In everyday life, people go to art museums, live sports events, purchase music, read books and watch television, movies and theater. People do this to be entertained. There is but one aspect of this that is ignored by all of these mediums; direct participation. All of the above-mentioned sources of entertainment are excellent sources, but it must be noted that there is almost no method for the consumer who purchases access to these sources to be a direct participant and directly impact the course of action.
One could argue that participation lies in sports; however, while not everyone can play sports, anyone able to grab a controller can play video games. There are many reasons a person would want to buy and play a video game which include the visuals, the music, or the escapism brought by the game. What academics have regrettably not focused on is the game play aspect brought on by storytelling. More than ever before, games are drawing in players by the promise of experiencing a terrific storyline by guiding the main character of a game. “The trick of the trade of game design is indeed to make the player believe she is in control” (Simons 1).
Historically, research into video games tends to focus primarily on violence and how the games tend to promote violence in children. The entirety of this research is overwhelming and redundant; such a subject is no longer productive towards the subject of video games. Research on video game violence as of late has only yielded remarkably similar results. With that in mind, it is now upon academics to analyze other aspects of video games such as educational capacity, cognitive rehabilitation potential, and hand-eye coordination.
Game play didn’t always have an intricate feature to it; one early game was Pong, where two slow moving paddles moved up and down in an attempt to score points; a result of the little programming space inside of the system was that there was absolutely no story to the game. 1985 brought to the world Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES); it is sad to say that this game was bland. The player was given the avatar ‘Mario’ and was told by the omniscient instruction manual to rescue ‘The Princess’ from ‘Bowser.’ Every four chapters – called ‘levels’ – the player was adventuring through a death-trapped dungeon to fight a look-alike of ‘Bowser.’ After thirty-two levels, ‘Mario’ finally confronted the real ‘Bowser’ and rescued ‘The Princess.’ There was no catharsis, no exchange and no development of the characters in Super Mario Bros.
Fast-forward to 1990, when Nintendo faced actual competition in the video game industry by SErvice GAmes (SEGA). Sega released the Master System console to compete with the NES, but a multitude of lackluster games failed to launch SEGA into the mainstream. Sega’s 1990 generation console was the Genesis. SNES launched into the 1990s with Super Mario World, while the Genesis introduced Sega’s mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. Mario World suffered the same problem as the NES Mario title: the omniscient instruction manual. World
Sonic the Hedgehog is the tale of a blue, super-sonic mammal named Sonic, who was trying to free his animal buddies from Dr. Robotnik. Robotnik would capture the other animals and place them in his robots, thus making the animals his minions. While Sonic also suffered from the omniscient instruction manual, Sonic was able to confront his arch-nemesis Robotnik every two or three levels up until the final confrontation. During the confrontations, Sonic would destroy the vehicles Robotnik would try to kill Sonic in. Robotnik would then escape in a pod designed into the vehicle, and lead Sonic into a new area to be chased. This created a new prevailing theory that a programmer did not need excellent programming skills to convey a storyline; that a story can progress even through mime. Characters did not have to speak to each other through text boxes to convey aggression, adversity, or anger. As Sonic hit Robotnik’s vehicle, Robotnik would express rage at Sonic, and as Robotnik would run away, Sonic would put a determined look on his face and chase after the evil doctor.
Alternatively, there would be games where narratives are the focus of the game development. These games have initiated their own genre, called ‘role-playing games’ (rpg’s). Role-playing games attempt to dump a storyline into the game playing experience for the betterment of the video game. Final Fantasy for the NES was a landmark rpg in the video game industry. As opposed to playing only one character, the player plays the role of four characters, known as the ‘light warriors’. The light warriors had little dialogue, so the plot and narrative moved forward by talking to everyone else in the game. It was discovered late into Final Fantasy that the first boss villain they faced, Garland, was Chaos, the major villain causing the major conflict in the world. Final Fantasy created a deep storyline that made the player feel as though they needed to help the light warriors save the world. This is an effect that was not reached by Super Mario Bros. Fantasy was allowed to attain this feat by applying a primary focus on the game narrative during the game development phase of game creation. Mario seemed to focus only on level design, while the Square developers placed emphasis on the story and the characters.
