September 16th, 2010
I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative aspect of Quake II, in fact, I prefer its narrative language over almost everything else out there. This might sound a little strange given that Quake II is not known for its storytelling prowess, but then again, that’s entirely the point.
Coming at it from a modern perspective where macho space marines populate 5/8ths of all video game narratives, Quake II‘s premise of a one man assault on an alien planet may come off as cliché. Then again id software wrote this cliché in the video game world with an angry American storming a Nazi base (Wolfenstien 3D) and a one man assault of an alien planet (Doom)…wait a minute. This backdrop is all that’s needed though, it’s simple to understand, unobtrusive and doesn’t command a great deal of your time.
The rest of the narrative is, as it should be, interactivity-based, as follows:
- individual battles paint the picture of conflict on the Strogg homeworld
- interacting with the elevators, switches and other devices define the technological make-up of the alien race
- each level constitutes a part of the Strogg’s civil and industrial body, whether it be the mines, sewers, warehouse etc. Therefore, playing Quake II is to take a one-person tour through the interconnected life stream of the Strogg’s homeworld
- each objective is a narrative way point
- the graphical language of the grunge textures and prison-like architecture tells its own history which the player can discern for themself
- enemy movement patterns, their visual character and the grunts they make design the personality of the actors
- stealing a tank commander’s head to open a door, calling down an air-strike on a bunker, and defeating Big Gun and Makron act as set pieces
- the non-hostile human characters are minor actors
This narrative, one which uses the strengths of the medium, trusts the player enough to let them connect the dots through their own experience. For the most part, the Half-life games tick every box here too which also makes it a pretty good story, but then the director jumps on the scene and ruins the experience in one of two ways. The first by throwing a bunch of talky, “love me! love me!” characters at you which bear little relation to what the player is actually otherwise doing in the gameplay. The second is the use of blatantly scripted scenarios which attempt to be organic, but fail for all their contrivances. The scripted sequences often fail to have an effect because you’re too busy not playing the game the director intended so that you’ll organically trigger an event at the ideal moment or, as is always the case with the original game, the scripting is so glitchy that nothing will trigger and you’ll be forced to restart from your last save. Quake II is almost completely hands-off when it comes to the director, the Half-life games can’t help themselves. Furthermore, the level design in Quake II is meaningfully aids in the combat and movement mechanics, yet Half-life, particularly Half-life 2 is full of so much whitespace its disastrous.
Quake II provides the player with the appropriate context for them to mould their behaviour to and then allows them to engage in the narrative as they see fit. There’s no pretension in trying to be a blockbuster (God of War III), falsehood in limiting the player’s engagement in order to offer choice (Bioware games) or fixed sequences where someone else is trying to do the talking (Metal Gear series), it’s just straight up interactive narrative. That is, a string of encounters punctuated by moments of switch-flipping and button-pushing and for this reason, Quake II has a fantastic, if not unassuming narrative.