Monday, 7 July 2014

Good Storytelling In Games

June has been crazy-busy for me so I apologise for the lack of posts! To make it up to you this is one of my June pieces for Forces Of Geek - it's all about storytelling. Something which I don't think is given enough credit. Hope you enjoy it!

A good story requires several elements, it's not as simple as beginning-middle-end. Great storytelling is more complex and is incredibly important in games writing. It hasn't always been the case but since their humble beginnings, video games have changed - a once simple objective of "save princess" has evolved into detailed film-like scripts with several plot devices and unique storytelling techniques.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of superb games writing (Japanese RPGs excepted - there are so many!) is Silent Hill 2. It's dramatically different to its predecessor, managing to tell an interesting story rife with symbolism which is also incredibly emotive, often striking its player with moments of sheer terror - I remember not being able to play the game on my own because it freaked me out so much!

Games developers quickly realised that many gamers prefer more than mindless, repetitive actions - sure, there's a time for mindless, repetitive games (especially if you use public transport regularly) but when you start to think about the games you've played that have truly made a mark or stuck out as memorable, chances are the ones you call to mind are closer to Silent Hill 2 or The Last Of Us than say...Tetris or any of the Call of Duty games.

Don't get me wrong, these titles are excellent games but they lack any real narrative or depth. The earlier Halo games are much the same in that they have a very basic premise which is solved by shooting lots of aliens before moving on to shoot...lots more aliens! The game is still a lot of fun but it's hardly an immersive, intricately woven masterpiece with several sub-plots, detailed character studies and a surprise ending that would make M. Night Shyamalan proud.

I know I might seem biased ( a writer) but good writing is difficult to achieve. A writer has to consider a lot of different elements; they must decide what genre to write, what influences to draw upon, how to develop a main character, create a setting, build a problem and a solution (or multiple) but they also need to understand their audience and their purpose (with games writing this might also include considering previous work of the publisher the writer is working for). 

In the case of BioShock Infinite, its universe has been sculpted and defined by the writer/director, Ken Levine - a man of great architectural vision but also a game designer with an intrinsic understanding of what it means to really immerse a player in a world and a scenario that feels real. One misconception about a good story, is the notion that creative or unique characters make a good story. This is incorrect, they simply make for memorable characters.

The BioShock series, while littered with spectacular characters, is the epitome of engrossing storytelling. The narrative flows wonderfully and the linear structure of the gameplay is almost invisible as the events fluidly unfold.

While BioShock gives the impression of free will and choice, presenting you with a spooling fiction, there's never really the sense that you are affecting the story. It's a powerful and brilliant tale but one that you're witnessing rather than living. A game series which builds on this emotional immersion and forces the player to choose the fate of its protagonists, is Mass Effect.

DO NOT start with me about the whole not having a "real" choice regarding the three possible endings!

Whatever your opinion on the ending, whatever outcome you were or were not satisfied with the fact remains that the Mass Effect trilogy is easily one of only few titles that forces the player to invest in the character's respective outcomes. This is a good example of the difference between memorable characters and good storytelling.

If you ask somebody what happened in the game and they start listing character traits, that's not a story. If, on the other hand, they explain the over-arcing premise, detail sub-plots but also the imminent attack of the Reapers as well as the intimate conversations they had with a certain dreamy, brown-eyed Biopic  (...oh, Kaidan!) these things make up the first act of a larger narrative and the various developments over the three games stick in your mind, more-so than the individual battles or arguably the gameplay in general.

Speaking of gameplay, one title that defies its medium and openly challenges what a 'game' is, is LA Noire. To some it is a novel example of how games can be presented, to others it's one very long arduous quick-time event.

By prioritising the plot over the game mechanics, you essentially end up with a film that you are expected to contribute to every now-and-then. Point in case, you are largely graded on how much information you gather (admittedly, a very RPG trait) and how this later affects the story, any extra evidence you find can reveal extra information and missed clues can alter your overall score on a case.

So, we've covered the two key types of good storytelling in video games: emotive, invested titles and interesting, fact-based plots. However, a series which magnificently manages to combine the two, is that of Assassin's Creed.

With the free running, Templar stabbing, flag hunting, it has everything a gamer might crave yet at the heart of the series is a complex central thread which spans multiple titles, consoles, hand-helds, comics, books and arguably, all of human history. It is the amalgamation of respective emotional tales, lived out through the eyes of Desmond's ancestors, while slowly compiling a much larger story that hangs over the entire saga like an enormous umbrella.

Individually, the exploits of Altair, Ezio, Connor or Edward are gripping and entertaining in their own right but the story of Desmond and the contemporary element that links these disjointed aspects is both intriguing and fascinating.

I appreciate how difficult it can be to classify a good video game story. While considering this article, I had to dismiss several beloved titles (Legend Of Zelda, Abe's Oddysee, Portal 2, Half-Life) due to their disqualifying nature. In other words, the lead character or antagonist overtook the story. It's not their fault, it's very hard to find a retro or vintage game that would be sold on story above character because back then, characters sold games, not their stories.

But as we press forward into new technologies and evermore expanding plots, story is considered paramount. The question is, which gaming mindset will prevail? The retro notion of characters that sell games (think Nintendo's Mario and Sega's Sonic) or the Sony heralded idea (which has led to the current state of the industry) that it takes more than a memorable character to sells a game, that substance and interesting stories are an integral part of any popular title. As a writer, I hope it's the latter but then nostalgia will always bind me to the former.  

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