I've spent the last few days playing Shadowrun Returns, and it is absolutely phenomenal. It is my game of the year at this point in time, but there is one key thing that the game does well that I feel like I deserves to be talked about in the games industry, and become part of the ongoing discussion on games creation.
Shadowrun returns features no cut-scenes, voice acting or motion capture of any kind.
People are going to read that and say "Oh, so you're saying it's cheap, poor quality game" and that, ultimately, is the topic I think bears discussion.
When it comes right down to it, video games, along with any form of media, is all about communicating information. In the case of fictional stories, information that is hopefully entertaining is delivered to the audience in a variety of ways. The way the information is delivered, the order in which it's delivered, and detail in which it's delivered is frequently known as "storytelling". The problem with the games industry is that it has become incredibly over-reliant on relying on images and sound to tell stories. There was a period of time where that was a fascinating new fronteir for story-telling, but it has become the defacto cliche at this point in time, and if a game/story does not tell itself with pictures and sound, it is somehow considered inferior. I feel like shadowrun returns overturns this concept in a few key ways.
1) The game engages the senses that most modern games completely leave out. Most modern games, which feature only images and sound, completely leave out the audiences other senses aside from seeing and hearing. Because Shadowrun delivers information almost entirely in text, other senses are engaged on the part of the player. For instance, an early morgue scene describes it's environment as smelling like dried blood and bleach. I now know what Shadowrun Returns smells like. I still have no idea what Rapture smells like, even though I know in great detail what it LOOKS like. And my sense of the place would probably change a great deal if I knew what Rapture smelled like. Shadowrun attempts to bring a sense of texture, smell, and atmosphere to the game that other, more expensively produced games do not and cannot. One of the reasons the movie Avatar, which relys on only sounds and pictures, creates such an authentic sense of place, is that James Cameron spent a great deal of time in the movie showing the audience what the planet tastes like (when the characters eat eat the fruit), feels like, smells like, etc. Shadow Run Returns does it more often, more accurately, and more efficiently through well-written text.
2)ShadowRun Returns lacks graphical detail, and as a result, it is a much more detailed world than other, more expensive games. Don't get me wrong, Skyrim is one of my favorite games of all time and I think it deserves to be considered one of the best games of all time. But, the game still features people who all look mostly the same, and a few voice actors providing the voices for an entire world. Shadowrun, and it's lack of voice actors, manage to create a much more distinct world, in my opinion, because in my head, all of the characters have unique, fitting voices for their characters. Awkward dialog doesn't seem awkward. Silly slang terms don't sound silly. Character interaction is much more nuanced. The bottom line is that motion capture is still a half dozen years away, I would guess, from being able to portray the nuance of characterization that Shadowrun manages to do with a few deft lines of text. There are a few key characters in Shadowrun who are only depicted via well painted character portraits, and yet the images combined with the well written text go on to create a lavish sense of who that character is that stiff motion capture and polygons simply could not.
My overall point is just this:
Gaming needs to get over the idea that making games like movies means they are better. In one fell swoop, I feel like ShadowRun Returns restates the point that The Longest Journey so eloquently made almost a decade ago: Text has a place in videogames. Spending more money on games does not make them better, and so much emphasis has been placed on communicating sounds and images to the audience that the other senses that should be involved in storytelling have been almost entirely abandoned in video games.