Telling Tales: The Art Of Game Stories In 2011

By Lewis Denby on October 5th, 2011 at 11:58 am.


Videogame storytelling is evolving, and the past few years have seen some fresh approaches to spinning the interactive yarn. Lewis Denby, on a mission to find out a little more about what stories mean to modern games, spoke to Splash Damage’s Ed Stern, who created the huge backstory for Brink, and script writer Tom Jubert, most famous for his work on Penumbra, to find out how we’re telling tales in this modern gaming age.

Brink is, as should be clear to anyone, a multiplayer first-person shooter. In it, two teams compete against each other to complete various familiar objectives, like capturing an item from the enemy’s base and bringing it back to their own. And yet, even before development properly started, lead writer Edward Stern was scrutinising page upon page of notes about something other than game mechanics – notes that went into startling depth about every element of the game’s story, from its characters, to the background of its world. His aim was to communicate a detailed narrative in which everything was crystal clear, through the form of a multiplayer FPS – a game with few cutscenes and minimal dialogue. The approach stretched right down to the most accepted of game-isms, such as why you’d even want to capture a flag in the first place.

“It wasn’t just a flag you had to get to your base,” Stern explains. “It was this thing. And you disagreed about what this thing was depending on what you’d been told.”

In Brink, your ‘flag’ was either the antidote to a terrible virus, or a fierce piece of biological warfare. Whichever side you were on, the game told you a different story. “That’s interesting,” says Stern. “I’m not sure if anyone’s done that before.”


In fact story telling in games is taking on more intricacy all the time. It now assumes – under the banner of “narrative design” – that there’s more to spinning a good yarn than lobbing some dialogue on top of an existing premise for conflict. This undertaking, the work of the narrative designer, is a pursuit that meshes writing and game design together in a more tightly woven form that we might previously have been used to. This is not simply slotting exposition between the action, but something more integral.

You might have heard the term before. I first became aware of it a couple of years back when speaking to Tom Jubert, whose narrative design helped craft the dazzlingly twisted indie series, Penumbra. “’Writing’ is the old way of doing it,” he tells me now. “It’s kind of being phased out.”

In the old days, a studio would most likely create a game with a basic premise, then bring a writer in last-minute to help bash together some words, maybe some CG scenes. Increasingly, though, studios are utilising narrative design techniques to help the story and the mechanics of play become one and the same. “Narrative design is 50 percent game design, 50 percent writing,” says Jubert. “You’re in from the start, you’re overseeing the entire narrative and anything that’s related to it, and it’s obviously the natural way to do it. It makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of people in games now who are good writers and know about game design, so it makes sense to have those people running the show.”


The idea, then, is to look beyond the words, beyond the dialogue, and to analyse how an entire game can tell a story. The approach is at its most obvious in things like the Portal games, and that’s why writers like Erik Wolpaw have been so lauded by the press and wider industry. Games like that are nothing without their dialogue, their story-telling, their jokes and drama. It’s rarer to see this approach applied to multiplayer games – Stern says it’s probably more difficult in that context – but it’s being applied to an increasing number of releases of all kinds.

Constructing a story in this way requires a more restrained, muted approach, perhaps, than many writers are used to – even if it requires a hell of a lot more planning. There’s always the temptation to try to communicate everything in words. After all, that’s where a traditional writer’s strengths lie. But in a medium like gaming, it isn’t always the most effective route. And when you’ve not only a script, but a world and game mechanics to bounce off, being able to demonstrate concepts without words is often key.

It’s something that Edward Stern – who, prior to joining Splash Damage, worked as a journalist – has struggled with on occasion. “Trying to come up with the right size of story… In a way it’s like the classic screenwriting thing where in the first draft – the ‘vomit pass’ – everybody says everything. And that’s just exhausting. So how can you do that through an environment? How can you make it clear?”


His answer lies somewhere within those pages and pages of background material. Character biographies. Location details, including how and why they came to be. Brainstorms and mood boards. And an acceptance that not all of these things have to be rammed down the player’s throat. They’re things that need never explicitly make the final cut – but you can see their remnants in the art, the animations, the level design and the game’s objectives. Clues to the big picture.

Tom Jubert agrees with Stern’s approach, too: “Certainly that’s the right way to do it,” he says. “Narrative design takes so much work. Not more work than game design, but there are a lot of different tracks to keep in your head. It’s the age-old thing of ‘tip of the iceberg’. Obviously, if you do a good job, then a lot of the work that you do doesn’t make it to the final product. But it underpins what does. I know that the world design in Brink is one of its strongest elements, certainly.”

Jubert looks back at his own experiences writing Penumbra, and now considers the game to be far too text-heavy. It featured a fair amount of impressive environmental storytelling, and the moments that played with your expectations of the level design were some of the most unsettling and effective I’ve seen in gaming, but the bulk of the story was communicated via torn-out diary entries, strewn around the game world.

“I was writing fucking essays in that game,” he recalls. “It was crazy. And some people really went for it, but really that was just my lack of experience. That was me just writing down everything that I wanted to write, and not thinking about how long that was going to take to read.”

While he’s also written for some major titles – most recently Driver: San Francisco – most of Jubert’s narrative design work has been on smaller projects, where one writer can make a lot of impact. Nevertheless he thinks that the major studios are increasingly looking to transform the way they tell stories, even when much of what they do is from a cinema-derived, scripted formula. “There’s no doubt that story is a legitimate selling point,” he says. “Look at the Call of Dutys – which, let’s be honest, would probably sell almost as many as they do without any effort put into the story. But they put a lot of time and effort into it. Obviously it gets varying reception amongst people, but they try to push the boundaries over there.”

Jubert thinks it’s encouraging that the games industry is taking this route. It took working on a marketing-centric Facebook game for him to realise how far things have come. “That was a very different experience,” he says. “The marketing team aren’t gamers, they outsource all of that, and so when you’re working for them it’s a very different deal, ’cause they’re kind of looking at you simply as a text provider. That really brought home for me quite how great the games industry is, and how good people tend to be. And as a narrative designer, that’s half of your job: not to make people do stuff that works through narrative, but to get people interested enough in the narrative that you don’t need to make them – that they want to make sure that everything works together.”


So now that we’re seeing major development studios more concerned with story, where does narrative design go next? What can games do to tell stories even more convincingly? Interestingly, Stern and Jubert agree that the future lies not just in writing techniques, but also in technology. L.A. Noire’s MotionScan system is something that quickly comes up. “If you think about your tools as a writer in the games industry, you’re limited in a lot of ways,” says Jubert. “Someone asked me on my blog recently, ‘Why are game stories often perceived to be so shit?’ Which is a fair question, because they are. And there are a bunch of plausible reasons. One of the big ones is that our tools are limited in a lot of ways as compared to other mediums. Up until something like L.A. Noire, you can’t have an actor expressing things in his performance very much, because the detail just isn’t there. Things that De Niro could do with one look across the room, we have to do with a line of dialogue.”

