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Plot Versus Play

Stories are integral to gaming. There’s actually nothing I look for more in a game, and I spent a foolish amount of time trying to convince non-gamers that there are some deep and wonderful stories out there in pixel format.

The problem is that such games can be few and far between. There’s a reason for this; I call it the plot vs play ratio. What arcane wizardry is this? It’s a very simple hypothesis based on the idea that you can’t have your cake and decorate it. It’s like quality versus quantity, where quality is the depth of the story and quantity is the freedom of the game.

When games started out as pixels jumping over other pixels, stories mostly belonged in books and movies. Then someone decided to name the pixels and make up a reason why they wanted to kill each other, and so games and stories came together: that’s when games got really interesting. We all like action and mindless slaying, but a tale is something that can be enjoyed long after the final credits. Get the action and the tale to complement each other and you make the most of the gaming medium.

The plot vs play ratio comes in when we have to consider that a game cannot do everything. When writing the story of a game, there has to be a balance between two things: the fixed elements of the plot and the freedom of the player to do what they want. A great example of this is sandbox style games, which are popular for the freedom they provide- you can explore and act however you want. They (sometimes) suffer in terms of plot depth because there are so many things to do aside from the main storyline. A game like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion lets you be good or evil, or even a lizard. This is fantastic but dilutes the story because it needs to be open enough to fit the everyman- for example; the NPC voice actors never say the main character’s name because you chose it. You don’t get to speak out loud and you have no background story other than being a prisoner. For all we know you could be in that cell for sodomising a mudcrab. Remember Baldur’s Gate? They did a great job with their story but had to design it so that the events could apply to a male or female of unspecified gender, from any career path and crucially a saviour or a criminal. We get the freedom to select the character’s opinion, but we never truly understand how he feels.

On the other end of the scale we have games like the Final Fantasy series with deeply detailed plots and predetermined storylines, but they take away your ability to choose. Cloud never gets to be evil and join Shin-Ra as an assassin. Resident Evil games have strong storylines but you can’t tell the useless cannon fodder NPCs to man up or play Chris Redfield as a scientist turned bounty hunter instead of a staarrrrrs operative. This is generally worth it for more fixed plot- your character can be part of the story instead of your avatar in the game world. He gets emotions and a background with reasons for doing the things he does. The best part is you care a lot more about what happens to these characters- when Max Payne is being kicked around noirtown, you’re plenty ready to get gritty on someone’s ass. That sounded better in my head. Metal Gear Solid took us through a poignant tongue-in-cheek story of warfare with brilliantly sculpted characters throwing around quotable lines like confetti. The Fallout games took faceless characters and then repeatedly screwed them over until you really, really wanted to track down the baddies and show them the meaning of wasteland justice.

This balance between story and freedom of play is a delicate thing and it goes without saying that the best games have some of both- but it’s the core strength of the story and the setting which sets that balance. Given the choice, I want story every time. I want to gasp at betrayals; I want to moan at plot twists. I want to hate a villain because my character does, not because he’s simply on the other end of the gun. Let’s not worry about graphics, or having 14 types of rifle, or multiplayer mini games.

I want our heroes and villains back.

Of Stars and Gates

We’re five episodes into Stargate Universe now and it’s growing on me like some kind of alien brain eating fungus. The damage to my simile nervous system has been deep enough that the spores can’t be removed until I’ve seen the whole series.

It was touch and go with the pilot episodes. The plot had no new hooks- it was basically an Accidental Atlantis scenario and the characters were great but lacking a little depth. It wasn’t until now that I realised that the problem wasn’t with SG:U… it was with me!

I’d been spoon fed one-dimensional characters from episode one of SG-1 and the reason I didn’t get the characters in SG:U is because, while admittedly a little stereotypical, they have much more depth than you expect. I’m not knocking the old Stargate characters- love them to bits and the team dynamics are fantastic- but perhaps I was too used to knowing how each one would react in a certain situation. Indeed.

This is where Universe differs because even the boldest character, the fantastic Dr. Rush portrayed by Robert Carlisle, is capable of surprising you as he flits between mad scientist and noble pioneer. I realise the obvious fact here- that this is just a symptom of the franchise diverting from a known favourite format to a new style. Something inside a fan always rebels at the sight of a new take on an old classic.

Same theory applies to the plot hooks. After five episodes of the characters being explored in depth as they are stranded aboard an ancient ship called the Destiny, I realised what was missing. Baddies.

