Saturday, February 7, 2015

Video Games that Tell Great Stories

You may be an eighties baby like me, in which case you remember being thrown out of the house at some point, bleary-eyed after ten consecutive hours of Nintendo. (You may have also hyperventilated from blowing in the damn cartridges to make them work. These kids today and their DVD games, they'll never know...) If so, you might also remember the first great plot twist in gaming. 1986's Metroid broke ground for many reasons. It was one of the first free-roaming games: rather than running left to right a la Super Mario, the setting ran left, right, up, and down, which was mind-blowing by rubix cube age standards. It was the game that first popularized giving you permanent upgrades and a password system that saved them, so your character evolved. It was also, as you found out at the end, the first game with a female protagonist. Lady gamers are very accepted now, but in the Bea Arthur shoulderpad era, I can't explain how revolutionary this was. The fact that the protagonist, Samus Aran, had a spacesuit that concealed her gender (along with that wonderfully ambiguous name), meant that (at the time, mostly male) gamers assumed they were a dude, until they found out they'd been a strong woman the whole time. Radically progressive for the dark ages of Reagan.

That was the first game to show me games could tell a story with genuine character development. I tried to get my folks to understand this evolution, but they were still big on the "outside" thing. (At least it taught me how to talk to humans.)

In 1989, a game called Ninja Gaiden ushered in the next big breakthrough in video game storytelling: cinema scenes. After a level of harrowing jumps and frenzied enemy attacks, you'd be treated to a mini-movie showing why your character needed to go to some other dangerous place. It was a giant leap forward from, "We're sorry, Mario, but the Princess in in another castle." This was the first time finding out what happens next was the impetus for playing on.

The first time I ever played a game and realized I would read it as a book was 1995's Chrono Trigger. The story was Sci-fi gold, with arguably the best antagonist in gaming history. The time-hopping quest was centered around preventing the 1999 destruction of the world by Lavos, a godlike alien parasite that burrowed into the earth during prehistoric times and spent centuries draining it dry.

Playing games now involves being a part of an interactive movie, but the first popular game to create this feeling for me was 1998's Metal Gear Solid, which told the tale of Solid Snake's quest to wrestle a bipedal tank equipped with nuclear weapons away from an army of genetically engineered super soldiers.

The first time video games created a setting that was a character in its own right was 2007's Bioshock, which told the tale of Rapture, a city under the sea created as a libertarian paradise where "splicers" could purchase superpowers in exchange for their labor. Of course, splicing featured insanity as a side-effect, so by the time your protagonist arrived, the place was a dystopian theme park loaded with twitchy supermen.

These are traits we take for granted in modern gaming. We expect jaw-dropping plot twists, an interactive movie experience, spectacular villains, and environments that qualify as characters. A game like The Last of Us is better written than many episodes of "The Walking Dead". If you aren't an eighties baby, and happen to encounter any of these games in an emulator, experience them. There is no replacement for a great novel, but the greatest games can offer something like the immersive experience of a book.

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