The Games It Plays

If there is one medium for story-telling which has been overlooked by society at large, it is computer games. While we might not consider it the primary function of a computer game to tell a story, it is nevertheless a fact that gaming has become an increasingly important medium of story-telling.

As technology has developed and computer games have grown more intricate and complex, it is only natural that the capacity of computer games to tell stories has likewise increased but this idea of using games to tell stories is nothing new. While it is true that no one would ever try to suggest that Pong, Pacman or even more recent offerings such as Candy Crush make any kind of serious contribution to the world of fiction, writers have been using the medium of gaming to tell their stories in an interactive way ever since the text based adventures of the ’70s. The real question is, can a game have a good story and still be worth playing?

Perhaps.

As you might expect, it depends on the game. We should bear in mind, before we judge the stories in games too harshly, that most games are primarily intended to be a challenge to play. That doesn’t diminish their value as games, but it does mean that you will need to do your homework if it’s a captivating story you’re looking for.

The Mortal Kombat series, for example, pretty much sets the standard for all other fighting games (if that’s your bag) but it doesn’t take more than a passing read through the story to see that it is full of holes and makes very little sense, not least of all since characters will frequently die in one game, only to be back for more by the next game. This would be unthinkable if you were writing a film or a novel but it’s essential in a game like Mortal Kombat because the characters of Mortal Kombat are what make it such a unique and recognisable game. Mortal Kombat just wouldn’t be Mortal Kombat if it didn’t have at least a few of the characters from the original game. Besides pretty much everybody dies sooner or later, since it is a fighting game.

There are, of course, plenty of games out there which are heavily plot-driven. The danger of this in gaming, however, is that we can quickly lose interest in the story if there isn’t enough focus on the actual game-play. The Metal Gear Solid series, for instance, is notorious for its long, dialogue-heavy cut-scenes which would perhaps feel more at home in a movie than in a computer game. The story is certainly well written but the sheer length and number of cut-scenes gets a bit tiresome after a while when all you really want to do is run about shooting folk from underneath your cardboard box.

As a rule of thumb, what makes a good story in print or on film will generally make a good story in game as well, provided that there is enough stuff for the player to actually do. That’s the hard part. Writing a quality story which is also challenging to play. This is where the point-and-click style adventure game comes into its own. One of my favourite games for story-telling is the Monkey Island series by LucasArts. It follows the adventures of wannabe pirate, Guybrush Threepwood and has all the necessary ingredients for a good story, such as a logical (if occasionally surreal) plot, humour by the bucket-load and a strong cast of memorable characters. Because the player is generally in control of what Guybrush says, there are very few lengthy cut-scenes to interrupt the game-play, thus creating a story which is truly interactive, rather than one which is simply interspersed through-out the game. There are plenty more games out there that follow this pattern (especially LucasArts games!) but the problem is, unless you happen to enjoy a retro game (like me!), you’re going to have a hard time finding any new ones to play. They pretty much had their day in the ’90s, I’m sorry to say.

Other types of gaming, such as role-playing games, often have very good stories, but like all stories, they also have the potential to be overwritten. The Final Fantasy series, for example, has been known to produce stories which can be a little confusing and melodramatic. The Fable series is a little bit better in that regard but because it has such a heavy focus on the player’s choice in almost everything that happens, it does make for a rather loose-fitting story which tends to take the form of a generic hero fighting something that will probably destroy the world, before the hero is finally faced with a big old moral dilemma.

Ultimately, I think the jury is still out on whether or not computer games can seriously stand shoulder to shoulder with film, theatre and literature as a means of story-telling without sacrificing the element of fun and challenge that makes a game worth playing. As technology continues to develop, I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to say that the potential of games to tell stories will develop also, however we must remember that the power of stories does not ultimately rest in technology. It may be argued, therefore, that a simple text-based adventure or a point-and-click adventure such as Monkey Island might actually have greater potential to tell us a story in a way which is fun and interactive than a game such as Metal Gear Solid, which has to interrupt the game-play every time it needs to move the story along. As with most other forms of story-telling, it really depends what you’re looking for. I’ve always been a believer that all mediums of story-telling have their pros and cons and what we like is ultimately a matter of personal preference. I suspect the same is true for gaming.

The Much Maligned Movie Re-Make

‘The book was better!’ was the cry.

