BITMAPS #53 – Gears of War 2: A Revolution in Interactive Storytelling

BITMAPS

Howdy

"BITMAPS? What’s all this about? And why is it starting with #53?"

Excellent questions both!

BITMAPS is a column I write once a week, which will now be featured here on TGR every Monday. The goal is both nebulous and simple at the same time – to discuss and explore some of the more obscure elements of video games. This can include elements of game design to moves of big business to issues facing game journalism coverage. The "thinking man’s video game column," if such a mythical thing could be. Oh yes, and the title is corny. It is intentionally so.

Does this sound interesting? More likely, does it sound pretentious? Either way, if you’re still reading I’ve succeeded in my own small way, and I will hold that dear.

Warm and fuzzy
This is a physical manifestation of how good your continued reading makes me feel.

As far as the second question – the answer is quite simple. There are actually 52 other BITMAPSes already, although they have run on another website. I thought of resetting my volume number for TGR, but I ultimately struck that notion. Having a number as big as 53 tacked on to the end of my column seems to impart a bit of credence, doesn’t it? There’s magic there – "Whoa 53 columns, that’s a lot more than four or seven. I will do well here."

Gears 2

Gears of War 2’s dialogue has been derided by some of gaming culture’s giant figures as well as sources not so credible. I can certainly understand some of the complaints levied against the narrative presented in Gears, and more specifically how it is delivered. However, the complaints – even when correctly spelled and grammatically sound – revolve around how the dialogue in Gears 2 is poor at delivering a story. That may be when judged against a traditional metric, but there’s a problem with that.

Stories can be told through music, written word, movies, paintings – all sorts of art forms. In the most incredible statement I will ever make, I submit that video games are a different medium than all of these, if for no other more obvious reason than it’s spelled differently. Each medium requires different techniques for story presentation. Telling a story through music is different than telling it through, say, a stage play. Mixing the two produces results more destructive and horrible than ex-girlfriends and alcohol.

Grease
Behold – a fate worse than death.

Video games, by virtue of being a different medium, require a different way of presenting stories. Gears 2 uses lines of dialogue specifically designed with the player’s presence in mind. Characters use dialogue to echo what the player is thinking (or what the developers think the player will think… argh now I have a headache). This helps the player connect and identify with the characters. Allow me to present a few examples:

When the characters are first told about the existence of the Locust queen, one of the characters pipes up with something to the effect of, "What the hell is a queen?" exactly as the question ran through my head. During the sequence where Marcus and Dom ride the elevator sideways through the toppled hotel, Marcus mutters, "Unbelievable," as I marveled at how ridiculous the situation was. While exploring the abandoned COG outpost, Locust show up out of nowhere (presumably just to have something to shoot at). I asked, "Why the hell are Locust here?" out loud a fraction of a second before Dom repeated my question word for word in game. Finally, I played through the campaign with someone who echoed Cole’s line from the first game, "Look at all that juice!" every time emulsion was on the screen. This mystified me. Hearing Baird chide Cole for saying the same thing in the second game was nothing short of magical.

From a storytelling perspective, these are meaningless quips. The character and plot details they impart are negligible. In a movie or book, these statements hardly carry any weight at all. And yet, these events had a profound effect on my enjoyment of the story. While they may not have traditional literary value as we are used to thinking about them, they do something new and special – something unique to video games.

Video games are interactive, which alone separates them from other forms of art. Story presentation can only incorporate so much interactivity – but one could write a whole book about that topic. Traditional thought holds that story interactivity means that the plot should be interactive, or that the player should control the outcome of the story. The dialogue in Gears 2 implements a different approach.

Mass Effect
Dialogue trees and one-liners… the same?

While the story in Gears 2 is altogether linear, the way it’s presented is clearly designed to involve and immerse the player. The designers thought, ’What would the player be thinking about at this moment?’ and wrote dialogue to match. While this doesn’t provide any interaction through the controller to the game, it does take into consideration the gamer’s mental interaction with the story. The player thinks a certain way, and the game responds, forming a new level of interaction. The concept is a bit metaphysical, I’ll grant. Even still, it operates on the same idea as a developer anticipating that a player may want to say a certain thing in game, then coding a conversation tree for it.

These lines helped point out that the characters in the game think and reason like real people would (or, failing that, at least I would). This is very subtle, but very intentional. If the character in the game reacts as I would, then one more barrier has been removed from interactivity and immersion. Since video games are all about interactivity, this is a step in the right direction as far as relaying story in a video game form.

Did you have this experience? If not, what was your impression of the game’s dialogue?

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