It is nearly Christmas (said the millionth online columnist capable of reading a calendar). For the past six months this column has started looking at story in games and now, with a clearly inflated ego, I feel ready to tackle the big one; The Christmas Story. The bloody Nativity (as opposed to The Bloody Nativity which would be a very type different story).
I want to lay out a possible story structure, plot and story delivery method for the Christmas story. I want it to appeal to the PlayStation generation. Then I want David Cage to read this, be amazed, and hire me at Quantic Dream. If that isn’t a Christmas miracle, I don’t know what would be.
First off, time to think about structure and themes.
Unfortunately, meaningful player choice will have to be minimised. Putting in a Deus Ex or Grand Theft Auto structure, where the player can largely do what they want in the world with genuine repercussions, might not go down well. Particularly with those who would be offended by the player, as Joseph, picking up a rock from the side of a Bethlehem cart path and battering the Virgin Mother to death with it. More to the point, that would make for a bloody short game.
So, at all points, a degree of player agency will have to be sacrificed in order to preserve the traditional story of the nativity (and to stop me getting some well-deserved hate mail). Even a structure like that of Mass Effect, where key characters are protected and the player, irrespective of choices, hits some key story beats, may still offer too much choice. I can’t help but think that the Nativity, the most famous story in the western world (except for the Star Wars Trilogy) shouldn’t have that much scope for tinkering. Otherwise why try to tell the story of the Nativity? I should just create a world with no pre-conceived constraints and build it from scratch.
No, the plot is sacrosanct (literally) so I think the innovation here should come when communicating the themes of the Nativity. This is a huge, HUH-yooge challenge. Themes like hope, unity, family, togetherness and love aren’t really addressed by Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Batman: Arkham City. Traditional action games are not going to help very much here. At least, not obviously. The more immediate touchstones are games like Heavy Rain, to some extent Uncharted, but mainly Journey. Jenova Chen’s game provides some obvious aesthetic touches (the sand, the middle eastern aesthetic) and illustrates the way strong emotions can be communicated non-verbally, as well as techniques used to direct the player using an ever-present visual objective. Journey’s mountain could easily be the star in my Nativity game.
Right, now to the nitty gritty. How is this game going to come together? The main plot beats are well established:
- Angels appear to Mary.
- Setting up shop in a cattle shed.
- The birth (no, before you ask, this will not be a mini game. No Kinect or Move gesture seems appropriate for the birth of the Lord. Especially the gesture you are thinking of).
- The shepherds bring their gifts to Jesus.
- The wise men/kings start their journey following the star.
- The kings accidentally grassing Jesus up to Herod (not as wise as history would have us believe).
- Gold, Frankenstein and Grrrr (joke c/o Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson).
- Mary and Joseph escape with Jesus into Egypt.
I think we are going to go strictly linear. Some of the sections can be shown in cutscene, particularly the birth, the giving and receiving of gifts and the kings telling Herod about Jesus. They are key plot points, all of which set up the following action and all must happen in very particular ways. More to the point, none sound very fun to play. Better to hit these beats with a short, sharp cutscene. I’m thinking of drafting in some of the Mad Men guys to direct; Hideo Kojima does not make the short list.
Whilst playing this game I want the player, at all times, to have a sense of wonder. I would imagine being involved in the birth of a saviour, complete with angelic visitations and perilous journeys, would leave the participants occasionally a little slack-jawed (especially the shepherds who were probably a little slack-jawed at the best of times anyway). This means choosing who the player controls very carefully. In the opening sequence, after a dramatic cutscene showing Mary being visited and becoming pregnant with a divine child, the player should control Joseph. It is his responsibility to look after Mary; it’s game over if she dies. Gameplay mechanics that allow Joseph to feed Mary and help her if she tires or stumbles, reinforce the bond between player-character and NPC. Early internal monologue has Joseph wondering whether Mary is carrying a divine child or whether she was stepping out on him (come on – you would definitely consider this) but, as the player helps Mary more and more, Joseph rationalises, converses and eventually comes to peace with it. It is all very moving, let me assure you (not a dry eye in the house), as you reach the cattle shed. Tired, dehydrated but together, Joseph tells Mary how proud he is of her. It’s lovely stuff and sets the tone for the rest of the game. The player, who from here controls shepherds and wise men/kings, will want to get back and check on how M & J are doing with their little bundle of saviour. I see Bethlehem as a city on a hill, hopeful and aspirational but a challenge to reach. It is all very symbolic, like Dear Esther’s eye in the cave exit.
