Audiologs and the Evolution of Game Storytelling

When Bioshock Infinite released earlier this year, I knew that something was desperately missing from the whole experience. I’ve never been able to put my finger on what, and all I knew for certain was that it felt like a highly conflicted game. On one hand, it wants to be an epic action game full of fast paced combat and set pieces and on the other it’s trying to deliver a story through audio logs with a fair amount of nuance, which needs time and subtlety to develop.

Recently I played both Infinite’s second piece of DLC, Burial at Sea (part 1), and Gone Home, two very contrasting titles both in what they attempt to accomplish, and how they utilize their resources. Burial at Sea, for all the money and beauty thrown at it, still fails to do justice to its incredible world. On the other end of the spectrum, the Fullbright Company’s debut title, Gone Home, manages to tell a nuanced, well written, gameplay driven narrative, all in the confines of a solitary pacific northwestern house.

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Burial at Sea is a highly frustrating piece of DLC because it once again relies almost solely on combat, but I didn’t exactly have an answer for what I wanted in its place. Gone Home provided me with an answer. It’s an experience that so heavily relies on audio journals and environmental storytelling, and absolutely believes that action set pieces aren’t integral to creating a memorable and substantial experience.

But first, let’s talk about Bioshock Infinite itself. I had a fantastic time with Infinite, and I have no problem putting it on my short list for game of the year. My greater criticism with Infinite, like many others, came from my frustration with it as a shooter, and although it is a serviceable and fairly enjoyable one, I couldn’t help but want something different to do in Columbia.

I realize this is probably an unfair complaint; to criticize a first person shooter for being, well, about shooting dudes in the face, but it’s hard not to imagine the narrative and gameplay possibilities abound in a city like Columbia. Infinite is a highly limiting experience, forcing the player to simply hold forward and take in the astounding art direction, rather than do anything meaningful in the environment. Shooting hordes of enemies doesn’t exactly capture themes of American idealism or racism; instead we are mere tourists, walking around in this beautiful theme park of symbolism.

Even more troubling is the game’s use of audio logs, which comes off as a dated and forced form of storytelling. Audio logs were justified in both System Shock 2 and the original Bioshock because we were visiting areas that had been destroyed and by seeing the destroyed surroundings, we could piece the story together ourselves. In Infinite, we’re part of the conflict at hand, so picking up a randomly placed audio log recorded by Comstock justifying racism in Columbia when all hell is breaking loose around us, is an ineffective and ham-fisted way of delivering narrative.

Burial at Sea carries these issues as well, and it’s especially egregious due to the distinct split the DLC makes in its structure. For the first half hour of the DLC, you’re tasked with a fetch quest that at the very least has you exploring parts of a small hub area in Rapture. It’s not particularly engaging or fun, but it does at least allow you to do more than hold forward and take in the scenery. After a short cutscene, we’re right back to typical Bioshock, as if nothing has changed or been addressed. In this dilapidated part of Rapture, we’re laser focused on combat, which isn’t really all that fun or well-paced. It’s instead incredibly frustrating due to the constrained level design and poor weapon balancing due to the addition of ammo scarcity.

And again we’re back to picking up audio logs, listening to the tales of denizens of a mall turned prison in a long forsaken area of Rapture. When the apparent promises of Burial at Sea are to visit Rapture before the fall, and to experience the city before it all went to shit, it seems rather insulting to be taken right back to convention. Yet even with this, it’s done almost exactly as in Infinite. The amount of enemies is staggering here, and too often I found myself picking up audio logs and being unable to even listen to them due to the constant flow of combat thrown at me. It’s quite frankly upsetting to blatantly see storytelling and gameplay in total odds with each other, and Burial at Sea makes no attempts to even hide it.

This brings me to Gone Home, a fantastic exercise in allowing the player to discover things, and piece the narrative together for themselves. It’s strong example of narrative being delivered through pure gameplay, and neither facet ever feels slighted or hindered because of each other. The items in this house are rendered in excruciating detail. Everything from a simple binder or the high resolution text on a small nametag attached to a coat, serves to convey information about the Greenbriar family: the inhabitants of the house. Not all of it is useful or interesting, but it helps to build this narrative in our heads, and to establish context for Sam, the focal point of our story.

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Gone Home succeeds due to its emphasis on player discovery. We take an oddly creepy voyeuristic enjoyment from rummaging through the belongings of these people, some of which are deeply personal. While Sam’s personal journey of identity and her relationship with Lonnie is the heart of the story here, the personal straining of her parents’ relationship and the discovery of our own player character as an overachiever, form the context through which Sam lives in. It’s slowly unveiled to us, possibly through reading of past letters not meant for our eyes, or even an array of old trophies showcasing our player character’s past achievements.

Sam’s audio journals are likewise well paced and smartly distributed. Apart from being fantastically voice acted and written, these journals kick in at just the right moment, like when we pick up a particular relevant object, or stumble into certain hidden room. The pacing of the logs becomes more frantic towards to the end, in perfect alignment with the player’s desire to uncover what lies in the game’s final room. Most of all, it’s done with an exacting focus. We only hear the voice of one character, and she tells a compelling and thoughtful story that accurately captures a specific personality of not just one, but two well realized characters.

This is where Gone Home triumphs where games like Bioshock Infinite and its DLC could not. Despite the generally simple and mundane setting we’re presented, it somehow manages to bring about discovery, wonder, and tension, all without ever presenting much of a threat to the player. Characters feel fleshed out and human, a facet made more impressive due to the fact that two of them never speak a word, and all three are never even modeled in game.

Where Infinite and Burial at Sea struggle to balance engaging the player in action, and telling a nuanced story, Gone Home defies that very logic and boldly claims that games can be both fun, and vehicles for brilliant stories, by taking full advantage of the potential of games as a medium.

However, it’s easy to make the claim that Gone Home is too brief of an experience, and the mechanics aren’t substantial enough to carry a game with the scope of a $60 retail title like Bioshock Infinite. In that case, that claim would probably be right. I definitely wouldn’t pay $60 for Gone Home, just as I wouldn’t pay $60 for say, the original Portal, an all-time classic which had a 2 hour length at best.  Perhaps the greater problem here is an issue of value; preconceived notions that a good $60 game will always be better than the best low budget title. It’s a topic for another post I suppose, but if titles like Gone Home constitute the cream of the crop of low budget games, it won’t take long for those notions to finally breakdown.

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