As technologies like MotionScan become more commonplace, says Jubert, writers will have new ways to communicate narrative elements with subtlety. And new storytelling techniques that merge narrative and interaction will become possible, as well. “Think about the well-written RPGs. We’re being given options, but we’re not really being asked to second-guess a character.” Now, he says, that could change.

Ed Stern expresses similar hopes for tech, although he’s less certain that these are tools that the industry will have full access to any time soon. “The technology’s always just around the corner,” he says. “We’re mere months away, it always seems, from absolutely uncanny-valley-vaulting photorealism, a magic box whereby every nuance of an actor’s performance can be quickly, easily, cheaply captured and faithfully, artfully rendered unto the player – an Avatar or L.A. Noire-quality performance-capture technology costing no more than the hire of radio mics and lighting rig. Well, perhaps. I just haven’t seen it yet.” And even when Epic talk about photorealism being within their grasp, nothing you actually see made in Unreal gets anywhere close.

Stern points out that even director James Cameron, when making blockbuster CGI flick Avatar, didn’t have the resources to view his motion-capture technology in real-time against his backdrops – and these, he says, are the sorts of tools the industry will need if it’s to make huge strides forward in this regard. “Because animation cleanup takes so long, cinematics often have to be motion-captured before the virtual location has been finalised, built, textured and lit, which makes it very hard for the actors and characters to behave in a way that matches their surroundings,” he explains. “As with everything else about games production, it’s the art of the possible.” And that’s an expensive art.

Ideas for the future rather than the present, then? Perhaps so. But if that’s the case, I’d say the future’s looking bright.

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86 Comments »

  1. Pobblepop says:

    Narrative in games is piss-poor. I saw an interview with Graham Linehan (Father Ted, IT Crowd writer) who I think hit the nail on the head when he said that games writers don’t seem to read novels, they just watch movies and tv for inspiration and subsequently all narrative is derivative and shallow. I think they should all be forced to read Samual Beckett and Philip.K.Dick and then get back to it.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Yet they’d still have to get the rest of their 100-man studio on the same page. Which means they’d end up referencing Aliens again and….

    • PatrickSwayze says:

      Exactly how many of your friends read, in particular the ones who play videogames?

      I would hazzard a guess that you could count that them all one hand. Twilight, Harry Potter and LOTR don’t count.

    • Lewis Denby says:

      PatrickSwayze: I’d guess that most of my friends love literature and videogames. And more are readers than gamers, if there’s a disparity.

    • Ovno says:

      I’m sorry but LOTR so counts!!!

      Potter and Twilight however can bugger off.

    • Asherie says:

      Unfortunately I know most of my friends who play games for the majority of their spare time, do not read. They are fully functioning members of society however, with jobs, degrees and all that ‘im normal, accept me please’ stuff. I read but not as much as I know I should. The ‘supposed’ average is 9 books a year (which lets face it, is not a lot). I’d hazard a guess that I read 1 book a month, sometimes more but never less. Poor show I know.

    • iucounu says:

      Every single one of my friends reads to a greater or lesser degree; actually I’d say that just looking at those of them who play games regularly, the people who game most tend to read most too.

      My terror-stat is that the average person buys one book a year.

    • EdFear says:

      Sorry, but that’s a massively unfair generalisation. I don’t know a single game writer that just consumes pulp-scifi and nothing else. Most of them are constantly absorbing and researching.

      Like Jim says, the fact is that they are one person in a 100-person machine. Writers very, very rarely set the tone/setting of the game. Even when we’re brought in early, it’s still: “This is the sort of game we want to make, this is the setting.” That’s how it should be – it’s a game first, after all. The writer has input, depending on their ‘status’ in the team, but they can’t do a 180. Writers aren’t the vision holders, although they’re increasingly getting a say in it.

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      Harlander says:

      My terror-stat is that the average person buys one book a year.

      What’re the stats for people getting books out of libraries?

      (My Google-fu is weak today..)

    • iucounu says:

      480M books borrowed annually, is a stat I just found. That’s, what, 8 books per person per year? Also, 58% of the population has a library card.

    • Meat Circus says:

      Linehan’s talking out of his arse. Again.

    • sneetch says:

      58% of which population? World-wide?

    • iucounu says:

      @Sneetch, the UK population, apparently. These were stats from World Book Day a few years ago, I think.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      @PatrickSwayze: If the answer to that question isn’t “the overwhelming majority,” you might want to consider getting new (and better) friends.

    • Drake Sigar says:

      PatrickSwayze – First, Lord of the Rings counts, if for no other reason than slogging through that bloated howtofantasy manual is a huge achievement in itself. Secondly, I have not noticed any correlation between illiterate morons and gamers, and I do not have enough fingers & toes to count the number of gamers I know who read. Certainly young gamers in their teenage years are resistant to reading, but once they’re out of school and aren’t being eye-raped by Shakespeare every week in English classes, their trepidation towards literature usually fades.

    • Creeping Death says:

      @Asherie; 9 a year is the average? Huh… For the most part this year I’ve averaged 6 or so books a month oO

      I’ve always found it a bit odd how some people just don’t read, at all.

    • wisnoskij says:

      LOTRs so counts

      @Creeping …: Reading takes time, if you are reading 6 books of (what i would call) good literature then that is likely you have to spend at least 1 hour a day of time.

      Back while I was a kid with loads of time on my hands I could spend 14 hours in a single day and read an entire 600 page epic in those 14 consecutive hours (and often did).

      Now I am lucky to get an hour a week.

    • KillahMate says:

      Though I love Linehan, feeding someone a diet of Pynchon in hope that a brilliant game narrative pops out seems misguided somehow.

    • PatrickSwayze says:

      Well, I’m a denizen of the Midlands and local to the Grim North so perhaps my viewpoint is skewered but of my gaming friends most are surprisingly resistant to reading, though I did manage to get one into reading via way of the Halo novels, some of which are surprisingly decent.

      My reading/writing friends are not elitist but it seems they were never converted into games as children.

      If anything I wish my gamer friends would just pick up some Sci-Fi books just to see where most of the ideas come from that fill games that aren’t direct references to Aliens.

      Sadly I have a whole heap of friends who don’t read or game either, they seem to lack the effort to accomplish anything above listening to music, watching tv and going out. Not that I should judge…

      And for me, LOTR was nothing more than an exercise in patience. As far as I’m concerned the best fantasy literature going is the work of Joe Abercrombie, and The Blade Itself is a masterpiece.

    • TooNu says:

      I read two books per month for the last 8 years or so. That’s a lot of reading

    • Monkeh says:

      @Pobblepop: So according to you, movies never have meaningful dialogue/narrative?

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      There’s a great article in the new Edge that suggests that game writing – well, dialogue specifically – isn’t bad, it’s just film and tv have conditioned us to appreciate a very particular sort of dialogue. Game dialogue serves a completely different function to dialogue in other media, and as our understanding of games increases, so will a) our appreciation of game dialogue as GAME dialogue, and b) the talent of game writers.

