Every week (or as often as we can), we will get a group of great writers to contribute their thoughts on a particular topic about video games. Each author can address the issue how they please and give their own unique opinions. Please stay tuned to one-hitkills.com and @onehitkills for updates. Please feel free to give us any feedback you feel is necessary and enjoy.
By Francis McCabe- @onehitkills
‘What can games learn from film? Nothing’- Shigeru Miyamoto
Just one recent comment from gaming legend and Nintendo executive Shigeru Miyamoto has completely summed up this up swelling of “cinematic” games. For every game that mixes a compelling narrative with great gameplay, such as cult classic Spec-Ops: The Line (a game with a profound ending that made you reexamine the choices you made throughout), there are heavy-fisted, story-oriented games like Beyond: Two Souls that struggle to engage neither the gamer nor the cinemaphile in me.
Storytelling in games started simply. There was the “damsel in distress” in Super Mario Bros, the “save the world” in Legend of Zelda, “good scientist vs evil mad scientist” in Mega Man, “why am I so cool” in Sonic the Hedgehog, “whoa, that’s a girl” in Metroid, and the “why is the Red Mage so useless” in Final Fantasy.
Even if you chose to erase terrible FMV “movie-like” experiences with little gameplay like Night Trap from you memory, Narratives started expanding with the SNES and Genesis. Series like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star, and Shining Force combined a compelling narrative with great gameplay. They turned the RPG genre in to the go-to genre for storytelling. Mario didn’t need a story beyond saving the princess, but a RPG wasn’t worth your time unless it had to have interesting characters too. Otherwise, the 30+ hour slog would bore you into losing interest.
As gaming evolved, the narratives overall still come down mostly to save the world or save this person (who may or may not be the key to saving the world). Even Mass Effect, a series lauded for its narrative and choice system, came under great fire for the ending to the trilogy in Mass Effect 3. It was an ending the developers and script-writer sought fit, but not the audience. It was the equivalent to having a bad series-finale of your favorite TV show.
While certain games are able to scratch the gamer itch while providing a good compelling story (like Spec-Ops) and games can be fun without a story (Mario is still king of the platformer genre), I haven’t found a game yet that aspired to be “movie-like” that I enjoyed. David Cage, who with developer Quantic Dream, have been trying to accomplish this for over a decade. Another Sony series, Uncharted, for example, is like delicious popcorn with a delicious butter and cheese flavorings. The script jells with the fact that your still playing a video game, and the game is fun while giving you short pauses to tell the enjoyable story. Uncharted scribe Amy Hennig is one of the best in the industry thanks to her ability to work with the develop team to make this delicious popcorn.
Examples like Cage and Quantic Dream, on the other hand, is like McDonalds trying to release a filet-mignon burger. It just ends up being disappointing as a burger with a meat not properly prepared to be best savored, a fried meat that defeats the purpose of filet mignon. Their stories, held on their own merit, don’t scratch my cinemaphile itch. They just end up being over-bloated. And the game elements are well, just not fun. I’ve had the same experience with Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain, and, most recently, Beyond: Two Souls. Most people will point to Telltale’s The Walking Dead as the antithesis to my point that “movie-like” games can exist just on story, but The Walking Dead’s gameplay is minimalist at his best and just doesn’t intrigue my gamer itch. While developers keep trying to make more “cinematic experiences,” the Miyamoto quote should be in the back of their mind. Games can’t learn anything from movies, they need to forge their own path of storytelling. And sometimes, a Big Mac is just all what people want.
By Andrew Cook- @MasterMastermnd
Video games are important to me as an art form and always have been. The instincts I’ve taken as a writer from game storytelling are invaluable, even though that flies against the conventional wisdom about stories in games. Whether I’m fighting to protect Hyrule, uncovering the mystery of the Metroids, or saving the world in Final Fantasy, there is no shortage of great experiences to be had. That being said, playing video games as a writer is a guilty pleasure, akin to adults reading YA books for fun. One of the most fascinating aspects of storytelling in games is how it’s at once immediately satisfying and has so much unfulfilled potential.
