Ben's Opening Monologue, Full Throttle:

Whenever I smell asphalt, I think of Maureen.
That's the last sensation I had before I blacked out:
that thick smell of asphalt.

And the first thing I saw when I woke up was her face.
She said she'd fix my bike, free.
No strings attached.
I should have known then that things were never that simple.

Yeah. When I think of Maureen I think of two things:
asphalt and trouble.

June's Topic

June's Round Table invites us to explore a memorable character relationship in a game. I use it as an opportunity to dissect said relationship and then make bold claims as I synthesize the dissection with a number of threads of ideas that I've been contemplating this month.

Full Throttle is the first of Tim Schafer's relationship-centric LucasArts adventure games. I think Grim Fandango is superior, but Full Throttle is one of the shortest adventure games from LucasArts making it perfect for deconstruction. The entire game can be played easily in about six to eight hours and an experienced player or someone following a walkthrough without doing further exploration can do it in four hours.

I certainly recommend grabbing a copy from a friend or even a strange acquaintance. It plays perfectly well in ScummVM and on just about any platform you could want to run it on. Considering LucasArts' indifference to their own classic properties you probably shouldn't feel all that guilty if to borrow the game you engage the help of some devious Seeder utilizing Mr. Cohen's patented Torrent-brand Æthertube Data Cross-Packers. Come back when you've played it...

So let's deconstruct! Full Throttle is centered around the relationship between Ben and Maureen. It's right there front and center in the opening monologue that serves as both a tone-setter and something of a flash-forward foreshadowing the way things go down in the next few scenes.

The relationship thus begins in the first cutscene. The development of the relationship happens mostly in cutscenes with three major dialogue trees in between. One dialogue tree is purely perfunctory, establishing a small series of goals. The second tree is an obstacle with a simple "key piece of information" puzzle that requires only that one recall the last words of a dying man. The final tree is just about as perfunctory as the first, and also about setting a series of goals.

The relationship centers the game, it binds the game's story arc, it is the hub from which most of the game's puzzles branch from. The relationship doesn't add much to the gameplay beyond setting the quests, and there is no gameplay consequences on the relationship itself.

Deconstructed thusly, it sounds as if this relationship doesn't make for a very good game. Maureen sounds like little more than the standard "fetch-quest NPC". So much of the relationship is in the things that are harder to deconstruct: dialogue writing and voice acting, animation and cinematography. I would argue that even as the imperfect younger sibling to Grim Fandango's Casablanca-inspired relationships, the relationship between Maureen and Ben in Full Throttle is still one of the most meaningful relationships in gaming history.

I don't think that the game would have been improved by increasing "relationship gameplay". Relationships are generally not games, and the gameplay that we see used to quantify or symbolize relationship development, such as "dating sims" and "escort missions", are generally hollow shells compared to the power of a "traditional" story telling methods: cutscenes, dialogue, good writing, good voice acting.

I point all of this out in order to synthesize a number of threads that I've been reading and thinking about recently. I've been thinking about the "gameplay über alles" mentality that seems to be gripping recent game theory. You can't throw out the "cutscene bath water" without losing more than a few babies. I think that Full Throttle eloquently serves as an example for that, when deconstructed into its component parts things don't sound that "fun" or "interesting", but the sum of the parts continues to shine over a decade after the game's release. [1] Good writing, good animation, good voice acting are all still qualities that carry over from other media. That doesn't change with interactivity, with gameplay. Instead it should meld.

I've heard several times lately that "gaming is a new medium" and my response is "no, gaming is a young, impetuous medium". Gaming seems weirdly determined in this adolescent stage to forget its own 40-years of "youth" (if we restrict solely to "video games", and longer than that should we be wont to merge with the much longer history of card, board and (pen and paper) roleplaying games), much less to spend much time contemplating the lessons learned in past media. There are over 100 years of movie experience to learn from. There are over a 1000 years of plays and novels. Even gaming's prime technology, "interactivity" isn't anywhere as new as gaming theorists give it credit: There has been improv theater for at least as long as there has been comedians, if not nearly as long as there have been actors. Board and card games have a long history of their own. Even the first storytellers in prehistory of man probably knew how to spin a good story to the ears of their audience.

If computer gaming/video gaming has a true strength, it's not interactivity or gameplay, it's the ability to integrate and harmonize so many other media and so much of the history of humanity's experience. Interactivity and gameplay are only one facet in a potentially much greater whole, and we are still in the early alchemical phases. One of these days we may start to truly learn the reactivities of our many constituent elements.

The relationship of Ben and Maureen is just one example in a pantheon of them where the relationship works with minimal 'gameplay' and almost in spite of the gameplay itself. Yet as a strong central story in and of itself it acts as a glue binding the gameplay of Full Throttle into a fuller whole. Perhaps more interesting in this day, what the relationship of Ben and Maureen has the most to teach us is how much we have still to learn of the relationship between storytelling and gameplay, and the relationship between gaming as a medium and its own history and its future potential. [2]

[1]Full Throttle was the only encouragement I needed to pre-order Tim Schafer's Brütal Legend, which is certainly the closest we'll see to a true sequel, amped from "biker rock" to "heavy metal", and mixing in a little Jack Black for spice.
[2]Let's hope that the relationship between Ben and Maureen is not indicative of the deeper relationships I connect it to, however.