Welcome to the first installment of a little something I like to call “The Plot Thickens.” This will hopefully become a monthly piece here on Negative World focusing on underappreciated plot elements of video games. I plan to range in focus from the nuances of grandiose narratives to the backstories of games whose plot is often completely ignored (how did Peach get kidnapped THIS time?).
So to kick things off, let’s look at a recently released Nintendo 3DS game I’ve been playing lately, Nano Assault! “What?,” you say, “there’s plot in those scrolling shoot-em-up games?” Well sure there is! Let’s take a look …
For starters, Nano Assault is the third game in a series. That means its backstory is the continuation of the events of Nanostray and Nanostray 2 – released for the Nintendo DS in 2005 and 2008 respectively. For me, those games were really good, but not great. I’ve borrowed them from people at various times and only managed to summon the motivation to play through the first few levels before returning them. Thus, my understanding of their stories is a little spare but I think I can manage.
Basically, “nanostray” is the term for a techno-organic virus which has infected computer systems all over the galaxy and turned military tech against humanity. This first two games chronicle the struggle of the last untainted ship in the fleet, the ESS Ariga. It is from aboard this massive supply ship that Officer Diane Stewart coordinates mission objectives for the ship’s lone fighter pilot (played by you!). Through the usual method of blasting anything that moves, that pilot manages to acquire a core sample of the nanostray virus. This is where the events of Nano Assault begin on the 3DS.
The plot of Nano Assault is rather different from the previous two entries in the series. This results in very different gameplay and is a likely explanation for why it’s “Nano Assault” and not “Nanostray 3.”
Instead of continuing to play the role of the unnamed fighter pilot, the user is now playing the part of Officer Diane Stewart aboard the ESS Ariga. In Nano Assault, Officer Stewart identifies herself as part of the ship’s bio-analysis department. Why that qualified her for coordinating missions during the two previous games I’m not really sure! (It probably has something to do with the developer, Shin’en, worrying more about awesome gameplay than story… or box art for that matter).
This is the setting of the game.
Regardless, I’ve seen and heard some confusion about this next, fundamental aspect of the game’s events. Perhaps because of the game’s name, the organic-looking environments, and past cinema such as Inner Space, some people assumed the game took place inside the body of a human or an alien or some such creature, and that a shrunk-down human was piloting this nanoscopic ship. However, none of this is the case. The real story is that the nanostray virus core was isolated in containment tubes; Officer Stewart (played by you!) then uses remote controlled nanites to examine DNA strands and eradicate the viral infections in these samples.
Speedy air-superiority fighter.
Conveniently for the programmers, and for the sake of the game’s fun factor, these nanites control just like your classic space fighter ships. But the foundations of this fiction don’t end just there. Another tidbit that largely goes unnoticed is revealed during the brief cutscene just before stage 1. As it turns out, during Nano Assault, you pilot not one but two different nanite ships. The speedy vessel used for the StarFox-like, rail shooting levels actually harbors a second, smaller ship inside of it. This second ship is much more agile but slowly patrols the Mario Galaxy-like spheroids used in the majority of the game’s levels.
Nimble low-altitude fighter.
Sadly, this is basically where all narrative elements of the game not only begin, but end. I won’t spoil the game’s final scene, but let’s just say it barely qualifies as such. Obviously, that’s not really a complaint. Certain genres simply don’t place an emphasis on story. It is likely due in some way to the fact that when genres like shmups (shoot em ups) and platformers became popular, the time and place was very limiting to story telling. The time being an era of relatively weak technology and the place being an arcade where no one really wanted to stand around reading or watching cutscenes.
This is why, when a game from one of these genres, at least initially makes an effort towards a unique and interesting story, I like to stop and appreciate whatever it is. I mean, we’ve all blasted aliens in shmups before. And I think many of us have even played shmups that take place inside organic creatures. But how many take place on the nanoscopic cells of a techno-organic virus?! Just one - the game that finally lives up to its series’ prefix, Nano Assault.
Well hey, that’s all for installment #1. What do you think? Have you played the game? Did you take notice of these story elements or learn something new? Did you care? Should anyone? Is there a game whose plot you really enjoyed but went largely ignored? Tell me about it and hopefully I’ll see you again right here next month!
