When I started writing about storytelling in videogames almost a month ago, I’d intended to turn it into a series, with more arguments and maybe even some examples more concrete than “videogame stories should be good.” To keep things going, I’ll take some of the comments I’ve read about the topic online (in blogs, articles, and on message boards) in the past few weeks, and offer up a rebuttal to each.
Previously on Spectre Collie…
To recap: writing and storytelling in videogames has traditionally been weak at best. It’s common knowledge — whether it’s accurate or not — that videogame stories suck, and even the best don’t measure up to the level of the worst movies and books. And objection to cut-scenes and lengthy non-interactive segments has evolved into a whole school of thought saying that story has no place in videogames. According to this, games are defined by interactivity and their game mechanics, and that’s all that’s important. Trying to apply aspects of other media into videogames has not only failed in the past, but it’s always doomed to fail.
I say that not only can you tell a good story in a game, but that it’s important to games. In fact, it’s the only way that videogames are going to realize their true potential. Now, this requires a looser definition of “story” to make sense. It’s not just the narrative, or the premise, but everything that’s not purely the game mechanic: setting, characters, dialogue, narrative, and theme.
Myth 1: Videogames are Young
So the first myth about storytelling in videogames always comes in response to the whole “are videogames art?” debate, and you’ll see it repeated in this article from Wired. It usually goes something like this:
Somebody, like say Roger Ebert, asks why, if videogames are capable of art, hasn’t there been the great masterpiece worthy of comparison to the greatest works of film and literature? In other words, why is there no Citizen Kane of videogames?
Inevitably followed by the reply: Videogames and interactive entertainment are still a new medium, and developers are still figuring out how to use it. It took the movie industry decades to produce its definitive classics.
Which seems to me a pretty weak argument. A big deal was made on the internet about the recent 40-year anniversary of videogames, and this article by Kyle Orland in Joystiq compares other media at their 40-year mark (using a somewhat arbitrary start date for each, which I won’t argue with here). By the standard presented in that article, it would seem that we’re still in pretty good shape, and we’re due for our greatest achievement in just a few years now.
But there are problems with that. For starters, the development of a medium of art or entertainment doesn’t place in a vacuum. Looking back at the Joystiq article, compare the state of film after 40 years versus that of TV, and it’s clear that TV advanced a lot more quickly. They list “The Flintstones” as one of the most popular shows at the cut-off point, while movies had just released integrated soundtracks and introduced the Academy Awards.
“The Flintstones” as Postmodernist Masterpiece
While it may be tough to recognize today, “The Flintstones” was pretty experimental: an animated series airing in prime time, that was itself a parody of an earlier series. Depending on how much credit you want to give Hanna Barbera, it was either a postmodernist reference back to “The Honeymooners;” or the character types created in “The Honeymooners” were so established at that point, that they were default for a family comedy. Either way, it took a lot of evolution (no pun intended) and maturity before you could have something like “The Flintstones” even air, much less be one of the top series.
By that standard, games should have been maturing twice as fast as television did. And at least monetarily, that’s the case: the industry is making mad money, and game budgets are already rivaling those of movies. Production values are plenty high, too — there are plenty of scenes in Gears of War and Half-Life 2 that were more convincing to me than the effects in Starship Troopers and the recent War of the Worlds. The videogame business clearly isn’t pacing itself by the same schedule as movies & TV.
My biggest objection to the “games are still new” defense, though, is that artistic media are improved not just by time, but by milestones. You can’t just say that in x number of years, you’re due for your Wizard of Oz or Casablanca or Citizen Kane. The medium doesn’t really grow by evolution, but by intelligent design — you’ve got to have somebody who recognizes the potential of the medium, and then makes something that exploits it, showing the next generation what’s possible.
