Monday, June 27, 2011

Companions: Storytelling in Team Ico games

Wrong kind of companion
People look at the Team Ico games and try to find connections to prove that they're all in the same universe. They'll talk about boys with horns, art style, etc. There is, however, a common thread in the gameplay which I feel is what makes the stories in these games so powerful, despite the lack of dialogue. Each game features a companion. In this instance, a companion is a character that stays by the main character's side throughout the majority of the game.

Why would they make all of their games this way? I think it's because it really has a powerful effect on the story. In ICO, your goal is to escape from the castle with Yorda, the daughter of the queen of the castle. The Queen plans to use Yorda to extend her own life. Yorda is mostly useless, only occasionally being able to help by magically activating certain doors. When plalying ICO, I felt a strong need to protect Yorda as if she were my younger sister. That's a bond that I never have with the main character of a game, who I'm used to seeing die. That's one reason that I, as a player, got pulled into ICO's story. Yorda's constant presence and vulnerability made me want to protect her, giving me a stronger connection to the universe and its events.

In Shadow of the Colossus, your companion is of a very different form. Specifically, that form is a horse. Agro is the Wanderer's near-constant companion throughout the game, only leaving your side for some of the boss battles where he can't cross the terrain to get there. He's even instrumental to your success in some of the battles. Agro is the only friendly presence you experience in this harsh land. He is your trusty steed, a very strong archetype in storytelling. Anyone who has ever cared for an animal would have a problem not falling in love with Agro. He's even smarter than other video game horses, being easily able to steer himself around obstacles and can navigate through narrow areas without any guidance, which eliminates any frustration from doing so. Before the final battle, when the bridge collapsed and Agro fell into the canyon, my heart sank and I released an audible cry of "No!." At that point I was pissed, and I was determined to kill that final boss. I wasn't going to let my best friend die in vain.

Wrong Last Guardian
In The Last Guardian, the companion will be a giant cat/bird/griffon thing called Trico. Although this game isn't out yet, there are a few things that we can infer from what we have seen. It appears that the boy will be taking the role of guiding and helping this creature escape from whatever castle it's in. However, unlike in ICO, the companion is the one that's capable of defense and attack, and the boy is the vulnerable one. Furthermore, Trico will be assisting the boy in the platforming and navigation in this game.

In these ways, the boy and Trico make a team, each one requiring the assistance of the other. He needs your guidance and stealth; you need his strength and size. Without each other, neither of you would escape. It is in this way that the emotional connection will be established. Unfortunately, I think Penny Arcade has this one called already.

These games all use (or will use) the gameplay mechanic of a companion as a way to strengthen the story and the player's connection to the world. Many games play out like movies with inconsequential action segments. It's perfectly fine for that to be a basic blueprint for how games function, but it's very important for the gameplay portion of the game to complement the narrative to produce a strong emotional reaction. Letting the gameplay and the story work together instead of side-by-side is an option that video games have which makes them unique as a storytelling medium. Taking advantage of this ability is how video game makers can advance video games as an art form.

How else have you seen gameplay enhance the narrative? I'm personally looking forward to Journey's desolate world exploration and unique co-op.