Haha, I was prepared to stop reading at the first sign of an ending spoiler, but there was none (because of the game, and in spite of you?).
From what you describe, the plot isn't very different from the plot of every side-scrolling shooter ever made. And that's fine with me. When I sit down to play these games, I do so to blow the crap up out of aliens, not because I'm craving plot twists or character development. Any cutscene interrupting the action is doing just that: interrupting.
Also, 80% of the genre is set in space. There is only so many places you can take the story in that setting. But even when the setting is a bit more remarkable, like in Jamestown, with its "steampunk Western on Mars" thing going on, the story is absolutely disposable, uninteresting. It's just nice to have enemies and landscapes that are different, perhaps more colorful and bright... and to shoot the crap out of them.
I guess that when I'm playing Detana Twinbee, maybe I'd like to be able to read the text (left in Japanese) and know what the heck is going on... but then again, maybe I don't. Perhaps the reason why I'm shooting flying radishes and toiler seats is best left to my imagination.
Nice analysis, NinSage. I haven't played the game yet, but I plan to someday. For some reason I never was interested in NanoStray, but this looks cool, so I won't be harping over the story too much. It's cool that it's there, and unobtrusive, as it should be.
As for stories that were largely ignored... does Castlevania: Rondo of Blood count? And I guess you could extend this to any 2D Castlevania, the story is kinda just there, predicatable yet enjoyable, but nobody ever talks about it really.
I think this brings up another point, with 3D games, especially this gen, developers have really put a heavy emphasis on stories/cutscenes. Like, if I ever play Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, I know I'll be in for a ton of cutscenes, dialogue, etc... Meh.
Cool article Ninsage. You're right about shmups not really being the genre you would take a serious look at for the story, but the premise of Nano Assault at least attempts to keep things much more interesting than the generic space shooter. I also appreciate the way Nano Assault ties the story back to the Nanostray games.
I've never played any of the Nano games but they have always been on my radar as 'games I would like to play,' especially this game!
While it may be true that Nano Assault is the only game that, as you said, takes 'place on the nanoscopic cells of a techno-organic virus,' when I first saw this game and assumed it took place inside an organism, I was reminded of an old favorite of mine, Life Force. This NES game was based on the Japanese game Salamander, and the American arcade version changed the game's plot by adding an opening text that establishes the game to be set inside a giant alien life-form which is infected by a strain of bacteria. I always thought that was pretty awesome.
I look forward to more "The Plot Thickens" articles!
Hey man, great idea for an ongoing editorial! Curious as to what franchise/game comes next, but I can wait.
I'm kind of moderately interested in checking out Nano Assault sometime, although the story appeal is kind of here nor there for me, other than the setting being a bit more interesting than the typical space shooter. I'm not sure if I'd want too much story in my SHMUPs anyhow.
It's interesting that you picked a shmup to discuss, in terms of plot. Honestly, I'm rarely interested in game stories, perhaps due to the way that they're told. There have been odd exceptions, though. And I wanted to get Nano Assault, anyway, so I look forward to giving it a go!
Actually, one of those exceptions was Sigma Star Saga, a shmup RPG. A ShmarPG. I found the story of that game genuinely enjoyable, and it compelled me to finish the game. Nothing 'Oscar-caliber', but it drew me in, for whatever reason.
Would you say that it's the story that kept you engaged, or the humor? Because to me that's what the "whatever reason" ends up being 90% of the time. I can deal with a dialogue-heavy game pretty much only when it makes me smile or genuinely laugh.
I'm a bit wary of blowing my load for the next podcast, but let's think about it...
Stories in games are generally palatable to me when they are funny (like you said) or so fucked up and unpredictable as to be interesting. No More Heroes kind of hits both of those. Sigma Star Saga, I think the main appeal of that was that it was an old-fashioned pulp adventure with appealing characters. Characterization is the most important part of conventional narrative for me, and most games just don't do it very well. So I'd cite some sort of combination of humor, craziness, and characterization as the elements that would actually make me interested in a game story. With bonus points for unobtrusiveness (unless the story IS the game, like in an adventure game). I guess a strong plot would do the trick, as well, but... do any games have one?