball accross a wooden plank floating in the sky, or why Bowser can grow to the size of an office building.
Of course, many videogame writers would try to bring all of these random parts into a cohesive whole, but would it be a story worth telling?
If Mario Galaxy were made by a different developer, Sega for example, the game might feature a cutscene where Bowser sucks Mario into his transdimensional warp machine, explaining the game's many absurd and varied environments. Another cutscene could show Bowswer searching the universe for the legendary power orb, which would allow him to grow 70 feet. And so on.
But why? What’s the point? Is this really a compelling narrative? Is this a story anyone would want to tell on its own?
STORY OR EXPLANATION?
Videogame cutscenes are often attempts to explain gameplay elements, rather than a means of conveying interesting plot points or compelling dialog. For example the puzzle-platformer Trine and its sequel allows a player to switch between three characters, each with unique strenghts and weaknesses, at any time. Thus, the story revolves around an ancient crystal with the ability to fuse three people together into one body.
Reviewers either derided or dismissed Trine's plot. It simply wasn't a story that needed to be told, but rather an explanation of a fun game mechanic.
GOOD STORIES DON'T FIT
The fact is that the average videogame structure just doesn't make for a compelling narrative.
Take your average 3rd or first person shooter. The basic structure consists of the player trudging through about 15 levels, killing 30-60 badguys between in each one. Every few levels, he'll fight a boss.
This structure can be the basis for a great gaming experience, but is unlikely to also facilitate a great story. It wouldn't even make for an interesting action movie. While your average videogame protagonist will wrack up a body count in the 1000's, Neo doesn't kill more than a handful in The Matrix, and neither Stalone nor Swarzenegger kill a single person in Rambo: First Blood, nor Terminator 2, respectively.
MAKING THE TERMINATOR INTO AN ACTION GAME
Just for fun, let’s try to fit the story of The Terminator, a classic action movie, into a modern action videogame. We'll try to convert its action scenes into game levels.
The movie starts off with the hero, Kyle Reece, teleporting into the year 1985. He arrives in the middle of the night, naked and unarmed.
He steals a pistol off of a cop and then hides in a department store. That's the end of the scene.
So we’re gonna have to make some changes to make this into a good first level. First of all, we’ll have to add at least 12 more cops, and Reece will have to fight them all. So by the end of the first level, Reece will have murdered a dozen police officers. This only takes us through the movie's first 10 minutes.
The movie's next action scene involves a gun battle in a dance club between Reece and the Terminator.
It’s a short scene. Reece pumps a couple shotgun shells into the Terminator’s sternum and then runs away with Sarah, his love interest.
So we're going to have to make some big changes. Perhaps Reece could get into a gun fight on the way to the bar, with 20 to 30 nondescript gang members. Once he reaches the club, the fight with the Terminator can be our boss fight.
In the movie, Reece and Sarah quickly flee the club, but that won't work for our videogame. Instead, perhaps the club’s security door is locked, forcing Reece to remain in combat. While the the player keeps the Terminator at bay, Sarah can be hacking the security door. We’ll make Sarah a computer expert in our videogame.
Let’s skip to the movie's climax for the our last level. In the movie, a car chase ends with the Terminator being burned down to his metal endoskeleton.
Reece's only weapon is a home-made pipebomb, which he lodges in the Terminator’s ribcage. The bomb blows off the Terminator's legs. The Terminator crawls after Sarah. She manages to crush it in an industrial press for the movie's climax.
So this one's gonna need a lot of work.
First of all this is our final level. It’s good game design to steadily give the player new abilities, thereby steadily adding more depth to the gameplay. So for the game's climax, we’ll have to supplement Reece's pipebomb with an rpg, a minigun, and a few grenades.
Also the last level should be the biggest challenge in the game. So we’ll have to add in some other Terminators for Reece to fight. Maybe they teleport in from the future.
Also, the Terminator, as the final boss, needs to become STRONGER for the last confrontation, not weaker. So rather than being burnt down to an endoskeleton, the Terminator can plug himself into a powerline to become a 20 foot tall Super Terminator! With shoulder-mounted missle launchers!
Only after a lengthy battle against the Super Terminator and his future army, is the Terminator reduced to crawling. The game can then switch control to the Sarah character, allowing the player to crush the Terminator in the industrial press via quicktime event.
So there you have it. We took a tight story with a clear antagonist and focused action and turned into a convoluted mess. The game I just described has the potential to be a lot of fun, but doesn't make for the kind of non-interactive narrative that someone would want to watch. Why interrupt great gameplay to tell a 3rd rate story?
DOES THIS MATTER?
Ok so maybe most videogame cutscenes are inane wastes of time, but I can skip past them right? Not always.
Far Cry 3, for instance, gives the player limited control over his character during long, unskippable cutscenes. These cutscenes are designed to explain how an average Joe can become an unstoppable killing machine (hint: because game designers thought it would be fun. Period.). These cutscenes are so uninvolving that many reviewers advised gamers to skip the game's campaign entirely, playing the game's base invasion missions instead.
Other times, a game will allow a player to skip a cutscene, but not without a cost. For instance, some games include pertinent gameplay information in their cutscenes.
For instance you’ll skip a cutscene and then you’ll find yourself standing in an open field with a mission objective on your screen that says “Pick up Shelly’s hyperdrive at Fort Blackstone”. So then you have to ask "who’s Shelly?", "what the hell does a hyperdrive look like?", and "which one of those buildings in the distance is Fort Blackstone?". All of those questions were answered in the cutscene you skipped and have no way of rewatching.
This situation may not happen often, but you never know when it’s gonna strike. So you'll end up sitting through hours of inane and unispired dialog because you’re afraid you might miss something important.
WHAT GAMES SHOULD HAVE COMPLEX STORIES?
The games that should have complex stories are those which were based around stories to begin with. If the inspiration for making the game was to tell a story, than there’s a chance the story is actually worth telling. This might be the case for games like The Walking Dead, Monkey Island, King's Quest, and Heavy Rain but it's is not the case for Gears of War 3.
So if you’re a game writer working on a game whose genesis was a story that someone was dying to tell in an interactive fashion, then go nuts. Otherwise, briefly explain why I have to collect 8 pendants from 8 castles, and then shut the hell up.