Let’s start with a vast sweeping generalization: Videogame storylines are garbage. The world has been taken over by zombies—you have to kill them all. The country is at risk from organized criminals—you have to kill them all. Your unicorn has been stolen by elves—you have to collect enough sacred flutes to buy it back. Garbage.
That’s a generalization, sure, but I reckon that it rings true in the main. I’m not saying that there aren’t half-decent stories out there in certain games, but I can’t think of many games that have captured my imagination in the same way as countless films or books have—not by sheer story strength at any rate. I think there are two separate issues surrounding the poor quality of videogame storytelling. Firstly, there are the methods used for showcasing the narrative and, secondly, there is the definite substandard of many plots.
At the dawning of the age of cinema, many of the early film productions were made according to rules and conventions laid down by other existing media. A single camera would be set up, trained on a stage, and it would record a play. There were aficionados of this sort of film, but it didn’t garner any real respect or following. This was because the method used did not play to the hitherto undiscovered strengths of film. Progress was made, however, and now we recognize the importance of multiple cameras at various angles, close-ups, and effects and such. I would liken this situation to the one we have regarding narrative in videogames.
Far too often developers try and use a cinematic style of storytelling within a game; this disregards the real allure of games—which is playing them. While cinema is a medium where you do not interact with proceedings, the very draw of game playing is in actively affecting proceedings. Everything else should be a secondary consideration to gameplay. That is not to say that narrative is unimportant, but just that it should not get in the way of gameplay. Cut scenes and rendered cinematic sequences, do get in the way. The player sits and watches, often feeling frustrated. Many times, a cut scene is used as a sort of reward at the end of a passage of play. But then, if I wanted to sit and watch a few minutes of footage I’d watch TV and not play a videogame.
So what method should be used for storytelling? I don’t know if cut-scenes themselves are inherently bad, but I do think that more thought needs to be given as to how they are used. Any cut-scene should be kept as brief as possible, minimizing stoppage in play. It should move proceedings along, and no more. Cut-scenes are often used in an attempt to develop characters and draw you into the central story, but in gaming the more interactive proceedings are, the more you are going to feel part of the story. The less interactive, the less you will feel involved; so a scene that develops characters in a game has the opposite effect to a scene developing characters in a film. This is particularly true if it is the player’s character that is being developed. The great strength of gaming is that you are already involved—there is no need to identify with the main protagonist. Any depth that needs to be added to other characters should be done, as much as is possible, within the fabric of the game itself.
Many videogames don’t have a traditional A-to-B plot, and maybe this will be the way forward. Rather than telling a story with a start, middle, and ending, many games are content to merely create a world and let the player act freely within it. The Sims is the best example of this, but the quest for evermore open-ended gameplay—as exemplified in Grand Theft Auto—is a by-product. To an extent, you make your own stories in games such as these. If a more traditional A-to-B storyline is required, maybe it is better to try and manufacture this within a more open game world. If it is the player’s choice who they speak to and when, this should feel less intrusive than an enforced scene. The key here is to make the world and its characters as believable as possible.
The ideal solution would be to have fully interactive storylines, but this makes it more difficult to develop a more complex narrative. With more potential storylines, less time can be spent on each. Let’s say there is a crucial decision in terms of the story within the first ten minutes of playing a game. If there are only two possible outcomes then you have at least doubled the quantity of story to be written from then on. Each strand of story has to be followed to its logical conclusion and within each of these strands there will be more and more decisions to be made and more and more strands branching off. Before you know it, the script looks like War and Peace’s older, fatter, shoddier brother.
My second complaint about game storylines, that they are frequently predictable and uninspiring, is much easier to solve. All it takes is a little more thought on the part of developers. Context is partly decided by what sort of a game you wish to make. If you are making a first-person shooter, then you will need an environment requiring guns. Does this mean that the plot has to be that of a particularly bad Steven Seagal film? His films are terrible. Don’t copy them. And, do so many RPGs have to feature elves, goblins, dwarfs, and the like? It’s lazy. Set your game in a different type of world.
Here’s an interesting question: Must a videogame have a positive, successful, and upbeat ending? By definition, the integral aim of any game is to finish it. With that done, you, as the player, are already deemed successful. Who’s to say that everyone within the game has to live happily ever after? Personally speaking, I would like to see a game where, at the climax, and after conquering everything put in their path, your character ultimately falls short in their quest—a tragic finale. This isn’t the same as failing to complete the game. You still have the tangible feeling of triumph, yet the narrative denouement would be something of a surprise compared with the grimly clichéd inevitability of most videogame endings. It usually feels good to finish a game but, conversely, the ending itself often offers nothing. A twist in the tale might just make a game more memorable.
As long as videogame stories follow such overly worn plot paths, games will always be a poor relation to other forms of mass media entertainment. Are videogames still being manufactured primarily for children? While that was standard industry practice many years ago, times have changed and I know that developers are well aware of this. I know many people who feel gaming no longer caters for them. These aren’t people who’ve never played games, these are people who’ve always played games, but are fast losing interest. That shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
Is it really as bad as I’m implying?
Why not offer up your opinions on the best and worst videogame storylines, giving reasons for both your love and hate points of view? I’ll credit and berate them accordingly.
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