      Personally I can think of loads of games with perfect writing. Mostly by Valve.

    • qrter says:

      Graham Linehan was making a point about some of the AAA titles, and he was referencing the GTA series specifically – that they all reference and quote the same small batch of gangster movies and thereby create a kind of echo chamber, where no new ideas are introduced.

      And I think he has a point there, but I’m quite sure he’ll be the first to say he never meant his comment to be taken that broadly.

    • iucounu says:

      Much as I love @Glinner, if he was talking about GTA I think he misses the mark a bit. GTA is explicitly a parody/pastiche of gangster movies (among other things), which is rather the sort of thing he gets up to in series like Father Ted. The whole Speed parody, for example.

    • Sigh says:

      Mr. PatrickSwayze,

      How refreshing to see a Joe Abercrombie reference on RPS!

    • PatrickSwayze says:

      @sigh: There should be more!

    • Reapy says:

      I read abercrombie after all the hype. I liked it… but I wasn’t blow away by it. It looks to me like all he did was take the typecast characters you find in fantasy novels that are either glossed over or common place and bring them out to the front. It was refreshing, but I had still spent plenty of time with the ‘pompous courtier’ in plenty of other novels too.

      Eh. I liked it… but, eh. I think I’ve just read too much fantasy where it all feels like the same thing over and over again. The last ones to really nip me in the butt were george martin, but that was like 10 years ago, his last 2 books have made me really want to punch him in the face.

    • Cunzy1 1 says:

      @PatrickSwayze My gamer friends are probably the best read group of people amongst all my friend(s). But we’re old school geeks. Youngsters these days think that wearing kooky shoes and watching the discovery channel makes you a geek. That shizzle needs to be earned.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      You guys need to try Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke.
      Wait, what was this thread about?

    • Bishop says:

      I don’t read any fiction, pretty much ever. This is mainly because I’m dyslexic, reading takes a phenomenal amount of time. Maybe 20 pages an hour. I can read around about the speed people talk at.

    • FrogCities says:

      @Pobblepop, when you say a writer must read novels, I feel this searing pain of hatred. I’ve read a large share of written works, my favorite authors including Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Kharms. Still, I feel my history of reading does not further validate what I’m about to say. Vague, but I feel a good written work is full of honesty. A story may become as frighteningly mad as Edgar Allen Poe’s poems, yet still there is an honest reflection of his character within them. If a story references “aliens”, that by itself does not mean the story is bad. I’m writing a bit fast because I should be working at the moment, but the last thing I wish to say. Reading should not be considered a form of experience points that levels up your intellect stat. Reading is a just a tool to help people reflect and look more honestly into their own lives. A tool that is not necessary to write.

      When we try to improve writing by saying a person should read, I simply feel we are tackling the wrong issue.

    • celozzip says:

      i remember that interview with graham lineham, what a smug twat. he obivously doesnt get the point of gta. to rip-off / parody american films. cant stand the guy anyway. fucking hunchback.

    • Thants says:

      What a well-balanced and not at all weirdly personal response.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Richard Beer says:

    Writing for video games is different from nearly every other medium because they are interactive.

    Ed Stern may be a fantastic story-teller, but the key sentence in this article was the quote from Jubert: “I know that the world design in Brink is one of its strongest elements, certainly.”

    World design. Not story-telling. The story in Brink is irrelevant because it’s a multiplayer game, so perhaps Ed Stern is just paralyzed by his medium a little. The single-player game is just a bunch of multiplayer maps with cut-scenes, too, so no joy there either. Hopefully he’ll be able to get his teeth into a game where people will actually notice the story next time.

    There are two ways to create stories in games. 1) Via the traditional route. Create a story and have the player assume the central role. 2) By creating a WORLD, filling it with incredible richness and depth, and letting the player make his own story. These are very different approaches, entire worlds apart (no pun intended).

    The greatest gaming memories I have are from games that chose option 2). I don’t think that’s a coincidence, because games aren’t movies.

    • LionsPhil says:

      There is a weak (very weak) narrative through the chain of missions (I completed the whole damn game, plus its expanded missions, within the free weekend a while back, there’s so little to it). The handling of the two sides is pretty nice—in particular how a few maps are used as “what-ifs” where the plot splits, with the terrorist side of the reactor mission being a highlight. But it’s not really a “story” game, either in terms of telling one or letting you build one. It’s more a fairly well-realised environment in which you play a game, like TF2. (Even though said game is much more Splash Damage’s home Enemy Territory turf.)

    • Premium User Badge

      Colthor says:

      I agree with Richard Beer, but I’d probably go even further; games that take option 1 tend to not be games, but, well, interactive movies. And “interactive” is over-stating it, because so often the player has little to no control or say in events. They’re pretty much there just to watch the designer’s story unfolding.

      The Portal games are a perfect extreme example; the only decision the player can make at any point in the game is whether to keep playing or not. There’s exactly one solution to the puzzles (bugs aside), there’s exactly one linear plot that’s absolutely set in stone. The interaction is of the same level as the interaction provided with a film by a DVD remote control, except you have to pass a test to press the ‘play’ button.

      I really like Portal and Portal 2. They are brilliant entertainment. But there isn’t any game in them, just tests.

      Please, developers: games aren’t films, and there’s more to interactivity than having to press the right buttons.

    • Jumwa says:

      Right there with you on the last point, Richard. Games that create rich worlds in which to play and make your own story have eaten up far more of my time and imagination than anything else.

      Morrowind alone was responsible for what must’ve been a full lost month of my life or some such nonsense. Not to mention the time spent thinking of the numerous works I discovered or read in game, the silly amount of thought that went into characters of my own creation and their backstories which never left that single player title.

      Then there’s the MMOs I’ve played, where my partner, friends and I all spent so much time enriching ourselves in the world just so we could roleplay out our own character creations. Nothing else compares to those moments.

    • JackShandy says:

      Richard beer, it sounded like you just said “Brink had good world design, but the story was lacking,” and then followed it up immediately with “What we need is good world design, not rail-roading story!”

    • Srethron says:

      I have great gaming memories from both approaches. In about equal measure, I’d say. Both are valid approaches, and both are easy to mess up.

    • Premium User Badge

      Richard Beer says:

      Jackshandy, that’s basically correct. Except Brink is a multiplayer-only game (bots on multiplayer maps don’t count). That’s the difference. If Brink had been made as a single player game that told a story with fantastic characters and plot, it could have worked because of the richness of the world design.

      As it is, the world design in Brink is realised in the art direction, and little else. It’s a multiplayer game in beautifully designed wrapping paper which you throw away in a scrunched up ball the moment you open it.

    • Premium User Badge

      Dr. Evanzan says:

      @JackShandy,

      I see Richard’s point, which I agree with, being that what is important is the player’s role within the game.

      Option 1 has the player as an actor within, as Colthor points out, an Interactive Movie. While the player has some freedom in how they express themselves and play their role, they are still restricted by the unseen script and how the game designer, as director, wants them to perform.

