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Storytelling in games Part I July 10, 2009

Posted by rusquel in Meta-game.
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I watched a fascinating episode of Good Game last night [1], and coupled with a few things I’ve read recently and been churning over in my mind, some conclusions have coalesced from the aether. What stories do games tell? Games have almost always had an element of storytelling integrated rather tightly with the gameplay and the game itself. But why?

The first ‘real’ game I ever played was Jurassic Park on the Sega Mega Drive II. I got it for my birthday in 1994, and I was pretty excited. I finished it on both campaigns, as you could play as either Dr Grant (the protagonist from the film and novel) or as the wily raptor, which was an interesting spin on the whole storyline. The game picks up after a short cut-scene, when Dr Grant has been thrown from a car by a T-Rex, and has nothing but his wits and some paltry dart gun to survive. I had watched the film repeatedly on VHS after it had come out in 1993, and had even struggled through the seemingly biblical 400-page novel by Michael Crichton. I was a spoilt child, so I had also accumulated quite a few of the Jurassic Park novelty toys by this point. As any young biy I was going through that phase of loving anything dinosaurical, and I still don’t think I’m over it: I still check to ensure my house is raptor proof.

The novel came first. It was the ‘true’ story of Jurassic Park. Spielberg had to cram that into an action packed 100 minutes, without making it feel piecemeal. So he took a bit there, and a bit here, cut that scene and this minor character. No brainer. But it made the film tell a different story to the novel, Spielberg’s story. When I played with my toys in my bedroom, I used my floor as the setting, the edges of the rug as the boundaries of the dinosaurs’ island, my desk and chair as the ‘human base’ and ‘pterodactyl eyrie’ respectively. I used the toys, my imagination, and what pre-knowledge of Jurassic Park I had, to create my own stories. When I played the video-game, I was viewing another Jurassic Park story, Sega’s story.

This is just an example – you could repeat it with almost any video-game. Games are just another way of telling someone a story. Of course they can be a lot more: they can be more visually rich than a novel, more interactive than a film, and longer than a TV series.

But where is the story in Tetris? Or Pac-Man? When does ‘objective’ not equal ‘story’? In WoW there is a huge front-load of story. The opening zones are full of quests, characters, and story-arcs that flesh out you race’s plights, the world situation, and your faction’s plights. Being gently led to exterminate the Defias Brotherhood in Westfall after seeing first-hand the way they have ravaged the landscape, following that with the final push to kill Van Cleef, only to be told of a much larger conspiracy against the king’s life, and deep-rooted treason in the palace.

On the other hand, you fire up QuestHelper, follow the arrows and press some buttons, ding, get some loot, rinse and repeat. This isn’t to say that most players miss the story in WoW, it’s that the story never grabs you by the collar and says ‘Lookit me!’ In GTA4, you are forced to push the storyline along to the next chapter – you have to pay attention, or otherwise why complete the objectives designated to your character? You can’t deny WoW is a giant 1-80 stat grind treadmill. It’s fun and I enjoy it. But that’s what I care about. Not the hopes and dreams of my ingame character. Not the immersive storyline that I’m swept up in. If I want plot I’ll watch a film, not play WoW.

How does this relate to other games? Think of a console game, and the console controller. You get to mash A, B, X, Y and some bumper buttons to do things, and a D-pad to move around. Kind of a limiting way to interact with the game world. Imagine a day-in-the-life-of if you could only interact using 4 basic commands, with a couple of simple combos thrown in (unlocked after you defeat the 3rd boss of course). Is this where game writers fall down? Pushed and pulled between the Scylla and Charybdis of cut-scenes vs sandbox/open-ended have they charted a middle way?

Not yet, I feel. I think story-telling in games has stagnated in the last decade. People have been too taken with the shinies of better graphics, to notice the poor attempt and plot that strings the flashbangs together. Pummeling your way from one cut-scene to the next FFX style is not the answer. Being thrown into a massive world with no direct imperative or incentive to pursue storyline is not the answer either (think Oblvion or Mass Effect). Fable II seemed to be heading there, and Fallout 3 certainly was more on-the-ball than Oblivion. But just adding in another stat called ‘Karma’ or ‘Light/Dark Side Points’ doesn’t make a brnaching storyline any better than flicking through an old Goosbumps ‘pick your own adventure’ by R.L. Stein.

[1] For those of you who don’t know about it, Good Game is probably the best home-grown games review in Australia. Aunty plays them at around midnight, but thankfully I just eat their podcast off their server.

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