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Why games fail at storytelling

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In the beginning, there was the videogame. And lo, it was basic and a bit crap. Technology was meek and primitive, and game design was abstract and a bit weird, dictated as much by what the technology could pull off as conscious design decisions. But being unused to such wonders back then, we were regardless impressed by the sight of a few coloured boxes shifting around a screen. It was our first taste of gameplay, damnit, and we loved it.

But as human beings bound by the linear flow of time, we find ourselves - consciously or unconsciously - obsessed with narrative. We have to view every aspect of our lives as part of an ongoing flow of causality and thus, we have to make everything a part of a story. So naturally, we demanded stories of our videogames.

Above: The ingredients of an epic

It wasn't enough just to guide a block around a maze avoiding other blocks. Our block had to be personified by a mouth and the other blocks had to be ghosts. Pac-Man would have played the same regardless, but we needed to justify what was going on. But as mentioned above, the games of this time were abstract, blunt mish-mashes of whatever was possible, and so story inevitably became a retrospective improvisation, tacked on afterwards. And so, the crap videogame story was born.

It's strange that we're still suffering from this syndrome, but just as a relationship will follow the behaviour patterns forged in its first few weeks, so story has often been a secondary consideration to justify in-game action.

But while that factor - and the inevitable disregard for well-rounded characterisation, decent writing and competent acting that came with it - was for a long time the only reason for crap storytelling in games, as the medium has progressed, things have become more complicated.

WARNING SPOILERS WARNING! Intimate knowledge of Final Fantasy VII, Portal and Half-Life 2 plots revealed beyond this point. WARNING SPOILERS WARNING!


Camping

There are now two distinct factions of game director. Some want to create a piece of pure gameplay - Geometry Wars, Quake 3, and Bomberman step up and take a bow - while others aspire to create a piece of narrative using videogames as their chosen medium.

Above: Geometry Wars doesn't care about plot. Those neon explosions are all the motivation you need

But the problem is, nine times out of ten, those story-driven game directors get it completely, utterly wrong. The fact is, Metal Gear and Final Fantasy are not good storytelling videogames. In fact, they're pretty poor. You see the problem is that in gaming's relative adolesence, we started to run before we could walk in terms of narrative, and devoid of the tools we needed to really tell stories through games, we borrowed the conventions of cinema and crudely stapled them on. And that just doesn't work.

In even the most 'story-driven' games, if cinematic cut-scenes are used, they and the actual game remain two completely separate entities. They feature the same character models and are stored on the same disc, but in actual fact, they are totally independent of each other. Take Final fantasy VII for example, or almost any JRPG for that matter.

Above: The Final Fantasy games' storytelling doesn't involve the player much more than the movie does

Cloud may be your protagonist, but the parts of the game in which you directly influence his actions - Golden Saucer date aside - consist only of moving an avatar around a map and guiding it through combat. As far as the development of the plot goes, you sit and watch a linear cartoon play it out for you. And they call them role-playing games? The approach only serves to highlight how the player isn't part of the story.

It's the same with everything from Super Mario Galaxy to Halo 3. However well realised, the cut-scenes are only really there to roughly contextualise your actions or explain a change in gameplay. The game itself isn't telling a story, and with story and game so unbound from each other, its no surprise that the quality of one so often plays second fiddle to the other as a design consideration. Regular juxtaposition between the two sections throws the player out of the narrative, especially when the cut-scenes are intrusive, Metal Gear-style diatribes of significant length. It's just not cohesive, and it feels very, very false indeed.

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61 comments

  • gilgamesh310 - January 19, 2010 10:21 p.m.

    While what most of the author says is definately true, it isn't aways true that just because there are no cutscenes that the player feels more at one with the character. In far cry 2 for example, a game which I felt was largely very boring and almost completely devoid of any narrative for the first 10 hrs or so, the character that I play as is still highly scripted and most of his actions especially at the end of the game where the player is offered a choice to do two separate things. It really wasn't in any way a choice at all considering that I as the player was completely against both options and all I really wanted to do was tell the jackal to fuck off rather than kill myself because he told me to. If the player does not want to play along as is scripted then it serves no purpose to make the character a mute protaganist and have no cutscenes. Half life 2 got this right by making me feel like waht I was doing was worthwhile and is one of my favourite game of all time as a result. No other game has done storytelling as well as half life 2 on the otherhand. More developers need to take risks and learn from this.
  • GunBlade - October 15, 2008 12:43 p.m.