So just saying “give it time” doesn’t really cut it. The industry has got to put up or shut up. A better rebuttal to the question, “What is the videogame equivalent of Citizen Kane?” is to ask, “What’s so great about Citizen Kane?” It’s universally considered a classic, one of the greatest achievements in film. So what did it accomplish for movies as a form of art?
Orson Welles May Be a Hero To Most…
It’d be easiest for all of us if I could just say, “It’s the story. The end.” But it’s clearly not. “A reporter looks back on the life of an ambitious and powerful man to discover what was his greatest desire” is definitely a solid premise, but on its own, isn’t enough to warrant universal praise.
It’s not even the way the narrative is structured (part of the storytelling as Hanford Lemoore described it in an earlier comment, and thanks to him for bringing up the distinction). Setting up the central mystery of “What is ‘Rosebud?’” was a brilliant way to drive the story, and it’s one of the best-known conventions in the history of movies. But it’s also one that could’ve happened in any other narrative medium; it’s not so novel that you couldn’t do the same thing in, well, a novel.
And that is why people are still pointing to Citizen Kane as one of the definitive medium-defining movies: it takes a good story, and then tells it in a way that only a movie can. There’s the composition of shots that clearly and instantly establish characters and the relationships between them (the iconic image of Kane in front of his campaign poster, and the careful placement of characters in the foreground or background to show Kane growing distant from the people close to him). There’s the breakfast table montage that shows Kane’s marriage deteriorating over time via the placement of the actors and the editing of the scenes. And there are all the match-on-action shots that give the movie the sense of jumping around in time. (And more than that, just served as Orson Welles’ showing off.)
You can use a lot of the same gimmicks in other media — in comic books, The Watchmen gets a lot of use out of symbols and icons to show character, and images that carry through from one scene to the next. But a comic adaptation of novelization of Citizen Kane would fail if it just attempted a direct recreation, just as the cinematic adaptation of The Watchmen will fail if it just tries to film the comic book. Unless you exploit the medium to its fullest, doing the things that only that medium can do, you’re going to fall short of the medium’s potential.
“Games are not movies!”
Obviously, what videogames add is interactivity. And that’s the source of the whole debate: games just aren’t yet exploiting that interactivity as well as they could. Because they have all the same storytelling elements as movies (or television, in the case of episodic games such as Telltale’s hilarious Sam and Max series available for the low low price of $34.95 for the entire first season), the tendency has been to make shambling Frankenstein’s Monster creations stitching together cinematic sequences and interactive sequences that never quite meld. You either get games that periodically stop being interactive to make you watch a movie, or interesting story sequences that are held together by a predictable and uninspired game. And sometimes the most fun, perfectly-designed, pure games-for-their-own-sake games feel obligated to throw in some token effort at story, putting in an opening cutscene explaining that you’re playing Breakout to rescue a space princess from some evil galactic mega-corporation.
That results in the “Games are not movies! Down with story!” backlash. “Stop with all the pretentious ‘are videogames art?’ talk and just get back to asking ‘are videogames fun?’” Which is pretty unambitious. We already know videogames have to the potential to be fun; the industry wouldn’t be making billions and billions of dollars and taking up hours and hours of our time if they weren’t.
But they’re capable of more than that. So why not try to achieve more than that? We can just keep on Unreal Tournament until we come up with flashier versions of a game that’s undeniably fun but ultimately without purpose. Or, we could try to make interactivity meaningful. I don’t like the Grand Theft Auto series, for example, but I can’t deny that it was hugely significant in showing what you can do with a truly interactive environment. Now, what if you had a GTA with something of more substance than shooting hookers?
The various aspects of Citizen Kane — montages, staging, different types of editing — aren’t interesting on their own. They only stand out because they serve the story and its characters. Plenty of lesser movies use the same techniques, and they remain lesser movies. The cinematic elements alone don’t make it a great movie, just as a great game mechanic by itself doesn’t guarantee a great game. Even if you say that Kane is a case of form over function, that it’s only regarded a classic because of the way it mastered the cinematic elements in service of a fairly simple story: what’s wrong with that? Why not apply that to games? Having that kind of filter during game development would be a great improvement to what we have now: imagine how many hours of frustration we could’ve avoided if developers had simply asked themselves, “Does this jumping puzzle actually serve any purpose in the overall story?”
