For the third entry in the “Games for Writers” series, I thought it would be best to go the same route I went with Metroid Prime; I wanted to show writers a game that did something specific. A game that writers could learn from as much as enjoy. With that in mind, it wasn’t hard to choose…
First Thing’s First
As far as the Metal Gear Solid series goes, I feel Snake Eater was honestly the best. At least when it came out. Outside of delivering the most exciting sneaking gameplay (what with the loss of an extremely convenient radar), Snake Eater also had very versatile gameplay; you could sneak or run-and-gun, starve your enemies or put them to sleep, even face a boss or take a sniper shot at him after a cut scene and avoid the confrontation altogether.
To boot, Snake Eater had a surprisingly moving story and gripping characters who developed naturally – a feat of which both Sons of Liberty and Guns of the Patriots fell short.
But What Makes It a Game for Writers?
It’s simple; I can sum it up in two words: Time Paradox.
Part of the reason why the gameplay is so awesome is you don’t have the advanced tech from previous installments. That’s because Snake Eater is a prequel that takes place in the 60’s; you play the villian of the first two games, Big Boss, back when he was Jack. And that’s the point really; I knew that Jack had to survive because he had to be in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2. Regardless of knowing that though, I was still not only engaged by the plot, but genuinely worried for Jack’s safety.
This isn’t a small achievement for writers. George Lucas did an awesome job of making sure we couldn’t possibly care less about Darth Vader’s life before he became Darth Vader (in actuality, he made most of us start pretending Vader was just born with that suit on). Snake Eater never disappoints in this respect though and manages to never, ever drop the tension. Even when Jack is put in complete jeopardy, you don’t just shrug – you wind up being worried that he’s going to die. And perhaps even more of a success, you remain engaged in Jack’s struggles with other characters even when you know they won’t die either.
How’s It Done and What’s to Learn?
The key here is also simple: good writing. A staple of any good story is the author’s ability to put his characters into believable jeopardy. Honestly, unless a story is aiming to be different, there’s just about a 100% chance a protagonist is going to survive whatever is thrown at him or her. Trying to write around extremely solid (heh… sorry) evidence that your protagonist’s going to be fine can be even tougher.
So pick up a copy of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and see how it’s done. Learn just how far character interactions, depth, and diversity of plot can go to intrigue an audience and keep them guessing no matter how certain they are that everything’s going to be just fine.
I know it’s been a while since my first entry in the Game for Writers series. I can only say that I’ve been busy editing and taken the delay to make sure I presented a good second entry. After much debate, I’m glad to say I finally settled on a second title that I can faithfully call a Game for Writers. And that game is…
If you haven’t played Metroid Prime, you might be saying, “Really?” If you have, you’re probably saying “REALLY!?”
In reply to both, I say, “Oh yeah. Really.”
This is for a few reasons. First off, I have to say that Metroid Prime has a story that’s interesting enough to be a driving force behind gameplay. That said, here are a few details about the game:
Factor the First: There Is No Dialog in Metroid Prime
None. Unless you count the grunts Samus makes when you get hit. PS- You don’t see your protagonist’s face either–at least not until you beat it with the right prerequisites. Otherwise, you’ll only see her when, say, you’re underwater and fire a shot at a wall in front of you; the light will reflect Samus’ face on her visor, and more likely than not, you’ll jump out of your short shorts at the bright, blue eyes suddenly filling your screen. But that’s it.
Factor the Second: The World Building Involved in Metroid Prime Is Deeper than Any World Building in Any Game I’ve Ever Seen
It’s just completely true. One of the biggest complaints about the Metroid Prime series is rooted in the creative depth of the worlds you explore. You can scan a lot (not everything, but definitely enough), and when you’re done, you’ll know pretty much everything about the fauna of Tallon IV (and a lot of the flora).
I have to digress and add this to forestall argument: from playing any of the games, can you tell me anything about the critters native to Halo? I’m sure you could tell me about the Flood, but what about the animals, lacking sentience. Is there anything like a dog on the rings? What are the birds like? If you actually have an answer, did you get it from reading a Halo novel?… Okay then. Cause, I mean, I can tell you this about the bloodflower on Tallon IV:
The Bloodflower is able to eject toxic spores. Toxins are poisonous even to the Bloodflower itself. Three mouth-nodules protrude from the stalk beneath the flower, each with a rudimentary brain cluster and the ability to spew toxic fumes at anything with a five-meter radius. The spores ejected from the Stigma at the center of the flower are sufficient to kill this creature if they explode in its vicinity.
Aaanyway, moving on…
Factor the Third: All of the This Is Achieved Almost Exclusively with Epistles
That’s right. Letters; well, not exclusively letters, but written accounts. Journals, science experiment logs, memos, other forms I’m forgetting, and, most importantly, your suit’s data logs obtained when you scan just shy of the entire world.
So, how did they do this? How did the team at Retro Studios hold gamers’ interests in a dialog, flashy cinema, and explosion-heavy society without spoken word? The answer is a ton of writing. Not exclusively; the art style, graphics, and especially the environmental effects went a long way towards making everything visceral. But there’s a great deal that’s only transmitted through Retro’s extensive writing and cunning execution.
