Yes, I spend a lot of time whining about storytelling in games. I don’t do it because I’m a mean person that enjoys complaining all the time. I mean, those things are true, but that’s part of a completely unrelated personality problem. I complain about storytelling because I think AAA publishers fundamentally underestimate the impact of good writing. Or perhaps they don’t have the expertise to tell good writing from bad. The point is that we wind up with a lot of games with enormous teams, massive marketing campaigns, cutting-edge graphics, extravagantly produced cutscenes, and embarrassing high-school level narrative structure.
On the other hand? I admit, this is a hard job.
Video game writers have it tough. Like, regular writing is already hard enough. Writing for linear media like movies, books, or television saddles the writer with a lot of competing concerns. For example…
The Challenges of Writing Traditional Stories
- Main plot, preferably with a 3-act structure and rising action.
- Maintain a clear tone.
- You should probably have one or more sub-plots or layers.
- The dialog needs to sound natural while also being witty, compact, and true to the characters.
- Supply exposition that tells the audience what they need to know without boring them.
- Make sure you don’t have too many or too few action beats, and make sure to space them out.
- The protagonist needs a strong arc with clearly defined motivation.
- You need to be faithful and respectful of any extant lore.
- Don’t forget to do proper setups and payoffs for jokes, plot points, character beats, and plot twists.
- Make sure it’s all coherent and comprehensible to the audience.
- It needs to be emotionally resonant! Appeal to the humanity of the audience using in love, anger, justice, revenge, redemption, catharsis, familial bonds, curiosity, and all that other touchy-feely stuff.
- Obvious stories are boring so make sure to throw a twist in there somewhere! But not too many, because then the story feels random.
- Don’t forget to collaborate! The director, producer, and other creative people on the team will all have their own “brilliant” ideas that they’ll insist you add.
- Oh, and while you’re at it: Throw in some sex appeal, but not too much. Throw in some pop-culture references, but not too many. Draw from established tropes to make the story feel familiar, but then somehow also make it feel original.
- But most of all: Have fun!
You need a plot that’s interesting but not too derivative. You need to worry about pacing, character arcs, setting up and paying off ideas, making the dialog efficient while also sounding natural, and so on. Screen time is precious, budgets are limited, and audience attention spans are short.
Meanwhile, In Video Games…
Video game writers have inherited all of those challenges from their ancestor mediums, plus they also need to maintain a careful balance between gameplay and cutscenes. You generally shouldn’t let gameplay sections run so long that the player feels disconnected from the plot, and at the same time you probably shouldn’t subject them to long cutscenes with no interactivity. And most importantly, you need to respect the events depicted in gameplay.
That last one is something I’ve noticed that writers really struggle with when coming to games from another medium. Even talented, successful writers seem to have trouble adapting their workflow to allow for the contributions of the player.
What usually ends up happening is that the writer will come up with a standard Hollywood style script, and then cut it up into fixed cutscenes so the game designer can stick gameplay bits between them. The result is basically what you’d expect from that description: A bifurcated experience where the two halves feel like they’re at odds with each other. I’ve heard people coming from gamedev schools describe this design style as “a book with the pages glued together”. Gameplay becomes a tool to advance the story without being a part of it. Yes, getting the next page un-stuck is a challenge, but that challenge isn’t acknowledged by the writer as part of the story.
In Insomniac’s Spider-Man game, you don’t get to defeat Rhino and Scorpion in gameplay. Instead, the fight ends when the writer grabs the controller out of your hands and switches to cutscene mode so they can beat the bad guys for you in a stylish cutscene rather than let you do it in gameplay. Your job wasn’t to defeat the bad guys. Your job was to get the next page unstuck so you can see what “really” happened.
I know some people don’t mind this sort of thing, and if you’re one of those people that doesn’t care or think about what happens in cutscenes, then this video is probably going to sound pretty alien to you. For me, it feels like the writer is kill-stealing the boss from me. That moment where the boss goes down? That’s the reward I’m looking for. That’s the moment of empowerment I’ve been working towards. Having that moment taken away so the writer can have a cinematic climax is negating my reward so the writer can make pretty, trailer-friendly cinematics. It’s working against the very idea of a video game.
Compare this to the boss fight against Mr. Freeze in Batman: Arkham City. (Which, incidentally, regularly makes the lists of Best Boss Battles Ever.) In that fight, you defeat Freeze entirely in gameplay. The game doesn’t switch to cutscene mode until after you’ve won. Maybe this seems like too subtle a distinction. I mean, both fights end in a cutscene, right?
But imagine if someone asked you to describe how the hero defeated the villain. In Spider-Man’s case, you’d probably describe the events of the cutscene, because the events of the cutscene are what “really” happened as far as the story is concerned. On the other hand, anyone describing the Freeze fight in Arkham City would have to describe what happened in gameplay, because that’s where the fight took place. You’re not struggling to un-stick the next page in the story, you are, by participating in the gameplay, authoring parts of the story. Did you struggle against Freeze? Did you have to stumble around a bit to figure out the right approach, or did you breeze through the fight like the Batman himself, effortlessly outmaneuvering Freeze at every turn and making Freeze look like a chump? No matter how your version of the fight went down, that’s canonically what happened in your journey through Arkham City. What you did is what happened, because the Gameplay is the Story.
Of course, if getting gameplay and story to work in harmony was always that easy, then we wouldn’t see so many talented and experienced professionals struggling with it for so many years.
It’s easy enough to SAY that the gameplay is the story, but it’s hard to do because the needs of a story are often opposed to the needs of gameplay. (At least, in cutscene-heavy, story-driven games.)
So let’s talk about why Gameplay is the Story is really hard and how it could be done better.
Failure is Not an Option, it’s Mandatory
While I started off talking about the annoyance of having the designer steal the player’s victory in a cutscene, the real problems actually show up at the opposite end of the spectrum. See, classic adventure stories typically require the hero to go through some sort of personal growth in response to setbacks and adversity. The problem is that gameplay doesn’t typically allow for setbacks. If the player screws up and dies, a story-based game will generally retcon the mistake away. Time is reset to some checkpoint and the player gets to try again. The story proceeds as if the player’s mistake never happened.
This means that – canonically – the player character never loses in gameplay. Without some way to provide setbacks via cutscenes, you’d wind up with a story where the protagonist is infallible. Yes, the Gameplay is The Story, but the corollary to that is that the Audience is the Protagonist, and how the hell is the author supposed to write a story where they can’t control the main character?
Which means that – for all the time I’ve spent praising the idea that Gameplay Is Story, the concept is fundamentally unattainable in traditional cutscene-driven games. A story where the player has total control over the character is a story where the protagonist can’t make mistakes. At some point, the player has to be willing to occasionally let go of their character to allow for cutscene-driven setbacks.
So what we have here is one of those obnoxious trade-offs where we have to choose between two desirable things. If the writer intrudes into gameplay too much, then we end up with an obnoxious and frustrating experience where it feels like the gameplay doesn’t matter and you’re just pushing through unrelated combat to get the next page unstuck. On the other hand, if the writer never gets involved then we end up with a dull story with no stakes.
There’s no perfect way to square this circle, but I want to make some humble suggestions for how the author can create setbacks for the player character without pissing off the player. Since this is The Internet, we’re going to do this in the form of…
A Big Dumb Numbered List
(I’ve heard these things are really popular.)
So if you’re a player and you wonder why cutscenes so often get on your nerves, or if you’re a developer and you’re trying to figure out why so many people skip your expensively-produced cutscenes, then here’s my list for the 10 things writers should keep in mind when weaving their story-based setbacks into gameplay.
- Keep it Brief.
Setbacks need to happen so our protagonist can grow, so we can establish stakes, and so we can give the audience a reason to hate the villain. But having the player character fail in a cutscene is also going to make the player a little restless because they’re no longer playing the game. There’s a system of diminishing returns at work here. Making the scene ten times longer isn’t going to make us hate the villain ten times more, or give the story ten times more stakes.
In Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, your character fails in a cutscene when he’s captured by the Nazis. That sequence is about twenty minutes of solid cutscenes where the protagonist is degraded, humiliated, tortured, mocked, and used as a tool of Nazi propaganda. Even if this was a movie and not a game, this twenty minute sequence would be ridiculous overkill. In the context of a video game, it becomes completely numbing. Worse, a lot of this is unskippable, which makes replaying this part of the game a chore.
- This probably sounds obvious, but… don’t forget the player exists?
Okay, this is a really obvious one and it’s mostly just here for the Borderlands series. This game isn’t cutscene heavy, but when it does have a cutscene, your interplanetary badass is transformed into a floating camera. Yeah, I get that the cutscene is trying to allow for the fact that your party can be made up of any combination of characters, but having those characters do absolutely nothing in cutscenes is really, really weird. The solution here is to not write a story that requires the player character to do nothing while their allies are maimed and killed by the villain. But if you just can’t help yourself and you can’t think of any way to advance the plot, then at least hit the player character with a freeze ray or put them behind a forcefield or whatever. Because having the protagonist do nothing at the most critical moment of the plot isn’t just frustrating to the player, it’s completely nonsensical.
