Extra Consideration: The Story

By Shamus
on Mar 21, 2011
Filed under:
Column

Have you ever wanted to read a discussion between myself, Yahtzee, and Graham Stark on storytelling in videogames? A discussion where we talk about the quality of storytelling and compare storytelling techniques?

No? Ah geeze, sorry.

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From the Archives:

  1. Sydney says:

    Biggest. Yes. Ever.

  2. Irridium says:

    Shame they cut off right when Graham mentioned Fallout 3’s story. I expected a reply from you that was nothing but a rant about it.

    Also, your doing more of these, right? RIGHT?!

    • Zukhramm says:

      Well he is right in that it tried to tell a touching story.

    • eric says:

      I like how he calls himself a Fallout fan but then mentions Fallout 3. Really? I mean, okay. There are fans of Fallout 1 and 2 who did enjoy Fallout 3. I’m even one of them, if I’m able to load it up with huge numbers of mods and ignore all the story and quests (though in that case, why not just play New Vegas?). But anyone, especially a “Fallout fan” who claims Fallout 3’s story was “touching” needs to be castrated for the good of the species. The only way Fallout 3 touched me is in the head. It’s a rare game that permanently lowers my IQ, but hats off to Bethesda!

      I’m actually convinced that the only reason why anyone thinks Fallout 3’s story is “touching” is because Liam Neeson plays Dad; his voice is warm and caring enough that players can sympathise with him, so much so that they ignore everything else stupid going on. Here’s an interesting experiment: try imagining the Dad character with someone other than Liam Neeson as his actor, say… Danny DeVito. Not so great a story is it, now? Man, come to think of it, that Dad character was a real asshole, and incompetent at what he did, as well. I mean, a scientist constantly spouting Bible verses whenever he messes up? What kind of scientist is he, anyway? You know your game’s story is bad when it hinges upon a single voice actor.

  3. Blake says:

    Not good enough. I demand more. MOOOOAAARR!

  4. Sheer_Falacy says:

    Sadly, I do agree with Yahtzee about Planescape: Torment. The story is spectacular, but the gameplay is nothing special. The upside is it gives you experience for dialoguing your way around combat (whereas most games give you nothing), so you’re actually given an incentive to avoid the not that fun gameplay.

    On the other hand, I disagree with him about walking around during conversations. It’s possible to show the character walking around while you chat, but it’s not worth making some complex interface that most people won’t use just so you preserve a little freedom during conversations.

    • cassander says:

      But the gameplay in Planescape Torment is Baldur’s Gate, one of the most wildly popular RPGs of all time.

      • Raygereio says:

        I wonder how much of that popularity comes from nostalgia. I didn’t play Balder’s Gate, nor Planescape Torment when they came out, but tried them a year ago and had a lot of trouble getting into it due to the clunky mechanics.

        Another example of that would be Half Life. Everyone remembers that as an awesome game; try playing it now and see if you’re still having fun with all those damned jumping puzzles.

        • eric says:

          I don’t know, Half-Life still doesn’t have that many jumping puzzles beyond the endgame. The only reason the ones in there seem so out of place is because we’ve become so used to shooters being nothing but shooting for five hours straight, interspersed with the occasional cutscene.

          Also, Planescape and Baldur’s Gate don’t have clunky mechanics. The mechanics are polished, refined, and infinitely more open than almost any single RPG released since then. Only a very few number of JRPGs come even close to offering the flexibility of the D&D ruleset. No, what you’re talking about is interface, which is something completely different (and I agree, to some extent, though the games are really good enough to ignore the UI problems).

          • krellen says:

            The problem that both Baldur’s Gate and Planescape have today is that 2nd edition D&D sucked, but we didn’t realise how much it sucked until 3rd edition came out. If those games could be updated to 3rd edition (Obsidian has an engine that can do it, with their programming of ToEE) they’d still be great.

            • eric says:

              While the ruleset used in the games isn’t great, it’s more than functional within the context of those games. I don’t really have a problem with them because the experience has been designed specifically around those rules, and furthermore simplified and made more fun by a number of interface and gameplay tweaks by BioWare and Black Isle. The biggest complaint I have is that the system is a little difficult to figure out. Once you come to grips with it (i.e. lower AC is better), there’s nothing awful about it… within the context of those games, that is.

              That said, there are a lot of mods out there which change the rules, including adding a lot of updates from later rulesets. I play with a lot of tweaks turned on that just make the game more fun (max HP on level up, 100% spell learning rate), but those are less rule changes than they are conveniences.

              • Aldowyn says:

                … dang, that means my knowledge of D&D rules will be worthless if/when I play them, since all I know is V 3.0-3.5.

                Lower is better confuses me… The d20 system is just simple.

                • Bubble181 says:

                  There’s nothing wrong with THAC00, newbies! :-P

                  No, I’m just messing around – THAC0 and many other parts of DND 2 just plain sucked. People can discuss 3.5 vs 4.0 ’till the cows come home, but anyone claiming 2 is better than 3 is simply a conservative hell-bent on using stone weapons when steel’s been invented.

              • cassander says:

                >While the ruleset used in the games isn’t great, it’s more than functional within the context of those games.

