Are Simple Storylines Better?

NB: These Plot Wholes columns are the ones that were due to go up in the time period the site was down. I hope you enjoy them, and I hope even more you’ll make the effort not to scream at the sudden wave of articles.

The other week, I was sat on a podcast as a guest, and asked what game I felt had evolved the idea of narrative in games the most in the last few decades, as was Kyle Orland. My response? Super Mario Bros. His response? Space Invaders.

Why these left-field choices? Well, it’s because they were so simple, and as a result they worked so well that you didn’t really need to think about the storyline of the game so much as just play everything to death whilst dealing with a narrative that was present in everything you did.

Let me explain Super Mario Bros. as a choice a little bit more. In the game, you’re an Italian plumber, in a kingdom filled by various fungi and small dinosaurs; already you’re aware you have entered a highly fantastical universe, not to mention the potential of said universe to do other surreal things without it seeming out of place. What Miyamoto did was crucial: he presented us with a universe so surreal and odd that flying Goombas didn’t seem as illogical as some of the physics you’d see in GTA IV, simply because you’d already seen the weirdest.

Mario was born not out of creativity, but out of necessity. He had a hat because it was easier to represent than actual hair. His gloves were to illustrate his hands more clearly, and his dungarees a simple mechanic that allowed his arms to move more obviously in terms of visuals. His trademark moustache was even only included because it was easier than animating a mouth.

If we take this into account, we can then approach the simple "save the princess" narrative vehicle he rides on with far less scepticism. The fact that he can only run to the right and never back to the left means there’s nowhere to go but towards his eventual goal, which is probably one of the most masterfully executed linear game environments in the history of the industry. Take into account that every level has a castle, and every world has a princess, although false in most cases (a disguised enemy), his goal is clear; save the princess, by running from the left to the right, and not dying.

Even the antagonists are clear and easy to spot. Why? Because they move from right to left. They are the Other to Mario’s Self. It’s simplistic, but it works, and it means you don’t have to establish a back-story using ten pages of dialogue, you just get everything good to walk right, and everything bad to walk left. Uncertainty comes in the form of red Koopa Troopas, who patrol the platforms endlessly, but we understand them as guards because they are different in colour: they wear uniform, almost a different rank to the common green ones who head endlessly left.

Now let’s take a far closer look at the Space Invaders example. Like Kyle Orland said on the podcast, the name pretty much says everything you need to know. Space Invaders. They’re invading space, presumably yours or they wouldn’t be invaders. They can also be FROM space, so this is also a logical conclusion.

However, the actual screen of the game shows us so much more:

Ignoring the user interface for a moment, as they are more than a little irrelevant to the concept at hand, focus on the invaders themselves. Not anthropomorphic in any way, and most interestingly, far greater in number than your one ship. Already overwhelmed, you must stop them from reaching you, and therefore the bottom of the screen. You shoot them, they die, and you progress. But what makes the gameplay so conducive to the narrative is that it’s just so obvious.

You are the defence, the last shield between hope and oblivion, and this is made so obvious by the fact that though you can shift from left to right, you can NEVER move forwards or backwards.  Why? Because you are impassable, not tempted into a suicidal rush into the enemy hordes, nor cowardly enough to retreat further into the city who’s arches you dart between, hoping to dodge that last bullet before they fail to dodge yours.

These narratives are so simple it truly does make you wonder why games developers adopt such an over-complex Hollywood model when considering storylines and subtexts. Games don’t need to be complex narrative experiences that make you think, because as immersive as that is, sometimes that just doesn’t mesh with the gameplay you’re providing. Mass Effect’s combat was not so much integrated as it was necessary; you were encouraged to investigate, and defend yourself if the need arose, but that was it. Sandbox environments like Cyrodiil and Liberty City are wonderful and so easy to lose yourself in, but in turn are so easy to lose yourself in that you begin to forget what your purpose was as you gun down thugs from a Hummer, or send a fireball into the chest of a club-wielding ogre.

I saw many titles announced at this years E3, some complex, and some so simplistic that you know you won’t have to learn fifteen names before relaxing and having a good time. Gameplay that requires no recurrent commitment requires no narrative more complex than mushrooms that make you big enough to break the BIG blocks. You can bet I’ll be playing seven shades of wonder out of FFXIII (and its MMO sequel, hurrah), but at the same time, I can sink into Super Mario Bros. so quickly because it’s not asking me to link items and charge summons, just to run and jump a bit and save an Italian man’s girl. And you know how passionate those Italian men are. See? Easy.


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Author: Christos Reid View all posts by

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