Tag Archives: movies

Top 100 Games – 92 – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

5 Mar

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Year: 2003
Genre: RPG

Bioware’s efforts to make interaction and conversation an integral part of gameplay have set them apart from other mainstream developers. Their success has led to their acquisition by industry heavyweights EA and seen the Mass Effect franchise gain a huge following. After Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights they set the standard for cinematic storytelling with one of the best uses of a licence in video game history. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic tells a unique story within the expansive universe created by George Lucas, and allows players to follow the now well-known morality paths of good and evil. KOTOR manages to be one of very few games in which the black and white polarisation of choice is actually a positive, thanks to the source material. With users of ‘the force’ being basically Jedi or Sith, a fancy way of saying angelic or demonic, the system fits perfectly and clever use of both a deep conversation system and party-building would pave the way for the ambitious space opera, Mass Effect.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

KOTOR though, is the better game. Role-Playing-Games such as this rely on a dice-rolling element to combat and other interactions which are ultimately useless in Mass Effect, and to a lesser extent, Jade Empire. By giving the player total control over combat, stat building exists only to make battles slightly less of a slog, rather than to aid tactical gameplay. It’s not as deep as some similar games, but the fights are satisfying, as is the ability to customise a character. The most entertaining element being crafting a lightsaber, you can even carry two. The story is interesting, and while a little predictable, captures much of the adventurous spirit of the original movies, with a slightly darker edge. This is an extremely faithful effort, despite having an all-new cast and mostly new locations. The characters are well-voiced, and quite well-written, with homicidal droid HK-47 standing out in particular.

The conversation system is perhaps the most entertaining element of KOTOR. Bioware have become known for their ability to craft interesting interactions and this is where it really took off for them. The formula of KOTOR will be familiar to those who have only played the latest Mass Effect, such is its lasting appeal. Now a feature in most games of this type, the ability to choose responses based on level, morality and simple judgement, and their effect on a situation made KOTOR more interesting than the standard linear RPG. While some may criticise the dialogue for being too obviously good or bad, it plays nicely into the story. The level of choice is just enough to make what is essentially a linear, cinematic experience feel influenced by the player. That alone is a massive achievement, and one Bioware are yet to improve upon.

Games as Art – Part 3

3 Feb

Games are not movies. It’s obvious isn’t it, not a fact that escapes anyone? Well, not really, no. Developers, especially in the current generation of games, but going back to early titles like Dragon’s Lair, have sought to emulate the on-screen excitement of a big-budget blockbuster. Prime examples are some of the most successful current generation titles, and some of the most critically acclaimed. This is a worrying trend in some ways. While it creates a game that feels like an exciting rollercoaster ride, it also removes any hint of substance from proceedings. There is opportunity to explore storytelling possibilities, yes, but only through cut-scenes. This is redundant, it’s almost as if the developer and writer wanted to make a film and decided to throw in a few interactive sequences.

I’ve read many times that the sequence in Call of Duty 4, in which you crawl from a helicopter destroyed by a nuclear explosion, is pivotal, wonderful and dramatic. It’s not though, it’s a pointless attempt to use interactivity to add drama to the moment, but it amounts to pushing ‘up’ on the controller or keyboard. It looks great, genuinely like a movie, but it’s a game, and the vague reminder that we need to keep pressure on the controls is hardly using that to help tell any story. If Gradius had an overblown and complex plot, would anyone have cared? Of course not, it’s a shooting game. So is Call of Duty, but with the graphical power at developers fingertips they can make it more than that. But why bother? A poor version of a Tom Clancy adaptation is hardly going to keep me playing, the gameplay does, same as in the past, and enough of its audience are quite content with explosions as drama.

It makes sense that games turned to Hollywood for inspiration, to be fair. We do a lot of shooting, running and jumping, it’s like playing the action hero. Alongside Call of Duty; Uncharted, Gears of War and many others give the player the feeling that they are the hero of a Michael Bay movie. It’s fun, I won’t deny that, but again, that’s the gameplay. The stories are poorly acted (Lester Speight aside) and poorly written, merely tacked on as a sort of reward to the player, some vague sense of progress in lieu of a high-score. A phoned-in celebrity voice cast is usually enough to gain high praise though, and so we rarely see much better in that sense either. Big explosions, set-pieces which involve the player’s character, but are purely background are exciting, but at this point it’s easy to ignore them, games are over-saturated with these movie moments and ultimately, they add little to the overall experience unless used extremely sparingly.

