Chronicles or Graphics?

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The player comes across a mysterious room during his/her escape from the facility in Portal Two. -- Screen Capture by: Brooks Clarke

Original: May 10, 2011 Issue 16

By: Brooks Clarke

Staff Writer

The player comes across a mysterious room during his/her escape from the facility in Portal Two. -- Screen Capture by: Brooks Clarke

The significance of storytelling takes a larger role in video game design

The presence of narrative in video games has traditionally been considered an afterthought, more often than not solely a justification of playing as a space marine fighting hell demons on mars, or a chivalrous knight battling dragons in medieval times. With the added challenge of presenting an engaging story, while simultaneously not dragging down the actual gameplay, developers often choose to forgo heavy narrative in favor of convenient allegory. But throughout the current console generation, story in gaming has taken a major step forward.

Games have become more complex in conveying a plot to an audience, often passing up simple exposition for a more indirect approach. Valve Corporation’s Portal builds its story through the schizophrenic ravings of a maniacal robot named GLaDOS, as the mute protagonist makes her way through a series of lab rat-style puzzles. Along the way, you find the paranoid scribblings of an unknown character in small alcoves, which hint at a sinister reality hidden behind the facility’s sterile, white walls. You never get a clear picture of who you are or how you wound up there in the first place, with the only clues coming from the aforementioned alcoves and an escape through the bowels of the facility in the final chapter.

While some developers prefer to take an unconventional approach to storytelling, others strive to replicate a more traditional cinematic experience. Bioware has a long tradition of well-written, narrative-focused games, dating back to Baldur’s Gate in 1998.

Their Mass Effect trilogy, the third episode of which releases first quarter 2012, is a space drama in the same vein as Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. The games build a vast universe (literally) with a plausible fiction and complex racial and political undertones. Mass Effect 2, in particular, features some of the finest characters in gaming, such as Mordin Solus, a fast-talking alien scientist who, if you are chummy enough, will perform his own version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song,” and lecture you on the merits of safe sex (not at the same time, of course).

The Uncharted series by Naughty Dog, whose third release will also be available later this year, takes a page from comedic action-adventures like Indiana Jones and Firefly. The games are best known for their snarky protagonist, Nathan Drake, who channels his inner Malcolm Reynolds with sarcastic dialogue and dark humor in the face of treacherous gun battles and exotic locales.

Each of these games illustrates how far developers have come since the days when a small yellow puck being chased by four ghosts was the pinnacle of gaming narrative. And the various methods each game uses to convey its story show just how difficult it is to deliver an immersive fiction while still keeping fun gameplay at the heart of the experience.