                Second. The infinity engine did a very good job of concealing the incredible clunkiness of second edition D&D. To play the game you didn’t need to know how THAC0 worked, just that lower was better. In fact, their “real time with pause” interface was so good that it survives basically unchanged in Dragon Age. OF course, Dragon Age has a much more sophisticated system under the hood, but it really doesn’t play all that differently from Neverwinter Nights, and the difference between how NN and Baldurs Gate play is almost entirely due to switching 3d.

          • Raygereio says:

            Planescape and Baldur’s Gate don’t have clunky mechanics.

            You know? I was hoping someone would say that, so that I could get a nice 2nd edition DnD sucks burn in. But then krellen here came along and stole my thunder. Damn you, krellen.

            Seriously though. I think this is another perspective difference. I started with 3th edition D&D; thus a lot of big and important gameplay elements come across as completely backwards to me. Even to the point where it felt that the game was telling me that 1 + 1 = 11, something which I just couldn’t accept.

      • Zekiel says:

        Baldur’s Gate had good gameplay; Baldur’s Gate 2 polished it. It still feels dated if you play it now (imho).

        Planescape Torment on the other hand took Baldur’s Gate’s gameplay and did the following:
        – Zoomed in the camera so you couldn’t see much action at any one time
        – Neglected the interesting spells that you could use tactically (e.g. Invisibility to ambush foes, Delayed Blast Fireball to set traps), replacing them with very pretty but tactically-uninteresting spells
        – Included hardly any ranged combatants (either in your team or as enemies)

        So the end result is that your party cast spells that tend to require very little thought against a plethora of enemies that all walk up to you and try to hit you. Barely any cast spells – they all just try to melee you. It makes for very dull combat – a lot of the tactics come down to “try to get Morte to tank for you and then cast spells until the enemies fall over”. It’s then exacerbated by having a final third of the game that is very combat heavy.

        [I’d like to point out that Planescape Torment has probably my favourite story of any computer game ever, as well as some wonderful concepts and fantastic characterisation… but it’s combat is definitely its weakest point.]

        • eric says:

          Yeah, I agree that playing as a mage especially is a bit lacking… some of the best and coolest spells, you only get at the very end. Once you get a full party going, the ball starts rolling, but unfortunately it’s not too long after that you’re put into the endgame. I saw combat in Planescape as more a means to a end rather than a real gameplay staple, so it’s not a big deal for me, but I can understand that if you’re coming off of Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale, it’ll seem simple in comparison.

          Also: who says dialogue, choice/consequence and exploration aren’t gameplay?

          • Tizzy says:

            My thoughts exactly: I always felt that PS:T (as well as a few other D&D-based titles) had combat just for the sake of combat. You need to go up in level before you reach the end, so you need XP and so you need to kill things.

            In the end, I didn’t mind so much except in the third act where it gets really combat-heavy. I felt it was the price to pay since the game was designed as a D&D franchise, it would have been better without but then probably would have been less appreciated by true D&D fans.

            And that’s one thing about that generation of games (BG, ID, and so on). They rightfully received a lot of praise for accurately modeling the PnP game, but that pretty much placed them out of reach of people who were not very fluent with D&D (and also not fluent with the setting, especially for BG). I could not finish BG1 because I was simply not knowledgeable enough to design effective strategies in the end game. I could brute force my way through everything before that, but got steamrolled before I could even reach the bosses, and I am not a D&D novice!

            On the other hand, PS:T gets a lot of respect from me for having a skipable final boss fight that rewards having paid attention to the story. I hate boss fights anyway, especially so in RPGs, and I am still waiting for another game that lets me avoid them!

            Plus, of course, extra credit for the “you can die, it does not matter” aspect of PS:T that was a refreshing change from “everyone else can die, but don’t you dare–it’s game over” deal with BG that caused me endless frustration.

            • Zekiel says:

              …just don’t mock the Lady of Pain too much!

              I agree entirely that the combat is a ‘neccesary price’ since for the majority of D&D hack-and-slash was a big part of what the game was about, so it’s natural that this would be translated into a CRPG based on the system.

              Yet my understanding from reading about the Planescape setting (which I never in PnP) is that it was supposed to be more about roleplay and dialogue and ideas than about combat – so it would perhaps have still been fitting for the computer game to have very limited combat… Unfortunately of course there’s no really effective system in D&D for levelling up dialogue skills, so you have to have combat for levelling up to have any meaning… and without levelling up how could it possibly be a roleplaying game? [end sarcasm]

    • Jeysie says:

      I also have to agree. I love Torment, but the game would have worked a lot better as an adventure game or visual novel. The RPG elements just feel tacked-on.

  5. krellen says:

    I was missing Extra Consideration. Totally awesome that it’s you now.

  6. Mari says:

    Graham has a little bit of a point at the end about game stories not necessarily being worse, it’s just that it’s easier to see how lame they are because there’s less imagination involved. My imagination is a very vivid thing. I can imagine monsters scarier than Hollywood costume designers or computer programmers could ever put on screen because my imaginary monsters don’t have to conform to any aspect of reality from physics to simple principles like “it can’t be seven colors AND covered in tar at the same time.” Similarly I can imagine things much more intriguing than any porn movie with a simple fade to black and fade up to the next morning.