A Plot in Small Pieces
The mystery of why Space Pirates have landed on Tallon IV starts to be revealed by their field reports and experimental logs, all expertly placed to work with the game’s pacing. Retro gives us a Space Pirate log where they say something along the lines of, “We’re going to start excavating at this location.” And then, perhaps when you’re knee deep in that location, you’ll find another entry saying, “The Hunter has followed us to the site. She must know about Metroid Prime,” to which, of course, you as a gamer say, “Ohhhhhh… So they’re looking for Metroid Prime… Man. Where’s the next log?” As I said before, you wind up being extremely motivated to continue playing because of this approach, and the plot winds up being revealed in such a way that you can’t help being engaged and fascinated.
A Spoonful of Subtle Detail (aka Awesome) Makes the Mythos of Samus Aran Go Down
Going beyond that, however, the fear and reverence the Space Pirates show in their entries for “the Hunter” gives players an oddly satisfying illustration of how bad ass Samus Aran is. Coupled with details like the science log where Space Pirates document their attempts to mimic her Morph Ball ability (which allows all 7 feet of Samus to roll up into a tiny ball [PS-No, their experiments don’t go well at all]), we’re given a pretty solid idea of Samus’ lore; no one really knows how the hell she does the things she does, and for lots of people, that’s pretty scary. At the very least, the Space Pirates think so.
In the end, all they and the players know is that she has ancient armor that allows her to do amazing things, and that if she doesn’t like you, you’re pretty much screwed. Oh, also, that when she’s blowing you, your tank, or your sentient tank to pieces, she’s going to be completely quiet about it.
The Depth of Tallon IV
The scans of enemies with your visor do the rest. Just as the example above does for the bloodflower, your Scan Visor illustrates a ton of the enemies and environments you go through, layering all of it with as healthy a helping of wonder as logs and data entries do for Samus’ reputation. Yeah, sure, you’re going to be scanning a lot of enemies, but you’re also going to wind up feeling like you really are exploring an alien planet. You can scream lame from the rooftops if you want, but I stopped shooting certain creatures because they were just creatures foraging or protecting their young, not douche bag Space Pirates.
What does all of this mean for writers, however? How would playing this help you expand your repertoire? Simply put, I think it would seriously expand any sci-fi or fantasy writer’s mind. The sheer devotion to the world, the execution of the plot, the approach to a completely silent protagonist-it all makes for an extremely unique experience that gamers shouldn’t pass on and writers definitely shouldn’t miss.
When I got serious enough about my writing career that I started feeling guilty for spending a bunch of my time playing video games, I started to rationalize my pass time by calling it research. Example:
“Yeah… I can play Final Fantasy XII today because, hey, maybe it’ll give me some inspiration.”
Not the worst logic. Until it’s applied to something without a strong fantasy element, like Bionic Commando: Rearmed.
Or, ya know, Hexic.
But there were times where I felt justified. There were games that had sound stories and characters that I’m glad I didn’t miss for the impact they’ve had on me not just as a fantasy writer, but a writer in general. In retrospect, I call them Games for Writers.
And when I thought of blogging about them, there was no competition for which came first.
Okay. I know. You’ve probably seen the movie and know how lackluster it was. Or you didn’t see the movie because you thought it looked horrible or because you played the first game and either quit early or (God forbid) beat it and discovered that the story made no-and I mean NO-sense at all. Ya know what? On all counts, I don’t blame you. Seriously. Both game and movie go off the deep end with weird, mystic, hell lingo that took many viewers and gamers right out of the experience.
Silent Hill 2, however, was nothing like that. From the start, it’s story, characters, and mood grab you and never really let go.
You play as James Sunderland who’s received a letter from his wife, Mary, who died years before the game starts. In the letter, she urges him to come to Silent Hill, the resort town where they spent their honeymoon, where she’s waiting for him. Needless to say, an amazing hook.
It only gets better when you start playing and the fog sets in along with Akira Yamaoka’s eerie music. It creates enough intensity and dread with its mood that it’s easily a lesson in setting and tone. And also, because it can get so, so far out there, it doubles as a huge, huge lesson in originality. One that keeps going for the rest of the game.
But I think where things really pick up is when you meet Maria, a woman who looks exactly like James’ dead wife but acts nothing like her.
Suddenly, the situation changes. Cinemas and dialog become more interesting and frightening; James might be falling for Maria. He might be forgetting about Mary. But either way, the game does something surprising. It stops being about a town that’s cursed or a gateway to hell or whatever. It starts being about James. And Maria. And Mary. And the other people you meet in town, all scary in their own ways because each of them seems like they’re the worst in us. So then, Silent Hill 2 becomes about us and the terrible things we do. Yes, there are monsters you have to kill and puzzles to solve, but they don’t get in the way of the story the same way the story doesn’t get in the way of Silent Hill 2 being a game.
I won’t go on and spoil anything, but I will say that Silent Hill 2 is definitely worth a play for writers, especially if they’re already gamers. There’s a surprisingly intense and original emotional journey here that too many people have missed.