For me, there’s often nothing worse than not understanding a story. Whether it’s certain words or the plot as a whole, when you can’t understand what someone’s saying or the message they’re trying to convey, something’s gone horribly wrong. Either the story’s been pitched too high, or the writer has fallen into the trap of assuming their audience is nodding along eagerly to what they have to say when really they have no idea what they’re talking about. We’ve all been there at some point or another. Sometimes it’s a book that loses us after the first sentence, other times it’s a film that’s so abstract that only vastly superior intellectuals could possibly make sense of it. Games are no different in this regard, and the way writers choose to deliver their narrative can often make or break a story.
But games have come a long way in story presentation over the years. If you wanted to know what a game was about twenty-five years ago, all you had to go on was the blurb on the back of the box or a tiny paragraph in the instruction manual. These days, however, those little paragraphs have transformed into entire cut-scenes of exposition, detailing the game’s plot and back-story in sumptuous detail.
Ōkami‘s opening sequence, for instance, is a great example of good story delivery. It introduces Kamiki Village and their pact with Orochi simply but effectively. Despite taking nearly ten minutes, everything from the rolling scroll of illustrations to the beautiful sound of the koto in the background works to draw you into the game’s narrative. It’s approachable, it doesn’t intimidate, and most importantly, everything the player needs to know is explained clearly using language which players can easily understand. It might sound like common sense, but as we’ll soon see, it’s surprising how badly games can get this wrong.
Other games like Metroid Prime take a more subtle approach to story-telling. Rather than subject the player to lengthy exposition dumps, they let the world to do the talking for them. Additional stories which round out the world are there if you look for them, but much like Ōkami‘s hidden myths, they’re not essential to the core gaming experience. Granted Prime does use some pretty specific scientific words in some of its creature scans, but for the most part they convey an intelligible story that few players would misunderstand.
Unfortunately though, some games may as well be written in a different language when it comes to story delivery, and one such game is the decidedly mediocre Tales of the Abyss. It provides the perfect example of how not to deliver a story, and as I mentioned in my review last week, it really doesn’t do a very good job of informing the player about its world or its narrative. It squanders every opportunity to let the player know what’s going on, and worst of all, it makes the player feel ignorant on several occasions.
If we compare one of the early scenes in Tales of the Abyss to that of Ōkami‘s opening, the difference is plain to see. Main character Luke is running through some training drills with his mentor, Van (the game’s battle tutorial), when suddenly a mysterious assassin, Tear, appears on the scene. She makes an attempt on Van’s life, but Luke and Tear end up creating something called a “hyperresonance” and get transported halfway across the world in the process. Have a watch of the following scene and see how the game relates this information (you can stop around 10.30):
In those three minutes alone, we hear the following terms that mean absolutely nothing to the player:
Fonic hymn, Seventh Fonist, Lorelei, Seventh Fonon, Planet Storm, hyperresonance, and an isofon-induced resonance.
Rather than explain what they mean or provide some much-needed context, the game simply inserts these terms into the script and only tells you about them when it’s good and ready (and, in most cases, not at all). It’s unsurprising, then, that Luke (like the player) would quite like to know “what the hell happened” when events settle down. But here’s where it starts to go wrong. As the clip above kindly informs us, a “hyperresonance” is, apparently, “an isofon-induced resonance”. Oh, okay…wait, what?
Not only is this supposed explanation utterly meaningless because we have no idea what an isofon is, this is the first time the word “isofon” has even been used in the game. Of course, you may know what an isophon is if you’re up to date with your sound physics lingo (as far as I can make out it’s something to do with volume and loudness), but to everyone else it’s hardly a very common word– and even if you do know what an isophon is, a “sound/loudness-induced resonance” doesn’t exactly make much sense either. Likewise, “fonic” may be more familiar to you as “phonic” (as in “symphonic”), derived from the Greek word “phonos” which means “sound” or “voice”, but like isofon, words like this may not be part of everyone’s everyday vocabulary.
