Narrative in Video Games #8: Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony

“Spectacle” is often used to describe an experience that is captivating in the moment, but often lacks the depth for any deeper interpretation. Video games more so than any other narrative medium can get away with shortchanging their narratives for a greater emphasis on visual and gameplay spectacle. A great example of spectacle over narrative substance lies in Final Form Games’ indie shoot ’em up Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony. An improved version under the title of “Jamestown+” was released on PlayStation 4 in 2015, but this article will be covering the 2011 Steam release.

In an alternate steampunk history, Englishman Walter Raleigh escapes execution and travels to the Martian colony of Jamestown in an attempt to clear his name. There he fights the combined Spanish/Martian forces and uncovers a plot that threatens the colonies. This setup sounds weirdly interesting, but it serves more as a backdrop to the gameplay than a compelling narrative. Jamestown hearkens back to the arcade game renaissance of the late 80’s/early 90’s with a “throwaway story” only meant to give the game structure. The inclusion of a “Farce Story Mode” in the in-game shop makes it clear that the narrative is simply meant to supplement the gameplay.

Speaking of gameplay, Jamestown actually belongs to a niche Japanese subgenre known as “danmaku,” or “bullet hell,” characterized by small player character hitboxes and intricate patterns of bullets covering most of the screen. The focus is on quick reflexes and pattern recognition, so story segments are often relegated to breaks in the action or between levels to not further distract players as they concentrate on the intentionally distracting visual spectacle. At the end of the day, that’s all that Jamestown is: a bullet hell spectacle that just isn’t very narratively deep, but when the gameplay is this solid, it didn’t necessarily have to be.

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