      Option 2 has the player inhabiting a character within a world. While the game designer defines the rules of the world and the overall flow of events, the player has the freedom to play out their character as they see fit.

      Granted, even in the best of these games, that freedom is still more constrained than I would like. However, the contrast is still there between defining your own character and acting out someone else’s character.

      To bring this back to Brink, while the game had excellent overall world design, your ability for “meaningful decisions” within the world was very limited which is, for me, why the story became irrelevant. You could express yourself to a degree, but only as an actor within Brink’s scripted narrative.

    • Gonefornow says:

      2) By creating a WORLD, filling it with incredible richness and depth, and letting the player make his own story.

      That is the only way for me. If a game has a linear story I just ignore it completely and play the game as it were an arcade game (gameplay only, no story).

      I just find it incredibly cheap that in a medium that allows user interaction developers are still telling stories when they should be creating worlds that provide experiences.

      Books tell stories.
      Games create experiences.

      Simple as that.

    • Premium User Badge

      Oozo says:

      Just wanted to point out two things:
      Firstly, I basically do agree. Which is all the more reason why Jim’s suggestion to re-utilize game worlds like the one in “Brink” sound so awfully reasonable.

      Secondly, I wanted to mention that the method you described is not limited to interactive media. Starting with the world, and not the characters or their stories, is a method common in a variety of media – and not only limited to genres like sci-fi and fantasy, where you create new worlds from the get-go and thus can’t help putting a lot of thought into it. “Twin Peaks”, for example, started with a map, Gilbert Hernandez opus magnum is called “Palomar” for a reason etc. (I can’t come up with an example in literature from the top of my head, but I figure that, say, Faulkner, was no stranger to the idea of a world dominating what takes place in it.)

      Which doesn’t take anything away from your argument – after all, what is specific to the medium is that you can, in fact, let the player loose in that world. But I think that you can have a bit of both – I immensely enjoyed, say, Deadly Premonition, whose world is nothing but the micro-narratives that every character in the game personalizes, stories that form a greater picture and narrative in the end. It doesn’t feel like a movie forced into an interactive corset, even though its structure is more than a bit inspired by a non-interactive work, I would argue (the fact that it is a TV-series, and not a movie, might be of importance, though).

    • El_Emmental says:

      Hm, I personally think multiplayer *can* tell a story, and Brink was a good try but ultimately failed because it was too much focusing on “ET:QW 2.0″ rather than being an entire new game (would have been much riskier though).

      While the story was indeed very “tip of the iceberg”ish* , the actual gameplay wasn’t like that at all : each map objective or class wasn’t “just a part of a much bigger thing”. Soldiers put TNT, engineers remove them, attackers win if it goes boom, defenders win if it doesn’t go boom.

      * iceberg : “Playing Brink this weekend made me worry. But not about the usual things. I was worried that there would never be another way to experience the details of its world – no possibility for further exploration of the Ark and its precarious situation. This isn’t something I normally think about when faced with a multiplayer shooter” (Jim.R, http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/05/17/disposable-worlds-and-imagining-brink-2/ )

      Controlling the map chokepoints/command posts is much more important than actually saving/killing Nechayev (or any other objective).

      The guy (Nechayev) doesn’t provide any bonus, any information, whether you save him or not : next map intel revealing vent access ? secondary door keycard (faster or instant opening) ? More support from the Resistance = faster spawn waves ?

      If the outcome of the map, the objectives, don’t have any consequences on the next map (or the one you’re playing right now), there’s no story following you during your gaming session. And even if it had such story, it wouldn’t work out that well, because of the game balance itself.

      How can game balance kills the narrative story-telling ?

      To be relevant, a victory should be a positive reward most of the time (you “can” turn it into a disadvantage by pretending your victory let some troops/logistics go to do something else more important somewhere else, but that’s an exception).

      => So when team A steamrolls team B, team B get 3 to 4 ragequitters at the end of the map and the rest of the team is no longer motivated (because most defeats are… unfair – surprising isn’t it ?). With that in mind, you can’t give a bonus to the winning team on top of that, otherwise you’ll get more than 50% rarequits.

      This is where the lack of an auto-scramble/vote scramble feature is deadly, especially with the “can’t change body type nor character rule”.

      => With each player stuck with a specific body type and a 2-class specialization, the Pareto principle*² being true for video game players too (just like it’s true for real-life soldiers), 20% of the team doing most of the job (the 2-3 MVP players doing all the objectives/pushing back the enemy when needed), if at a specific moment the 20% can’t achieve an objective because they don’t have the right class or the right body type, the game is in a dead end : the other 80%, who might have the right class/body type, just can not do it because they’re not at the 20% “doers” position.

      *² It’s not about skill level (only), it’s a normal team division of labor : some are supports, or gap-fillers, or followers, or asleep (only waking up in case of emergency), etc.
      => Sometime I’m part of the 20% (“w00t #1 hurray!” ego-wanking), sometime not (often when it’s already taken) – thanks to my low self-esteem IRL, good SA and my FPS experience I’m a very good support and an emergency leader (but I suck at solo-ing and path clearing) => everyone has their own “skillset”. That’s why you can’t force people to “cooperate” (aka “everyone has a vital task to do”) like Brink is trying with these limits.

      With that lack of “fairness” regarding victories and defeat, players adapt and learn to leave and find another server very quickly, their immersion is reduced to nothing because of that volatile-ness : you join and leave a map before the story even closed a chapter.

      In my opinion that’s the main reason why story-telling is easier to do on singleplayer (not as hard to balance as a multiplayer game).

      Question: How many times you continued to play a singleplayer game despite it being too frustrating/unfair, because it had an interesting story ? Getting defeated over and over again, in a frustrating way, and not giving up because of the story ?

      nb: SMB or IWBTG! are good example of games playing on that “extremely frustrating gameplay rewarded with a small story” problem.

    • Deano2099 says:

      I’d much rather be told a story. I don’t want to create my own narrative. If I did I’d just write fan fiction. I want an experience that’s designed to be good. Because the truth is for every amazing story about the emergent adventures in open world games, there’s an untold one from someone who didn’t find much interesting and had a fairly dull time.

      There’s nothing wrong with games telling linear or branching stories. Some of us prefer that. If you want to say they’re not games but they’re ‘interactive movies’ then I say to you that open world games are not games, they are ‘guided dancing’.

  3. joel4565 says:

    Me personally the best story telling I have seen in a game is the Half-Life series. I still remember the first time I played the original Half-Life. It didn’t talk to you via a narrator, show you tons of cut scenes, instead it presented the story all around you. Unfortunately that depth of story telling is hard to find outside of Valve.

    Yes some games can do the diary or book entries well (Alan Wake did a decent job for example), but I don’t think they are ever going to be as immersion as the story going on all around you.

    • LionsPhil says:

      On the flip-side, Half-Life’s plot is kind of horrendously B-movie. It’s a lousy story told well and that stays out of the way of the gameplay.

