Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Playing the denouement

Designer Denouements

How can the denouement be incorporated into gameplay? In literary forms, it is most often the events that take place after the plot’s climax that form your lasting opinion of the story. A well constructed denouement acts almost as a payoff, where protagonists and antagonists alike realize and adjust to the consequences of their actions. Serial media often ignored the denouement in favor of the cliffhanger, in order to entice viewers to return. Television has further diluted the denouement by turning it into a quick resolution that tidily fits into the time after the final commercial break.

But the denouement is most neglected in video games where it is often relegated to a short congratulatory cut scene, or at most–a slide show of consequences. This month’s topic challenges you to explore how the denouement can be expressed as gameplay.

As far as I can tell, a major reason gameplay is not often used for the denouement of a game's story is that the designers of the game haven't equipped the player with the necessary gameplay elements. Take, for example, any shooter game. They are built from the ground up to let you explore levels, shoot enemies, and nothing more. Once the final boss is defeated, what more can you do? Shoot his corpse? Wander through his empty chambers? These games never come with a "Breathe a heavy sigh of relief" button. No wonder so many games end with a cutscene: Having your character wander around still in full combat mode while everyone congratulates him on his success wouldn't make any sense.

I feel obligated at this point to mention a game that comes close to being an exception: the Half-Life series. While it's true that the Half-Life games keep the player's experiences tied completely with the main character Gordon Freeman, I still feel like the denouements of each game are not expressed with gameplay. Each and every Half-Life game ends with Gordon Freeman being physically restrained in some way, usually being put into stasis by the G-Man until the beginning of the next game. Although you are still technically "playing" while this is going on, you can't move, and you can't shoot. You've pretty much been reduced to a silent observer, so what's the difference between that and a cutscene?

For fully action-oriented games such as these, I'm in agreement with Cory Stahl's assessment that cutscenes are appropriate and maybe even necessary.

For the denouement to be incorporated organically into the gameplay, I think that playing the denouement would have to feel as natural as playing the first level of the game. Sadly, most games are designed to let you fight your way to the climax, and that's it.

A game that actually bucks this trend, and is a great example of actually getting to play the denouement, is the original Katamari Damacy for PlayStation 2. Throughout the whole game, you roll up Katamaris in order to restore stars to the night sky. After you complete the final level, what do you do? Roll an enormous katamari around the entire earth, as the newly created stars shine down on you from above. It lets you feel satisfied with a job well done, while also letting you play in the same exact way you did when you started.

My main point is that gameplay must develop as a function of the story, not the other way around. But it's only with the last couple generations of consoles that we've even been able to do this. When Super Mario Bros. was released in the US in 1985, the details of the story were contained in the instruction booklet because Nintendo lacked the technology to put it entirely into the game. These days, we no longer have to do that. If the game's story involves a hero conquering obstacles, rescuing a princess and bringing her back to her castle, make sure you get to play every part of that story, not just the first part.

Here's an example of what I mean: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a game on the Nintendo DS that puts the player into the shoes of Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney who must always find his clients declared not guilty. When the third game of the series, Trials and Tribulations, was released, the promotional materials made a big deal out of the fact that there was a second playable character. "Play as TWO different attorneys!" the ads promised, as if this was going to change the gameplay in some significant way. As I played the game, however, I discovered that it didn't change the gameplay at all. Rather, the only reason you play as a different attorney is to develop the story from another character's point of view. The game's denouement, also, would not have been possible without this second playable character.

So, to wrap up, I would like to restate my point that the reason gameplay stops at the denouement is because, oftentimes, the gameplay was not designed with the denouement in mind. Develop the story from beginning to end, then design the gameplay from the ground up to fit the entire story. Do that, and playing the denouement should become much more common.

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