You know you’ve said it a million times over. I know I have. And I bet you secretly judge people who tell you they preferred the film/TV adaptation to the book. I know I do.

Of course the age we live in now is such that it is difficult to write a book without it being made into a film; it is difficult to produce a film without it being turned into a computer game; worst of all, computer games have a nasty habit of spawning cinematic abominations with all the substance of a reality TV show for amoebas.

So, do re-makes ever have any value?

It’s tempting to just say ‘no’, but they often do, if they are executed very carefully by someone who appreciates the different strengths and weaknesses of each medium.

For example, Mortal Kombat pretty much defined its particular genre of gaming and to this day continues to be one of the most successful fighting game franchises on the market. Like all good games, Mortal Kombat does have a story, but it’s not really central to the game. And that was okay, because the story wasn’t really the point; it was about the fighting. But when they transferred it over to film and TV… suddenly, it was awful. Mortal Kombat (1995 film) was at best an okay bit of martial-arts escapism; Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was terrible; and don’t even get me started on Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (Mortal Kombat is not for children; they should not try to make it child-friendly).

Let’s take the main bad guy for example: Shao Kahn. In the game he comes from another dimension and wants to take over our dimension. He has a distinctive costume and says the odd catch-phrase while fighting like ‘Bow to me!’ and ‘You will never win!’. He also appears in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation wearing more or less the right outfit and saying most of his catchphrases from the game and… well, that’s about it. He’s as 2d in the film as he was in the game.

He also appeared in the 1998-’99 TV series, Mortal Kombat: Konquest, where he was portrayed by Jeff Meek. His costume was quite different from the games and he made far less use of the recognisable catchphrases but in my opinion, he was also the best thing about this (otherwise unspectacular) show. He had been given a bit of character. He was cunning, paranoid and merciless. He was swift to anger but still had a soft side which came out around his adopted daughter (granted, he still killed her but it was apparent that he regretted it). If only everything about Konquest had been re-made as well as Shao Kahn had been, it might have been a really good TV show. Alas, they still relied a little too much on familiar characters, fight scenes and scantily clad females and I think that ruined it.

I used a game-to-movie as an example because that tends to be where you see the most stark examples of this type of thing but the principle applies to any story you want to transfer from one medium to another: it needs to be altered sufficiently to suit its new medium. Superhero comics, for example, often make for excellent films because the elaborate costumes, fast paced action scenes and super powers tend to look great when there is a well-budgeted special effects team behind it. Of course, even here, a little thought needs to be put into it. You may have noticed that in the X-Men films, they all wear black leather costumes whereas in the comics they tend to wear much brighter outfits. This was a wise decision; could you imagine Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) wearing the tight yellow and blue number he wore in the comics? Not a good look. Nevertheless you walk a tightrope as a film-maker between remaining faithful to the comics (as the fans all want) and making a film which is pleasing to the eye.

To some extent, you don’t have the same problem transferring books to films or TV. The big problem you do have is remaining faithful to the plot and especially maintaining the essence of every character. When reading a novel, we have access not only to what characters do and say but also to their thoughts and feelings; moreover the author will have carefully selected his/her words and will have crafted them in such a way that we gain a very precise understanding of what is going on. You don’t get that in films. Everything has to be made clear visually and there are only so many books that naturally lend themselves to this without ruining it (there’s a reason Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men has been adapted for film so often!). Of course, plot-based novels (especially thrillers) make good films. We tend to forget that the ever-popular James Bond franchise started out as a series of novels (incidentally, I encourage you to read these and tell me which actor the books remind you the most of; I was a little surprised how often I imagined Daniel Craig while reading things like From Russia With Love).

So… is the re-make ever better than the original? I’m a little cautious of making broad general statements but I’ve never yet preferred the re-make of anything to the original. The original is usually written for the medium that suits it best by someone who ought to be an expert in that medium; a playwright writes a play that, in their professional opinion, will work well on stage; a novelist writes a novel that, in their professional opinion, will work well in print; a screenwriter writes a script that, in their professional opinion, will work well on film and so on. When you convert a novel to a film, for example, you’re asking a screenwriter to write for film something that came from the mind of a novelist, originally intended for print. Of course, someone especially skilled in their craft, who cares more about their art than the money they might make, can make a great success of this… but they will also have the wisdom to know when not to attempt it.