Video game stories are often told through cutscenes. This isn’t a problem in itself, but usually they butt against the gameplay in a way that segregates the two, rather than allowing them to embrace and comment on each other. Some understand the core component of a video game that makes it unique is its gameplay, and have tried to break down storytelling barriers by mixing the two, but so far we haven’t progressed far beyond QTE’s and story beats where you keep control of the character. There are two video games in particular I believe have reached the zenith of combining story and gameplay into a seamlessly integrated whole. These are my two favorite stories in video games.
The first is Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Sons of Liberty is a dark and complex game, wrapping a grim story about manufactured consent, sham democracy, and America’s tendency to destroy in other countries the democratic ideals it purports to stand for into an elaborate post-modern comment on the form and expectations of sequels and video games in general. The game has substance and wit without being humorless, and often uses gameplay to make its points. Note the pointed difference in character between Snake and Raiden, challenging the power fantasy most games rely on, and painting an effective portrait of the distance between the player and the characters in the fantasies they enjoy. Note how the game purposefully robs you of the satisfaction of finishing bosses, relegating their defeat to cutscene if they’re defeated at all, calling to attention the rote adherence to an outdated convention. From how it compares and contrasts to the story beats of the first game, to having Raiden choose to disobey your commands and embrace a whole new control system for the last hour of the game, nearly every aspect of Sons of Liberty unites into a cohesive vision, setting up, then calling out and tearing apart nearly each and every video game rule. This approach made an immeasurable impact on me the first time I played it, and continues to every time. Metal Gear has long-stayed one of gaming’s boldest series’, the rare military game willing to eschew the standard jingoistic narrative of the genre and actually examine the cost of war and western imperialism’s impact on the world, but it has yet to match the insane ambition of Sons of Liberty.
Killer 7 is a swirling surrealist indictment of American and Japanese politics on a global scale, pointing out their hypocrisies through dense allegory and a collision of eastern and western storytelling technique. It takes the minimalist crime narrative of French New Wave cinema and infuses it with an anime aesthetic and metaphysical storytelling. Its cryptic and byzantine structure, at once about about broken people, broken countries, and the supernatural resonance of trauma, is surprisingly flexible, allowing one story to have multiple levels of symbolism. This core tension is well-buttressed by the gameplay, as it captures the same insane culture clash. Killer 7 is a first-person shooter primarily played in third person and all the enemies dive-bomb you. It has large levels with branching passages but you run through on rails. There’s an RPG element allowing you to power up your character, but only so many times per stage. The game establishes and breaks rules with reckless abandon in order to reinforce and draw attention to the core cultural conflicts at the heart of the story.
These games, for me, represent the most powerful ways to convey story in gaming. Storytelling is an art in itself but its also a conduit to help creators explore what makes an art form unique. Gaming should embrace this and move forward, aiming to deliver experiences that just can’t be had or replicated elsewhere. These two games have thrown down the gauntlet, its time for more games to take up the challenge.
I’ll never forget the moment that I found out that Golbez and Cecil were brothers. There we were, countless despicable acts and manipulations later, and this evil arsehole was trying to tell me we were family? For its time, in the early 90s, it was a mind-blowing revelation the likes my young mind had never seen before.
It was precisely then that I realized how special video games really were. It’s even safe to say that that’s where the love affair really started to grow.
I of course had played and enjoyed plenty of games before Final Fantasy IV, but it wasn’t until the glory days of the SNES that I really fell in love with the hobby and started investing myself into it. Final Fantasies, as I called the entirety of the JRPG genre as a wee lad, were my favorite from then on and now, nearly 25 years later, that still holds true.
Final Fantasy IV wasn’t the first game to try to tell a story by any stretch, but it’s the first one that really broke through to me. Before that, I never really understood why I was jumping on things or shooting countless enemies, and I didn’t particularly care. It never crossed my mind that the little people I was controlling would ever represent something more.
These characters and their stories are now arguably as important to gaming as graphics and mechanics. A good plot increases immersion and satisfaction ten-fold, and strong characters can make all the difference between success and failure. Imagine Uncharted with anyone other than Nathan Drake? Or Super Mario Bros. with anyone other than chunky plumbers? In no world would any of that make sense.
On the other hand, bad characters can severely impact my enjoyment of a game as well. Bayonetta 2 is the perfect example of this. It was a beautiful, crazy, fun game that felt great to play, but I HATED the majority of the game’s characters. Loki especially drove me insane, and I couldn’t wait for his scenes to finish. It took it from a potential game of the year contender to just a good experience in that aspect alone.