    Even in books I find there’s a trend to “over describe” and “over explain” these days. Less can be more even with the written word. For instance, I love stories where the ending isn’t fully resolved (see the movie “Fallen” or “Unbreakable” or the first book series “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Unbeliever” for what I’m talking about).

    Just like other media, video games have been going with the “more is more” approach to storytelling for a few years now. More cutscenes. More exposition. More “how it happened.” One of the things I loved about the early Silent Hill games was that they were less exposition-y. They told a story that felt very complete but they left a lot of the details very ambiguous. I think that made the stories more compelling and less “stupid.”

    • krellen says:

      This weekend I watched a recent independent film with one of the best endings I’ve seen in a long time (it ends on the line “I don’t want to go home.”) The ending alone bumped up my estimation of it by a whole star, because it didn’t give a resolution.

      The movie was “Monsters”, in case anyone wants to give it a spin.

    • We were juyst talking about this. The kids are playing The Longest Journey and didn’t know what to do when a cutscene happened and they didn’t notice, then they didn’t notice that it was over– because back then cut-scenes were integrated into the story so it was seamless–you had to watch for the pointer change to know it was started and it was over. I remember when the huge “cut-scene as cinematic experience” began– it was when suddenly computers were fast enough to do movies and that computer graphics got nice enough for the cinematic style movies not to be jarring so everyone was doing the “ooo, pretty, look what they can do” thing and that was fine. It was new technology and special. The problem is they got in the habit of doing it that way and forgot how nice it was to have the cinematic built into the game itself, when it was a seamless part of the entertainment.

      I think it is a shame that games have become so technology driven– there was a time when a blob could be anything from a work of art to a game character and while I wouldn’t go back to that (I LIKE pretty graphics) I would have game designers not focus so much on aiming at the lowest common denominator and make everything visually perfect (including showing every aspect of a story) and learn to tell stories well instead.

      • ccesarano says:

        There is a benefit to cut-scenes in some ways. The opening of Bayonetta delivered a bunch of exposition while also allowing the player to just rip through monsters while you were on a surface that constantly fell from the sky. The problem is 1) the exposition wasn’t in English and was sub-titled, and 2) even if it was in English I likely wouldn’t have paid attention, just as I hadn’t been reading the subtitles.

        At the same time, exposition doesn’t always need to be delivered at the start of a tale. While there’s a lot Dead Space does wrong, I like how it began with the immediate story and allowed the setting to be explained in other ways.

        I very much agree with Yahtzee, however, that if it’s something that can be done in gameplay, then it should be. And NOT with Quick Time Events, either.

        • Atarlost says:

          I still think the best way to deliver exposition is the way Origin used to do it. They put it in the manual and made you want to read the manual by writing it at least partially as an in universe document. Ultima did this at least from 4-7. Space Rogue did this. Omega did this. You could pack loads of lore into the manual and other box extras and it didn’t interfere with the game. What could have been Space Rogue’s opening cinematic if it were made today was a booklet longer than some Hemingway novellas.

          And you couldn’t pirate it. The PDFs that came with some of the rereleases just weren’t the same.

          More recently Lucas Arts released the backstory for KotOR as tie in comics. I think on the web prerelease. Not as good as putting a novella in the box to encourage purchases over piracy, but still a way to get the important backstory out of the game. If the audience cares they can read it. If they don’t it’s like it isn’t there at all.

    • Tizzy says:

      Let’s be fair: back in the bad old 1980’s, game designers were not even trying with stories. There are of course some memorable exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of games had a pretext rather than a story, just a vaguely sketched setting. In fact something completely unlike a story, since the setting was usually static, no arcs or dynamics or anything to come between the beginning and the happy ending.

      • Mari says:

        I don’t know about that. I find the plot of Ultima II just about as compelling as, for instance, Mass Effect II. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A defeated sorcerer’s lover and apprentice seeks revenge for her guy’s death at the hands of The Stranger. To accomplish it she uses time doors created by his demise to travel to a particular dimension, The Time of Legends. From there she sends out minions (yay minions!) to play havoc on all times and places, eventually causing the entire world population to dwindle to nearly nothing. A king searches for a hero who can stop this mad woman and The Stranger answers the call once again. After an arduous journey of collecting protective gear, The Stranger steps into the time doors and seeks the sorceress. Many adventures ensue until at last The Stranger finds his enemy, engages her in combat, and defeats her. Not bad, really, for 1982.

        • Tizzy says:

          I do not disagree: I did leave room for memorable exceptions… But the vast majority did not even try. At least, these days, almost every game has a story. Of course, I think one of the points that Yahtzee was making is that *any* story is not necessarily an improvement on no story at all.

  7. Brandon says:

    You guys have some of the most well thought out dialogue that I have read on the subject. I would love to see more conversation between the three of you.

  8. Scott Richmond says:

    Great article. Would be keen to see more.

