Thursday, July 31, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden

Narrative and story are the backbone of many games, like BioShock, Gears of War, and Crysis. These games use their back-story as a way to immerse the player into their world. Every element of these games, from their voice-overs to their level design, all tell a story that helps support the rest of the game.

Often what occurs in these games are little flaws that momentarily draw a player out of the game world. A character in a sci-fi game could say a line that is considered an anachronism from the 21st century; a game full of realistic enemies could suddenly introduce monsters that don't fit the rest of the world.

This is usually due to player expectations that are set by the production values, the story, and often a serious tone that games take of themselves. The indie production Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, however, manages to avoid all of these issues through a number of design decisions and constraints.

Design Lesson: Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden's irreverent universe and style create a world where literally anything can happen, allowing the player to believe in even the most unbelievable of events and drawing the player into the world more than many of its commercial counterparts

To understand what I mean by irreverent, let's quickly recap the story of the game. The year is 2053 and you are Charles Barkley, former NBA star and citizen of Neo-New York. Twelve years previously, you performed a Chaos Dunk, a slam dunk so devastating that it killed many and led to basketball being outlawed and many of the great players killed in “The Great B-Ball Purge of 2041”. Now, 15 million have died in Manhattan due to a Chaos Dunk and you are being blamed.

If that sounds utterly ridiculous to you, it's because it is. That's just the intro to the story, the actual game itself plays out even more ludicrously. You meet a dwarf from outer space that has skin made out of basketballs, fight the dreaded Ghost Dad, who looks just like Bill Cosby, and even come across Harriet Tubman in the Underground Railroad. Nothing is off-bounds in this game - and that's what makes it work.

The best part is it all makes sense from a narrative perspective when you play the game. It's random, sure, but as a player I bought it. After the mood of the game was set with the opening cinematic, I was prepared for everything. Tales of Game's gave me even more.

Instead of trying to tell a serious story, it seems as if the developers just did whatever seemed funny to them. As a result, nothing in the game that could ever happen would feel out of place. If Jesus came from the sky during a battle, and fought against Charles Barkley, you would say to yourself “I should have seen that one coming!”.

On top of the game being over-the-top from a story perspective, Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is a parody of gaming as a whole. References are made to Super Mario Bros. 3, Gears of War, and countless JRPGs. Combat plays out like many JRPGs, with Barkley having special “verboten jams” to damage enemies, instead of magic spells. There's an entire section of the game that plays out like an old graphic adventure game. You even get the equivalent of a warp whistle at one point.

This parody of game styles meant when part of the game did something different than the rest of the game, it didn't feel completely out of place. There were quick-time events (timed button pressed) like in Shenmue and God of War, but the felt more like mocking these games rather than embracing the mechanic. The same with the adventure game section.

Also, since the game is made by amateur developers using Game Maker, it has very low production values. The sprites are blocky and often taken from other sources. Music is often inspired thematically from other mediums as well, such as the opening theme referring to Space Jam, the Michael Jordon/Looney Tunes cross-over film.

This stopped me from over-analyzing each scene. Instead, I took the low-resolution graphics at face value, because the game didn't aspire to do anything more (also, it didn't cost $60). Nothing was too weird for the game and nothing looked out of place in it. I accepted everything.

In the end, all of these decisions and constraints made me end up liking and caring more about the story and characters than I do in most mainstream games. With many modern, commercial games, I end up nitpicking and finding flaws. I wasn't able to do that with Barkley Shut up and Jam: Gaiden. I didn't want to.

Instead, I only ended up ceaselessly entertained by the insane plot that kept turning in ways no one would expect. I was enthralled by half-cyborg, half-robot characters and how Michael Jordon was a traitor in the game world. I was giddy when I found the end boss, in what can only be described as one of the biggest non-sequitur's in gaming history.

More commercial games should try ideas and concepts this crazy. Games like this probably serve a niche market, which is why they don't get made, but they feel like what gaming is truly all about. Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is the game that The Joker would make if he were a game developer.


  1. This game reminds me of those comedy movies where the jokes are fully dependent on being random. My friends seem to love this type of humour, I never got it.

    I would like to play this game though.

    It seems like Shut Up and Jam is the polar opposite to most current game narrative which often sticks too tightly to narrative norms from movies(betrayl, love interest etc). If we deviate from these norms then I think that we'll see some good progress.

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