Monday, December 26, 2011

The Necessary Information Awards: Best Use of Narration in a Video Game

It's the end of the year, and I have half-formed essays on a bunch of games from this year floating in my head, so I decided it was time to do what everyone always does with their half-formed thoughts at the end of the year: Hand out some awards! Whoo!

Our very first award in this, the inaugural Necessary Information Awards blogcast, is a very prestigious one: Best Use of Narration in a Video Game.

And the winner is....


There's a moment near the start of Bastion that I think I've seen mentioned in every review of the game. Your character, The Kid, has just received his first weapon, a hammer. And, if you're the standard gamer, you do what gamers do when given a smashing weapon and a destructible environment - you whale on everything in sight, seeing what pops out. But then...

"The kid just rages for a while..." That's Rucks, Bastion's narrator - or maybe more accurately, its storyteller - commenting on your actions and showing off the game's wonderful "dynamic narration" system.

There's nothing technologically impressive about dynamic narration - responding to player action is what games do, after all - but its use in Bastion allows the designers to tell an engaging story about the act of storytelling. Let's break down that first moment and try to understand why it's so affecting.

On the surface, it's simply clever - it's always fun when game designers anticipate common, or even bizarre, player action. It's also not especially groundbreaking - the TV Tropes article The Dev Team Thinks of Everything is full of fun examples of this sort of stuff. PC Gamer UK writer Tom Francis's in-development game Gunpoint, for instance, responds to players continuing to punch unconscious guards with a text pop-up reading "It, er, only takes one punch to knock them out." Hideo Kojima's games are as well-known for their responses to weird player behavior as they are for the sneaking action or bizarre metaplots.

So why is this moment special? Why does it stick in the mind? Because it allows you to feel empathy for the little guy you're controlling. Bastion is a story about the end of the world, and about the pain of surviving. You, you're just some schlub (or schlubette) holding a controller and smashing some boxes. But The Kid... Well, The Kid just watched his whole world get destroyed. Everyone he's ever known is dead. And when he picks up a hammer... The Kid just rages for a while.

Rucks's narration bridges the space between player action and character motivation, re-interpreting and providing in-universe meaning to the player's actions. You hit some buttons, and the game told you a story about it - again, you could argue that that sentence is what games fundamentally are, but, by addressing it directly, Bastion draws attention to the disconnect between you as a player and The Kid as a character - and invites you to empathize with the poor guy.

(The next paragraphs have spoilers for Bastion. If you haven't played it, I strongly recommend it - and it's on sale today on Steam, so... go! Fly, monkeys, fly. If you must read on, skip ahead until you see END OF SPOILERY BITS)

In Bastion, the world forms around The Kid as he moves, like a storybook being filled in with detail as the tale goes on. But the question is: Whose story?

Bastion is, essentially, a narrative told from two different perspectives to two different senses. Your eyes (and your hands) are playing the story as it's perceived by The Kid as he travels through Caelondia, slowly restoring it and searching for cores to repair the Bastion. At the same time, your ears are hearing Rucks's gravelly voice describe what's going on. These two stories almost always overlap and complement, but there are points of divergence.

The first comes when The Kid ventures into a poisonous swamp. The fumes force him into a dazed sleep, where the player must play through a demented nightmare that re-uses old areas in nonsensical ways, while Rucks's voice taunts and misdirects. Both senses are lying to the player, but it's a reminder that, for better or worse, the perspective that we, the players, are most attached to is that of The Kid's. Eyes and ears aside, The Kid is the one whose hands we control, the one whose choices we make.

And in the end, it is at another moment of choice that Rucks's control* of the narrative is potentially broken, where "his" story is shown to be just one perspective of many. In the end game, your "enemy" lies before you, abandoned and beaten by his own people for his crimes. There is no boss fight, no big speeches. Just a choice. Leave Zulf to his fate... or drop your weapons and carry him to safety. Pick the latter, pick the choice that the person telling the story wouldn't, and he'll go on talking... about how you must have left your foe behind. In that moment, Rucks's is wrong about what kind of story this is, and it's a wonderful moment of freedom, the feeling that you've broken an old narrative of revenge and fear in favor of something new.

And when you return to the Bastion, Rucks is no longer the only person with a voice. Now, your friend Zia can also talk (in all your previous descriptions, Rucks simply described what you said to each other), urging you not to follow Rucks's advice and use the Bastion to turn back time, but to move forward into a new story (and it's strongly implied that you should, that restoring Caelondia dooms the world to an endlessly repeating story of woe). By integrating its narration so fundamentally into the core of its gameplay, and then allowing the player to subvert and defy that narration, Bastion gave me one of the most enjoyable feelings of player freedom I've felt since the first time I told GLaDOS to go screw herself and escaped the fire pit at the end of Test Chamber 19.

*I'm kind of harsh to poor Rucks here - and it's one of Bastion's joys that our disembodied voice adviser doesn't inevitably turn evil like so many in the past. He just has a very particular perspective -one that makes him an active character instead of simply a narrator - and that allows him to be wrong at times.


Finally, it's hard to say too many positive things about Logan Cunningham's work as Rucks. His voice is soothing, compelling, funny, warm. It incentivizes exploration and achievements, because you know you'll get a little more of Rucks to reward you for it. In a game that is inherently about story-telling and narration, it would be impossible to care about any of this nonsense without an incredible voice anchoring the character.

So, congratulations, Mr. Cunningham, (and writer Greg Kasavin, and everyone else who helped to make this one of my favorite games of the year) - enjoy your meaningless, fake award!

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