- Don’t Overwrite the Events of Gameplay.
I pretty much covered this earlier. Maybe the player beats the boss without taking a scratch, but then the writer injects a cutscene that says no, actually the boss grabbed the protagonist and gave you a thrashing, gameplay be damned. The rhetorical position the writer is taking is that the gameplay doesn’t matter. The player’s actions aren’t part of the story.
In Batman: Arkham Origins, there’s a boss fight where you have to defeat villain Bane. It tries very hard to recapture the magic of the Freeze Fight I mentioned earlier, but it can’t get there because the writer felt the need to intrude on the gameplay. The game ends the fight with a quicktime event rather than letting you defeat the boss with the established mechanics. Once you’ve damaged Bane enough times, the game switches to a cutscene where Bane grabs Batman, punches him through the wall, and then you defeat Bane using what’s effectively a quicktime event where you need to read the game designer’s mind to understand Batman’s intent. Bane is then defeated by plans that were unknown to you, were only made possible by blind luck, and all of it was unrelated to the mechanics of the previous fight.
I realize it might not look as cinematic to have the fight end in gameplay, but if the player wanted cinematic they could always go to the cinema. This is a video game, and the audience is here for interactivity. If this is a fight they’re supposed to win, then just let them win in gameplay. I mean, that’s what the gameplay is for.
Ideally writers should save the cutscenes for the talking at the end. Not only is it more fun for the player, and not only does it make better use of the medium, but it also makes the cutscenes way cheaper to produce.
- Don’t Make the Player Work for Failure.
Or as I like to call it, “Failure is forbidden until it becomes mandatory.”
It really, really sucks to struggle through a boss fight a few times, get a game over for losing, but then when you finally “win” the writer puts you through a cutscene where you lose anyway. In Wolfenstein II you have to fight your way out of a Nazi courtroom. It’s actually the hardest fight in the game for some reason. But when you finally “win”, you discover it’s all a daydream. You’re still a prisoner of the Nazis and nothing has changed. So why does the player have to restart if they die? Is the main character failing at his own ridiculous daydream? If the goal of the scene for the player character to fail, and if Gameplay is the Story, then just accept accept the player’s failure. That’s what the script calls for! Just cut to the end of the daydream and move on. Mission accomplished.
Worse, these sorts of fights are an absolute bastard on subsequent trips through the game. It sucks when you know you’re in a pointless rigged fight where you have to give it your best before you’re permitted to fail and move on.
- Don’t Change POV.
In Marvel’s Spider-Man, there’s a moment when Spider-Man gets ambushed by Scorpion. We transition to a cutscene where Scorpion sneaks up behind Spider-Man and gives him a poke with his poisoned tail.
I understand why writers are drawn to moments like this. See, this moment…
The moment where we see Scorpion and Spider-Man is oblivious? That moment is an example of Dramatic Irony. That’s when the audience is aware of the full situation while one or more characters in the story or not. A classic example of this is in Hamlet. When Hammy has his duel with Laertes, we in the audience know that the wine is poisoned, the sword is poisoned, this duel has been set up specifically to assassinate him, and half the royal family wants him dead. But Hamlet isn’t aware of these dangers, which creates suspense within the story. Not only is there danger, but our hapless protagonist isn’t even aware of it.
While this is a tried-and-true technique in theater, cinema, written works, or whatever, it’s inappropriate in situations like the one we find in Spider-Man. You can only do dramatic irony when the audience knows something the protagonist doesn’t, but in a video game the audience is the protagonist, remember?
This story is told from Spider-Man’s perspective. The understanding is that we in the audience are experiencing the story through Spider-Man. For the purposes of gameplay, if we see something, then Spider-Man does too. But now suddenly we switch to a cutscene that makes us privy to things that Spider-Man isn’t. Effectively, we’re changing point of view. It’s like a book that changes viewpoint in the middle of a page.
I swung down to the reservoir and landed on a nearby rooftop. I knew Scorpion was lurking around here somewhere.
Spider-Man continued to stare at the water like a dummy. Slowly Scorpion snuck up behind him and then struck with his poisoned tail.
I cried out as I felt Scorpion’s stinger land on my left arm, tearing through my Spider-suit. My head began to spin and I stumbled forward.
It’s not just awkward, it’s fundamentally wrong. This would not get past an editor.
I want to make it really clear that when I say “point of view”, I’m not talking about where the camera is. I’m talking about the gap in knowledge between the audience and the protagonist. If we know something they don’t and the designer doesn’t allow us to act on that knowledge, then we’ve stopped being players and we’ve become a passive audience.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t have the player character get ambushed in the story, it just means you have to ambush the player at the same time.
For an example of this done properly, we can look at Batman: Arkham City. Early in the game, the writer needs Joker to ambush Batman. As Batman examines Joker’s medical equipment, he switches to detective vision to give the audience a little puzzle to ponder. While the player is distracted, the Joker springs his trap and catches both the audience and the Batman off-guard.
There’s an even better example of this trick later in the game. When Batman is chasing a Ninja around the city – it’s a long story – he finds a clue on the ground. In this case, the player is the one to enter detective mode and focus on this object. That’s when the writer has Batman get jumped. The result is that the ambush feels “fair”. The author didn’t have to cheat and grab the controller out of the player’s hands to make this work. It maintains the connection between player and protagonist, and it follows the rules of both the world and the narrative.
- Dialog Should be Enticing, Not Force-Fed.
Technically this one is a problem for movies as well as games, but the problem is SO common in games that I wanted to cover it here. In either case, the villainous monologue is a classic trope. The villain corners the protagonist, but instead of fighting, the hero sits still while the villain monologues their plans, their motivations, or the rationale for their behavior. But just because it’s a trope doesn’t mean it’s bad. Establishing the villain and helping the audience to understand them is really important for making the drama work.
But if you’re going to bring the gameplay to a halt, then you need to make sure the audience wants to hear what the villain has to say before you take control away from the player.
In Mass Effect 1, we have a showdown with the bad guy, Saren. We’ve just shot our way through his base and discovered the massive scope of his plans. We learned he’s worried about the mind-control abilities of the Reapers, and he’s trying to figure out a way to both keep himself alive and avoid becoming their thrall. We’ve discovered his plans are larger and more complicated than we initially believed. So now we’re curious. Why is Saren doing this? Why is he serving the Reapers and how does he imagine he’ll survive such a collaboration?
So when the scene takes us into dialog mode, we don’t mind. The player character wants to talk to him, the player is already curious about what he has to say, and the conversation suits the machinations of the writer.
- Don’t Repeat Yourself.
2013’s Tomb Raider is a great example of this problem. In that game, Lara Croft is repeatedly waylayed or ambushed by enemies that magically appear just off-camera. Now, one or two of these would be totally fine. Lara was inattentive and someone got the drop on her. It happens. The problem is that this happens so frequently that it becomes obvious and predictable. It’s like watching the same a magic trick performed again and again.
“Hey, where did that guy come from!? Did he walk through the wall? How did that other guy get the jump on her? Does she not have peripheral vision?”
Eventually we stop being mad at the antagonist and start being mad at the writer.
- No Cutscene Incompetence.
- I’m Not Kidding, Knock it Off with the Cutscene Incompetence.
- No, seriously, Stop it With the Cutscene Incompetence Already. What is Wrong With You? Do You Hate Players? Are You Some Kind of Monster? Who Hurt You? Do You Have any Concept of How Obnoxious This Is? Who Told You That You Could Write Video Games?
In the Tomb Raider reboot, Lara is trying to rescue her friend Sam. Some cultists have kidnapped Sam and are planning to burn her at the stake because… you know what? It doesn’t matter. We don’t have time. They’re bad guys. Human sacrifice. You get the idea.
Lara enters the sacrificial chamber behind the cultists. She has the drop on them. By this point in the game she’s got a shotgun, a pistol, and an assault rifle tucked in her back pocket. She’s dealing with a group of massed enemies who are armed only with melee weapons. She could, right now, kill the cult leader and mow down any cultists foolish enough to charge her head-on. But instead the cutscene has her using the bow? That’s literally the worst possible weapon for this situation. It’s ridiculous.
Worse, she doesn’t even attack! She has this perfect opportunity to assassinate this dangerous cult leader and save her friend, and instead she sits by, doing nothing, while the cultists finish their preparations. It’s not like it’s a mystery what they’re about to do. It’s not like they’re going to suddenly change their mind and not sacrifice Sam. But for whatever reason, Lara waits until the last possible moment and then attacks the wrong personShe attacks the guy that’s about to kill Sam, but if she’s acted sooner she could have killed the leader, then this guy, then another guy, etc. with the worst weapon. Of course she gets overwhelmed by the crowd and captured in a cutscene.
