11. What do you consider the strongest example of storytelling in a game?
Similarly, many gamers have a treasured digital gem that they like to dust off and play through again and again. I do not refer specifically to pervasive MMOs or social games, nor to games which necessarily are designed to present multiple story options or quest lines on later play-throughs; but rather any game at all, including those with very linear plots or even no plot at all, and by all measures no real significant variance from one play-through to another. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of my personal favorites to play again and again is Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, a post-apocalyptic science fiction action platformer in which the player takes the role of a drifter named “Monkey” who becomes trapped first by slavers, then by a beautiful woman named Trip who hacks his slave headband and forces him to help her escape back home to her mountain village in the Rockies from the crumbling remains of what was once New York City. Once again, it is a lesser known title that sold poorly and has only a small cult following that at first glance might be accused of being just another title where you "swing at robots with a stick;" but this would be premature as I argue that there is a deeper validity to be found in the title as a successful re-imagining of the ancient Chinese story “Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng'en, one of the four great classical novels of China. (I’ll circle back to this below).
12. Would this narrative have been as powerful if conveyed in another medium, such as film?
This is not to be mistaken for a hackneyed narratologist argument in any way! Rather, I have as much distain for the narrow minded narratological models as I do for the ludological ones. They both engage in the same kind of broad dismissal of the other. Indeed, this duality is at the heart the now old and often narrow minded debate over which is more important. The debate has naturally inspired polarized reactions: we either get gameplay models which are infused with minor story elements from action-oriented game designers exemplified in current rules-heavy systems; or else we get rhetorically heavy arguments which disregard the basic rules structures of a game like the ones that can be found in narrative-heavy systems, but I digress - more on "games as art" in some future post.
So, to put too fine a point on it - because I can and you are apparently still reading for some reason - “Enslaved: Odyssy to the West” is a brilliant game which has the perfect balance of gameplay and narrative for myself as a player and lover of story games despite the fact that is it entirely linear and almost completely free of player story choices, but brilliantly filled with developer story that would have suffered by my interference with it as a player. Further, the authentic seeming locations are clearly identifiable as the remains of modern day Manhattan while achieving a stunningly beautiful Edenic quality unlike any other post-apocalyptic game to date. These elements drive me to want to explore the game more, but players are denied the ability to free roam within it through a masterful narrative device of Monkey’s hacked slave collar placed on him by his captor and fellow escaped slave Trip. Even the digital HUD is not presented to the player until later when it really is needed, and only then though a highly valid seeming narrative device explaining in context that the same collar is tapped into the character’s brain.
The characters are fully developed and extremely believable as well-rounded and dynamic characters from an epic of old so that my own agency was secure from the very start. This was leveraged by the wonderful dialogue and the ability of the characters to convey genuine range of emotion throughout as they slowly discover they need each other and ultimately are falling in love. At the right narrative moment a third character “Pigsy” is introduced, causing tension with this budding relationship and a love triangle is exploited to great success. Faithfully structured around the premise of the ancient Chinese tale, the plot flows superbly and unapologetically forward, entirely scripted by the linear platformer elements toward ever grander challenges that make perfect sense within the story. With no overt attempts at shoving the backstory down the player’s throat he is left to his own devices and the context clues of the world itself such as billboards and ads, evacuation signs, and remnants of the old-world’s technology which is both their salvation and actively trying to kill or re-enslave them. The only real element of mechanical choice is accessed though the upgrade screen, where every stat and ability can be modified through an in-game currency of power orbs scattered throughout the levels, deeply satisfying to my desire to explore them. On top of all of this is the engaging gameplay with meaningful goals and intuitive battle sequences with robotic enemies of varying – even impossibly large - sizes and intelligence which ultimately I got to swing and shoot at with my upgraded big stick. Quite possibly my perfect game.