Endo's Game

Endo's Game
Taking Visual Storytelling to Another World

Tom Endo | 22 Jul 2009 14:30
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The lack of visual variety in videogames will continue to rear its head as more ambitious narratives are attempted. I should be clear that I don't think of visual variety as the large set piece in the form of the next big monster towering over the player, but rather how the game forces us to interpret this set piece. Too often in third person action games, we're given an over-the-shoulder perspective for a character and fixed to it for the entire game. Some will argue that it is unfair to make a direct one to one comparison between Another World and today's 3D action adventure games. After all, the fixed perspective of a side scrolling platformer means there are necessarily fewer challenges to making a control scheme that flows with these changing camera perspectives. Yet, as Jordan Mechner proved in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, if done correctly, the 3D action adventure game can be as tightly controlled and as visually dynamic as the best cinematic experiences.

There are other memorable developers who use the techniques that were popularized, if not pioneered, by Another World. Star Breeze's Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay also comes to mind as a game that used many perspectives to enliven the storytelling possibilities of the FPS genre. However, there are too many other games that are content leaving solid gameplay and decent story as elements mutually exclusive to one another. The observation and planning necessary to properly fuse these two elements together is often ignored, in even the biggest games, because it is a labor intensive effort that may not always pay off.

Call it the Kojima Conundrum - the effort to find that perfect balance between gameplay and storytelling. Hideo Kojima is, perhaps, one of the greatest hit or miss practitioners of the balance Chahi so delicately achieves in Another World. When it works for Kojima it really works, as in the first scene of Metal Gear Solid when players hide behind the warehouse carton and see the camera zooming in to show the tense moment when the guard walks right next to the box Snake has flattened himself against. The moment becomes a face off of stealth that defines the games primary mechanic and the tension it creates. But when it fails, when cut scenes drag on for twenty minutes or more with little character interaction, it's the kind of dead air space that we all dread.

That's the risk developers must surely be weighing when they think about making a game that's discretely broken up into sections of uniform gameplay and establishing cinemas, versus one that's an amalgamation of carefully placed camera angles and visually unique moments of game action. Certainly the former option is the safer bet because if the gameplay is right, players will likely enjoy and recommend the game to others. It will be an experience fondly remembered for a few days and if the mechanics are truly well executed it might even be a classic.

But too often, I think, games quietly bypass the route needed to create truly effecting narrative, the route that pits games against films, with films often blinking first in the showdown. It's a difficult path, one that necessitated a two year development time for Another World and again a six year development time for Chahi's next game Heart of Darkness. But, as more developers follow in Chahi's pioneering footsteps, surely a narrative language unique to videogames will be codified and eventually co-opted into more than just a handful of endeavors.

Tom Endo found his copy of the 15th Anniversary Edition of Another World through Ebay and found it was worth every single one of the 20 dollars he paid for it.

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