Recently, the newest Call of Duty game has been receiving significant online criticism for its apparently crass and ridiculous story; this, per se, is not interesting to me. The games have historically, since no longer being set during WW2, had exploitative and poorly-written stories which began as functional, genre-typical backdrops to a first-person shooter game but over time became even lower-quality and overreliant on shock value to try and recapture the success of Modern Warfare‘s nuclear bomb mission and execution sequence. Those were very good pieces of action storytelling for a computer game; the former was unexpected and brief enough to retain its impact, and the latter was a strong homage to things such as Half-Life‘s introductory sequence. The criticism of Advanced Warfare, though, is interesting because it shows, to me, that there are two very distinct approaches to criticising storytelling in video games. Having not played the game I can only discuss the critical debate around it, but that is the interesting part.
It has been a significant time since I last wrote a narrative battle report based on a wargame I have played, so here is one. As I mentioned in my recent article on “Forging the Narrative” in wargames, Wyrd Miniatures’ Malifaux is an excellent game for marrying narrative and mechanics, meaning that even a fairly straightforward game suggests an exciting story.
For reference, the forces used in this game were:
Mei Feng (Imbued Protection, Price of Progress, Seismic Claws)
Kang (Imbued Protection, People’s Challenge)
2x Rail Worker
2x Metal Gamin
Rasputina (Child of December, December’s Pawn, The Philosopher’s Stone)
Ice Golem (Imbued Protection)
3x Ice Gamin
The schemes and strategy were Turf War, Bodyguard, Breakthrough, Protect Territory and Vendetta. The final score was 7-4 to Mei Feng (4 points from Turf War + 3 from Protect Territory vs 2 points from Turf War + 2 points from Bodyguard). The game was played at Iron Forest Games in Benfleet, with scenery provided by the club.
In a previous article about the card game Netrunner, among other topics, I discussed how board games can combine thematic design with mechanical synergy – and how it is something which counteracts the lack of a narrative in something designed to be played over and over again. Board games, and to a similar extent miniatures-based wargames, need to be repeatable, almost non-narrative experiences because they involve large amounts of direct, unpredictable player interaction. Video games, on the other hand, have the scope in offering single-player experiences to tell a story – there may be different routes through that story, or different scenes to be selected, but there is still a story being told and the aim of the game is to experience it. This is ultimately the crux of the story versus theme dichotomy; the level of variance in the experience, and whether the narrative is crafted as part of the entire work, or emergent from interaction with it.
Kickbeat is marketed as an “innovative rhythm game with a Kung Fu theme,” but its level of innovation, when games like Final Fantasy Theatrhythm have explored adding combat and RPG elements to rhythm games in well-developed ways that closely tie licensed music to game theming, seems quite limited. Kickbeat is a straightforward rhythm game dressed up in theming that impedes play to an extent, and with a selection of music that is small compared to most competitors (Theatrhythm Curtain Call, which came out on handhelds around the same time, has a significantly larger and more varied song library – and even free-to-play rhythm games on mobile like Cytus and Love Live School Idol Festival have comparably sized or larger track lists.)
Kapsula is a puzzle game combining the reflex-testing of an endless runner with the block-matching of a game like Columns; the end result is something a little like Audiosurf but without the soundtrack element. It is well-suited to mobile formats, requiring only minimal inputs and – with a simple failure state and an interface designed to make repeat play as efficient as possible – being built from the ground up for intermittent play sessions. The mobile puzzle and skill game market is gaining a well-established set of ground-rules for designing a good mobile game – it should be as minimalist in terms of getting to play the game as possible, and as easy as possible to try again after a session, since mobile games are often played for short periods of time to fill a break. In this respect, Kapsula works well.
Choice of Games offer a wide selection of choose-your-own-adventure stories in a variety of genres, and were among the first to embrace the genre’s popularity on mobile. While the package on offer in their titles is significantly less polished than a title like Eighty Days or the Fighting Fantasy titles available, the variety of topics covered is refreshing. Mecha Ace represents a foray into animé pastiche, and arguably succeeds.
The rise of mobile gaming and the re-popularisation of the visual novel/management simulator via games such as Sunrider and Long Live the Queen has brought with it a number of solid entries in the genre, but few really capitalise on what computer games can offer the genre. Simply reproducing a gamebook is one thing, but what a piece of software can do is add vastly more options and statistic-tracking while keeping the player’s experience unchanged. Recent mobile release Eighty Days is a good example of this; it is a very pure choose-your-own-adventure experience but one which has depth and variety beyond many examples that add significant depth and interest to keep the player returning.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game which is best discussed after completion; its most interesting ideas, those that set it apart from the mixture of old and new FPS it is, are ones that are best experienced and then discussed. As a result this article will take the form of a short review and then a lengthier discussion of what the game does, and whether or not this is effective. As a game it plays very much like an early-era PC FPS; the player collects weapons, can carry many of them, dual-wield them and collects health items to heal. At the same time it has been updated to take into account the ways in which the genre has developed; the health items are supplemented by limited health regeneration to prevent situations becoming completely unwinnable, weapons and abilities are upgraded by completing challenges and mazelike secret areas hidden behind walls are replaced by small side areas containing optional collectibles.
It plays well; the player movement feels weighty and responsive like Killzone, the weapons feel powerful and the action is a good mixture of Call of Duty style visual setpieces and intense combat against large numbers of enemies. There are a decent number of missions, the writing is snappy and effective and the only real complaint in gameplay terms is that there are not quite enough action climaxes. It is, arguably, formulaic – but at the same time it is an update of a series that near enough invented the first-person shooter, and so adherence to a successful formula seems entirely understandable. Thus as a game it is easy to recommend Wolfenstein: The New Order to anyone who has enjoyed previous entries (such as Return to Castle Wolfenstein, or the classic Wolf 3D)
– This section contains significant discussion of the entire plot and themes of the game -
Strider, the 2014 update of the established series of the same name, is a largely unremarkable and unpolished exploration platformer in the vein of Super Metroid. It has several strong features, but at the same time they feel underdeveloped and are rarely used in ways which innovate the genre. Its short length in terms of initial exploration means that the open-world exploration comes surprisingly quickly, but by the same token it comes before the player has really had much opportunity to use or master any of their newly-acquired abilities. This is in part due to the reliance on long chases and linear level design; the progression of the story drives the player through numerous areas without much opportunity to explore. Rather than acquiring an item and then returning through the area to use it, often the game will throw the player into a new area they may only visit a small part of with their current suite of upgrades immediately after making a first trip through one.
Transistor, Supergiant Games’ follow-up to the hugely acclaimed Bastion, can be seen as a refinement of its predecessor; it is a similar isometric action-RPG, with similar mechanics, challenge rooms, modular upgrades and difficulty mods. It even has a similar aesthetic/narrative design, with an omnipresent narrator making up for a mute protagonist. Yet calling it a simple science-fiction themed refinement of Bastion’s theme is underselling it significantly; it is a more ambitious, more tactical and much more challenging title.