By Phil Schipper / March 11th, 2013
For thousands of years, stories have been told. First came the bards that told stories by mouth; then, writing was born. Comic books, film, television, animation and more joined the ranks of storytelling media. Then, a newcomer emerged: video games.
That was only a few decades ago. Relatively speaking, video games are still only a blip on the history of stories. So while we may look at plot as being only one part of what games are (a stance taken by my fellow OpRainfall writer, Ben Clarke, in his article), it is also true that games are only one part of what story is.
Okay, I’ve been saying some pretty philosophical stuff for a while now. But what does all this mean? Well, it means that, in terms of storytelling, video games are a new thing entering into a very old world. There were already certain traditions in place, whether people realized it or not, that helped us separate good stories from complete messes.
Video games, on the other hand, can sometimes throw some of these traditions out the window and still be very successful. You might not need that proved to you, but I still think it’s worth taking a closer look at this—you might learn a few things about what makes stories tick.
Let’s start at the beginning. I mean both the beginning of a story, and the beginning of video game history. Because one thing I find very interesting is what happened to beginnings at that time.
Quite a few NES-era games are like this. When developers didn’t know how to tell a full story in a game, they relegated the beginning to the manual. This was pretty much all you got in early times, because the games themselves rarely gave you more than a few lines of text.
Not every game was like this, though. RPG’s came in full swing in that same time period. Even the original The Legend of Zelda (whose manual is pictured above) actually had a quick rundown of the game’s plot if you waited long enough on the title screen. This was another common way to go about it. Still, it was rarely, if ever, fully integrated into the game. In an age before real cutscenes, you pretty much took what you got.
Back to our issue of beginnings. There’s actually a very good reason that games wouldn’t give the beginning of a story as much screentime as other forms of media do. It’s because, in a well-structured plot, the beginning of a story is supposed to be the first quarter of it. What that means is that, in a traditionally-told story, even if you were only playing a 10-hour game, you’d still be trudging through the beginning of it for the first 2-and-a-half hours.
Yikes. Most games that I enjoy for the story are a lot more than 10 hours, and I shudder to think what they’d look like with their first quarter taken up by a beginning. Any game that even approaches this is usually criticized for a slow start.
And why shouldn’t it be? In video games, beginnings are rarely good for much more, gameplay-wise, than the tutorial levels and maybe a few small challenges. While it’s true that there are often early “hooks,” devices that get viewers interested and wondering what’s going to happen, a beginning is still just an introduction. It shows you who the character is and what his or her life is like before the events of the story really start to change it forever. Which means that, until the beginning is over, anything you do is just for its own purpose–not yet geared towards a real goal. If you’re spending too much time hemming and hawing around the hero’s day-to-day life, even if there are strange things happening that you want to know about, it’s going to get boring, no matter how much tension is in the air.
Either way, before long, the plot will have to get going at some point. And when it does, you might just be faced with the biggest and most obvious difference between video games and every other medium: choices.
Every video game gives you choices. Some have little effect on the story, and some have a lot. In modern times, the industry seems really interested in steering away from linear adventures, and they especially love to use the multiple-endings or multiple-paths format. You don’t have to just go through with whatever plot you have handed to you.
I mean, “Choose Your Own Adventure” is great and all, but I never encountered one that actually managed to tell a very good story overall. And while it’s true that some movies and books have had alternate endings, this was more a matter of artistic choice. If you included an alternate ending, it was kind of a sign that you weren’t completely confident in the one you went with. I’m sure game designers don’t do multiple endings simply because they can’t decide how they want it to go.
Some other interesting things start to happen because of choice. For example, we sometimes dispose of dramatic irony, the effect of the viewer knowing something the heroes don’t. There’s debate on what is or isn’t dramatic irony, but to me, the measure seems to be that if you yell at the screen in hopes that the character will somehow hear you and do something differently, then dramatic irony is definitely there.
I’m sure we’ve all gone through a game the second time and removed equipment from a character right before he or she leaves, betrays the party, or dies. The fact that you took the character’s stuff isn’t necessarily a matter of story, but it does serve as an example of how a player has more control over events than a real person could ever hope to achieve. You’ll probably make better choices than a fictional character would, and make fewer mistakes–leading your character to sometimes become someone who, in a book or movie, would be seen as “too perfect,” but in this context is perfectly fine.
Again, this isn’t always the case. There are endless examples of games in which you can’t go further with the plot unless you do something that you know is going to end badly. Developers can get you into these traps either by hinging all progress on the action, giving you a pointless option in dialogue, or, more commonly, just not giving you a choice at all and making the characters do what they want to do. Of course, in this case, you might just find yourself even more frustrated than you would in another screen-yelling situation.
A video game can stuff a lot more story into it than any other media. This is partially because the main quest tends to offer a lot more entertainment hours than anything else (short of a long ongoing television series), and partly because a big portion of this information is optional. It pops up in side quests, and can be different depending on your path through some games.
I remember being particularly impressed by Tales of Symphonia‘s story, because of its ability to fit in a full character arc for every party member, and to weave all those stories together perfectly. While it did, of course, have its problems, I was mystified by the sheer complexity of the plot, and how it managed to hold it all together. It wasn’t until later that I understood that it wasn’t because of the number of events, but because it contained the full stories of nine party members and many more characters besides. Because of its nature, it was allowed to give us just brief snippets of these stories in the main adventure, and offer us the choice to explore the ones we were most interested in.
I didn’t always understand this, of course, which is why, as a child, I set out to write “video game books,” a series of novels that would match the beauty and complexity of an RPG. Since then, I realized that such a task would be infinitely more difficult than I had planned, and began learning the real way to craft a great story for a book. Now, it seems, I’ve come full circle, bringing that knowledge back to the video game world.
There are a ton more aspects of story and worldbuilding that are handled differently by video games, and that I’d love to look into. In fact, I could probably ramble on about these things for a lot longer, but I think it’s about time to wrap this article up. It’s already covered the main aspects of plot that are often (but certainly not always) thrown out the window by the video game industry. If you readers really like this article, it may mark the beginning of a series.
What are some of your favorite things about video game stories?