Thoughts on Stories in Video Games

A game can have intuitive, complex, and well-implemented mechanics and beautiful graphics, but if the story isn’t engaging and interesting, the game risks a low financial return as gamers simply won’t recommend to their friends or on their web sites.  Many games ditch a “deep” story as a whole and that works just fine, but we’re going to discuss what it takes to craft an interesting story that gamers would enjoy and recommend.

One reason why novels and movies became as insanely popular as they are is the stories—whatever the individual story may happen to be, a good story takes us away into another world, whether filled with magical and fantastic creatures, Eldritch Abominations, or the mundane viewed from a different angle.  

The one, single thing that every story in every novel and movie has in common is that they’re passive experiences.  Even the quasi-exception of the Choose Your Own Adventure series and its numerous knock-offs are still rather passive.  You get few real ways to affect the story; you typically get a decision between two to three options.  While the reader’s decision can drastically affect the story, it’s not the same as really interacting with the story.

With a video game, by its very nature you’re directly interacting with the world around your avatar, whether it be in a large open-world setting like an R.P.G. or a “stage”-based system like a fighting game.  That seems at odds with the passive nature of conventional storytelling, which I think is where the biggest issue lies, why it’s sometimes difficult to get the player actively involved in a story truly epic in scope such as stories by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Herman Melville, and others.

It’s not that the stories aren’t necessarily so wide; pick an R.P.G. title pretty much at random and you’ll find intrigue, world-spanning plot-arcs that intertwine in ways almost inconceivable until the end, and everything else.  The problem is that the player isn’t really usually involved in them.

Typically, even in the most expansive, in-depth R.P.G. you can think of, gamers kick something’s butt, deliver twenty bear butts to some old curmudgeon, or whatever else—then watch a cut-scene.  The cut-scenes have the real meat of the story, but we’re passively entertained by them.  We don’t take an active role.

It would be incredibly difficult to make it so gamers could, however.  In real interactions with another person, regardless of the setting, we have options—we can agree, we can disagree, ask for more information, or we can even moon the other person and insult their lineage.  You can’t really do that in a game.  If you did you’d likely derail the plot, and quickly.  Plus it’s added code—trying to figure out everything the player could do, and then coming up with every possible reaction, all of that is code that could be spent elsewhere.

That’s just another reason why it’s difficult to make a game.  The more interesting story you craft, the less interaction the gamer has with the game.  On the face of it that’s fine; after all, readers don’t interact with their novels beyond turning the page.  Movie-watchers don’t interact with their movies beyond trying to avoid the sticky spot of the floor in the theater or pressing the buttons on the remote control at home.

The problem is that gamers buy games to interact with them, not sit there passively.  Gamers can enjoy movies or novels, of course, just like anyone else, but we bring a different mentality to the different past-times.  We put on a movie when we want to be passively entertained, and we put in a game when we want to actively interact with the entertainment.

The more interesting a story is, the more cut-scenes there are, generally, and/or the longer they usually are.  The more cut-scenes there are, and/or the longer they are, the less the gamer feels like they’re really interacting with the game and the more they’re passive.  On the other hand, if you try and create the code to let a gamer truly interact with the cut-scenes, aside from the code-usage issue mentioned previously, you also run the high risk of getting a disjointed story out of it.

What if the player doesn’t feel like questioning the suspect?  Instead they feel like going all Dirty Harry on them?  You either have to contrive someone continuously passing by at the right time to stop them, an N.P.C. in the room telling them it wouldn’t be a good idea, or whatever else.  For a less extreme example, say the protagonist reacts with shock and surprise—but what if the player wants to react with quiet somberness?  That would create different reactions to that reaction—even if the information remains the same, how it’s given changes.

It’s difficult to program so many variables into a game, especially knowing that they may never be seen.  As hobbyists, we expect certain fundamental things and act on them.  We don’t expect to be able to really affect the storyline very much (no matter what you do, Sephiroth will call down Meteor and C.J. is going to end up on the wrong side of Tenpenny; at best you create minor, even negligible differences that are as much aesthetic as anything else) so we don’t even think about it.

If the technological hurdle is ever jumped to be able to make truly branching storylines possible in games, there’d best be a big marketing stink made about it, or else I believe most gamers won’t know the possibility is there.  We’re just too used to getting through some bit of the game, then sitting back and watching the cut-scene, then getting back to the game play.

That can change—and I hope it does—but it will require developers and publishers to roll the dice and gamers to shift their expectations a bit.  I think we can all do it, though—our games already have great stories.  Imagine if they had great stories that you could truly be a part of?  I look forward to that day.


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