It All Has Purpose
That doesn’t mean that every game has to mean something, any more than the existence of “important” movies means we can no longer have movies like Big Trouble in Little China. And I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t have Guitar Hero.
It just means that we start rewarding the developers who try to move things forward. It’s not just going to happen naturally over time. You’ve got to have people who are willing to step up and experiment with how interactivity and narrative feed off each other, instead of being mutually exclusive. And they’ve got to be able to do it without hearing the old story about how it won’t sell as well as Quake or Madden. Half-Life 2 is experimenting with things from the linear, cinematic perspective, and it seems to be selling all right. And The Sims went at it from the pure game-mechanic/sandbox angle, but it still managed to make a subtle commentary on consumerism and the nature of storytelling, and I believe it made a few dollars for Electronic Arts. I wouldn’t call either of those the Citizen Kane of videogames, but they’re on the right track.
At present, videogames aren’t like the fresh-faced young high-school graduate finding out how to make his way in the world, just years away from his first greatest achievement. They’re like the 40-year-old stoner who maybe will get around to accomplishing something, eventually. But for now it’s just easier and more cost-effective to just sit on the couch and watch shit blow up.
(While I was doing Google searches, I found this article from CBS News from last year, about the “Citizen Kane of videogames.” It gets perspective from a few people and then comes to many of the same conclusions. None of this is particularly new ground.)
Is there anybody going to listen to my story?
I think one of the main things about story in games is that fundamentally, games to me are about making *informed* choices. Whether that’s “I’ve gotta shoot that guy,” or “I need to move the blue block here,” doesn’t really matter. It also doesn’t matter really *how* you inform the player, but stories are a really good way of doing that, particularly when you want them to understand something more complex than “Push this crate here.”
How, for instance, would you get a player to *not* shoot something in an FPS? There has to be some reason for them not to shoot something when everything in the game’s mechanics are focused on shooting things. Stories can show character, or consequence that inform the player’s actions in a deeper, more meaningful way than many other mechanics.
Not to be argumentative, but I really think a comparison of video games to films is off base. Roger Ebert was wrong, and I don’t think you’ve done your arguments good service by taking it that direction.
BTW, games are way ahead of where Kane was. In even the earliest 3D shooters, you could see the ceiling.
Why argue if games are art? They are art. ‘Nuff said. And story can contribute to a games overall value. But a game where the story IS the game mechanic is wrong-headed. Nobody wants to play someone elses story. Books and movies are better at that. Otherwise that’s just busywork, the moral equivalent of…”when you hear the beep, advance to the next slide.”
That’s why most games include story as a skippable element. If you really care about the half-life story, you can dig deeper. If you just want to kill aliens, well, then that’s fine too. Largely, it’s a benefit for designers trying to keep the repetitive game mechanic from becoming dull.
But I’d say you’re not aiming low, you’re aiming at the wrong target if you want to make a story into a game. It would be easy. Take out the puzzles in one of the Sam and Max games and play it through. “Living Book,” you say. They don’t make those anymore. People buy because of the puzzles, the feeling of environmental control and immersion.
Context is good, environment is good, player empowerment is good, but narrative is by far the least important of the design additions.
Feel free to add story, but put the budget on what’s really important.
Really? Is that why a game like Final Fantasy has such an enduring legacy? I’m not going to argue that they’re good games – from 7-11, they were pretty well garbage, and X had one of the worst stories I’ve ever seen. But it gives players an emotional hook into the characters, and there’s no question of that value.
Games aren’t *just* about interactivity. They’re a medium, and you can use that medium to a variety of different effects – storytelling being one of them. And the ability of a player to affect the story *matters* if the story is good, and the interactivity is meaningful.
