Sunday Thoughts: Story Telling

Games are an odd medium for telling a story. In most mediums you have one way of telling a story and that’s it. In a book you’ve got words on a page, in a play it’s words and actions combined. Sure, creators will use a wide variety of techniques within that medium, but there’s just one form that the medium takes.

What makes some games different is the combination of interactive and non-interactive story telling mechanics. Essentially you have the sections of the games when you’re in control and then you have cut-scenes (although these can take a variety of forms). There is, as with other mediums, several ways of using each of these styles of storytelling but really it boils down to these two forms of telling your story.

Now I’m not here to say one is better than the other. For example there are cut-scene sequences which are absolutely incredible and are simply not possible to perform in game. For example some of the choreographed fights in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood just wouldn’t look as impressive or feel as important if they were played through rather than being shown to you.

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Of course that’s not to say that cut-scenes are the only way to tell a story, or even the best way. Currently I’m slowly playing through Dead Space 2, and the story is told exceptionally well rarely using cut-scenes. The few times cut-scenes do appear they’re integrated seamlessly into the game, with no real break in the feel of the game. Given the level of immersion that Dead Space 2 tries to achieve it would actually feel pretty peculiar if the game suddenly dropped out of the over-the-shoulder camera view to go into a complex, multi-angle cut-scene. You’d feel completely pulled out of the experience, and it just wouldn’t work in that game.

There does seem to be a general feeling that telling the story in gameplay is more difficult than just moving the plot forwards in cut-scenes, and I can certainly see where that comes from. If you’re in the middle of an action sequence you don’t necessarily want the game throwing character development at you whilst you’re blasting down enemies. More than anything it would just draw focus away from the action, meaning either you’d drop in skill, or lose track of whatever plot point is being move forwards at the same time.

Really it’s a question of balance I think. One of the things that put me off Metal Gear Solid 4 is the sheer amount of time the game spends in cut-scenes. Yes, I’m sure that the story is utterly fantastic because of it, and I know some people have a huge emotional attachment to the title. However, it just feels a bit overwhelming for me, even the length and number in MGS2 was a bit much for me personally (although I did still enjoy the game). It just feels a little bit cheap in my opinion when you go that way, it’s the most obvious way of telling a story and just feels a little lazy to me (and boy am I going to catch flack for that one).

Ultimately though developers just have to do what feels appropriate for a game, using their best judgement. I don’t particular like how heavily the MGS series relies on cut-scenes, but I’ll happily concede that it fits the style. If developers find a storytelling style that works for their title then I’m happy, it’s just the games that don’t seem able to strike the right balance that get to me. What good is a great story if you can’t tell it well?

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23 Comments

  1. Great article halbpro…=)
    I find that Dead Space 2 (and 1 if i remember it correctly) have a great way of telling the story, with very few cutscenes and the gamer never leaves the shoulder of Isaac…
    Now that i think of it, Dead Space 2 doesn’t have any cutscenes!! well it depends on what u call cutscene… at some points in Dead Space 2 it can be called cutscenes but they doesn’t “improve” the graphics just becouse it’s a sequence that ur in no control of, couse in some games the graphics are “better” just becouse its a cutscene but I never saw that in Dead Space 2.

    • *but they didn’t “improve”
      pardon my english…

      • you spelt because wrong as well ;) anyways i know what you mean, the camera always stays the same, i like the way its done it dead space 2

      • Damn!! hehe yeahh i love it… now the only cutscenes i can remember in Dead Space 2 is the intro and the outro… great game and a great story, can’t wait for the DLC!!!

      • I belive a cutscene is when you lose control over your character. Pre-rendered cutscene are those were the graphics are “improved” (Like Uncharted (only lightning is improved), RESI4 on the PS2, or the first Tomb Raiders), and then there are Real-time Cutscenes, where it renders from the Game-engine.

  2. I love games who incorporate storytelling into the actual gameplay, if done right, it can have a tremendous positive effect on the game. It’s definitely something developers should look more into.

    I’ll have to disagree with you on the MGS one though, haha. MGS4…Lazy, cheap? No no no, the story and cutscenes was one of the things that made the game for me personally, they were brilliant.

