Relevant Continuity in Video Games

November 13, 2010

When reading a book-series or popular movie that is sure to see some sequels, you´ll most of the time get a fine, continuous piece of story. Even though each book or movie is fine by itself, the follow-up will make it clear to the audience that what happened in the past is relevant for the present time. That doesn´t hold true for video games.

Most video games are fully enclosed products, standing on their own. That is fine as long as a publisher doesn´t decide to turn that single game into a recurring franchise. Even though nowadays video games have become big, epic and, unfortunately, very cinematic experiences, they don´t really try to tell ongoing stories. Instead, they welcome you with the same main character and have you start a whole new mission. What happened in the previous game is but a page out of a book, it bears no more relevancy to the new plot. Part of that is also that video game makers aren´t daring enough with changing the main character. Having him develop both in terms of looks and behavior depending on his past adventures. It´s always the very same dude/girl. Be it Uncharted or Tomb Raider, Mario or a hundred else franchises – never do you get to know the bigger picture, never happens something of permanent relevance.

Each game exists as an individual experience

 

There are examples of games that successfully achieve such relevant continuity throughout their various installments, but these are rare and even then often rather shallow. Most prominent example would be the Mass Effect-franchise. Of course, being a western-rpg it is easier to include permanent developments since it is the players decision of what to do or not to do. Also, Bioware has the franchise planned as a trilogy from the beginning, so there is no uncertainty about how to proceed with what you have. Two other good examples, surprisingly, come from Nintendo. As much as story is not a big part of Nintendo-games, both Metroid and Zelda succeeded in creating a big overarching continuity that bears relevance to future and past games. Be it Samus destroying the home planet of the Metroids, later on fighting Mother Brain and then herself aka SA-X – each game takes its prequels into consideration. On a less pronounced basis, the same is true for The Legend of Zelda. This series´ fans are famous for their timeline-talks, and while I personally wouldn´t take pre-OoT-Zeldas into such talk, Ocarina of Time definitely started a continuous story that saw relevance even in the latest console-title Twilight Princess, showing scenes of Ganondorf and what happened to him in the aftermath of OoT. And then there´s the Triforce-mythology that overarchs each and every series-entry. Even the upcoming Skyward Sword seems to relevantly further the whole franchise´s continuity by showing fans the origins of the Master Sword. One very popular Konami-franchise also is known for its continuous story: Metal Gear Solid. Hardly a surprise, when this franchise´s focus is story foremost, and complaints about its individual installments´ uber-long cutscenes are common occurrence. You could also name the Kingdom Hearts-franchise, though I wouldn´t include it here. Other than the other mentions, KH feels like Square Enix is making up sh*t for each new game, further fucking up the whole series. And let´s not forget Assassin´s Creed, where Ubisoft just like that makes up another game only because of the franchises success. Killing an originally interesting story by thinning it out by filler. Oh well.

References to previous installments keep developing a sense of continuity

 

I´d really love to see video games being treated more like books/movies in that regard that their stories and characters keep developing instead of just creating new missions for a never-changing hero. And just in case someone wants to call me out for mentioning the Mario-series in a text about story: The Paper Mario-games have great, franchise-fitting stories. Continuity would work there just as well and maybe finally give Luigi the development he deserves. Luigi > Mario.


Unique and permanent Awareness for NPCs

November 7, 2010

Another problem regarding npcs in modern video games is their lack of unique awareness. I´m using a picture of Metal Gear Solid to show what I mean, but the same is true for all games, some to a lesser, some to a greater extent. When MGS-guard spots you, you´re instantly surrounded by more guards. What´s even worse, once you´ve gotten rid of all enemies on screen, alarm stops. A few moments afterwards, new guards enter the scene and act as if nothing ever happened. No awareness at all. The same goes for all Grand Theft Auto-games. Once you commit a crime, all the police officers in the world will be going after you. You cannot hide in the civilian masses, no, you have to get out of a certain radius to make the cops stop hunting you. And once you´ve succeeded in doing so, you will have no problem of walking next to a cop. Other examples would be western rpgs, where everyone in the world will know who you murdered or what you stole. Even The Legend of Zelda: Link´s Awakening did that, though it didn´t affect the gameplay, of course.