  9. fizz says:

    Answering about this cutscene fixation, I guess one of the reason they are so fashionable is that they likely allow to parallelize some of the development work: once you have the script, you give to a team the task of developing cutscenes while the other team go on playtesting and designing the active part of the game.

    About that comment about the fact that deep dialogue trees can make people feel afraid of losing part of the plot, well, isn’t this the very reason of having a dialogue tree? You have to have choices, and the choices you make must have consequences on how the game goes on, or you could get rid of them alltogether and take in the nice pre-scripted story as the authors want.

    One thing you could try to obtain if you have good enough writers and quality control, is to make it so that any choice you follow by answering the dialogue tree lead to some interesting outcomes, so that you do not have “wrong” answers, only different paths to different outcomes. Unluckily, combinatorial explosions make this really difficult.
    This by the way I think is the main drive toward meaningless dialogue options: options introduced to give you the illusion of choice, while whatever you choose exactly the same thing will happen.
    I personally hate them, if my choices must be without consequences, you could avoid them alltogether, but I guess the majority of players are voting with their wallet in this direction…

    On the other hand, as it was noted in some part of the intervention, I am afraid that we are hitting some sort of “uncanny valley” effect in videogames. When things were really abstract, we had no troubles supplanting them with our imagination, and ignoring the natural limitations of the medium. As games becomes more and more realistic, the small wrong details and stupid behaviours are all more glaringly obvious. Considering how expensive game designing is becoming, if I was a software development house, I would make some steps back towards simpler forms of gameplay, untill the processing power will be really sufficient to leap across that gap (thinking about it, expecially considering mobile gaming, some movements in this directions seems to be happening…)

    • Zukhramm says:

      I don’t the problem is that there’s a “wrong” answer, because there often is not, but the problem is that the players feel they have made the wrong choice. I think games sometimes need to be clearer with what a specific choice is.

      That the choices in dialogue are unimportant to the story does not need to mean they are meaningless choices. Just like chosing how to jump over a pit in a platformer is an important choice even if it’s not something story-related.

      • Mari says:

        As proof that there are *wrong* choices in some dialogue trees, I point to KOTOR 2. You lose out on some fairly significant character stat boosts if you say the wrong things to Kreia or several of the other characters. Note that the “wrong” things with Kreia are diametrically opposed to the “wrong” things with the majority of the other characters and that even if you’re playing as light side it’s a good idea to be a darkish a$$-hat when speaking with Kreia.

        • Brandon says:

          Not to go off on too much of a tangent, but I think Kreia was actually designed to pretty much not agree with you no matter what you said or did.

          • chiefnewo says:

            To continue your tangent momentarily for those who are interested, there is a very good informative Let’s Play that really explains the character of Kreia and exactly what her motivations were: http://lparchive.org/Knights-of-the-Old-Republic-II/

            • Aldowyn says:

              Kreia is… something else. I know there’s one little mini-quest in particular where she will argue with you no matter what you do.

            • Zekiel says:

              Just to add my recommendation for this Let’s Play – it is awesome (at least it is if you’re interested in thinking about the plot and characterisation behind KOTOR 2, which is worthy of the thought).

              I love Kreia. Unlike some characters her disagreeing with you doesn’t feel (to me) like a deliberate move of “let’s create an annoying character” on the writers’ part – but rather as her own style of teaching. In some ways it’s quite Yoda-esque and therefore very appropriate to the setting. (But Kreia’s a better character than Yoda any day.)

          • Raygereio says:

            @Brandon:

            Kreia was actually designed to pretty much not agree with you no matter what you said or did

            This. If you’re a darksider Kreia will also disagree with you. She’s a manipulative version of a grey jedi who disaproves of any extremly good or evil stance.

            @Mari:

            As proof that there are *wrong* choices in some dialogue trees, I point to KOTOR 2.

            Pretty much all games with a influence meter that only give rewards at one end of the influence spectrum share this fault, as it always comes down to “Cater to the NPC’s every whim and boost his or her selfesteem with constant praise (regardless if it’s deserved or not)”.
            Bonus stupidity-points if the system involves giving gifts to boost influence and getting sex as a reward for high influence. *coughDragonAgecough*

            Games that are evolving away from this problem are for instance Alpha Protocol where you will get gameplay boni and new dialogue from both making a character like or hate you.
            Or Dragon Age 2 with the Friendship/Rivalry approach to character-influence.

            • Bubble181 says:

              You get boni for characters liking or hating you in KOTOR 2 just the same. Not for Hanharr or Kreia, I think, but the rest can be turned to Jedi on “your” side of the spectrum (light/dark) if they like you, or the opposite side if they dislike you.

              • Tizzy says:

                Unfortunately, I did not play Kotor2, but I like that idea very much: that your companions may not have a fixed morality, and are not directly influenced by yours but rather by how your morality affects them.

                We’ve all known pleasant bad guys and insufferable good guys…

      • bit says:

        I agree that these things need to be MUCH more clear about themselves, particularly when a choice will have major consequence later in the story. One of the parts that really pissed me off about ME2 was that part at the end of Tali’s loyalty mission; while it was easy to guess that keeping the two previous quarians alive would be useful to the plot later in the game, as these things often are in Bioware games, NOTHING prompts you that picking ONE conversation choice (the least immediately interesting one at that) with certain characters would not only give you a win button, but let you have such a lasting impact on ME3 as well. Especially when none of the game before that has any such design feature.

