Today’s post by Maya looks at Another Code: R for the Wii, and continues a recent trend on here of using average or mediocre games to think through what distinguishes the gaming wheat from the chaff when it comes to narrative in games.
Oh, wait, I’m having a flashback…Eike, protagonist of Shadow of Memories (aka Shadow of Destiny)? What are you doing here? No – this is all wrong. I’m meant to be writing a piece on Another Code: R… So, why is Homunculus here? Why are Eike and Homunculus holding hands?! What is going on?!
Is my flashback an accurate recalling of a narrative sequence? Or is it an elaborate ploy in which to make several interrelated points on the problem of translation in narrative-heavy games and story order? Or did I simply want you to have a bizarre image in mind when reading this post? Whatever the case, flashbacks are an important element to the argument of this blog post, a conceit used in many games, but especially important in story driven games. And so I’d like to explore why Cing’s Code: R is a disappointing game compared with Shadow of Memories and other story-driven games, because of its failure to utilise the full potential of the gaming medium.
Videogames are a unique medium for exploring narrative in fascinating ways – rather abstract notions, such as time, memory and destiny are made concrete through devices like on-screen choices, forked paths, etc. Even purely linear games let us “correct” mistakes or bad choices we made through the conceit of continues, re-loading a save or restarting the console. In my view, this is what makes games different to films, books and fanfiction – because even if they have alternative endings, or spin-offs, or whatever – no other medium allows you to make choices and accommodate them in the narrative as you experience it for the first time (except choose-your-own-adventure novels, but let’s not get cocky now).
Good videogames take advantage of that potential – which is why story-heavy games often get a bad rap. It’s difficult to handle a complex narrative, and have the gameplay interact meaningfully with that narrative. You could end up with a confused mess like Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy): a decent detective story with adventure-style gameplay regresses into painfully scripted sci-fi coupled with repetitive QTEs. And all because it tries too hard to be “like the movies”, The Matrix specifically.
Thankfully, narrative-based games – text adventures, point and click adventures, and finally the modern adventure – have a history almost as long as games themselves, so players have a wonderfully eclectic and broad library to sample. One of my favorite games of all time, Shadow of Memories (aka Shadow of Destiny), pushes the notion of narrative-centric gaming to its limits. The game has eight possible outcomes depending on your in-game choices, but what makes it so memorable is that each one is incredibly meaningful, with its own unique and haunting plot revelations. In effect, Shadow of Memories channels Silent Hill’s chilling gameplay and environments, but the former game has almost no gameplay to speak of, and instead uses narrative exclusively to explore its dark themes.
This leads me to Cing’s Another Code: R a point-and-click adventure which begs that infernal question: does the game have a compelling enough narrative to make up for the absence of gameplay? Also, can a game have too much narrative – and therefore end up not being much of a “game” at all?
Another Code: R is a sequel to Another Code: Two Memories (aka Trace Memory, for the US). Code: R follows 16 year old Ashley Robins on her pursuit of the truth about her mother, Sayoko, who was murdered when Ashley was 3 years old. Ashley is invited to Lake Juliet by her father, Richard, a scientist – he has disappointed his daughter in the way father’s do (by being emotionally distant, forgetful, selfish, etc). After you arrive, you begin having flashbacks about your mother – the idyllic camp site/research-science-place suddenly seems weird even by camp-site-science-research-unit standards…
Flashbacks, memory research unit, discussions about memory and long dead mothers, messed up family relations – you could understand why I was excited for this game. And yet, I was disappointed. Maybe Shadow of Memories has ruined me, but I think there are some basic issues – to do with narrative order affecting the pay-off and impact, and the klutzy dialogue – which really impeded my enjoyment of the game. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t terrible but, overall, I was left with a feeling that had the developers had enough time, this would have been a great game. This was a rushed proto-type showing a lot of potential, not a finished product.
Anyway, it got me thinking long and hard about what makes a game story great – and why I am so obsessed with endings (refer to any podcast).
One of the key issues that hampered my experience with Code: R are the characters who don’t come across quite right, or minor characters who are quite obviously ciphers (albeit very chatty ones) there to push the plot along. Characters like Tommy, Sam and Janet are two-dimensional and, as a reader/player, I kept expecting their role to be fleshed out later, and was disappointed when this did not happen. I kept thinking “Is Tommy a love interest? Is that why he’s here? Surely he can’t just be wandering about when he has a shop to watch!” But no. Apparently Tommy really is the bum his theme music implies.
In this refreshingly candid interview, the translators give several reasons why translating Code: R was particularly difficult. They explain they weren’t able to delete lines and so were having to accommodate Japanese conversation style in European languages:
Japanese dialogues often stick to patterns that don’t exist in, or sound unnatural, in European languages – they tend to say the same thing twice, four times, five times. So we had to change that. It was really difficult, because we realised this when we had finished translating the chapters and then we had to go through all the chapters and change everything. Sometimes they are talking about a bag in the game. And it’s like “Oh you lost the bag? What happened to the bag?” etc. So there was quite a lot of work to do in that sense for all languages.
