- The Video Game Plot Scale
You know what they say about great minds, and Stokes isn’t the only one overthinking video game plots. But while he’s delving into the types of stories a video game can tell, I’ve been thinking about the increasing importance these stories play in our gaming experience. It used to be that video games were solely a test of skill. They might test your reflexes, your ability to solve puzzles , or your ability to think strategically. Oftentimes you needed a combination of skills. Starcraft requires strategy and reflexes. Tetris requires spacial reasoning and reflexes. But generally, the fun of a game came from mastering it — surmounting the challenges to get the highest score possible.
However, over the past 20 years, we’ve seen increasing emphasis on plot. Target audiences got older and wanted more sophisticated narratives than “our Princess is in another castle.” The technology got good enough for cut scenes, first with text, and then with voice acting. And while the early games were written entirely by the programmers, it quickly became standard for dedicated writers to be involved from day 1.
All this led to something curious: the fun of video games no longer came solely from beating them. It came from the stories too. Think of the survival horror genre. Silent Hill. Resident Evil (the old ones, before they became shooters). You can’t say that our enjoyment of those games comes entirely from puzzle solving and combat. A huge part of the experience is atmosphere and storytelling.
So games are partially a test of skill, and partially a vehicle for plot. And the relative importance of those things varies from game to game.
I fully expect that nobody is going to precisely agree with those pie charts. Some of you probably start mashing the buttons the second you sense a cutscene coming on. Others of you have a Sephiroth figurine on your nightstand. But my point is that it’s no longer true that the fun of a game comes entirely from gameplay, and it hasn’t been for a while.
(NOTE: the pie charts are a little misleading, because this is NOT a zero sum game. Making the plot better doesn’t mean you have to make the gameplay worse. But it’s interesting to consider these two qualities as a ratio: to what extent is the game a pure test of skill, and to what extent is it a gripping yarn?)
What really got me thinking about this was LA Noire, which puts you into the shoes of a 1940s police detective. (It’s extremely influenced by LA Confidential, down to the steely Irish captain.) This was produced by the same developers as Grand Theft Auto, and at first glance it’s got a ton in common. You can drive around a huge urban area. You can get in fistfights and shootouts. You get sent on missions after lengthy cutscenes. The formula seems familiar.
But over the weekend, I was having trouble chasing down a fleeing suspect. And after a couple failed attempts to catch him, a dialogue box popped up to ask if I’d like to skip the action sequence. This would NOT negatively impact my score, the game assured me.
Now can you imagine Grand Theft Auto giving you the chance to just skip a shootout and move on? Of course not. (It does often present you with multiple missions to take on at any given point, but that’s not the same.) But to the LA Noire team, the action sequences were not the point of the game. The focal point is the interrogations, uncovering the truth and the lies. In other words, LA Noire places story first. I’m not pointing this out in a negative way. I just think it’s interesting that Grand Theft Auto 4 lets you skip all the cutscenes but you have to do the car chases, whereas LA Noire lets you skip the car chases but not the cutscenes.
Okay, so some games are more plot-centric than others. What I think we need is a scale that allows us to make intelligent comparisons.
The Video Game Plot Scale
1 – No plot at all
EXAMPLES: Tetris, Bejeweled, Minesweeper
These are the pure puzzle and strategy games. I’m having trouble thinking of any action games that fall into this category, because once you’ve established an enemy, even a fairly abstract one, it’s hard not to also establish a basic plot. In a way Galaga doesn’t have a plot, but in another way an outer space battle against impossible odds is the greatest plot of all.
2 – Tiny germ of a story
EXAMPLES: Super Mario Brothers, Frogger, Angry Birds, Double Dragon, Contra, Mortal Kombat
I’d argue that even Pac Man belongs in this category instead of category 1, because those are GHOSTS that are chasing him. Once you can anthropomorphize your protagonist and antagonist, even a little, you’re in category 2.
3 – The setting plays a large part in the game, but there’s not much plot to speak of
EXAMPLES: Left 4 Dead, Myst, SimCity, Portal
These games barely have any plot, but they do have lots of atmosphere, and that’s a critical part of their appeal.
