When discussing how to effectively tell stories in games, the following point invariably comes up: the player is creating/telling the story. Here’s an excerpt from GameDev.Net’s coverage of SIGGRAPH:
“For game players, the story is immersive and subversive. “It is the player’s story,” commented Danny where actions speak louder than words. Danny then gave some examples. While playing Everquest, a low-level player fell down a well to a level with higher-level monsters. Although probably not intended by the game designers, this created a compelling story for the player who discussed it with other players. Eventually, the player was escorted out by some higher-level players, but the story was unique and memorable.”
I find this to be wrong on essentially every level. It’s a flat, uncompelling form of storytelling at best.
It might be correct if the stories were interesting. Danny’s example was a character falling down a well. If you’re interested in the depth of a Lassi episode this is great. However, if you want to penetrate beyond the depth of a novel you might find in the child’s section of a bookstore, you’re going to need significantly more.
Here’s another bit from the same article:
“Another good example is Knights of the Old Republic and Fallout 3 where the player has the choice to choose a faction to defend.”
I’ve never played KotoR, but I can speak on Fallout 3: it had no story to write home about. Sure, I did some neat things, but I was playing; there was no compelling story there. If I sat someone down and told them my tale through the wasteland, they would be bored to death. Literally. They would choke and die right in front of me out of spite. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Here are a few observations about why these stories are without:
(1) There is no character depth. My character had 0 personality. He was an avatar that trekked through the wasteland. He did not grow. He did not evolve. He did not change. I was not emotionally invested in him. Not at all. When he died at the end - oh, there’s a spoiler there - I shrugged and played again. These are not the hallmarks of a good story.
(2) Game events are often superficial. I killed a dragon. I killed a bigger dragon. I killed the biggest dragon. I killed the biggest baddest dragon with three people by my side. Great. Yawn.
(3) The interesting game events that grow organically are usually very small in scale. A boy fell down a well. Oh great, five minutes of challenge. Awesome story. You can try to claim that this connects to your other gameplay events to make a bigger story, but you’d be wrong. They’re all disjoint, disconnected nuggets. Mini stories at best, not one large good story.
(4) Sandbox games ala Fallout are just as disjoint. Sure, I picked a camp to defend. Then I never saw that camp again. Going through a game doing thirty unconnected things does not make a good story.
(5) When you’re the only important character in your story, your story is lacking. Every other medium recognizes that a star needs a supporting cast. Do not tell me your WoW buddies are your supporting cast. Your WoW buddies rarely show more depth than an NPC during play. And the depth they do show? That’s real life depth, not a game story.
I find it strange that people keep talking on this topic as experts despite the fact that nobody is approaching the problem in a meaningful way. Calling cutscenes “evil” and “the worst storytelling mechanism” isn’t a credible statement when they’re still the only actual storytelling mechanism being used. They’re the only thing currently providing character depth, over-arching goals, and novel events that do not fit the mold of the gameplay. No amount of opening up the world or allowing character choice has yet to change this.
To drive this point home, a challenge: ask people to tell you the story of their favorite games. If they start talking to you about their choices and what they did and all their crazy exploits, well, awesome. Clearly they’ve crafted their own story. But I’ll wager they’re going to start talking about the elements that were revealed to them via text elements, audio overlays, and cutscenes. Because at the end of the day, the really interesting stories are still the ones being told, not the micro stories being “created.”
This is not all to say that I think cutscenes are the end-all-be-all to storytelling. I actually agree that we can do better. Right now, I think games like Half-Life and Bioshock and to a lesser extent Arkham Asylum strike a really good balance. In Half-Life and Bioshock, cutscenes exist in a way, but they never take control from you - you’re being given a compelling story without being yanked from the game. Arkham does yank you away periodically, but usually for very short periods that aren’t particularly distracting. I’ll take these over what my friends create in WoW any day.
Because I’ve heard what they’ve done in WoW, and I nearly choked and died in front of them out of boredom and spite.
I laid a trap, and you sprang it beautifully!