Tag Archives: Why It Worked

Why It Worked: Saints Row IV and Living Exuberantly

A well-written comedy can get away with just about anything so long as it’s funny. Paper-thin plots, characters that vacillate between personalities, and a dearth of thematic meat are by no means a requirement of comedy writing, but they’re easily excused when the jokes are genuinely funny and the delivery is strong. For this reason, it’s easy to overlook when a comedy gets its fundamentals right–when its essential narrative building blocks are sturdy and cleverly deployed in ways applicable to any genre.

Saints Row IV WallpaperImage purloined from the official site.

Saints Row IV is clearly comedic, but its narrative also succeeds in ways rarely seen in modern big-budget games. It builds its emotional stakes, Player engagement, and yes, quite a few jokes on a fundamentally joyful core.

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Why it Worked: Wizardry VII, In-Game Text, and a Fantasy of Ideas

Even in the early 1990s, Wizardry was something of a throwback. Both the Wizardry and Ultima series–the two great and venerable franchises of computer role-playing games–had begun in 1981, but while Ultima was experimenting with 3D movement (Ultima Underworld) and combat-light, story- and world-interactivity-driven games (Ultima VII, the likes of which has still never been replicated), Wizardry was all about dungeon diving, turn-based combat, maddening environment puzzles, and more character builds and items than you could throw a spreadsheet at.w7-introscreen

Wizardry was for the hardcore: the players who grudgingly accepted auto-mapping but wanted the quality of the auto-generated maps to be dependent on the skills of the in-game party members, and who were still willing to keep reams of notes to keep the teleporter puzzles straight. Wizardry was for players who didn’t need fancy graphics or in-your-face storytelling getting in the way of combat. In Computer Gaming World‘s February 1991 preview of Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant, writer Alan Emrich goes on about the appearance of trees in a Wizardry game; understandable, since the seventh installment was the first Wizardry to have a world beyond the dungeon at all.

And while Wizardry may never have broadened its appeal, Wizardry VII was a masterpiece of its combat- and puzzle-heavy subgenre, ceaselessly challenging and immense in scope. For my tastes, it’s a bit too much–too much combat, puzzles fascinating but slightly too insane–and yet it remains a game that entrances me.

Largely because of that odd duck that Wizardry traditionally never spent much time on: the story. Let’s discuss why it worked.
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Why It Worked: Wing Commander II

Will I drive off my newly forming audience by waxing nostalgic and overanalyzing a twenty-year-old game? Or are there insights to be gleaned here about the simple interactions between story and gameplay? Consider this a beginner-level essay on game narratives.

At the start of his 1991 review of Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi, Alan Emrich wrote in Computer Gaming World #88:

For several months now, Wing Commander has reigned as the number-one game, as rated by this magazine’s readers. Clearly, there must be a lot “right” with this game. Even though Wing Commander is, at least at its most basic level, something of a glorified arcade game, there is also something that sets it apart. Perhaps it is the inclusion of a believable, evolving storyline, full of sympathetic comrade characters and vain, vile villains that bring a certain je ne sais pas.

He was absolutely right. Wing Commander was a fantastic game by any measure, but it was an attention to narrative that propelled it into its position as a multimedia franchise. The game would spawn numerous sequels, expansion packs, spinoffs, novels, an animated series, a feature film… some better than others, admittedly, but the quality of the core series started high and remained so.

In 1991, Origin Systems (shortly before the company’s acquisition by Electronic Arts) published Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi, which would prove to be one of the franchise’s high points. With the exception of adding then-rare voiceover content in a limited number of places and the sheer¬†quantity of cinematic sequences, it is not an especially innovative game from a standpoint of storytelling mechanics. The dialogue, while more than acceptable for its time, reads as less-than-stellar today. But it is a game that excelled at the execution of its story, particularly in how its narrative elements supported and bolstered the game’s mechanics–and how the mechanics and mission design, in turn, supported its story.

It is, in short, worth examining as a case study. Let’s talk about why it worked. Continue reading