There's a particular story-game format out there that we're all I think familiar with - think Max Payne to Resident Evil to Lara Croft. Interactive narrative. Not branching narrative, but pure, linear story, with interactive bits stirred in with animated bits. Maybe a bit of sandbox these days if you're lucky, but usually it's start at point A, go through various traumas and challenges until you arrive at point Z, The End.
We also know, deep down, that most of these games - at least in terms of story - are complete tripe. Wooden, awful blather. Stilted, idiotic plot with flat characters and obvious mechanics.
And we love them!
Case in point: I'm playing Resident Evil 4 at the moment, a game I've looked forward to for a long, long time. I am a giant horror genre fan and this game is up there with the best of them, but Leon, our hero, is shocking. His hair is magnificent, floating gently in the breeze, the tips falling delicately across his eyes, but his dialogue and acting are pure, leaden, C-Movie.
Wince, wince, wince: getting chainsawed in the head is a relief after all that painful "dialogue".
(Nice, but dim.)
The inanimate parts of the craft - the set, the water effects, the candlelight flicker - are near perfect, and this is the Gamecube I'm on here, this is no next-generation machine yet. The environment is enthralling, but candlelight alone can't convey emotion or atmosphere on its own. The animated parts of this thing consist (so far, I'm nowhere near finished) of repeated lurching through bleached-out village buildings and roads, shooting villager-zombies and watching cut-scenes in which Leon lumbers through some hokey plot involving the President's daughter, an "insidious cult" and lots of gore. His assistant is a crosseyed and prim Miss Bun-and-Glasses who implores him (me) to hurry! and save! the President's daughter! every time I wander toward an area I'm not supposed to get to yet.
Holy cow, it's terrible. And I can't put it down.
Now, at the same time, I'm watching series one of Alias. Flip, flip, flip on the scart switcher: Alias 1 to Resident Evil 4 to Alias 1 again, when I want a break from whichever. Alias is as formulaic as they come: cool gadgetry plus heroine running a lot in small dress and hawt wig plus extended will-they-won't-they love story plus 'spy stuff' equals riveting telly. And Alias made me cry last night. You know that bit where the CIA agent is killed in action, and there's the funeral, and the dead man's adorable little boy with big eyes, and the handsome handler bloke cuddles the little boy and there's that soaring music? Pass the frackin' hanky!
Back to the chainsaw action. I'd really love to admire Leon, or at least be some character that I can be impressed with or relate to in some way. It's already an intense experience, this being in control thing, exploring something, coming up against characters, face to face, any angle I choose - except, most of the time we're face to face with some lump marching out his lines and waving a wooden arm around for emphasis. I know people are often asking, 'when are games going to make us cry?', but really. When?
Here's my point: it's easy to forget, but games are still fantastically primitive when we're talking interactive entertainment. Hamming amateurs. If this kind of story and acting were on the television, we'd be throwing tomatoes, up in arms in outrage. Yet in games, we fall about, goggle-eyed with delight.
This can only mean one thing. We're not even close to what makes great "interactive entertainment". Interactive entertainment is going to get better, and better, and better, and it's all unfolding in front of us right now. There's a semi-popular view that the magic is all about gameplay, and graphics aren't everything, but it's not all about gameplay, because it's not just a simple game anymore. It's about play, and story, and environment, and story, and immersion, and story, and yes graphics matter, they matter a lot: you know that bit in Half Life 2 when the bloke on the train at the very beginning looks you in the EYE? Did you feel that? Creeped out? That's just the beginning of it.
Next-gen is here soon, and given a few years of practice, those wily designers should have us some characters we can really get into the heads of. Some folk bemoan the idea of Hollywood mixing with the games industry, but get the guy who wrote Sopranos writing a game and we have another sea-change on our hands.
Roll on Resi 5.