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Storytelling in Games
Published on February 28, 2008 By mittens In Gaming

It seems like it's time for the video game industry to grow up and realize that it needs to start producing games with the idea that the experience they provide to gamers is one wholly unique to the industry. I finally saw There Will Be Blood earlier this week and, after witnesses the absolutely mind-numbingly fantastic performance of Daniel Day-Lewis I came to a fairly obvious realization: games will never provide an experience as fulfilling, captivating, and, most importantly, truly captivating viewing experience as a movie like this.

I don't mean that a game will never have the ability to provide a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking, and memorable experience. The primary distinction that needs to be conveyed is that, in their current form, video games seem to be handling their narratives in a wholly unoriginal form. So many video games released for both PC and consoles over the last year try to present what is, quite honestly, a mundane story with adequate voice acting in the same form as a movie may try to present a story: through non-interactive cutscenes. It seems absolutely insane to me that, as advanced as games have become, the industry still has yet to get past the idea that the only way to present stories is through heavily scripted scenes. I understand why the desire to force players to sit through a noninteractive or unskippable cinematics; developers put an absolutely ridiculous amount of time into developing their games and planning out their storylines and so on. So much work that it seems crazy to make the storyline in a game subtle or completely optional. But, by that same token, I know a great number of gamers who simply skip past any and all cutscenes that show themselves in any game.

There are, basically, two categories of games when narrative is the topic of discussion as far as I'm concerned: abstract storylines and concrete narratives. I consider games which place the game front and center as a game with an abstract narrative. These are games where, for the most part, there is no requisite story or the gameplay defines the player's interpretation of a story. A game like Geometry Wars, for example, has no real story whatsoever. In my experience, and I'm not making this up, I tend to make-up completely irrelevant storylines to complement the gameplay; I'm destroying the crap out of these geometry blights upon my galaxy. For what, you may ask. To this I respond with whatever mood I'm in for that day: for destroying my similarly geometric self's rights, for destroying my convex homeworld, for taking my harshly-edged fiance captive. I do this completely subconsciously and it's something that I never would have realized if a friend of mine hadn't mentioned this game during my midday rant about the same topic as this column. A more concrete example of an abstract narrative, in my eyes, is a turn-based strategy game like Galactic Civilizations, The Sims, or Civilization. There is, in fact, an entire set of storylines which surround any given game in these titles but, for the most part, the meat of the narrative occurs as I dictate it. I have a home world and I expand but, yet, there are the teal race of wobbly-armed balls of goo who are attempting to prevent me from helping my race to survive the depths of space by positioning two giant space ships around the planet I had my eye on. A planet with fertile soil and a friendly atmosphere. I need that planet and these teal bastards are trying to stop me. Why? Who knows. They probably do, but I can make my reasons up as I play. These events occur in-game without any necessary exposition whatsoever and no particularly keen observations on my part, but the narrative is there, whether I care to excavate its meaning or not.

The other type of game is one with a definite narrative. A game with a very well-defined and fleshed-out game world set within a unique or special universe all of its own. This could be a game like Bioshock, Half-Life, Starcraft, Diablo, or Lego Star Wars. These are all titles which present a particular storyline set amidst interactive gameplay. These types of games definitely have a place in the industry as experiences wholly unique to the medium but, in my mind, I would love to see some more chances taken with the narrative expositions. Bioshock, Half-Life, and Crysis are the closest and best examples I can think of that help to bring the industry closer to the kind of definitively interactive types of gameplay/narrative that video games should be representative of. The most important story in Bioshock is not that of the player's dealings with Atlas and Andrew Ryan; no, the most important story is the one presented by the scenery of Rapture (Ken Levine understood this as he indicated in his GDC presentation). In Half-Life 2 the most memorable experiences for me are not being given objectives by the NPCs, it's seeing Alyx's face as she is impaled by a Hunter in the beginning of episode 2 and attempting to take down a Strider for the first time in vanilla Half-Life 2. I don't give a crap about whatever dull story Crysis wanted to present; I was more interested in trekking around the landscape exploring the crevices of the island.

Why should players ever have to completely pause and be stripped of their controls so that a writer can impart his words as voiced by generally poorly acted lines? Video games are the only medium which can present stories in such a dynamic and interactive manner and, yet, we seem to be bound by the conventions of Hollywood.

on Feb 29, 2008

I really need to finish HL2.

on Feb 29, 2008

Mass Effect breaks out from the static cut scene a little.

If you aren't familiar, when you hit a "cut scene" in Mass Effect, you often have to play the part of your character in the cut scene by choosing of varied responses during whatever conversational exchange is taking place.

It's still a bit rudimentary, and the long term effects to the storyline are nil as far as I can tell (i.e. being a disagreeable bastard or being a goody two shoe altruist makes no difference in the long run) but it's a step in the right direction.

on Feb 29, 2008

Mass Effect had an absolutely terrible implementation of the right idea. I loved the conversational portion of the game (far moreso than the game itself, actually) but not only were the moral choice completely basic -- I mean, there were extreme answers that, in some cases, were HIGHLIGHTED IN RED or BLUE to indicate just how extreme they were to the evil/good side -- but they also had no real impact on the overall progress on the result of the individual scenes (much less on the story as a whole).

The absolutely enormous amount of material available in the in-game encyclopedia just reinforced my point: this information should be available in an interactive manner. It's good information that I would never read because it's so completely verbose and inaccessible from the gameplay itself.

on Mar 01, 2008

Am I strange?  I kinda like watching cutscenes and getting immersed in the story...if it's a good one.

Although, being able to skip is probably a good feature for the ever impatient gamer(or if you've played through it a thousand times already).


on Mar 02, 2008

Kurthy, I don't mean to be rude, but I'm fairly certain you got lost on the way to a fourth-grade class in the written word (and, at that point, failed to attend any grammatically-relevant class after that day). Your comment was not only completely incomprehensible and irrelevant but you seem to have taken to learning the taste of your own poophole in favor of learning how to spell "defecate" correctly.


And, no, Zoologist, you are not strange for that. I don't mean to spout pure hatred about cutscenes, I just think that the next evolution of video games needs to take more of a step to embrace the medium as its own entity as opposed to trying to be more akin to a movie.