Endless Ocean

An increasing number of higher profile games are dropping a focus on narrative and refocusing on experience. This is easy in video games– audience experience goes hand in hand with plot. Endless Ocean abandons dramatic tension and focuses almost entirely on experience. The player chooses his or her path, and creates a personal narrative within the very broad boundaries of the game’s oceanic premise.

Where do you want to go today?

Unlike many games, in which a series of challenges must be accepted and completed for a player to continue, Endless Ocean allows the player to navigate at whatever pace he or she chooses. The game brings up a series of challenges and tasks for the player to complete, like finding specific fish, taking photographs, or acting as a tour guide, but all of this is voluntary and optional. Performing these tasks does unlock certain equipment, but performing them is often a reward unto itself, with little other incentive than the congratulations and thanks of your simulated friends.

We’ve previously discussed the power of a “personal narrative,” a game in which the journey is personal to the player. This is somewhat true in Endless Ocean, however the game does confine the player to a specific set of facts. Rather than be able to turn your character into a whale poacher or oil prospector, you are a diver hired by a research organization to go scuba diving and act as guide to wealthy patrons. Other than that, you have total control of the diving vessel Gabbiano and you choose when and where to dive and for how long. In reality, such a position would be much more mandatory, but just the same a rewarding experience. The overhead plot does not really effect the personal narrative, as much as it guides it like a current.

Going Green… err Blue

Al Gore, Emperor of the Moon, is largely to blame for the recent surge in clichéd attempts at environmentalism. Satire aside, this games ecological message is a strong subtext. Many of the patrons you guide express a desire to preserve the coral reefs, to see to it that exotic environments in the sea never change, and show admiration for the animals and plants which dwell beneath the surface of the ocean. The Wii isn’t known for its graphics prowess, but once again delivers rich visuals which are relaxing and realistic. No one will confuse scenes from Endless Ocean for the real thing, but its close enough to feel a tremendous sense of place and setting. This is a challenge for all video games, as they struggle against technology to provide an engrossing atmosphere.

So Much for Aristotle

Dramatic tension is a hallmark in storytelling. Without it, all literature would collapse into a collection of bland facts and biographies. Despite that, games like Endless Ocean, and others like Animal Crossing or Afrika, have successfully left this tension behind. In Endless Ocean, the tension is replaced with a strong sense of experience. This is the most obvious element for a video game to play off of, since as a medium, the enjoyment of the moment has always been one of the key draws for audiences. For Animal Crossing or The Sims, however, dramatic tension is supplanted with a sense of accomplishment. Players buy a home, mortgage it, pay that off, and go about a simulated life performing routine tasks which bring them rewards. This replacement still has a long way to go, as these titles are largely niche pieces, despite their popularity. It will be interesting to see in years to come what other manner of games take this particular route.

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