James Parker has an interesting entry in his blog that centers on sports titles and their play-by-play commentaries. James argues that games like FIFA 09 contain responsive narratives that come much closer to player-generated stories than anything else in the medium.
Although there have been much more ambitious attempts at such systems, I’d have to agree that none have pulled it off quite as well.
Chris Crawford’s Balance of Power: 21st Century, for example, has a much grander scope than a typical sports game. The freedom it provides, though, tends to create expectations of an infinitely open experience that the game can’t possibly match. As a result, the initial play can be exhilarating, but the sensation quickly wears off when the player runs into a situation where he cannot do what he desires.
Of course the more focused nature of sports games isn’t their only advantage when it comes to telling dynamic stories. The games’ audience often recognizes and empathizes with the game’s cast: the athletes. Furthermore, the purely voice-driven commentaries inherently convey emotion and are easier to digest than text.
As was pointed out on Gim Crack’d, the Madlibs approach of Balance of Power just doesn’t come off quite as organic. Its phrasal templates are powerful, but not subtle, and their patterns are relatively easy to spot. The end results are robotic strings of text that look like a programmer’s debug output, i.e.:
“The [a] successfully captured [b] in [c].”
“Production of [x] increased by [n] during [t].”
As I’ve stated before, I’m more a fan of the game telling a story rather than it becoming a storytelling tool for the player. Still, commentaries can be — and have been for a long time now — useful in more crafted experiences. Their obvious boon is that they serve as a reward and an acknowledgement of the player’s actions. Beyond that, they can also be used to point out gameplay elements and encourage the player to reflect on the story.
JRPGs are notorious for their rudimentary and often entirely artificial choices, e.g., “Do you want to save the princess?” Chances are that no matter how many times you pick no, the game will keep asking you the same question until you choose “yes.” However, despite being a very shallow interaction, these moments serve to pause the narrative and remind the player that there is a princess that needs saving. Commentaries on the player’s actions — or inaction, for that matter — can be used in much the same way.
What’s more, these commentaries can inform the player of the consequences of his actions, or just general plot points that might’ve been missed. In a way, it’s almost like having a short conversation with a friend while watching a movie; it can serve to fill in the gaps and provide a new point of view.
Whether linear or open-ended, and whether on a sporadic or a constant basis, games that have used commentaries were largely better for it. Just think of Guybrush Threepwood’s quips in Monkey Island, uppity Baldur’s Gate characters, the prince’s narration in Sands of Time, Alyx Vance’s feedback in Half-Life, the “barks” of Call of Duty team members, etc., all these titles would’ve been a lot more silent, dull and lonely without their great use of commentaries.