I’m a believer in the idea that the medium of games, in order to find their own place amongst the art forms, must reach a point where narrative is purely an outcome of the given setting and actions/reactions of the player. We will reach a point where this narrative can be just as complex and meaningful (even potentially MORE gripping) as film or books or music. It is the element of interactivity that makes games unique and so hard to compare, let alone find a good way of game design that does the medium justice without having to “borrow” techniques from other media to cover up deficiencies. I believe this will all get better as algorithmic technology advances – in the field of AI first and foremost in my opinion.
But there are games that don’t even seem to try to break new ground and consciously aim to deliver a cinematic experience. Games that are so far from the “Playstyle Matters” philosophy of Warren Spector, and yet don’t feel out of place at all being in the games medium. Games whose core value lies in the “premise” of being able to deliver the feeling of being a certain fleshed-out character.
Yesterday I played Batman Arkham Asylum and couldn’t let go of the game until the end. This game is a masterpiece in the sense that some movies are master pieces (The Dark Knight, for example :P). It’s a huge contrast in its game play element compared to games I usually find the most interesting. You have few ways to solve enemy encounters, and only one way of solving the puzzles that the various bosses you encounter. So there should be virtually nil replay value, right?
Theoretically, yes. But it works for Batman Arkham Asylum. It is exactly this – there is only one style you are going to beat this game. It’s the way Batman would do it. Because YOU ARE BATMAN. This is the element of awesomeness in the game. The premise is that this game is going to let you be Batman. It’s a very very powerful allure. Of course, in order to make you feel like Batman, everything else in the presentation must ooze the feel of the franchise. The antagonist, the art style, the voice acting, the plot, the combat and various gadgets at your disposal. Everything just works and is one tight experience – just like a good Batman movie, or the comics themselves. A game that can deliver such a strong experience is in my eyes a masterpiece – ideology of what games should be aside.
I believe that especially games built on a license are best suited for such an approach. I felt the same thing when playing Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, which is one of my favorite games. Another game of the same vein, with a “pure” gaming background is Metal Gear Solid (the one on PS1).
The plots are themselves not limited to the usual game plot lines but rather follow the style of the franchise. In Riddick for example, the progression isn’t “fight-fight-fight-get-better-gun-fight-fight-get-even-better-gun”. Riddick loses his guns during the game and at some points has hardly more at his disposal than a screw driver. Batman on the other hand always feels empowered, always superior in his own way, and is getting provoked and messed with by the Joker, always trying to save one of the good guys.
Interestingly, Metal Gear Solid and Batman have a lot in common. Both are comparatively short, both basically make you fight really interesting bosses one after the other with fun game play sequences in between, and both keep you guessing plot-wise. Of course, Metal Gear Solid utilizes far more and longer cut scenes for the necessary character development and story progression, which I actually believe work in their own way, because those cut scenes are very good, and most people didn’t play the NES games prior. So in order to bring the strong context of the game’s universe to the player, they work out well. In Batman, this isn’t the case. Batman is widely known an popular. It’s a big franchise in modern pop culture. And with The Dark Knight having come out shortly before, and in being an amazing movie, the interest in the franchise was big, and hardly no one needed lengthy introduction on how crazy the Joker is. Also, cut scenes aren’t that essential nowadays than in 1998. A lot can be communicated in-game these days.
What I find very important as well is that those masterpieces have a relatively short gaming time. I was able (and compelled) to finish Batman in one sitting, as with Metal Gear Solid. Many gamers might bemoan this, having spent the amount of money that gets you far more game hours with other games. But to me anyways, it’s all about the experience I get from the game. It’s a blunt way of rating a game to measure them up on the game time. Batman needn’t be longer, or shorter. Same goes for MGS and Riddick.
So I suppose my message is: If your going to make a game on a license, then do it justice. Bend all game design techniques that you have at your disposal to make a game that brings the core feel into every little corner of the game. Pay attention to detail.
The other message is: If you’re going to make a linear gaming experience, make it a masterpiece of authorship, too.