Framed is an excellent video game. I want that on the record. I’m about to say some unflattering things about it, but that shouldn’t keep you from playing it. Framed is one of the most original and clever games of the year, offering a unique mechanic, satisfying puzzles, and exceptional artwork and animation. Go play Framed. Take Hideo Kojima’s word for it.
Yet as much as I love the game, it hasn’t totally settled right since I put it down. Something has been bugging me, and I’ve finally figured out what it is. Specifically, the game doesn’t have any narrative context. There are a lot of incredible trees that don’t quite add up to a forest, and the problem may have been baked in from the beginning.
If you’re unfamiliar with the game, Framed – from Loveshack Entertainment – is an interactive comic book in which the panels are out of order. Every stage starts with an entrance and an exit. You have to rearrange the scene to find the path that gets the protagonists safely from one to the other. Depending on the sequence, you can either sneak up behind a cop or run headlong into the barrel of his gun.
Much of the game’s charm comes from that sense of narrative manipulation. The game forces you to see how a prop or bit of scenery can be used to wildly different effect depending on its position within the visual arc, often in a way that moves against audience expectations. The same door can be an obstacle or an escape. An axe may have more utility at the end of the stage than the beginning. It’s Chekhov’s gun in game form, where every detail has significance once it’s in the proper place.
For the most part, Framed does a good job of using the premise in diverse ways while recognizing that pictures tell a story even if the subject never moves. Framed is always linear. But it’s not always Point A to Point B, occasionally finding evocative moments in small gestures like the lighting of a cigarette. The individual beats give the game texture that parallels the ups and downs of a screenplay.
However – and here’s the kicker – Framed’s story lacks the scope of a traditional three act play, instead stretching one scene to a feature length production. There’s a briefcase. Three characters want to hold it. Every single action that follows – from police escapes to smoke breaks – is derived from that one driving impulse.
The premise works in insofar as it communicates that the protagonists have to get from one place to the other because they’ll be caught and arrested if they don’t. The stakes are clear and compelling, an elegant mechanical solution that provides the developers with a narrative reason to move forward with the gameplay.
The trouble is that the motivation doesn’t resonate beyond the present. There’s no rising action or dénouement. There’s not even much of a sense of conflict. The entire game is one long chase scene, which sounds great until you realize a climax only feels like a climax in relation to something else. A chase scene is fun (and Framed does have brief changes of pace), but it’s more exciting when we know why it’s happening.
The result is enjoyable in the moment, but it lacks emotional heft without more nuanced context. I don’t know who these people are or what their goals are beyond the immediate short term and a handful of subtle hints. I don’t need to know what’s in the briefcase any more than I needed to know in Pulp Fiction, but I do need to know more about the relationship between the people willing to go to such lengths to get it.
Fortunately, that doesn’t detract from what is otherwise a wonderful game. If anything, the limitations make me more excited for whatever comes next because there’s still so much untapped potential in the concept. It would have been virtually impossible to do everything on the first outing, especially given the challenges that Loveshack undoubtedly faced with the other design elements.
It just would have been nice to have a better balance between action and character. Framed takes interactive storytelling in an entirely new direction, and it could be used to build personality as dramatically as it builds tension. It would make for some fantastic video games, and I look forward to seeing that evolution.