It’s all about the narrative. This week, two games, both widely divergent in theme and scope, caught my fancy because of their stories. Neither will likely sell like L.A. Noire here in the U.S., one because it’s too small, and the other, because its nightmarish tale is weird and long-winded. Yet both are fascinating examples of how plot can inform the design of video games.
Catherine (Atlus Games) is a nightmare of a game. It’s rife with long, angst-filled scenes from main character and semi-slacker Vincent Brooks. He spouts words of drunken introspection and contemplation that give way to excellent timed puzzles. These eventually become so difficult, you feel like Sisyphus. You frantically try to climb a high tower to get to freedom from your horrible dreams. You often fail, only to begin again. What causes these dreams of terror is unveiled in the story, but it’s about the guilt that comes when you cheat on your significant other. Less so, it’s about giving up the single life after being pressured into marriage.
Catherine’s story of yearning and worry has been said by critics to be so wonderfully based in real-life situations (which unfold prior to the nightmares) that it’s a must-buy for gamers. But the dialog and drama are uneven. And sometimes they’re banal and predictable. The nightmares are strange, not scary: you converse with the paranoid sheep of your dreams, for instance.
If the game makers had actually been able to pull off constant feelings of terror in addition the tension and oddness that marks real-life dreams, Catherine would have been one of the year’s best games. It’s still very much worth its hours of play, if only to see how the Japanese tell the story of relationships gone ironically awry circa 2011.
Bastion (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment), on the other hand, offers the kind of people who like Mario games a tightly-written story full of oomph, humor and comic-book-like pizzazz. Bastion feels both like a platformer and a role playing, and game journalists have piled on so much love in the few days of its release that it’s become a critics’ darling. While the hype is somewhat overblown, Bastion is a fine game with a lot of variety in terms of weapons and power ups to use on your journey.
As The Kid, a silent, but ardent and heroic character, you must rid the country of strange beasts that appear after a disaster dubbed only as The Calamity. Yet the primary feature that makes Bastion a cut above the rest is the tight, witty writing. It’s voiced by Logan Cunningham, who has a god-like, strong and booming voice, somewhat like James Earl Jones. Whoever penned this game should be writing dialog in Hollywood. It’s that good. The music is never jarring or weird. In fact, it’s a component that energizes your resolve and helps to drive you forward.
Bastion isn’t a perfect game. Its game design, while varied, doesn’t break much new ground, for instance. Yet there’s that writing. Man, it’s tight, inspired and seemingly live — in that the narrator actually reacts to the moves and decisions you make. He’s your guide, the person you look up to. As the narrator says, “You ain’t in this alone. That’s a promise.”