Both Sonic and Mario World were introduced in the 16-bit console wars. The video game industry never tried to focus on narratives in video games; the game cartridges were essentially small computers with limited memory capacity. Developers always tried to assert that visuals were more important than any other aspect of the game. Unfortunately, this led to games with horrible plot, and on many occasions had a next-to-impossible learning curve. When new video game consoles were created, the primary emphasis was to play up the improved graphics and not the programming capacity of the new systems. The unfortunate event is that narratives were barred to almost all gaming genres except rpg’s.
The 1995 generation brought a new contender into the video game wars; Sony entered the video game industry with the Playstation (PS1), the first disk-based gaming system. The PS1 was joined by Sega’s Saturn, and Nintendo’s N64. With this generation of games, there was more room in the games to develop a storyline. As a direct confrontation to this, Sega released the game NiGHTS: Into Dreams, where there was absolutely no dialogue, but only mime between the characters. As Clara, the player would traverse through the dream world and reunite the parts of imagi, little orbs that dreams are composed of, and be transformed into NiGHTS, a jester that fought the enemies that threatened to take away peoples dreams. This continues Sega’s game development theory that a game can progress through pantomime. The new innovations in gaming consoles have allowed game developers to have more freedom with their programming. Characters were allowed greater facial expressions, and developers could make bigger maps for the characters to explore.
The Nintendo 64 brought about the newest incarnation of the Mario series, Mario 64. While this game had characters that approached Mario and explained the story to him, Mario 64 was more about completing goals and less about saving the princess. In totality, Bowser is only confronted three times throughout the entire game. Ten years after Super Mario Bros. shows that Nintendo has failed to grasp even the basic concept of a storyline. While their competition was exploring ways to bring players closer to a state of immersion – a state in which the player is so focused on the game and what is going on, that only a major distraction could deviate that attention – Nintendo was still churning out the exact same type of game, with the diversion of collecting stars.
The Playstation was the first console with no official mascot like Sega and Nintendo’s Sonic and Mario, respectively. Instead, Sony commissioned a number of third-party developers to create their own mascots and align them to the Sony brand. While Sony never settled on a single character to represent them, the video game industry settled on the Mad Dog creation Crash Bandicoot from the self-titled game. Crash was directed by a tiki mask that to this day remains nameless to confront Dr. Cortex. The only narrative was dictated by the Tiki mask, who implied certain doom if Crash did not intervene. While there was an attempt at a narrative through pantomime like Sonic the Hedgehog, the plot was literally told to a player much like the instruction manual from Super Mario Bros.
The only game made for the PS1 that had an actual narrative were produced by games that followed the tradition of Final Fantasy; since 1985, Square had continued to produce games in the Final Fantasy series and in 1997, they released Final Fantasy VII (FF7). FF7 continues to have the same text boxes that were prevalent in Final Fantasy, but instead, every cast member had a name and story development that was driven by background music. There was a love triangle between the main character Cloud Strife, the childhood friend Tifa Lockheart and the priestess Aerith Gainsboro. Aerith was a religious woman from an ancient tribe that had been long-thought extinct. She carried with her a magical orb called ‘materia’ that apparently had no effect. The complete cast of characters was striving to save the world from the legendary soldier Sephiroth, who had summoned Meteor in order to free himself and his mother from the bonds that tied them to the world. Aerith was later killed by Sephiroth as she was praying. As it was later revealed, Aerith was using the ‘useless materia’ to channel the planet’s energy to reject Meteor. The planet was saved, but everyone mourned the loss of Aerith. FF7 is still a popular game in 2007 – ten years after its original release. The characters and story were so popular that a full motion picture production was released in 2005, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. The narrative set the new standard as character development and plot twist achieved an unheard of depth to them. Final Fantasy VII has been hailed as the best of the Final Fantasy series to date, and most gamers associate that to the story (“Final Fantasy VII PS Review Index” 1).