    • But maybe the codec chats could have been a bit more integrated like some more reason games

      • recent*

      • That would certainly make it a bit more interesting for those who felt the cutscenes were too long, yes. But there was that camera-thing you could drive around, I now recall… Nice touch if you ask me.

  3. I don’t agree with cutscenes being a cheap way to tell a story. Final Fantasy for example relies heavily on cutscenes and it brings the story to a whole new level. You could also say that games without cutscenes cheaped out because the devs didn’t want to spend time working out complex scenarios to tell a better story. I’m not implying that this is how it is but I also don’t think it’s the other way around. Putting cutscenes in a game is a choice and it depends on if it fits the style of the game. Personally, I love cutscenes in games and it just sounds weird that other people avoid a game for having too many in it. :)

  4. I can’t see the point the author is trying to make, if any. Do as you see fit ? Ok, sure.
    I don’t agree that a kill in AC Brotherhood would feel less important if I were to play it. If I get really involved in the planning of the kill, the approach, the execution, it’s gonna be a lot more immersive and important than if I see some guy devising a hastily plan (if he makes any), and I just have to push two buttons to make it happen before a cutscene takes over with an improbable choregraphy the game would never let me use.
    And story telling doesn’t have to use words either. Minecraft has great stories for instance. How a Creeper exploded half my house and I had to hastily rebuild it, how a flood got into my mine, how I tricked creepers into a lava stream… How I mastered my environment to make a great tower. And it’s all gameplay.

  5. I’m all for cutscenes, they tell the story well and can provide a welcome rest in between all the action but jeez – MGS4 was too much. I lost my gamesave 3/4 way through due to ylod and because of the gameplay to cut-scene ratio and the staggered installation i’ve never gone back to it. I would like to play it again but everytime i think about playing it i decide i just don’t have the patience or time to go through that again.

  6. What I really like is when games tell the story through the enviroments and collectables. I loved Bioshock, and loving Bioshock 2 becuase the way the use this was of story telling.
    When I’m playing through the levels, I really enjoy exploring the levels and looking for the audio tapes and reading the graffiti.
    I dont mind cut-sceanes, but hate when there overused. this really annoyed me whe playing MGS4. However I loved them in the PS1 final fanstsy games as they showed the emotions of the characters brilliantly, which just couldn’t be done at that time with gameplay.

    • You know you’re a big fan of a game when those collectible items become enjoyable to go hunting for and not a chore. One of my favourite games was Batman: Arkham Asylum and that was partly down to the really well thought out side quests that were not just fun and rewarding to collect, but also added to the whole story if you took the time to read/look at each one.

  7. Each game to their own, some pull it off, others lose their end goal in a quagmire of confusion and bad story telling.

    I just stated playing mgs4 a couple of days ago, and i am watching all of the cut scenes. There is so much information that you miss out on first time through and its probably more enjoyable this time as I get to pay more details to the segments this time round.

    Epic Game, Epic Story, total package for me, will be hard pressed to find a better game/story.

    Grand Theft Auto does a good job on story but thats if you can stick out the repetitive ‘drive here, kill him, drive back’ right through to the end!

  8. I dislike it when a game has fantastic cut-scenes that have an almost entirely different feel than the gameplay, if a game is sold on it’s cut-scenes then they had better not be disguising dull gameplay. There are notable exceptions, but I think as a general rule it works best when there is less of a noticeable transition between gameplay and cut-scenes – essentially I like my gameplay to be as action-packed, eventful and exciting as the cut-scenes. The cut-scenes should not be used to add action but for story development.

  9. I love cutscenes especially in games like Uncharted. Uncharted just wouldnt work if you couldnt break away for a second and watch the story progress from interesting camera angles rathet than just the one solitary third person view. And its much the same for many other titles.

    I think one of the reasons why it works so well in Dead Space 2 (which is brilliant might I add) is that your meant to feel in a constant state of tension and fear. Breaking away to a cutscene you think you can relax and put the controller down. Atleast if its live play, which is most often is, you feel like there could be something around the corner. Even when a camera feed comes up, you can just keep playing, listening to only the audio if you want to continue shooting things. Thats why I think its works so well, you never feel like you can relax.

  10. Finally started playing Dead Space 2 last night and was instantly hooked. Ended up playing right through to chapter 8 in 1 sitting! Gripping stuff.

    Incredible game. Will deffo be grabbing the DLC.

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