What is Next-Gen? Part 2: Narrative

Tuesday, October 21, 2008
There is, I believe, a very specific element of gaming today that differentiates "next-gen" from, well...not. That element is narrative.

Now, that's sort of a beefy thing to say--narrative is an awfully big element and to talk about it without narrowing it down would be a huge waste of time. Thus, I'm going to touch on the two distinct types of narrative (although there are more) that I think have the greatest impact on whether of not a game is "Next-Gen" or not.

Just to recap: I think the term Next-Gen is a loaded marketing statement. However, there is a marked difference between this generation's games and the last, as has been true of every leap in technology since the inception of gaming. Up until now, the "next gen" has always been looked at comparatively in terms of graphics, for the most part.

That's no longer the case. Now, proliferation of advanced engines makes good graphics relatively easy to accomplish, compared to past generation. Thus, setting a game apart form its contemporaries requires all aspects of it to go above and beyond the call of graphical prowess. The most important of these is in-game narrative.

1. In-Game Narrative

Contrary to what you may initially think, this doesn't translate directly into "story", (although obviously it includes it--games like Metal Gear Solid 4 come immediately to mind). What I mean by in-game narrative is how well the game works as a self-contained world. Because of this, even otherwise tired ideas found in fighting games, shooters, or even sports--such as defending (insert planet, race or object) from an alien invasion, a la Space Invaders, Halo 3 or Resistance: Fall of Man--can have a compelling, self-contained narrative that drives the game and sets it above other, similar games.

This is accomplished by creating a tight mythology, using a unique visual STYLE (as well as narrative style, (meaning any in-game narration/dialogue 'fits' within the universe of the game. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, although canned, accomplishes this and sets it above many other adventure games) and connecting with the player on *some* level beyond the cause and effect of using the controller--whether through epic music, story, compelling character, or extremely satisfying gameplay, (e.g., remember the first time you did a fatality in Mortal Kombat? Crap story, okay mechanics, but HOLY FUCK DUDE I JUST PULLED YOUR SPINE OUT!!)

Thus, creating a compelling game narrative is what sets apart similar games with what has, today, become common graphical power. This is why similar games such as GTAIV, Virtua Fighter 5, and Halo (franchise) succeed where other, similar games such as Saint's Row, Dead or Alive or Haze fall short(er).

2. Player Narrative

The second narrative is even more important than the first, and it is one that gamers once knew, then lost, and are now finding again in the age of online play. That is, of course, player narrative. This means the anecdotes we tell and the memories we share from actually playing the games. For example, Malech and I spent a couple days last week exploring the Little Big Planet beta. While the game is fantastic, what I'll remember for even longer is the *time* we spent connecting through it, along with other players via the PSN. Player narrative encompasses the social aspect of gaming, the memory of playing a game--that is, making a game fun enough to play, talk about, remember, and share with others. Little Big Planet is a perfect game for this, but things like Far Cry 2's epic map creator, Warhawk's intense online battles in which rivals are eternally made and friendships forged, Halo 3's fantastic video capture / share system, and even single-player games best shared with a friend, like Silent Hill 5, fall into the realm of creating excellent player narrative.

Thus, player narrative is created when a game is forced to stand out by becoming memorable not for its visuals--if this were true, we'd all gush over Lair--but for the *experience* we had playing it. While this has always been true of gaming, it's never been as important as it is today when graphics are, largely, inconsequential in terms of overall game quality.

It is these two narratives that, today, set a "next gen" game apart from something of days past. While we experienced these narratives in fantastic classic games like Final Fantasy VII (can you believe it's been eleven years?), StarFox, and Super Mario Bros. 3, graphics were all much more important as memory anchors--that is, something that creates a lasting impression--than today. Today, gamers demand solid gold for their time, and the gold isn't found in the gloss on the screen, but in the reactions and memories of the players themselves.