Video Games: The World’s Worst Storyteller

Video games are a terrible medium for storytelling. In their purest form, stories are words, or pictures: something static that the reader must interpret for themselves and take their own experience from. In time, these have adapted into plays, television, film – and now, video games. Each has its own method, and each has its own merit.

With other media, we are given one person’s view of a story. All potential decisions that characters could make have been made already, and will remain the same however many times we read or watch them. The author or director has created a world for us to look into, and very little is required from their audience other than to sit and enjoy.

Perhaps that’s the key difference between video games and every other medium – the rest are passive, but video games require constant engagement from their player. They step away from all other forms of entertainment to tell their story interactively.

This is where the problem with video games lies. Stories are often forced into the medium without consideration for its strengths or limitations. If a game’s story is good, it will suffer from human input distracting it. If a game’s story is bad, it will rely on these distractions to make it worthwhile.

If a game developer forces the concepts of storytelling that they have encountered in other media onto their work, the end result could never be a game in its purest form; it could only be a weak emulation of what we have seen until now.

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Some games realise that their story is unimportant, focusing instead on the gameplay and visuals. Others remove gameplay as far as possible and keep the experience as pure to cinema as they can. On a rare occasion, a game will be made where both the gameplay and the story are well polished, but even when both aspects work flawlessly as individuals, they cannot combine for a seamless end product.

There will always be the feeling that one or the other has been shoehorned in, either to make the action feel worthwhile or to make the story feel like it’s in the player’s hands. After all, that’s the main selling point of video games. People watch movies for a story that somebody else has written, but we play video games to take control for ourselves. Rather than relying on a set narrative, we behave how we see fit, and the game must act accordingly.

However, despite the allure of active worlds that respond to our decisions, games are still bound by the same linear narrative that all media are. They can offer the illusion of choice, but set paths are always visible, and any decision that a player makes cannot be chosen organically.

A video game is only a game; it’s not a movie that will continue regardless of input, because that would oppose the purpose of video games as a whole. If a player wishes for a cinematic experience while gaming, they could reduce the game’s difficulty, but that isn’t depolarising gameplay and storytelling; it’s just diminishing one so that the other can become more apparent.

We either need to embrace what separates video games from books and movies, or we need to refine game-like aspects for a fluid experience that doesn’t attempt to be something it’s not. If a game is going to feel inherently like a game, then this should be better integrated, rather than ignored. When a developer wishes to produce a game that feels like a movie, they shouldn’t create movie scenes with interspersed gameplay – they should create a game that tells a story as it’s played.

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If games accept that they aren’t movies, their potential is no longer limited by the confines of multiple media at once. Games aren’t limited to a single plot that must be followed from beginning to end, and so deviating from the main path is unique to them, and should be encouraged.

The thought of a leading character in any other medium stepping away from their task to go on an errand would seem ludicrous, but that’s only because it’s outwith the limitations of something other than a game. When a linear plot is interrupted by video game mechanics, there should be no need for them to be excused – stories must be adjusted to meld with gameplay and not to clash with it.

The clash between action and inaction in games is not their only storytelling flaw. When games step away from the traditional paradigms of writing, they still suffer from their own limitations. The story doesn’t need to take on a linear nature, but this in itself results in a host of problems. For each decision a player is able to make, there must be multiple results. In a short space of time, the number of possible eventualities would become infinite, making true choice in video games impossible to create. After a while all possible outcomes must tie together and continue as if the decision had not been made, otherwise the game would become lost in the freedom it tries to offer.

In extreme cases, rather than writing multiple outcomes for a scenario, there will be a ‘good’ option and a ‘bad’ option (and not necessarily in the moral sense). In these extreme cases, there is not a bilinear result; there is only an option that will continue the plot thread and an option that will sever it. When these decisions rely on a moral compass, they often rely on binary actions, with the character coming across as either a saint or a monster. On the rare occasion, decisions can be placed in a grey area, where the player must try to decide which is the lesser of two evils.

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Due to the pre-ordained nature of plots in games, choice can only be an illusion. A writer has already come before you to decide what could happen, even if you would choose an alternate, unavailable path. It’s a futile endeavour, where a medium designed entirely to give us control over decisions is trapped by plot paths that are all ultimately the same.