Games that are completely about telling stories have even rose in popularity in the last ten years or so. Heavy Rain is a great example (though by far not the first) of a game that successfully became an interactive movie. It wasn’t particularly fun from a gameplay standpoint, but the story and characters were so strong that I couldn’t put it down, much like any other good detective story. My girlfriend, who is not at all into gaming, recently gave it a try and completely fell in love with it, to the point of requesting that I find more games like it for her to play.
She went on to complete it in only a pair of sittings, because she was so involved in the characters and their journeys. We had a great time discussing her theories on who the origami killer could be and trying to piece together the backgrounds of the game’s cast that the hours just melted away. THAT, to me, is the mark of a brilliant game. You get so involved that you become completely unaware of the time ticking away on your session until, suddenly, the sun is gone and you’re falling asleep.
Perhaps narrative is the best way to rope in the casual masses? Never mind throwaway gimmicks like motion control and crappy phone games, let’s start sharing our favorite game plots with those we’d like to immerse in our hobby. Games like Final Fantasy IV sparked my ridiculous love of video games, and more realistic fare like Heavy Rain created a great opportunity to share that love with the lady of my life.
Gaming really is the perfect hobby.
Have you ever played a game and wondered…
“Why am I doing this?”
“Why should I care?”
Just like with most audio-visual mediums, video games thrive on hooking the audience with compelling plots, characters, and settings. They engage the player in an engrossing narrative and world for the player to interact with, which involves, in the case of games, participating in direct involvement with the plot at hand.
Whereas the person takes a passive/observer role in the plot in media such as movies or books, video games, as mentioned above, are different in that they let the player interact with and move the plot directly. Because of that, storytelling in video games has to take a different approach to storytelling than a book or a movie.
I’m really not the best person to talk about stories in games, honestly, but I’ll give it my best shot. I’ll try to give my point of view on how a story in a game can succeed and how they contrast with other media.
I’ll try to cover a few different games, but you’ll probably find that I’ll site Horror and Adventure games a lot here.
Firstly, we should consider the genre of the game. Just like with books and movies, a different genre of game calls for a different type of plot. For example, a Horror game will typically have a different mood and tone than a Fantasy RPG. In a lot of games, the genre can help influence the overall plot, but shouldn’t shackle it. Just because a game is a horror game, for example, doesn’t mean it necessarily mean it has to be dark and fear inducing, it can be light-hearted with maybe some more casual scares; it all depends on what you want to get across in the end. Compare Silent Hill and Dead Rising. Even though they are booth Survival Horror games, Silent Hill is a lot more creepy, while Dead Rising is a lot more light-hearted. It also goes to show the versatile nature of video games and the numerous amounts of different stories that can be created. Think about the type of mood and tone that should be established and what you want the player to feel.
A story needs to take place somewhere, right? Setting can be a great tool to provide a bit of driving force for the story. Using the modern technology available, a truly fantastic world of any type can be created for the players to see. The setting can be a good driving force, but doesn’t need to be locked into its tropes. A graveyard doesn’t need to be dark and spooky, for example. Take an amusement park; compare their uses in Silent Hill and Super Mario Sunshine. One amusement park is dark and creepy, while another is light and fun.
Also a thing to keep in mind is to design the setting and environment to entice the player to explore or highlight areas the player should look towards by drawing their eyes towards it. This is a challenge unique to video games as opposed to other media, and care should go into designing areas that are fun to navigate and explore and provide a sense of discovery. The setting provides the detailed backdrop to the narrative and should enrich the experience and use the plot to its advantage.
Another key feature of any story is the characters that populate the world. A world without any characters will seem pretty barren, although depending on the game, that might be what you want. A host of all types of characters is needed to help the player to keep engaged in the world and the story these characters are a part of. Again, as above with setting, character archetypes shouldn’t be shackled because of who they are. Compare Dr. Light and Dr. Robotnik. They’re both scientists, but their motivations and personalities are different. And compare both of them to a “mad scientist” like Dr. Frankenstein. Characters can be just as diverse as environments, and care should go into making them believable and likeable, or a “love to hate” type.