To say that it’s not “really important” as a whole ignores a huge segment of what games *can* be. In some games, the story *is* really important, and not just as a reward for the puzzle-solving bits.
It’s easy to hang crap narrative on a game, and I think that’s why so many game stories are out-and-out garbage. Good storytelling in *any* medium is extremely difficult – exponentially more so in a nonlinear environment. But that doesn’t mean it can’t, or shouldn’t be done – it just means it’s a lot harder, and until people understand how to tell stories in that environment better, there are going to be few good stories in games.
Well, I guess we’ll just have to differ in opinion.
I recall Steven Spielberg once challenged the video game industry to create a game that could make someone cry with the drama. I think he really missed the point, as games hit an entirely different portion of the game.
If I’m ignoring what games can be, I’d like to see a single example of a game where the story took a mediocre game and made it great. In other words, people bought the product for the story and not for what the player does.
Looking for just one.
I cried when I got to the end of MegaMan and my brother kicked the cord out on his way to take a whiz. Cried with the drama.
Half Life 2, for me. Ico, for another. Yeah, they’re not stories you can compare to linear media, but that’s the *point*. I bought HL2 because of the narrative presentation. I’ve seen a hojillion other games in which I shoot things – even in cool ways. Ico created a level of emotional involvement in game that I’ve never seen in any other game, or even in most other media.
Spielberg’s supposed challenge, or EA’s original ad “Can a videogame make you cry?” are missing the point. Of *course* a game can make you cry. Take a dog in the Sims, allow you to train it to the point where it does tricks, follows you around the house, brings in the paper, then hit it with an in-game car and watch your Sim hold it as it dies in your arms.
Yeah. Not buying it about the dog. Plus…you killed the dog. Not cool, dude.
I can only name one? Cause I was going to say “every adventure game ever made, except for Day of the Tentacle.” I don’t like adventure game puzzles in general, but for years they were all I played. Just because they told stories more interesting than “get the red key.” (DoTT’s puzzles are good on their own).
Or Seppo’s example, Half-Life 2. Except for the gravity gun, it’s a pretty straightforward shooter. It stands out because it tells its story exceptionally well.
The real problem is your insistence on one or the other:
For starters, I tried to make it clear in the sea of words up there, that “story” in the sense I’m using it is not the same as “narrative.” The narrative is just part of it; there are ways to tell stories that aren’t just a set sequence of events.
When developers say that story isn’t important (or on the flip side, “we’ll add the puzzles later”), that’s exactly what’s caused the sorry state of games that we have now. It’s been shown over and over again that the only way to make it work is to have the story and the interactivity work together. Too much story, and it’s an interactive movie. Too little story, and it’s a fun but pointless game.
I don’t see how “budget” has anything to do with it. Unless it’s prohibitively expensive to hire game designers who have a broader base of experience than just having played a lot of Quake and thinking that Aliens and/or Lord of the RIngs are “wicked awesome.” It doesn’t take money to decide to go in from the start and say that you’re going to avoid cutting corners and instead make something that holds together as a game and as a meaningful experience. It just takes talent.
Nonsense. I want to play someone else’s story. Other people’s stories tell me stuff I don’t already know, or show me stuff I wouldn’t have thought of.
“Books and movies are better at that” doesn’t make sense, either. A novel is a story in its purest form, and it can tell a story with more depth and detail than any other medium. So why would we even bother with movies? Just because we’re too lazy to read? No, because movies can tell stories in ways that novels can’t. There are aspects unique to the medium that can be used to tell the story in a different way.
And it’s the exact same thing with games. Interactivity adds a layer to storytelling that you just simply can’t get in a book or a movie. The only reason Shadow of the Colossus is so significant is because you’re the one making the decisions of the main character.
