Fun in Narratives

Back to the usual blog stuff for a post or so, since nothing particularly interesting is happening on the holiday front.

I’ve just finished playing two games.  The first was Bioshock Infinite.  If you’ve been anywhere near the Internet since its release, you probably know what it’s like: gorgeously animated, meaningful, highly symbolic.  The phrase “mind blowing: tends to be used in its vicinity.
The other game was Dust: An Elysian Tail.  This one is a bit more obscure, but if you’ve heard about it, you’ve probably heard that it’s gorgeously animated, has great humour and is amazingly fun.

So, which one did I prefer?
That’s actually kind of the wrong question.

Being an English student and running a blog about analysing narrative media, I’m almost obligated to prefer Bioshock Infinite.  Hell, I’m probably obligated to prefer the original Bioshock as well.  And yeah, if you held a gun to my head, I would probably say I’d prefer the Bioshock series to Dust.  From a purely analytical point of view, Bioshock does things with narrative that Dust, for all its joys, kind of doesn’t.  Bioshock’s story is complex and mostly epistolary; it requires the player to be actively paying attention and searching to appreciate the entire thing.  The first one became famous mostly for playing with the expectations of the medium itself (and I’m trying so very, very hard not to spoil anything…).  2 I have … opinions on which will require a whole ‘nother post to discuss.  Infinite just makes you question life.
Dust, bless its little heart, is not precisely groundbreaking.  It is an homage to games like Metroidvania and the old 2-D sidescrollers, so I am keeping that in mind while I say this next sentence:  Its story is not very original, or very deep.  Yes, yes, homage, deliberately using tropes, limitations of the medium.  All fine.  I get that.  It’s mostly things like the villain.  What is his motivation?  Well, it’s never really discussed in-story.  He’s only a general, and it’s mentioned that he’s taking orders from higher up, but the game frames him as the main opponent, and that he really believes in the cause he’s fighting for … but the player never knows quite why.  And let’s just say it’s a cause that you really need a good reason for in order to have a 3-D character.
Then, you have the hero.  I’m using hero and villain here rather than antag and protag because there’s nothing really ambiguous about it.  The hero has a specific kind of ethical dilemma, but it’s not actually explored that much.  There’s a fun twist with your interactions with the villain in the end, and one instance in the beginning of ‘hints at larger things’ in this area specifically, (again, so trying not to spoil), but eventually you get a lot of talk about the choices the character needs to make, but no real sense within the game that this dilemma is actually affecting anything, or that it’s even really an issue for the character.  So much more could have been done with this.
Apart from that, I was basically picking up the cliches as I went along.  It’s not even that hard.

So, if the story of Dust is so simplistic and cliche, why, then, do I say things like “if you held a gun to my head” or “for all its joy”?

Because as I was playing those games, I could not have cared less that the story was simple, or the villain had no motivation. I was just having fun.  And that’s a very interesting concept.  It’s probably most stark in video games, where the medium was originally and still is often seen as about having fun, so the descriptor comes far more easily to mind.  I could choose two books for this (say, Of Mice and Men, as compared to an Eoin Colfer novel (except WARP)),  or two films (Citizen Kane as compared to How to Train Your Dragon), but I think the games will probably be easier to talk about.  The other two media have their own limitations, too, so I’d need to talk about them entirely separately.

Right, so down to brass tacks.  What actually makes a “fun” game fun?  What makes someone like me, who enjoys media by overanalysing it, just sit back and enjoy the ride?

Well, this is probably going to be quite personal, but for what it’s worth, here’s what made Dust so good that I told my brain to sit down and shut up?

First is absolutely, positively, without a doubt, the characters.  I am a character junkie, so seeing a game where I was truly delighted every time the hero and his sidekick (not so much the sword; the sword took itself too seriously) had a conversation?  That was brilliant for me.  I could have done with far less actual gameplay, just to have those characters interacting more.
But let’s break that down even further.  It’s one thing to say that two characters are fun to watch interact, but what does that mean?  Does it mean they sound like real people?  Does it mean they have a meaningful relationship?  Does it mean they say funny things to one another?
Well, yes and no, for each of those questions.  The foundation of good characterisation is making sure that the characters sound like real people; otherwise the reader/player/watcher will sense something is wrong.  So yes, part of it is making sure they sound like real people.  Meaningful relationships?  Well, there’s no real getting-to-know-you arc for the characters in Dust, so while I would normally say ‘yes’, I’m actually more inclined to say that if you have the first point, you’ll have the second (generally speaking).
Now, the third one is interesting.  Humour cannot survive on one-liners alone.  Both characters are quite snarky and sarcastic, especially the fluffy sidekick.  If they’d just been firing one-liners at each other, yeah, it might have been entertaining, but it takes more than that to evoke pure glee in me.
The answer, I think, lies in how they interact.  They aren’t just shooting one liners at each other, they’re actively taking on board what the other one has said and using it.  And not just their words, either – if the voice actors were any worse at their jobs, the script could easily have fallen flat.  But tone saves it from being ‘characters being sarcastic’, turning it into ‘friends ‘aving a larf’.  They’re always conscious of the other character, and it feels like they’re aware of where the limits are and how to push them without sounding mean-spirited.  This is what makes them witty, rather than just abrasive.
Could the game have been fun with a different dynamic?  Yeah, totally.  It could have pulled a far more straight man/funny man routine, both could have been serious … the game could have been fun with any dynamic.  But the dynamic that they do choose is worked into the dialogue, into the cutscenes, and into the story itself so well that it becomes “a delight to watch” rather than “a bit of a giggle”.

