Portal

NEStradamus

Back on November 17th, 2017, I made a bunch of mostly tongue-in-cheek predictions for Nintendo’s 2018. (You can look at that list here.) Well, here it is, March 20th, 2018, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t dumb-luck stumble into some things. Let’s take a quick look at my grade thus far:

Old Super Mario Bros. – I predicted a 2D Super Mario Bros. based on the old-school snippets in Super Mario Odyssey. Nothing doing yet, but this was actually the pick I was most confident in.

The Legend of Zelda: Something of Something – Essentially, I declared that we wouldn’t go all of 2018 without something released with the Zelda brand. Well, here comes Hyrule Warriors Definitive Edition.

Super Smash Bros. Melee DX – What we DO know is that we’re getting a Smash Bros. game in 2018. Is it going to be Melee DX? Melee 2? Smash for Wii U for Nintendo Switch? Something completely new? I dunno, but Smash is coming. That much I got right.

Ubisoft’s South Park gamesThe Fractured But Whole is coming in April. The Stick of Truth is almost sure to follow. Hopefully.

Donkey Kong + Minions: Banana Brawl – DK has since been announced as a playable character in Mario + Rabbids, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is on its way to Switch.

WarioWare: Switched Off – Right franchise, wrong platform. WarioWare Gold will be landing this year on Nintendo 3DS.

Batman: Arkham Adventures – This was and still is the biggest pipe dream on the list.

Paper Mario: The Two-Thousand Year Door – I pegged the wrong GameCube franchise for a return. While Luigi’s Mansion is coming back to 3DS, nothing yet on any paper doors, a thousand years old or otherwise. YET.

Portal 3 and Portal HD Collection – No, but Bridge Constructor Portal is ALREADY HERE.

I’m obviously psychic. Clearly we’re minutes away from the announcement of Codename S.T.E.A.M. 2: Even Steamier.

Advertisements

The Second Person

As a fiction writer, I spend far too much time thinking and talking about stories and how they’re constructed. A lot of people do this, of course; the Internet has fostered an entire culture, barely even a subculture anymore, of armchair storyboard analysts. I’m old enough to remember when Cracked.com actually published articles aside from “5 Ways I’d Have Written This Movie Better.”

The best education a writer can ever have, bar none, is to teach literature, which I’ve done on the middle school, high school, and collegiate level. When you’re the one up in front of the classroom expected to have all the answers, it really forces you to pay attention to the boring class-assigned book you’re reading (particularly since you’re the boring teacher who assigned it). It really hammers home the foundational layers of what makes storytelling work, and how similar most stories are at their core.

Being a quote-unquote gamer as well as a writer, I’ve used the language of video games more than once to illustrate my point. (FUN FACT: the portal onto the factory floor of Magrathea in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is best explained to a room full of 8th graders as a Warp Pipe from Super Mario Bros.) If you know anything about literary form, you’ll know that one of the most elementary elements discussed in the beginner classroom is “point-of-view”. First person point-of-view is when the narration of a story refers to the main character as “I”, and third person point-of-view is when the narration of a story refers to the main character as “he” or “she”, or some form of such. As I happily and effectively described in both junior high and high school literatures courses, video games are also described in terms of being in either first or third person. A first person game puts you directly into the head of the avatar, and you see the world through their eyes. A third person game puts you outside of the avatar you’re controlling, often directly over their shoulder. It is a model I have used to illustrate point of view on many occasions.

And I’ve recently realized just how terribly inaccurate it is.

Lesser known, and even lesser used in literature, is SECOND person point-of-view. A story told in second person is one where the narration refers to the main character as “you”. Now, you see where that could be confusing or limited in its use. It is the ultimate example of the author turning the mirror on the reader. There really is only so much one can do with the form. The most famous application of second person POV, for my money, is in old school Choose Your Own Adventure stories. You know, the ones that start with a passage like, “You wake up in an abandoned mine shaft. After dusting off dirt, debris, and spiders, you look around. To your left, the shaft heads towards a light. To you right: darkness. Which way will you go?” The text then offers the reader an option: “To go left, turn to page 28. To go right, turn to page 33,” and the rest of the story unfolds in this manner, inviting the reader to go back and re-read the book many times over, experiencing a different story each time. The virtual world in the pages of the books is laid out by the author, and you, the reader, get to decide how you experience that world.

