The man who brought “Lord of the Rings” to the big screen has some grand ideas for video games.
He wants them to tell great stories — and he’s not the first. But is he missing the point? And why might a little bit of “Metal Gear Solid 2″ and a 3-year-old “Astro Boy” game on Game Boy Advance do him some good?
Last week in Barcelona at the X06 event staged to hype the next year in Xbox and Windows gaming, director Peter Jackson revealed his intention to make interactive entertainment (he avoided calling them games) exclusively for Microsoft’s gaming platforms. And he was doing it, he said, because of games’ great potential for telling tales. “I think we’re right on the threshold of being able to design a new way to tell stories. And we have to figure out how to do it.”
The next day, he sat for a roundtable conversation with game designers Peter Molyneux (“Fable”) and Greg Zeschuk, whose company Bioware created the acclaimed “Star Wars” role-playing game “Knights of the Old Republic.” The interview was transcribed by gaming site Gamespot, and therein Jackson revealed his diminishing interest in going to the movies and his building excitement to play video games.
“At the moment, the gaming world is obviously aimed at the game player,” he said during the group conversation. “In some instances, game players don’t want a story. They don’t expect it and it’s not what they’re picking up their controller for. But what interests me is the crossover. What I think should happen is that there should be another option as well as games. … It should be another form of entertainment that is something like watching a DVD or a movie or reading a book. It’s like another alternative for people that are interested in a story and who want to engage the characters. … The broadening of [the medium] is a kind of interesting thing for me.”
Molyneux and Zeschuk offered their 4 cents, returning to familiar game storytelling topics, like whether plot-heavy scenes are the enemy of a game’s flow. Often when the big ideas about games and stories come up, the talk involves what games can and should do that other forms of entertainment can’t.
They didn’t name games in Barcelona, but usually people talk about works like “Fallout,” “Fable,” “Deus Ex” and “Knights of the Old Republic” in order to discuss the idea of stories that can change at a player’s whim. Recently people have also been talking about “Indigo Prophecy,” the 2005 game from David Cage that functions so much like an interactive movie that it may have already accomplished much of what Jackson is getting at.
What they don’t talk too much about are some of the things stories in other forms of entertainment have in droves that gaming so often is hurting for: characters and moments the audience cares about — like when a giant ape falls in love with a woman. And the time that ape climbed the Empire State Building because, if just for a moment, it was the one place he could be left alone.
Gaming, of course, is very much about what players do. But what games can also contain, like any other form of entertainment, are notable events that are impossible to forget and memorable characters no one ever expected to show up.
Consider some places where those things have popped up, like in a game few ever praise for its accomplishments in storytelling: “Astro Boy: Omega Factor.” Released in 2004, “Astro Boy” was a side-scrolling action game for the Game Boy Advance. It runs about five or six hours for players trying to unlock everything and it focuses on the player getting Astro Boy — a Japanese robot child with machine guns attached to his rear end — to smash through waves of robots, robot ninjas and Japanese mobsters.
There’s a story, mostly about saving the world, with a dash of Astro Boy getting in touch with his inner robot feelings. None of that makes for a revolution in game story. But there’s one fight scene that is unforgettable. Late in the game, Astro Boy flies back in time to a moon base to fight a battle a few yards in the air in a very tall low-gravity laboratory. The battle is a repeat. The same situation happened earlier in the game, but the game’s time-travel system tweaks events the second time the player accesses them and things occur just a bit differently.
When the battle ensues the second time, there’s a doctor standing on the moon-base floor. He’s operating on a patient, and he asks Astro Boy to take out the bad guy (just as Astro Boy did before) but to please not collide with the surgery that’s about to commence. Forget this is a video game for a moment: This is a fight scene happening in essentially what is an active operating room. It doesn’t matter what medium that scene occurred in — it would be a hard one to forget.
Consider also the thing that upset so many gamers back in 2001 when they played “Metal Gear Solid 2.” The game’s main playable protagonist turned out not to be droll and deadly “Metal Gear” hero Solid Snake. Players could only be him for the first couple of hours. For the remainder of the game’s 15 hours, players had to get behind an unsure, somewhat whiny super-spy named Raiden. In terms of gameplay, Snake and Raiden were nearly identical. They both could run, jump, shoot, use gadgets and sneak through hallways. It didn’t matter. Fans knew they were different and cared. These virtual people weren’t just the sum of their abilities but distinct personalities. Their differences mattered to gamers.
Peter Jackson wants Xbox 360 games to tell great stories. And maybe he’s right — perhaps a new hybrid entertainment, part-movie and part-game, harnessing all the interactivity that can be mapped to the buttons of a controller, can do just that. But as he and others marshal to that cause, let someone still push for the storytelling basics that were relevant when narrative was just some ink on parchment: people to meet, places to be, things that happened that stick with the audience. Games can tell great stories in a new way and maybe in the old way.
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