    The Witcher. A game that can teach about gaming storytelling.
  • FierceDeity - October 14, 2008 9:25 p.m.

    i feel Link is very similar to Gordon in that you can project your personalities and values into him and i think Fable 2 might put an end to crappy narrative
  • codzprc - October 14, 2008 1:06 p.m.

    ...apologizeze... brilliant.
  • codzprc - October 14, 2008 12:49 p.m.

    all right, the continuation from above..... ....it's because of this that Devs take such liberties with what you do versus what they say happens in the story. It is because of video games and their stories that(and this would make a great gamesradar list): Darth Vadar has an apprentice Yoda, Darth, and the apprentice appear in Soul caliber IV Heihachi, Spawn, and Link appear in Soul Caliber II Fable 2 has Master Chief amror and energy sword(LimEdi) Gamorrean guards "rock out" in Lego Star Wars Actually the whole Lego game series is a spoof on favored epics that if would hardly be tolerated if they were a book, or movie - but because we are allowed to take part, we accept it. Imagine the makers of "Superhero Movie" did an entire movie spoofing (the original) Star Wars or Indy... that's basically what the lego series is, but because it's fun and familiar we accept it. The makers of "superhero movie" would go overboard anyway - seriously who watches those? I got side tracked again, lack of sleep and massive amounts of beer... The Matrix - I was ready to be Neo. I got Jada Pinkett Smith. I wanted to hack the matrix - I got an overly convoluted cheat screen. Which got me Neo but still... Damn, I went from rambling to ranting pretty quick. Wait, one last rant - the flood. Really? Did Halo need the "zombie" add on. Yeah yeah, people will say "They aren't 'zombies', they are a virus or bacterial organism that feed from and reanimates dead flesh!" Then I will pause, slap them and say "ZOMBIE!" -- Villain archetype are few, and fall into specific categories - Zombie covers a lot, even if it tacks 'alien' in front of it. Sure, you could call them 'monsters' but they are not. Dead Space calls them monsters, but their 'monsters' are reanimated HUMAN corpses that have been mutated due to some 'relic' thingy... like in "THE DIG" kinda-ish. So the are 'mutant zombies'... yay! I bought the game, by the way - it's amazing and I love it -- at least until Fable 2, Far Cry 2, and Fallout 3 come out. Let's see - I did the ramble, the rant... ah yes, time for the rave. If you are not excited for any of the three games I listed above - you obviously have plans to tour China, Japan, Australia, Fiji, and hotspots over the winter months. Because the next few months are going to be amazingly gam-gasmic. Here's why(US dates release dates) dead space Already out fable 2 Tuesday, October 21, 2008 far cry 2 Tuesday, October 21, 2008 fallout 3 Tuesday, October 28, 2008 gears of war 2 Friday, November 7, 2008 C&C: RA3 Tuesday, November 11, 2008 Left 4 dead Monday, November 17, 2008 Tomb Raider Tuesday, November 18, 2008 Underworld Project Origin Tuesday, February 3, 2009 Prince of Wednesday, December 2, 2009 Persia Ghost Busters Q4 2008 Honestly, I don't care about Prince of Persia - since Warrior Within gave into popular trends - but the newest iteration doesn't look bad. Every other game is something to be excited about - with a special head nod to Ghost Busters. Watching the gameplay vids, which captured and expanded upon great film moments was promising - but I want to cross the streams on Zule!! Plus original cast voice acting and script writing guarantees my money. ***last note - lava_lamp: how ironic that you comment on a post in which I mention your name sake for an adventure game puzzle. Good luck and good night.
  • Fleshcrawl - October 14, 2008 12:12 a.m.

    i think dude is got a chip on his shoulder and has to take is out on something. real in-depth story driven games are amazing. the MGS series, KOTOR, mass effect, silent hill, uncharted, firewarrior. c'mon man you can't hate a good story just because it outdoes your middle school diary entries.
  • lava_lamp - October 13, 2008 8:38 p.m.

    i still feel betrayed p.s.damn codzprc longest comment I've ever seen
  • codzprc - October 13, 2008 9:40 a.m.

    damn, I should have read more of jimsondanet's comments - he covered a lot of what I said -- oh well.
  • codzprc - October 13, 2008 9:32 a.m.