I’m wondering if you’re starting to see the connection.

It is a connection that clicked for me when I was playing a non-Nintendo game that 1.) I’ve been playing recently, 3.) I’m way too late to the party on, and D.) is awesome. The game in question: Portal 2. Valve’s greatest game, IMO (never-minding that the only other Valve game I’ve ever played is Portal), Portal 2 features the greatest video game character every created. No, not the player avatar. The player avatar is a silent protagonist named Chell, about whom very little is actually revealed or known. She’s importantly unimportant, though, so we’ll come back to her in just a bit. I’m speaking, of course, of GLaDOS, the wickedly scripted and voiced AI character who runs the dead lab where Chell is imprisoned. GLaDOS is deliciously insane, and her history and past (and yes, no spoilers, but “her” is an applicable descriptor) are really at the heart of the world of Portal.

Consider, then, the sort of storytelling that GLaDOS and Chell represent. GLaDOS is decidedly NOT the player character. In the first game, she is the clear-cut antagonist; in the second, she could still be called such (although more shades of grey certainly exist in that story as it unfolds.) As you, the player, in the person of Chell, puzzles your way through Aperture Labs, GLaDOS taunts you and leads you astray, all the time referring to you, as “you”.

That alone doesn’t mean, “Hey! Video games are all told in the second person!” Just because the antagonist refers to you as “you” isn’t enough to determine that, but it was enough to turn on a light bulb for me. While Portal games aren’t necessarily Choose Your Own Adventure books, and are actually pretty linear in their progression, they present a story told through the characters in front of you and the world around you. The main character, Chell, is a cipher. Her character appearance is set, but she’s a blank slate for you to write on, a vessel through which you experience the game’s adventure. She is a, and it couldn’t be more obvious in retrospect, a literal shell. That’s right. Chell is a shell. Valve isn’t being subtle here, but we all kind of missed it, didn’t we? Just like Half-Life‘s Gordan Freeman is a free man.

Another great example is this that new game that just came out on Switch. It’s called The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Ha ha, I’m funny, Skyrim is one of the biggest games of all time, though I’m just now beginning it because, as I’ve made clear many times on these pages, I’m a Nintendo-only gamer… more or less. In Skyrim you choose your race, your gender, your facial features, the literal and figurative paths you take, the disciplines you learn, the factions in the in-game world you’re going to team up with, which ones you’ll oppose, and which ones you’ll avoid altogether… everything. And you do it all without your avatar ever saying a word. Everything is a variable, and the world responds to and is shaped by your choices and actions. The game tends to get janky for that very reason (it needs to be a remarkably malleably piece of programming to try and predict for everything the player may choose to do), but that’s the price developer Bethesda Softworks was willing to ¬†pay for developing an open-everything game. Spoiler warning: it totally worked out for them.

I have to get back to Nintendo here because of the nature of my blog (I’ve just started Skyrim but could already talk about it all day; some games obviously deserve their “all-time classic” label right from the word “go”), but environmental storytelling, storytelling that presents you, the player, with a world and then steps back to allow you to react to it… that’s a storytelling style Nintendo has embraced for a long time. Two big examples jump out at me. The first is, of course, The Legend of Zelda and series protagonist Link. Just as Chell is an empty shell that the player is invited to inhabit in order to experience the story, Link is the graphical avatar standing in as the link between the player and the world. Both Chell and Link are silent and seemingly emotionless, and this is so for a very particular reason: both Valve and Nintendo are asking you to react to the game worlds around these avatars with your OWN thoughts, feelings, and responses, not with pre-scripted ones voice-acted for you in cut scenes.

This is where the future of storytelling in video games lies, I think. Fully voiced cinematic cut-scenes are an awfully poor fit for a medium that is built around direct audience interaction, when you think about it. Why would you want to play a video game that takes control AWAY from you when the best stuff in the narrative is happening? It doesn’t make sense.

