Looking past the structure
Achtung, baby: this article has spoilers on The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
There is a difference between “that game I like” and “that game that is great”. As we review, it’s easy confuse the two because of the things extraneous to the game we carry: our values, biases, experiences, etc. The (harsh) reality is that these are all whimsical curiosities and can change in a long-term future. Great art, however, will endure.
I believe there are standards to which we should try to measure the games we play. If great art will endure, there must be certain elements that make it great which also endure: technical excellent of craft, a deeper emotional, or an intellectual understanding of human nature.
One of these rules is the harmonization between the structure, or simply the plot, of a game and the story it’s aiming to tell. By structure, I mean how the game has breaks its overall objective (e.g. “Discover what’s up in Arkham City”) into smaller tasks (e.g. “Investigate the church”, “Save Vicky Vale”, etc). The structure is the “what you do” rather than the “how you do it”,
L.A. Noire is a good example and one that I have already have extensively covered in here once. Basically, whereas the story in L.A. Noire tries to tell the tale of “The Fall and Redemption of Cole Phelps” the plot is concerned with his daily chronicles. The game is structured as a series of cases Phelps must solve, but the important things – what Phelps lost when he fell from grace, how the decision he made to ditch his family for his lover allowed him to survive, the elements that prompted his redemption – are only indirectly and very slightly conveyed in those missions.
Note that, though related, this is not the same issue as the domestication of video games: which happens when games overexpose such structure and all related information it can find in order to assure that no gamer will ever grow frustrated or lost… which is very frustrating.
It’s a somewhat more recent problem. Before the rise of non-linear games or even the rise of games whose primary goal was to tell a story, it was an issue of little concern. Now we can see it often – particularly on sequels. The story changed, the context is another, but the game still asks our heroes to do the same kind of missions they’ve done before.
Here I wanted to cover how the three games I’ve recently finished dealt with this issue.
The imprisoned – The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword
Skyward Sword was perhaps the most tragic game I’ve played last year. This was a Zelda game ready to burst with the sort of energy last time I’ve seen in a Zelda game was 13 years ago when Majora’s Mask was released. The game struggled to reach new grounds both mechanically-wise (by offering the 4th of the very few arguments Nintendo has for its motion control proposal (arguments number 1, 2 and 3 were, respectively, Wii Sports, Metroid Prime 3 and No More Heroes)) but more importantly, story-wise.
As Tom Auxier once put it, Skyward Sword was the first Zelda game to embrace its identity as a monomyth (Joseph Campbell’s pattern for hero stories involving the Call to Adventure, the Transformation into a hero, the Atonement of the hero and, eventually, his Return). Tom noted how the game didn’t merely imply this, but outright claimed it so: all Zelda stories are part of the same cycle, repeating and reiterating itself each time Ganondorf, now revealed to be the personification of Skyward Sword‘s own villain’s hatred, is reborn.
Thus, Auxier rightly calls Skyward Sword the “mother myth”.
Admitting “this is what this series is about” isn’t easy. It took some guts. However, instead of using that admission to leverage its plot, Skyward Sword is imprisoned by it. You feel how the game doesn’t want the structure it has. You feel how the narrative struggles to present justifications for bosses and dungeons that the plot required it to wear like a ball and chain. This is because, as soon as Skyward Sword admits it is the mother myth, two things immediately happen: (1) It justifies the structure of all Zelda that came before and the ones that will follow it; (2) it requires that the structure for this initial myth to be perfectly justifiable as it is taking place for the first time in the timeline. After this, we expect this myth to become the cycle that repeats and reiterates itself throughout the franchise.
What we see in Skyward Sword, however, is that this particular initial cycle wasn’t natural, it didn’t happen by chance; it thoroughly designed by the “Goddess Hylia”. For a game meant to be the origin of the later legends, everything already appears to be pretty much set on stone. The Master Sword, for instance, is never “forged” or made. It’s already there, as it’s always been there, in the form of the Goddess Sword, ready to be unlocked after five or six trials (or were they seven?). Meanwhile, we follow Zelda, who is on a pilgrimage throughout the dungeons – by her own free will, mind you – and who never seems in too much need of our help in the first place.
The Goddess Hylia must a very lazy proxy-developer, no doubt, as she designed the entire game as a series of identical tests before granting Link access to the Triforce. The fact the tests are identical completely empties them from their very purpose of testing. After all, what’s the use of asking someone to do the same test twice other than losing time?
Once Link touches the Triforce, he can simply wish for everything to be fixed and the game is pretty much over. Of course, the whole narrative is so restricted by its structure of facing tests and unlocking dungeons that the whole effort seems trivial. For instance, there is no reason why Link shouldn’t be able to go directly to the Triforce as soon as he’s told he’s the “chosen one”. By implication, the whole game’s justification lies in a plot hole.
Why did Hylia bother with enforcing the same trials, how the Goddess Sword came to be… These questions are left open and the possibilities for answers are to be found at earlier versions of the cycle, thus finally muting the very idea this Skyward Sword is an “origin”
So, instead of presenting the monomyth as it was happening for the first time, Skyward Sword surrenders to its series well-known sequence of dungeons and bosses. Or, as Marx would have put it, we have history repeating itself as farce.
The false prophet – Mass Effect 3
Meanwhile, in its third iteration, Mass Effect finally faced the problem that has been plaguing The Legend of Zelda series for years: a narrative cloistered by its plot structure. But instead of at least trying to break free as Skyward Sword did, Bioware’s game is much coyer.
