Talking Point: Nintendo Should Aim to Produce Mature, Genre-Defining Storytelling Experiences
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
The Last of Us sets a standard
Nintendo, when on peak form and producing its landmark titles, is capable of producing some of the greatest video games in the industry. It's the master of universal genres such as 3D and 2D platformers, adventure exploration games, and can make kart racing look easy — as mediocre copycats often demonstrate. What Nintendo doesn't do is produce Western market games such as The Last of Us, at least not in that style, and that's an area that it should seek to resolve.
Let's make some qualifications to that statement. The Last of Us is a title that, despite the occasional moment that's frustrated critics in combat or enemy design, has been lavished with praise across the majority of media outlets, including a 10 in sister-site Push Square's review. What the title does, beyond solid core mechanics, is fuse cinematic — borderline literary — storytelling with wonderful visuals and a true sense of immersion into its post-apocalyptic world. The fact that it's on PS3 and not PS4 is testament to developer Naughty Dog's technical proficiency and, most notably, its art direction. Those that merely love it say that it's everything a story-driven triple-A blockbuster should be, while others — such as our own Sammy Barker on Push Square — feel that it's a game changer in what the medium can deliver in terms of narrative.
At the time of writing it has a metacritic average of 96, placing it near the top of the list. That list also features Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2 right above it, so not only do we acknowledge that critic scores on the aggregator aren't the be-all and end-all, it's also the case that Nintendo is exceptional — arguably the best — in its particular domains, and we wouldn't want that to change. The fact is that some Nintendo gamers buy the company's systems because of those kinds of experiences, and we're big supporters of games being about polished gameplay, occasional innovation but, most prominently of all, fun.
Yet like with any entertainment medium, variety is the spice of life, and there may be some Wii U owners without a rival system or gaming PC that look at titles such as The Last of Us and wish for equivalents. We're seeing more multi-platform arrivals in the coming year — especially from Ubisoft — but it's yet to be seen how far storytelling and atmospheric, immersive gameplay will feature in those titles. There's still a trend, which by popular consensus The Last of Us appears to be avoiding, for attempts at serious storytelling to ultimately make way for excessive quick-time events or mindless action; rather like Sony with its ownership of developers such as Naughty Dog, it would perhaps fall to Nintendo to take on projects of this nature, either from within its Kyoto studios or — perhaps more likely — via one of its subsidiaries.
We do feel there are examples of Nintendo games — or those funded by the company — making efforts to up-the-ante in terms of narrative and immersion. The first Metroid Prime from Retro Studios has rightly been praised on these grounds; it's not cinematic, as such, but the isolation of Samus, exploring a strange planet and with information coming through scanning objects, is brilliant portrayed. We did also see examples, on Wii, of Nintendo adopting more story-driven efforts, with one of the most cinematic being Disaster: Day of Crisis, which never made it to North America and struggled in Europe. Although more a Stallone-action B-movie than considered storytelling, it nevertheless flirted with big set-piece events, plenty of narrative and varied gameplay mechanics. It was fairly divisive, but our man Marcel van Duyn says it can perhaps be considered as "Uncharted mixed with Time Crisis and Disaster Report/Raw Danger".
That title was developed by Monolith Soft, which would then launch itself to prominence with the brilliant Xenoblade Chronicles, the epic JRPG that swallowed dozens of hours to get to completion. That title was primarily developed for the Japanese market, of course, and Disaster: Day of Crisis also betrays cultural aspects that can be related to the region's approach to gaming. The protagonist in Day of Crisis often indulges in silly, immersion-breaking animations to eat an over-sized burger, for example, which is not something that typically appears in games proclaiming to be 'mature' in the West. The likes of Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story take, for the most part, more serious approaches to their tales, but once again they can't be equated to the sort of Western cinematic flourishes seen in something like The Last of Us or even the Uncharted series, as they're pure fantasy in setting and tone. Xenoblade Chronicles spins an excellent yarn, but its worlds are literally set on enormous God-like Titans, with quirky characters, ideas and mech-enemies that swagger around with Cockney London accents, like rejected audition tapes from a low budget British gangster movie.