The potential video games have to create experiences is enormous. Virtually anything that can be imagined could be visualised and played out in the form of a game. They may not offer as refined an experience as a movie could, but that isn’t their objective.

Of course, there’s room for error, and limitations have to be put in place, but that’s the cost of creating an experience that is far more complex than words on a page, or a movie on a screen. Expressing a story in a form that allows the reader to take complete control is bound to have a clumsy result, but that’s the fun of video games. 

Games need to take a step away from tradition and re-evaluate where they want to head in coming years. Storytelling is integral to videogaming, yet more often that not, the two step on each others toes without so much as an apology.

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19 Comments

  1. Games do need to figure the best way to tell stories and I think a lot of great games like TLOU and Journey and Bioshock are pushing in different directions to learn the best way. I totally agree when you say how games need to find that balance between story and gameplay and the best way to tell stories within games is to integrate it as much as possible into the gameplay, with character’s speaking to each other and considering how the story can affect the gameplay. I often feel, even with brilliant games that cutscenes take me out of the moment too much, cutscenes are not gaming.

  2. I guess I like Naughty Dog so much because as well as the gameplay I actually want to see the cutscene’s, I’m actually interested in them as opposed to a lot of games where I couldn’t give a damn, just want to play the game and get annoyed when I discover I can’t skip them.

    I found the latest Max Payne and GTAV kept me interested in the cutscenes and story, where on the other hand, I found the BF3 & 4 single player campaign storyline & cutscnenes not interested whatsoever which kind of deadened the gameplay as well. In fact, I’m pretty sure I never bothered completed either of them.

    Then you’ve got some gems like Resogun and Pinball Arcade where the gameplay is keeping me addicted but as for the story behind Pinball Arcade, I’d give it a 1/10. ;)

  3. I’d have to disagree with this: “However, despite the allure of active worlds that respond to our decisions, games are still bound by the same linear narrative that all media are.”

    Games most certainly are not but continue to be so. Due to its digital nature and delivery to consumers, we might actually see a truly branching story where paths go off at a tangent and endings are supremely different to the other options. Sure, until we have programming in a game where the code can effectively “GameMaster” your actions so it can lead you on something unique to you and you alone, it’ll still be predefined paths but multiple ones is a good start.

    Hell, the film equivalent would be having 10% of your audience standing up and leaving to go to screen 6 because they chose to hack the little girl who doesn’t blink into several grill-friendly chunks. The other 90% were drugged and are now watching a very different film about escaping from a basement in a B&B in Anglesey. :-)

    It’s just that the effort to create something like this (for a game) is huge but true branching narratives definitely have the best chance with the games industry.

    Great article, though.

    • Yeah, it comes across as a little final the first time I mention it. I came back to it a couple of paragraphs later, saying that it’s because games are often ‘limited by the confines of multiple media’.

      After the criticism of decision-based games like Mass Effect 3, I don’t think there’s going to be an increase in their number for a while. Developers like BioWare will refine them in the meantime, though, and that’s more than enough to keep me happy while the genre continues to gain traction.

      They’re expensive to create at the moment, but the day a game can spontaneously write the results of decisions, without them having to be programmed individually, I’d have to buy it out of sheer curiosity.

      And is it weird that I’d love there to be a movie equivalent? Maybe if each viewer watched it on their own Oculus-esque goggles, then different video paths could be streamed to each individual without the need for changing rooms… Probably a bad idea, but a man can dream.

      Anyway, thanks for your thoughts and feedback!

      • A pleasure, Sam. Thanks for such a good article. :-)

        It’s a fascinating topic as it not only shapes the future of this curiously wonderful industry but also brings unique situations that the rest of the entertainment industry will probably never be able to compete with (interactivity and also branching narrative, etc). Take that, passive media. :D

  4. Can I say I’d be in that 10% or is that weird?

  5. I must object to the “In a short space of time, the number of possible eventualities would become infinite” bit. A horrible abuse of infinity there.

