Pro Choice

Save/Harvest screen from Bioshock via
It’s nice to get a day off, because it’s a hell of a lot easier to sit in front of a blog editor and pontificate about how games should be made than it is to actually make a game. (Even one that’s already been plotted out and designed for you, and you just have to make with the comedy jokes.)

So back to my ill-conceived quest to dispel the myths of videogame storytelling. Spoiler note if you haven’t yet played BioShock: I’m not going to explicitly say what the game’s big plot reveal is, but I am going to come just short of it. So if you want to go in unspoiled, avoid the rest of this post.

I still say that Half-Life 2 is the game to beat when it comes to videogame storytelling. BioShock does an outstanding job of raising the bar in writing, music, art direction, and getting at genuine meaning in a game’s story, but by the end, it’s dragged down by the weight of videogame conventions and a final act that invalidates the game’s climax.

By contrast, Half-Life 2 is completely, unapologetically linear, and it tells a much simpler and more straightforward story. But because they put so much energy into immersion, you’re more engaged in the story. The interface fades into the background, and the cutscenes and encounters seem to grow from the environment instead of being triggered by unseen level designers. Because the world surrounding you feels so real, your brain fills in the gaps and invents backstory for these situations.

Of course, whenever you put forward Half-Life 2 as a great videogame, you’re countered with the claim that it’s not a game at all. Because it’s completely linear. And as we all know,

Myth 2: Videogames are all about choices.

It seems trivially true: videogames are an interactive medium. Interactivity means choices. Therefore, the best games are the ones that give you the most choices, the ones that let the player completely shape the experience.

All of the pre-release hype around BioWare’s new game Mass Effect emphasizes the game’s choices. A marketing video released last month had the crew getting all excited about how gloriously open-ended the game is going to be. In particular, there’s one playable character who has his own back-story of an alien race, leading to a crucial climactic decision that affects the final outcome of the game. But you could ignore him on your first meeting and not see that entire storyline at all! What tremendous scope!

When I hear that, my first thought is, “What a tremendous waste of time.” Why go to all the effort of modeling, animating, and voicing a character, much less coming up with a back-story and lengthy passages of dialogue to support it, if that story is so superfluous it can be completely ignored by the player without harming the overall game?

Now, Mass Effect seems like a very cool game, and I’m very much looking forward to playing it. And BioWare’s put an emphasis on choices and branching narrative in all of its games — that’s their gimmick, and it works for them. I enjoyed Knights of the Old Republic a lot, even though I thought its light side/dark side choice was pretty trite and shallow, but there are plenty of other players who’d point to that choice as their favorite aspect of the game.

I’m not against the choice. I’m against the idea that branching narratives, multiple puzzle solutions, and multiple endings, are the holy grail of videogame storytelling. The idea that all storytelling games would offer this kind of choice, if only they had enough budget and time. And the idea that a linear game fails to be a “game” because it doesn’t offer this kind of choice.

Rescue, Harvest, or (c) None of the Above

Most of the time I spent playing BioShock, I was divided between being impressed with everything I saw, and patting myself on the back for being smarter than the developers. All of the effort put into making an immersive game world was undermined by having bright colorful buttons over everything you could interact with, and a plot that dragged you forward with a big flashing yellow arrow telling you exactly where to go. And all that talk about moral ambiguity was silly, when your central moral choice was a simple binary “good” or “evil”, each with its own button and its own ending cutscene.

What a shame, I thought, that they built the game around something as clumsy and unsubtle as that. And how frustrating, since you don’t have any real choice apart from that. Over the course of the game, I developed more empathy for the Big Daddy characters, the lumbering guys in diving suits who trudged around the levels making whale songs, who wouldn’t harm you unless you harmed them first, and who were completely altruistic, existing only to protect these little girls left in their care. And no matter whether you chose the “rescue” or “harvest” path for the Little Sisters, you always have to kill the Big Daddy.

How insightful I am, I thought, for realizing that the most interesting choice in the game is the one you’re not explicitly allowed to make. It’s like the theme of morality that’s central to Shadow of the Colossus, but in a game set in an underwater city with robots and magic spells and weapons and people who actually talk. Over and over again, you choose to kill these characters, without having any real idea of the implications; in fact, you’re probably coming up with more and more clever and efficient ways to do it.

(And as should be obvious by now, it turns out I’m not all that insightful; that’s one of the main points of the game.)

It Could Happen to You!

So I say that the greatest potential for videogames as a storytelling medium doesn’t come from choice, but from agency. The plot and themes of the game have importance because you are the one driving the story forward.

I’ve heard the complaint that a linear videogame might as well be a movie, since what you do in the game doesn’t affect the final outcome. But what separates the alien invasion story of Half-Life 2 from the one in War of the Worlds is that in Half-Life, you’re not just watching things happen to someone else, it’s all happening to you.

And what separates the climactic reveal of BioShock from the one at the finale of The Sixth Sense is that the reveal has significance only because of the things you’ve been doing in the game up to that point.

If it can be compared to any movie, it’s most similar to the scene in Rear Window when Torvald finally discovers he’s being spied on. At the beginning of the scene, he’s a threat to Grace Kelly’s character, who we’ve been getting more and more attached to throughout the movie. But then he looks up, not at Jimmy Stewart’s character, our protagonist, but directly at us in the audience. It breaks right through the fourth wall, and injects the movie’s main theme right into your soul. It’s not a cheap-shock violation like The Tingler, but leaves you feeling simultaneously vulnerable and guilty for taking part in all this voyeurism. Being able to compare a scene from a videogame to one of Hitchcock’s finest moments is high praise for BioShock, and the effect is even stronger because we’ve got eight or nine hours invested in the experience at that point, instead of just one.

I’ve also heard the complaint that a linear game might as well be a book, which is interactive only in that the player decides when to turn to the next page. But in a game that’s designed well, the player has to know how to turn the page before he can continue. In the ideal book or movie, the “A-HA!” moment comes after something’s happened in the story.

But in the ideal narrative game, the “A-HA!” comes first, and only then can the story continue. For that to happen, the player’s got to be so immersed that he no longer feels that he’s being told a story, but that he’s the one doing the telling.

That can mean a branching narrative and multiple endings, sure. But it’s not a requirement — each ending you provide discounts an infinite number of other endings, so how is that really any less artificial than just providing one? Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run and “Choose Your Own Adventure” books all have their own audiences and succeed or fail to different degrees, but they’re all basically based on a gimmick.

If I have to decide between a game with 12 different but equally shallow story paths, and a game with a single, genuinely compelling, complex, detailed, and well thought-out story, the choice is clear.