This is a problem in far too many games. It’s a problem when Commander Shepard forgets she’s in a cover-based shooter, drops her gun in a pit, forgets she owns more than one gun, forgets about all her space magic powers, and then falls into the pit herself while her teammates forget they exist. It’s a problem every time Alan Wake falls over and accidentally drops all of his weapons into hammerspace. It’s a problem when the main character of Rage 2 gets themselves stupidly poisoned for no reason. It’s a problem in all the Grand Theft Auto scenes where your character stands around doing nothing while foes escape. It’s a problem when cutscene Spider-Man repeatedly loses in physical altercations with a normal human for no apparent reason.
On one hand the game keeps patronizing the player. Through the lore, the gameplay, or sycophantic allies, the game tells you that you’re special. You’re a super-badass. You’re the hero. But then a cutscene starts and the game shows that your character is weak, clumsy, oblivious, foolish, or dim-witted. Their powers don’t work, they can’t shoot straight, and things that are trivial in gameplay suddenly become impossible. The writer is tearing down the hero in a way that will frustrate the player and make them resent their own character.
Dear game designers. Here is my super-secret pro-strat for avoiding this. Ready? Here we go:
Don’t make the protagonist incompetent. Make the antagonist clever.
I’ve been picking on Tomb Raider in this video, so let me make up for it by pointing out a good scene from the game. At one point Lara comes to a bridge. The writer doesn’t want her to cross. Instead – for the purposes of the story – she needs to get captured by the supernatural threat on the island. Instead of having her fall off the bridge or get ambushed by more teleporting goons, the writer has the bad guys be proactive. They use an innocent civilian to distract her, and then they drop explosives on the bridge to blow it up.
This makes sense. She’s been plowing through their ranks, so they knew she was coming. They had lots of time to prepare. For whatever reason, explosive containers are ridiculously plentiful on this island. There’s nothing wrong with Lara blundering into this trap because there’s no way she could have seen this coming and her foes have never tried anything like this before. Instead of making Lara into a dummy, this scene reinforces the idea cult leader Mattias is crafty, experienced, and capable of thinking ahead.
Although the writer does spawn in some more magical teleporting mooks at the end of the scene. But then they die a few seconds later so it sort of doesn’t matter. Whatever.
So that’s my list. Making sure that the Gameplay is the Story isn’t a binary on / off deal. It’s an ideal to aim for. And I wish more games would aim for it.
 She attacks the guy that’s about to kill Sam, but if she’s acted sooner she could have killed the leader, then this guy, then another guy, etc.
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129 thoughts on “The Gameplay is the Story”
Hey I was thinking about your issues with getting footage of games, maybe you should have a system where you make copies of your save files every hour when you’re playing a new game, and when that fails try to ask us on the blog if we have one handy near the moment you need?
Yes to all of that. If often seems strange to me that game devs will spend the GDP of a small country on making their pixels 1% shinier, but often seem unwilling to even try writing a coherent story, much less something that’s actually good. I suspect that the underlying problem is partly the lingering meme that games are childrens toys rather than a serious artform, and partly that the industry is set in its ways. Also, like you’ve repeatedly pointed out, the movers and shakers of the industry don’t know anything about games. It’s vexing, but I’m not sure what one could do about it.
Why would they? The market research is pretty clear that if you makes your pixels shinier more people will buy it, and if you make your plot as dumb as Call of Duty you can still sell thirty million copies. When Mass Effect Andromeda (a story game!) released, a hundred times more people were making fun of the crappy facial animations than the dire writing quality. People who really care about writing in games, care enough to actually let it drive their purchasing decisions rather than just complain on the internet, those people are a minority only slightly larger than fans of turn-based WWII strategy games on hex grids. We know this because every now and then there will be some polished narrative gem that all us story nerds cannot stop gushing about, and if it’s lucky it’ll sell 10% as many copies as Gears Of Big Dumb Shootmans.
Developers don’t take story seriously because consumers don’t take story seriously.
Why does there have to be so much of it, though?
^This. If the story doesn’t matter, just go back to dumb hand-wave plots like “Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?”
Is it, though? It seems to be a common assumption, but I don’t know if it’s backed up. The people who get excited over whether the new Xbox Whatever has slightly better or worse graphics than the new Playstation Who Cares seem to be an even smaller group that the people who care about story in games. Especially considering that people who get bored of a bad story will probably just sigh and turn off the game, rather than write about it on internet forums.
And I mean, yes, Call of Duty games probably have a terrible story. But the story is generally five seconds of cutscene through your own eyes, and then you’re back to the shooting, which is excellent. And then you have people who buy the latest copy and ignore the story altogether because they’re there for the new maps, like me.
I think a LOT of high-spec games fail because of a stupid and irritating story and the industry never really realises it. Gameplay makes up for a lot, I’m not sure graphics that are 2% shinier do.
If anything, I think the market has trended the other way in recent years. You can’t stand out with sharp graphics anymore because that’s the default assumption. Developers must stand out on art design. The bleeding edge of graphics and the “average” are now closer than ever before in human terms. Sure, in absolute terms going from 1440 to 4k is massive. But it’s not as important as jumping from, say, 640 to 768, or 768 to 1280. And sure, raytracing is cool but if a game doesn’t have it, will that change sales according to even the sharpest marketing measurement?
Meanwhile, it’s easier than ever for smaller or indie studios to create solid games with distinctive graphics.
I dunno, I saw a lot of people making fun of Andromeda’s writing as well as the animations. Maybe not quite as many, but certainly enough to generate widespread memes and mockery (remember “My face is tired?” That was making fun of the bad dialogue, not just the terrible facial animations).
This has been my experience too and I’ve always just assumed that the reason that the graphics were an easy target is because graphical glitches are easily meme-able: It’s easy to post a Sloane Kelly body horror picture and razz it with a one-liner, but it’s tough to make a meme out of “this story fails by every narrative metric that I can think of.”
I would even venture to say that those memes weren’t even about the graphics, which I would argue are solid graphics, but were rather about how poorly the characters were animated within those graphics.
When people say the writing sucks they usually mean the thing about the story failing, but in Andromeda the literal writing sucks. There are numerous places where you could screenshot the captions of people’s dialogue and it’d be as embarrassing to the writer as those faces are to the animation team. “My face is tired” is the famous intersection of animations and writing sucking simultaneously, but there are so many moments like that where the individual sentences are just badly constructed.
Another really cringeworthy scene which a lot of people mocked is one of Ryder’s romance dialogues with Suvi, the Tempest’s science officer. I think the writers were going for ‘awkward in a cute way’, but instead it comes off as ‘awkward in a toe-curlingly stilted and painful way’ (one of the other characters even lampshades how bad it sounds). The voice-acting doesn’t help, but really, what can you do with dialogue like that? They should have just got the actors to ad-lib something.
Shamus is doing a good job of showing the writing sucks in Rage 2, but if he were to make a Youtube series out of that, would that become popular? Or would the common response be “Yes, I assumed the writing was bad because you were talking about Rage 2. Not a game I imagined COULD have good writing, like Greedfall or Fire Emblem Three Houses. Why did you waste time on this?” Versus if you want to show the graphics or physics are silly, you can easily get a following putting out videos and memes demonstrating that (this is to some degree where VideogameDunkey’s viral fame came from).
Counter-point: why do we consider it as the default state of things that videogames, a creative artistic product, are supposed to be developed with the primary goal of making as much money as possible? We certainly don’t expect that for nearly any other artistic medium (movies are the exception to some degree, but it mainly applies to Hollywood).
Because the default videogame* is made by a company employing hundreds of people and they have bills to pay. When the creative artistic product is produced by one guy because it’s his passion, without the involvement of anyone wearing a suit, we tend to assume that it’s not developed to make as much as possible. Notice how well this tracks with film: big Hollywood projects with thousands of people in the credits are profit-maximizers, indie stuff is expected to be artistic.
*Depending on how you count, AAA can be 95% of the market by units sold, or 5% of the market by “number of games that exist”.
It seems more likely to me that they want to deliver good storytelling, but hardly anyone knows how. Expensive professional writers don’t know how to write stories for games, because the challenges of game writing are fundamentally different from other forms of writing.
I think one of the games that does gameplay as story well off the top of my head is the first Max Payne game, There is a memorable line max says where he denies he has any special skills in what he’s doing but instead that its all just “chaos and luck.” The games mechanics back this up by by making Max turn to glass whenever he is shot like once or twice by anything bigger than a pistole and having clunky controls that prevent the player from just ez one shot headshot killing all the bad guys like the third max payne for example. This along with no cover mechanics forces the player to basically just go with it, dive in guns akimbo and throw all caution to the wind. It takes what would be a line that invalidates the players skill in most other shooters and makes it an amusing comment on the chaotic and desperate nature of the fights the player has throughout the game.
Now I need to try this game…
So I hit play on the video to help Shamus with the algorithm. Now that I’ve read both the articles, all three existing comments, and made it down to the Reply box – there’s still 12 minutes to go. Which only serves to remind me why I don’t normally watch these types of videos.
