Wait, what am I excited for?

I just got around to watching the new Far Cry 3 trailer, and like the one that came before it, I walked away from it with awesome shivers. Check it out (warning trailer contains dupstep and nsfw language).

Awesome right? My first reaction was “Now that’s a game I want to play”, but the more I thought about it, the more unsure I became about that statement. That trailer doesn’t feature any gameplay, hints at some, but it’s still all pre-rendered CG. I guess I can assume the gameplay will be kind of like Far Cry 2, even if the tone and story are completely different, and I liked Far Cry 2 well enough. So the question is, am I excited to play Far Cry 3, or do I just want to watch more of that crazy action movie-like drama unfold?

Famed game developer David Jaffe recently gave a talk at a developer’s conference about story in games. As is Jaffe’s style, the talk was blunt and to-the-point. His main argument: games should stop trying to be movies. (I’m paraphrasing his stuff here) Movies and books tell stories, and they tell them well. Games are interactive, so the stories should be too. Jaffe went on to point out how games like Skyrim and Battlefield 3 create stories from rich gameplay experiences. Things happen in those games that might never happen again. You experience crazy stuff you tell your friends about. The story is your own, not what the developer dictates.

On some levels I agree with this, especially after completing Skyrim. While the narrative dictated by the developers was entertaining, the most memorable moments for me in that game came from exploring the world. When I talked about Skyrim with my brother on the phone a few weeks ago, we didn’t talk about the story, or the developer-designed quests. We talked about things that happened while we were out exploring. I told him how I took down a wild mammoth with nothing but a lightening spell and luck. He told me how he got swarmed by frost trolls on a mountaintop while poking around for treasure. The developers created the world and we made our stories by interacting with it.

The original Borderlands was a bit like Skyrim in that stories organically appeared thanks to the nearly endless amount of guns, and the four player co-op. When you talked about Borderlands, you didn’t talk about the thin plot and fetch quests, but what kind of guns you found and what you could do with them. Take a look at the new Borderlands 2 trailer. It is the opposite of the Far Cry 3 trailer (except for the dub step, they both have that). Instead of showing you a pre-rendered scene with the implication of excitement, it shows you gameplay, which is exciting in itself (joy puke!). There’s a story in Borderlands 2, but that’s not the draw, and they know it.

But not every game is like Skyrim or Borderlands, nor should they be. I think there’s a place for good pre-determined narrative in video games. I think it’s possible that the two styles, organic story and pre-determined story, can be combined. The industry is still relatively young and developers are still exploring the medium—there’s a ton of potential there. The biggest problem right now when it comes to marrying the two styles--and this may have led to Jaffe’s speech--is the disconnect between cutscenes and gameplay and the pattern they create.

Remember that amazing Dead Island trailer? It caused quite a stir back in the summer of 2011. It didn’t show any gameplay either, though the developers went on to argue later that that wasn’t the point. The pre-rendered trailer was a tone piece, a taste of what the actual game would be like. It worked too. If playing the game could evoke the same emotions as watching the trailer, I was sold. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. I haven’t played Dead Island, but from what I’ve read and heard, it doesn’t deliver on the trailer’s promise. It’s not a bad game, it’s just not the game the trailer implied it would be.

The point of the Far Cry 3 trailer is to make you think that playing the game will deliver the same rush, the same “ohmygod, ohmygod, what is happening!?” feeling that watching those kinetic scenes creates. They are showing us a dire situation and then saying, “Guess what, you get to play this. You are on the run and a crazy man is after you, this is your dire situation.” That is something only video games can do. But they’re still working out how to do it well.

There’s a good chance that Far Cry 3 will open with a balls-out crazy scene, setting up a situation not unlike the trailer. Your pulse will be pounding, your mind will race at the thought of jumping in the shoes of this man on the run, and then…you’ll shoot dudes with a gun, just like every other FPS game. You’ll creep along through the jungle—just like Far Cry 1, Far Cry 2, Crysis, Call of Duty Black Ops, and countless others— and shoot more dudes. Then there will be a turret sequence, or a sniping sequence, you’ll shoot more dudes, and then—oh boy!—another cutscene!

It’s a cynical view of game design sure, but if you’ve played games long enough, you’ve seen that exact setup dozens of times. I think that pattern is what Jaffe was getting at with his speech. There’s got to be a better way to tell a story than the current, popular loop of cutscene-gameplay-cutscene. When you step back and look at it, it’s a pretty ugly, stapled together format. All first person shooters boil down to shootin’ dudes. It’s the context wrapped around that core mechanic and the promise of a compelling yarn that keeps us coming back to the controller. The promise of a perfect marriage of organic and inorganic story.

At least that’s what keeps me coming back. I’m a sucker for that promise. I want to see them sustain that excitement created in the unplayable parts of the game to the playable parts. I don’t want to shoot dudes in the jungle. I’ve been playing games for more than two decades; I’ve had my fill of shooting dudes. I want to play that story. It’s possible, and I’m an optimistic guy, so I’ll check out Far Cry 3 and hope they pull it off. That trailer is a doozy, and if they can translate the excitement of watching it into gameplay, they can take my money.