Monday, September 8, 2014

Don't Scratch On The Story

Here's a story about the importance of stories.

Flashback to the summer of 2007, I had recently suffered the breakdown of a romantic engagement. It turned out that my then-fiance was cheating on me, so I had to put an end to our long relationship. Some guys would have wallowed in alcohol to drown their sorrows, but I chose to bury mine under a mountain of pixels instead. The pixels in turn were coming from an unusual genre, one I had only just begun to explore.

The genre was "billiards simulations", pool games. I had always enjoyed playing pool in real life, even though I wasn't particularly skilled at it. Thus I felt compelled to give pool games a try. They were after all cheaper, more convenient, and less embarrassing than playing badly at an actual pool hall. To my surprise, I had discovered the original PlayStation had more than a few of these titles (about 25 if you count international releases). That was good because I was financially challenged at that time. The only physical console in my living room back then, was actually an original PlayStation.  So for a while it was just myself, an old couch, a small CRT TV, and that beat up old PlayStation. I may not have had love or money, but I had plenty of belated billiards.

In the midst of my broken heart depression, I started scouring pool sims from local discount stores. This was an inexpensive affair, because would you believe the market for vintage billiards games depreciates quickly? Every day I would go to work only to spend my lunch hour finding a new pool game. Then I'd come home and bury my head in angles and trick shots all night.  Yes we do strange things when we have broken hearts.  All the same it helped keep my head from thinking about someone else's cue stick knocking balls into a side pocket that used to be mine.

Eventually this fascination with pool sims started to wind down. But just as I was about to hang up my virtual rack, I came across one game that spoke to my heart instead of my escapism.  This came as quite a surprise.  I'd say if you asked me where I was going to find a story in a video game that would resonate with my then-sadness, the last place I would have guessed would be from a pool simulation. Nonetheless, that's exactly what happened when I played Backstreet Billiards.

Backstreet Billiards was published in the USA in 1998 by Ascii Entertainment. As a pool simulation, it had been left in the dust by far more recent evolutions of the genre on newer more powerful consoles. Its physics model was obsolete and its graphics had aged less than gracefully. After all, this was 2007, Backstreet Billiards was nearly a decade old by then. Who cared about playing pool with a controller when you could push a Wii Remote as a virtual cue?  All the same, one aspect of a video game has the ability to never age, to never become obsolete, for it is immune to hardware obsolescence.  A game's story.

Allow me to give a quick run down of Backstreet Billiards' story. You play as a young man who is seeking his recently deceased famous pool ace father's legendary cue stick. It has been stolen by an unknown thief, thus you begin to search your way through the pool playing underground in hope of reclaiming your lost heritage. When you beat key characters at pool, they reveal to you more clues and leads as to who the unknown thief actually is. Now, Backstreet Billiards' story was not earth shattering, granted.  It did not mire itself in melodrama, pathos, or any grandiose ambition. But it did manage to entice emotion from my recently wounded soul regardless. The key emotion was empathy.  Empathy is why I still remember Backstreet Billiards, while I scarcely remember any of the other pool games I played during that time.

The young man seeking the pool cue was only doing so on the surface. Superficially speaking, he wanted it back for heritage purposes, sure. But on a deeper level, this man unknowingly was trying to get a piece of his father back. If he could just hold that stolen pool cue again, he'd be that much closer to the dad he'd just lost. And that aspect of the story resonated with me. I too had just lost something to a death recently. The death of a relationship, the loss of trust, and the theft of my own sense of self worth. Maybe all those nights playing virtual pool matches I was simply trying to win at something again.  Was I trying to attain small senses of victory to dissuade the pangs of being a loser at love?  It's a feasible possibility. 


Backstreet Billiards, by its simple merit of having a decent story, made something as banal as a pool simulation become so much more. When I realized the power of this, the possibilities seemed limitless for games' emotional potential. You could make a pong game seem meaningful by simply inserting a well written story into it. Indeed with proper cut scenes, you could forge a murder mystery out of Tetris. Ten years from now, you'd still remember how Sergeant Smash lost his leg in the best Minesweeper clone you ever played.  All because of the power of a good story.

Story is what gives meaning to all those pixels on the screen.  And a good story does even more than that, it infuses humanity into what amounts to cold  digital technology without it. There likely will come a day when I can play billiards in virtual reality, with graphics indistinguishable from real life. Yet even then, I would still swear that Backstreet Billiards is the best pool game ever made. All because Backstreet Billiards spoke to my heart, instead of just my eyes.  Truly games that base their sole merit on graphics hang their worth upon an expiration date.

I believe modern video games have astounding graphics, fantastic audio, a plethora of control options, and a healthy variety of genres to choose from.  But I do not believe video games as a holistic medium have enough heart in them.  There are a few titles that stand out (CiNG's stuff for sure), but exceptions don't make the common rule.  I truly hope in the future more game developers come to realize just how important a proper plot truly is. Well designed stories, characters, and dialogue are what make society at large respect books and film as a critical medium.  As a species humans love being told tales.  It's probably genetic.  It stands to reason then, that solid well written plots can excel video games to the culturally exalted status other mediums enjoy.

We have amazing programmers, artists, musicians, and gameplay designers.  What we don't have enough of though, is amazing game writers.  Game studios should strive to always remember the importance of story.  To never forget to infuse some legitimate humanity into the mix of bits and pixels.  If you manage to make your player feel raw emotion, instead of just mechanical reaction, you stand a chance of enticing empathy.  And empathy inevitably makes a person feel closer to something. If that something is a video game, than that player shall cherish and remember said video game possibly the rest of their life.  And when they do, they will remember that game as a life experience unto itself, rather than just an entertaining distraction from other life experiences around them.

Technology always has an expiration date, but a well written story never expires. For now, video game escapism and actual player empathy hit like an 8-ball and a lucky call.  There's just far too many missed shots.  Developers,  it's time to step up your game as a whole.  A good game designer is not necessarily a good game writer.  So it's time to consistently hire actual writers to write the plots of video games.  Or are we all content to let books and films keep hustling games at the table?  A broken heart can fall in love anew, even with a video game.  Let the games love us back more often then, and maybe our wallets won't cheat on them as much.

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