4:35 – OK, so… is this a clever subtle joke about the whole “Rocksteady/Insomniac” mistake from the last video where people are going to forever berate you for a mistake you made or did you actually make the mistake of referring to Tomb Raider as Wolfenstein?
No, that wasn’t a joke. This video went through a lot of editing, revisions, and tweaking. I think Issac had to sit through the 20-minute export like 6 times. (One version got copyright claimed, which is why the Hamlet stuff is still frames instead of footage.)
The mis-labeled footage just got overlooked in the shuffle.
Every video has a mistake and when you put all the letters of the mistakes together you’ll get… nothing special, probably.
Nothing special, or special nothing?
Nothing, in a special way.
You’ll get “everything is fine” with an ASCII art of Ryder’s constant smiling face.
I know Shamus has decided against merch for now, but I would totally buy that on a T-shirt.
Speaking of that, while it’s very good to admit mistakes I thought having an entire aside dedicated to it detracted from the video. I’d recommend just having some text at the bottom of the video during the relevant section saying “By the way last time I said XXX instead of YYY, my bad everyone!”.
Another great video, they’ve definitely improved. This felt a touch too long though – it felt like two videos, I think numbered lists as a convention have the list take up most of the video the lio? This was another video where I felt I was missing out if I didn’t look at the footage, which is a good thing.
Plus I really enjoyed the substance of this. Some of those tweaks are tiny, easy rules that would make games so much better. I want game devs to use this as reference material. Allowing you to die whenever in game enforced death, and to make sure the cutscene doesn’t immediately contradict the action before it – those save money and make the cutscenes infinitely more fluid.
I actually disagree with the conceit that “the player is the protagonist”. Giving the player information that the protagonist absolutely could not have can make for a much better game than not doing it. Like everything, though, how you use it is CRUCIAL.
I think the best example of this (that I’m aware of) was the “Meanwhile, In Denerim” scenes in Dragon Age: Origins, where you got to watch the sub-villains interacting. There is no possible way the protagonist could have witnessed those scenes. And they had ZERO impact on GAMEPLAY (nobody ambushed you). What they did was serve to dramatize the bad guys without requiring the game to have some ugly artificial crap shoehorned in.
See, I think the real problem with writing in a lot of video games is one that any GM runs into a lot in tabletop games . . . how do you have your players INTERACT with the villain and LEARN ABOUT them, their motivations, etc., without them just charging in and killing the bad guy in the first act? There are only so many times you can pull out the invulnerable force field, the secret escape pod, the hostage, etc. before your players get pissed off. Players–as opposed to people in real life–are VERY aggressive because they are always acting from a place of safety, and they are always going to demand to know “why don’t I just attack this guy and kill him right now?!” And, as GM’s for decades have found . . . if you give the bad guy stats, the players WILL figure out a way to kill them.
So, having even entire scenes that the protagonist simply could not be privy to in any conceivable way is actually a perfectly legitimate way to accomplish some story goals without having to rely on a bunch of obnoxious contrivances. In fact, this works so well that my *pen and paper group actually does it*, and the GM will, say, write up a scene for the players to read where the Big Bad berates some underlings etc. This is super-helpful in pen and paper because it’s really easy for people to forget what’s really going on between sessions. We’ve given up on the whole notion that there’s some sort of benefit of making the players writhe around for hours nitpicking the GM with questions and getting more and more lost because the GM refuses to disclose information unless they’re tickled in just the right way. The point of a mystery isn’t that it hopelessly baffles you . . . any idiot of a GM can do this ACCIDENTALLY. The point is that the clues for you to figure it out were THERE, you just didn’t put them together in your head in QUITE the right way . . . until you did.
So, yeah, by all means give the player information that the protagonist doesn’t (or couldn’t) have. Just don’t use it *against* them, because that’s ANOTHER lesson in game design from tabletop games . . . if you hit people with something they had no way to avoid or know about, they’re not going to attribute it to fate. They’re going to attribute it to YOU, the GM, who is sitting RIGHT THERE and actually WAS the one who pulled off the shenanigans. Or, in a game, they’re going to think the writer is a dick. People aren’t dumb. They know who is actually responsible for the shenanigans.
Was thinking that. Final Fantasy Tactics is the stand-out in my mind, where pretty much the entire war plays out in non-hero cutscenes. Then Trails of Cold Steel has a pretty silly recurring gag where someone tries to hide information with a paper-thin excuse that none of the characters manage to see through.
Shamus’ favouritest game ever Mass Effect also does it, showing a scene between Saren and Benezia. However, I don’t think those sorts of completely off-screen examples are a problem. The scene Shamus used was a scene where the player was the protagonist, and everything he said about that scene is valid. It’s just another example of cutscene incompetence, and more properly belonged as a sub-heading of that section.
That particular scene is kind of terrible, but for reasons other than viewpoint
Those kind of scenes are fine because they’re there for worldbuilding (extra info on characters, and sometimes, introduction of characters. We’d have no idea who the hell Benezia is if not for this). The spidey ones, not so much.
Personally I’m with Shamus on this one. Dropping perspectives feels strange just so the writer can set up a scene or dump some exposition the player/protagonist wasn’t around to receive. The best use I’ve seen is to quickly introduce new towns/areas without having the player walk around doing not much. But that doesn’t tend to work in story driven games, walking around talking/exploring is a big part of an RPG. The further you get from an action/gameplay focus (story as a side dressing) the harder and harder separating player/protagonist becomes as the player expects more agency.
I especially wouldn’t do it in a pen and paper game (at least how I play them. ymmv). Even more so than in videogames tabletop RPG’s are about the player directly playing a role. Being privy to things you couldn’t possibly have seen is incongruous at best and leads to metagaming and metaknowlege at worst. It’s basically impossible to hold information the character isn’t supposed to know and not in some way use it as it’s always there providing context to any mystery you might encounter.
I find it strange and counter to running an RP group in the first place. The GM writes a story which none of the players can interact with, nor can they act on any of the information gained. You can establish the bad guy is berating their minions in a cutscene but it doesn’t mean anything to the characters since they were totally oblivious, so the player doesn’t get anything to RP from. If you need to characterise a villain (whom they can’t interact with directly) you can do it via their actions or consequences thereof, that way the players and characters get a chance to respond. “why don’t I just attack this guy and kill him right now?!” is a perfectly legitimate thought process, it’s brought up often in movies and games as well. If you know someone is “evil” and they present an unrestricted opportunity to stop them, there’s no in character reason to wait for the exposition unless they can present one.
I dunno, I really enjoyed the scenes in FFXII that gave background on what was happening while my party was stumbling around half the planet looking for nethicite. Having that extra info helped build the impression that there was a wider world out there and provided a lot more context for later events when the party finally got to the bigger events.
(Of course, the major weakness of FFXII is that your party in general, and Vaan in particular, are not protagonists…and they also never actually resolved the whole plot with the Occuria…but still, I liked the cutscenes.)
Unless something has radically changed Final Fantasy was basically the poster child for “we stuck a game to this movie we made”. It seems to be an expected thing for some JRPG’s that you’re really just there to watch how the story plays out and not contribute to how anything unfolds. The whole thing is structured like you’re watching a movie rather than playing it, not so much playing the character as you are unlocking the next scene.
Having knowledge presented to you that’s unavailable to the characters but being unable to act on it produces a very different feel, like you’re watching a story unfold but aren’t a part of it. Which I think would be more acceptable if they managed to write a story which was delivered throughout the game rather than interspersed in cutscenes between gameplay segments.
“Being privy to things you couldn’t possibly have seen is incongruous at best and leads to metagaming and metaknowlege at worst. It’s basically impossible to hold information the character isn’t supposed to know and not in some way use it as it’s always there providing context to any mystery you might encounter.”
The more I game, the more laughable I find this conceit. No, your players aren’t embodying their characters as their avatar. Their character should know all kinds of stuff that the player generally doesn’t know. Is your PLAYER a wizard?! In real life they can throw fireballs?! Or, are they an expert hacker? Or a superhero? No. There is already an ENORMOUS and completely unbridgeable gap between what the player knows and what the character knows ON PURPOSE as the ENTIRE POINT OF THE GAME (unless you’re playing yourself living out your actual real life).
It is actually much harder to GIVE your players information that will enable them to role-play well than to conceal information FROM them, and if you’re basing your GMing style on deliberately HIDING key information, you’re setting up an adversarial relationship with your players and you are no longer role-playing, you are playing a poker game where one player knows what cards everyone else has. This is rarely fun for anyone. I’ve encountered this numerous times with GMs who created what they thought would be a “fun” encounter with an “unbeatable” enemy who had a “secret”. The result was an entire session of misery for the players, frustration for the GM that we just weren’t “getting” it, and everyone leaving pissed-off.
The same conundrum makes me laugh at people who talk about how they want “challenge” from video games. No, you don’t. You want something that fully engages the skill that you have and makes you push yourself a little. It’s trivial for the game designer to design something that you literally can’t beat . . . it’s actually EASIER to do this than to build something that you CAN beat but only with DIFFICULTY.
