Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Games and Stories

Ironic, I suppose, that my first paid-for published story was entitled The Game, and I found much of my writing inspired and informed by, of all things, video games.  Well, it is ironic as far as Alanis Morissette will stretch the term, since her song seems to often miss the criteria of what is actually ironic.  Which is ironic, come to think of it...

Anyway, The Game was about an all-too-powerful computer system, back in the days when Google was just how you found your porn or the address of a site you couldn't remember off the top of your head.  Now they institution has grown so large in so few years that it is almost scary what they are capable of and how much information their system continually churns through.  But the story is not so much about games, and computer games have often received little literary attention unless it is tabloid shrieking about how the games children play are training them all to be killers.  Naturally these stories invite comments from people who have no sense of irony at all, since they usually suggest that to sort those hooligans out requires a stint in the army.

You could be forgiven for thinking that computer games are little more than colourful, noisy death machines, little evolved from the mass murdering mayhem of Space Invaders to today's twitchy shooters like Call of Duty or Counterstrike.  The video game companies that mass produce this schlock seem to be widely forgiven too, since the First Person Shooter genre sells shedloads with little effort or innovation put into the product.  As long as it looks good and those gifted with decent reflexes and decent bandwidth get to feel the satisfaction of dropping their polygonal prostate in the face of fallen foes, most gamers seem happy.

Not all games are like this, however.  I may come across as a bit of a snob here, like the music journalist who holds his nose while writing about Taylor Swift's chart success, since I am not exactly fond of the mass-market success of selling to the lowest common denominator.  Though I do like Taylor Swift.  What's wrong with jangly country pop?  My point, though, is that while shooting things dominates the landscape like the skyscrapers in a big city, there is a much more interesting underbelly to computer games, beneath the crust.

That's a metaphor there, and those familiar with gaming culture will get just how cool it is as soon as I mention my favourite game of all time: Final Fantasy VII.

FFVII, the JRPG that launched a thousand JRPGs, is an absolutely atrocious game.  It's barely even a game, and by today's standards I feel it would come across more as homework than anything fun.  But back in 1997, when I got my mitts on those three discs, I found myself transported to another world and I was hooked by one simple thing - the story.  This story transpires through voiceless text boxes and the shrugs and gestures of blocky characters, set against pre-rendered backdrops while tinny synth music twitters in the background.  Gameplay consists of scrolling through the text, hitting a button to move on, and occasionally selecting commands from a menu to kill things.  If Word and Excel had a baby and it went through a rebellious streak, this would be the result.

And it was awesome.  Awesome is not a description I use lightly.  I truly was in awe of this story - it's scope, and how the characters made me feel a part of a great plot to save the world from an evil corporation hell bent on stripping its natural resources for profit, whatever the cost.  We started as a band of eco-warriors, bombing power plants, which probably would not be a good start to a protagonist's story these days.  Interesting how history can warp the lens of context.

I won't bore you with the details - if you've played it you'll know it well, and if you haven't, you won't really understand what I'm talking about as I throw a litany of names, places and plot elements at you.  Something epic fantasy writers might want to keep in mind, actually - we can only hold so many funny, unpronouncable names in our head before we run out of RAM and start getting confused.  And bored.  But that's a pet hate of mine - I love fantasy settings, I just so rarely find a good fantasy story that is not off-puttingly bogged down in weird names and fancy historical flourishes that I cannot care about.  Which is partly why I believe Final Fantasy VII was so successful - we are introduced to a core of simple but rounded characters, who have a clear agenda against an identifiable enemy.  Not every story has to be black and white, but this one only begins so; things soon blur as an old ally turns out to be insane and thirsting for a somewhat justifiable revenge, the protagonist suffers an identity crisis and turns out to not be who he said he was, and beats himself up over failing to prevent the death of a leading character.  Aside from the dead character (always helps make a sacrifice more noble and impactful if the deceased is unimpeachable), everybody involved is a little soiled in some respects.  And the globe spanning, world saving epic plot that is the hallmark of JRPGs spins out of the interaction of these core characters and their core antagonists, without feeling like I am going through a textbook as I explore the world organically.

I suppose I'm just rambling about text dumps that I often see in fantasy novels, where an author expects us to retain a slew of information about a fictional civilisation long before we have concrete, immediate reasons to care about the characters in the hear and now.  It's frustrating, again because it clutters up a lot of fiction I'd be interested in.  Or maybe I'm just annoyed because I can never seem to inject that much extraneous detail into a novel.

Another game that I truly enjoy has no story at all.  I think that might be ironic again.  The game I believe I mentioned before - Creatures.  It (and its sequels) is more a computerised biology experiment than a true game.  There is no goal, no reward, no levels to gain or fight through.  There are simply the Creatures, artificial life-forms with digital DNA who act like biological organisms and interact with each other and their environment as such.  It is a fascinating time sink, where you can hatch these things and watch them grow, learn, breed, age and die.  Successful procreation leads to the passing on of genetic traits, and the impact of environmental changes and random mutations can be seen through the generations.  The little things are cute, too:



Anyway, these Creatures have captured my imagination, and for years I have been interested in letting htem loose and watching how they get on. I will likely talk more about them in the future, but until next time, here is your moment of zen:



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