      (Whereas most AAA stuff now is a lousy story told terribly with CUTSCENES CUTSCENES ONE-BUTTON SCRIPTED EVENT.)

    • Premium User Badge

      LTK says:

      A good reason to replay a game like the original Half-Life is to find all the additional storyline clues that you might have missed the first time around. My younger self played the game with a minimal grasp of English and godmode enabled for me by my dad. When I replayed it later, I was rather astonished to find out how much exposition the game actually provides before the resonance cascade happens.

    • Luminous Nose says:

      If you were reading or watching the narrative of Half-Life you might think it was something out of a silly B grade movie. However, playing the game…well, it was still silly…but it was also an absolutely thrilling experience!

      I think the point about the inadequacy of video game narrative tools is really relevant; what do you do when your communication lacks subtlety and finesse? You turn the volume up to ELEVEN. Not only do you have to tell instead of show, but you have to make your narratives about big loud things or events, instead of small interactions dealing with sophisticated ideas and emotions.

      Apart from reasons to do with video games’ traditional target audience (this is also cyclic—fans with certain expectations of videogames become developers), this is probably an important influence on the quality of video game stories.

    • sinister agent says:

      Unfortunately, most developers (even valve to some extent) have taken a lot of the wrong cues from Half Life’s offerings. I don’t care if I can walk around the room and point the camera or fiddle with props – if I have to sit around waiting for NPCs to progress the plot until a door opens, it’s still just a cut scene. Worse in many cases, in fact, because I have to drag the cameraman around as well.

      And don’t even get me started on the “nothing really happens on the first level” addiction FPS games developed.

    • JakeOfRavenclaw says:

      The thing about HL2 in particular is that the plot is fairly terrible (you spend basically the entire game looking for Eli), but the world design is so compelling that it’s easy to overlook the actual story. (Well written characters help out a lot too, of course). And that’s what’s interesting when talking about games–”story-telling” and “plot” are very different things. Films run into this a little bit too, but the divide in gaming is much larger. The central plot of Fallout New Vegas, for example, is fairly weak, but the world-building is some of the best I’ve ever seen in a game (and, again, well-written characters hold it together).

  4. Ian says:

    Story in games has all been downhill since Minesweeper.

    • Srethron says:

      Blasphemy. Things were fine until the day after Space Pinball was released.

    • lijenstina says:

      Nah, it had gone down after the Roman Colosseum went out of business. Especially the realism and survival elements.

  5. Nemrod says:

    “Someone asked me on my blog recently, ‘Why are game stories often perceived to be so shit?’

    Well because it is.

    Come on, the plot in every AAA game since Unreal is just total crap.

    some plot shittiness examples:

    Crysis/Crysis 2: the aliens are inside the earth waiting for I don’t know what to do I don’t know what. Then they invade NY, and do things with spores and there’s a 100 years old billionaire doing I don’t know what.

    CoD: Russian nationalists (they have to be orthodox crhistians right?) getting in touch with middle-east muslim terrorists to overthrow the world by taking the power in Russia after they found ONE dead american in an airport full of dead people?

    Rage: blah blah asteroid, blah blah Ark-Resistance-nanodroids-Authority bad guys. BLAH!

    On the other side you’ve got all the others (that definitely are in my steam library) :

    - Metro 2033
    - Stalker
    - The Witcher (the Witcher 2 isn’t really convincing IMO)
    - Bioshock?
    - Riddick games
    - FEAR (only the first)
    - Jamestown

    and many others.
    And yet these guys keep talking about motion capture on your face or environmental story-telling crap?
    Cmon >__<

  6. Feet says:

    They definately got it right with Brink for me. Both in the writing and in the narrative design. It’s probably one (but not only) of the major differences between it and Quake Wars.

    In Brink I did care about this fictional world full of shades of grey. No matter what side I was arbitrarily placed on in a map, my motivation wasn’t just to try and finish top of the leader board or for my team to win the map, or to get my next unlock, it was because I completely believed in the world in which I was playing. The two were very much intertwined. This was due to the recorded briefing within the loading screens, and the pre-map cutscenes which contained your player character, and then the audio logs you could unlock, alongside the goals for each map. The fiction was convincing and compelling on it’s own, and that fed into how the maps played out and the players motivation for doing well.

    In Quake Wars, I did want to finish top of the board, or for my team to win the map, but I didn’t give a damn about the struggle between the Strogg and the humans. This contributed to my interest running dry far far quicker than it did with Brink.

    (Compare that to W: ET where the narrative was in fact the very real Double-U Double-U Two, you had a narrative motive as you already knww about the ALlies and Axis and who they were etc)

    Good show Splash Damage.

  7. alantwelve says:

    Someone asked me on my blog recently, ‘Why are game stories often perceived to be so shit?’ Which is a fair question, because they are. And there are a bunch of plausible reasons. One of the big ones is that our tools are limited in a lot of ways as compared to other mediums.

    That one of the industry’s leading writers, sorry, narrative designers, doesn’t know that the plural of ‘medium’ is ‘media’ might give us a clue as to why game stories are often perceived to be shit.

    • Lewis Denby says:

      Since ‘media’ took on a more specific meaning, the plural form ‘mediums’ has become pretty much accepted. The idea that someone would be automatically a poor storyteller because they use this form is perhaps a little bit silly.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Since ‘media’ took on a more specific meaning

      Words very often have multiple meanings, and we understand the difference from context (compare “the media” and “these media”). It wouldn’t be remotely confusing in this case.

      The only situation I know of where “mediums” is the appropriate plural would be “[psychic] mediums”.

      And yes, “media” is the normal plural used in art, which is the sense here. Artistic media.

    • Lewis Denby says:

      I’m not saying it’d have been confusing. I’m just saying that language is never static, and that ‘mediums’ is becoming an acceptable plural form. But anyway.

    • alantwelve says:

      Since ‘media’ took on a more specific meaning, the plural form ‘mediums’ has become pretty much accepted.

      Sorry, Lewis, but that’s just plain wrong. ‘Media’ means ‘more than one medium’, whatever the context in which it’s used. ‘Mediums’ means several spiritualist people who claim to talk to the dead.

      The idea that someone would be automatically a poor storyteller because they use this form is perhaps a little bit silly.

      Being a good storyteller does not equate to being a good writer.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      I’m just saying that language is never static, and that ‘mediums’ is becoming an acceptable plural form.

      Where? Acceptable for whom? Certainly not in mathematics and science.

      Except as a mistake, I’ve never seen it anywhere.

    • thegooseking says:

      There are more acceptable uses of ‘mediums’ than that.

      E.g. canvas is a medium; canvas and paper are media but paint is a medium; paint and charcoal are mediums.

      Media is the correct plural for a format in which something is expressed, while mediums is the correct plural for tools that are used for expression.

      None of which is really relevant to the fact that technical linguistic accuracy and creative narrative ability are not remotely the same thing.

    • Lewis Denby says:

      My linguistics degree indoctrinated into me the belief that nothing is ever “wrong” – just acceptable or unacceptable within a given context. People say “mediums” a lot these days when strictly speaking they mean “media” – ergo, it’s pretty much fine.

