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Something Smells Gamey: Stories at Their End

Education - especially in this era of standardized testing - relishes in formula. Math and science by nature do exist within these rigid boundaries, but even liberal arts programs persuade kids that all essays should be written the same way – an introduction, 3 body supports, and a conclusion. All narratives should see their protagonists overcome obstacles. And all settings should be described in detail, leaving the mind closed to interpretation. Any time these standards are questioned, the realm of art takes over – with the purposeful rejection of standards offering the most simple canvas for our past, present, and modern rebellion.

Surely with this groundwork pounded into our being, every tangible tale of human interest been portrayed to success in some medium, so why do fans of the new games medium become so wrapped up in stories that are admittedly amateur? The Resident Evil series tells of an “Umbrella Corporation” that is experimenting on humans with zombie viruses, with each installment introducing its players to characters caught in an unnecessarily-compliated plot that really just boils down to “being in scary situations is scary.” Society has struggled with death forever, so why are these stories now more relevant than history's more robust looks at mortality (e.g., The House of the Dead that is not a game or game-based movie)? The easy answer is that they are new, and each generation wants to believe its own culture is unique. The more complex - but equally easy to arrive at – conclusion is that by giving the consumer a level of interaction, the experience takes on an entirely different quality.

Individuals who enjoy video games are able to gain some sense of achievement from them. Although in-game deaths have minimal real world consequences (despite arguments from the many things my frustration has broken), they threaten to limit narrative progression. Even Tetris allows simple story of progress to build in a player’s mind, and that story is quantified – just like teacher wanted – in the score box in the corner. There is an end; that end is success; if you win, you have absorbed some level of meaning. If you fail, your life is pitiful. Good/bad job!

I started thinking about all this abstractness while playing the latest Prince of Persia, and not in the good way. While I do like the game and love the atmosphere offered by painted desert castles, I can’t help but think its story – pitting an evil god versus a good one – is trying too hard. Yes, that premise seems about as fundamental as they come, but the problem is that the game threatens to build up mythology where it isn’t necessary. I can appreciate “good versus evil” just fine, but when I know that there is a Prince of Persia movie coming and that the producers may be looking to establish a platform for the launching of expanded, Lord of the Rings-esque complexity, the simpler charms are overshadowed.

Going back to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003), the difference in story execution is obvious. In that game, the story unfolds as if you are being told it by the prince himself. He narrates as you wander the environment, asks if you’d like him to leave when you pause or exit the game, and stutters, “No, no. That’s not how the story goes,” when you fall to your spike-impaled death. You're never taken out of the experience, so even though it is again a very basic tale of greed, love, self-reconciliation, and all those themes that just keep disrupting hedonism century after century, it actually feels as if you are driving the story to its ultimate, expected conclusion. Of course good will win if you win. Bad is only victorious when the writer wants to be different, or in real life… you know, non-entertaining stuff.

I suppose I overstepped my bounds by blaming the dearth of narrative originality on schools. First of all, they’re underfunded. Second of all, letting stupid kids and their mushy brains work without form would most often result in unrecognizable explanations of The Scarlet Letter. And third of all, they’re just making sure we understand the role society has set apart for culture. Like anything else, culture is a comfort that has already developed in substance about as far as it can. Future advancements are simply variations on the theme.

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  1. Blogger DoktorPeace | 8:17 AM |  

    Upon review, this post is kind of a mess, lacking direction and form... which is kind of the point. B-/C+

  2. Blogger Dave | 8:24 AM |  

    Yeah, yeah, blah blah blah, life is pain.

    Have you played Left 4 Dead? Holy balls, it's awesome!

  3. Blogger DoktorPeace | 8:35 AM |  

    Life IS pain, Dave. My 360 is currently being serviced in Mesquite, Texas, so no, I haven't played Left 4 Dead. Thanks. (Actually, I did play the demo.)

    I know my posts tread with relevance and may not always be that interesting, but I purposely head towards those underexplored angles. There are already plenty of previewers and reviewers and cool VG hipsters. Heck, they've even got girls reviewing games nowadays. GIRLS!!!

  4. Blogger chris | 12:30 PM |  

    I didn't take "life is pain blah blah" from this post so much as I did "art is dead blah blah."

    And it really is my fault. I had to spend the past two weeks preparing my students to take the state-mandated writing test, teaching the exact format the Doktor laid out in his intro. (Sidenote: I love that, aside from splitting your Prince of Persia subtopic into two paragraphs, you also followed that format for your post.)

    Luckily, my kids made me break down no less than an hour ago about it: "here's the skinny - I don't like getting confined to a format either, but at least you're getting an idea about how to communicate to others clearly, albeit in a really boring way." We finished today and I promised them they could write fun stuff next week. But now I'm giving them mixed messages, so there really is no solution.

    Education is dead too, is it not? And yet, that and art are my two passions in life. My life is meaningless.


  5. Anonymous Anonymous | 10:08 PM |  

    You would do well to remove this copyrighted image from your site.

  6. Blogger Sean | 10:14 PM |  

    1. Which image?

    2. Fair use, 17 U.S.C. § 107.
    "... the fair use of a copyrighted work... for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting... scholarship...is not an infringement of copyright."

    I'd say this blog qualifies under that framework.

    Other factors for consideration:
    Commercial or nonprofit purpose?
    This is a nonprofit blog. No financial gain at issue.

    The amount and substantiality of the portion used.. ok, it's an entire picture.

    However, effect of the use upon the potential market for said allegedly copyrighted image. Negligible.

    Sounds like fair use to me.

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