Second point.  Gameplay.
I’m not exactly what you’d call a ‘hardcore gamer’, in fact I’m quite new to the medium.  So, all I can really say about gameplay is this: It’s very accessible.
Let me explain that as best I’m able.  The last 2-D sidescroller I tried was Braid.  And that was … pretty much my first one.  I do not have a good grasp of either the controls or the mechanics native to sidescrollers, and I really don’t have the framework to understand the implications of the time-manipulation for the game.  So, I failed utterly at that one.  I used walkthroughs about once a level, and actually couldn’t finish the last level because I was under time pressure and my timing just wasn’t that good to get through the tiny tunnel at the exact moment it would be clear.  I watched the ending on YouTube and never touched the game again.
Dust, however, feels very powerful to play.  It’s partly the animation style: I was button-mashing, but everything I did looked like I’d pulled off a sweet combo in, say, Street Fighter.  I was jumping around, slamming monsters into the ground … it was awesome.  And once I started to level up, I deliberately ground levels to probably way higher than I needed to be.  Well, alright, I had trouble finding that one darned sheep, and that pesky treasure chest, and that one castle with the artifact in it, so I went through screens and screens of monsters that probably weren’t necessary.  Result?  I would get mobbed by unholy terrors and ruin their day.  I was like a little blue ball of doom with a bladed weapon.
Later on you get planes attacking you (it makes sense in context).  If you deal enough damage to them on a certain combo move, you will grab it by the wing, flip it, and throw it to the ground.  In slow motion.
At one point in the final boss fight, I grappled a plane and threw it at the boss’s head.
That feels good.  Because Dust was never actually about the gameplay; it was about the story around that.  The gameplay section could easily have become boring, but it didn’t, because every time you got into a fight, you felt like Bruce Lee.  Sure, it wasn’t hard, it wasn’t challenging, it wasn’t even particularly original (fight hordes, get to thing, fight boss, get meaningful cutscene, rinse, repeat), but it kept enough difficulty to feel empowering, and I got so caught up in looking cool and wrecking monsters that the parts of the game I might otherwise have found teeth-grindingly boring were just another part of the fun.

And finally … well, I kind of have to admit it.  This is going to be really difficult to articulate.
When you have a game, or a movie, or a book that just works for some reason.  It makes you love it despite its flaws, or it makes you really invested in it, or what have you.  You often hear it described in movies as “you can tell all the actors were having a ball”.  In books, it’s more like “It just made me keep turning pages”.
This is a quality I like to call ‘heart’.  It’s the feeling that most people working on the project truly loved it.  They loved it so much that they wanted everyone else to love it, too.
That’s not a perfect description; there are some things that fall flat anyway.  So, in this particular case (because a universal definition would be foolish to attempt), what is “heart”?

Heart is knowing that one person is responsible for all the visuals you see on the screen.
Heart is laughing along with the characters, rather than at them (most of the time).
Heart is having a huge, dramatic cutscene before the final boss and not even caring because you’re too invested in the characters to mind.
Heart is dramatic one-liners that come from the story and through the character, and so feel both righteous and awesome.
Heart is feeling emotionally satisfied at the end of the story, even if you found complaints along the way.

And that is why, although I might prefer, intellectually, games like Bioshock or To the Moon, games like Dust, or Psychonauts, will still always be on my list of great experiences.  These two are not mutually exclusive – I had boatloads of fun playing Bioshock, and definitely Psychonauts had a lot there for analysing as well.  But there is an overview – not the whole picture by a long shot, but perhaps a glimpse – of why “fun” games are fun, and why I would replay Dust, despite its simplistic story.

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