So, I have a good friend who occasionally comes over for a day of couch-potatoing. It’s good in several ways, especially because it helps me cope with the schedule of full-time-work and full-time-school that I’ve saddled myself with, by blowing it off for a day.
Sometimes, we spend our gaming time in ways that could be seen as questionable, like spending several hours playing – and being frequently humbled by – The Adventures of Cookie and Cream on the PS2.
This weekend, though, the same friend joined me for a day of gaming and there was none of that – no silly pink rabbits for us, no sir.
In his last visit, we’d played through Halo 3 in Co-op mode until we got through the end of level 7 or so, so we set about finishing it.
Now, I quite like the story in the Halo games; I know that it’s not Great Literature but it puts a nice framework around all the shooty.
Problem is, my compatriate had never played through the previous Halo games – sure, he’d played plenty of multiplayer Halo and Halo 2, but he hadn’t seen much of the stories.
This meant that all the dramatic Big Reveals and Returns of Familiar Faces from previous games were, well, pretty much unwelcome interruptions. The shooty would occasionally stop and there’d be weird bits where people were talking for no reason at all except to get in the way of more shooty.
The whole thing might have been made rather more comprehensible for the poor guy if the story designers for Halo 3 had included, oh, I dunno, some flashback sequences or maybe some bridging dialog, or even – god forbid – a clueless new character to whom facts have to be explained as a surrogate for the player.
I wound up thinking a little more about this, and I realized that, while you would expect to have these sorts of helpers in, say, a weekly serial TV series, you wouldn’t necessarily expect to have them in a movie.
What I mean about movies is this:
If you’re writing a movie sequel, you don’t necessarily need to cover the events of the previous movies. Anyone going to see Return Of The Rightful Patriarchal Authority Figure, for instance, can be assumed to have seen The Multiple Allegorical Towers and The Guys Who Got Together Because Of A Ring Or Something.
If they haven’t, they have easy access to them through video rental, and they only need to take a couple of hours – OK, OK, 3 or 4 hours, considering my example – per previous movie to get caught up to the point where they can go into Return of the Rightful Patriarchal Authority Figure.
When you’re writing for TV, you have no way of knowing if your viewers have seen episode 402 : Attack of the Cardboard Standees, in which Dr. Biggoggles was introduced and first menaced our heroes.
If you’re writing episode 708 : Biggoggles Returns, you can’t start your episode with “This really assumes you’ve seen episode 402 – if you haven’t, you can go rent it and we’ll be here when you get back.” You had best have some sort of bridging device to get the audience caught up, or you’ll have them sitting there all confused.
I think that games have come to follow the Movie model, and I’d argue that this is a case of writers Getting Things Wrong.
Yes, someone buying Halo 3 back in September of 2007 COULD have gone out and rented or bought Halo and Halo 2, and if they’d spent 30 hours or so, they would have been caught up in the story to the point where they could jump into Halo 3 with a reasonable understanding of, say, who Guilty Spark is, but that’s a heck of a time investment to demand of someone.
The best game I’ve ever seen for storytelling structure was Phantasy Star Universe, which concluded every segment of the story with a “Here’s what you just did” ending credits sequence and included a next episode preview thing giving you hints as to what was coming up in the next bit.
Phantasy Star Universe also featured cute, pink-haired robotic girls with impossibly huge guns, so it’s just about the perfect game except for the bits where the characters started talking, which were, by the way, painful. I’m not really sure whether that’s the fault of the voice actors, or if it’s just because listening to rebellious youths, teenage angst and halting attempts at romance is a lot less painful if it’s in a language you don’t fully understand.
But I digress.
Summary: Game writers: If you’re going to write sequels, find some way to catch new players up to current events. Also, less English voice acting, more cute girls with improbable weaponry.