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Why do games find it so difficult to tell stories?

A look at one of gaming’s most talked about but least understood areas – story.

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The Stanley Parable

It’s not something that initially feels like it needs much thought: we all understand what’s going on in the games we play (except Ninja Gaiden – email me if you understood that). The thing is, through the years and the plethora of genres, a complex variety of techniques have been used to deliver stories, all with their own perks and challenges. This is what we are going to look at. Expect death, psychotic robots, office workers, Russian philosophers and, if you’re lucky, maybe some sense.

So why do games find it so difficult to tell stories?

There are few cultural forms that attract more criticism for their storytelling than games. The media loves telling parents that their children are wasting their time playing narratively bankrupt shooters when they could be sucking down a fat Dickens novel and learning some culture. And you know what? In many ways they are right. It’s sad to see a medium with so much potential and so few excellent storytelling experiences. But what people don’t tend to realise is that, because a game is designed to do much more than tell a story, writing a video game is uniquely hard. We are going to look at the challenges this causes and the journey that games have made to overcome them. We start, as is only right, with the bad news.

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The vast majority of the storytelling we see in video games is delivered through cut-scenes: short, narratively focused cinematics that come in the breaks between discrete sections of gameplay. In many games, especially those in the action and RTS genres, these contain so much of the plot information that the game loses its ability to tell a coherent story without them.

However, despite the prevalence and importance of cut-scenes, they are arguably one of the least effective ways of telling a story in a video game. By chopping the story up into little chunks and feeding it to the player around missions, you cause a host of narrative problems. As these story parts come at set intervals, pacing options are severely restricted and you are forced to keep the story painfully simple to stop the players from forgetting what’s going on. The shortness of the clips prevents any real character development and forces the writer to rely on gratuitous twists and spectacular visuals to keep the audience interested.

The biggest crime cut-scenes commit is divorcing the story from the game. If you think about it, you realise that cut-scenes are totally out of place in an environment which is defined by interactivity. They are a snippet of an entirely different and self-contained storytelling medium parachuted into games to take the narrative burden, and, when you play a game, you really feel it. Missions require the player to provide input to drive the game forwards, to take control of a character and perform a series of tasks. But as soon as they reach a cut scene, this suddenly ceases to be the case – the player sits there watching the character they are supposedly playing as do all kinds of things they probably wouldn’t have wanted them to do in the first place. It’s such a drastically different experience to normal gameplay that they cannot help feel disconnected, and the last thing you want when telling a story is a disconnected audience. Worse than that, it destroys one of the main strengths of games as a storytelling medium – the ability to make the player feel like they are actually involved in the story. It’s a tragedy that inserting cut-scenes into such an immersive medium actually ends up making the player feel actively disconnected.

While a number of mechanically related benefits (which we will touch on later) mean that cut-scenes are still used as the primary storytelling device, many people have realised that games need their very own, unique storytelling method – something that captures the spirit of the medium and is tailored to take advantage of the immersive potential that it offers.

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So what these designers and writers have done is find a way to remove the sharp divide between story and gameplay by allowing the player to remain in control of the character even during narrative instances. Half-Life was one of the first games to bring this approach to storytelling, delivering an unbroken stream of gameplay from beginning to end. Events happen around the main character in real time – letting you observe them however you choose – and characters converse with you even as you go about completing the tasks specified in the missions. Suddenly the story feels like something happening to you, as a result of your actions, rather than something that happens in the distance whilst you take a break.

However, as much as this was an admirable leap ahead, it was still far from a perfect system for delivering a game narrative. The story sections still tended to be bunched up, played out in periods of relative inactivity separated by long periods of high intensity gameplay. In many ways, these long story absent periods felt even stranger than they did in games with cut-scenes, as once the story had become a part of the gameplay it didn’t seem right that it was limited to only certain sections.

