Things to know before reading. This isn’t a game review, although there are very minor spoilers for Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons (Xbox 360, PS3, Steam) and Abe’s Oddysee (PS1), plus I once read the Wikipedia article on Aristotle’s Classical Unities. If you take nothing else away from this piece, remember that last one. I read a thing once and it was great.
A year or two ago I played the fairly-short but excellent Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons. If you’re not familiar it’s a bucolic fantasy exploration/fetch-quest game where you play the titular siblings, controlling one with each thumbstick. Most of your challenges/puzzles are environmental and require the two brothers to work together. Graphics are gorgeous, dialogue is minimal and there’s an emotional heft arising in part from the fact that your quest is for a cure for your father. There’s also a moment when you have to ride goats up a mountain. I laughed with delight at the ungainliness of it and so did my brother, that’s how well the game works at creating the experience it aims to. Think of it as Ico (PS2) without the castle. Definitely recommended, try to play it unspoiled.
Part of the pleasure and success of Brothers is the seamless experience. Like the protagonists of The Hobbit or The Lord Of The Rings you start out from home and travel through the local town to gradually more wild and dangerous regions. The player experiences the brothers’ journey with them, being in control every step of the way. This feeds into the sense of place, emphasising their physical and temporal distance from home.
I say “seamless experience”, but there’s an exception which is the occasional blank screen/puzzle reset when you fail. The game is very forgiving in this aspect but it is possible, in my case usually by one brother falling from a branch or ledge whilst I’m over-focussing my attention on controlling the other.
The classic Space Invaders/Pac-Man pinball-derived “3 Lives for 10p” system has been replaced in modern single-player games (even the ostensibly more hardcore) by a willingness to allow the player to retry from a checkpoint until they complete a section. This eases some pressure but doesn’t simplify everything. Nor does it solve the fact that I’ve got an essentially-abandonded save where I’m stuck at a tricky part on 90% of my Xbox 360 games. I believe that the change is traceable to the increased importance placed in narrative in games, as well as the fact that people buying a game have a reasonable expectation to be able experience most/all of its content*
I was always struck by how elegantly Abe’s Oddysee, the game I associate most strongly with this approach and another A-to-B travelling game like Brothers, dealt with this. Call it the “Lives Problem”, i.e. how do the designers reconcile reasonable challenge with access to later game content. The whole game takes place as a flashback, Abe having been captured in the opening FMV. Therefore, every time you make a mistake and Abe dies, the return to the previous checkpoint functions as a correction to a false narrative. You can almost hear the voice of the Glukkon interrogating him, “No, that’s not how it happened. Tell me again!” (That’s my interpretation mind you, not something explicitly stated by the game itself, but certainly supported by the game-as-text IMHO)
Right, back on topic, when I was trying to put my finger on what I liked so much about Brothers during my original playthrough, it was the sense of continuity that I identified as key. That put me in mind of the aforementioned Wikipedia article on the Three Unities which were distilled from the writings of Aristotle. Here they are for your convenience, per Wikipedia:
- Unity Of Action: a play should have one action that it follows, with minimal subplots;
- Unity Of Time: the action in a play should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours;
- Unity Of Place: a play should exist in a single physical space and should not attempt to compress geography, nor should the stage represent more than one place.
Obviously games aren’t plays (nor films) and also these rules are treated these days as more a stick to measure against than something prescriptive. Rather irritatingly I’ve lost my few scribbled notes from around the time, but it’s interesting to consider a few things. Firstly how does Brothers match up against these unities, broadly-speaking?
- Unity Of Action: Yep, one plot, one through-line. The game’s on rails;
- Unity Of Time: I’m fuzzy, time proceeds linearly, but could be a couple of days;
- Unity Of Place: Very yes, as described above
Secondly, these three Unities seem insufficient for gaming, which is best described as a strongly-interactive medium. Better informed people than I will tell you that film and novels are also interactive, in that the viewer/reader undertakes a creative or interpretative function. Theatre is additionally interactive in that actors can sense and play differently to (or against?) their audience. Computer and video games though for the most part** take frequent if not constant input and are in a different class. Hence I’d propose for our purposes another Unity, namely Unity Of Control (or Input?)
Remember none of these rules are prescriptive, nor do they set out to define what is a good game over a bad one, but I think they are an interesting lense through which to look at what we play.
So, after a bit of thought:
Unity Of Control: The player should be able to influence what happens in the game(space) at all times.
What I mean by this is that, ideally, there should never be a moment in the game when the player’s input is ignored. This is strict, but no more so than the 24 hour timespan limitation and less arbitrary to boot. Like the Unity Of Time, I think it can be fudged or ignored as necessary, but there’s also value to not doing so.
How do games fare against the Unity Of Control? Brothers passes, the briefest of black screens as it perhaps violates other Unities’ post-death notwithstanding. Abe’s Oddysee? Fails hard, on the strength of the long, gorgeous FMV, loading (GET OVER IT!) and those great little post-death guitar-sound Slig taunts. Space Invaders? Pass! Pac-Man? Another fail, humorous cutscenes abound! Pitfall II (Atari 2600)? Fail, you actually have to watch Harry float back to the last checkpoint, bleeding from his score. Tetris? An easy pass, depending on version. Final Fantasy VII (PS1, PC)? Utter fail! Not only the long FMVs, but unavoidable game-stopping disc swaps. The hyrid-online Dark Souls (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) passes I think, but I haven’t progressed very deeply into it.
If you weren’t already I hope you’re fully appreciating that the quality of a game is in no way related to whether it passes or fails this test.
We can think about what common game elements or supporting architecture probably prevent it passing cleanly:
- Stopping to load and/or loading screens
- Straight FMVs (gameplay over FMV like the hovering Squall battle scene in FFVIII (PS1) is fine)
- Non-interactive cut-scenes (MGS-style camera control is a definite pass)
- Most ingame menu systems (ambiguous, why not argue in the comments below?)
- Player [post-]death animations, musical stings, delays, etc
A ludicrously-strict interpretation might ban the Pause button. Of course the concept of pausing doesn’t even exist in online play, so even that condition is potentially passable.
I suspect most games which pass are likely to be puzzle games or simpler 8-bit/Flash games. Thinking about this also raises the question of “Where is the game[play]?” for things like the WipeOut and Gran Turismo series or sports games which seek to replicate a season. If you’re always in control even during the menus, I’d say that’s a pass provided loading is seamless. I might return to the question of where a game is another time, as it’s one I’ve found myself bumping up against before from another angle.
Finally, I’m really interested in hearing what I’ve neglected, forgotten, misstated or misunderstood. I’d also like to hear how you think either popular or your favourite games measure up and especially if you can identify any more narrative(-ish) games which deliver that seamless experience I’m trying to pin down.
Thanks for reading and as Retrolechuck always says, don’t forget to check out some of the excellent posts by the other bloggers on VGR2016.
* this seems like an assertion ripe for debating, but I don’t want to go off on too many tangents
** Dragon’s Lair (Arcade, etc), Mega-CD FMV games and similar are things which exist and are games
You just got burnt by the controller