Games can now tell a story on par with your average film. Okay, that’s not saying much, but the medium has certainly come a long way since its humble roots. There is now a focus on delivering not only fun gameplay but also a deep and layered story. Sometimes the gameplay drives the game, its fun mechanics enticing gamers to play “just one more level.” Other times the story drives the game, its complex characters and plot drawing players in to play “until the next cutscene.”
Film writers are now getting in on the action. David S. Goyer, famous for helping write the Dark Knight trilogy and the latest Superman film Man of Steel, helped give the Call of Duty series a decent story in the two Black Ops installments. Book of Eli writer Gary Whitta is one of several people who brought the world of the Walking Dead to the video game world. And the list of screenwriters-turned-video game writers keeps growing.
This isn’t necessarily a good thing.
You see, video games are a relatively new medium. It feels like they’ve been around forever, but compared to movies, television, and books, they’re merely babies. As a new medium, it is still trying to find its place. Right now, there’s a large push to make games as cinematic as movies. Games mostly began life as a gameplay mechanic idea, as some sort of fun action. The story would come after and would serve mostly as a brief explanation as to why everything was happening. “Mario can jump and shoot fireballs and stuff, but why does he do it? Oh! He needs to save a princess!”
Things are changing. Now it’s much more common for a story to be written first and for the gameplay to revolve around the plot. This is much more similar to movies, where the story is king and the technology has to be built to accurately portray what the writer wants. “There’s a princess who’s captured by this monstrous beast, but as the hero searches the castle he’s told she’s not in that one. How does he save her? I guess he can jump really high and sometimes shoot fireballs.”
There’s a key difference there and it tends to show in most modern games.
That’s not to say story in games is bad. Not at all. Think of it this way: a game with 100 per cent gameplay and zero per cent story is still fun to play, but a game with zero per cent gameplay and 100 per cent story isn’t a game.
Games still have a fairly good balance right now between story and games. The real problem doesn’t lie in the equal distribution of story and gameplay but in the marriage of story and gameplay. Right now, most games represent a divorce where both parties still get along. One person is the gameplay. Everything is going smoothly, you’re playing your game, then BAM! The other person shows up and it’s their turn to talk. They just kind of awkwardly interrupt and won’t let the first person get a word in until they’re done. You have to sit there and watch the cutscene until they decide it’s okay for you to play your game again.
There’s a serious disconnect between what’s actual gameplay and what is essentially a movie. It can be jarring. Some games have found different ways of telling their story but the vast majority still rely on cutscenes. In games that aren’t heavy on text (hopefully anything past 1999), there are three common ways of telling the story. The first one has the most disconnect between gameplay and story while the third has the least. While none of them are perfect ways of telling the story (nor are any of them bad, by any means), they represent a logical evolution in how games can tell a story in a way far different from movies or television.
The cutscene or: Why is my game all of a sudden a movie?
Everyone’s played that game. You know, the one where you’re bombarded with 10-minute cutscenes after every five minutes of gameplay. It’s a bit of an exaggeration with games like Metal Gear Solid 4 and the Uncharted series, but Max Payne 3 is really that bad. Regardless of hyperbole, it’s a bad situation when a game begins to feel more like an interactive movie. It becomes a film that requires the viewer to be marginally skilled at the minigames. Want to watch the next scene? Shoot all these bad guys.
As well, the idea of a pause button during cutscenes hasn’t yet occurred to anyone. For someone who’s following along but really needs to go to the bathroom either has to sacrifice a key scene or a perfectly good pair of pants. Even worse, lots of cutscenes mask loading times. For someone who doesn’t care about the story and is just going along and making up their own, this can be a pain because they have to sit there and hear the characters talk or watch them do cool things they could never do during gameplay.
It’s like the developers are saying, “Sure, Jim, you can play in our beautiful world. But you’ll have to watch this B-list movie at the same time.” This isn’t a problem when the story is compelling, but it feels like for every good story in a video game there are five bad ones. It makes you sit there and wonder why developers even bother sometimes. If they already have a surefire hit on their hands with the gameplay mechanics, why ruin it with a lame story and poor voice acting?
Gamers are used to cutscenes to tell large chunks of the story. It’s something the audience has been conditioned to accept. That doesn’t mean it’s a good way of telling a story. We’re now at a point where most game developers realize they’d never make it in Hollywood so they stay in the game industry and practice their techniques here for 60 bucks a copy. The stories themselves have gotten exponentially better. Games like Alan Wake and The Last of Us tell amazing stories. They don’t tell them well, however.
The experience is disjointed. One minute you’re fighting deadly creatures, the next you’re watching a movie scene of your character finishing off said creatures. It’s not as big a problem when the gameplay itself it solid, but when playing the game sucks and the only thing stopping you from returning it is the story, then there’s something wrong with this picture. You’re watching a movie you can fail, a movie that can make you mad because it locks out the next scene until you complete a mundane task.
In these cases, wouldn’t the story be better told in movie for? These game makers are not taking advantage of the medium. They know their story is only worthy of a direct-to-DVD release at best, so they turn it into a dull game. The story will get praised because there isn’t as much greatness to compare it to in this particular medium, but in the end it isn’t a good game. Hell, it may even barely be considered a game.
And speaking of barely being a game…
The quick-time event or: Why is my movie all of a sudden a game?