They’re certainly not part of Luke’s vocabulary, that’s for sure, so it’s little wonder then that he grows increasingly bad-tempered with Tear’s nonsensical replies. But this is precisely what makes Abyss so maddening. By refusing to explain itself properly, it not only frustrates its characters but it also frustrates the player because no one is telling anyone what’s going on. It’s caught in this ridiculous cycle all by its own design, and at the end of the day, this just isn’t good story-telling.
Sadly though, silly explanations aren’t the worst of its flaws. As many of the above terms suggest, sound and music is something which Tales of the Abyss is very invested in story-wise. In a similar way to how Ōkami uses Japanese folklore to underpin much of its narrative, Abyss grounds its plot in numerous musical terms, and you can see this everywhere from Yulia’s Score to the fonic hymns and all this stuff about resonances.
But whereas Ōkami doesn’t rely on players having a prior knowledge of the game’s founding fairytales in order to enjoy the game, Abyss hinges entirely on our understanding of these words. They’re used constantly throughout the game, and characters throw them back and forth at each other like they’re something we really should know about, meaning that players must get to grips with them if they want to have even a basic understanding of what’s going on. Yet just when we think Tear is about to reveal all, she says this:
“First you tell me to shut up, now you’re telling me to talk. Let’s save the discussion for later. You don’t seem to know anything. Talking here would be a waste of time.”
Wait, wait wait. Explaining several of the game’s core terminology is a waste of time? I…I give up. I really do. I don’t even know where to begin on this one, so let’s just move on…
Watch and learn, Tales of the Abyss.
Enter Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. Now here’s a game that knows how to deliver a story or three depending on whether you’ve played Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age. With seven years (and relatively poor sales) separating Dark Dawn from these GBA gems, Camelot had a mighty big problem on their hands when it came to setting the scene for Golden Sun’s DS sequel. They not only had to explain two entire games in the space of Dark Dawn‘s opening cut-scene, which they did rather admirably, but they also had to entice several new players into the Golden Sun fold without scaring them off. Both GBA titles probably had about as many unique terms as Tales of the Abyss, so how did Dark Dawn deliver all this to the player?
Simple. One of Dark Dawn‘s best features was its comprehensive encyclopaedia. Rather than forcibly take time out of the main story to explain every single new character, town or feature, the developers allowed players to tap certain highlighted words during a character’s dialogue to get quick and easy explanations on the top screen of their DS. This helped maintain pacing as well as keep any potential laborious and patronising lectures to an absolute minimum. They provided clear definitions that weren’t riddled with other unfamiliar words, and more importantly, it didn’t make Golden Sun veterans feel like Golden Sun newborns.
For example, alchemy is one of the game’s key concepts, but it isn’t your normal “turning-iron-into-gold” type of alchemy. Instead, it’s a “psychic-elemental-power” type of alchemy, thus making its meaning fundamentally different to what people might expect it to be. But not only does Dark Dawn carefully explain what alchemy means during the course of its opening cut-scene, its encyclopaedia entry also reads as follows:
The force of the four elemental powers and the study of how they combine to create reality is known as Alchemy. The ancients sealed away the force of Alchemy, and the Warriors of Vale went on their Golden Sun quest to restore Alchemy.
This is infinitely easier to grasp than something like “an isofon-induced resonance”, and terms like “Warriors of Vale” and “Golden Sun” have already been explained in the game’s opening as well as having their own encyclopaedia entries. Therefore Dark Dawn has all its bases covered when it comes to keeping the player informed, and it’s a testament to how games can successfully incorporate a lot of unique terms into its narrative without creating an impenetrable wall of jargon.
To be fair, it’s not just Tales of the Abyss which overloads the player with meaningless words. Looking further afield, even games like Skyrim fall into the same trap, so Abyss certainly isn’t alone in this regard by any means. As I mentioned in my review, Abyss does, to its credit, tackle some pretty meaty subject matter, and it had the potential to deliver a really meaningful discussion about free will and predestination. Had the story been a little more articulate, we might have been spared a lot of unnecessary grief and frustration, and it may have even rivalled Tales of Symphonia‘s thoughtful and thorough exploration of Utilitarianism. As it stands though, all we’re left with is a bit of a mess– or maybe I should say “an isofon-induced muddle”! In any case, let’s just hope the next Tales of title has learned from some of Abyss‘s mistakes.