Brilliant. This is going brilliantly. I’m like the McG of video games.
I think, at this point, we persist with the co-operative mechanics. I like the idea of the player helping other characters reach a goal. It supports the unity theme, highlights the importance of the main goal and would make a wicked co-op mode. I reckon a race between the shepherds and the kings to see who could reach Jesus first would smash CoD and Halo off the top of the XBLA most played lists. It also allows me to use the NPCs to direct the player towards story. If an angel appears, the NPC characters can move toward it or look at it, giving an increased chance of grabbing the player’s eye and moving them towards the story delivery device (which, if you think about it, with all their messages and what-not, is all angels really are) as well. I don’t want cutscenes punctuating the journey, making it seem like several shorter journeys. I want the path of the shepherds to feel long and perilous; continuous gameplay is the way to do that. Plenty of dialogue for the shepherds will be important. I want lots of banter, maybe some sheep jokes, and plenty of WTF-style speculation over the seeing of angels and the coming of the saviour.
I’m also going to work in a small plot deviation. So that this can be a full box release, the shepherds won’t be in fields near to Bethlehem (like the real nativity), they are going to be bloody miles away. They are going to need to do a bit of hunting, a bit of protecting the sheep and plenty of working together. This section is kind of Tomb Raider crossed with Journey. The route will be through a valley, getting harder as they reach the bottom (a literal descent into hell) before climbing out towards the saviour. Bit of a return to hope, you see. Bloody amazing stuff, this. This game would be amazing; and I’ve not had to shoot anything yet so it is proper “la-dee-da” as well.
Right, shepherds arrive, big cutscene, everyone thrilled to be there. Tremendous.
The wisemen. They see a star, I throw in some angels to jazz up the cutscene a little and give the moment some weight (remember, this is a serious game with a heavyweight message – angels deliver messages), then they set off on their journey. They follow the star in the sky, protecting themselves from small sand storms, sharing water, helping each other, until they hit a massive sand storm. It buffets them and leaves their view obstructed, the star reappears and they follow it. Hang on a second, they have arrived in Jerusalem, the sand storm knocked them off course!! Disaster! Now Herod knows about Jesus and, shit, it is a race to Bethlehem to give Big J his gifts but also to tell him that Herod is looking for him and that they might have been followed.
Now, you might have noticed that I’m starting to take some small liberties with the traditional plot of the Nativity. You might be saying that you prefer the book version. Fair enough, I hear it’s a classic. However, I’m making a classic game here and I want to build up to an exciting climax. Trekking the wise men back home and avoiding Herod feels like it would be boring. I have something better in mind.
All of the learning the player has done so far, bonding with Mary and Joseph, hunting and resource managing with the shepherds, and following clear visual clues with the wise men, will set them up for the grand finale: The Escape to Egypt.
Now we need Kojima!!
Big action, explosions (unnecessary, unlikely, but cool) and some Snake Eater-style sneaking through the desert to the safety of Egypt. Nothing says hope, unity, family, togetherness and love better than a married couple with their newborn son (who also happens to be the saviour of the world) escaping from a deranged king through dangerous desert and the famous cities of the Holy Land. Classic storytelling.
The final cutscene brings it all together. More spectacular than Transformers 2 and more emotional than Transformers 2, the player is left in no doubt that they have been the salvation of the world’s salvation. POW. Happy bleedin’ Christmas. The player will feel like Jason Statham.
So, what are we left with? A genre-bridging epic that respects the bible’s most important story by enforcing linearity at the expense of agency but, inspired by Journey and Heavy Rain, provides gripping dialogue, meaningful symbolism and gameplay that meshes beautifully with the tone and expectations of the gameplay. Except the last bit with the explosions … that’s just to get the CoD crowd playing. It is the BioShock Infinite box art of game levels.
It’s the nativity for the new generation. Epic gameplay blended with epic story, inspired by the best in the business.
It’s the GodisaGeek nativity. Fuck yes. Happy Christmas.
See you in the New Year, bitches.