#BoRT: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Leave the Story.


It’s easy to look at the latest Call of Duty and movie blockbuster side by side and say “Wow.  video games have come a long way since Pac Man and Tetris.”  Media attention to the financial success of these titles compared to the film industry makes that contrast even more relevant.  By looking more like movies, games are quickly mirroring elements of the film industry that command respect in culture, something that the gaming industry and community has long strove for.  And of course, it’s routinely noted that video games hold even more storytelling potential by virtue of their interactivity.  This idea is what renewed my interest in games, and has held attention steadily ever since.  But does it really matter, or is it just seen as the quickest route to cultural significance?  What advantage does it provide to the video game storyteller?

I see storytelling as another tool at the creator’s disposal.  It’s probably my favorite of tools but I can enjoy games without story just as well.  Of course, storytelling can also become a hindrance to gameplay as well (as many who’ve played a Metal Gear Solid game may attest).  Game stories can be the most direct path to evoking emotion from players.  They provide a trajectory for character arcs and a vehicle for player attachment.  A good game story can deliver an otherwise mediocre game as a moving experience.  The Drakengard series and Nier are my go-to examples of this.  (Spoilers ensue for Nier.)  Emil’s character arc and goodbye in Nier were absolutely devestating and meaningful.  Having to conclude the game while contending with the loss of Emil makes the final confrontation and revelations momentous.  Games like these and other, more popular, examples of storytelling in games illustrate the potential of the medium.  So what, if anything is holding holding games back from fully embracing storytelling, or stopping games from creatively overtaking films?

Video game stories are expensive (like most other things you find in a game).  The challenge, in my own estimation, facing a game’s creator is trying to tell a story that your development resources will be able to support.  Of course, if you’re a smart writer with a keen sense of how an audience will be playing your game, then you can tell an entertaining story without requiring an entire development team and millions of dollars of technology.  Portal demonstrated this with its reception as part of the Orange Box.  With a relatively smaller budget compared to Half Life 2: Episode 2, it was a breakout success with a subtle approach to storytelling.   Conversely, many time if enough money is thrown at a game the outcome will at least be palatable and entertaining in the “turn off your brain” sort of way (e.g. the Call of Duty Franchise.)

The numbers represent levels, I guess.

It’s not that I’m trying to over-simplify game development, but sometimes a simple picture goes a long way.

Every variable that goes into a game’s formula for storytelling interactivity can increase the amount of work required to complete a game exponentially.  This is why it’s common to use a “foldback” structure in interactive storytelling.  Each time a game introduces a variable which causes the story to branch, it will at least double the number of storyline threads that must be written, designed, and implemented in a coherent manner.  It’s a risky approach that still requires more resources than with telling a linear story, and can ruin the experience for some of the audience if the diverging threads aren’t brought back together carefully.  (See reactions to the endings of Mass Effect 3 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution for examples.)  Other means of minimizing the resources required to tell an interactive story include creating illusions of player choice or giving the player a broad array of shallow choices (or choices that do not directly affect the storyline) that can be made.  The difficulty of integrating interactivity into a storyline is only compounded when the work must be coordinated across growing teams of developers.

Now, a game creator will be faced with how to balance these competing factors, and at some point, he or she is going to be faced with another question: can I make my game more entertaining with the same amount of effort if I didn’t try to tell a story?  Many would say that a game’s story is told by the player as they experience it, in which case no story necessarily needs to be explicitly told.  But this question applies to those who are more interested in telling the story as part of their game, and is more relevant to how the medium can advance.  The video games industry has most certainly taken an approach that’s consistent with the right side of the above chart by trying to mimic the success of blockbuster films.  Indie developers are far more reliant on making up for their lack of resources with novelty and wit in storytelling.  But they are also more sensitive to the question of whether or not a story is really needed in the first place.  I believe that indie developers are willing to minimize or eschew story in favor of creating an experience more resembling games from a period when storytelling was far more difficult in games.  This is to say nothing of the proliferation of games in app-driven communities where there isn’t the incessant need to create games that can go toe-to-toe with Hollywood.  When it comes to player engagement, a story isn’t a fundamental element of good game design.

In the end, the concept of interactive game stories shows us how much potential video games have as a medium, but they aren’t necessary to the experience.  The fixation on storytelling in the games industry as a means to demonstrate value is a red herring which causes resources to be squandered on lousy scripts and leave the core gaming industry less relevant to the broader gaming community.  Chris Crawford has been attempting to slay that dragon, in earnest, for over 20 years.  Video games can represent new opportunities for breadth and depth in storytelling, but they don’t make it any easier for the creator to tell a story than any other medium.  The story shouldn’t become a noose around the creator’s neck.

Note: #BoRT stands for Blogs of the Round Table.  The preceding post was an entry to the August 2013 theme: What’s the Story?.

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