All video games are inherently TRIVIALLY easy (compared to tasks of ACTUAL difficulty).
I was actually talking about this on my stream a few weeks ago–how good game design is all about understanding and controlling the player’s PERCEPTION of what is going on . . . how some races in DDO feel like they run really slow, and others feel really fast, but they’re actually all exactly the same run speed, the difference is caused by their height, the height of the camera, and their stride length (small races feel really fast because their camera viewpoint is lower and they take lots of steps). Challenge is not a real thing that exists in video games . . . only the PERCEPTION that you’re being challenged/pushed exists. Likewise realism is not a thing that exists in video games, only the PERCEPTION that something “feels” realistic or not.
I would much rather have beautifully dramatized, CONCISE, “meanwhile, In Denerim” scenes that convey large amounts of information very efficiently, than NPC’s TELLING me about stuff I don’t get to see. And often it’s better off if they just make a non-interactive movie out of it (provided it’s not idiotic) than have you play a minor character (although this can be fine too). I don’t take this as some kind of mandatory, universal best way, for sure. All I’m saying is that it is not INHERENTLY wrong.
That was one of the biggest (but not the biggest) sins of Dragon Age: Inquisition . . . the game started off with a huge, terrifying explosion and deaths of important people THAT YOU DID NOT GET TO WITNESS IN ANY WAY WHATSOEVER, even passively.
Meanwhile I would rather not be privy to scenes and information that the character I’m playing doesn’t have access to at all. A GM not granting metaknowlege is not inherently an adversarial relationship. There are plenty of other avenues to deliver information and hints to players that don’t require removing the characters agency and experiences entirely from the equation. If you’ve seen GMs run a bad guy with a secret or a fight with a secret solution that didn’t work out it means they haven’t done the legwork in setting it up beforehand, not that some metagaming was required. You can get the player and the character to care about the secret at the same time.
You say the the knowledge bridge between character and player is unbridgeable, I don’t think so. Not only that, I believe bridging that gap is the entire point. Character knowledge represented by in game systems and interaction with the GM are designed to bridge that gap. You may not know wizardry, but you do know when to ask about something they should know and then you both have the relevant information. More importantly, what your character has experienced and the information they have gained relative to the story you are playing at the moment is always (short of an amnesia plot) going to be known by you. Making the gap wider by providing even more variables between character and player is running opposite to how I play the role in the role-playing game. The mystery/encounter/story feels resolved like some deity pushing pieces around a board instead of by the characters if outside information was used to complete it.
It’s obvious we come at RPG’s from opposite sides and like before, your mileage may vary with how you approach them. But to come out and open by laughing at me and calling me conceited for trying to role play in an RPG is extremely rude.
Saying that something is a conceit does not mean “you are conceited”. A conceit is a set of chosen parameters/limitations selected for stylistic reasons, usually of a rather whimsical nature. Nor does calling a conceit laughable mean that someone is laughing AT YOU.
Taking your own lack of verbal sophistication as an attack is VERY VERY RUDE.
I proposed how I play a game. You directly quoted me and immediately following said the idea I hold was a “laughable conceit”. Forgive me if you come across as abrasive, especially when you choose to follow it up here with further insulting my intelligence. Perhaps you should take you own “verbal sophistication” into account if you are not coming across accurately. Calling out someones ideals directly in a quote and pointing and laughing at it is an insult no matter how much you didn’t intend it.
There are multiple layers of irony in wielding what is either a rude lack of tact or a deliberate insult in order to accuse someone of being “VERY VERY RUDE” for making a remark in self defense that you yourself characterize as a misunderstanding rather than malicious on their part. All in one sentence. It’s… like a verbal Klien bottle.
There are some games, mostly RPGs, where the player is very definitely the protagonist. I’d say that any game where the player creates the protagonist and chooses not only the protagonist’s actions but his emotional responses qualifies. In such games, cutscenes that aren’t from the protagonist’s point of view aren’t necessarily bad, but I think Shamus is right in that they are often done badly.
I’ll use the Knights of the Old Republic series as an example. In the first game, there are occasional cutscenes featuring the villain Malak where the player character is not present. These scenes serve partly to provide information that the player otherwise would not and could not know–i.e., why Taris is suddenly suffering an orbital bombardment–but mostly to create tension. They’re occasional reminders to the player that Malak is out there, he’s evil, he’s up to something, and he’s closing in. They don’t provide the player with actionable information–i.e., a reason to do something other than what he’s already doing. They are also, for the most part, quite short. The game is about what the player is doing, not what Malak is doing.
Knights of the Old Republic 2 also features several cutscenes in which the villain does stuff when the player character is not present. One difference between the two games is that the villain, Kreia, is also a party member, to whom the player has constant access. The cutscenes provide the player with actionable information. However well-acted they are–they’re pretty well acted, I admit–they’re bad in the sense that that they give the player (if not necessarily the player character) a reason to change what he’s doing that the game will not let him act on. The problem is further compounded by their length–oh, how Kreia loves to talk–and frequency. They make it clear that the game is about what Kreia is doing rather than what the player is doing.
I think that a game with a plot and cutscenes like Knights of the Old Republic 2 could, in principle, have worked (or worked better) if it were more clear that the player was not the protagonist. Among other things, I think that the game should have involved a protagonist with a defined personality rather than a blank-slate player avatar. The more obviously and intentionally the game is on rails the less annoying it is to the player when the game won’t let you leave them.
Knights of the Old Republic 2 is actually the rare RPG that would have (potentially) been BETTER if the protagonist had been VOICED, because it actually wouldn’t have required so many third-person cut scenes to deliver important plot information! I talked a bit about this in another thread on this site: https://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=29549
I’m not saying that doing “meanwhile” scenes is THE BEST. I’m saying it’s a VALID design choice that CAN be great in certain contexts–and, in those contexts, is possibly SUPERIOR to any other delivery format that would require some ugly design hacks or just not delivering the goods AT ALL.
Which is why, for all its plaudits, it’s a poor Star Wars game and an even worse sequel. It’s essentially just Chris Avellone pissing and moaning for 30 hours about how much he hates Star Wars.
It’s better still when the “Big Bad berates his underlings” scene is one that the players have a reason to know about. For example, let’s say in a D&D game a friendly divination wizard uses a scrying spell on the bad guys, only possible thanks to information gained by the PCs, in an attempt to learn their plans. After the players watch for a while through a crystal ball, the villain senses he’s being watched, and uses a magic item; the wizard performing the ritual suddenly drops dead, a demon erupting from his body. By this time the players have learned where they need to go next.
Also, we aren’t completely and perfectly playing the protagonist, usually. A cutscene we see about the villain bombarding the planet we just left would be giving us information in a visual presentation that the character might learn about through human interaction – chatting with the shopkeeper, reading the newspaper, watching the news, hearing everyone taking about it in the city.
Yes, you can have your character pick up a newspaper and present text, or have NPCs talk about it in the background…But video games are a visual medium, why wouldn’t you show it properly?
I think you misunderstood what was being said. The issue with that scene in particular wasn’t that the player has information that spidey doesn’t, it’s that this info is being used in ways that don’t make sense with the overall tone. If a horror guy stands over a character with a knife, you’ll have people yell “Get out of the way!”. If you have someone stand over your character with the knife, you’ll be grumpy that the cutscene didn’t let you move out of the way. That’s the major difference.
For scenes like in Dragon Age, you the player still get to interact with the setting because of that information that’s presented. That’s what makes it work as a story setup.
Except that Shamus wasn’t saying “using this method in this one specific case is bad”. He was using that Spider Man scene as an example of why the GENERAL CATEGORY of giving the player “out of character” info is bad. And I disagree with that. Yeah, in that ONE SCENE, it’s problematic. I’m sure you could come up with a thousand additional examples of when it’s problematic. What I disagree with, however, is that the ENTIRE CATEGORY is problematic, which IS what Shamus was saying by extension by declaring “The player is the protagonist”.
In fact, I think you could make a really interesting and innovative game where, during certain scenes, the player does actually PLAY as the ANTAGONIST. I think that could be really fun when, say, the writing calls for the villain to pull off an unlikely escape . . . you get to play them through their cool escape plan. This would highlight that the villain actually DID have a plan, it wasn’t just the writer being a dick and yanking your prize away AGAIN. It’d also be a great opportunity to thoroughly characterize the villain and get the player really invested in them as a character, maybe introduce some sub-villains that haven’t appeared yet so that when you encounter them as the protagonist you’re like “ah, I know this guy!”
While I didn’t think of your specific argument, I was aware that I was going to be making a bunch of absolutist statements about what you should / shouldn’t do. That’s why I wrapped it in weasel language at the start and talked about it in terms of “things to keep in mind” before I started my list. For the record, I agree with your point that there are times and genres where it is appropriate to break from the perspective of the protagonist.
That’s YouTube videos for you . . . you’re making a short video, not delivering a dissertation. Covering every subtlety is impossible.
