Tim Schafer’s game sees you fighting side by side with some of the greatest Heavy Metal musicians of all time. And along the way shows how a great story can balance out flawed gameplay.
Note: This game review focuses on the use of narrative techniques in video games.
Game design superstars are few but Tim Schafer is one of them, credited with the original Monkey Island series, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango – classics that still send shivers down every game geek’s spine.
Brütal Legend, released in October 2009, was the company’s second major title after the brilliant Psychonauts. Brütal Legend’s gameplay mixes third-person action-adventure and real-time strategy. While the game’s mechanics may sometimes make you want to smash your controller against the wall, the story, the world and your companions will make you forgive those moments of frustration.
You are Eddie Riggs, the world’s most awesome roadie, played by Jack Black. After an accident on stage you are transported to an ancient world of pure Heavy Metal, where mountains take the shape of massive guitars, car engines grow like trees and panthers with laser eyes roam chrome forests. Here, you assemble an army of rock’n’roll-creatures to battle an evil warlord – while learning disturbing facts about your own past.
The main story is delivered as usual; major plot-points via animated movies, minor ones use in-game cut-scenes. As in every Schafer-game, the story and dialogue is witty and funny throughout. Providing some of the best voice-acting you’ll get in a game, Brütal Legend may leave you wandering around, talking to your fellow headbangers for no other benefit than listening to dozens of quirky lines and catchphrases.
Where Brütal Legend truly excels is in the design of the open game world. Every dedicated listener of bands such as Motörhead, Judas Priest, Meat Loaf and Black Sabbath will immediately feel at home in what looks like thousands of Metal-LP covers come to life.
But this world also reflects the story.
A major problem with story telling in video games is that players often take a break from a game for a week or more and play something else in between. Complicated plots are easily forgotten, leaving players confused about what is going on to a point where they start skipping bothersome cut-scenes. In Brütal Legend the world around you changes in accordance with what is going on in the story. This way even if you forget the last plot-point, you are still aware of what your goal is, simply because it’s everywhere around you.
Scattered around the world you will find short animatics telling you its mythical backstory, gradually giving you greater insight as you explore it. Schafer used the same concept in Psychonauts, where short comics told the backstories of the characters in the game. The obvious disadvantage of this system is that you may easily overlook one of the comics. Still it adds a lot of depth to the gaming experience and emphasizes their main themes. Psychonauts is all about characters and their internal conflicts, while Brütal Legend is about experiencing a unique realm, created over decades by rock-musicians all around the globe.
Last but in no way least, Brütal Legend’s appeal comes from something so simple and obvious, it is hard to understand why it’s not used in every major video game title: stars. Not the shiny ones, but stars from the music and movie industry. Every Hollywood producer measures the worth of a project by the actors attached to it and most people go to see a movie, because it has a particular actor in it. Still, the only games that frequently make use of not just the voices, but the likeness of famous actors are film adaptations.
Brütal Legend’s protagonist is brilliantly voiced by and fashioned after Jack Black. Upgrades in the game are presented to the player by the Guardian of Metal, played by Ozzy Osbourne. The healers in your army look and sound like Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead, your flame-throwing motorcyclists like Judas Priest’s Rob Halford who also voices one of the main villains. Fighting side by side with your favourite musicians – an opportunity no film could ever provide you with.
Big actors are expensive and since games rely heavily on sequels, game studios are reluctant to model game characters after specific actors. Brütal Legend proves that it is often a waste to only use an actor’s voice and that sports games are not the only genre that could give you the possibility of joining forces with your idols.
L.A. Noire by publisher Rockstar Games, due to be released in the first half of 2011, may herald a new era. It features several known actors that have been scanned using a newly developed 3D face-grid technique. We’ll keep you posted.