It’s strange how many games have announcers and narrators now. Though Bastion was noteworthy for the extent and character of its narration, the seeds were sown earlier – somewhere in the gap between the expected announcers of sports games and the nebulously allied voice in your ear of the System Shock 2 and its later successors, games started to have voices. The first game to really kick this trend off was, I think, Portal: GLaDOS became something in between an announcer, a narrator, and a character, switching between each mode as the needs of the game changed, a disembodied voice in a particularly literal sense. GLaDOS became the voice of her game, defining it and giving it personality and making its character inseparable from her own.
The unnamed and unexplained announcer of Battleblock Theater does the same, making the game enjoyable even at its most frustrating – perhaps especially then, since it’s hard not to laugh at your absurd deaths, and it’s nice to have someone else who thinks they’re as absurd as you do. It’s hard not to wonder who this narrator is supposed to be within the story of the game, even though there’s no real reason we should expect him to be anyone in particular except for games like Portal and Bastion have led us to expect some kind of reveal.
The entire framing story is interesting in several ways. Watching people play video games has only recently become big business – given that Battleblock Theater was officially titled in 2010, when youtube Let’s Plays were still fairly sparse and well before the massive success of twitch.tv, it seems uncannily prescient to premise a game on the player being watched as entertainment with commentary to spice things up. It’s a fairly unusual take on a game premise – perhaps because of the demeaning desperation of being a plaything to greater beings, no games have really gone with this type of scenario before, even as suitable as it is to the series of arbitrary challenges most platformers end up inevitably being.
Well, except it’s not entirely unprecedented: Sure, the explicit plotline is unusual, but showing everything as stage dressing, flimsy props and backdrops? Strangely old-fashioned kind of jazzy, ragtimey music?
If we look at the presentation, rather than the explicit theming, few games are more reminiscent of the theater than Super Mario Bros. 3. And this choice of presentation wasn’t a coincidence either: In a game where you, the designer, are forced to break every interactive element down into blocks, into tools, into props and costumes, what could feel more appropriate, more natural, than a stage?
So: Was it the influence of the Mario games, clear predecessors, that lead to this choice of presentation? Or was it a matter of two designers taking the same obvious path? Or was it something in-between? I don’t know, okay, I just thought it was something interesting to think about.
next time: Eidolon