    The point is, which out structure, there would be no story worth telling... The game would get lost in itself and become enigmatic. Never really knowing what to be, what to do or how to respond to an action. A new type of AI would need to be present to calculate every possible outcome, and the result may be worse than the offspring of a Metal Gear game and the puzzles from any adventure game (fish+toaster+string=lava lamp.) Strangely, there are promising "story driven" games that are coming out very soon - and all begin with the letter "F": Fable 2 Fallout 3 Far Cry 2 I just thought of some more points to make, but I'll wait till gameradar offers me a freelance position... so I guess you'll never read them.
  • codzprc - October 13, 2008 9:13 a.m.

    An amazingly insightful article. Not so much on a "ground-breaking" level but more in a "pointing out the obvious, that everyone seemed to miss" sense. It is true that games, for the most part, would receive a resounding 'F' when it comes to story-telling. Some do offer up great stories overall. That's not to say that novels should be written about them, for instance, the Halo novels muddied waters that weren't clear to begin with (see gameradars'Halo: the story so far'). There is hope though, future titles and systems will only increase developers abilities to create and invent seemingly endless ways of telling a story via actual gameplay. Most games will retain a rigid, scripted structure. Without it, you could potentially be playing the same game over and over - and that's just not fun. That's one reason why games do follow a set structure, there's a specific story someone wants to tell - even if it was an afterthought to the gameplay. While watching the Fallout 3 walkthrough vids on gametrailers.com - the player had agreed to blow up a town, but was given the honor of 'throwing the switch' - in the video, they went ahead and did it, but I wondered "What if I changed my mind and decided to kill the NPCs that gave me the mission right before flipping the switch, and leave this bomb active so I could blow it later in the game?" Hopefully, that choice will be mine to make. The outcome of that may merely make my game a bit shorter/longer depending on how the NPC/town missions are scripted. And that is really what it all comes down to - the script. Developers spend countless hours making the game functional (running, jumping, shooting groins) - some developers, the likes of Lionhead, Valve and now Bethesda, spend even more hours linking in-game actions to end game results. A true sandbox game would end-up like your GI Joes and Lego men in a real sandbox when you were playing as kid. You start the game, maybe build a castle/fort, then place your troops -- but OH NO! A giant flood hits(your little brother and a garden hose) and traps some soldiers under the rubble/sand. Now there are only a few troops left and you must make your way out of the swamp/desert alive. All of these events would have to be completely random, just a roll of the dice. Sound like fun? Hell no! You just built a sweet-ass castle, that was destroyed for no reason. On the plus side, your game has completely changed, you were playing a RTS and now maybe a FPS/RPG, so that's cool. However, in a truly open world, one where anything is possible at anytime - how would it end? *side track* Storage media capacities are becoming larger by the day - and thankfully cheaper! There is, or will be, a limit to how much information can be stored on a disc. Companies get around this by offering downloadable content now -- here's an idea - and you heard it from ME first (probably), put your game on a fucking flash drive and sell it that way - USB2 is fast enough to stream a game, hell I loaded 3Gb of music to my blackberry in under a minute. Seriously I should patent that. 360's scratched disks? Not a problem! *end ST* What the hell was I talking about? Right, Story telling. Because a specific story needs to be told, certain events need to be followed. Though those events can be altered by in-game actions with some games - the events still unfold, one way or another, as scripted. You are inevitably limited by a developers time constraints, financial situation, and foresight. Do we really want the 'butterfly effect' to happen in our games? Because we decide to try out a new weapon on hapless-stander-by-X should our love interest be killed 40 game hours later? Is it really worth using an entire tree to print each game guide that would go with this game? Maybe. Besides probably having a downloadable guide, the other accomplishments in creating a truly sandbox and butterfly game would be Noble Prize material. 'Hours' of gameplay would not be a factor, 'Years' would be a fitting term. imagine a world in which you could do anything but had no control over what the bible belt would call 'acts of god' - a game that could seamlessly switch from RTS to RPG to FPS to Sport and so on -- and the cast of 'villains' was forever changing. One day aliens attack - then the next zombies. But before you kill all the zombies, the aliens return with more numbers, and in the midst of all this a feminine looking dude decides to try to take over the world. Then a flash of light comes from the sky, you are rendered unconscious, and when you wake up you have lightening powers! And the outcome, should you ever get to it, depends on every choice you've made over the past 500 hours - but because you stepped on the golden flower 5mins ago, you die and need to reload -- when did you save last? yesterday? Now take all that and add multiplayer and co-op, and you have yourself a game. The point is, which out structure, there would be no story worth telling. Continued Below.......
  • rel123 - October 13, 2008 6:51 a.m.