Yes, they could be like “Where’s my bag? Oh, your bag? Yeah, my bag”.
This accounts for an issue that I had throughout the game, where characters would simply repeat questions back at the speaker: back and forth, dialogue would go, often with very little content (this particularly impacts Matthew’s character). Honestly, I think the translators did as best they could, but without having the ability to delete lines of dialogue entirely it’s near impossible to imagine how the characters could’ve not sounded like socially awkward parrots. And so much of the game relies on dialogue. And awkward dialogue leads to awkward characters. And awkward characters lead to awkward blog posts.
Maybe I am making a fuss – but characterisation is what most of the narrative tension relies upon; characters who fail to come across can be detrimental to the game as a whole. An instance of exactly this is our introduction to Ryan. Creepy creepy Ryan… We meet Ryan relatively early on under unusual circumstances and Ashley is way too trusting of him. We could write this off as her being a naive, 16 year old…except that she reacts with uninhibited joy to some of the downright rude things he says to her. For example, he unabashedly states that he and Sayoko are genius scientists, prodigies in their fields – whilst Ashley is more like her father, Richard, hard working mortals who are…simply stupid? I was left wondering if the game was throwing out a red-herring, or if Ryan had some kind of anti-social disorder.
This kind of confusion (is this to do with plot, or bad writing…?) is an anathema to narrative-centric games. Compare this with your introduction to Shadow of Memories’ Homunculus. S/he is incredibly creepy, weird and off-putting, but at the start of the game, when the main character Eike is assassinated, s/he literally brings you back to life and gives you a chance to find your killer. Despite not fully trusting Homunculus or understanding his/her motives, Eike (the player) accepts the opportunity to find the killer. How are we meant to feel about Homunculus? What are his/her motives? Can we really trust him/her? We are left guessing – but it is never confusing, only intriguing and beguiling.
What is frustrating to me is that a lot of these issues could have been ironed out in the planning stages. The use of a good storyboard could have picked up some glaring narrative issues that hamper the game: the slow start, the patchy characterisation and disconcertingly upbeat atmosphere (we are dealing with the death of mothers and lying, deceiving scientists, after all, folks)…in fact, I think a good story-boarding session could have led to better use of the environment to tell the story, as opposed to solely relying upon dialogue. It’s that old script writing adage: show, don’t tell, the viewer.
Some suggestions: the game has a very slow start. This could have easily been remedied by what I like to call “the power of return”. The last environment of the game is, predictably, the science lab which lies at the heart of this mystery, JC Valley. Fine – so why don’t we start there? If we started in JC Valley whilst it was bustling with scientists, we could have easily been introduced to some of the characters and one of the key environments. This would ensure that when we return to the lab at the end of the game – JC Valley now quiet, strange, suspenseful – a wonderful thing would happen: defamiliarisation, which would automatically lend the game some much-needed atmosphere and depth. Returning to a location to find it substantially changed is the bread and butter of games like Silent Hill. In Code: R though, we almost never return anywhere (unless you’re addicted to hunting for the game’s sole collectible, the utterly worthless recycling tokens). There are also wasted opportunities in that some environments like the mines are never accessible. Dangling an area in front of a player’s nose, only for it to be snatched away – for no reason – is a pitiful way to reward the precious hours we have given to a game.
However, by far the biggest crime this game commits is that it doesn’t show even a basic understanding of what games can do. There are two aspects that I want to discuss in this respect: memory and choice/destiny. Firstly, videogames are made for the exploration of the subject of memory. With Code: R, we have pretty, cel-shaded flashbacks, instead of what could have been artfully made, playable flashbacks to Blood Edward Island, for instance. And choice?
Here’s the thing: none of the “choices” that game presents you with have any impact at all. And that means it wasn’t a choice to begin with. Even Persona 4, my arch-nemesis in videogame form, offered me the possibility of right and wrong. I could get a bad ending, good ones, and make actual, meaningful choices – what I did had consequences. And that, for me, is a big deal.
“So, you’re asking for alternative endings AND time-travel?” asks Adrian.
Yes. Is that so unreasonable? After all, Shadow of Memories manages to do it. And Code: R has the contrivance of the TAS (an in-game representation of the Wii controller), which could have been your personal portal to the past, as opposed to a technological innovation that allows you to open locked doors. Yes, Nintendo, the future hath cometh.
To be fair, when Code: R does does find its feet there are some really sweet, touching moments. I’m particularly thinking of the complex and satisfying treatment of the past through the Clock Tower storyline; but I don’t want the touching, sweet moments to be all I am left with: I want closure dammit! I want storylines tied in extravagant bows! I want characters who sparkle! I don’t want episodic moments of beauty, but a beautiful game! So, I would recommend Code: R if detective stories are your thing – but for those who want to sample the best, try Shadow of Memories, or Grim Fandango, or any other classic narrative-centric game out there.