Consider, then, Portal and Breath of the Wild. Both are games with silent protagonists and incredibly deep and well-designed words. When I’m playing Portal and I stumble across some cryptic graffiti left behind in a cranny warning me not to trust GLaDOS, it’s far more effective for the game to sit back and let me respond emotionally and intellectually to this narrative turn, as opposed to cutting away to a scene that rips me out of Chell’s head and shows me a character I’ve been role-playing as reacting to the scenario in a way I never would. Same goes for Breath of the Wild. There’s two forms of storytelling in Breath of the Wild. There are traditional cut scenes that have been criticized and discussed and which sometimes feel awkward and out-of-character and out of place… and then there’s the atmospheric storytelling that unfolds over the course of hundreds of hours of gameplay. I don’t know about you, but I find exploring a field full of petrified Guardians in front of a rotting barricade to be a far more compelling narrative experience than a cut scene where Falco-lite makes snide comments at me.

(That’s not to say cinematic storytelling NEVER works. The four Divine Champions are given some much-needed fleshing out in Breath of the Wild’s DLC Champion’s Ballad, and all are given good time in new much-needed cinematics that show them interacting in the past with Princess Zelda.)

The best example of this all, though, might be in the Metroid franchise. Super Metroid and Metroid Prime tell amazing stories through atmosphere and environments, without series protagonist Samus Aran (or anyone else) saying a word. Metroid: Other M, though, turns a chatty Samus into a damaged little girl with daddy issues, and that whole game can just go and die in a fire for all I care.

I think, then, that the case is clear. The ideal storytelling in an interactive medium is interactive, not cinematic; in hindsight, this couldn’t be more obvious. So that’s the golden rule of storytelling in a video game, I think: flesh out your world, developers, as richly as you can… but when you drop me into, don’t signpost me to death. Don’t dictate to me how your game should make me think, feel, and react. Just let me run loose and tell me, “You can go left or you can go right. Which way will you go?”

Switch List ’18

As we barrel towards Thanksgiving, we come to the start of what should be an extraordinary holiday season at the close of a remarkable calendar year for Nintendo. Zelda, Mario, Splatoon, Fire Emblem, Pokemon, and Xenoblade all made (or will make) an appearance on the Switch in 2017, as well as Skyrim, Minecraft, Doom, Rocket League, FIFA, NBA2K, and more indie games than you could waggle a Wiimote at.

What’s very interesting, though, is that Nintendo has remained tight-lipped on their plans for what’s coming in 2018 and beyond. This is normal for modern Nintendo; for years now they’ve preferred to focus more on what’s going to be playable in the near future than what’s coming down the pipeline in a year or two or three.

With such a robust 2017 line-up, though, could 2018 end up a bust for the Switch? Well, anything’s possible. In terms of big news, here’s what we know: Nintendo is definitely giving us a new Kirby game and a new Yoshi game, Bethesda is bringing Wolfenstein 2 to the Switch, Project Octopath Traveler (YES THAT’S BIG NEWS) should be here in 2018, and probably a new entry in the Fire Emblem franchise, as Nintendo sort of seems to poop those out like greasy diner food. (Hashtag: #DinerPoops.) Maybe we’ll see that new Pokemon in 2018, maybe we’ll even see Metroid Prime 4… although I’d bet more on the former than I would on the latter.

Still, a boy can dream. What I have here are some of things I have on my wishlist for 2018 for the Nintendo Switch… my Switch List, if you will. (You shouldn’t.) This is my list of pipe dreams and speculative guesses, FYI. Things that have been confirmed to be on their way will not make the list. I am a patient fellow, after all; as long as I know something will be here eventually, I can wait.

Old Super Mario Bros. – After the smash hit success of Super Mario Maker, it was wondered in more than a few places if Nintendo could ever return to their 2D Super Mario Bros. franchise after they had placed the ultimate Mario creation suite in gamer’s hands. Then, of course, Nintendo made us all look silly for asking that question by completely re-inventing the wheel on 8-bit Mario platforming in the brilliant 2D sections of Super Mario Odyssey. Much like Super Mario 3D World spawned a spin-off in the form of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, I think we’re going to see Nintendo take the idea behind the 2D areas in Mario Odyssey and spin them into their own game. I’m even hedging on Old Super Mario Bros. as being the actual name. Chance of Happening: 85%, in honor of the year the original Super Mario Bros. was released.