    It seems that the author of the article has a specific kind of story in mind, and I feel that this is very close-minded. It is kind of like saying novels fail at story telling because they don't have pictures like comic books.
  • Falconite221 - October 12, 2008 5:48 a.m.

    what about games like KOTOR or Mass Effect where choices develop your character. or in Indigo Prophecy were you have a set DESTINATION but not a set PATH you get to choose how to go through it. by panicking and running, acting like nothing happened, or any thing inbetween that
  • Ravenbom - October 11, 2008 5:56 p.m.

    Well, I agree with both the article, and the counterpoints to the article that people have made. But still, don't you want to be other people sometimes? I mean, I REALLY don't want to rip off one of my arms and be Radd in Bionic Commando ReArmed. Though I wouldn't mind the original, since he still had both arms and used a bionic attachment... Anyways, it's cool to vicariously be someone else in another time/place, same as when I read a book, like Fight Club, I get a vicarious rush, but really, I would MUCH rather live my typical boring life than have hundreds of deaths laying on my conscious, hundreds, if not thousands more people all trying to kill me, and a grappling hook arm which would probably ruin my junk the first time I had to go pee. And that's just one game's moral dilemmas made real. Actually, Gamesradar people, maybe you should write an article about game consequences made real. Like how when you get arrested in GTA, you get your guns and money taken, but in real life, you'd be tried as the worst murderer in history. Or photoshop the wasteland that earth would be after the Prince from Katamari got done rolling up everything on earth. Or how activists would have a shit-fit over all the wild animals hunted to extinction in MMORPGS. And with crafting and resource harvesting, WOW would look like Dr. Seuss's The Lorax. Or, continuing with BC Rearmed example, think of all the war crimes he might be charged with. I reality, the grunts we play in FPS would most likely be the fall guys for the public outcry over human rights violations and Geneva Convention violations that litter most gameplay. Or, think of how easily the females in games fall for the protagonists. How desperate must Zelda be to seemingly fall for Link, a guy who never says one word, and she only meets once or twice a game. Really, it's more than ridiculous, it's re-cock-ulous. At the end of God of War's first level, Kratos has slaughtered everything that moved, would most likely be covered in blood and viscera, despite the rain, and has two massive bloody blades permanently chained to his forearms, yet two hot babes he's never met want to have a threesome with him. (Maybe I've been approaching the opposite sex all wrong, being that I'm never drenched in the blood of my enemies when I talk to girls) And yet, that doesn't seem take us out of the immersion. Yet plot holes, cut scenes, loading screens and poorly recorded cheesy dialogue does. We're spoiled. (Yes, small flaws and details can really ruin immersion for me too. I'm spoiled too.)
  • samboy218 - October 11, 2008 3:44 p.m.

    yeah z-man427 ur right so wat if ur first its just going to piss people off if u post a comment saying "first"
  • foolonfire - October 11, 2008 12:23 p.m.

    "Realy?? Do MGS suck at its storyline? Maybe it did, but the storyline was a key 2 its success as a game.." ...sais everything about the industry's standard in storytelling.
  • joelvssnake - October 11, 2008 12:14 p.m.

    Realy?? Do MGS suck at its storyline? Maybe it did, but the storyline was a key 2 its success as a game..
  • noofer7 - October 11, 2008 10:51 a.m.

    Agreed.
  • foolonfire - October 11, 2008 10:39 a.m.

    Half-life 2 has a story? Where? Cutscenes and linear gameplay = bad storytelling? NO. The old LucasArts adventure games had plenty of cutscenes and were totally linear, yet they offered very good storytelling. The real problem is this: Story follows Game. The programmers, artists and level designers have the lead, the writers follow. You want good storytelling? Well, hire good writers and give them the lead. Solution: Game follows Story. (example: Silent Hill 2) Of course, as long as gamers go crazy for MGS4 despite its crap storytelling, there's little reason for developers to change their approach.
  • RadianTrild - October 11, 2008 9:36 a.m.

    Mass Effect was my first thought as well. That was a great story. I thought wow this would have made a bad ass movie. Seriously how many games can actually make you care about a character? Well Mass Effect managed to make you care about an entire ship full of them and then combine it with killer game play. Kudos to them for making such a sweet freakin' game.
  • timshank - October 11, 2008 5:34 a.m.

    I completely disagree with this article. You don't need to make the choices for a good story to be told. MGS3 is a shining example, it's not a convoluted plot, It's just a good story. I don't want to make all the choices for the main character, then I wouldn't be told a story, I'd be writing one. I'm far too apathetic to write a story, so thanks for doing it for me, Final Fantasy.

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