Jericho_9.jpg ['Diamond In The Rough' is a new column by Tom Cross focusing on an unusual innovation that a game makes on an old, tired aspect of game design -- one that might get overlooked, because the game is not otherwise remarkable or is hindered by major design flaws. This week, Tom explores the possibilities for meaningful and deep narratives in Clive Barker's Jericho.]

It’s often hard to say exactly why most video game stories are terrible. There are so many reasons — overwrought acting, nonexistent acting, nonexistent characters, hideously clichéd characters, and finally, settings and plots we’ve seen a million times — that when a game actually has a good script, or actors, or story, we almost don’t know what to do with it. How do you say something is good, when so much is bad, and for what reasons is it good?

One way to identify a good story (or at least slightly better than the rest of the pack) is to carefully examine its integration with the gameplay, and the integration of the story in general (and the gameplay) with the in-game implementation of the story (dialogue and other expository devices).

A popular storytelling method that forces this kind of integration is that adopted by the Half Life series, Clive Barker’s Jericho, F.E.A.R. (mostly), Bioshock and others. Still, it’s apparent that this kind of forced perspective is not necessarily a foolproof way to insure a story and game that actually communicate and interact naturally with each other.

F.E.A.R. is a perfect example of this. Despite the fact that the game advances the plot through events witnessed by the protagonist (in-game conversations, during dreams, or through other paranormal encounters), F.E.A.R.’s plot and dialogue are stapled onto the gameplay in an inelegant and forced fashion. It’s almost as if Monolith created a stripped-down game with amazing shooting, time-slowing, and squad AI, and then realized that they had to find a way to justify all of it in their game.

What they produced was far from exciting, original, or even legitimately creepy. There are games that aren’t horror games per se (Drake’s Fortune, Tomb Raider, Half Life 2) that achieve a much more tense, creepy, and atmospheric experience than F.E.A.R. ever did.

To focus on the diamond in the rough of this particular article then, is a puzzling process. On paper, Clive Barker’s Jericho would seem to fall into many of the traps that F.E.A.R. fell prey to. Jericho follows an elite paranormal fighting unit as they attempt to stop a primeval, unstoppable monster (one that predates humans, or any other life on earth) from being unleashed upon the world. Jericho team is made up of all of your favorite, tired clichés: sexy pale goth women, a muscular Hispanic man, gruff white leader, a strange southern priest, and several other paper cutout characters.

On top of that, the world of Jericho is a brown one (whereas F.E.A.R.’s was gray), full of blood, four letter words, and xtreme moments. Much of this “in your face” attitude is delivered by your squad mates, most of whom are voiced by actors competing for hammiest actor of the year award. Their dialogue and banter are packed with lines stolen from movies like Aliens (in fact, I’d say that most of them are stolen from that iconic movie, which has given so many mediocre games their “character”), and you’d be hard pressed to believe that someone who writes books for a living came up with this stuff.

Jericho_9.jpg Yet even as you blink in astonishment at all of the places where Jericho happily embraced mediocrity, you’ll be surprised by its commitment to telling a complicated and sometimes unusual story, one that features more character development than most games, squad-based or otherwise.

This kind of character interaction and development is made possible by frequent and surprisingly interesting in-game character interactions. Characters will have arguments, learn secrets about each others’ pasts, and come to new conclusions about each others’ motives and history. At one point, one Jericho member shoots another team member because he believes he is leading them to certain death.

In other words, characters don’t just comment on an unfolding, static plot, they make it themselves, at least partly, by interacting with each other to further it. They don’t just describe, they act, creating new momentum and changing the objectives of the game by what they say and do to each other.

When one character shoots another, your response is bound to be different from what you feel about standard window-dressing “banter” between stereotypical characters in squad shooters. It’s both much more believably intense—these characters have shown their differing mindsets, and are already under immense stress—and means that the characters will have believable reasons for acting very differently than they have up to that point.

Impressively, the developers tried to make the squad character-switching mechanic part of the story. Basically, the squad leader dies, but his spirit lives on in one (at a time) of his team. As you enter each team member’s body, they’ll have different reactions to your presence. One dislikes the feeling immensely, one tells you she trusts you because you saved her life when she was in jail, and others have their own reactions.

The amazing thing is, these reactions never feel forced. Since each character has already been established with their (admittedly ridiculous) banter, it doesn’t come as a surprise that they each react strongly to your presence.

The detail poured into the creation and fashioning of your team extends to other characters as well. Enemies (and a few allies) all have back-stories, and these stories are just as much a part of the narrative as those of team Jericho. One early ally has a secret past with Rawlings, a priest on your team. Her quick and brutal death understandably shakes him, giving his character even more depth and believability.

It’s really surprising how even badly-written characters can be interesting and worthy of empathy, just because they’ve been woven into a larger narrative fabric. It’s telling that so many games (aside from epic RPGs) feature so few main or influential characters. No one has the time or will to create an interesting, believably interrelated world of characters.

The lesson is that plot can’t just be integrated with action, it has to feed into action and take its cues from action—the two have to be connected systems, not just very parallel ones.

The importance of Jericho’s accomplishments can be seen when compared to another game that utilizes a similar storytelling technique: Oblivion. Never once in Oblivion did I feel that the characters I was watching interact actually cared for or hated one another. Their relationships were sketched out by the script to a degree, but not convincingly. Even the main characters, voiced by big-name actors, had trouble selling themselves to me.

Monolith’s F.E.A.R. (to pick on them again) is another game that pretends to meld gameplay and story. Your super-soldier has a few encounters with talking NPCs, but when it comes down to it, the gameplay, dialogue, and story could belong to separate games. They don’t need each other to reasonably exist, as one could argue the gameplay, dialogue and story do in Jericho.

This is a problem one sees cropping up in many games. When you’re dealing with a story and script as anemic as Oblivion’s, or as generic and derivative as F.E.A.R.’s its hard to create interesting and believable interactions between characters. It’s just as hard to do so using the hilariously clichéd denizens of Jericho’s world.

It’s impressive then, to play Jericho and watch the trials of this group of soldiers, far from the normal world, coming to grips with new situations, and new realizations about their comrades. Think what an experience it could have been if the rest of the game had been of the same quality.