Tag Archives: Narrative

Trevor Phillips

Ever since GTA protagonists became actual characters with motivations, it’s been walking a difficult narrative line. Vice City’s Tommy Vercetti, the first real attempt, was largely successful given that he was a willing criminal sociopath, even if it could be difficult to square his need to keep a low profile for his burgeoning criminal empire with his tendency to steal tanks, slaughter police and FBI, and brandish rocket launchers. Though less of a caricature than his inspiration, Tony Montana, Vercetti was less believable unless players chose to play it straight, taking on the role for themselves.

Trevor Phillips

This only got worse through San Andreas and the extended GTA IV saga, which presented reluctant protagonists. None wanted to be drawn into the criminal world, forced to kill and steal, yet all did and all could be made to commit slaughter on an industrial scale. GTA IV’s Niko Bellic was particularly guilty, both protesting his status as a killer without requiring much persuasion to go out and kill, and bemoaning his status as a poor immigrant while owning Algonquin penthouses and running around with $250,000 cash in his pocket. “Oscar-quality story” indeed.

I believe the somewhat poncey term these days is ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ – the incompatibility between a fixed narrative arc and player freedom. It’s not a problem unique to GTA, but as a series that champions freedom and has put gaming’s ambitions as a serious storytelling medium on its shoulders, the quandary is innate. We could see Rockstar experimenting with a way around it in Red Dead Redemption, which made violence and lawlessness inevitable in a violent, lawless world. John Marston could be played curiously bloodthirsty for a reluctant outlaw, but at least this was a world where running around with a gun didn’t seen incongruous, and a game where the inability to escape one’s past was a major theme. But how can it work in GTA’s modern USA?

Enter Trevor Phillips.

He’s a career criminal, so having a lot of cash stashed isn’t a stretch. He’s psychotic and so neither is a murderous rampage. He enjoys crime so getting pulled deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld is in keeping with the character. He’s Canadian, so… well, let’s not go there. He’s also responsible for – spoiler warning – one of the most disturbing scenes in the series. In a game that hit headlines for one scene in particular, I found the aforementioned one far more unsettling.

In other words, he’s the first GTA character who’s reflective of how people play GTA. Even, arguably, better at it than the silent ciphers like GTA III’s Claude, simply because he actually is a character.

GTA V is one of this generation’s great games, and Trevor is one of its great characters. What’s more, it’s the second generation in a row with a loveable psychopath from one of its top adventures at the top of the list. Clearly, it’s a pattern that works.

LTTP: Heavy Rain

Like many people who played it, I really enjoyed Fahrenheit, David Cage’s previous attempt at fulfilling his noble ambition of moving storytelling in games beyond the infantile nonsense that it defaults to. That is, I enjoyed it until it went completely off the rails.

That game’s most impressive achievement was the speed with which it tossed aside a brilliant opening, brimming with possibilities, and completely lost it. As far ahead of most games at the time as the cut-scene direction was, it didn’t take long for me to stop enjoying them because I had to spend their running time staring at two little on-screen prompts, and don’t even get me started on the plot machinations. Just baffling.

Heavy Rain

My disappointment with Fahrenheit was perhaps the main reason why I skipped Heavy Rain on its release. I’d heard all the promises before, and even today I put Cage, up there with Peter Molyneux on the scale of bullshit. I’m so used to being let down by their unfulfilled promises that I have a mental filter on everything they say, treating it as a joke that I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it turns out to be even close to reality. It’s like the racist uncle who you just nod your head and smile at, because you stopped actually listening to them years ago.

Once I sat down to play it, though, I quickly realised how much better this is. Some odd pacing and a flawed interface aside – how about telling me what a given selection of stick motions are going to do instead of giving me one chance to make the ‘right’ choice? – it’s more mature than Fahrenheit and seems to be evidence that Cage has finally learned some restraint.

I’m still not convinced that this is the future of in-game storytelling, however. Putting aside the actual content of the plot, which is admittedly better than most games but still far below the standard of the best available in other media, Heavy Rain is still far more of an ‘interactive movie’ than it is a game. You can spend all the time in the world on brilliant animation, voice acting and careful choreography, but it does nothing for games when all of these awesome action sequences are QTEs. I’m not entirely averse to this mechanic – God knows I go on about Shenmue enough – but I’m not going to pretend that it does anything for gameplay design, which is the reason we’re playing games rather than watching movies.

Quibbles aside, Heavy Rain is well worth experiencing. It’s just that it reinforces my opinion that while trying to advance narrative in games is certainly admirable, copying the conventions of Hollywood too closely simply dilutes what makes games special. And for all its ambitions, my recent playthrough of the Half-Life 2 games suggests that maybe it’s barking up the wrong tree.

A decent game, but it would be a better movie. Pick one and stick to it.

Feature-Length Cut-Scenes?

OK, so the Metal Gear Solid series is hardly known for its subtlety and brevity in storytelling, what with several 20-minute scenes in MGS3 and… well… the whole of MGS2, but the reviews of MGS4 are blowing my mind. Some of the reviews, notably Edge, are claiming that the game has two extremely long cut-scenes.

That’s a bit like saying that Metal Gear has a big robot in it, of course, but word is that these sequences are pushing the 90-minute mark. And Konami doesn’t want reviewers to mention it.

In the interest of fairness, GamePro is saying that it’s an exaggeration. We’ll find out for ourselves in less than a fortnight anyway, but I’ve always had respect for Edge and can’t imagine that such a prestigious magazine – possibly the only gaming publication that I’d use that word to describe – would make a claim like this about such an important game without there being some truth to it. And would Konami really care if reviews mentioned that the cinemas were no different to the other multimillion-selling games in the series?

True or not, it brings up an interesting question about storytelling in games. Would having 90-minute cut-scenes actually help games as a storytelling medium, or does it undermine it and defer the job to the conventions of film? Half-Life tells a story within a game and BioShock does it even better, and the irony is that the part of BioShock’s story that attracted the most criticism was the least game-like part: the ending. Continue reading Feature-Length Cut-Scenes?