Note that I just said “I disagree, here’s why” not “Shamus is bad and wrong”.
Yeah, those “meanwhile” style scenes may not be the best way to do it, but they’re A way to accomplish certain goals . . . and they have the added benefit that *the game devs understand how to do them*. Video games are so complicated a medium that, what, about 50 years in to their development the vast majority of creators of games are still figuring out how to use them to do basic stuff competently.
You know, I just thought of something kind of interesting about video games qua interactive art that is NOT true of other story mediums . . .
A video game MUST proceed in linear order. (Note that for this I’m not talking about finding diaries lying around or seeing recordings of prior events, I’m talking about the INTERACTIVE parts of the game.) In books and cinema you can have the story proceed in all kinds of orders, start out at the end and do a long flashback, or something really weird like Memento where the entire story is backwards, it’s all cool.
You CANNOT do this in a game, because the interaction, because it really is action, is bound to linearity. You can only interact with the NOW, which means that the time-jumping tricks that can be done in other works simply can’t be done in video games.
I think this is one of the reasons why I hate In Medias Res in games (particularly in RPG’s). I’m not talking about “get to the action fast”. That’s fine. In Medias Res doesn’t mean “start fast”, it means you literally start IN THE MIDDLE of things with no notion of how you got there or what the hell is going on. In a book this can be fine because you can *freely go back in time* and explain via dramatization what is going on, often in quite a leisurely fashion. The initial excitement serves to create tension, because you’re always waiting to see “how did it get from THIS to THAT?”
In a video game, though, because you CANNOT go back in time to explain via the crucial INTERACTION what happened, trying to do In Medias Res means you’re either going to have some absolutely idiotic hack (like amnesia) or some interminable infodump as the characters have to step in and explain verbally what you locked out of interactivity. Or it’ll be cut scenes or something.
Interesting thought, no?
What? Videogames can and have done this. Just like movies, you throw up a “five days earlier” title card and then keep doing normal videogame things: to the extent that videogames are capable of interactive storytelling at all, they’re demonstrably capable of doing it in flashback.
No they aren’t, because for the player the “flashback” is NOW (assuming it’s an interactive part of the gameplay, and not a cut scene or wall of text). The player is interacting with this for the first time, NOW, in the present. They are not revisiting something they’ve already done and TELLING you about it. Putting a notecard over it and saying “this happened three days ago” does not matter, the time is still proceeding in an orderly fashion, one thing after another.
In books and movies flashbacks and time changes are actually presented in a qualitatively different way and the perspective of the character having the flashback is different, for instance, flashbacks are pretty much exclusively told from the perspective of ONE character instead of using an omniscient perspective–even in movies where omniscient perspective usually passes unnoticed.
Likewise games don’t lock you out of game progress that you’ve made when you go “back”, and progress that you’ve acquired doesn’t vanish when you return to the “present”, because as far as the game is concerned time is linear and the flashcards are meaningless.
Even games that literally are about time travel (Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones) still all take place one event after another, regardless of whether said events are supposed to be “the past” or “the present”. There is nothing that enables conservation of knowledge or changes your gameplay state, shifting between one and the other is movement in *space*, not time.
I once ran a session (in D&D 4.0 no less!) where the PCs came upon a ruined town, and then they flash-backed to where the town was destroyed, playing individual guards defending it. The way that I was able to make this conceit work is that I asked the players to write out a series of 5 personality traits on a notecard, and when it came time to roleplay the doomed guards, I randomly handed them out to everyone and they also got to play out the wacky descriptors that someone else had come up with. My wife ended up playing a male chauvinist who was going to make sure the “little lady” (who ended up getting played by a guy) was protected during the onslaught. They got to learn exposition without having their PCs there, and enjoyed the silly roleplaying as well.
I love this idea.
This seems like a Thermian argument sort of thing though.
I mean, you say it’s a valid alternative to contrivances, but it seems like it’s really just trading one kind of contrivance for another. Either way is just a band-aid for a story setup that’s been designed to keep the wrong info hidden in the first place.
As the writer, you don’t just control how information about the scenario reaches the players, but the nature and disposition of the scenario itself. Instead of designing a “hidden info” scenario then adding contrivances to “fix” that, the ideal should be to design the situation itself so that needed info actually has naturalistic paths to the characters.
That may require substantial changes, but, well, “kill your darlings”.
It kinda sounds like you’ve been writing stories using a non-interactive story toolset, then trying to shoehorn them into an interactive context.
“As the writer, you don’t just control how information about the scenario reaches the players, but the nature and disposition of the scenario itself.”
This is not true, and anyone who actually writes knows WAY better than this. The writer cannot just create every conceivable facet of a scenario so as to be most convenient for themselves because this will create a scenario that doesn’t hold together. If you’re trying to build something, the parts of it *have* to connect in a supporting structure, otherwise it will just collapse. EVERY choice you make locks out options and their interconnections are VERY complex. There is ENORMOUS skill involved in getting all the pieces lined up and supporting each other. You absolutely cannot just do whatever you want even in a completely static NON-interactive work.
This is doubly or even triply true for a scenario that has to connect with gameplay of a certain style with a structure and limitation set all of its own, particularly when you factor in further logistical problems like getting the animation and voice work done. Almost every writing project has a horrible moment when you realize that something JUST DOESN’T WORK and you’re going to have to go back and rip it apart and make changes in order to fix it.
I mean, hell, people have been making movies for over a hundred years now and we STILL get movies with “opening crawl” scene-setting and voiceover narration that explains what the hell is going on, both of which are esthetic crimes in a dramatic visual medium. The drama SHOULD explain itself, yet after more than a hundred years they STILL haven’t figured out to completely dispense with that stuff.
Not sure where you got any of that out of what I said. You seem to be responding to something in a completely different direction than what I was talking about.
I’m not saying you can or should break the rules of your reality, or have to keep track of how many marshmallows a kid in an unrelated town had in their coco on a Tuesday.
I’m saying you control who the big bad is, what his plan is, who’s involved and how and where and why. You control literally everything except the players. You control where they start, who and what is around them, and how that connects to your story. You decide if the person, say, trying to grab power is an evil grand vizier in a castle 50 miles away, or a charismatic sociopath rebel leader in the next tent, or anything in between.
Not in a retroactive sense, but in an early draft sense. You designed a scenario “map” that wasn’t 1st person navigable. The ideal is not to “fix” it after it’s already in the wild, but to learn how to spot those issues during the drafting phase so you can iterate to create something else that does/will work. This may mean redesigning any number of elements. I.e. “kill your darlings”. This is common practice.
It is work, but that’s not the same as impossible, or even prohibitive. Just, y’know know: work, and a skill. Writers do this all the time.
The reason title crawls still exist in film isn’t because “we haven’t figured out how to dispense with them”. “We” as culture, do know. The vast majority of genre movies don’t actually have them. It’s because title crawls are what’s done when the writer either doesn’t want to expend the effort to rewrite, or isn’t given time. Even in well regarded movies, they’re a sign of weak writing.
This is deeply tied to a logistical problem film in genera has always had, namely that it’s a visual storytelling media… which is almost always written as text media. Title crawls exist in part because film production is internally conflicted about it’s own media language.
I was a film student back in the day. I’ve written several student films. I won’t claim I was brilliant at it (wouldn’t be here talking instead of making movies if I was), but organic exposition pathing was not among the parts of writing I personally found challenging. I’ve written a lot of short story stuff since, purely on a hobby level, but again: this is familiar ground. I’ve only been into P&P games for a few years, and would still call myself a very newbie GM, but getting info to player characters in a naturalistic way hasn’t ever been a challenge, either for me or the much more experienced GMs I play with. At least not in the final game: I have no idea if it tasks them in prep, only that I’ve never seen them fail. And to be honest, I’d expect a failure to look like a sudden NPC importance upgrade, or an awkward dialog dump, or a suspiciously “lucky” event. An actual “meanwhile” scene would imply a catastrophic failure.
You don’t have to fudge anything, you just have to make it a core part of how you brainstorm your stories. Exposition pathing isn’t something you only consider after you’ve created, organized, and locked your story concept. It’s a major pillar of how you design your story concept from the beginning. It’s only a problem if you’re not thinking about it while you’re still figuring out who the characters are, where they are, what they’re doing, and why.
I’ve written scripts with pacing jank, short stories with confusingly presented themes, and game scenarios that broke down because I missed stuff that let the players find solutions way too fast. Any one of those may be things you or another writer might find intuitive to avoid. So I’m not saying you’re a bad writer or that I’m better than you or anything like that. I’m saying this may be a personal weak area that you’re projecting onto game writing in general.
I don’t have the perspective of a GM to draw from, but it seems to me like the problem of showing derailment-proof worldbuilding events to the player already has simpler solutions, at least in certain genres. A character in a magic-based world can scry on the bad guy berating their minions without having the additional superpowers to snipe them from so far away; or a character in a sci-fi world can collect datapads full of their adversaries’ manifestos if the player cares enough about the other characters’ motives’ to read or listen to them. I guess that might not work as well for more Leeroy-Jenkins-inclined players who would rather fight than snoop, but it also seems less likely that those players would grieve the loss of the exposition they had chosen to overlook.
