Welcome back, readers!
Well, after much deliberation—too much, I suppose I should say—I’ve finally made up my mind about what to entitle my next segment on this blog. To give you an idea of where I’m coming from, remember my little article from June 12 about Women of Wrestling, where I basically went into excruciating detail about what I felt the company had done both right and wrong back in 2000-01 during its initial run and what I feel it should do in the 2010s if it wants to succeed this time around? Well, I’m basically going to be using the tag part of that very article’s title, “In Relation to My Work,” and producing additional articles underneath that header in an effort to make it a semi-regular series. I say semi-regular only because unlike my “Poem of the Week” segment, I can’t promise exactly when I’ll be able to produce these articles aside from any day other than Sunday. All the same, I’ll try my best to produce them as often as I can so as to provide you all with some decent, compelling content on this blog in between my poetry and product announcements.
Simply put, “In Relation to My Work” is going to be a series of articles on things that relate to what I’ve written before, what I’m writing presently, or what I might very well write in the future. My June 12 article, for instance, was a prime example of something (i.e., women’s professional wrestling) that has inspired my work—namely, my upcoming venture in women’s literature, UWWX: The Underground Women’s Wrestling Xperiment. There are other aspects of American culture and life in general, however, that get my creative juices flowing by one means or another, and as far as this article is concerned, the aspect of interest is video games. Why? Simple: Aside from being a great diversion for me when I suddenly find myself beleaguered by writer’s block, there are quite a few aspects of this engaging form of electronic entertainment that trigger my imagination and make me want to grab an empty notebook and my trusty mechanical pencil and begin at least jotting down notes for what I hope to craft later on into a great story—if not, in fact, just start writing the story right then and there. Granted, I’m not saying that video games are a flawless medium by any means, as one can indeed become so engrossed in them that they end up neglecting more pressing matters in one’s life such as homework, chores, and even familial dealings. There are also times when certain gamers tend to take certain games too seriously and as such end up playing them even though they feel no sense of enjoyment in doing so, all in the name of trying to attain the highest score possible or defeat a certain boss or even unlock every single last achievement the game has to offer. This is especially a problem in cases where the game in question was poorly made in the first place, and not just in terms of graphics and sound quality, either, but more importantly in overall gameplay and even thematic elements such as character customization, a branching storyline, and various other bells and whistles as well as objectionable content (excessive blood and violence, sexual themes, etc.). Even with those flaws in mind, though, video games as a collective whole have taught me well in terms of showing me what can happen when one uses one’s imagination to its fullest, and on that note, I am proud to say that along with my poetry, I owe credit for much of my creativity to many a video game that I’ve either played while growing up or that I’ve at least heard of during the course of my life. How so? Well, let me explain…
Intriguing Story Elements
One thing that really sticks with me when it comes to a given video game—even if the game itself is otherwise complete garbage—is its story. I’ve played quite a few games that have had strong, intriguing stories, too. Take Abe’s Oddysee, for example, the first game in the time-honored Oddworld series. This game illustrates the tale of a usually happy-go-lucky Mudokon named Abe who soon discovers his destiny as the savior of his people from the unquenchable, murderous greed of the Glukkon financial empire. As this narrative progresses, the underlying moral of the entire game series lies bare for every gamer to see: the idea that every living creature is part of Mother Nature’s web and that disturbing the balance of the natural world by driving even just one organism to either extinction or simply near-extinction produces disastrous consequences that are terrifyingly difficult—if not, in fact, downright impossible—to overcome and repair. Another story that has stuck with me over the years is that of the PSX, Nintendo 64, and Windows PC “beat ‘em up” Fighting Force, which, while only vaguely touched upon in the game itself, was explained in much greater detail in the game’s instruction manual (at least for the PSX version, which was the version I have played). Basically, it’s all about former government agent turned conspiracy theorist and criminal mastermind Dr. Dex Zeng, who finds out that he was wrong about “Y2K” bringing about the end of the world and gores out of his way to fulfill his prediction—to “correct” the “malfunction” that had foiled his grand hypothesis—and bring about the Apocalypse himself via biological warfare and his legions of militant followers. The only thing standing in his way, of course, is a foursome of volatile vigilantes, each one being called into action by someone else (e.g., private investigator Mace Daniels being called in by Zeng’s paranoid turncoat lab assistant “Snapper,” vigilante Hawk Manson being recruited by Mace, etc.) and each having his or her own personal reason for bringing Zeng down. Even the lesser-known action-adventure game O.D.T.: Escape…Or Die Trying by Psygnosis had an interesting little steampunk tale about a crew of adventurers hoping to wipe out a deadly epidemic from the city of Calli with the help of an ancient magical relic known as the Green Pearl, only to have their airship, the Nautiflyus, crash land over the Forbidden Zone of Tonantzin and atop a dark tower populated by sinister mutants known as Deviants and other unforgiving hazards.