      But like I say, whatevs. There are more interesting things to discuss.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      paint and charcoal are mediums.

      No. They are media. Google “artistic media” for examples of appropriate usage.

    • alantwelve says:

      The problem, Lewis, is that you’re not arguing for the evolution of language, you’re arguing for a free-for-all where no rules apply. This is fine if, like me, you’re just some shitty blogger, but Jubert’s a professional writer, ffs.

    • choconutjoe says:

      I wouldn’t worry Lewis. The people who pull rules out of their arses for Latinate plurals inevitably end up getting hoist with their own petard when they fail to use ‘agendum’ as the singular of ‘agenda’ or try to use ‘octopi’ as the plural of ‘octopus’.

      Hell, ‘medium’ isn’t even a noun in Latin. It’s the neuter form of an adjective. Bickering about the ‘correct’ plural form seems doubly pointless when people aren’t even using it as the ‘correct’ word class.

    • Lewis Denby says:

      alantwelve: I’m not arguing for a free-for-all where no rules apply. If Tom had decided the plural of ‘medium’ was ‘fuckyfarthing’, then yeah, there’d be a problem. But everyone knows what he means, it’s a form that a lot of people have adopted, and our language is moving in its direction.

    • iucounu says:

      Semantic drift is a fact of life, but I think some things are worth defending in the name of utility. It’s good to try to preserve the real meanings of, for example, ‘enormity’, ‘decimate’ or ‘begging the question’, because they mean things that otherwise we don’t really have words for. Smearing them into ‘hugeness’, ‘annihilate’ or ‘raise the question’ leaves us poorer for it.

      I like ‘media’ as the plural of an artistic or communications ‘medium’, because it’s then distinct from spiritualist ‘mediums’.

    • hello_mr.Trout says:

      language is a virus!

  8. Out Reach says:

    The greatest stories in gaming are the stories the games let you tell yourselves.

    RPS’s “Gameboys from Hell” and “Plan B” by Tom Francis are the greatest gaming stories out there. Both made me go buy the games they originated from instantly, and I don’t regret either purchase.

    • sinister agent says:

      Definitely with you on the Galciv piece. I thoroughly enjoyed the solero infantilium one as well, though I didn’t shell out for that in the end due to my skinflintian beliefs and also it would probably destroy my life.

  9. Blackcompany says:

    What I can tell you is that the folks at Obsidian read. Perhaps they are not the most technically proficient crowd where game design is concerned. But writing, aye, that they can do. I thoroughly enjoyed much of the dialogue in Fallout: New Vegas. In fact I worked on Speech just to get Hanlon to tell me his story about his old days in the Baja. And it was worth it to do so.
    .
    Furthermore, I cannot help but feel that some aspects of Dungeon Seige III (I got it for free with a PC purchase, and was sick for a week) was inspired by Glenn Cook’s Black Company novels. Which I have obviously read. And this was not a bad thing, as I actually ended up enjoying every aspect of DS III except the awful final boss fight(s). Those practically screamed “Square Enix wanted this.” Or some such JRPG style drivel like that.
    .
    All of that said I personally think writing is becoming increasingly important in modern games. Games are more and more becoming interactive stories – a visual “Choose your own Adventure” model in some cases (Oblivion, Fallout series and to a lesser extent games like DS III.) Moreover, as the economy tightens belts world wide, games are competing not for gaming dollars but for entertainment dollars in general. And many people are seeking entertainment which involves more than mashing buttons.
    .
    Fortunately games designers seem to recognize more of late that quality stories in games actually matter. I am enjoying Rage right now despite the minor graphical issues due in part to the expressive characters and intriguing world. I thoroughly enjoyed the technically decrepit Fallout: New Vegas despite is badly aging engine due mostly to quality writing. For the same reason I am looking forward not only to Skyrim but also to Kingdoms of Amalur. With Salvatore writing, I am hoping for depth in the story there.
    .
    Writing matters in games. I for one am glad to see more devs recognizing this and helping to further story-telling in games. I love good books and read far more than the annual average, but sometimes an interactive story is nice as well.

  10. Blackcompany says:

    One more opinion on writing in “games” or ‘interactive media.’ I feel this is worth the separate post here. Due mostly to this site’s review of Ruins, I played the “game” and immediately wanted to seek professional therapy for depression.
    .
    The writing in that game, coupled with its minimalist approach and subject matter, hit close to home. I have pets and I love them. I have had dogs in the past and have cats now, both of which I treasure. Despite my perceived manliness this piece had me crying by the time it was done, and I have trouble really thinking about it even a week later without tearing up.
    .
    Ruins was an emotional experience I will never forget. I am glad this site took the time to introduce us to this piece of art. I will not call it a game because it is not one. Rather, Ruins is an interactive story with emotionally evocative material and subject matter that I think many will relate to. Well worth the experience, but not easy on the heart for those who have or are fond of their furry friends. But I don’t regret it either.

  11. Kohlrabi says:

    I remember this one old game from the turn of the century:

    It all starts with this weird, maltreated guy with no name being shoved into a dark hall. Suddenly a floating skull shows up and starts wise-cracking. Tells him he is in a morgue, and should be dead. The skull also tells the cut-up Nameless One that there is a message craved into his back, and reads it to him, which gives the poor guy hints who might be responsible for his untimely and unsuccessful demise. Both decide to leave the place, and find the person mentioned in the scribblings. They find themselves in a weird city, where portals to other planes of existence are as commonplace as living human torches and succubi. Finally they stumble upon the person they seek in an underground lair, and from there the quest for the discovery of his past really kicks off for the Nameless One, leading up to the ultimate question: “What changes the nature of a man?”

    So, a decade ago a game was created with an engaging, involving, inspirational and creative game world and characters. Sadly, this game did not sell too well, and the team and studio responsible ultimately dissolved. A few years later a game about a space marine shooting aliens on distant planets was released, which had several sequels which sold millions of units each.

  12. Kaira- says:

    The games can have good stories. Problem is, they’re few and far between, and I mostly find adventure games having good stories, as they don’t have to rely on violence as the main game mechanic and source of “fun”. Roleplaying games, at least some of them, have good stories. And some horror games, especially Silent Hills I think, with some deep undertexts and underlying themes.

  13. MFToast says:

    One thing that I desperately want games developers to get is actually pretty simple. Writing lots of words doesn’t make it “good writing”. I personally found it hilarious that Fallout: New Vegas was totally whored off as some kind of literary piece of genius. It’s the game that made me stop watching dev diaries as any kind of insight into the game. The only difference I could find between it and Fallout 3 were the presence of more words, and that guy from Friends. It came across to me feeling just a little contrived. So there. It’s like that guy Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

    Also, I feel that games developers need to look up the word “Ambiguous” in the dictionary, because just about any time I hear about “Moral ambiguity” in a game, it’s just a fancy way of saying “We’re gonna force you to do something evil.” Why not just say that, instead of trying to get into my wallet with some bullshit line about the “human condition” and so on? Always comes across as slightly pathetic.