Great video! But oof… why are you talking so FAST?!?!
Maybe I was extra tired when I watched it, but I really struggled to follow what Shamus was saying.
I realize these videos need to appeal to a certain demographic (that’s not me), but can there at least be a breath/pause between paragraphs?
My old tired brain would really appreciate it.
To reply to both you and Thomas:
I REALLY struggled to get this down to 20 mins. This was a 35-40 minute topic with no good breaking point for dividing it into 2 essays. So I removed some arguments, cut several jokes, removed a few asides, and sped up my narration to get the length down. (Because I don’t want to saddle Issac with editing monster-sized videos at the last minute, which is what we were facing with this one.)
I’m not entirely happy with the result either.
I plan on making the next one a little shorter, a little slower, and a LOT simpler. (Having footage from 9 different games makes for complete chaos.)
Honestly, I like it? If I wanted it slower, I’d’ve just slowed the video down. But I loathe people who talk too slowly.
The problem for me isn’t as much the tempo of talking, rather it is the rhythm. Watching it at 3/4 speed, which I’ve never done before, just makes it sound kind of droning.
FWIW, I really enjoyed this in-depth video. I was happy to look at the time bar and see there was more of it.
Yeah, me too.
Wow, I watch most youtube videos on 1.5 speed because Americans in general (sorry to lump you in to a generalisation Shamus) talk so slowly
Many YouTubers I have to watch at least 1.25x speed. On top of that, if I’m in a hurry, I need to speed them up another notch. ^^;
Same here. I’m not a native speaker, but have no problem watching most videos and podcasts (and your previous videos too). But such talking speed is too uncomfortable for me, I had to read the text.
The book with the pages glued together actually works for games with a mission structure, like the Starcraft campaign, or Thief. You steal the thing, then you’re told why the next thing needs stealing, then the writer gets (mostly) out of your way so you can steal it. And they actually created a fascinating world with those story bits.
I feel like there might be some lesson for writers of cinematic games there, but I can’t seem to articulate it. “Think about what goal the player achieved that is the precondition for your cutscene, and think about how it communicates the next goal.” That sounds like an awful platitude. It catches winning the boss fight in a cutscene, though.
If you’re stealing something or winning a battle, that’s a whole page, not just glue. The player has directly made things happen.
Perhaps a better example (using a hypothetical Thief-like game) is having the plot advance after you beat a level and steal the thing, but the stealing of the thing is inconsequential to advancing the plot. Someone just ends up approaching you after the heist and advances the plot; for all it mattered, you could have gone down to the bear pits for the evening. There’s a number of mission-based games that run like this, in particular the first Hotline Miami.
The point of the plotless missions in Hotline Miami (besides being very fun gameplay) is to characterize the PC and their job. The player character is a relentless murderer who has seemingly no qualms about taking out an entire building worth of people off of very little information. He’s DEFINITELY NOT one of those “I have to believe in each kill in order to take the mission” type assassins. You could get this idea across in one level, but another point of the story is the monotony of his day-to-day job and existence. That even though his job is the most action packed thing possible, the way he’s living the life… he might as well be a pizza delivery guy. This is all shaken up when Jacket (the PC) does something unexpected to the player (rescues someone rather than killing them) that breaks out of the expected routine.
I gotta admit, “Are you a bad enough dude…” made me laugh out loud. Also, like. I’m already subscribed, and don’t really share anywhere.
While working at a game company, I did have the satisfaction once of being able to tell a writer to stop negating player victories in cutscenes, when they presented a rough story outline with a couple instances of fights that needed to be won to unlock a cutscene where the enemies you defeated then kidnap you.
From a cursory glance, the “make the antagonist clever” approach may have won out, story synopsis suggests that the kidnappings in the published game are from ambushes and betrayals. The game in question was Dead Rising 3.
It’s hard to think of any examples where I can think of “Win in battle only to lose in the cutscene” works. Off the top of my head, the first boss battle in Sekiro seems to count. If you somehow manage to beat Genichiro the first time you meet him(and you only get one try at this, because you’re supposed to lose), very early in the game, you see a different version of normal cutscene where instead of him cutting off Sekiros arm and leaving him for dead, one of his minions will distract Sekiro, which allows Genichiro will cut his arm off and leave him for dead before lecturing on the difference between honor and victory.
Think I’ve mentioned it before, but I’d like to see a game where the core gameplay loop involves hit-and-run skirmishes, where you land a couple of hits, steal something, and then run away before the enemy actually starts fighting, because if they start fighting you’re dead. So you’re not really losing, but you’re not really winning either.
I’ve heard that’s how XCOM 2 works(I’ve played the first, not the second). You’re doing hit and run missions under a time limit because once the time limit expires the entire area is assumed locked down and the mission is lost, which means you have to move quickly and stay alive.
I’m thinking more on the lines of “you can’t kill the aliens, but if you land four shots on one before it turns around you can knock a patch off its suit and abscond with it.”
XCOM 2 is not much of a good example, since a good number of missions expect you to clear all hostiles before extracting. Most times the time limit is used to force you to complete an objective before the Timer deletes it from existence, or summons a few new pods of the same enemies (apparently ADVENT HQ doesn’t have the same efficient deployment strategies as old XCOM).
A really good example of this sort of thing I’d say is actually Liberal Crime Squad, where basically all outings demand either stealth or rapid extraction. Unalerted, the Squad can take as much time as they want in an area so long as their disguises hold. Alerted, enemy encounters become progressively more frequent and better-armed with each turn, and the police/army/corporation/redneck pursuit force that chases you after you extract gets larger. So, even a hyper-violent campaign mostly ends three or four encounters after you sound the alarm at whatever locations you’re raiding, and your raids need to be strategic and diverse to keep chipping away at the enemy agenda.
That’s how it SHOULD work, but it’s often undermined by some of the gameplay…you are often given an objective (hack/steal/rescue something) in a time limit…and thenjust tells you to hang around and kill all the enemies in the area anyway.
There are (inevitably) mods that make it better, though.
Interestingly, while there are some massive problems with the exposition and story*, there’s none of the cardinal cutscene sins that are listed in Shamus’ video. XCOM’s structure works well, with it’s minimal between-mission cutscenes to drive the plot.
*SHUT THE FUCK UP BRADFORD
The issue is that it’ll end up feeling forced, because SOMEONE will find a way to get good enough to make the enemies relatively weak anyway. Lord British, despite being Invincible, shall be slain.
That also kinda reminds me of a star trek story that mentioned one captain’s Kobayashi Maru “solution” was to solo the entire Klingon fleet.
That’s Satellite Reign. Satellite Reign is a cyberpunk heist game with infinitely re-spawning enemies. You can get away with killing a small group of enemies if you do it sufficiently quickly or quietly, but if you go too loud for too long you will inevitably be overrun. More importantly, you get absolutely nothing from killing people. You get stuff–money, equipment, skill upgrades, etc.–by stealing it or as a reward from your backers for completing a mission.
Another great video. The only thing I’d suggest is having some screenshots of your blog pop up here and there. If I didn’t visit this site, I would have no idea you have a blog, full of content similar to the videos. You probably have something in the description, but it’s pretty much widely accepted that no one reads that anyway.
Regarding the video, I think a very good example of doing things right is the old Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, which delivers the best empowerment fantasy I’ve ever seen in a game.
It starts off as a shooter, with mounting difficulty, until you reach a level where you take out a couple of AT-ST’s, and just when you think “Wow, I’m such a badass!”, the game throws a boss fight at you where you fight against a Master Jedi. And you feel like an absolute wimp! All of your weapons are useless, he throws you around all he wants, and you literally can’t even touch him. Behind the scenes, he actually has God Mode on, but it never feels like you’ve been cheated, because Jedi really are powerful.
Then, after a brief tutorial, you finally get your lightsaber, and you have your first fight against non-Jedi mooks, and you think to yourself “OH YEAH! Bring it on!!!”, and… you get your ass kicked AGAIN! Why? Well, for one, all the enemies on the next couple of levels use weapons that are (somewhat) effective against Jedi, but most importantly, the game wants to give you the sense that you’re not a Jedi Master… yet. Throughout the game you become more and more poweful, until you get to a point where you’re strong enough to face off against that boss that made you feel so weak at the start of the game.
But at the latter half of the game, you feel extremely powerful, mowing down legions of stormtroopers, and a large part of that is this gradual ramp-up of difficulty, established solely through gameplay. You start off peeking around corners, celebrating every stormtrooper kill, until you become an unstppable badass whose cuts down everything in his path. And all that was achieved without a single event of cutscene stupidity or the writer overruling gameplay.
