Monday, 10 December 2012

Narrative as Reward

Who doesn't like a good story?

In continuing on with my backlog my journeys have taken me into the world of Bastion, arguably the indie darling of 2011. I'm not going to do a review since it's probably a little late considering, and I would merely be one more voice in the chorus of praise for the title. I will, however, make use of what the game has let me experience. It's not an approach that I think can work for absolutely every game, but for titles like Bastion the idea of using narrative as part of the reward and main driving force of the game works splendidly.

One of the things that Bastion was praised for was its narrative, or even more specifically its narrator. Logan Cunningham does a fantastic job of being the voice that guides the player throughout the entirety of the game. The narration isn't completely constant, but is present enough throughout all the levels that it definitely factors heavily into the feel of the game. To many, myself included, hearing what Rucks had to say about the current state of things, or about how The Kid was doing, or what he was fighting, became a motivation for moving forward in each level as much as the act of completion itself.

I think that part of the reason why this approach worked for Bastion is because the game itself is relatively short. There are a lot of points that can be replayed, but a lot of the main levels are pretty much one trip only for the most part. The idea that the narrative itself won't repeat and get bogged down by constant backtracking helps to make sure that it doesn't become grating and stays a reward, rather than becoming something tedious or even worse, detracting.

The question that you might be asking right now is how is this really different from most stories in games? Well, in a lot of cases story is treated in either two ways: an afterthought that simply provides a feasible reason and background for the premise, or something so overbearing that it can weigh down the game more than it helps. I'm not necessarily saying that the first method I mentioned here is bad, because most old games use that kind of reasoning: "princess got kidnapped, beat goons, save princess" can be pretty much all the reason you need. It's mostly that these days we've often come to expect and indeed demand more of games.

On the opposite end of the scale, let me refer to a game series I know and love: Metal Gear Solid. Even as a fan I have to admit that the mythos of the MGS universe is insane. It comes off as monolithic, esoteric, sometimes contradictory and all but impenetrable to those that attempt to understand it without being heavily engrossed in the games. That mythos also means that in some cases the game expodumps on you, which both puts a stop to the action and also might leave your head swimming.

What Bastion does is the Goldilocks perfect middle of these two: the story is there as a driving force, but also manages to be compelling and intriguing enough for the player to want to know more, and knowing that the only way to learn is to move forward. It's a combination of a decent story, fantastic narration, and just an overall good game that let it do this, but it's something I wish I could attribute to more games more often.

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