Nonetheless, Half-life provided a wonderful platform on which for games to build and, over time, there have been a number of attempts to tackle this problem by consistently delivering a narrative over the course of the game. One of the more successful examples is the recent(ish) Bioshock Infinite. This employs a novel story delivery mechanism in the form of a NPC character called Elizabeth who accompanies the main character for much of the game. Elizabeth delivers a nearly constant stream of conversation and observation (based on what’s going on around her) that contains the key story information normally reserved for cut-scenes in other games. It’s effective, but the main flaw is that the main character spends most of the game performing set mechanical tasks (shooting), and there is only so much that Elizabeth can say in these situations. She shines when a significant story event takes place, but once again, these tend to be lumped on either side of longer periods of repetitive, story-light gameplay. It’s great, but it’s still not maximising the potential for consistent, immersive narrative that gaming medium presents.

The gaming experience that gets closest to maximising this potential is probably The Stanley Parable. Not to give too many spoilers, but in this title, a semi-omniscient narrator spends the whole game talking to you, giving commands and responding to the things you do. There is barely a moment of silence, and, at least on your first play-through, everything he says is novel and interesting. The direct response to your actions makes you feel immersed and responsible for the story like few games do.

Both of these games are trying to do the same thing with their storytelling, so it’s worth our while to think about why one of them is more successful at it than the other. The answer lies in the fact that, in addition to storytelling, Bioshock also seeks to evoke something called ‘flow’ in the player. To do so, it sets a number of mechanical tasks (in this case revolving around shooting) designed to cause intense pressure and to draw the player into using their full set of skills to be successful. This not only enhances the player’s feeling of achievement when they win, but also allows them to enter a state of complete engagement with the game. This is what we call flow. It was defined as a concept by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and is roughly summed up as a total absorption in the task at hand with a corresponding lack of awareness of unrelated factors. It’s a feeling I’m sure all gamers have felt, beating a level only to realise it’s 4 ‘o clock in the morning and they really should have peed half an hour ago. It’s also a great feeling, one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences there is, and it’s something that many genres revolve around creating.

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However, despite the positive aspects of a flow based experience, the demands this makes on the players attention cause problems in other areas. A user in a state of flow is focused on the task in hand to such an extent that they lose their receptiveness to storytelling. They aren’t going to take in the lushly imagined scenery as they dodge gunfire and they aren’t going to take in much of an information-heavy conversation as they listen out for the footsteps of the enemy flanking them. As a result, much of the time the player spends in a flow based experience like Bioshock is time that is dead to the writer. The story pieces in this game aren’t bunched up in the sections between battles because Ken Levine can’t structure a story, they are there because those are the times the player will be receptive to storytelling. This is why so many games use cut-scenes. Flow, as exhilarating as it is, is exhausting, and players need short breaks to optimize the experience. Cut-scenes, therefore, serve the dual purpose of providing a break and of making the most of the time in which the user is receptive to storytelling.

The Stanley Parable, on the other hand, features only the most basic mechanics (movement and interaction commands) which are focused only on allowing the player to access the next part of the story. It doesn’t try and evoke flow in the player, but instead provides just enough interactivity to let the player feel like they have a significant part in the narrative. So it’s not that the storytelling is better in than in Bioshock, it’s just the game as a whole is focused on delivering a story experience, whilst Bioshock tries to deliver a story around a system designed to evoke flow. For me, this is where the real future of storytelling in games is, and I hope that at some point we see an AAA developer have the courage to make a game with the same priorities. I think it could be spectacular.

N.B. Before I sign off, a caveat and a taster for next week. So far, I may have made it look like I view the mechanical side of gameplay as only a hindrance to storytelling. This is not the case at all – I merely wished to draw attention to the conflict between flow mechanics (which I love) and a certain type of immersive narrative. In fact, I think other types of mechanics have vast storytelling potential, and that’s what I hope to discuss in my next article.

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Joshua Baldwin aspires to write stories, articles and games as colourful as his childhood.