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Let's talk about storytelling in games (Possible spoilers for lots of things)

XagarathXagarath Registered User regular
edited March 2010 in Games and Technology
First things first. This isn't an attempt to bring back the "are games art?" question, which never ends well. Art's such a subjective word that the discussion invariably ends up chasing its own tail.

I've done a topic on this before, but I think enough new things have come out since that it's worth talking about it again.

So, the big question:

Are games good at telling stories? If not, how can they be?

Let's be honest, an awful lot of games treat story as an afterthought, and most of what they do have is based on wish-fulfillment rather than trying to do anything interesting. I'm not really sure there's a lot to discuss when a game shows you a cut scene of your character yelling at the sky and then gets back to letting you kill things. If you disagree, though, then by all means post about it.

The thing that does concern me is the question of how games can tell stories in a way that films or books or comics can't. To me, if you tell your story entirely in cutscenes, you're missing an opportunity, since you're simply telling your story like a film.

Let's look at a few games that tried to do something different:

Shadow of the Colossus
Planescape: Torment
Heavy Rain
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

Now, Ico, Colossus, Bioshock, Portal, Braid and, from what I hear, the Metal Gear Solids all have a particular approach to trying to tell an interesting story that wouldn't work in another medium: they use the player's assumptions about the natures of games against the player.
Yes, this is intresting, and it can be smart, effective, and memorable, but it's also got one big problem: it's recursive. Telling this kind of story relies on the majority of games being bad at storytelling and making the player aware of this fact. It's more a work of criticism than a narrative.

Planescape: Torment and, from what I hear, Heavy Rain have an approach that tries to take the basic idea of nonlinearity and interactivity and run with it. Both games remove the possiblity of losing (with mixed success in Torment's case) and instead try to focus on the long-term impacts of the player's choices.
Unlike the above, theese are actually trying to tell a story themselves rather than deconstruct one, but the argument often made by their detractors is that they boil down to nothing more than a very complicated choose-your-own adventure book. I'm not sure how much I agree. Do you?

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories takes a slightly different angle by having many of the choices the player is presented with be less-than-obvious, so that the game is changing the story based on things you don't realise you're doing. This is a much subtler approach, and one I'd very much like to see copied and improved upon, but it's debateable how much it makes sense outside the confines of the psychological horror genre.

So, how should games tell stories? Should they even be trying to at all?

Xagarath on


  • DusT_HounDDusT_HounD Registered User regular
    edited March 2010
    Ah, is this my opportunity to shout 'SHOW, DON'T TELL', and hold up a physics engine with a game tacked on as the best example of videogame storytelling evar? (I kid, i kid- i personally didn't like Half Life 2, and although i think that it told its tale well, i don't think it's the best and only way to present a story. It has brilliant characterisation, though- i'm just not a fan of how it plays.)

    I'm of the opinion that sometimes good stories can come out in small details, such as the propaganda broadcasts in HL2, or even the invasion going on in the background of Canabalt, and the questions that arise from playing the latter, although never answered, give it a nice context. I guess in this case, the story is implied rather than explicitly stated.

    Personally, i think i'd dispute that a story delivered by cutscene somehow detracts from its value as a part of a game. Sure, you can do cool stuff in-game, such as the opening of Half Life 1, and it greatly immerses you in the context of the world etc., but a well- made cutscene can do the same, as well as giving you a view on events that may not be happening to your character locally.

    DusT_HounD on
  • tojektojek Registered User new member
    edited March 2010
    I have played games which told stories very well, some that tried and failed, and others that shamelessly did not tell a story (thinking of many FPSers, racing, and sport games). For me, the better games were those told linearly, and the best of those kept the player's fingers and mind occupied, provided a memorable environment with landscapes, visuals, and ambience, and strong story elements. I'm sympathetic to Xagarath's views on cutscenes: they should *not* be the end-all and be-all of the "story", otherwise I wasted my money on the game. Supplemental, sure, but no substitute for interactivity.

    Although there are games with perpetual gameplay (The Sims, WoW, D&D on the tabletop) and virtually limitless roleplay opportunities, as a video gamer I'm more impressed by those which develop and tell a compelling story of their own, and allow me to play along its plot lines-- linearly, in other words. Outsourcing the storytelling to the player is often inevitable because of technical constraints (or by virtue of the fun factor), but I've a soft spot for good books and movies, so maybe that's why I'm stuck on the linear style of gameplay.

    Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is an excellent example of my ideal game: one that tells a story through a synergy of interactivity, environment, and story elements. For interactivity, the tried-and-true turn-based combat system invites strategy, the environment was rendered eerily and provided good ambience, great landscapes, and fun enemies. The story elements were fractured fairy tales and world mythology, all solidly grounded in a world gone topsy-turvy (literally). The multiple ending endeavor flopped for me, but it was one of the better attempts at making your gameplay decisions affect the ultimate outcome-- and by the way, it flops because the only substantial differences are the ending cinematics. Wooo. Several of the Final Fantasy titles make my cut, as do System Shock 1 and 2, Thief, and LOOM. Although I haven't played them all the way through, Oblivion and Fable 1 would probably make the cut as well.

    To answer the original question of "how should a video game tell a story?": If a solo game, it must be linear. And no, just because we have the Internet does not mean solo games are dead! There does not exist a technology or platform to allow for a truly open-ended gaming experience for a single player, so my message to would-be developers is: don't try anything but! The grand exception to this is The Sims (or maybe Maxis in general), which popularized what I call "perpetual" style of story-telling and gameplay. What it lacks in closure it makes up for is unmatched re-playability. If anyone's heard of an effective solo game that bucks this trend, do tell!

    To answer the next question of "should games even bother telling a story?": Certainly. I couldn't imagine a good RPG, a FPS worth its bits, or an adventure without participating in a story. For some genres, storytelling is unnecessary. Racing games, simulations, and the like reproduce an experience (precise physics, virtual aircraft control panels, etc), and don't need an original story to back it up. Sega tried with Initial D to blend story with racing, but oh what a fail: "unlocking" voiced-over manga panels from the manga seems a weak sauce.

    tojek on
    Thundercats! Ho! :mrgreen:
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