  14. chineseroom says:

    I think the big question that seems to get unasked in recent debates is “what function does story serve in games” or, put simply “why bother with story at all”? We’re getting to the point of assuming it all has to go in, but that’s an assumption. There’s no real, formal reason why a game like Brink needs a story. Jesus, Quake is still hours and hours of brilliant gametime and you could wring more story out of a slice of bacon.

    Story has to positively contribute something, earn it’s keep in the grand plan, or it’s a waste of time, space, money and energy. It’s not so much that most AAA stories are shite, it’s that they are pointless, they don’t contribute anything to the game experience. I don’t need any form of story in Dead Rising, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to me in terms of making hacking up zombies with a chainsaw more appealing. That’s where I like Tom Jubert’s thing of narrative design, as it stitches the idea of sculpting an experience right into the heart of it, and basically says story is another powerful tool in the designer’s kit, that’s currently underexploited. You can leverage things out of an experience with proper narrative design you can’t without, but if it’s not working to achieve that, it’s not really worth bothering with. And it doesn’t equate story with plot, but accepts that sometimes all you need is an engaging entertaining world as a backdrop. And a gun, natch.

    Horses for courses. There isn’t a single shot solution to story, narrative design or anything else. It all falls under good design. A well designed game considers the amount of this kind of stuff it needs and delivers just that. For me, there’s no difference between these game elements and other more mechanical features like AI or physics. Attention to detail and the craft of sculpting an experience are the things that make the difference between great, good, mediocre and shite. In any medium.

  15. Squiddity says:

    Game stories kinda suck across the board. I want to say that it’s the fault of critics more than anything, since they often tend to praise video game stories to high heaven when those same stories have absolutely no business receiving any praise.

    Red Dead Redemption’s a great example. While its opening act was quite superb, and a great distillation of the Western, the same way Max Payne was a great distillation of Crime Noir, that first cutscene set the tone for what would come later. While Sam Peckinpah and George Roy Hill/William Goldman did a fantastic job at conveying the death of of the (nonexistent) romanticism of the gunslinger, Red Dead Redemption managed to get quite hamfisted. Act 2 is where everything fell apart, with the message of the act amounting to little more than “everybody sucks.” By the time Act 3 hits, you’ve got the game shouting at you that the government RUINS EVERYTHING and all the characters suddenly jump out of character to deliver lengthy soliloquies about… well, I haven’t a clue. It was meaningless.

    Mass Effect 2′s another great example. When you break any of its characters down, they’ve all really only got one defining characteristic. In good science fiction, or any story, for that matter, characters need depth. The first game had that in spades, but understated it significantly, and only gave you that depth if you talked to your crewmembers at length. Some, like Tali and Garrus, still managed to be fairly one-dimensional, but the character growth exhibited in the game made up for that. Come Mass Effect 2 and suddenly, in some cases, that growth is regressed, and in others, the characters simply remain where they are.

    There are other weaknesses too. Neat ideas like the dangers of AI are thrown under the bus in order to make the story more grimdark and morally grey (hey, writers, it’s okay for some things to just be BAD). Mass Effect 2 takes Cerberus, for example, and makes them into Batman, where previously, they’d been as evil as human traffickers. Another massive failure is the lack of humanity in the sidequests–in Mass Effect, you did things like talk down Major Kyle or find Admiral Kahoku’s men. These quests had a human face behind them. In Mass Effect 2, it’s simply a case of “hey, go here, walk a linear path, download some data, and you’re done” or “feed this robot batteries and shoot varren” or “shoot robots.”

    I haven’t even touched on the fact that the game fails at a three act structure, so I should probably do that. The biggest issue with this is that they’re missing out on the key act of the story they were aping (The Dirty Dozen), which is the team-building that defined Act 2. It’s just “get team, they’ll be loyal if you do one favor, and their loyalty will somehow keep them alive.” It’s really all quite silly. To top it all off, the game rips a bunch of its space combat scenes shot for shot from Star Trek 2009.

    If you’re still not convinced by Mass Effect 2, let’s talk about another great failure of storytelling.

    Half-Life 2 starts off brilliantly, setting the mood with pitch-perfect accuracy, but it quickly devolves into a checklist for bad storytelling. Its characters, while displaying distinct quirks, still manage to be archetypes, or in the case of Alyx and Eli, tools to progress the story forward. Eli, for instance, is the major carrot of all three acts in the game–the opening act requires you get to him where he’ll explain what you’re here for (and the game never actually DOES that; in fact, you only get Eli to tell you in Episode 2, and he DIES before he actually gets to explain it), the second act requires you to travel down the coast and rescue him from Nova Prospekt, and the third act requires you to… rescue him from the Citadel.

    Eli Vance is Princess Peach.

    Alyx, on the other hand, is an antibarometer. She’s a character who exists to guide your emotions throughout the course of the game, which is why she’s often inconsistently portrayed, and why her mood shifts are often quite abrupt. She’s a non-character, a tool. Sure, she has great facial animations and amusing dialog, but ultimatly, she’s just there to make sure you’re feeling what you’re supposed to feel when you play certain bits. If you’re not emotionally receptive to her, then you’re saddled with an annoying sidekick who’s clashing with whatever emotions you’re feeling at any given moment.

    Then there’s the infodumps–A Red Letter Day is the most egregious violation of the “show, don’t tell” rule in the series, especially because it comes directly after one of the most brilliant examples of showing in gaming history. It’s an 8-12 minute infodump, telling you absolutely everything about the world and what went wrong, without actually telling you why you’re present (and don’t give me that “you’re a pawn in the G-Man’s game!” thing. The game makes it quite clear that Eli knows and will tell you, and this reason is put off every time Eli is kidnapped).

    At least Half-Life 2 tends to avoid the awful dialog that permeates Mass Effect 2.

    Anyways, what most people consider great storytelling in Half-Life 2 really isn’t. It’s great facial animations, which make for more believable characters than the wooden characters and poorly delivered lines of the original game, coupled with amazing art direction and atmosphere, creating an environment that tickles your brain like Lady Gaga (in that “it’s so catchy I can’t help but enjoy it” way).

    The plot’s nonexistent, the characters aren’t really characters, and the story infodumps a lot. Not exactly great storytelling, that, but it gets praised as having perfect writing and great characters. I’d highly suggest that anyone making those claims shut up and read some books or watch some great film, for a change. They’re really missing out.

    None of these games are particularly bad (okay, so Half-Life 2 has bad pacing due to the vehicles and forces you to use the gravity gun by lowering your ammo count, Mass Effect 2 has really bad level design and RPG mechanics, and Red Dead features a ton of bugs and laggy controls, but they’re still pretty solid otherwise), but when it comes to stories, they absolutely are by any non-gaming standard of what makes for good writing. They break rules that they have no reason to break (one-dimensional characters, heavy-handedness, infodumping/not varying the end goal of the three acts, etc) and just… there’s no way anyone could seriously call them well-written, not if they actually bothered to learn what good writing is (reading McKee’s “Story,” taking literature and film classes, etc).