    Yes, choices that each lead to a new set of choices would soon give you a very large number of possibilities. It would grow exponentially and after a very short time you’d have a lot of possible endings to the game. A 10 hour game with a choice every 15 minutes where the only thing you got out each choice was a text message length bit of story would lead to over 100Tb of text. And a game where you just got a text message from your choice might not be great ;)

    But the number of possibilities wouldn’t become infinite in a short space of time. That would take, well, an infinitely long time. Which is as far from a “short space of time” as you can get without inventing new, bigger infinities. Which is something mathematicians like to do, and they’re all weird anyway.

    • It depends on what you consider to be a decision. In a standard game with decisions occuring only now and then, no it would not be infinite.

      Theoretically, however, a player could make a decision at every turn – they could leave a house or stay inside; climb in a taxi, walk, or take a car; pick up their phone, cancel the call or throw the phone into the closest bin. Perhaps the thousands and thousands of options aren’t truly infinite as long as the time period has a defined end, but it was more the sentiment of the word than its technical meaning that I was referring to.

      Still, though, I’ll make sure to be a little more pedantic when using strictly defined terms in future ;)

      • You will? That’d be great, thanks.

        I don’t like infinity, so if we could avoid it, that’d be good. It’s the physicist in me. Normal people generally just ignore infinity. There’s bigger problems to worry about before you even get close. Mathematicians are all “Yay! Another type of infinity. What shall we call it?”. While physicists tend to react with “Arrgh! No! What went wrong? How can we get rid of it? Make it stop!! Let’s just stick to the bits where it all works and we don’t quite get an infinity”.

        I think you’re in the “normal people” realm there. Bigger problems (not enough space to store all the options) before you’re anywhere close to infinity. End result is pretty much the same, really.

      • Like me going mental on people who say “very unique”. It’s an absolute term. “Very” is both redundant and wrong. Not that you said this, Sam. Just makes me cringe when I read it!

        Ah, spelling and grammar Nazism. Such fun! :-)

      • Does anybody actually ever say that?

        If so, they obviously have to die.

  6. Really in depth article, but I’m still confused as to where I stand. I love Mass effect, infamous, and recently, battlefield 4 and the last of us single player, primarily for the story.

    Yet I do like a few (not many) ‘classic’ games that have no story at all really, like FIFA, and Battlefield 4 multiplayer.

    Notice I mentioned Battlefield 4 separately. I really don’t get the ‘seamless’ multiplayer which is fused with the single player, a la destiny. I lose immersion for the story.

  7. Great article, personally I think that how involved with the character you become and the NPC’s around him or her is a good test of how well the gameplay and story mesh,

    Great examples (IMHO);

    Dragon Age, Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted 2 and Assassins Creed 2.

  8. I don’t play games for the story. It’s probs one of the least important attributes I look for. At least 3/4 of them I totally lose track of what’s happening early on, and the few games I do manage to keep a track on, I find cheesy and predictable.

    • Exactly! I know so many people that just skip through dialogue and cutscenes in games because they feel it detracts from the rest of the action (and they just don’t care).

      I really enjoy a good story in games; it’s just annoying that it tends to feel like a separate entity from the the ganeplay.

  9. Great article! For me, the most Immersive Story based games were Final Fantasy’s. Not many cuts scenes(Psone onwards) so you basically had to read the whole story, thus almost projecting your own thoughts and feelings onto it, almost like when reading a book. Then at the other end of the scale, Final Fantasy 12, great gameplay, but i cant actually tell you a single thing about the story as i skipped it all, as it was so uninteresting!

    There have been a few games with good stories that have been developed more recently, Dragon Age:Origins, Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2 but none have grasped me more than Final Fantasy VII or VIII or even IX and i think its because for the most part, all the older generation games told a story, like in most books, rather than asking you to decide the story for yourself.

  10. Great article dude. I don’t necessarily agree with your underpinning point that games tell stories interactively, up to a point you’re right but from my point of view most games provide you with the opportunity to play, experience a bit of story and then play more, the point being you have to succeed in every ‘play’ portion to be rewarded with more of the story. Separating a good, entertaining play section with a well written and produced story section is, for me part of what makes a great game, along with good play and story sections themselves. But that’s just me :)

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