The following era in gaming left Sega in a desperate situation; they had poor support which led to poor sales. Sega had one last-ditch effort to keep them relevant in the video game industry: they broke tradition and released the Dreamcast on September 9th, 1999. They produced a personal computer hardware and operating system designed by Microsoft. Sega’s Dreamcast came with a breakthrough launch title that was a marvel in gaming, Sonic Adventure starred Sega’s mascot, Sonic. This game feature live voice acting and the plot was directly propelled by the narrative provided by the conversations with Sonic and every other cast member, including Dr. Robotnik, who had been renamed Dr. Eggman (Robotnik was always egg-shaped). Sega scored a massive hit with gamers, with an intelligent plot and a deep storyline that made players feel happy when the characters succeeded and encouraged to overcome enemies when the same characters faced adversity. Sega had truly attained immersion at the release of Sonic Adventure, but the Dreamcast had failed because Sega and third-party developers could not find the ‘formula’ for success with gamers on this console. Sega eventually conceded defeat and ceased production as a first-party developer and decided to make third-party games for their former rival Nintendo and newcomer Microsoft.
Sony released the Playstation 2 (PS2) in autumn in 2000 and still there were not any games with a progressive storyline. Sony seemed to be stuck in the Mario narrative method from the early 1990s. This fact never seemed to bother gamers too much, as third-party developers had more to gain by being competitive with not only their game-play, but also their storyline. Third-party developer veteran Konami had released two games in the Metal Gear Solid storyline. This game involved characters with deep backgrounds and unique views on humanity. While dying, Psycho Mantis tells Solid Snake, “Man’s only desire is to spread their seed. You are different…” (Kojima “Psycho Mantis”). The game provoked heavy thought on the topic on nuclear proliferation and the evils of nuclear weapons, like how an atomic bomb can not discriminate between innocents and targets, emphasizing the need for the player to overcome his enemies at any cost.
Microsoft ventured into the video game industry in 2001 with their Xbox console. Microsoft had a number of hits, but the most notable for the console remains to be the sequel in the ‘Halo’ series, Halo 2. The main character, Master Chief, did not speak until a player reached a moment where the game entered a full-motion video scene. For the duration of the game, other players spoke to Master Chief, pushing him to save his fellow marines from aliens. Microsoft worked in tandem with developer Bungie to ensure that this game felt like a movie, while equally assuring the player that they were having an effect on how the game would end. The Halo series has been a crowning achievement in gaming. There can be no doubt that the story told in these games had a factor to play. Will Tuttle, an editor for GameSpy.com writes, “Although most of the talk on game forums is about dual wielding, vehicle jacking, and other additions to the gameplay, nothing is more impressive than the game’s story” (“GameSpy: Halo 2 Review” 1).
Mario was finally introduced to a storyline when Super Mario Sunshine was released for the Nintendo Gamecube console in 2002. At long last, a narrative finally took center stage in a Mario game when someone vandalized a tropical island disguised as Mario. While the issue of a copycat was investigated, Mario was charged to clean up the island with a special water cannon. Sunshine was the best received Mario game by game players, even when adjusted for inflation, technology, sales, and video game era. While Nintendo embraced new innovations to produce this Mario game, 1up.com, a website that follows the game industry, has Sunshine up as Gamecube’s top ten game list since its release (“GC cheats – Gamecube cheats – GC games – Gamecube games” 1).
Video games continue to progress as technology improves. While there is still a major emphasis on how a game looks, there will become a point in which technology will not be able to develop visuals anymore. By this logic, it will only become inevitable that a game designer must look at a fully developed storyline in order to remain competitive with their rivals. The NES had limited storage capacity on the Nintendo cartridges – this led developers to focus on producing a game with a poor narrative. As games became more and more advanced and more and more resources became available in the game cartridges, programmers were able to develop more and more plot and narrative. It would be difficult to say that games have reached the pinnacle of their storytelling capabilities; there has been more than one way to write a book, and with the resources to produce a game, there are now multiple ways to tell a narrative through a game.
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