    It’s really quite disappointing that an industry I love so much rarely puts out its Marathons and its No One Lives Forevers and its Deus Ex: Human Revolutions, because they’re great and we need more of them.

  16. Aspongeinmauve says:

    I think the stigma of games being an unintelligent form of media is a little unfair. Articles that portray this argument tend to only be looking at the most popular franchises (console fps’s and sports games) and the biggest audiences (13 year olds). I think there’s plenty of single-player games that tell a good story, maybe not by the use of literary techniques, (though the foundations of literature are all there, The Seven Plots ect.) but there’s many times I’ve been enthralled enough to not skip cutscenes.

  17. iojnekns says:

    Every medium approaches narrative in a different way, and has a different approach. Sadly videogames, as a young, confusing, emergent medium seems to treated by critics and developers alike as though it were some neat, whizzy-tech extension of cinema, with a fiction consisting of events that are delivered to the audience over the course of a set run-time in a specific order so as to introduce and conclude a story. I disagree with this model.

    Narrative is a fundamental element of game design, and I don’t mean in the obvious way. If we go way back and look at something like Spacewar!, it is essentially abstract. Shapes on screen, responding to user input and governed by a specific set of rules. A computer program. It would be a very complicated thing to explain, until you apply the narrative.
    It might not seem like much in the way “narrative” is conventionally discussed (which is usually in reference of film or print) but by contextifying the shapes as ships, the locale as space and so forth, the rules become almost self explanatory and the 2D abstraction on screen is brought to life and dripping with atmosphere – exactly the same as mere words on a page in a novel. Spacewar! is an excellent example, the narrative and gameplay don’t always marry together so neatly as that, but they are nearly always present. Pacman may not have made sense in a traditional way, but it ghosts are a natural thing to run from. There is no “why are you staying away from those shapes”. They’re ghosts. The story tells itself.

    Modern 3D games like an FPS may have a lot more shapes, but they are no different. If you take the abstract concept of a raw FPS engine, it is tricky to nail down without resorting to using a narrative construct as a metaphor. An abstract representation of a 3D space rendered as 2D image? It is difficult to being to establish exactly what we are seeing without referring to the view as the “camera”. Immediately this becomes a narrative – we understand what a camera is and does, and how it is analagous to this sitatuation. The 3D space must resemble reality. This is a lot easier to do now that computer graphics are so sophisticated, but if you look at a screen of something like, one of the early DOS-based flight simulators, it often quite literally resembles two stacked blue and green rectangles.

    Contextualise the abstraction as soldiers and no further explanation is needed. ‘Line up your viewpoint to centre on the object and click’ is abstract; “shoot that guy” makes perfect sense. The rest writes itself. Health bars? You ever see a health bar in real life? It is just a mechanic to encourage the desired behaviour, to encuorage the ‘lead actor’ to play his role, to ‘dive for cover’, to apply caution. You call it “health” and suddenly it becomes common sense, even though the concept of a health bar makes no sense at all.

    I think that sort of “narrative” is the way in which games should communicate their stories, rather than cutscenes and diary entries and blokes on radios babbling in your ear. Half Life 2, for example, did a marvelous job of explaining the world around you without ever explicitly telling you, simply through how it was presented and were able to tell a high level “story” in the traditional sense, without spelling it out or deliberately drawing attention to it. In narrative theory, they call it mimesis and digesis, or “showing” and “telling”, and I think the former suits the medium far better than the latter.

    Thats just what I think anyway. I’m just another guy with an opinion…

  18. Giftmacher says:

    It’s been said before, but there’s an easy answer to “Why are game stories often perceived to be so shit?” It’s because they are, almost invariably — even the most highly regarded titles, whose stories are critically praised.
    My take on why exactly this is (and why, even in 2011, it has not gotten better) is that gaming is very much a medium made up of little shiny things. Not to belittle it as a legitimate art form, but with so many other attractive things for a developer to spend its time and money on (bloom effects! Physics! Dynamic immersive experience modifying atmospheric implementers!), it is understandably difficult to invest in genuinely good writers, or “narrative designers,” when intelligent dialogue is very difficult to market. It’s not something you can slap on the back of a box like CryEngine 2.
    This wouldn’t bug me so much if people didn’t skimp on writing quality and then put tons of emphasis on their characters and story anyway. If a game knows it’s not about story, and is designed accordingly (like Doom, or the like), then all is fine. But when it’s got a total placeholder story, and they’re still shoving it up front like it’s worth a damn, then that gets irritating.

  19. eclipse mattaru says:

    “We’re mere months away, it always seems, from absolutely uncanny-valley-vaulting photorealism”

    That’s your problem right there: This obsession that the gaming industry has with “photorealism”. If we had more real artists and less straight out graphics technicians, we shouldn’t have to worry so much about the uncanny valley horrors that so often yank us out of our dear gameworlds.

    A while ago I was watching Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. Go watch it. Pay attention to the facial expressions. That was 1951, characters’ faces were made with a handful of lines and one flat color (without even using any form of shading); and yet they managed to give them an array of expressions that are mind-blowingly believable –And that’s the key that most gaming artists miss so consistenly: Believable =/= Photorealistic.

    It drives me crazy to think that we could’ve been doing that kind of thing for a long time, if we weren’t so damn focused on normal shading and dynamic mapping and high pixel range lighting and whatever techno babble crap is rocking the boat at the moment instead. And the funniest thing is: The most photorealistic game of today will look laughable in 10 years, but stuff like Beyond Good & Evil and Psychonauts will stand the test of time forever.

  20. eclipse mattaru says:

    “We’re mere months away, it always seems, from absolutely uncanny-valley-vaulting photorealism”

    That’s your problem right there: This obsession that the gaming industry has with “photorealism”. If we had more real artists and less straight out graphics technicians, we shouldn’t have to worry so much about the uncanny valley horrors that so often yank us out of our dear gameworlds.

    A while ago I was watching Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. Go watch it. Pay attention to the facial expressions. That was 1951, characters’ faces were made with a handful of lines and one flat color (without even using any form of shading); and yet they managed to give them an array of expressions that are mind-blowingly believable –And that’s the key that most gaming artists miss so consistenly: Believable =/= Photorealistic.

    It drives me crazy to think that we could’ve been doing that kind of thing for a long time, if we weren’t so damn focused on normal shading and dynamic mapping and high pixel range lighting and whatever techno babble crap is rocking the boat at the moment instead. And the funniest thing is: The most photorealistic game of today will look laughable in 10 years, but stuff like Beyond Good & Evil and Psychonauts will stand the test of time forever.

  21. evenflowjimbo says:

    At first glance of the picture … I thought it was new skins for Team Fortress II.

  22. Lyndon says:

    The answer to the question, “Why have stories at all?” is because people actually enjoy games with good stories. Shocking I know.