The Legend of Zelda: Something of Something – Nintendo has demonstrated over the last decade that they don’t like their three major franchises (Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon) to go a year without some sort of game branded with their name. In the case of Zelda, sometimes we get a Hyrule Warriors, sometimes we get Triforce Heroes… and sometimes we get Link’s Crossbow Training. So while we shouldn’t expect the next all-new 3D Zelda game to launch for at least 5 or 6 years, I think it would be foolhardy to think 2018 is going to go by without Zelda appearing in some new form or another on the Switch. Chance of Happening: 900%, in honor of the total number of Korok Seeds to be found in Breath of the Wild.

Super Smash Bros. Melee DX – I do not think that Smash 4 Wii U is coming to the Switch. In fact, I’d be willing to wager some of the money I don’t have that Switch ports of Nintendo-developed Wii U games are done. I think Nintendo wants to separate themselves from the Wii branding as much as they possibly can. No denying, though: the Switch is massively popular, and people desperately want a Smash Bros. on it. Super Smash Bros. Melee from the GameCube days is still a very popular game on the professional Smash tournament circuit, and arguably the best game in the franchise to date. Updating Melee with current-gen HD graphics, a new fighter or two or three, and adding popular features such as Final Smashes makes almost too much sense for a Smash-starved public… assuming Smash 5 isn’t just around the corner. Chance of Happening: 26%, in honor of the total number of characters on Melee’s roster.

Ubisoft’s South Park games – Nintendo has a reputation, mostly earned, for cultivating poor relationships with 3rd party developers, but their relationship with Ubisoft is the one obvious exception to that rule. Ubisoft was the first company to announce a Switch game, including Nintendo (they announced Just Dance would be coming to NX before Nintendo had revealed the NX to be the Switch), and their Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was the first major 3rd party new release for Switch. During a recent earnings meeting, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot confirmed that more Switch games would be coming from the developer in 2018. The South Park games are easily my most-wanted 3rd party titles, so I’m probably more bullish on The Stick of Truth and The Fractured But Whole coming to Switch than I should be. Chance of Happening: 146%, or the same number of f-bombs that were dropped in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.

Donkey Kong + Minions: Banana Brawl –¬†Following up on the whole Mario + Rabbids
crossover success, DK’s crew and the Minions finally meet up for an adventure of epic proportions! Tell me this isn’t a perfect pairing. Make it a rhythm game or a strategy game or a platformer or maybe just this GIF on a loop with DK photoshopped in. Chance of Happening: BANANA!

WarioWare: Switched Off – If SnipperClips proved anything, it’s that playing bite-sized co-op micro-games in Tabletop mode with split JoyCons is one of the things that the Switch does best. It’s time for Mario’s creepy-ass clone to make his Switch debut, and his strangest franchise is the platform on which he should take his bow. Chance of Happening: 6%, for Wario’s debut in Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins.

Batman: Arkham Adventures – This is just flat-out, 100% a pipe dream. Wouldn’t you love to play an Arkham style game, but done up in the art style and tone of Batman: The Animated Series? If you are a living, breathing human being with even the barest whisper of a pulse, the answer is: yes. Yes, of course you would. Chance of Happening: -0%, in honor of the temperature at which Mr. Freeze is forced to live his life.

Paper Mario: The 2-Thousand Year Door – The Paper Mario franchise was at its best, most fans would agree, in the original N64 game and its sequel for GCN, the remarkably charming Thousand Year Door. Early returns on the Switch suggest that it’s going to be a great platform for RPGs (and who wouldn’t want to curl up on the sofa with a handheld device to play RPGs in 60 hour chunks? Now THAT’S a weekend.) So a direct sequel to one of the most beloved GameCube games ever would be an out-of-nowhere surprise for the franchise’s long-time fans, and an easy lay-up for Nintendo. Chance of Happening: 2,000%, in honor of… I mean, do I really have to spell it out?

Portal 3 and Portal HD Collection – I MEAN, C’MON! WOULDN’T THAT BE AWESOME?! Chance of Happening: The Stranger Things theme song, as in, it won’t, but stranger things have happened.