That’s definitely not the case in Half-Life, at least according to Gabe Newell’s et. al. estimation. They’re deliberately attempting to expand on the quality of storytelling in games.
And including it as a skippable element, or saying that it’s only to keep “a repetitive game mechanic from becoming dull” is just lazy, defeatist, and just plain wrong. Players are savvy enough to be able to tell when the story in a game is just filler. If as a designer, you mean your story to be just filler, then you’re better off just not bothering. There are plenty of great games with no story — Guitar Hero, Civilization, Catan, etc.
But to look at all the cases of filler stories (or filler gameplay) and assume that that’s the only way to make a game, is just lazy and unambitious.
No, movies are not games. But they’re not so dissimilar that you can’t learn anything applicable by deconstructing them. Games have so many of the same elements as movies, minus defined narrative, plus interactivity. Designers have failed by trying to make games too much like movies, but it’d be just as big a mistake to assume that because of those failures, there’s nothing left to learn from movies.
Being argumentative is kind of the whole point. Otherwise I’m just rehashing the same points that have already been covered elsewhere, ad nauseam.
OK, I’ll be argumentative.
You wouldn’t have played any of the adventure games if they didn’t have puzzles.
You wouldn’t have played half-life if the shooting wasn’t fun.
The Imagineering definition of “story” is really loose. It’s difficult to argue with your statements above if you don’t have a more concrete definition.
I believe that Half Life not only attempted to, but succeeded at a greater level of integration of story and gameplay. To be sure it’s a great game, with a good story. They did a great job, but if the game sucked no one would care.
And I’m not defeatist. At what point in Myst did you stop reading the pages and pages of stories from the books? When do you hit the escape key in a cutscene? When do you select the default answer to get out of an interactive dialog?
The answer isn’t never. The question is, “WHEN do you tire of sitting passively and start playing?”
And games are dissimilar from movies. Real different.
They wouldn’t have been adventure *games* without some measure of interactivity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean puzzles. It means that within the context of the game I’m making meaningful decisions about how my actions affect the world. In most adventure games as they’re traditionally defined, that means walking around the world, choosing who to talk to, and then solving some puzzles. Since that’s the traditional *definition* of an adventure game, you’re right. If it didn’t have puzzles, I’d be playing some *other type of game*.
But take a game like Indigo Prophecy, where the prime “puzzle” (before it devolved into QTE’s) was figuring out what the heck was going on. The puzzles are actually part of the narrative, and your decisions change how the story unfolds.
Of course I wouldn’t have played a game if it wasn’t good. But that doesn’t mean I won’t play a game that isn’t *fun*. Shadow of the Colossus is a perfect example. I didn’t find it “fun”. Epic, maybe. Troubling? Pensive? Sure. Fun? Not really. I stopped playing it because it was a moral conundrum. I didn’t feel like my actions were justified, and the consequence of the actions I was taking in game was more than I thought it was worth. I put the game away entirely, and haven’t played it since. I believe that was actually *part of the game*, and it was something that couldn’t have been done in any other medium, simply because that decision was driven by the fact that *I* had to choose either to take action I felt was not right, or not.
The point of “story” is that interactive narrative is *not* the same as linear narrative, and comparing the two is quite difficult. It’d be like comparing a movie to a book, and saying that the prose isn’t as good in the movie, and ending it at that. Of course the prose in the movie isn’t as good as it is in the novel. The novel’s sole means of conveying a story is through the prose – with a movie, there are other channels to communicate information to the viewer. With a game, there are still more channels to communicate. Behaviour *matters*. How you present the player with a decision point is part of the story you’re constructing. These aren’t considerations in linear media.
I love reading. I love movies. I love comic books, and music. But I don’t compare the story in something like Rush’s “The Trees” to “Memento” or “Ender’s Game.” I certainly don’t say one is better than the other because Ender’s Game doesn’t have music.
