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June 30, 2005

Fortress of Solitude

Fortress of Solitude

I thought that I had lost my capacity for surprise while reading; it's rare indeed that a book takes me by surprise in its plot, and rarer still for a movie. But I had been reading for a good hundred pages of Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude when the story made a dramatic right turn. I think my reading pace doubled when that happened, and possibly trebled. The novel I thought I had been reading, which was a slice-of-life piece about a young boy growing up in Brooklyn, his mother estranged from him and his father lost in his art, suddenly changed enormously into a story in which heroic powers were possible. I couldn't believe it, Lethem had hoodwinked me, with his first hundred pages. I was enormously surprised; sure, the title indicates the possibility, but the content of the novel up until then had led me to believe that the boy's fortress might be graffiti, or a friendship, or even just comic books, or some mix of three or four elements. And in a way they were, but there was this otherness embedded within the story.

When I originally wrote this post, I spent a good hour on it, and then accidentally closed the browser window -- a real hazard with Movable Type, I'm finding, and also with wikis¹. But I'm actually kind of glad I did, because thinking more on it, I think I've changed my thinking entirely.

The original post lamented how rare surprises are in games. But I've had a change of heart, now that my brain got working on the topic; part of it is that I've thought back on things that genuinely surprised me as a gamer, and it broadened out a lot beyond story. Here are the few surprises that occurred to me originally.

  • Story Surprise: The ending of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was not only sublime but amazingly beautiful and self-contained. I felt like I had been presented with a gleaming jewel in a way few game stories have ever been able to do. And it fit so perfectly within the context of the game that I couldn't do much more than sit in awe, looking at the TV, where I had been returned to the start menu. Brilliant.
  • Gameplay Surprise: I've rarely had such an amazing spark of surprise as I had when reaching the section where you get to control the ant-lions in Half-Life 2. The game was filled with interesting bits, but I pushed my chair back and stared in awe when I reached that section.
  • Gameplay/Story Surprise: Jamie recently commented on the bit in Paper Mario 2 where you become the boss you've just defeated, and you sit there looking at the screen, wondering what's gone wrong. The game managed to simultaneously deliver a satisfying sense of completion and tweak your nose at the same time. Brilliant.

But there are really so much more, and I feel privileged to be working in this industry right now. I read a lot of death knells about how games are just sequels and licenses these days. But I've been surprised by so much more in this last generation of titles that I think more of them are worth remarking:

  • Ico. I loved this game -- who would have thought that a game with basically the "save-the-princess" story would be so worthwhile?
  • Jak & Daxter introduced a continuously streaming world, with stunning vistas crossing the map. Who would have thought that a platformer, which could have simply stuck with the tried and true, would have done that so completely well?
  • Mario Kart DD finally came along and showed other Kart racing games what they were missing, delivering innovation where everyone else had simply imitated.
  • God of War actually presented a nice story/gameplay surprise -- when Kratos battles the many copies of himself to save his wife and child. Immensely satisfying.
  • Resident Evil made me realize that every good game design decision can have an equally compelling reason to be made the other way.
  • Spiderman 2 (a license and a sequel) delivered webslinging so fun that I would often come home after a long day crunching and just swing about for half an hour to unwind. I never expected that hypnosis.
  • Psychonauts portrayed a hugely winsome world -- and basically made me wish I had gone to summer camp, albeit a summer camp where I developed psychic powers.

There are other examples, too, such as SW: KotOR's story (I'm going on reputation here, but I've heard that there's a great story twist at the end), and I think SW: Republic Commando offered some interesting gameplay surprises to mainstream players (specifically, the maneuvers). Sly Cooper's twist on thief-platforming surprised me too.

So, I've come full circle. Although I'm very cautious about what the future begins -- the costs of next generation development worry me both as a developer and a gamer -- I feel like gaming still delivers more surprises than the other media I enjoy. And that's pretty great.




¹We use one at work and the number of times I've lost work borders on the ridiculous.

Posted by Brett Douville at June 30, 2005 06:55 AM

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