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Disrupted Familiarity as Game-specific Storytelling

Games have the capability of immersing the player in an environment and creating a familiarity not possible in movies or novels. Playing with this familiarity as a storytelling device is unique to video games and part of game design as an art. (SPOILERS)

(This article has spoilers.)

If you've ever lived in a house for more than a decade, or worked at a job where you could navigate every crevice of the workplace in your sleep, you know what it feels like to be familiar with an environment.

Have you ever had an experience where something about that environment changed drastically? Say, you came home and everything was reorganized. Or the workplace was bought out and turned into a different business all together. Most people experience an intense reaction to this kind of shift in familiarity -- like a world so second-nature to you has been inverted into a kind of Bizarro World, or Moonside.

I've written before about how the criteria that game reviewers use to deem games good or bad doesn't put unique use of games as art in a position where it can redeem a game from flaws under the traditional graphics, sound, gameplay model of reviewing. The alternative is true as well: games like Skyrim, which prioritize these three criteria and do extremely well in them, may not have extremely compelling stories. Reviewers are more likely to say why a game is good because of what you can do and what interacting with the environment feels like than because of the story. And why would they do otherwise? Assessing a story to completion takes time, assessing gameplay much less so.

But while we're talking about Skyrim, let's mention possibly the most interesting subplot in the game itself: the plot to assassinate the emperor. This was significant for two reasons, one obvious and one not. The obvious reason is that it's the emperor. The not-obvious reason is that you have likely spent dozens of hours, if not more, under this person's fictional rule. For all the disorder that exists in Skyrim, the rule of an emperor feels safe and beyond the scope of what the game is willing to disrupt.

Skyrim received lofty praise for many reasons, but this subplot was rarely one of them. Yet, it's arguably the most interesting story element in the game.

Now let's bring up an underappreciated aspect of a game that wasn't so loftily praised: the disruption of familiarity in Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, which I will henceforth refer to as SO3 for brevity.

By all measures, the game reviewing community thought SO3 was all right. Not great, but not bad either. More than likely, phrases like "more of the same" were used, because the gameplay was similar to other JRPGs, the graphics were in the typical JRPG anime style, and the characters didn't do much to escape cliches of the genre.

In hindsight, SO3 was not just "all right." It epitomized the concept of disrupted familiarity that I'm developing through this article.

If you read old SO3 reviews today, a frequent complaint will be that the game is "slow." That the story takes a while to "get going." That much of the game is spent doing mundane tasks, setting you in an environment where you spend dozens of hours meandering until seemingly major and unexpected plot shifts happen.

I maintain that this design decision, conscious or not, was one of the most interesting storytelling moves I've seen in a video game.

Star Ocean: Till the End of Time sets you on an extremely advanced resort planet which is subsequently invaded, stranding you on a planet with human development equivalent to 16th century Earth. (a liberal estimate -- 14th century would be more appropriate.) A criminal from your own society's level of development has abused his technological advantage to establish himself as a local warlord. Immediately, this does a couple of interesting things: it prompts you to think about divides between developed societies and undeveloped societies, and it forces you to spend a good 5 to 10 hours on this planet.

After you feel comfortable in this environment, you're ripped from this planet to another planet with development equivalent to 17th century Earth. Already, you've acquiesced to a kind of backward development similar to the feeling a college student has upon realizing that meal time will be more ramen and less mom's spaghetti, but now everything is different and there are new faces and everything is weird.

You'll probably have thoughts like, "how long am I going to be here? I was just getting comfortable", and "when am I getting back to my own society?" -- but, like someone who has been forced to leave their home and just deal with it, you'll learn to get comfortable in this new environment, because you'll spend about 40 to 60 hours here.

After you're thoroughly invested in the politics and relations of characters in this previously foreign territory, the game uproots you from any sense of familiarity to remind you that, yes, the extremely advanced rival federation that invaded your resort planet didn't forget about you and is about to annihilate everything you've spent 40 hours working on quite easily.

The effect this has is similar to Carl Sagan's monologue in Pale Blue Dot:

"Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds."

You think, at this point, that you've got it all figured out. Your priorities are back in order, because you're trying to overcome this rival federation. At this point, you're as top-priority as you could be.

That is, of course, until you figure out that the situation which just happened -- a higher society invading a pathetically lower society -- has been flipped on you. Everyone in your universe, including the rival society which just invaded your planet, is in serious danger. Because this time, a higher universe is invading a lower universe, and the lower universe is your universe, because your universe is that universe's video game.

The game's storyline is a manipulation of your sense of scale. By the time this happens, you've grown such a familiarity with everything around you that to have it disrupted this way is jarring. It causes you to distrust everything around you in a way that I have not seen a book do. It disallows you to become too familiar or trusting with anything, such that even a minor place you thought would always remain constant is now variable and weird.

Hence: disrupted familiarity.

This is one of the most unique storytelling devices video games have to offer, because a book or movie will not force a reader or viewer to familiarize themselves with the surrounding environment to this extent. In Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, the player is painfully familiar with every surrounding by the time those surroundings are rendered trivial with respect to the plot.

Star Ocean is not the only game series to use disrupted familiarity. The cliche of the RPG hero whose village has been burned to the ground -- that works so well because of disrupted familiarity. By the time the player has found the village burned, the player has grown so used to the village being there that to think of it expendable is weird.

However, while other games like Skyrim and JRPGs can use disrupted familiarity for interesting purposes, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is definitely the game to use this device better than any other game, which retains it in my mental list of remarkable games forever. It exemplifies a game which uses a storytelling device particularly unique to video games because of how well video games can employ the device, and it makes a strong case for games as an artistic medium.

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