Mar 12, 2013

Now You're Just Being Silly

I warn you: I just finished a game I really, really liked, and it made me think "Man, this is just how games used to be. Why can't games be like this again?"

That means: you're in for a rant.

The game in question in Driftmoon, and it brings to the CRPG genre something I've missed in it for quite some time - silliness. Driftmoon revels in silliness, it takes absolute delight in throwing the most offbeat situations, characters, locations and items at you, always keeping you guessing. An RPG in which you may trade your sword in because the flute you just picked up more damage. In which your companions include a panther who thinks she's leading the party, a talking skeleton and, well, a firefly. A game that sees you fighting giant slimy googly eyes, playing ice hockey vs a puppy and carrying a talking skull around with you.

Oh, but it is.

"Hang on a minute!" you had better be exclaiming right now or else I need to force you to play some classic games, "There was a talking skull in The Curse of Monkey Island, Planescape: Torment and Chrono Cross (thanks Paul)! That's not original at all!"

Exactly. Silliness in games is nothing new. The 90s was full of games that broke up the seriousness of their plots with absurd humour. Sadly, it's a trend that we seem to be encountering less and less in games. Play Baldur's Gate and you can hardly walk 20 paces without encountering something either subtly amusing or completely bonkers. The developers seemed to understand that a fantasy game full of dull lore needs something like this to break it up, to make it something players can relate to. Fantasy lore can be the dullest thing ever - talking about made up wars between made up people in a made up place is pretty much the most boring thing I can imagine. Put a bit of comedy in there to giggle about - it doesn't have to be much - and I'll remember it for days.

Even very serious games such as Deus Ex had their moments - I can quote strange lines from that game even to this day, despite having not played it for years. Yes, the game was very serious in places, with some very heavy themes, but it also showed a human side - a side I can instantly relate to.

Waking Mars' Amani has her intellectual side splendidly balanced by a cheeky sense of humour, which works well  to offset Liang's serious, contemplative nature. The AI fellow is annoying, of course.

When I play a Call of Duty or a Medal of Honor or a Battlefield game, I can't help but wonder at the realism of the soldiers in them. Surely actual soldiers make jokes with each other between the fighting? Sure, I realize that in a time of combat humour is likely to be the last thing on anybody's mind, but you can't tell me that a brigade of young men is not going to make jokes about bums and farting when they're on patrol. It doesn't have to be to the "Weak bluff, you prancing geisha!" level of Bulletstorm, but something, anything would be appreciated.

My favourite Rockstar games are, of course, GTA: Vice City, Bully and Red Dead Redemption. All of these have one thing in common - they don't take themselves too seriously. I'm not saying the storylines aren't serious - they absolutely are, especially in RDR - I'm saying that the characters within are gleefully insane. The games embrace their settings wholly, and the people you need to interact with paint a colourful portrait of the setting, whether it be schoolyard or wild west. Playing GTA4 and to some extent San Andreas left me disappointed with how seriously everything took itself - I don't give a damn about spending time with Roman any more than I care about what the hell Morrigan thinks every time I want to help someone in Dragon Age. The silliness in RDR, Bully and VC made for a world I could instantly relate to, laugh at and feel comfortable with. That's important.

Tyrian offsets the fast combat with hilarious data logs you can find scattered around the place to great effect.
Similarly, silliness gives a setting personality. Play Freelancer and every NPC you talk to is the same dull, formulaic data storage unit. Play Aquanox and you'll meet some of the most bizarre freaks you could imagine. Guess which game I prefer?

I'm not saying games need to plunge you headfirst into bizarro world. There's a definite point where it becomes impossible to take a game seriously because of how much nonsense it contains. On the other hand, there is also a point where a game stops being interesting when it becomes too melodramatic. Driftmoon, through all the nonsense it's so heavily laden with, still tells a compelling tale of betrayals, romance and doing the Right Thing. Beyond this, it's also filled with insane moments that I'll remember for far longer than any of the "epic battles" of deadpan RPGs. That's how games used to be. That's why I fell in love with games in the first place.

If there's any doubt left, consider Planescape: Torment. A thought provoking, deep and dark narrative that still has me moved and contemplative to this day. It also has a guy with a wooden head who runs into walls, a celibate succubus and allows you to convince a man that he doesn't exist so thoroughly that he literally stops existing.

Need I say more?

(buy Driftmoon)

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