Storytelling in Video Games: A Squandered Opportunity

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

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It is no secret that we here at Oprainfall love us some good ol’ RPGs, and chances are you do too. The reason for this is often not just because of the typical gameplay elements that RPGs entail, but because of the amazing and awe inspiring stories that many of these games have to tell. I would even be so bold as to claim that video games, in general, are one of the greatest narrative mediums known to man – as they don’t simply tell a tale, they deliver an experience within a story. So why is it that I so often hear comments such as “Playing a video game for the story is like eating a cake for the spoon”, when in reality it’s more like baking a cake you yourself are going to eat? I believe it is because, sadly, in a lot of cases these people are right. Video games are amazing and unique in the way that they can portray plots, however many developers squander the capabilities of the medium. Specifically, they forget to incorporate one single important concept into their stories – interactivity.

Storytelling Zelda

There’s more to storytelling than just interacting with books!

In a video released earlier this year, Psychonauts creator Tim Schafer sat down with Ron Gilbert, one of the creative minds behind the first two Monkey Island games, in order to discuss adventure games and deliberate on what it is that makes them so great. One of the topics they discussed was interactive dialogue. Dialogue is an extremely handy way of conveying information, be it plot, setting or character related, to the recipient of any given medium. In video games, unlike in books or in movies, this dialogue has the possibility of being interactable – expanding the possibilities tenfold. Most games rarely pull this feat off well however, a problem which Gilbert blames on the vast amount of writers who expect a video game script to work exactly like a film script. Video games are not movies; it pains me to see so many developers and publisher trying to treat them as such. According to Schafer, it’s really important for a good dialogue writer (in a game) to also know programing. Thus he/she will be able to see how their ideas will work within the code as well as understand in which way their lines will flow within the game; creating a more cohesive experience.

Storytelling Monkey Island

Insult sword fighting -a brilliant example of great interactive dialogue

The same can be said about storytelling in video games in general for far too many games, especially AAA titles. While attempting to create “epic” storylines and at the same time creating gameplay that will appeal to the masses, developers far too often overlook integration. Cohesiveness is completely lost when rules contrived through the gameplay directly contradict rules established by the story’s setting. One of the most villainous practitioners of this kind of narrative travesty is the Uncharted series. On one hand I am following the wondrous Indiana Jones-like adventures of Nathan Drake and co, yet at the same time I am expected to believe that Nate is a coldblooded murderer of thousands of inexplicably available private soldiers who somehow were shipped to an unknown, desolate place in an impossibly short time. This particular problem arises when a traditional third-person shooter is forced into a screenplay for a film – yet for what reason? I might as well just watch Indiana Jones and play Vanquish.

Storytelling Indiana Jones Storytelling Nathan Drake
The worst kind of Indy-game

I’m not saying that these kinds of games are inherently bad, as many amazing stories are told using this method – take Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII for an example. The game features amazing characters and a powerful and emotional story, but in-between the story segments it’s naught more than a simple action RPG with almost no exploration. Here the story works as an incentive, a reward for clearing each stage. The fact that Crisis Core is a Final Fantasy title makes this kind of gameplay work, as the setting is already over the top and unbelievable to begin with; unlike games like Mass Effect who want their worlds to be taken more seriously. Although the fact still stands that this method is an unfortunate waste of the medium’s narrative capabilities. When considering the memory constraints of the PSP in Crisis Core though, it becomes an understandable waste. More modern games like Final Fantasy XIII, however, have no excuse.

Storytelling Crisis Core

Crisis Core tells a good story, but does the game tell it well?

“You ask the impossible!” you might say. “No game with a good story could be told within the gameplay without maiming the experience in some way.” To those of you who think like this I say: I find your lack of faith disturbing.  There are a select few games that have managed to make gameplay a part of the narrative experience without turning into a visual novel or a film containing forced gameplay elements.

Two amazing titles that immediately come to mind are Shadow of the Colossus and Portal. Unlike all of the other games mentioned in this article, their tales are woven around the core gameplay mechanic. In Portal’s case, the story circles around how you solve puzzles with your portal gun, from there you get to explore why and where you are doing what you are doing. In the same way, Shadow of the Colossus is built around the fact that Wander has to beat 16 bosses to win. Here the gameplay is not being shoved into an existing world and narrative, instead it’s up to the game to create a setting explaining why and how you defeat these bosses. Thus, by not forgetting that at their core they are a game, these titles successfully manage to integrate their story into their gameplay from the get-go. This is why these games are so memorable, they manage to create something more than just a game with a story – they convey an experience.

Storytelling Shadow of the Colossus

Are we not all tools guided by the will of the game designer?

Are these games the best there is? For some, perhaps. The point of this article is not to argue which games have the best story; it is to highlight the possibilities within said games that are missed by so many developers. Many of my favourite games squander this opportunity as well, that doesn’t make them less fun to play or their plot any less interesting to follow. My point is this: there are some things that only can be done – only can be told – using the interactive medium that is video games, and hopefully we’ll see more developers experiment with the unique storytelling techniques that this medium is capable of in the future.