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Welcome back to Extra Consideration, where we allow our contributors room to tackle the industry’s big issues. Last week, Yahtzee, Shamus Young and Graham Stark offered Extra Consideration on videogame stories. Are they better now than they used to be? What should a game story do?

imageYahtzee: Graham, on the subject of dialogue trees dictating the course of the plot, and of games letting us use our imaginations to fill in the gaps (and calm down, I don’t think I did make the same point in Zero Punctuation), I guess it all comes down to the age-old rule of ‘Show, don’t tell’. Some games with stories I hold in the highest esteem have very little dialogue at all, such as Ico or Metroid Prime, or restrict themselves to short conversations that seem to do their damnedest to make things even more confusing, like Silent Hill 2.

A very useful rule that I took to heart on the subject of writing books is that writing a novel is like engineering: you’re finished not when there’s nothing more to add, but when there’s nothing more to take away. I think it extends just as well to dialogue in games. Trouble is, AAA games these days have so many individual working on them (each very keen to show off their skills no matter how small or mundane their task) they become this bloated, amorphous mass with no real discipline, creating an attitude of ‘we’ve got it, might as well throw it in’.

imageGraham Stark: We keep agreeing! As with last week, this lacks conflict.

Here: I hate Marmite. It’s gross and taste like salty ass, squeezed through a dirty leather boot. As a Brit, albeit an ex-pat living abroad, defend your horrible yeasty boot drippings!

imageYahtzee: You’re only supposed to put a really small amount of it on your toast to just add a little flavor twang. You know, moderation. Remember that? That’s where you turn down your third helping of maple syrup and bacon.

I guess this question isn’t quite as inflammatory as PC vs. consoles. We all agree storytelling in games needs work, as ever. It’s also a pretty big subject and hard to come up with really controversial views on. Oh wait, I do think the intro sequence for Bioshock (meaning everything up to injecting your first plasmid, not just the cinematic at the start) is literally the best intro in the entire history of games. Anyone want to dispute that?

imageGraham Stark: Okay, first off, I don’t even LIKE syrup on my pork meats. I guess that means I’m not really Canadian 🙁

Secondly… no. I think Resident Evil 4 did a great job, and I’m partial to Metal Gear Solid (but then I am an admitted MGS nut) but I literally just went to look at my entire game collection and one-by-one mentally compared their intros (cinematic and beyond) to BioShock and… turns out BioShock is really good.

I will say that I do really like the pacing of Condemned: Criminal Origins, as it ramps up from a guy investigating a crime scene, to beating druggies with nail-bound 2x4s but… no, I couldn’t think of a recent game intro that sucked me into the game better than BioShock.

imageShamus Young: I’d actually hold up Resident Evil 4 as a great example of bad storytelling. The game itself is silly fun, but the series is one of the worst offenders when it comes to cutscene-gameplay-cutscene style storytelling. Particularly since all of your worst setbacks take place in the cutscenes.

It’s really bad in RE4, where the story (goofy, campy, absurd, and nonsensical) is directly at odds with the intent of the game. (Fear, tension, immersion, and mystery.) Earlier Yahtzee said, “For me, a great story game is one that weaves the narrative seamlessly into the interactive component […]” I would say that the first step to the sort of weaving would be to make sure that the gameplay and story both take place inside the same basic genre.

This sloppiness came back to bite them in Resident Evil 5, with the African Natives. If those natives had appeared in something like Silent Hill 2, it would have been a lot less inflammatory. The player could be left wondering if this was an expression of racial fears on the part of James, or something put there to unsettle and disturb the audience. But we can’t ascribe subtlety to the designers when the rest of the story is a preposterous farce. With care, “thought-provoking” and “racially edgy” can go together. But “wacky” and “racially edgy” are a volatile mix.

Everyone else put their cards on the table, so I’ll give a few examples of good storytelling in my book. I’ll leave out the obvious ones we probably all agree on (Half-Life 2) and go for a few more controversial ones:
* System Shock 2, back before everyone was sick to death of audio logs.
* The first ten minutes of DOOM 3 were actually quite interesting. Shame about the rest.
* Morrowwind gets bogged down in side-quest Purgatory, but I really liked the story of the villain.
* KOTOR is the Sixth Sense of game plots. Dynamite if you don’t know the twist, but unremarkable if you do.
* Diablo II had some of the best cutscenes that everyone ever skipped.

imageYahtzee: Resident Evil 4 is still pretty much the only Resident Evil game I enjoyed. I’m not sure I agree that the intent was to be serious and tense and all that – the gameplay seemed to me like it was focusing on creating panicky back-to-the-wall action horror, what with the absurd monsters, fat chainsaw-wielding Spaniards with bags on their heads, and entire crowds of lurching peasants being downed with a single shotgun blast. I’d argue the intent was closer to some mix of Transylvania B-movie Hammer Horror and splatter schlock like the Jason or Evil Dead movies. The fact that it dances the cutscene-gameplay-cutscene tango I do not dispute, mind.

The worst thing RE5 did – besides the race relations issue – was try to crowbar in all the Resident Evil series backstory. By the time of RE4, it’d turned into a comic book situation, endlessly expanding on the plot of the first game with stupid retcons and improbable resurrections all over the shop. What I liked about RE4 was that it did something largely tangential and self-contained, which considering the drastic gameplay change was probably the right way to go.

In referring to KOTOR as your Sixth Sense, you’ve reminded me of another game whose story I quite liked – Second Sight, the PS2 action-adventure by Free Radical of TimeSplitters fame. It’s one of the few cases I can think of of a game story with a good solid twist, the kind that makes you reassess everything up to that point, not like the usual gaming twist wherein the person who was helping you suddenly turns out to be evil in the most completely illogical way. Must be said it doesn’t really do gameplay-story integration, but I do like how it went out of its way to include alternative game over sequences for a lot of the player’s potential asshole behavior (like shooting up your allies in the training level).


Be sure to come back in a few weeks for the next installment of Extra Consideration.

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