4 – Basic story shapes gameplay
EXAMPLES: Legend of Zelda (the original), Castlevania II, Civilization, Metroid
You have a big goal, and you need to accomplish a bunch of little goals first. You need to fight Ganon, but first you need to get all those pieces of the Triforce. And to do that, first you need to get the raft. The plot is the reason why you do the things you do. But note that there isn’t a whole lot of dialogue or exposition. You proceed from little goals to big goals to victory, but you don’t learn much along the way.
5 – A simple plot is gradually revealed
EXAMPLES: Call of Duty series, Halo series, Bioshock
This is the first category in which the game attempts to tell a complete story, giving you new information and sending you in new unexpected directions. Note that my examples are first person shooters. That should tell you that the plots are definitely subsidiary to the action. There’s just enough plot to keep the action moving, but not a lot of extra plot.
6 – Plot unfolds through frequent cutscenes
EXAMPLES: Ocarina of Time, Assassins Creed series, Grand Theft Auto series, Red Dead Redemption, Shadow of the Colosus
These games have a lot of story to tell and a lot of characters to keep track of. But they don’t rise to the level of hardcore role playing games.
7 – Plot is complex and takes a lot of the player’s time
EXAMPLES: Mass Effect series, Final Fantasy series, Fallout series, basically any RPG
These are the games where the story is a huge part of the appeal. The developers want you to fall in love with these characters and care deeply about the worlds they live in. There’s going to be a ton of voice acting and cutscenes that are longer than most Adult Swim shows.
8 – Plot is central, action scenes are optional
EXAMPLES: LA Noire
There are skill-based elements, but they can be partially or completely breezed over so that the plot can continue. The game exists primarily to tell a tale.
9 – Plot is everything, controller used only to advance the story
EXAMPLES: Heavy Rain
At the top of the scale, the game is basically a playable novel. The controller is only used to advance the plot. It’s possible that the game might ask you to do some things that require reflexes and dexterity, but that’s not why you play the game. You’re in it for the story.
10 – Any book for the Amazon Kindle
Buttons flip the pages back and forth
Okay, there are a lot of games that won’t fit neatly onto this scale. And I realize I’m blurring the line between the IMPORTANCE of the plot and its contribution to the overall fun of a game. Angry Birds is a great example. I put it way down at 2, because it barely has any plot at all. But obviously, the graphics, sound effects, and catchy music play a huge role in its success. We could easily imagine a game that play exactly the same, but with brightly colored cannonballs instead of birds. It would not be nearly as popular.
Ditto Portal. I ranked that as category 3, because it doesn’t have much of a plot at all. But as the computer goes from comically deadpan to chilling, and you begin to realize the whole lab was abandoned long ago, it really gets under your skin. No one who’s played Portal would say that its plot isn’t “important.” Indeed, the fact that the plot isn’t revealed in obvious ways like cutscenes is part of what makes it so effective.
So this discussion is far from over, and the scale is a work in progress. But one thing we can agree on is that video game stories are getting more ambitious in scope. What’s not clear yet is how to balance story with gameplay in a natural way. I’m definitely not a fan of cutscenes. Some of those RPGs can feel like a movie broken up into short chunks, with a video game stuck in between. And elements of Heavy Rain, like moving the controller back and forth to brush a character’s teeth, seems way too Mario Party to take seriously. Personally, I think games work the best when the story is advanced without the player losing control – check out the Half-Life series, or any of the other stuff from Valve. And games like LA Noire and Mass Effect give the player a choice of what to say, so even when the plot is predetermined it doesn’t feel that way.
It’s going to be interesting watching developers explore the upper parts of the scale. It’s getting to the point where they can put us inside an interactive movie. The question is, do we want that? Or would that take too much game out of the game?
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Happy Birthday Karina! Hope you have a great day today!
This is my seventh birthday cartoon for Karina, who first asked me to draw her a birthday cartoon way back in 2005. Here are her other birthday cartoons: Happy Birthday – Birthday – Birthday Party – Party Pooper – Birthday Essentials – Getting Wiser
Additional birthday greetings go out to AndyinSDCA, Big Egg (belated), Diana, Josh, Luv2Fli2, Mark, Mike, Noa, Shawna, Steph, and Vanessa!
