The Game Boy: Who Invited the Bald Space Marine to Book Club?

Nathan Grayson

Last week was just full of surprises. (RIP, all.) Thankfully, though, one shining, heroic force swooped in to save the world from snowballing into complete unpredictability. That final bastion of normalcy – that conqueror of chaos -- was, of course, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.

The film – which starred explosions, Shia Labeouf, and explosions (but unfortunately, not Shia Labeouf exploding) – defiantly dodged negative reviews, negative word of mouth, and a near-negative Metacritic score to gross $112,000,000 in its opening weekend. Yep – nothing like a vapid, needless summer blockbuster to restore your faith in the world by destroying your faith in humanity. The movie’s success, though? Not surprising in the least. It’s a loud, action-packed film with more carnage than meaningful dialog. It’s simple, easily digested cheese. People eat that stuff up.

But then, no one expected Transformers to tug at our heartstrings and revolutionize storytelling as we know it. That’d just be silly; I mean, it’s a movie about robots fighting. Clearly, all eyes here are focused on the action – no time to roll them at the plot.

So then, how come we often expect tear-jerking, thought-provoking tales from big-budget videogames with premises nearly as dramatically inhospitable as Transformers? Why do we expect triple-A videogames – which, at this point, are quickly sneaking into movie territory in terms of development costs – to mold angry men, gunfire, and shrapnel into spellbinding tales when our prior buying tastes (see, for instance: Transformers) have shown that all we want is a loose thread to hold the action together? Especially when other story genres (you know, anything that's not action) lend themselves far better to interesting plots, untethered by the need for a five-minute shootout every six minutes?

Well, the origin of that expectation is at least somewhat explicable, though the expectation itself is highly outdated. Here’s why. In the beginning, when the big pixel bang occurred, shattering into millions of tiny pixels and creating the videogame universe as we know it, videogames were cheap and easy-ish to develop. Then, as technology became more complex, more time, money, and people were required to build a high-quality, easily marketable videogame. Thing is, the industry’s growth from bite-sized, big-spirited money muncher into a multi-stomached money devouring machine occurred somewhat subtly over the years. Since the industry’s inception, interesting plots, risky innovations, and blockbusters have all come from the same game publishers. Thus, it’s only natural that we expect them to continue down the path of evolving plots and huge risks, even though the industry’s finally reached the point where it’s not financially feasible to do so.

However, for big publishers, there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. Videogame storytelling techniques and technologies can now produce a story roughly equivalent in quality to that of a typical summer blockbuster. Sure, it may not be a Promised Land composed primarily of Holy Grails, but as noted earlier, for most potential players, it’ll do. And “most” is the operative term here. With the so-called “casual” boom now replacing many publishers’ eyes with dollar signs, catering to the niche that wants a brain-scrambler of a tale just isn’t appealing. Instead, simple stories are where it’s at, so that buzz-phrases like “More guns!” and “Xtreme graphics” stand out all the more.

Take, for instance, the sordid saga that is BioShock 2. The first game in the series made no bones about its use of Rapture as a representation of an Objectivist utopia gone horribly wrong. In fact, designer Ken Levine wouldn’t shut up about it. BioShock 2, meanwhile, has, so far, focused its marketing on the player’s ability to be a Big Daddy, a hulking diver’s suit filled with fury, sporting a motherf***ing drill for a hand. Awesome? You betcha. A conduit for the dripping, vulnerable sense of dread that coated BioShock 1? Probably not. And even if 2K Marin’s merely keeping BioShock 2’s deep story hush-hush for now, the fact that it’s not a high enough priority to be heavily promoted is telling. The sad truth is, many mainstream gamers failed to appreciate BioShock 1’s strides in videogame storytelling, but they loved setting baddies aflame with a snap of their fingers. 2K Marin’s taking that ball and rolling with it.

Thankfully, story in games is far from a dying art form. In actuality, I’d say the field is more exciting than ever. It’s just changed locations, is all. With major publishers now understandably risk-averse, the indie gaming scene has risen up to take on the role of mad scientist. Every day, independent devs produce strange and exciting experiments – both in story and gameplay – on teensy budgets.

If you’re into the more esoteric (perhaps even pretentious) side of things, you may have recently taken a shine to Braid , an indie game whose drip-fed story intertwines beautifully with its time-bending gameplay. Or how about The Passage , a five minute game about the trials and tribulations of an entire lifetime? Both of the aforementioned games have received more publicity than most titles of their standing through promotions on Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, and iTunes. But hey, if you’re indie, you’re probably in it for the love of the game anyway – though cash is a nice bonus.

Here’s my point, though: Both of those games are storytellers first, and everything else second. Sure, they may not be all that “fun” in the traditional sense, but with games like these, that’s not necessarily a priority. Guns, bald space marines, and cackling villains are nowhere to be found here. Obviously, then, theses games are not for everyone, though I’d urge you all to give them a try. Fun or not – they use interactivity to spin yarns unspinnable in other mediums, conveying messages not just about their characters, but also the player.

And even if that’s not your thing, there are plenty of other stories to be told through videogames. You just have to know where to look for them. The majority of big-budget games may have found a comfortable rut, but elsewhere, people will always be trying new things. It seems, then, that the most exciting chapter in the story of videogaming is only beginning.

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