These games lack a permanent, broad awareness on the one side. Police shouldn´t stop going after you just because you get out of their 500 meter-radius. Guards of an enemy base shouldn´t stop the alarm until the invader has been captured. On the other side, these games also lack unique awareness. When one guard or police officer spots you, it should be that one npc only that´s going after you. Make him call for support, but no insta-spawning of helpers. Meanwhile, if I manage to get out of that one npc´s sight, I should be save and no other police officer should go after me since he wouldn´t know what I look like. At the same time, if I cross the line of sight with that particular officer from before, he´ll go after me without further warning. Expand that concept to civilians as well and the feeling of virtual worlds would change dramatically.

 


A Battle of Music: Game vs Franchise

December 18, 2009

Video game music knows various degrees of enjoyment. We all know the many great pieces of beloved franchises like the Legend of Zelda, Super Mario or even Pokemon. These games feature pieces of music that you can always hum along and certain pieces won´t be forgotten forever. The Super Mario Bros.-theme is such a piece of music, the Zelda-theme and many of Ocarina of Time´s soundtrack are, as well. But all these pieces of music share a certain similarity, and there is a reason why i refrained from using the word “song”. They are not.

Let me say that you won´t find a guy that loves the soundtrack of all the mentioned Nintendo-games more than me. I have a lot of them in my daily playlists, I whistle the Song of Storm or Gerudo Valley-song all the time. But these aren´t songs. They´re part of a video game soundtrack, created to set up a certain mood in certain parts of the game. You could say, in a way, they´re “atmospheric songs“, there to enhance the gaming experience. That´s why I suppose that Nintendo is so shy of using orchestrated soundtracks for their games, as it takes away from the interactive atmosphere of the game. With Nintendo´s current music-philosophy, the music always matches what´s going on on-screen, changing on the spot if something happens.

But that is also the reason why every Nintendo game lacks it: A theme song.

There is the famous Zelda-theme, but it is not a song. It is a game-opening welcomer, like a voice in your head that tells you “yeah, my friend, you´re about to start a whole new adventure, have fun!” and you know you will.

Legend of Zelda – theme

This kind of music transcends beyond single games, though. It´s the signature-theme of a whole franchise. Whenever you here this theme you know it´s the Legend of Zelda. But it doesn´t tell you anything about a specific game within the series. That is what Nintendo´s games in general are lacking. The ONE identifying song, the ONE song that makes you remember the game you´re playing that moment. That song doesn´t exist. But it should.

Maybe, to clear things up a bit, I should give a simple example of what I mean. We all know James Bond, agent 007. This is the James Bond-theme that everyone around the worlds associates with the famous action-movie series:

James Bond – theme

It´s a great theme, but it doesn´t relate to a specific movie within the James Bond-franchise. That is where we proceed to James Bond: Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig as the lead actor. Listen to the following:

You know my Name (Casino Royale opening)

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a theme song. It is perfect. It is a fresh piece of music. It gives you chills. It creates dramatic pictures inside your head. It makes you want to get more of that experience. And it is a piece of music, a song, exclusively made for that one movie. Whenever you hear this song, you think of Casino Royale, instead of just generalizing “oh, it´s James Bond”. It´s that kind of songs that Nintendo´s games don´t have. And to give an example of a video game series that does what Nintendo does not, here is the Metal Gear Solid 3-theme:

Snake Eater (Metal Gear solid 3 – theme)

I´m definitely no big fan of the Metal Gear Solid-games, but in terms of creating a great theme song for the third game in the series, Konami did a damn good job.

In the end, what I´m saying is: Using all the old, famous tunes is nice, and I´ll be in full hype should Nintendo reveal Zelda Wii with the traditional Zelda-theme. But what I´d hope for is that upcoming Zelda-, Mario-, Pokemon-, you name it-, games got a little more recognition as specific games, more so than “just” games that are part of a bigger franchise. Or in other words: When Nintendo reveals the “Legend of Zelda: Sky Diver” for Wii, I want a theme-song that makes me think of “Sky Diver” instead of “Legend of Zelda“.