        • Andrew B says:

          You’re making a dangerous (for your own disappointment) assumption there that this will have a major impact on ME3…

          [/cynicism]

          • Aldowyn says:

            Shepard’s been skipping around the galaxy, making friends (or not) left and right. I’m going to be SERIOUSLY annoyed if those don’t turn out to be important in ME3

            • Irridium says:

              Considering how things were handled in ME2(emails), I wouldn’t hold my breath.

              • Aldowyn says:

                Well, I’m holding out that my theory that ME2 is just more preparing for ME3 will bear fruit and all the major decisions from both ME1 and ME2 will be important in ME3 – with factions that you helped helping you in return, kind of like the end of DA:O.

                Like I said, hoping.

                • Ringwraith says:

                  Though of course they can go rather mad with all the different paths in ME3 considering that it’s the end of the trilogy and so future continuity problems are no longer a concern.

    • Tizzy says:

      My problem with dialogue trees has only been when the choices are not nuanced enough, the old: let everyone walk all over you or a be a baby-eating jerk.

      But I do want choices to matter in my RPGs, I want deep dialogue trees and consequences. I like it very much when you can unlock cool things through dialogue (much more than finding a cool item in an out-of the way locker), even if it tends to make me reload and explore quite a bit. And I don’t mind missing out on cool bonuses if I don’t say the right thing to the right person. They’re not owed to me after all, and I’d rather concentrate on the story than on building a kick-ass character.

  10. Ben says:

    The concept is interesting but it seems that they need to be longer. You can’t get anywhere in what amounts to everyone laying out a basic case and then thats it. The conversation should probably go on for two or three rounds before any kind of real discussion can happen.

    • chiefnewo says:

      I agree, although the article description does make it sound like this is part 1 of x, which will hopefully continue the discussion.

    • eric says:

      I have to imagine that this is because most content on The Escapist needs to fit within 2-3 pages. Frankly, I’m not at all a fan of the direction they’ve taken in the last few years. Some of the people featured there are great, mind you, but many of The Escapist’s own writers just aren’t particularly good, and they have way too much throwaway content. I imagine a lot of it is driven by ad revenue and catering to short attention spans, but it’s strange to remember a time when The Escapist was less the “hipster-friendly gaming site” as it was one where you could go for lengthy, cerebral articles on gaming completely distinct from most of the press, without quite falling into academia.

      • Ben says:

        I agree completely. I remember back when I started reading the escapist near the very beginning when its issues were designed to mimic a magazine (I may have started reading at issue 1 or 2) the first article I read of 6 or 7 pages long. The articles were complete, in depth and felt like one of the few places where you could get full treatments of issues in gaming. Now I go to the escapist for video content (EC, ZP, MovieBob, Unskippable), the regular columns by Yahtzee, Shamus and BoB and maybe an article or two in the weekly issue but those too feel compressed compared to what they were even a year ago.

        The Escapist at this point basically seems to be a forum (and a very odd forum at that, but thats another matter entirely) and video content. I seriously wonder just how many people read the articles in each issue or the columns not by people named Bob or Yahtzee.

        • Aldowyn says:

          The weekly articles are interesting, most of the time, but… they aren’t the kind of thing I’m looking for. They tend to be devoutly focused on an anecdote, or one particular aspect. Every once in a while there’s an awesome issue, and I read it and comment on every single one. (Actually, I think EVERY time I’ve done that I’ve gotten into the Letters to the Editor… Yay me.) I would prefer it if they were more Experienced Points/Extra Credits style, which is my preferred thing to write (generally mixed in with my opinions on particular topics)

          Of course I might be jaded since I haven’t managed to write one yet…

  11. Specktre says:

    Yay, I enjoy these discussions they now have going on at the Escapist and it’s cool to see you’re a part of it now.

  12. Varewulf says:

    Oh my! More! :D This is like a dream come true.

  13. Volatar says:

    I love these new Extra Consideration things the Escapist is doing. Its a great fresh idea and something no other newspaper or magazine has done, making it really cool and awesome.

  14. Zukhramm says:

    Great point about the choice of not how the story should go but how much and which story should be told. I loved the little scans you could find in Metroid Prime, not just the larger logbook entries but the smalle things describing how a wall was damaged because some creature burst through it. It’s something I’d like to see a lot more of.

    • ccesarano says:

      It was an excellent tool in developing the Space Pirates, in particular. One of my favorite journal entries in the entire game was about how the pirates tried to reverse engineer Samus’ morph ball, but after a test subject became mangled they had given up on it.

      Really gave character to the villains and made them seem as if they had much deeper and more real goals than just “BE EVIL! YEAH!”

  15. Jokerman89 says:

    It was hard to agree with just about anything Stark said there. Yahtzee talks a lot of sense, as did you Mr Young – i wouldnt come on your site at least every 2 days otherwise haha

  16. Some Jackass says:

    Awesome. Bout time they let you in on that series.

