Gears of War: Judgment, the fourth installment of Microsoft’s massively successful franchise, hasn’t been received as well as its predecessors, critically or commercially, with one major complaint being the awkward storytelling that lacks narrative flow.
And while this may feel somewhat disheartening, fans should take pride in just how much the value of narrative has risen in gaming.
There was once a time when gaming, simply lacking the graphical and aural prowess to tell a compelling story, was strictly about the gameplay. Pong, Pac-Man, and Super Mario Bros. are all games where stories were either entirely or largely absent. Gamers were never given any context and our actions, therefore, had little motivation other than entertainment.
No one even knew why Bowser kidnapped Peach or why Mario was so resolute in saving her. Actually, the reason for both might be … you know, but Nintendo probably couldn’t elaborate on that in a family game.
Eventually, though, gaming took strides towards storytelling once the technology could actually support a cinematic vision. While games such as Half-Life and Shenmue were strong early indicators, narrative truly became significant in the field with products such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Shadow of the Colossus.
Of course, even the storytelling in these classics such as these now feels dated, partially because it’s difficult to take jagged character models seriously and partially because they reeked of “B-movie” with their awkward pacing, poor camera angles, and questionable acting. Basically, the developers hadn’t realized that cutscenes demand a filmmaking approach.
Luckily, the developers learned quickly.
In recent times, several games have proven that interactive storytelling is the way of the future. With games such as Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Halo 4, and No More Heroes, beautifully rendered and immaculately choreographed cutscenes outshine most movies on the market.
Perhaps what best indicates the future of gaming is that the developers of the upcoming Ellen Page game, Beyond: Two Souls (yes, you read that right, Ellen Page), actually didn’t allow marketing to place the Oscar-nominated actress with a gun on the cover because it would not be “truthful to what the game is.”
A few years ago, a recognizable figure with guns was the only kind of cover big budget games had.
Judgment was possibly released at a bad time. When placed alongside the recent BioShock Infinite, a game so thematically charged that one developer took enough offense to consider resigning, the awkward storytelling in Gears becomes a more glaring issue.
The game’s writer, Tom Bissell, recently commented on how writing for games where the players “spend 99 percent of the game looking down the barrel of a gun” was “very, very constraining.” Perhaps this was a knee jerk reaction to the game’s poorly received storytelling but Bissell shouldn’t worry much.
There were some poor narrative choices in Judgment but the fact that it is being criticized means that, for the first time, writers in gaming may be just as valued as programmers and designers. For the first time, gamers truly want a story just as much as thrilling gameplay.
And for the first time, we want a little more context than, “your princess in another castle.” Thanks, Toad; that helps a lot.