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Welcome to Extra Consideration, where we allow our contributors room to tackle the industry’s big issues. While MovieBob and James Portnow were PAXing it up, Shamus Young and Graham Stark happily joined the Extra Consideration crew for a discussion of videogame stories. Are they better now than they used to be? What should a game story do?

imageYahtzee: The thing about story in games is that people often consider it an inherently good thing, but I don’t agree. I look for games that balance the story and the gameplay; a story might be very well-written, but it’s more important that it enriches the gameplay, rather than interrupts it. Works with, not in spite of. Planescape Torment is often given as an example of a great story, but personally I found the actual gameplay rather dreary and wasn’t able to maintain my interest long enough for the story to get any hooks in.

For me, a great story game is one that weaves the narrative seamlessly into the interactive component, because interactivity is the one thing that makes games utterly unique. This is why film adaptations of games never work, because they’re totally different methods of establishing a story; taking the game aspect away cripples it unrecognizably, like subtracting a person’s torso…with a saw. My favorite story games are ones like Half-Life 2, where the story is told in the background and through implication rather than cutscene dump, and Silent Hill 2, where the bulk of the story experience is in the slow atmosphere building of the gameplay.

With that in mind, I do think video game storytelling is on a bit of a downward turn. On the one hand they’re achieving new levels of maturity every year – Assassin’s Creed is probably the standout of recent times, and the second game actually pulled off a non-gratuitous sex scene that no one tried to ban, miraculously. On the other hand, it’s really leaping out at me how often games overuse cut-scenes these days. Seems like you can’t move fifty yards without the game fading out and fading up on a non-interactive cinematic, often just to show you something in the room that you’d have to have been staring at the floor not to notice by yourself, and it really breaks the flow for me. Of my many unreasonable demands of game developers I have one that I absolutely stand by in every situation with no exceptions: never depict in a cutscene the main character performing actions we could have done within gameplay, whether it be gunning down enemies or running to catch a bus. Keep it interactive and it keeps the flow. Railroading isn’t helping anything evolve.

imageShamus Young: To me it feels like game designers wish they were writing a book. Episode 100 of Unskippable is a showcase of everything that’s wrong with cutscenes. The design force-feeds the player loads of overwrought text, a bucket of proper nouns, some mysterious calendars, and enough made-up history to make Tolkien blush.

Players end up taking turns with the designer. You get to blast bad guys for a few minutes without contributing anything to the story, besides your growing and frequently ignored pile of corpses. Then the designer gets his turn and gives you the next few minutes of the story he’s thought up.

You mentioned Half-Life 2, and there’s no denying that it’s an excellent example of a game that shows instead of tells, without even interrupting the game. The two things that strike me as amazing about this is that:

1) Just about everyone who plays the game agrees that this integration of gameplay and story is wonderfully done and…

2) …just about nobody else is even attempting to do this.

Developers are obsessed with this “gameplay | cutscene | gamplay | cutscene | gameplay” approach to game design.

Dialog trees are often maligned, but I think they can be a force for good if done properly. Do you care about the nation of Blandistan? Yes? Then here are a few blokes who will tell you various things about them. Can’t be arsed? That’s cool, just tell them to piss off and go back to shooting stuff.

Maybe this is a bit of writer’s pride on the part of the developers. Perhaps they’re just so enamored of their own material that they can’t bear to let players skip it.

imageYahtzee: Dead Space is one recent game I can think of that tends to keep its cutscenes within gameplay, as well as telling quite a bit of story in the background and ancillary details, but it still falls down for me because it lacks another vital component of storytelling, that is, effective pacing. The importance of that depends to some degree on what sort of game you’re making, and in horror it’s crucial.

As for dialogue trees, it depends how they’re done. The Bioware standard of having the characters stand woodenly across from each other running down a shopping list of options one by one like a job interview, I always find that slightly tortuous. I liked how Alpha Protocol did it, with a little timer and an analog stick selector to keep the discussion ticking along, I just wish it could be worked more organically into gameplay.

I’d like an NPC to start talking to me as soon as I come close to them, rather than staring mutely at me until I hit the context-sensitive prompt flashing over their heads. I’d then like to still be in control of my character throughout the conversation, walking around, fiddling with ornaments, hunting through drawers, shooting arrows at bunny rabbits, etc, with dialogue options being selected with some quick on-screen prompt using a button or control that is otherwise unoccupied. I don’t know if you guys saw the Plinkett review of Revenge of the Sith, but he makes a good point that all the dialogue scenes are just two people standing (or sitting) and gabbing at each other, and it’s incredibly dull. People do other things while they talk; it makes for more dynamic discourse and an opportunity for characterization.

imageGraham Stark: Yahtzee, it’s funny you mention Alpha Protocol, because it did another thing I liked when dealing with conversation trees, which is making your choices largely unimportant to the story. If they’re giving you a time limit to answer, they’d pretty much have to, but you could make whatever choice you felt like, knowing that while you might miss out on something fun by picking the “wrong” option, you wouldn’t ruin your whole experience.

This is where games like the new Fallouts (which I otherwise love) and Mass Effect take me out of the game because I’m always worried about what I might be unknowingly screwing up by selecting one dialogue choice over another. Like yourself, gaming is my job as well as my hobby, and I don’t have time for unlimited playthroughs of a game, so I want the one play I DO get to be good. But I find myself afraid to pick dialogue options as I please, and instead scrutinize a walkthrough for fear that if I choose poorly then NPC 1 will die later, or Quest-Line X will lock down… all because I said “Yes” to someone who seemed nice at the time.

I think this segues nicely into why sandbox games are a horrible medium for real storytelling. Now, I loves me some GTA (particularly San Andreas), and I’m a massive Fallout nerd, but if you ask me my favorite sandbox game, it’s Saints Row. I know Yahtzee will back me up on this. Fallout 3 tried to tell a (frankly quite touching) story about fatherhood, and GTA 4 tried to weave an epic tale of an immigrant working his way up the New York crime ladder, but they both failed because of all the other stuff they crammed in the game.

That isn’t to say it all that cramming was ill-advised. I don’t play Fallout for the story, I play it for the atmosphere and the setting. I don’t play GTA for the pathos, I play it for the stealing cars and the running down elderly pedestrians. But in a sandbox game the story, and the everything else, are at odds, and pull the player’s attention in different directions. Whereas Saints Row‘s “story” was “Be Better at Crime” and it was the most entertaining game I’d played in ages. I guess what I’m saying, in roundabout fashion, is that I agree with Yahtzee when he says that a game having a story is not necessarily a good thing.

Shamus, I don’t think gaming’s stories WERE better in the past. I think they’re the exact same now, but more of it is laid bare for us with useless cutscenes and wooden acting, and because we’re not having to use our imagination to fill in the gaps, we’re realizing how lame the stories really are.

Be sure to come back next week for more of this discussion.

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