  17. ccesarano says:

    This is going to be interesting to see the different combinations that come up.

    As for story-telling, I’m actually glad Alpha Protocol was brought up. If there’s anything I loved about that game it was the conversation system. It’s the sort of cut-scene interaction I can get behind (unlike, say, Quick Time Events). Plus, it’s the sort of system that I can imagine any game using no matter the genre, and BAM! instant betterness.

    I wouldn’t say the conversation system didn’t have an affect on the story, but like a lot of games it was a very minor affect.

    In general, though, I don’t think I agree or disagree with Graham’s last point. I think games have always been fantastic with setting, particularly PC games. Quake II is still an interesting and gruesome world to adventure through. The stories, however, are still pretty damn bad.

    I’d say one of the causes of that was mentioned by Jordan Mechner. Modern games writers are basically hired just to fill in spots with nice sounding text, but everything else is still handled by the designers. Even if they aren’t writing the dialog, the plot outline could still be shit.

    I’d love to see more freedom in the writing field of games that work side by side with game designers, similarly to how writers and directors work together. The way I see it, the gameplay and story of Brutal Legend (and other Double Fine games) fed off each other. Neither would have been as good without the other. When people say gameplay is more important, I say gameplay could be better if it has a good story feeding it ideas.

    But it is true, without good gameplay a story is almost worthless (let’s face it, we’ve all played a bad game just for the story).

  18. Cybron says:

    Every time I saw an Extra Consideration I wandered why they hadn’t included you.

    Glad they came around.

  19. Deadpool says:

    “I don’t play Fallout for the story” is probably the saddest statement I’ve read. Because he truly, fully meant it.

    I remember a day when such a statement was insanity…

    • acronix says:

      Let`s take into account he was speaking of Fallout 3 at the time, whose story is in the Fable side of the stupid-spectrum, so it`s excusable.

      • Deadpool says:

        I know. I’m not upset at Grahm for saying it. I’m upset at Bethesda for making his statement the truth. People DON’T play Fallout for the story… That’s disheartening.

    • eric says:

      Well, to be fair, he’s talking about Fallout 3, which really isn’t a Fallout game at all.

    • Nidokoenig says:

      Well, you could argue that the main stories of the first two Fallouts weren’t exactly stellar, you set out to find a MacGuffin, find out about an evil force and defeat the evil force, without much choice in whether or how you accomplish that(it’s a few different shades of the bad guys all winding up dead, let’s be honest). They were excuses to get out in a harsh but interesting world where the player would make their own little stories and define their character. That is, it’s more about the atmosphere than the linear main quest. The problem is whether you group the writing and quests that aren’t directly necessary to completing the game into the “story”, which is a semantic issue.

      I’m not saying the first two Fallouts had storylines as seemingly deliberately bad as Fallout 3(I’ve said before that I think Bethesda must intentionally screw up just enough to motivate modders to produce thousands of hours of free DLC), but that for all the nice little touches, they’re B-movie plots, and you couldn’t really give them much more depth without excluding a great many players by violating how they envisage their character. Which is precisely what Fallout 3 did.

      • Irridium says:

        That is very true. However, the first 2 Fallout games weren’t trying to tell serious stories. So their story-based flaws were (usually) overlooked.

        Fallout 3 tried to be more serious, and because of this came under more scrutiny. It tried to be serious, failed, and the story felt worse because of it.

      • Deadpool says:

        Even within the main story, the story behind Necropolis and the Ghouls, Richard Grey and the Super Mutants and the Brotherhood of Steel were all pretty interesting. Grey in particular has a descent amount of depth and a believable motivation.

        The set up is simplistic, but the story carries itself considerably better than “Blow up Megaton because it’s an eye sore”…

  20. X2-Eliah says:

    Can’t say I agree with what Graham was saying.. He comes across as more the typical game journalist rather than a gamer.

    Anywho.
    Shamus, you ought to be more aggressive in these sorts of things.. You have excellent points and rants and ideas here, but often when seeing you on another medium, you tone down your posts/ideas for some reason, and they lose a bit of the impact.. Maybe it is just me, but I’d certainly like you to go all guns-out in the next instalments.

    • Stellar Duck says:

      Isn’t that just decorum? You don’t behave like you do at home when you are visiting friends. I think it follows that you don’t write the same on someone else’s site as you would on your personal blog.

      That might mean it comes across as more muted, but I think that’s rather the way it’s meant to be.

      Edited for a better word.

  21. eric says:

    One thing that I think this article highlights is that, in the world of gaming, many people still have this belief that gameplay and story are two opposing halves, as if the two exist fully independently, and any attempt to draw them together is some sort of awkward fusion, with some sacrifice in quality almost inevitable. Super Mario Bros., with its almost nonexistent story, often gets held up as some of the best, “most pure” gameplay there is out there, while titles like Planescape and Indigo Prophecy are praised for their stories, but not their gameplay.

    I think it’s time we put this to rest. Gameplay and stories, when put in the context of videogames, are not binary opposites. They are not things which are mutually exclusive and inherently incompatible with one another.