The most important characters are probably the Player Character(s), Sidekicks/Helpers, and the Main Antagonist, but especially the Player Character. The player will be guiding this character throughout the whole game and experiencing the story along with them. Again, this is a challenge unique to video games. The Player Character is an extension of the player. The player is the character. The player should be emotionally invested in the character and the struggles they go through in the plot. The character can even be the player themself, and a different approach to the plot is slightly different because of that. The player needs to know “why am I doing this?” and “why should I care?” through this character and the plot. Maybe one of the Player Character’s sidekicks needs help, or the Main Antagonist is doing something evil to the player. Also, the Player Character may not necessarily be the good guy/hero either, and again needs a different approach to the story. A bland, boring, or badly written Player Character can really take the player out of the experience.
And now we finally get to the Plot proper, after all the rambling above. Hey, a good story can’t stand on its own, and the above factors (setting and characters) in conjunction with the plot itself overall make a good story. Use the setting and characters to the advantage of the story. Set out why the Player Character should be doing certain things, using the setting and other characters to help guide the player along. It’s like writing the plot for a book or a movie; why the characters and Player should keep going to the end. Again, a myriad of approaches and styles are available each with their own synergies and perks. The plot, characters, and setting should all compliment each other.
The biggest obstacle, other than a good story, is pacing and how the story is presented. Bad story pacing can kill a plot, let alone the whole game. Again, video games is a unique challenge in that the player can dictate how slowly or quickly the story can progress to a degree. A good story shouldn’t have the player dwaddle around too long wondering what to do, but not have the player rush through it either. The story generally follows the same arc as other media too, with a beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion; the standard 5-act structure. Again, stories aren’t limited to the 5-act structure, but it is a decent tool to help make a story. The player shouldn’t feel that one part of the story felt too long or too short, or deliberate or unnecessary. Every point in the story should have some purpose to it and encourage the player to keep going through it.
Another challenge unique to games here is designing a story to have multiple viewpoints/character, choices, and endings if it calls for it. While gameplay challenges arise here as well, I’ll focus on what it does to the story.
The player should feel like their choices in the story mattered; if a decision in a game ever feels inconsequential to the player, then it was an arbitrary choice. Even if the game has only one ending, the player should feel like what they did affected the plot in some way, even if it was inconsequential in the end. For example, having some of the characters mention to the player something they did or changing the environment slightly just to show the player affected something keeps the player from feeling their choices were moot.
Designing a story for multiple Player Characters is difficult as well, as you can have them all directly or indirectly intersect, or maybe have them all segregated. I always cite Heavy Rain here, as the Player had direct control over 4 unique player characters with different goals that all intersected and interacted with each other. The characters should compliment each other and drive the plot together, and allowing the player to have a different perspective on the plot can drive the player even more.
The most important part to me is designing the ending, especially if a game has multiple outcomes. If a game has only one ending, the player should feel satisfied about the story’s conclusion and be in agreement with the plot they and the Player Character had to go through. If the ending ever feels nonsensical, it wasn’t a well written ending. It can be a downer ending but again, care should be taken that it makes sense. Multiple endings are a bit trickier. As above, the player should feel like their choices mattered and that they drove the story to this conclusion. The player should feel like things would have turned out differently if they choice different actions previously. All the endings should be satisfying and make sense; the player should feel like they changed the plot to get that conclusion. It should leave the player wondering if they did something else they would have changed the outcome. The plot can have more varying degrees of grey to fill a whole suite of different feelings in multiple outcome, such as some endings being more down than others.
What would I cite as examples of good story telling?
I’m a fan of the Silent Hill games in this regard (the earlier ones, at least). The setting and the characters complimented each other so well and made the plot of the stories so creepily satisfying, especially the Player Characters. Having multiple outcomes was near for me because they all made sense and were a direct result of actions you took. They did storytelling right.
I have a special friend to thank for introducing me to Silent Hill, but I don’t want to embarrass him. If you ever read this, then you know who you are! There are other things I want to say to you too, but I’ll just be quiet now!
Other games I feel have good storytelling were Heavy Rain, The Last of Us, and The Walking Dead. There may be others I’m missing, but those are the ones I have experience with.
So yeah, that concludes my thoughts on what I feel makes a good story in a game. I hope I was able to provide something worth thinking about.