We're not saying these PS3 games like The Last of Us or the Uncharted series are realistic — especially not the latter — but they're based in worlds resembling those of Western imaginations, and attempt to immerse us with character development that we can relate to. We've seen recent examples where Nintendo has genuinely strived for character development, albeit in fantastical settings, in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Metroid: Other M. The former arguably did a brilliant job, with Link, Zelda and some of the supporting cast portraying real emotions and forming relationships through the adventure, with some storytelling sequences and cutscenes perhaps representing series heights in that respect. Yet for every wonderful moment where the relationship between Link and Zelda grows, for example, there's probably about 20 hours of questing before that dynamic is picked up again; it works in the context of the series, but those moments of emotive expression represent a tantalising glimpse of Nintendo's potential in the area.
And then we have Other M, which make no mistake has its fans in the Nintendo Life team. It went all out in storytelling, even going as far as to include an unlockable movie mode, where you can watch the whole thing — combining all of the cut-scenes and some gameplay footage — in a couple of hours. We're not in the heads of the writers, but if they were going for an emotional, well-structured and meaningful plot and performance for Samus, it didn't hit the mark. We had an overblown space opera, which did a job but was ripe for parody, and didn't exactly delight fans with its portrayal of the heroine or her relationships. Maybe that was the goal, our point is that it wasn't a serious, mature piece of storytelling, at least not to our sensibilities or, it seems, those of many others.
The closest example of what we're referring to in recent times, in terms of this storytelling approach on a Nintendo system, is ZombiU. To be clear, the plot is undercooked, character development is limited and, in the case of the permadeath feature, not that relevant for the player's protagonist, but what it does deliver is a familiar environment in a realistic manner, but with a Western fantasy tale of a zombie apocalypse. You find soda cans, chocolate bars and health to patch yourself up (not consumed in a comical animation); your character pants and panics when attacked; you manage your inventory in real time; there are journals and pieces of information scattered around the environments. It's the kind of experience that could, with the right scripting and adjustments, feasibly be a zombie film that you'd watch in the cinema, and it's set in a real-life city with lots of identifiable landmarks and features.
Nintendo's greatest IPs take a different approach, adopting fantastical other-worlds and strange and wonderful creatures. They're terrific and shouldn't go anywhere, but Sony continues to set landmarks in taking ideas from cinema blockbusters or literary success-stories — whether just focused on action, storytelling or a tantalising mix of both — and turning them into video games. It's an area that Nintendo's missing, and we feel should be a part of the Wii U landscape; millions love the fantasy and imagination, but some also want games centered on a more real world, tales of struggle based around human endeavour, that also push gameplay in intriguing, immersive directions.
That's a lot to ask of Nintendo's internal teams, perhaps, as asking a Japanese team for a Western cinematic title is as fair as asking Retro Studios to make the next Xenoblade and accurately capture the cultural ideas that make JRPGs so memorable. Yet Nintendo has resources outside of Japan, such as Retro Studios and relationships with those such as Next Level Games. It's not necessarily about acquiring studios, either, but can be achieved by putting up the funds and forming useful partnerships.
The truth is that Nintendo systems are becoming, for some at least, the other console. In some ways that's a compliment, as Nintendo produces games that others struggle to match, with such creativity, polish and a big N charm that's in a league of its own. But that's not the only game in town, and story-based, narrative driven games can immerse gamers in a world and go beyond the ludicrous bombast of a CoD game or generic brown shooter.
The video game medium is so young, in creative terms, and Nintendo has done so much to bring the industry to where it is today. But that's not the end of the story, and experiences will evolve; we've seen cinematic impact in titles like the latest Tomb Raider, and The Last of Us is being proclaimed as a step further in bringing gaming closer to older art-forms like cinema and literature. Games should be fun, of course, and Nintendo is exceptional at delivering on that — but gaming can be so much more, too.