    What is a game? At its most basic level, a game is effectively a challenge posed to a participant whereby the participant must complete a goal of some sort within specified rules; the participant is punished for failure within the rules (or trying to circumvent them), and rewarded for succeeding. There is nothing about a game, operating under such a definition, which suggests that story cannot be a part of this.

    In fact, for games, often it’s not the raw mechanics that are fun, but it’s the story, the context, that make them fun. You can easily interpret grocery shopping as a game: you have your rules (follow traffic laws, pay in money, etc.), your objective (purchase groceries), and your success and failure states (bought groceries/did not buy). But of course, most people don’t look at grocery shopping as a game, because it’s not interesting, fresh, or exciting to us. It’s not new.

    Story is what comes in to add that newness, the excitement to an experience. Narrative can take many forms: at the most base level we can think of it as a series of events, but it can also follow more structured models, such as being built around three acts with a definite beginning and conclusion. For the purposes of gaming, story is the backdrop to create an interesting experience; it exists as much in the mechanics and the actions of the player as it does in what is explicitly stated in the game. Sandbox titles have already proven that it’s perfectly possible for players to create their own story within a larger world; the difference comes down to the fact that often it is expressed in gameplay mechanics rather than glitzy cinematic sequences. If we are going through, or alternately, creating a story using gameplay, then how is that any less of a story than one with a script and voice acting provided by the developer?

    Why is a dialogue tree any less mechanically sound than placing a crosshair over a target and pressing a button? The functions of each stage in the process are the same: a situation is provided, the player surveys the situation, the player makes a decision, and the player takes action to achieve a desired result. While it’s true that in the case of the action game, the player can fail, in the case of a dialogue tree, failure can be just as easily represented with skill checks, die rolls and so forth. Despite these functional similarities, though, we treat them as polar opposites.

    Our conception of a binary story/gameplay division don’t exist because gameplay and story are two separate things within the realm of videogames. The supposed opposition between story and gameplay is a product of imagination, caused by a difference in interface, not due to any functional conflict. What we need to start examining isn’t how to make game stories better, or how to “mitigate” the “opposition” between gameplay and story, but rather how to approach the problem of interface to stop players from imagining an opposition which doesn’t exist.

    • DanMan says:

      This sounds very similar to what the Extra Credits team talks about almost every week.

      The developer wants the user to experience everything they put together. The thing about an interactive medium is that the player should consume as much content as they want to in a game. The story should be told through gameplay. The whole setting is as deep or as shallow as the user makes it.

      • Aldowyn says:

        The thing is is that I’m sure there are devs that think this way, but they don’t think us, the audience, would appreciate it, and, the way it is now still being fun, we buy it, so the devs think they were right.

        Vicious circle.

      • eric says:

        Maybe Extra Credits talk about it because this is stuff that game developers, academics in the field of narrative and media, etc. have been saying for the last 20+ years. :P Not that it’s not important, of course, but Extra Credits is pretty “101” as far as theory and analysis are concerned.

    • Ringwraith says:

      They aren’t diametrically opposed, it’s just that a game can often ride on one or the other being really good, there are games that combine the two to good effect.

  22. Mari says:

    I’ve been thinking all day about this and I realized what cheeses me the most with the whole “interactive story” concept as it’s being implemented fairly frequently these days. I’ll sum it up with an example (I swear, it sounds like I’m picking on KOTOR 2 unmercifully in this discussion but the fact is that I really enjoyed the game and the story it tried to tell until I sit down to replay the game then my rage all comes rushing back) I’m fighting Darth Sion for the first time. I hit him twice. TWICE. He’s down to 1 HP. Cut scene: Kreia steps in and tells me that I’m not strong enough to beat Sion yet, she’ll protect me, just run, blah, blah, blah. Suddenly I’m on my sofa screaming at a collection of pixels to STFU and let me hit him one more time and be done with it. Obviously, the collection of pixels does no such thing. Instead I’m shunted somewhere else when the cut scene is over. Eventually Kreia rejoins the party, sans one hand. A hand she wouldn’t have lost if she had just let me hit him ONE MORE TIME. I spend the rest of the game being ticked off at her, completely ignoring most of the story and only noticing the two or three other times I’m told I’m not “strong” enough for a battle I’M WINNING and get yanked out again. Being somebody else’s puppet is NOT interactive in any way. I could care less if I can wander around while talking to an NPC but I would appreciate being able to skip being “rescued” from screwing up somebody else’s story.

    • ccesarano says:

      This is one of those scenarios that’s a lot like trying to railroad someone in a D&D game.

      “Kreia swoops in to your rescue!”

      “What? I don’t need rescuing. I’ve got all my hit points, my potions and scrolls and-”

      “Darth Scion rolls a natural 20 and disintegrates your face off!”

      “What? You didn’t even roll!”

      “Shut up I’m telling a story!”

      Video games cross that middle realm of D&D and book/film. They are interactive like D&D and thus forcing a player’s experience along a certain path is limiting and even frustrating. Simultaneously, you can only build so much of a world and so many options for a player and thus full freedom is impossible.

