The Story Mechanic Part Two: The Power of Potential

by on July 20, 2012

There is a great line in Indie Game: The Movie, where Phil Fish holds his hand up to his face and declares that he is “this close” to Fez and that he can’t tell whether it is a good game any more.

He had lost the ability to see the game in its entirety, focussed as he was on the detail. His problem is completely the opposite of that of the critic. Critics experience the game as a whole and, usually, know pretty quickly if the core game works or doesn’t, but has to actively search for the reasons why. The games that are the hardest to judge are those where, strangely, it is possible find a fault and yet the game succeeds entirely despite that flaw. A section or sequence of a game can be utterly terrible and yet the game as a whole is wonderful and engrossing.

Which makes me think about potential. If a game is great despite having weaknesses, how good could a game be if it were the ideal version of itself? What would that be like for a player?

What is the potential of a game?

This September, we might find out. Borderlands 2 is coming and it seems like Gearbox has it’s eyes on fulfilment of potential.

Borderlands 2 - Guns

For what it is worth, I am one of the many people who believes that Borderlands is one of the best games of this console cycle. It is certainly one of my favourites. Gearbox’s RPG-shooter plays on my addictive personality, always forcing me to kill one more dude, collect one more gun, go up one more level. I still go back now, re-working old character builds and trying to wring every ounce of pleasure out of a game that was stuffed with more crude joy than a blow-up sex doll in a Mrs. Santa Claus outfit.

Early previews of Borderlands 2 suggest that Gearbox are focussed on improving things the original did well, the multitude of guns, diverse character classes and the crack addictive gameplay, but they are also addressing the original’s glaring weakness: the story. If they get it right, they could fulfil the original game’s potential.

This isn’t just polishing, this is perfecting.

Borderlands had an excellent premise. Far futures, alien worlds, a treasure hunt for unimaginable wealth. However, there wasn’t much to the narrative beyond that. The game contained few memorable characters and this, for all of Pandora’s original and vibrant art, left the world feeling inert. When the player was in combat, collecting weapons, exploding skags or melting bandits faces off, the game was vivid and alive. When the fighting stopped it was as if, well…let’s say that Gearbox had done too good of a job creating a lifeless post-apocalyptic expanse. The world of Pandora was a carefully sculpted diorama, nothing more; and it showed. Whilst you could say that for a lot of games, the illusion in Borderlands was less convincing because of the way that the characters were literally and figuratively anchored to the spot. Bioshock’s Rapture was nothing more than a beautiful oil painting, but the characters which inhabited that world really shaped the player’s experience. Few NPCs in Borderlands stood out as having any personality at all. Tellingly, the ruined world in the expansion The Zombie Island of Doctor Ned felt no less devoid of life than the main world of Pandora.

Borderlands 2 - Handsome Jack

Gearbox has obviously felt this too. Trailers for Borderlands 2 have introduced Handsome Jack, a main antagonist for the sequel. Having a foe, one who can influence the world and raise the stakes, will provide the illusion that the world of Pandora is moving in the background. This will make the world feel bigger than the game, a crucial component in creating true immersion. If Gearbox implement Handsome Jack well, then the barren landscape of Pandora will be more alive because the player will feel as if, just over the next craggy rockface, someone is plotting their demise.

It isn’t just the rogue’s gallery that would benefit from being bolstered in Borderlands 2. Some interesting friendlies wouldn’t hurt either. Characters that are interesting to talk to would make the frequent trips to towns more than just an exercise in flogging loot and upgrading armaments. They could provide the extra spark that keeps the world of Pandora alive, even when you aren’t pulling the trigger. Previews of Borderlands 2 have confirmed that the Vault Hunters from the original will return as major NPCs and possibly quest givers. As established characters, let’s hope that Gearbox represents them as more than just animated job boards. The Vault Hunters have the potential (that word again) to bring the quests to life. The original Borderlands did have some superb side quests (those that hinted at the Guardian characters being a highlight) but too often it was a ‘go to point A, collect X, kill everything, return’, structure that was just there for grinding, having no bearing on character, world, or end-game. By hiding story nuggets in side-quests, or simply making the side-quests more interesting stories themselves, the player would be motivated to walk to all corners of Pandora and really explore the world. Something as simple as putting NPCs out of the towns, there to tell you about King Wee Wee’s tyranny in the Tetanus Warrens or how hard it is to feed Skagzilla with only stumps of arms left, would use Borderlands sense of humour to its advantage, and bring the dead world of Pandora back to life. Gearbox is going a long way to addressing this in their own way, by combining the inclusion of the Vault Hunters as quest-givers with the rumoured dynamic quests, opening up the possibility for the side quests to become tasks that influence the world and the way it responds to the player throughout the game. The Vault Hunters, as characters who bridge the gap between the original game and the sequel, can fill in the background of the world. They can tell the player what has changed on Pandora and emphasise the stakes of the player’s success or failure. Pandora would come to life. And Borderlands could fulfil its potential.

Borderlands 2 - Screenshot

It will be interesting to see whether lessons from the original game’s superb DLC have been learnt. Zombie Island and General Knoxx were both superb updates to Borderlands, but Knoxx stands out from a story perspective. It actually does a lot of the things that I want to see in Borderlands 2. Friendly characters with their own agenda: check. A big baddie: check. A world with machinations beyond your influence: check. Any early sequence sums all of this up. The player arrives in T-Bone junction and starts out on a small quest to collect car parts. The quest is given to them by Athena, a mysterious ninja character. As the player collects the parts a scripted event is triggered, enemies crash out of the sky on a drop ship and need to be taken down. Once these new foes are reduced to piles of armoured gore, Athena gets back on the radio explaining that the player is being hunted by these five crews, the “elite’s elite”, that could attack at any time. The world instantly feels more dynamic, the sense of safety in the friendly city disrupted, and every step becomes more furtive and full of risk. Gearbox introduced baddies and a more dynamic world which feels like it extends beyond your reach. It gives Knoxx a different feeling, one of ‘us against them’, where survival, as much as loot gathering, is paramount. It highlights the power of story in a game that, up until that point, had really only been about the guns.

You could easily read this column and think I have missed the point of Borderlands by a million miles. Gearbox’s shooter should just be about the guns and the builds, what difference does the story make? My answer is that the difference might not be much, and maybe I am missing the point. A poor narrative component didn’t make the first game poor. Like Phil Fish, maybe my love for Gearbox’s game has brought me too close to it and now I am seeing every little fault and every little flaw, not just the glorious whole.

However, this is about potential, and the narrative component in Borderlands is a long way less than perfect. Gearbox is clearly focussing on that part of the game and it will be fascinating to see the difference a fully formed story, with interesting characters and a world that extends beyond the boundaries of the game, will make to the game. The small changes to narrative delivery gave Knoxx a distinctly different feel to the rest of the game; imagine what Gearbox could do with story if they let rip over the entire game.

Borderlands 2 - Line-Up

It’s these thoughts of fulfilled potential that are incredibly exciting. That’s why we should be looking forward to Borderlands 2. Not because the first game was great, but because the first game was great despite its imperfections. Gearbox have stepped back from their creation, seen it is a whole and realised it can be so much more.

September has the potential to be a very good month.