E3 is over – Where are the games? – and – The day waggle became cool

June 3, 2009

Well E³ as an expo isn´t over, yet, but the big three conferences are. And to come straight to the point: I am disappointed. Let´s be clear, though: This year´s E³ is a dozen times better than what we had to go through last year. Then again, that should have been expected.

What i´m so disappointed about is how few new games had been announced. And don´t call me out on this one naming some small puzzle-download-games. I don´t care about those. I´m talking about big games that i can sink into, that grant me an experience. But what did Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo show us?

Microsoft started with a broad showing of popular IPs. In the end, Kojima´s Metal Gear Solid: Rising was the only new game, though. Sony…hm, ah, there was The Agent from Rockstar and a couple of PSP-games, though it´s yet to be proven how well a Resident Evil works on a handheld. Nintendo showed the most new games, but…it was like Mario, Mario and Mario again. Seriously, i was about to shout when Cammie Dunaway spoke as if it was great to have more Mario games…well, then she showed Mario Galaxy 2, so that´s good, but still… Oh well, Metroid: Other M should be considered a half-megaton, but not for me, as i hate Team Ninja´s hack and slay-games, and i am not interested in a Metroid Hack and Slay.

THEN there is the sad part about the past two days: Waggle became cool.

I am a Wii-owner sind end 2006, and i always love the idea of motion controllers, i even made a bad picture before Nintendo even unveiled the Wiimote. But for the past 2,5 years, as a Nintendo-fan you got ridiculed all the time by bitter Sony-fans about how crappy motion controlling is, about how it kills gaming and how they don´t want to move after they come home from work. Guess what, NOW they´re fighting on all the internet boards, fighting for THEIR motion control is better than Nintendo´s. Give me an effing break. At least Microsoft has a different approach and i hope they use their Natal-camera more for supporting traditional games than trying the “without anything in your hands”-crap. There´s a reason why the Wiimote works and Eyetoy bombed.

NERVNow, let me point out something else: If i was Microsoft, i´d badmouth Kojima so much that he has to go out of business. What kind of kindergarten was that when he said at Sony´s conference, the PSP-MGS is the “true next MGS”? As if he was making fun of MS that he announced MGS: Rising the day before. The next thing is Capcom developing a RE-game for PSP. WTF, the Wii gets only On-Rail-shooters, and the PSP gets a, probably, real RE-game? Give me a break. People say that Nintendo doesn´t help third parties enough, but they gave them 2008 and the whole 2009 without any Nintendo-competition. That is more than any of them could ever want.

At long last, let´s talk about what i liked. Yeah, there were things i liked. First of all, looking at my E³-predictions, Microsoft delivered. Not only was ME2 shown, but also Molyneux´ Project Dimitri, now called Milo, was revealed. If this thing works as it was shown, it´ll be revolutionary. Also, there was a nice trailer for Endless Ocean 2, so Nintendo delivered that. Of course, i´m anticipating Mario Galaxy 2, but it´s coming out in 2010, so it´s too far away. A game that looks at least as good as FF12 is Monado: Beginning of the World from Monolith Software…which Nintendo didn´t mention at all, sigh. Looks rock solid, and has active battle system, yay. Then i´m a bit hyped for Silent Hill Wii. Looks very immersive, maybe a bit too immersive for me. And that´s it. There are other interesting games, but i have yet to see more of them. Biggest disappointment is maybe Red Steel 2, which, from watching a developer walkthrough, doesn´t really use MotionPlus for 1:1 sword-controls. At least in the videos he never moved the sword slowly, only made fast swings. Oh well.

In the end, Miyamoto mentioning Zelda Wii and showing a, most likely, completely irrelevant painting of Link and a girl in a blue robe is enough to make me feel satisfied. But it´s not enough to make my brain stop and think: Nintendo, what are you doing in Kyoto? There are only 2 new Wii-games by Nintendo themselves. Are they developing other games secretly for future times? Are they working on fewer games with more manpower for greater quality? Or did they fire many of their inhouse developers? Really, something´s fishy, and i´d like to know what.

Now let´s wait for 2010, because as of now, Nintendo won´t be releasing a big game in 2009…at all.