The thing that strikes this writer most upon the conclusion of Dragon Age: Origins is how… light… the game feels for such a deep game. Compared with epics of this year and yesteryear, the game feels abbreviated, as if the stopping of a single Blight somehow fails to encompass even the first chapter of a much larger, more expansive world.
Of course, the title of the game gives an indication of why this is so: this is a game about “origins” stories, the beginnings of characters that will soon be thrust into the wider spotlight.
This method of episodic storytelling dovetails quite nicely with the sequel-driven format of many video games. While some critics bemoan this as a “lack of originality” by revisiting characters, locales and themes that have thrilled players in the past, there is an entirely consistent, logical explanation for this.
At one time, storytelling was primarily about what happened, and not about who was doing it. The rise of the modern novel changed the focus of storytelling from grand myths (think Homer, the Greek, not the beer-swilling rube of The Simpsons) to fragmentary, individualized relations of experience from the viewpoint of people (think Dostoevsky, the morose Russian).
Our video games have similarly become character-focused. Kratos from God of War or Mario or Link or any number of iconic characters can appear and reappear in various games, and instantly, players will feel a familiarity, a connection. Consider character-driven novels, such as Michael Moorcock’s “Elric” novels or Scott Lynch’s “Gentleman Bastards” series: fans of the characters are more willing to pick up the next Elric adventure without knowing more about the plot than that it contains the Melnibonean sorcerer-king with the soul-stealing blade. Why? Because it is the character of Elric that we are drawn to, not Moorcock’s plotting, excellent though it is.
This article on Game Pro discussing the (in the author’s view) improper use of game-driven storytelling in the television program Heroes is illustrative of someone that fails to appreciate this method.
Anyone that has followed the Heroes “plot” (such as it is) knows that the driving force behind it is the characters and their shifting attitudes and relationships to each other. Those seeking a LOST-esque mythology that means more than any individual character are invariably frustrated with slow plotting and character development of a character-focused show. Heroes creator Tim Kring explains:
You never really know where you’re going–you’re only seeing as far as your headlights all the time, so you can keep readjusting.
This kind of storytelling, a more open-ended approach, has drawbacks: there is a tendency to lose focus and get mired in a dead end narrative. On the other hand, it is much more organic and easier to avoid the Dickensian series of amazing coincidences that make up a more traditional narrative.
What say you? Do episodic games with repeated sequels such as Mass Effect or Gears of War thrill you, or do you prefer more traditionally-narrated games with long and involved story lines that are self-contained?