There are adventure games that I’d watch as cartoons or movies if they didn’t have puzzles, but that’s not the point. The point is that it doesn’t have to be either/or; in fact the problem is when you put all your effort into one at the expense of the other.
Which is why I said it was a loose definition of “story”, and I gave a concrete definition towards the top: “It’s not just the narrative, or the premise, but everything that’s not purely the game mechanic: setting, characters, dialogue, narrative, and theme.”
Probably. But my point is that if the story sucked no one would care, either. It would’ve just been yet another version of Quake. DOOM and Quake had very weak premises, but they were hits because of their novelty and their gameplay. But you can only iterate on that so many times without bringing anything new to the table.
If Myst were the pinnacle of storytelling in games, then that would be a good point. But Myst is way off-balance, IMO — fascinating setting and “story,” interrupted by puzzles that are at worst annoying, at best interesting but disconnected from everything else.
For that matter, I’m not saying that the Sam & Max games are the perfect end-goal either; they’re catering to the old-school point-and-click audience, with (what I hope is) really funny dialogue on top.
I’m saying it hasn’t been perfected yet; others are saying it can never be perfected, so don’t bother trying. You hear “Books and movies are better at telling stories.” I want to hear why and come up with my rebuttal. Because even though storytelling in games hasn’t been perfected yet, I’ve already played games with stories that were more engaging than any book I’ve read or movie I’ve seen, specifically because of the interactivity of a game.
If you can come up with a reason why movies — apart from the linear narrative — are so fundamentally different from games that we can’t apply what we know from cinema studies to game production, then I’d like to hear it.
* If you can come up with a reason why movies — apart from the linear narrative — are so fundamentally different from games that we can’t apply what we know from cinema studies to game production, then I’d like to hear it.
Let’s be real for a second. This is a bit like saying, “Radio and TV are very close to each other. They’re both broadcast mediums, they both tell stories. Surely the artistic techniques used to create both must be very similar.”
Just wanted to mention of your comment that how you spend your budget has nothing to do with the final outcome of the product, provided creative ingenuity is applied isn’t really defensible. I think more analysis may be called for on that point.
Dude, I said be argumentative, not be high. I hope you’re not trying to say that movies & videogames have no more in common than radio & TV. Are you really trying to say that games have nothing to learn from the past 100+ years of cinematography, lighting, staging, camera placement, use of music, editing, and general cinematic technique?
I’m still trying to parse that sentence. Are you saying that “we didn’t have the budget to have better writing and story” is a defensible position, and not just a lazy middle-management excuse? Because if so, I think a lot more analysis is called for at that point.
Just saying that TV is a superset of radio. Just as games are a superset of tv and movies. There are important fundamental differences which govern the medium, based on the strengths of the medium.
I’m sure you’re clever enough to parse the sentence, even though I admit it was badly and hastily written. A great designer works within the constraints of the technology and the budget. It’s too easy to just blame middle management that the “creatives” haven’t created the perfect blend of story and gameplay. Let’s look to ourselves first (yes, I include myself too).
What you describe is noble, for sure. I’m not sure it’s necessary, is all.
What I was responding to was the suggestion that one of the constraints of storytelling in games is the budget. That you need to choose whether you put your money into the game, or the story. And I’m still not buying that.
If the only way to achieve “story” were to make Square-style multi-million dollar cutscenes, I could see it. But one of my primary arguments is going to be that the way to get storytelling in games is to integrate it from the start, and not treat it as a separate “cinematics team.”
Well, I think it’s absolutely necessary to keep videogames from stagnating. So there’s more in the market besides yearly releases of Madden and UT, and games like Gears of War, which are slick and very fun, but ultimately pointless. It’d be as if there were NO movies made other than Die Hard and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, all because people said, “Why bother making a deeper movie? These make more money, and they’re fun to watch, and they’re the state of the art in visual effects. What’s the problem?”
Fair enough. No more pointless bickering. Where would you take it beyond Half Life” and more cutscenes?