      Which, in truth, I think is the great thing about Bioshock’s “Would You Kindly?”. I may be reading too much into it, but I feel like that entire twist was one big self-critique of the games industry as a whole. You can market and praise the concept of “freedom” all you want, but you’re still being tugged along by the game designer’s leash the whole time.

      The only part about that scene was, due to the first person perspective, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to hit a button to hit him or not. Then the game just did it automatically. I liked the use of the cut-scene there, just not as much the first-person perspective.

      • Aldowyn says:

        That’s a problem with the balancing in KotOR II, one of the worst aspects of that game. You can become RIDICULOUSLY overpowered, to the point of almost one-hitting bosses… and the game doesn’t even notice.

      • Mari says:

        Logically I get the limitations of the whole thing. It really would screw the story up if you kill one of the two main baddies thirty minutes into act 1. There are only so many possible branches on the “choose your own adventure” roller coaster before the story gets thicker than “War and Peace” and twice as hard to read.

        I think one of my big frustrations was that I could see so many ways of doing the railroading more elegantly. But a halfway railroad is worse than a complete one. It gave me the chance to see how ridiculously easy it WOULD have been to beat him before yanking away the option. I felt like a little kid standing around while an adult waves a popsicle in my face but as soon as I reach for it the grown-up yanks it away while yelling, “Ha ha!” By the time it happened three times in one game I was starting to get a Charlie Brown complex.

        At the end of the game I start to fight the mystery baddy and then stop, sitting there wondering if I’m actually allowed to finish this fight or if it’s another fake-out. Maybe there’s seven more hours of the game, chasing the Big Bad around the galaxy and being repeatedly “saved” from glorious victory by my companions.

        That’s a bad railroad. I see the need to stay on the tracks but can’t we at least cover them up a little better? Honestly, when I play D&D I would walk out of a game where I’m told “Shut up! I’m trying to tell a story here!” But a DM who says, “Sion shows up and taunts you before vanishing into a puff of smoke,” might actually distract me from the shiny metal rails long enough to play the game. Yes, even though vanishing into a puff of smoke is one of the most painfully overused tropes in history.

        • ccesarano says:

          It also just seems like it would be better to have made the character impossibly powerful. Like no matter what, you do only one health damage each time.

          I mean, very beginning of Mega Man X you fight a boss who basically has infinite health. You HAVE to reach critical health status before Zero shows up and saves the day. It’s literally impossible to kill him, but it’s still fun to see how long you can last (eventually he stops physically ramming you and just launches a stun blast, which CAN be dodged).

          This is a SNES game from the early 90’s and with limited story-telling capabilities, yet it did the same thing better.

          • Mari says:

            That was one of the solutions I was thinking about. I mean, it might have annoyed me for a few minutes like it does in other games that use it but the rage wouldn’t have lingered all these years.

            Alternatively it could be handled like Pyramid Head. Kreia could step in and offer to save you, you could reject the offer, Sion could one-hit you, you reload and take Kreia up on her generous offer.

            Heck, it would even have been better (and this tells you how bad it was) to have done the entire battle as a cut scene so that you didn’t ever have the option. As much as I agree with Yahtzee that cut scenes should never do things that the player can do for themselves, it would be marginally better than PRETENDING to let the player do something then yelling “Psyche!” at him.

        • Bubble181 says:

          Yep. An easy solution would have been to auto-adjust Sion’s strength in this scene to your strength, so that there *is* no possible way to win. (i.e. you will always need natural 20s to hit decently, he always only needs to roll 10 or so to hit you). There *are* auto-adjusting enemies in the game (the Big Bad, for one), so it’s possible.
          And yes, this might’ve meant Sion was stronger in that first meeting than he was later, when you finally do get tot defeat him, but this is mostly unnoticable, and even possible to explain away (having been weakened by previous fights – who says only Kreia lost something in that battle?)

          • Mari says:

            I know in theory that the Big Bad in the game was auto-adjusting but I still found that character painfully easy to defeat. I think the auto-adjust was broken ;-D

            Of course, it’s mostly my own fault for being half munchkin. If you’re going to give me the option to level up that much, I’m going to take it. I’m the crazy girl who actually grinded through FFX for weeks and weeks to see if it was possible to take every member of the team through every spell, power, and skill on the grid. You can come darned close, for the record.

  23. poiumty says:

    What’s this? A discussion with Yahtzee on storytelling in videogames?

    Shamus, how could you? I am utterly disgusted at that site, this article and the people who support you. You have disappoitned me, sir, stooping to such low extremes in your sorry attempts to gain peoples’ attention. I can’t find the words to express how much of a pathetic and sordid act this is and i hope you die of old age for what you have done.

    If you still want me to believe in you, you will only post only the words “herp” and “derp” for an entire week, and never try to engage in intelligent conversation again.

    I’m probably late to the party with that joke, but there’s too many comments and no time to read them all.

  24. Max says:

    There’s a Gamasutra member blog that had an interesting idea about stories in games.

    http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JustinKeverne/20110308/7147/Framework_for_Systemic_Storytelling_Part_1.php

    Basically, no story is written. It involves creating complex AI agents with goals and motivations, and through player interaction, a story will emerge. Seems like an interesting idea.

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