So, quick recap: in the first game there was a Broken Map structure, where the player had to assemble all the pieces of a map in order to unlock the final stage. As each piece was hidden in a different planet, so players had the excuse to visit them in any order they wanted. It was very similar to Game Theory models where one player (in that case, Saren) makes a move, then the other player makes its move and so on.
The second game had a Dirty Dozen structure. There was a threat and you had to assemble a team to stop it. The threat wasn’t going anywhere, mind you. It waited for you. In both games the franchise’s structure made sense: it allowed you time to scour the universe, foster relationships with your squad mates, scan planets, do side-missions and even, perhaps, find love.
The conflict presented by the plot of Mass Effect 3 is of a different kind though. The Reapers, the race of sapient machines bound to destroy all advanced life, are already here. They won’t stop and wait for you. As the game starts, a Reaper attacks the building you are in, in Vancouver. Less than one minute later, another Reaper has just descended into London. The situation is dire and you can barely escape Earth.
However, as soon as you enter the Normandy, Mass Effect 3 asks you to do the same activities it asked you in Mass Effect 1 (ME1) and 2 (ME2) again: to scour the universe, foster the relationship with your squad mates, scan planets, etc. This, mind you, despite the fact the narrative continuously tells you that no, you do not have time for those things. In fact, you don’t have time for ANYthing! Which explains why so many of these activities don’t make sense now, given the more epic – and imminent – scope. Do we really need to even consider including salvaging some piece of Batarian lore next to “Saving the bloody universe” in our to-do list? Maybe we can pick strawberries and wild flowers afterwards. Besides, it’s not like we haven’t done these sorts of activities twice, in ME1 and ME2, before. Even more baffling is how many of these missions are given to us: simply by eavesdropping on complete strangers.
Connivingly, the game names all the mandatory missions with the word “Priority” first. Here, Mr. Player, this mission is very, very important! Priority, it says. But you don’t need to do it riiiight now, you know? Lookie here all these other missions for you to do. But yeah, “priority”. It’s trying to trick the dog: the ball has never really left Mass Effect 3‘s hand.
I may be exaggerating, though, for the universe’s situation may not be that hopeless. In fact, the Deus Ex Machina drops in the story at 50th minute mark of the game. After that, ME3’s whole structure becomes plainly evident: the game is reduced to filling up a progression bar. The War Asset bar, supposed to represent the galaxy’s military might against the Reapers, which magically indicates a “minimum amount” above which you could proceed in the final push against the enemy.
Despite all its tricks, and certainly despite the story it is trying to tell, ME3 possesses a structure as obvious as one could get: the end goal of the game is to fulfill a bar that indicates how much into the game you are already in in the first place. The sad part is that it wasn’t even necessary. Most of the side-missions are usually there just so that you can reconnect with characters from the previous games – but you only know which after starting the mission. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the game instead poised the following dilemma: you can either help your old buddy and risk more cities being destroyed by the Reapers, or choose sacrifice them in order to save Earth in time?
The chameleon – Assassin’s Creed Revelations
Finally, we have the Assassin’s Creed games. Note that I don’t want to make a case of Revelations being a great game. It’s most certainly not. But I have to give it to the series as a whole on how well they handle the dichotomy between plot and story. As much as I dislike Assassin’s Creed II (ACII) and complain about Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood’s (ACB) frahmisms, we can clearly see how each new game fearlessly tries, and often succeeds, in breaking free from the structure set by its predecessor.
The original Assassin’s Creed (AC), for instance, had a very iterative structure. It made sense. The “routine” the game proposed was harmonic to what the protagonist Altair, a very disciplined man, felt comfortable with. It was also his routine. Also, as the story is about Altair’s restarting his training as a freshman, it’s not unexpected for the game to be as repetitive as training should be. As a result, the player, Altair and Desmond all learn new abilities while not forgetting the older ones.
As the series went on, the needs and the context around the new protagonist, Ezio, changed – and so did the structure. By the time we reach Revelations, not only the iterative nature of the plot is gone, after all Ezio no longer needed such training nor has he ever possessed the same level of patience Altair did, but also the very idea of target elimination – the assassination missions the first game revolved around – are de-emphasized. In turn, the game adds new missions – most of each with its own gameplay loop – in order to fit the demands of the story.
There are obvious risks however. One very valid criticism the franchise receives because of this is that it lost it “focus”, or rather, its core. Other than the arm blade and the free running, it’s becoming harder to summarize the AC games in one sentence. Another potential problem is how every obstacle presented by the story is easily solvable. This is particularly true in ACII. Can’t jump high enough to grab new ledges? Coincidentally, here comes a thief that can teach you this technique. Need to enter a house by air? Luckily there is your pal Da Vinci with a completely new – and untested – invention just for that. Ezio himself engages in new plans and machinations whenever a new obstacle arise – from dressing as a soldier to disguising as a lute player – and never do these plans fail. Personally, I still find the original AC to be more superior to its sequels thanks in large part for that cohesiveness.
Assassin’s Creed III does a tremendous job in that department for its first half, After this, a very curious thing happens. There is a plot twist, but neither game nor protagonist seems to be aware of it. It’s the kind of issue that would warrant a whole article of its own in order to be properly analyzed.
The language of games is still limited; its criticism even more so. And as hard as it may be to reach a common ground on the elements that constitutes a good game, I’m certain that consistence between story, plot and gameplay is chief among them. Getting it right won’t make a great game – though it will certainly help – but failing to achieve that is bound to leave open that itching question of “if my character wants to do this and assuming I, the player, have already bought the importance of doing what my character wants; why is the game telling me to do this other thing instead?”
The one thing no game should do is to make its players wonder if they are wasting time.