The last thing I want to do is start another debate about video game storytelling. That sounds almost as fun to read as an article about any other dead horse that we've repeatedly body-slammed over the last few years.
Rather, I simply want to tap the ongoing stories-in-games discussion on the shoulder and remind it to stop overlooking one of the greatest examples of ingenious and engaging storytelling in a video game to ever make it onto store shelves: Odin Sphere.
Most gamers respond to my inquiries about Odin Sphere with, "Never heard of it," which, in a way, makes sense. Western gamers are rarely interested in titles that appear to be just another probably-weird Japanese RPG. But I'm telling you, with every fiber of my being, this is not just another game, and its ability to connect with the player on an intense emotional level should be taken into consideration when crafting future games.
When you take the time to examine Odin Sphere as more than just a video game, you realize it's a literary masterpiece; a vessel for delivering a complex fairytale that tells not just of dragons and princesses, but of the human condition. Violent combat becomes the most superficial aspect of the game, as our heroes - who occasionally double as our enemies - engage in emotional battles to win acceptance, love, freedom, and parental approval, and conquer deceit, prejudice, and even misogyny.
1. Motives and Backstory
Storytelling games succeed when they cause the player to genuinely care about the main character involved. Nathan Drake is an every man's man; with his rugged good looks, wit, and impulsiveness, that could be any of us in his shoes. Top that with his compassion, courage, and vulnerability, and we suddenly care about him. It's our ability to see into the window of his soul that brings this fictional character to life—and we can't help but become invested.
In that same vein, we become even more concerned with our character's well-being when we discover what makes them tick. Why do they make each decision? Why do they react to other characters in a certain way? What is the real reasoning behind their journey? What past events have caused them to become so jaded or biased?
It's a satisfying treat when we get just one character's backstory in a video game, yet Odin Sphere doesn't just focus on developing one character; it develops every character. We're provided with a clear explanation for nearly everyone's motives behind even the smallest decisions, whether it's destroying an entire civilization or simply a choice of dialogue.
Take our Valkyrie heroine Gwendolyn, for example:
Gwendolyn's Outer Motive: Serve her father, King Odin, and help lead her people to victory over all other nations.
Gwendolyn's Inner Motive: Prove herself in any way possible so her father will finally love her.
"If I sacrifice myself, surely father will show his love for me! Surely…"
Later, we learn more about Oswald, who falls in love with Gwendolyn:
Oswald's Outer Motive: Escape a curse that will doom him to an eternity in the Netherworld, and serve his father (who, turns out, is responsible for cursing him).
Oswald's Inner Motive: Win Gwendolyn's affection, because without her love, his life is void of all meaning and he would rather succumb to death.
Even examining just two characters in the game, we see deep-seated daddy issues, a desperate longing for acceptance, and an even more desperate desire for love, as they are used by everyone around them as objects and bargaining tools. Oh, and in addition, Gwendolyn battles with hallucinations and schizophrenia, discovers her enemy is really her sister, and is banished from her father's kingdom for not killing her sister. And is also forced to never see battle again and become a housewife to a man she doesn't love for all eternity.
That's not intense or anything!
END OF SPOILERS
Odin Sphere, however, doesn't just give us piece-o'-work characters for fun. Each character's motive is at some point affected by another character's motive, resulting in the entire game becoming a complex, yet fluid spiderweb of conflicting agendas.
2. My Hero is Your Enemy
You'd think with so many interlacing storylines it would be impossible to follow them all, but Odin Sphere approached this obstacle in a genius way: You play through one character's story until you reach a cliffhanger, then play through another character's story until you reach a cliffhanger—repeat this five times for Gwendolyn, Cornelius, Mercedes, Oswald, and Velvet. Then, by using clues from each of their individual storylines, you decide which character should fight which final boss, i.e. pairing the appropriate hero with the proper adversary.
The brilliance in this is the timeline. Just because Gwendolyn's story takes place during a certain period of time doesn't mean everyone else's story takes place "meanwhile." For example, Gwendolyn meets Velvet at the very beginning of her story, but Velvet meets Gwendolyn in her own journey at a much later time.
This makes for some wildly intriguing and unique storytelling, when you start to realize that the hero from one storyline is the enemy in another. We fully supported King Odin's killing of the Fairy Queen in Story #1, but in Story #3, we're playing as the Fairy Queen's daughter, and we're a little less excited about our mother being murdered.
I might be way off here, but humor me: Every game we play is either in first-person or third-person. Could Odin Sphere almost be considered an example of second-person gameplay? For instance, while playing as Gwendolyn, we encounter Velvet several times and witness her actions. We're not playing as Velvet at that particular time, but we soon will be. This allows us to witness our own stories from a second-person point of view; we see ourselves through the eyes of someone else. I know it's a stretch, but it's still an interesting concept to dissect.
3. Odin Sphere's Confidence
With such plot complexity, there are a thousand different ways Odin Sphere could wrap things up, yet the game strays from the increasingly popular "choose your own adventure"-style ending. You are shown "bad ending" cutscenes if you pair the wrong hero with the wrong boss, but they aren't alternate endings.
As a writer, I'm not entirely onboard with the multiple endings approach to storytelling. I don't feel that a story can be developed as strongly if the ending is wishy-washy. It's absurd to think of classic novels as having multiple endings; you didn't see Tolkien inserting extra pages into the back of Return of the King that said, "Only read this chapter if you think Sam should have made different morality choices and the ring should not have been destroyed!" No. Screw that. The ring was destroyed and every word of the entire trilogy was written in anticipation of that single, powerful moment.
I am all for experimentation with video games; in fact, The Stanley Parable took the "different decisions = different outcomes" approach to the max, and it's quite clever and progressive. But the ongoing goal and struggle in game development is to convey a cohesive, engaging story, and I stand by my belief that that can't necessarily be achieved with the multiple-endings system.
I'm not labeling Odin Sphere a "perfect game." In fact, the downside to its long, complicated stories is that it directly goes against Ken Levine's belief that shorter is better.
"People tend to overdo it with their story and not strip it down to the bare minimum," said the Bioshock creator. "A lot of games have that problem in that they don't understand that - there are long cut scenes and a lot of talking. I try to respect the gamers' time as much as possible."
Maybe the dwindling attention span of gamers is why Odin Sphere wasn't a blockbuster hit, but the odd thing is that I normally hate long-winded games and dialogue-heavy RPGs. Yet, every spoken word in Odin Sphere was necessary to drive the plot forward, and poetic enough to keep my attention.
Queen Odette: "I would be even more beautiful if I rouged my face with your blood."
Neil Druckmann (creative director from Naughty Dog) recently agreed that the industry is lacking in the storytelling area, and that we need to stop praising mediocre stories.
"As critics we need to raise the bar, otherwise no-one's going to change," he told Eurogamer in December. He further explained that the story of Naughty Dog's newest game, The Last of Us, is striving to tell gamers something about the human condition, because that's what you want to do as a storyteller. "We're not saying every game needs a strong, compelling and dramatic story, but if you are going to make a narrative-based game then you better learn the craft."
While brilliant games don't necessarily equal record-breaking sales (see Psychonauts and Grim Fandango), we still need to recognize everything these games did correctly and apply it to the future. But more importantly, every gamer should experience Odin Sphere if they can locate a copy—hand-drawn art, gorgeous soundtrack, incredibly fun combat, awesome dialogue… just have a box of Kleenex ready at the end. You know. Just in case.
NOTE: PS3 owners can download Odin Sphere, which was originally made for the PlayStation 2, through the PlayStation Network.