The point here is this: If a certain video game has characters, chances are that it’s also bound to have some kind of story, regardless of what genre it represents (save for certain puzzle, racing, party, and electronic board games and most sports games). Why do these stories exist? It’s simple, really. You see, a good narrative can help draw gamers into the action of a game even further than graphics and sound can on their own combined merit by getting said players to care more about the characters involved—particularly the characters they are allowed to take control of during play—and more importantly about the objective they’re trying to accomplish. This is especially true for such plot-driven video game genres as RPGs and survival horror and action-adventure titles, which are based upon the whole notion of, “Okay, who are we, where do we need to go, and what do we need to do?” Without a good story in any of these varieties of games, players have less of an idea of what needs to be accomplished in order to win. Take, for example, a role-playing game where the player must thwart a cult of bloodthirsty heretics from taking over the realm. Suppose the heroes arrive too late to prevent the cultists from summoning the great demon they hope will help them destroy the capital, thus forcing our protagonists to fight the foul creature, and yet, no matter how often the adventurers score a blow against the fiend with sword or spell or how often they try to recover whatever hit points they lose during the course of the fray, they end up losing the battle every single time? Well, why not have the heroes meet up with some supporting character of sorts earlier on during their adventure and having said character offer them a side quest that, should they accomplish it, will result in the reward of some powerful artifact—a weapon, for example, or even some sort of talisman with powers in healing or protection—that will aid them in felling the demon and thus actually make it possible for them to triumph over the villains? The same thing can be said for a survival horror game in which the lead character must rescue the President’s daughter from a mad scientist responsible for a zombie outbreak that has been plaguing the nation and must find the proper pass code he or she needs to enter the scientist’s secret underground lab before he infects the girl with the T-virus he created and transforms her into a biological killing machine similar to Nemesis from Resident Evil 3. Where can this pass code be attained? Can the pass code simply be found somewhere, or is there any additional deciphering that must be done before it is fully revealed? What happens if the player fails to discover this pass code, especially within a given allotment of time? Is it at all possible for the player to win the game in the instance that he or she doesn’t discover and use the pass code and essentially not enter the laboratory at all? If so, what happens? Such are the questions that are taken into consideration when formulating the plot of such a game and as such the actions the player takes in order for said plot to progress during game play.
Heck, even beat ‘em ups, fighting games, and other genres that don’t rely all that heavily on plot can benefit from having a strong, fetching story. I’ve already mentioned the story of Fighting Force earlier, but if you’d like an even better example of what I’m talking about, look no further than Bloody Roar 2, one of my first and favorite three-dimensional fighting games of all time, even to this day, which features a Story Mode that narrates the adventures of any one of the game’s eleven fighters and describes thoroughly his or her reasons for battling the others. Not only does this mode do well to explain each fighter’s role in BR 2, but also the overall theme of the game’s reality, which is not all that different from the one that the characters in the X-Men series exist. To summarize, the world in which the Bloody Roar franchise takes place is one fraught with prejudice and apprehension and revolves around zoanthropes—human beings possessing a mutated genetic code that allows them to transform into half-human, half-animal hybrid warriors, which is basically what the brunt of the collective BR roster is—either struggling to coexist with the rest of humanity or plotting to render baseline humans extinct as a means of flexing their evolutionary muscles. This element makes it much easier for gamers to sympathize with such noble characters as Yugo, Gado, Alice, Long, Shina/Marvel, and Mitsuko in their endeavor to live their lives as regular citizens alongside “normal” men and women and to protect the peace both among their own kind and between ordinary people and their fellow zoanthropes. This theme also works well in illustrating the motivations of the wickeder characters in the series such as Dr. Busuzima, Xion, Shenlong, and Reiji, thus making them equally ascertainable to fans, as well as providing more material upon which to build the story as the mystery behind zoanthropes’ existence begins to unravel and come to light with each additional game to the series. In my opinion, though, it’s a sad case to see that BR 2 is the only Bloody Roar game that has a Story Mode by which this rich and highly palatable mythos can further expand and develop so as to further whet fans’ appetites for even more character development to accommodate the games’ ferocious fighting action. I can certainly vouch for myself in that respect, especially when comparing Bloody Roar 2 to another beloved fighting game from my collection, Konami’s 1998 release Kensei: Sacred Fist. Don’t get me wrong, folks; its not that Kensei is a terrible game by any means, at least not in my opinion. The graphics are nice and smooth for a PSX game from its era, and I enjoy watching and observing