- As much charisma as can be fit into one photo
- Why Austerity Hurts: The Government’s Budget is Not Like Yours
This post is from new staff writer Sarah Gilbert. GRS readers liked Gilbert’s recent post on economics and current events, so today she’s offering more of the same.
Unlike “entitlements,” the word “austerity” has come to mean something akin to “godliness” in modern political circles. And along with austerity goes the concept of running the government’s balance sheet like a personal budget. Everyone, from President Obama to his bitterest rivals, have been known to stick a pointer finger in the air and demand, “I wouldn’t run my family’s finances that way, and neither should Washington!”
When I say I don’t agree, it isn’t with everyone. It’s just with the political soundbite and the conventional wisdom; austerity, for a government facing a growing deficit and struggling economy, isn’t at all desirable. And no, the government should not run its budget in any way like the budget of a home — at least, not in the way politicians and pundits are suggesting. Let me explain.
What is austerity?
Let’s begin with “austerity,” a word which seems very close in dictionary definition to “frugality,” and what it has come to mean in global finance.
As James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker‘s “Financial Page” earlier this month, Republicans in Washington are pushing for austerity that will look like cuts in “public spending — on infrastructure, basic research, and defense,” and for a wholesale halt to all “stimulus” type spending; anything that the government can do to actually create jobs (think the Civilian Conservation Corps after World War II) and, as Surowiecki posits, “it’s possible that Republicans will block the extension of unemployment-insurance benefits and of the current payroll-tax cut.”
In other words, for most Republicans — and many Democrats as well — “austerity” means something like this: reducing spending, especially on support for groups benefiting from so-called entitlements — the low-income, the older Americans, the mentally ill — yet continuing to support businesses through tax breaks and incentives.
Another way of looking at austerity through the eyes of modern American politics is that it is meant paradoxically to decrease spending on Americans while expecting that Americans will increase spending (through jobs, is the hope of those who use the term “job creators” as shorthand for “upper class and businesses,” supplied by the private sector) and, eventually, grow the economy by the very strength of their frugal will, and eventually, put more money back in the public coffers. In Europe, this pro-austerity point of view is more about maintaining faith in a country’s financial health, and therefore keeping bond rates low; in the U.S., that’s either working or not a concern, depending on how you interpret the market data.
Looking at the past
Historical data on government-mandated austerity is inauspicious at best. In an illuminating and prescient series of reports by NPR’s Planet Money team, two similar countries, Jamaica and Barbados, were analyzed as they both suffered financial crises. Both went to the IMF for foreign currency loans in the early 1990s, and both were told they were going to have to take austerity measures to make sure this situation didn’t happen again.
The IMF has two suggestions:
- devalue currency, or
- cut government services
Most countries simply cut government services, as the U.S. is planning to do do. When the people of the country have less money in their pockets, the idea goes, they can’t buy so much — so that foreign money comes into the country via tourism and trade, but the people aren’t spending it on foreign goods (because they’re too poor), re-establishing a balance.
In Jamaica, the government sucked it up and cut services. Classrooms got bigger; infrastructure support was cut; public service jobs were eliminated. But in Barbados, the unions, the government, and businesses got together and negotiated a deal: keep all government services in place, keep classrooms small and public health services running, but workers would get an across-the-board 8% pay cut. To make up for that, businesses agreed not to raise prices, but accept smaller margins on goods in inflationary situations.
Two decades later, things have gone from bad to worse in Jamaica, while Barbados’ economy is strong. As the Planet Money commentators reported, today:
Median income in Barbados is twice what it is in Jamaica. Literacy rate in Barbados, over 95% … in Jamaica, it’s estimated that a fifth of the population is functionally illiterate. And Jamaica has one of the highest murder rates in the world, while Barbados is near the bottom.
Given our country’s size, and the near-constant change in the tone and party of leadership, it’s unlikely that we’d end up like Jamaica — not, at least, in many respects. But economists agree that the very worst thing to do in a period of joblessness is to reduce spending. An economy will not improve (at least not quickly) if you take away income from the people most likely to spend it right away.
Running the government like a family
How can you improve revenue in a tight economy with very high unemployment? By putting people to work. And historically in economies like the U.S., that has best been accomplished by giving them government jobs.
