LifeSigns: Let the Narrative roll

There are countless arguments surrounding gaming fundamentals should you look for them. An example of one is the question of the future direction of games now that graphics are reaching a peak. Should they continue to develop in that area, aiming for another jump to emulate that from 2D to 3D; or should they focus on story-telling and gameplay?

This leads to another dispute, a debate that is still raging in the world of ‘video game’ academics. Does narrative hinder the most essential element of gaming, the gameplay? It’s a question still prevalent today, with scholars who favour gameplay (Ludologists) at odds with those who advocate narrative (Narratologists).

A look at film studies offers a similar argument. Does spectacle in film halt narrative? In other words, do those impressive action moments in a Michael Bay film hinder there being any kind of coherent plot? It boils down to the fact that as long as the audience is watching spectacle, the narrative is being put on hold. So, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the audience enjoys stunning fights amidst the bamboo. As striking as it is visually, however, it does very little for the plot. Within the scenes where dialogue is prevalent but there is minimal fighting, the opposite occurs.

The same idea can be transposed onto the gameplay/narrative idea. Keep in mind that a game is a game, meaning there has to be gameplay or interactivity involved. When you add narrative to a non-traditional storytelling medium like games, there is an inevitable trade off. Just as spectacle hinders narrative, narrative can in-turn do the same to gameplay. You need look no further than LifeSigns: Hospital Affairs on the DS for an example.

His name is Dokuta Tendo. Do-Ku-Ta. Geddit? He's a doctor...

To give a short history, LifeSigns: Hospital Affairs (Or Surgical Unit), originally Kenshūi Tendō Dokuta 2: Inochi no Tenbin, was released due to the success of Trauma Center: Under The Knife. As the Japanese title implies, it is the second in a series, with the first never being released outside of Japan. To summarise broadly, the series is like a mixture of Phoenix Wright and the aforementioned Trauma Center. A mixture of diagnostic sections, operations, mini games and ‘persuasion’ segments, the game appears rich with content to keep most players happy. However, critics gave the game a mixed reception due on the most part to one aspect, too much dialogue.

LifeSigns is not too dissimilar to Phoenix Wright in how the whole game is explored. The player moves from available sections to other sections; for example, from the staff room to the nurses’ station when in the hospital. There, the player may see one of the characters and talk to them. Another option, which inevitably would lead to comparisons between the two aforementioned games, is to show item from your ‘clinical records’. Think of Phoenix showing evidence to a suspect and you’re pretty much there.

This game does seem to have an unhealthy obsession with appendicitis.

In the first chapter the initial path before your first diagnosis and subsequent operation is short. The dialogue is quite succinct and necessary. It is only after your first operation that conversations between operations can span into hours.; becoming more akin to a medical visual novel than a game. The operations are smooth and inventive, taking medical terms and treatments far further than Trauma Center dared at a same age rating of PEGI 12+. That said, I dare any 12 year old to have a grasp of what a coil embolization of the splenic artery using an angiography actually means. Despite the medical jargon heavy text, the gameplay is thrilling and varied. Yet as the conversation sections lengthen, the juxtaposition between dialogue and gameplay can be jarring.

If a game has such an interesting gameplay mechanic, being forced to traipse through reams of dialogue to get to it can become trying. The narrative begins to grate with the gameplay and the usually active gamer is required to become almost passive in their engagement with the game. The player is still active in their subjective view of what they are watching and reading, as with a film or book, but the interactive element fundamental to gameplay is reduced.

As I wrote earlier, a game is a game. The player expects to do just that, play a game. Should that be taken away without warning for a lengthy period, it is sure to irritate. Most people wouldn’t pay to see two hours of non-stop fighting with no explanation or plot, after all. By the same token, most gamers expect to interact with their game as much as possible. You need only look at Hideo Kojima’s work in the Metal Gear Solid series to see mixed criticisms on the lengthy cut-scenes they contain, none more so than Metal Gear Solid 4, which our very own tom01255 saw as massively overrated.

The plot is very hospital drama-y. Ranging from usual illnesses to rabid fans threatening to stab staff. Good times.

This isn’t to say that the two elements of narrative and gameplay should be mutually exclusive. Spectacle is an intrinsic part of the ‘Hollywood Blockbuster’, one that draws the crowds to the cinemas (See Avatar). Given time, the plot of LifeSigns can actually draw you in, especially in the closing chapters where your actions are tied deeply to a cancer patient you’ve befriended throughout the game. The narrative has given rise to the player’s agency or emotional involvement, rather than the gameplay. It’s hard not to care for a character you’ve talked to for a good 15+ hours, one way or another. The dialogue, whilst still pushing the player into that passive/active engagement, becomes more vital to the game. You need to know the facts if you are to help save lives, after all.

There are many games out on the market that have the same mix of narrative and gameplay; you need only look at the RPG genre as a whole for a wealth of examples. The balance is always different, and is perhaps the secret to whether the game is good or bad. Working on the equilibrium of gameplay and narrative is one of the other options to improve upon over graphics in the future. What do you think though? Will a non-traditional storytelling format such as gaming ever truly master the use of narrative within gameplay? Is it even necessary? Ludologist or Narratologist, that is the question.

LifeSigns: Hospital Affairs is available for the DS from all good games retailers. Click to buy it from our Amazon shop and support this site.

Mon, April 19 2010 » Opinion Pieces

3 Responses

  1. Mightyles April 19 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    A very interesting article sabbi – I for one am a bit if an elitist when it comes to film, preferring the psycho-sexual examination of human relationships in last tango in Paris to the over the top action of, say, transformers or the matrix. When it comes to games however gameplay is the most important feature to me. Some of my favourite games – resident evil 4, gears of war 2, dungeon keeper, samba de amigo – have, at best, had fairly generic stories.

    Having said that, a game that manages to blend an enthralling narrative and excellent gameplay transcends being a mere “game” and enters the realm of magic in the way that a film or book is incapable of.

  2. Enki April 19 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    Thanks, Luke! I have to admit, I agree with you on the film front. I’ve always been more partial to Asian cinema in its various forms to your generic Hollywood blockbuster, myself. I agree with you on the gameplay front, too. I’ve let many a game slide on the graphics front at least when there’s been a brilliant game mechanic below it.

    However, I’ve always been of the impression that if done well, narrative can work with games. Even to the extent of, as you say, transcending other mediums. I think some great games have come close, but as of yet I think there is room to improve on that illusive mix of narrative and gameplay.

  3. tom01255 April 20 2010 @ 9:41 am

    Con Air is the greatest film ever made… I don’t actually think that but felt I had to bring the high brow discussion down a bit…

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