each of the unique fighting styles that K:SF demonstrates from Karate, Kenpo, and Muay Thai Kickboxing to Drunken Fist Kung Fu, “Pit Fighting,” and even Amateur and Professional Wrestling. Not only that, but the soundtrack by Akira Yamaoka, Kyoran Suzuki, and Norikazu Miura is nothing to sneeze at by a long shot! However, the closest thing gamers ever get to an actual story when playing this game is a short blurb in the instruction manual about who each of the nine main characters are and whom they are searching for and why—sometimes not even that latter part. As for the remaining fourteen characters, the best anyone can do in terms of finding out about them is through the game’s Wikipedia article. Otherwise, with only an introductory FMV to go by, it’s quite easy for certain gamers to question the very existence of a plot at all. There aren’t even any post-victory FMVs for any of the fighters to indicate what happens to each character after he or she defeats the final boss, Kaiya Tsubaki. Now, does this necessarily mean that Kensei: Sacred Fist is inferior to Bloody Roar 2 or that it’s a bad game, period? Certainly not. Like I said, I like both games, each for different reasons, and while BR 2’s story may help in encouraging me to immerse myself more in its gameplay along with the whole “were-warrior” gimmick that made the entire BR series so fun to begin with, K:SF benefits from having more characters as well as a gameplay system that relies more on timing and strategy than on air juggling and multi-hit combos, which may or may not appeal to some players. Besides, even if K:SF could be considered the lesser of the two fighters, the decision would be based on many more aspects than simply story alone (i.e., presentation, special features, and overall playability). All this argument really means is that when it comes to offering players more memorable characters and plot, Bloody Roar 2 has the edge.
So how does all of this about stories in video games relate to writing fiction? Just this: Authors, both current and future, can learn something from video game storylines that they can, in turn, apply to their own stories. Regardless of whether a given game is classic or crummy on the whole, an author can discover what works and what doesn’t when it comes to its story and subsequently how the plot affects the course of the game for either better or worse. How well does the plot tie in with what the player must do in order to win? How much do certain plot twists affect gameplay? Does the plot do a good job in keeping the player engaged in what is and what has been taking place on his or her screen and as such making her feel as though he or she is contributing to the story as it unfolds? Is the player at all connecting with the character he or she is controlling? How much useful information does the player learn from whatever cut scenes are played during gameplay? These are the questions that come to my mind when I think of how potent a video game’s story is and how respectable a job it does to keep me interested in the game, regardless of how lacking it may very well be otherwise. This doesn’t just relate to the games I’ve played in the past, either, but also to the games I’ve seen walkthroughs for on YouTube, particularly those that I might not own the accommodating system for, yet am heavily interested in nonetheless simply because of what the video maker is showcasing to his or her audience through his video. Honestly, I can only begin to tell you how many times I’ve secretly told myself, “Hey, you know what? That would actually translate into a pretty good book if handled right. I’d love to read a book based on something like that.” after watching a walkthrough on such games as El Viento, both Shivers and Shivers Two: Harvest of Souls, PuLiRuLa, Skull Girls, The Black Heart, Clock Tower, Weaponlord, and Battle Circuit, considering just how their storylines had left such a strong impression on me. The truth is, too, that the games I’ve just listed were mostly liked when they were first released and are still cherished by many even today, even if for reasons other than the stories they told (e.g., controls, presentation, theme, etc.). That’s not to say that only good video games can have decent storytelling elements, however, as even a poorly made and/or poorly received game can appeal to people’s imaginations, as I’ve alluded to earlier. For instance, I’ve mentioned O.D.T. earlier on in this article, which has been ridiculed for its awkward control, mentally handicapped enemy AI, hit-and-miss animation, and tedious gameplay (e.g., cheap, over-the-top use of bottomless pits over true challenge). However, I’d be lying if I were to say that the general premise of the game didn’t at least sound promising to me. Yes, I will admit that the nature of the Green Pearl that Captain Lamat and his crew of the Nautiflyus are trying to deliver to Calli is a little vague in the beginning, but as the story unfolds with Captain Lamat’s capture and subsequent escape from the clutches of the Deviants during the rest of the crew’s venture through the depths of the dark tower, the truth behind the pearl becomes clearer over time. This represents a particularly important lesson that all fiction writers can benefit: Never give away the full details of every aspect of your story. Ignoring this rule only sucks the mystique and suspense out of your own narrative and thus makes it far duller and more predictable than it needs to be. Instead, it is wise to simply leak out bits and pieces of information bit by bit until in the end—and only in the end—the reader at long last understands the meaning of everything. For more proof on this notion, feel free to click on the link below, which showcases all the FMV cut scenes from O.D.T. and the story of Captain Lamat’s adventure.
