Ahead of the (eagerly anticipated) release of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, I’ve been quickly “working” my way through Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. Yesterday, this came as something of a blessed relief after all the trauma of Ori and The Blind Forest, and it was nice to both have fun, and (if I’m being honest) to not to feel like I was an utterly incompetent and hilariously unskilled shitdribble. That’s great in and of itself, obviously, but it also got me thinking about the idea of Ongoing Narrative in Games, and just quite how it all works. See, I was playing through the previous games so’s that ‘the story so far’ stuff was reasonably fresh in my (rapidly aging) memory again, and to just generally reacquaint myself with all of the particular nuances and minutiae of Drake’s Universe before jumping back into it. Obviously, ongoing series etc are a staple of other media; most obviously television, but also books, and films (and films of those books – see pretty much every ‘Young Adult ‘ series published in the last 10 years), but in a few key ways I think games are different – and commendably so.
Whereas most of us wouldn’t entertain the idea of reading book four in an ongoing series without having read the first three (ditto watching films) for example, I suspect most of us would happily consider dipping into a Gaming narrative somewhere in the middle, or even right at the end. There’ll undoubtedly be people who will play Uncharted 4 without having played any of the previous games – and here’s the really cool bit – that won’t necessarily be an issue for them.
Indeed, Games are great in that they often function within the context of an ongoing narrative, or Universe, but often also as stand alone experiences. Your having played previous installments isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to enjoying a mid-series game, but – again, really cool bit here – it often augments that enjoyment, with little references and knowing nods to previous events, or characters or whatever. I wasn’t re-visiting Drake’s Universe because I had to, but because I wanted to, because I felt it would be beneficial in small, but likely really cool ways if that experience was fresh in my memory.
And actually, when you think about it, that’s a testament to the skill of a game’s writers, and I think it’s a genuinely cool feature of gaming that’s often overlooked and/or not given enough credit, and that’s particularly ironic given some of the ‘mindless, violent nonsense’ stuff that’s frequently thrown at video games by your ‘won’t somebody please think of the children’ types. To put it into perspective, think about a series of books or films you’ve enjoyed, and imagine reading/watching from the middle (or the end, basically anything other than all of them in the right order) and think about how utterly confusing it would probably be. Hell, we’ve all watched the second or third part of a trilogy with somebody who’s not seen the others, and we’ve all – at some point – wanted to rip our own ears off just so we don’t have to listen to the ‘who’s that?’, ‘what’s x got to do with y’ type questions anymore. As skilled as a writer/screenwriter is – aside from by using ridiculous and unwieldy levels of exposition – they nearly always struggle to crack that stand-alone/ongoing Universe formula, but it’s something game writers and designers have been pulling off for quite a while.
To some extent, that was accomplished out of necessity (because of a series spanning several console generations, when expecting everybody to have played everything was unrealistic, for example) but it’s still a fairly remarkable achievement anyway. Take the Resident Evil franchise, and consider how each game functions both in isolation and as part of an ongoing set of events and characters – and you get a decent idea of the skill and ingenuity involved. Compare that with, say, The Marvel Universe (particularly all The Avenger-ey bits) and you appreciate that skill a bit more, I think. A few of the Avenger things work in isolation, but the bigger that Universe has gotten (because, like, kerching!) the more they’ve had to rely on specifically and explicitly referring to other parts of it. Trying to watch Agents of Shield without having seen The Avengers (and not knowing what the fuckity-fuck The Battle of New York was, for example) would considerably limit your understanding and enjoyment of it, I suspect. In essence, the narrative often hinges on you having seen something else – whereas in games it doesn’t, but having played something else might help with an inside joke, or make on offhand remark slightly more interesting, or whatever.
The final test of this is to consider the recent trend (in film and TV) of the whole ‘prequel’ phenomenon. Because a prequel is made after an original film (or series) they’ll usually augment a particular story – adding context, back-story etc, and it’ll then also likely become possible to watch it before the original film(s) henceforth, which is all quite cool and whatnot. Setting aside arguments about quality and canon etc, The Star Wars films can now be watched 1-6 by newcomers, but watching 4-6, then 1-3 worked equally well for original fans, and the new Star Wars film can now fit in quite nicely after either approach. In general, that’s all quite clever (prequels have to be very well thought-out, and precisely because they have to accommodate both before and after viewing), but again, that’s something that’s existed with games for quite a while, I’d argue.
There are some exceptions, obviously, but for the most part we can dive into a Gaming Universe at any point, and then if it’s near the middle, it’s usually perfectly OK to work either forwards or backwards from that initial starting point. Many’s the time I’ve picked up a cheap copy of a “middle” game in a series, got hooked, and then filled out the universe in a way of my own choosing – sometimes working forwards then going backwards to before that game, sometimes working from the beginning, before going forwards from the point I’d joined. Precisely because games have adapted to the stand-alone/ongoing narrative thing, and often skilfully so, it’s possible to enter a Gaming Universe at any point, and be quite free to explore it however you so wish thereafter.
Anyways, my only real point here is that I’d never really thought about this before, but having thought about it now, I think it really is something worthy of credit and respect. The skill involved is quite something, and it’s hugely beneficial to Gamers to be able to discover things in their own way, and that we’re free to dive into continuous narratives and worlds as much – or as little – as we’d like. I’m replaying Uncharted because I want to see the end of Nathan Drake’s story (?) having been a part of the rest of it, but I’d likely find it just as compelling if I started at the end and worked backwards.
That’s some genuine, bona fide, mad skillz right there, and I love that Game Narrative-y Peeps (to use their official title) are knocking this ongoing narrative/stand-alone experience stuff out of the park. So, like, if you’re reading Game Narrative-y Peeps, thanks guys. You’re all great and even if I didn’t appreciate all of this before, I totally do now.
February 3, 2016 at 6:40 pm
I have definitely not considered that angle before but I do agree with your assessment. Thinking back to the many games I have played quite a number of them have been part of series yet still would have been playable as stand-alones.
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February 3, 2016 at 7:33 pm
Yeah, it’s pretty clever when you think about how hard it must be to walk that line between ‘part of an ongoing story’ and ‘make sense in its own right’, and a lot of games have done it really well, I think.
February 4, 2016 at 12:59 am
It’s a neat point I had not really thought about until I played Witcher 2, a game known for its story, without having played Witcher 1. There was difficulty in getting up to speed, but it wasn’t like picking up two towers with reading fellowship.
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February 4, 2016 at 10:28 am
Ah. I’m hoping to play The Witcher 3 in the not-too-distant future (without having played 1 or 2); am I going to have to take my whole ‘games work as stand-alone stories’ thing back? Or can I still get the gist of stuff without playing the first two?