Cost of Living and what it means to video games

Two things.

First, go watch this:
Cost of Living

Now go read this:
Film Critic Hulk – Short Films

Ok, we got that out of the way. At this point you are thinking, “You obviously agree with Film Critic Hulk that this thing is great, but what does it have to do about video games. You mentioned video games”.

You’re correct, it’s right up there in the title. So, what does a nine minute long short film have to do with video games? The exposition in Cost of Living is told through the eyes of those two characters, and you learn about their situation, personality, and plight from their commentary and the spartan use of set dressing. It’s about these two guys who work a job where they consistently get the short end of the stick, and suffer the same sort of discontent and economic problems as everyone else…while working for the equivalent of the Umbrella Corporation. Here’s the thing, it’s not about the setting, but the story is inextricably linked to the setting. Without the setting, much of the context would be lost, and you wouldn’t have that sense of both knowing and showing that it provides. While I inevitably drew comparison to the complete works of Edgar Wright, John Carpenter and James Cameron, I also drew another comparison, “Holy shit, this is just like Left 4 Dead”. That’s right, I said 4 instead of four. It’s the subtleties in life that matter. In fact, it wasn’t just Left 4 Dead, it was also Portal.

Watch the film again, both because it is awesome and because I am making a point here. I bet you see it now that you are looking for it. In case you don’t, and that’s totally ok, let me try and explain. Cost of Living has a setting, FO Industries, a completely evil corporation. It also has a story, that of two guys who are unhappy with their job, location and wages. Now think about Left 4 Dead and Portal.

Left 4 Dead has a setting, it’s a zombie apocalypse. It also has a story, that of a rag-tag group of survivors making their way Oregon Trail style across the nation looking for various safe zones. Now, you can put this story together without the dialogue of the characters, but you are doing yourself a huge disservice in doing so. The characters exchange dialogue lines through the entire game, and through them you get a sense of who the characters are, what they are doing, and what is going on in the missions. It’s sparse dialogue, but it adds immeasurable depth to the game. This leads to people wanting to play certain characters over other characters simply because they realize they identify more with one of the characters than another. For a game without any “story”, it sure does have a lot of story.

There can be no doubt that Portal has a story, but think back to when the game was first released. The setting is obvious, it’s the labs of Aperture Science. The story is told through the commentary of GladOS, and the graffiti on the walls. There is very little else in the way of story in that game, and that doesn’t detract from it. In fact, it’s a large part of the game’s success. People became invested in Chell, GladOS and the little world that was created because of the way the story was told. Why? It was because of the storytelling method, as crazy as that seems. Game play and innovation go a long way, but it was the storytelling that got people hooked. I love solving puzzles more than the next guy (probably), but it’s the dialogue and setting that made the game.

Ok, so if you believe me, then we have these two critically acclaimed games that share some features with the aforementioned short film. What I am getting at is that this is a storytelling method that works incredibly well in video games and isn’t used enough. In a world often makes Michael Bay look like Christopher Nolan, we could use more nuance. Too often we are subjected to characters that are exaggerated versions of movie stereotypes, because it’s easy to convey points. Dialogue is a rehashing of things we have heard before, and nothing new is brought to the conversation. This is a shame when a series of acclaimed games have already made a home for themselves in this niche. Still don’t believe me? How about two more examples, indie darling Bastion and God of War.

Bastion makes great use of this style of storytelling through the use of its dynamic narration, but God of War does the same thing. The story is told entirely from the perspective of Kratos, and you get a sense of who he is through the brutality and excess of his every single action. You know what kind of guy he is before you ever reach Athens, and the game keeps hammering it home. Yeah, it has some cut scenes, but even then they are different than most games and continue this conceit. Kratos is never not Kratos, and his actions are what drive the game play. Seriously, think about it. How much of the God of War series is only a few lines of dialogue and then Kratos doing his thing? Most of it, yet it’s considered one of the best franchises in modern gaming, and I don’t disagree.

One thing these games all have in common is that they are action hyphenates. It’s possible that this form of storytelling is unique to the action hyphenate genres, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The genre and medium should embrace this mechanic with open arms, as it continues to breathe fresh life into the style. I can’t wait to see more games that do this, and where they take their stories next.

4 thoughts on “Cost of Living and what it means to video games

  1. The classic problem is that it’s easier to do the thing that is not necessarily the focus of the gameplay. You have the freedom to layer in a pretty kickass story in an action game, because those games don’t have the implication that you’re meant to have agency in directing the story. Conversely, there are probably things that you can do to create cool scripted actiony setpieces in an RPG that would feel out of place in an action game.

    So, the problem is that the biggest story-focused games are RPGs, which have trouble doing cool background story because it interferes with player agency in deciding on your role. And everyone else takes their cues from RPGs, and likely they don’t realize that they could do stuff that RPGs couldn’t that would tell a better story.

    • Mass Effect, being an action hyphenate does this already during their combat sequences. You approach a body or object or view and you get some party commentary that goes only to serve as the voice for character development and individual mission story in a lot of ways. However, a lot of times this serves no other point than to say “Hey, go forward and then turn left”. This contrasts with the more pure RPG devices that are employed. I look at this as a way to incorporate some of these more subtle, meaningful methods within a traditional framework.

      The conceit of this style of storytelling is that there is never going to be a reveal. Everything is an intent driven slow burn. The dialogue and action serve to build to a climax, but it’s never a shattering crescendo. This means that those looking for something epic or grandiose are less willing to play around with this method, because it doesn’t really have a “gotcha” moment. Instead, it requires a lot more effort to get that buy-in they think they can achieve in a single moment.

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