Granted, there are still some elements missing from this story, such as the extent and nature of the epidemic plaguing Calli and how Lamat and his crew were able to interact with the city’s populace during the course of the adventure while they were all taking their own routes through the dark tower during their investigation of it. Even so, notice how with each entry in Lamat’s log, new details emerge about the nature of the Green Pearl and its powers and its antithesis, the Purple Pearl—not to mention the nature of the Deviants and their leader and their role within the history of Tonantzin. One can also be quick to speculate the nature of the experiments that the Deviant scientist had subjected Lamat to as well as how the Green Pearl had transmitted its power to him. This is exactly what I’m talking about: The plot doesn’t present itself in full right off the bat, but in distinct sections so as to produce new pieces of information for the audience to assimilate, and with each new piece that presents itself, viewers eventually come to terms with at least most of the details behind what’s going on while waiting in suspense for what might happen next. As such, I can definitely say that even though the addition of a few details might make this narrative even stronger on the whole and though the narrative had more to do with Captain Lamat’s adventures through the dark tower than any of his crew—particularly the four (six, if one includes the two hidden characters) playable protagonists—the overall story behind O.D.T.: Escape…Or Die Trying is nonetheless one that I would not mind reading at all if it were translated into a book, regardless of how good or bad one sees the actual game.
In short, this is one way in which video games stoke my creativity as a writer—by providing me with strong storylines that I can follow and become intrigued by. While this is usually the case for games that are otherwise manufactured well (e.g., stunning visual and audile presentation, tight game mechanics, and so forth), the same can also apply to games that aren’t so superiorly made. After all, even if the game is an absolute chore to play or even an act of cerebral torture for me to suffer through, if the narrative is still a solid one, then at least I can walk away from the game from which it derives and say, “You know what? That game might have sucked, but I still wonder how that story would’ve turned out if it were part of something more competently made.” In other words, even the worst game imaginable can have an impressive idea behind it that can provide a writer with some kind of plot seed that he or she can help grow into something truly fantastic—providing that said writer is wise enough to add additional elements of his or her own and mix them in with the original idea rather than resort to blatant plagiarism, of course. As such, the only question that remains in regards to whether or not a certain story idea will work for a writer’s next work of fiction: Does he or she have the imagination to build upon said idea and make it work? Well…as we all know, there’s only one way to find that out, isn’t there?
Anyways, that should do it for me this time around. I do plan on expanding this discussion, however, although it might be a while before I chance to begin the second installment in this mini-series. As matters stand, unfortunately, I’m already behind in my work on UWWX, so I’ll have to get to work on that ASAP so that I can keep my promise to you all and have it published within the next couple to few months. Just keep you eyes on this blog for it, then, and in the meantime, thank you for checking out what I have in store for this session, and as always, feel free to stop by my author page at Smashwords.com to see what I have available for sale. Who knows? UWWX: The Underground Women’s Wrestling Xperiment just might pop up there before you know it! Until we meet again, then, happy reading!
Dustin M. Weber
PS: For the sake of convenience, here are the links to the other parts of this miniseries:
Part 2: July 10, 2012
Part 3: February 9, 2013
Part 4: March 26, 2013
PS: All credit for the images used in this blog entry, unless otherwise noted, go to GameFAQs.com. All games referenced are (c) their respective developers and publishers, as follows:
The Black Heart: (c) 2009 Andres Borghi
Fighting Force: (c) 1997 Core Design, Eidos Interactive, and Crave Entertainment
Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee: (c) 1997 Oddworld Inhabitants and GT Interactive
Bloody Roar 2: (c) 1999 Eighting/Raizing, Virgin Interactive, SCEA, and Hudson Soft
Kensei: Sacred Fist: (c) 1998 Konami
O.D.T.: Escape…Or Die Trying: (c) 1998 Psygnosis (SCE Studio Liverpool)
All opinions shared in this article, however, are those of the author himself.