I suppose though, for once, I should give Infinity Ward a little credit. They did attempt to use the interactivity of the medium to make a dramatic and powerful statement with ‘No Russian’ in Modern Warfare 2. It turned out to be one of the most pointless and heavy-handed pieces of storytelling since ‘P.S. I Love You’ was adapted for the screen, but they tried. The problem wasn’t the lack of choice, that would have made no sense in context, but the lack of development. Thrust into the body of character who the player is in no way familiar with, to then be told to shoot civilians in an airport, should have had a little more exposition than a loading screen debrief, but what followed was far worse. Immediately after the killing spree, your character is shot and killed. No warning, no plot advancement, just shot in the face. A character who should have spent the rest of the game agonising over the choice he was forced to make was simply removed. A few levels later and I’m breaking some sort of Sergeant Major from the Boer War out of a prison in Russia, with all the drama that entails. I had to google the character after the big identity reveal, and I’d finished CoD4. As I said, the story is pointless. But again, I’ll give IW some credit, it was an interesting experiment, and had they invested in some actual writers it may have been tremendously successful and a real statement about the power of games to speak to us.

2010 saw the release of Heavy Rain, which almost overnight became the poster child for the kind of interactive storytelling which could be unique to games. It had a lot of promise, but ultimately in its rigid structure, which sought too much to emulate movies, it failed to offer the kind of experience it’s creator, David Cage, was so sure it could. The controls were well implemented, and I don’t necessarily think that games need a challenge. The fact that some characters could die and the game would continue was a brilliant concept. The execution was let down in the lack of any real emotional depth. The plot was closer to Criminal Minds than a classic thriller and attempts to be ‘edgy’ came across as crude and somewhat ill-advised. Was it really necessary, for example, to have the female lead strip to escape her captors? Surely the option to simply refuse immediately, rather than drag it out would have made sense, and offered a far more empowered and interesting character. In following the plot and inevitable the cliches of the movies, Heavy Rain simply failed to deliver an interactive experience of any more depth than a choose your own adventure book. It was a compelling way to spend a few hours, but only in the same way it’s often enjoyable to sit down and watch a few episodes of a favourite TV series, or a movie franchise. In the end all the choices led to were varying over dramatic endings, we assume they’re meant to seem intelligent because they’re all depressing. A lost opportunity perhaps, but not the direction games should go in order to take advantage of what makes them unique.

The problem with games is that for the most part they fail to capitalise on their interactivity. Moral choices are nice, but never really live up to their hype, always falling into the trap of black and white decisions. Give the homeless man a bottle of water, or set him on fire and eat his charred remains. What games can do though, is use the fact that we have input to create something altogether different to a movie. As much as I say Bioshock had an over-rated story, and it does, the ending was something that no other medium could offer. That, for me, was an incredible triumph. Games can tell a story that even the greatest novel never could, and like all great art, makes us think about ourselves and the world, but more so how we engage with that world. Interactivity is a tool which is rarely used for anything other than allowing us to shoot the bad guys, there is no other choice. Games like infamous may ask whether we want to be naughty or nice, but ultimately, we still kill the bad guys. When a game asks us why we do this, the violence suddenly seems all too real, it’s not Bruce Willis or Arnie killing indiscriminately, it’s you. Even the greatest novel can never say ‘you’re a killer, but why?’ A game can.

Developers have very occasionally used this power to aid their storytelling, and it’s a disappointment. The few which have, as ‘No Russian’ has shown, are hit and miss. Shadow of the Colossus might be the best example of what a game can ask, because great art doesn’t just tell stories, it asks questions. Killing the Colossi, the enormous beasts which wander serenely through a barren land, makes the player feel evil, it’s almost depressing. You quickly start to question your motivation, and whether the entity which guides you to kill in order to save the girl is truly on your side. This hasn’t stopped players from adoring it, the bleak atmosphere is beautifully imagined, and the gameplay is wonderful. These things make it compelling to play, but the moment you see that awful black liquid streaming from what was once a peaceful giant is harrowing. It’s an incredible way to use a game, and it reveals to us as players the role we are playing in shaping the world we inhabit for that all too brief period. It should, by all accounts, put us off, but it’s almost complete silence begs so many questions. The answers are never the right ones, or the ones we want, but that’s not the point, it says so much more than shooting non-descript Middle Eastern and Russian people ever could, and that’s without sacrificing gameplay or graphics. Games have an incredible position, a wide audience, and a means of storytelling that’s as yet hardly been explored. They are primed to be the next great storytelling medium, as long as games like SOTC continue to be made, and continue to sell well enough to encourage others to go further with how they use that medium.