Thursday, March 15, 2012

Metroid Prime, Interactive Narrative, and "Progress"

I mentioned in passing a few weeks ago that Metroid Prime "meant a lot to me" and got a pretty serious cocked eyebrow in response. I understand, obviously, that it requires a lot more defense when you say that a videogame that consists of basically nothing but shooting spiky alien turtles means a lot to you than when you say that, for example, Madame Bovary means a lot to you, so I've done some thinking, and I think that, sentimental attachment aside, the reason I'm so enamored of Metroid Prime is the way it resolves what I see as an awfully oppositional relationship in most games: the divide between "narrative" and "progress."

The word "progress" is almost always a misnomer when it's applied to videogames. (It's a misnomer when it's applied to many other things, too, but that's not really pertinent here.) If we think of "progress" in a narrative setting – and I'm sure I'm committing some kind of a faux pas by describing videogames as "narrative settings," but I'll ignore that for the sake of argument – as movement towards a definite goal, then the kind of "progress" that a player makes in a video game isn't progress at all.

We can look at a bare-bones (storyline-wise) first-person shooter like Halo as an example of how games usually handle narrative. In Halo (in the single-player campaign, I mean), you have the illusion of progressing through the game as you move your character – obviously, you're walking forward, plowing through dozens and dozens of enemies, picking up new weapons and ammunition, and reaching the occasional checkpoint, where an Australian space marine will yell something at you and there will be a little set-piece shootout. But in reality, you're not actually making any narrative progress at all. The "progress" in games like Halo occurs in little bracketed off spaces between the real narrative moments, which take place in cutscenes. Any plot movement that really happens is outside of the player's control. If we look at part of a bare-bones plot summary of Halo:

Your spaceship is fleeing some blue aliens. The spaceship gets blown up by the blue aliens and crashes into a ring floating in space. You soon discover that the ring was built by god-aliens and can potentially destroy all life in the galaxy or some bullshit. The ring blows up and you get away.

just about all of it is restricted to information that's established in cutscenes. If you actually tracked where gameplay happened, you'd find that it's long tracts of what amounts to nothing, from a narrative point of view – just activities that go on between between plot elements. The plot of Halo takes place in the present perfective tense (Halo explodes) and the progress takes place, appropriately, in the present progressive tense (Halo is exploding). No action is ever completed until you've finished a gameplay scene; until then it's just delayed indefinitely. So "progress" is really narrative "delay" in a game like Halo, a long delay just tense enough to keep you playing until the next scene where you put the controller down for a few minutes and watch a gruff, polygonal James Cameron character bark at you about the aliens. The way a typical game handles narrative involves creating some kind of a duality between the character's progression and the story's progression. The two can't occur simultaneously; they have to trade off.

For the most part this holds true for every game that tries to have a story. Your average RPG might introduce a few plot elements during gameplay, but they're not really emphasized as such until the next cutscene – when you stumble into a cave in Chrono Trigger, for instance, until a scene of scripted dialog "activates" it as a plot element, it doesn't feel like anything more than another dungeon. You still don't advance the plot or discover the game world's backstory as any kind of an agent.

This wouldn't be worth discussing if we could pretend that a typical game privileges leveling up and scoring points over narrative progress, but that hasn't been true since Final Fantasy 1. No matter how good you are at a typical game, you can't break the narrative sequence; you're still constrained. Your avatar has a completely circumscribed existence within little brackets in the game's world; no matter how high you level Frog up and no matter how many rounds of Battle Rifle ammunition you grab, you're still tied to the game's narrative sequence. This approach is taken to its logical extreme in a game like Progress Quest, which will gather experience, skills, weapons and items for your avatar automatically, on its own, whether or not you're playing at all, or One-Dimensional Tetris, which strips the experience of "gameplay" down to its barest essentials despite the fact that you never do anything but rack up points. As you might imagine, neither of these games is particularly satisfying. By extension, as far as I'm concerned, neither is Halo.

Now, I don't mean to set up a brilliant foil to this mode of using video games to tell stories – but at the same time I do, so we'll set that logical fallacy aside, too. In my opinion, a game like Metroid Prime strikes a much more harmonious balance between "progress" and "narrative." It handles the progress-narrative divide in two ways that are radically different from the way a typical game does, and I find both of them much more engaging than I find a game like Halo or even a game like Chrono Trigger.

Metroid Prime doesn't have a "plot," in the conventional sense of the word. Cutscenes rarely advance the plot: the opening cutscene introduces the main character; the cutscene at the end of the first level introduces the game's setting, the cutscene after the third-to-last boss fight introduces the last level, and the ending cutscene ends the game – other than that there's nothing a cutscene tells you that you don't already know. They're all redundant. All they do is add formal rhythm. When you enter a new area, the camera zooms around it for a few minutes to show off where you are, and when you kill a boss, the camera watches it die. Neither of these advance the plot; they're only for emphasis. Plot advancement takes place almost completely within space that you, the player, can interact with. If we think of an RPG as splitting narrative up into "dungeons," where progress take place, and "towns," where narrative advancement take place, then Metroid Prime is just one giant dungeon, and within that dungeon, accruing weapons and discovering new caves constitutes the entirety of the plot advancement.

But Metroid Prime also has a backstory – backstory that might be given to you by a Carl Weathers-type sergeant in Halo or a boss-fight monologue in Chrono Trigger – and the way that you discover that backstory is really what I find brilliant about the game. This Tim Rogers review (if you can stand to read it over the ridiculous background) goes into a good amount of detail, but the basis is this: the HUD in the game has a specific mode that allows the player to collect data on the surroundings, and this mostly gets used for the obvious "this door may be susceptible to heat, such as that produced by a plasma beam" hoops that any adventure game makes you jump through nowadays, but once in a while you'll find a plaque on a ruined temple wall that will give you a few pages of cryptic prophetic literature about the history of the world you're in. All of the backstory is totally optional unless you're going for 100% completion – it's almost never helpful in an instrumental sense – but it governs the extent to which the player understands the context of the game world.

What this means is that Metroid Prime is in some sense a much more "interactive" form of narrative than Halo or Chrono Trigger. The player is free to ignore or obsess over the narrative at his or her leisure; if the player misses a plaque or a computer terminal, then the player doesn't get that fragment of the backstory. Looking at this through the lens of reader-response criticism would be really interesting, because the player is literally and explicitly constructing a unique experience of the "text" every time he or she plays the game, but in lieu of that, I think it's enough to say that Metroid Prime is one of the few post-1995 games that functions on every level like a videogame, never taking the viewer out of the experience of an immersive world.

I don't want to get hagiographic, so I'll just conclude by saying that Metroid Prime is one of the only narrative games I've ever played that has real integrity as a videogame, one of the only ones that narratively succeeds or fails as nothing but a videogame. That's not to say that it's the only one that has any merit as a narrative, obviously – but the reason it appeals so much to me is that it solves the formal problem of "progress" versus "narrative" that's so conspicuously present in so many games, and does it so elegantly that it's hard to believe it was ever a problem at all. That kind of formal confidence matters more to me than any of the reifications like "gameplay" or "level design" that people who write about games love to throw around. A game shouldn't have to be 1D Tetris to be a narrative success.


  1. I love this blog. I feel the same about Metroid Prime, although I have to admit that I never finished it. It was too immersive and too creepy for me, which is definitely a testament to its narrative power. I just couldn't handle the combination of invisible aliens and creepy, fragmented writings, but I guess in that sense it meant a lot to me, too, as the only videogame that truly scared me.

  2. "A game shouldn't have to be 1D Tetris to be a narrative success." - legendary, thanks! :)

    -- zigah, author of tetris1d :)