The only thing worse than getting to a cutscene after an annoying and easy-to-fail gameplay sequence is that very cutscene allowing you to die. Yeah, what? Welcome to the world of quick-time events. First seen in Dragon’s Lair, popularized in Shenmue, and turned into a cancer of the gaming industry in Resident Evil 4, quick-time events allow players to perform daring and bold actions they’re incapable of doing during normal gameplay.
There are many kinds of quick-time events. Some are quite obvious in when they’re required. The God of War and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed games use them primarily as finishing moves for bosses and other tough enemies. The player is still in normal gameplay but the game takes control of the character briefly, showing some flashy moves while the player must quickly input certain button combinations or rotate control sticks. In addition, not every quick-time event is mandatory. In The Force Unleashed, quick-time events for non-boss enemies can be ignored, allowing you to finish them off in a traditional manner. In this case, the QTE merely speeds up the process of defeating them. It’s mandatory for bosses, but there usually isn’t a way to fully fail them. The boss may regain some health and the process starts over.
Then there is the unexpected QTE, most commonly seen in Resident Evil 4. These QTEs don’t have a lot of build-up and are commonly seen in actual cutscenes. Think you’re safe from dying so you munch on some popcorn? Better hope your fingers aren’t too buttery because you have to start pushing random buttons. Oh, and if you fail, have fun redoing that whole scene. This is the more annoying kind because not only do you have to always be prepared, even during cutscenes, but failure means repetition. It’s not the kind of failure where you can assess the situation and learn from it. It’s the kind where you just have to put up with the same cheesy dialogue and random controller actions.
Oh, and then there’s Heavy Rain. I can’t name any other modern game that consists entirely of QTEs. Dragon’s Lair did, but that was decades ago and it was an arcade game. This is from 2010 and it’s on the PlayStation 3. This isn’t even a real game. It’s a movie that offers slightly branching scenes and requires you to keep pressing the “play” button every few seconds. Except “play” might be “triangle,” or three rapid presses of “x,” or it could be shaking the whole damn controller.
This is not how you tell a story in video games. This game should have been a movie all along. The player has very little choice in what happens. They can barely explore, they can’t take things at their own pace, and they can’t even have a brand-new experience the next time they play. All they can do is press a button and hope it was the “succeed” button and not the “fail” button. But don’t feel bad if you press the “fail” button. That’s exactly what the developers did when they made this.
While the experience is slightly less disjointed due to blurring the lines between story and gameplay, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Except for Heavy Rain, which is arguably a step back, games with interactive cutscenes from time to time are taking better advantage of what the medium has to offer.
Now if only there was a way to tell a story through gameplay…
The uninterrupted gameplay or: They kept my game a game!
Would you look at that, some games can remain games the whole way through. This is most common in first-person shooters (Half-Life 2) or more recent Western roleplaying games (Skyrim, Fallout 3). These games exemplify how a story can be told without dragging the player completely out of gameplay. Important conversations happen to and around the player as if the non-playable characters actually recognize you. To get to a new area the character actually has to travel there, whether on foot, by vehicle, or other means like teleportation. Here, there are no convenient cutscenes that do all the work for you.
It isn’t perfect. The first time a player experiences Half-Life 2, they’re probably amazed at the game world reacting around them as characters address them or include them in conversations. Soon the player realizes many of these events will occur regardless of where they are. Two NPCs talking to you in one corner of a room? You can stand in an opposite corner and everything will transpire as if you were right beside them. They’ll still turn to where they think you are and address you directly, even if you’re busy jumping on a desk in another area.
What’s great about this is you’re always in-game. There isn’t a sudden cutscene popping up or a QTE for you to get things done. Everything happens in-game, helping to maintain a consistent atmosphere. And how does the story pan out? Through conversations with characters, screens or monitors with video, or radio chatter. All of these things are in-game and can either be found or missed by the player. They can seek out the story or ignore it.
This is the closest the medium has come to telling a story in a way movies or books can’t. The next steps in video game storytelling will be based on the few shortcomings of this method. Walk away from a character while he or she is speaking to you? Maybe they’ll call you out on your poor manners or they’ll follow you to continue speaking. Maybe they’ll yell from across the room. The next step is making the game world more reactive to the player’s actions and making the story less linear. The Walking Dead and even Black Ops 2 are small steps in the right direction in allowing player choice to influence the story, but the player can still only choose a certain action when the game itself chooses to let them do so.
The future of story-driven games needs to have less linear stories and more reactive game worlds. Technology’s evolution has given us more realistic graphics and animations, more people onscreen at once, and slightly more sophisticated artificial intelligence. So why can’t it give us better storytelling?
If games are part of a different medium, shouldn’t they tell a story in a unique way? It would be like if movies merely showed the text from a book on the screen. Sure, the screen is unique, but the overall experience has not evolved. That’s how the majority of games are. You can play in a different world and experience things you’ve never experienced before, but only in ways the developers let you.
It’s time to break the rules and make stories based on the player’s input more common. Scripted stories are fine too, but it’s time the script was made much less obvious. I’m tired of being told playtime is over and now it’s storytime. I want playtime and storytime to be one and the same.
I want the divorced couple to get back together and give me a reason why video game stories are completely different from other stories.