My own grandfather was one of the three million men employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a model many pundits believe should be duplicated today. That would put money in people’s pockets, stimulating the economy, increasing the prospects for businesses so they could hire more people, thereby increasing tax revenue and decreasing the need for services — while the deficit would at first increase, it would quickly decrease until our budget was more manageable.
That’s not what is happening. Instead, we are — as politicians say — running our government like a family. The problem is that government should not be run like a family, as its mission is very different than that of a family. Let me make an analogy that may seem Swiftian but I believe is, in fact, simply a reflection of our modern political will.
As government’s debt increases, Washington has moved to take away services from the weakest members of society — those who have been unemployed for many months, older Americans who are dependent on Medicare and Medicaid, families struggling below the poverty line, families with mentally ill children or adults.
If we were to compare this to our own families, it would be something like this: Dad lost his job and Mom’s hours were cut. We have to pay our rent and our utilities and buy food and pay the credit card bill. But we have to live within our means! Let’s stop paying to feed and clothe this four-year-old with severe ADHD (he’s so hard to deal with and makes Mom miss work all the time). And Dad can go too (he should just look harder for a job — he needs more of an incentive to get back to work!).
So, maybe a government should be like a family, but in this way: Just as we don’t pull services (food and a key to the front door) out from under members of our immediate family when they’re not producing, a government will end up with bigger problems if it does the same.
A higher calling
But a government’s potential problems are different than a family’s. A government does not have a finite time frame, and will not stand to inherit money when Aunt Sue dies. A government must be concerned with the impacts of its fiscal decisions on both a huge variety of stakeholders — citizens, corporate “people,” public organizations, global markets, third world countries, trading partners — as well as the long term realities of governmental spending.
- Invest in nutrition programs for two-year-olds today, and perhaps you will save money in 10 years (less special education requirements) and 20 years (better employment and less crime) and 60 (healthy eating habits means older citizens require less medical help).
- Take money away from programs meant to encourage community support and sex education for teens, and perhaps you will be spending more in five years (health care for pregnant women and infants) and in 20 years (when their children reach adulthood; statistics show children born to teen mothers are more likely to unemployed and to be teen parents themselves).
When a family is low on income, it makes sense for it to cut spending (but not at the expense of its weakest members). When a government is low on income? That’s when it should be spending the most, to support those weak members of the society and to invest its citizens with wealth to spread back to the government.
The best way to “create wealth” in an economy is to make sure all members of the economy feel safe enough to take risks, from buying homes to spending for education to starting new businesses. This can’t be done by pulling the safety net away.
The government simply has a higher order of responsibility than a nuclear family, not just to pay its bills but to maintain an ordered and fair economy. With unusually high unemployment, the new norm in many families is disorder, distress and chaos. Washington has a choice: make its citizens feel safe with jobs, social services, health care, and other spending, or face growing resentment and panic among Americans.Note: Historically, GRS doesn’t do politics. Gilbert feels strongly about this issue, and is willing to take the heat. As always, it’s fine to disagree with her and your fellow readers, but please do so respectfully. Keep the conversation civil and everything will be cool.Addendum: Thanks for a civil, stimulating conversation so far, everyone. And no worries: This article is an exception to the rule, not an indication of wholesale changes to the site. Finally, here’s a recent post from my friend Adam Baker about what we can learn from the debt ceiling debacle. It takes the opposite view from Gilbert’s article.
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Fox recently decided to delay the availability of its programs on Hulu by eight days; TorrentFreak tracked the number of BitTorrent downloads of Fox’s programming before and after the policy took effect, and, predictably, piracy surged when the legit channel degraded:
Over the last week TorrentFreak tracked two Fox shows on BitTorrent to see if there was an upturn in the number of downloads compared to the previous weeks, and the results are as expected. For both Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef the download numbers have surged.
During the first 5 days, the number of downloads from the U.S. for the latest episode of Hell’s Kitchen increased by 114% compared to the previous 3 episodes. For MasterChef the upturn was even higher with 189% more downloads from the U.S. For MasterChef; the extra high demand may in part have been facilitated by the fact that it was the season finale.
Aside from BitTorrent, there are of course many other options for people to catch up with a missed episode. YouTube for example, from where tens of thousands of people streamed the latest Hell’s Kitchen episode.
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I scared myself while drawing this cartoon. Spiders!
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