Meet Mark Clapham, who reviews games for their narrative content as GamePeople’s Story Gamer.
As a writer of fiction (novels and stories for series, including Doctor Who), stories in games fascinate me. These stories are not the same as ones told in films, novels, or any other medium. Compared to the plot in a fairly average movie, the story in even a highly praised game like BioShock is completely broken – ten hours of a silent protagonist engaging in destruction while being hectored over the radio, with a couple of twists thrown in. If I submitted this to a book publisher, I can guarantee it would be thrown out with a dozen critical notes: protagonist un-relatable, no character relationships and repetitive events with no obvious meaning.
But none of that matters, because games are different. No storytelling medium is as reliant on the engagement of its audience as games are: for a story to work, the player needs to meet the game halfway with their emotions and imagination. It’s what makes reactions to the stories in games so personal, so subjective: for every gamer who lives for the next cut-scene, there’ll be one who skips it without a thought.
I’ve been looking at various different types of game storytelling. As I’ve mentioned, most familiar are the techniques used in games like Bioshock 2, a traditional combination of non-interactive cut-scenes and environmental and dialogue cues triggered during game play.
BioShock 2‘s single player game could never be as fresh and novel as the first installment, but it makes up for that familiarity with improved mechanics and an engaging story of its own.
The original BioShock had one of the most praised stories of any game of the last few years, with a strong narrative journey as your character explores the sunken city of Rapture, taunted over the radio by the city’s creator, Andrew Ryan. It had a memorable twist midway through, one that causes you to reinterpret your experience of the game up to that point, and alternative endings based on your treatment of the Little Sisters. The history of Rapture, of its construction and fall into anarchy, was told through scattered audio diaries and the environment itself, the evidence of dilapidation, graffiti and destruction.
Initially, BioShock 2 is familiar in a way that I found both comforting and slightly disappointing. The bits of Rapture we see may be new, but the way we see them is now well known, with characters sending us on endless fetch-quests to different parts of the city.
Although there are mysteries which are steadily explained, there’s no big oh-my-god moment to be had here. Instead there’s a softer, steadier story that builds throughout the game, one where your relationship with the other characters is shaped by your actions. It’s an engaging approach that builds to an emotionally satisfying ending.
Other games let you create your own story by presenting you with environments to negotiate and enemies to overcome and allowing the story to emerge through how you face these challenges and deal with them. Left 4 Dead 2 provides a brilliant recent example of this approach, with high drama emerging as groups of players fight for survival against incredible odds.
The relief of a narrow escape, the despair of defeat and even the sacrifice of one player demanding they be left behind so that the rest of the group can get to the rescue chopper: these are great, involving stories, and although they’re only made possible by clever design from Valve, they are brought to life by the players.
Although Left 4 Dead 2 outdoes even its feted predecessor, it takes the player to unearth the real story on offer here. It’s not the thin story of the main game, but the haphazard camaraderie that arises as you play that is most compelling. In storytelling terms the game treads similar territory to 2004’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, or the comic book The Walking Dead – this is the story of four mismatched survivors, fighting their way across undead America.
Shooters have difficulty telling stories, as there’s not much opportunity for dialogue and character when you’re running down a corridor with a shotgun. With a multiplayer shooter like Left 4 Dead 2, the problem is even worse, as any cut-scenes or dialogue are likely to be chatted over rather than slavishly followed, which tends to break the atmosphere. I’ve never paid the slightest bit of attention to the cut-scenes in Halo 3, for instance, and couldn’t tell you anything about it beyond “aliens bad, shoot aliens.”
Left 4 Dead 2 gets around this with storytelling that’s subtle, environmental and sufficiently unobtrusive that you can just ignore it. Cut-scenes are limited to brief sequences at the start and end of areas, while character interaction is built unobtrusively through snappy little exchanges between the characters. In terms of in-game dialogue, the lines are well-chosen and context sensitive – when my character complains he needs health, or swears at the number of approaching zombies, most of the time it’s just before or after I’ve said exactly the same thing over the mic.
Is this the future of games storytelling? Has detailed plotting in games had its day as too restrictive? All those gamers raving about Heavy Rain would tell you otherwise, but it’s far too early to tell. Along with graphics, sound, and all those other technical elements, storytelling in videogames continues to evolve.
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