SG-1 had the fantastic Goa’uld and semi spooky Ori. Atlantis had the Wraith, vampires in space. Replicants and enemy human factions got up in everyone’s grills. So far, no Universe baddies! Not one person in a rubber costume or historical garb! They haven’t met any overt alien life forms at all and certainly none of the medieval peasants who seem to live all over the cosmos.

I loved all that stuff and it gave Stargate the tongue-in-cheek sense of play that really worked surprisingly well in contrast with the serious parts; however, got to admit I’m a fan of harder sci-fi when it comes down to it. Universe has a lot in common with Battlestar Galactica- get past the fancy directing and FX and you realise you have a really gritty, tightly wound setting populated with potent characters. I’m so glad that if there is going to be a big bad in Universe, we haven’t seen them yet. We’ve matured into the scared, claustrophobic, human variety of Evil, leaving behind the five hours of make-up kind.

It’s not Stargate as you know it. That’s sad, but it’s fine- we had 15 seasons of that. Now it’s time to put Robert Carlisle in the body of a genius who would rather stay stranded in space than go back to Earth and surround him with totally unprepared civilians and a few jumpy soldiers.

Taking odds on who he kills and eats first…

Here endeth the gush.

Why are you so love vampires?

Okay, so it’s not a new phenomenon- something gets noticed, becomes popular and is then repeated by every tom/dick/harry with a media company. Twilight, true blood, lather rinse repeat.

This year’s insufferable culture haemorrhage is vampires. First exploited in the late 1700s in poetry and then notably in 1897 by Bram Stoker with Dracula, the vampire went from being a great piece of folk legend to a kind of sassy undead Casanova. Bram threw in some elements of Irish folklore to do with seduction and mystery and made a great novel- but sadly he also planted the seeds for modern vampire stories where vampires get all sexy and sweaty over the act of feeding on people and generally the curse of unbeing is considered to be not so bad after all. Oh, woe is me, I am cursed to swan around with metrosexuals ‘till the end of time. Okay, maybe that is torture.

Grecian vrykolakas and Slavic Strigoi  are among many folk beliefs from pre-industrial Europe which contributed to the mythos- but these guys were not pretty. Swollen, off-colour corpses bloated with blood roam the hillsides spreading disease and dismay. There’s no biting of the neck to sire a new person into a life of mystery, but rather it can happen to any dead person who’s body is mucked about with by an animal, or wasn’t married before death, or simply talked to himself a lot. However, interestingly, the dhampir stuff about human-vamp children who detect vampires is pretty solidly founded on Romani legends.

The point is that at some juncture, maybe via White Wolf publishing and their ilk, the legends became a modern myth about a breed of vampires that look just like people but are capable of astonishing feats of power, who troll the nightlife of the urban world looking for sexy people to seduce and suck the blood from. Should that be from whom to suck the blood?

Each new version of this seems to water it down or add some ridunkulous powers- like flight (I’m looking at you True Blood. You were doing so well up ‘till then).  Aside from that we have super senses (why?) and super speed (corpses known for their agility) and strange blood related magic which speaks to the sympathetic mage in me but tends to just look like more diluted artistry when applied to the TV screen. Bringing science into the mix- the old ‘it’s a virus’ routine- works great for sci fi but removes all mystery and spirit from the idea.

Some of these products touch well on the black woeful curse aspect, doomed to live a life of yada yada, no sunlight ever again; okay, we have a tension and drawback dynamic there. Brill. Even Buffy and Angel got that right and Whedon was trying to take the piss out of vampires. Then along comes Twilight and decides that vampires don’t go out in the daylight because… what, they burn up? They go into an animal frenzy and lose all their fragile attachment to a humanity long since fled? No, they sparkle. They go all shiny and pretty. Aww.

What the hell is wrong with you Meyers? Shiny sparkly supernatural love stories. Baseball with super powers. Even True Blood, which I actually love due to fantastic characters and a rich setting, has a grating ‘vampires are no longer kept secret’ get-out clause to make the story safer and simpler. Fangs are retractable for some unknown reason, making them able to wander around among the cattle. Where’s the edge, people? I’m all for bringing new ideas to an old concept, even turning a concept on it’s head, but this just feels like disarming it.

Stop making vampire stuff please, or at least find a new name for your totally made up supernatural creatures. Don’t even mention the Vampire’s Assistant to me. Regardless of my acidic sniping please send me copies of your books and films to review them despite this rant. Maybe I’d be more sympathetic if I could get to grips with the non-screenified source material.

I vant to suck your bloughd.