You can actually harm him, or rather, you could if he wasn’t in god mode. His lightsaber deflects all projectiles and he force-pushes away explosives, but already-planted mines and remote explosives can crack his defenses, as can grenades if they’re thrown at the floor rather than his face. I figured that out my first time going through the fight, but I wasted enough time with the blaster and he kills you quickly enough that even then I was left thinking “Damn, I might’ve gotten two whole hits on him before dying” not “Hey, he was immune to bombs, what gives!?”
Yes, I also try that every time I replay the game, but what he always does is Force Push me the moment I switch to the mines which throws them out of my hand, and when I run to get them back, he either cuts me down, or pushes me again once I actually manage to get them. I guess you’ve had better RNG than me.
I really like the way Devil May Cry 5 does it, too –
at the end of the first level there’s a boss that you’re supposed to lose to. You can do damage to him, but with the pathetic skills you have in the beginning, you’ll be lucky if you can take out a third of his health bar. However, you actually can beat him (especially on New Game ), and the game rolls the credits! It even has a little cinematic which gives you the achievement for the bonus ending ! And the character narrating the cinematic sounds extremely dumbfounded as she narrates something to the effect of “He defeated the bad guy… And they all lived happily ever after? That was much easier than expected!”
But DMC is a special case – you couldn’t do that with a story that tries to take itself more seriously.
Also, adding QTEs to your cutscene doesnt make it gameplay. It makes it even more annoying since i cant relax and just watch the video play. And if i somehow fail this test, completely devoid of what the rest of the game is testing, i have to watch the video again, and maybe sit through a loadscreen. Same goes for escort sections or walk slowly pushing your fingers against your earpiece as someone talks to you. Just make them cutscenes so i can skip them if i want to.
During the making of Halo i found a nice quote about the guy making the cutscenes. “every scene that i make there is this voice in the back of my head that saying “what is keeping player from skipping this, whats keeping the player from hitting the button and going right to the end””. And i really like that train of thought. Im someone who goes in for the gameplay first and foremost, although i do enjoy a good story (alpha protocol managed to win me over on the story evne though the gameplay is meh). So when the story isnt good and its keeping me from playing the game by having long unskippable cutscenes, im not invested.
Can we also include non-timered button prompts (NTE’s?) to the QTE pile? Mash A to open a door, spin the stick to turn the thing, press F to pay respects, that sort of thing. They bring the cutscene to a halt and it just sits there waiting for you.
They’re not even good outside of cutscenes. Someone seems to have told designers that it makes things more “immersive” but I get the exact opposite. Ideally I shouldn’t need to think about real world things like mashing a button prompt. If I’m immersed I’m at the point where anything that isn’t “press button, receive expected action”, will shake me out of it.
Speaking of Halo, it’s been over a decade since I last played 3. I have no idea what was going on anymore, but I still remember evil flood guy slowing my move speed to a crawl in multiple rooms to dispense exposition at me during something that was supposed to be intense/time limited. Annoying the player really sticks with you.
There is an interesting crossover between the criticism of linear walking simulators and prompt-driven “””gameplay””” that both seem to fundamentally aspire to be like movies instead of videogames. They have this vague sense that they’re working in an interactive medium so every now and then they make the player press a button to see what happens next, but the result is just a needy movie, one that pauses like Netflix every minute to ask you “Hey, are you still watching?”
Those types of actions can work very well, but they need to either use controls the player is already familiar with from other systems, or happen frequently enough that the player can learn the controls. For example, Alan Wake (I think that was the game…) there’s a mini-QTE-whatever style thing, to get a generator turned on in a few of the levels. If I recall correctly, it’s got a dot spinning around the circumference of a circle, representing the engine turning over. You need to time it right a few times in a row, to get the generator started. The action and visualization match the real-world thing you’re mimicking in the game, it adds tension, and the player can learn the controls for later instances.
“Start the generator” type prompts have become overused and hateable, but I’d still champion Alan Wake as the one game that did them right.
The control prompt is effectively a micro-game. It not only successfully abstracts the physical action the character has to perform in an intuitive way (which most such controls in other games don’t), but is also perfectly balanced to require only juuust enough attention that if you’re already in “oh shit” mode because a monster is chasing you, you can fail it, but otherwise you could do it perfectly almost without thinking.
It’s a great example of abstracted mechanic being perfectly designed to make the player experience exactly what their character is experiencing. In this case “Shitshitshit!” *fumbles* “Please start, PLEASE START! Oh thank God!”
I don’t mind having to press buttons to advance the story or open the treasure chest or whatever. Just don’t make it physically demanding at all if it’s not meant to be a challenging part of the game. I think it would be much worse if normally you hit the A button to open doors, then when you get to this one door, your character automatically starts doing things without you telling them to. Much better to tell the player to tap the A button repeatedly (but not frantically, again no need for that) to stay in the moment. Regarding the COD button prompts, I’m pretty sure the thinking is “we want the players to be awake and not just sitting on their phones waiting for shooting to start again, so we better pause the scene for them to do something every now and again, otherwise they may have actually left the room if they don’t care THAT much.”
I don’t think this paragraph makes any sense, so I don’t have a way to respond to it. You want the designers to design a way for your character to do non-standard gameplay actions in a way that doesn’t involve reacting to you pressing buttons? Have you thought about what you’re saying here at all?
The Gravemind is meant to have psychic powers, even with those it hasn’t yet infected. Being in its presence feels profoundly WRONG. I think they did this in a semi-annoying way, but at least it got the idea across.
My point was partly, any button prompt during a cutscene is a poor idea and party non standard prompts are done very poorly.
Cutscenes are not gameplay and demanding a prompt even without the risk of failure is awkward and still not gameplay. I’ll put a controller down or go to take a drink while watching because a cutscene announces the gameplay has paused. As for prompts you can’t fail, you should want to watch the story because it’s good not because you’re trapped to the button press. If i don’t care let me skip it.
I’m not against pressing buttons to do things, I’m against strange inputs instead of press button, receive action. Mashing A to open a door when you would usually just press it doesn’t make me feel more tense or immersed. It makes me stop and think about what real world actions I need to take to accomplish the task now. Miming a real world action by mapping the physical movement to the closest possible button mash or stick twirl doesn’t make me feel more like I’m doing that action. It makes me feel less connected to the world because the more I have to think about strange inputs the less I’m thinking about the game. If you need a character to do some non standard action (like wallpapering in an fps or something) I’d prefer a single button prompt over some mess they decided better represented pasting.
The worst example of annoying prompts I’ve come across is Obduction. It’s basically a Myst game. There are so many levers and buttons that exist in a purely binary state, but you still have to click and drag with the mouse until the game accepts you dragged it into the only other position possible. I had to look up a walkthrough because I thought I was stuck, but it turned out the janky controls meant I thought a puzzle I had actually solved was uncompleteable at that time. I can’t give a best example because like many things you don’t notice it if it’s done well.
I’m wondering how much of this might be related to genre. Most of the examples here seem to be of FPSes or action/adventure games, but story isn’t as big a part of those sorts of games. In fact, it seems to me that even the criticisms I’ve seen here of the stories on those sorts of games is that they for some reason seem to want to have one but really don’t want to take the time to actually make a good and proper story, and this is probably because fans of those genres care less about them. But the sorts of games I play — RPGs, JRPGs, VNs, and so on — really do focus on the story and seem to avoid these issues. Well, maybe I don’t notice them as much either, but I don’t see this particular problem as being that bad. I see games like Dragon Age, Dragon Age 2, Persona 3, Persona 4, Persona 5 (AAA if there ever was one), Steins;Gate, Blue Reflection, and so on and so forth managing to have pretty solid stories that avoid most of these problems and so wouldn’t benefit from the advice given here. If those games can do it, why can’t the other ones? Maybe it’s because they don’t care to.
I also think that the idea of having setbacks happen in reaction to combat cutscenes is one that works rather poorly for games, for the reasons given. But that’s not the only way to do that. The big setback on Virmire is having to leave a crew member behind to die. In Suikoden III, you have a number of battles where you’re supposed to lose, but you can win them and the game reacts to that narratively. But your big loss is the unavoidable death of someone who is close to all three of the main protagonists (you play through their individual perspectives and then choose one as main protagonist for the last part), giving an emotional loss that would matter to everyone. In Suikoden V, all of your losses are being politically outmaneuvered and betrayed. In Persona 3, your loss is due to the betrayal of the person who was your main source of information and was manipulating you all along. In Persona 4, it’s probably the most out of sync with gameplay, but it’s still not you losing a fight, but not being able to finish a dungeon quickly enough. In Persona 5, it’s a plan akin to Kai Leng taking away the beacon, except that the villainous dragon doing it and the villain organizing it deliberately planned it out and did so in a way that you couldn’t have known to counter. In Shadow Hearts, it’s the cost of defeating the mid-game boss. In Shadow Hearts: Covenant, it’s failing to cast a spell to revive a lost love which has nothing to do with gameplay. In Dragon Age, the darkspawn pull a trick play to put you behind the eight-ball. And so on and so forth. We don’t have to have the character lose a fight to have them lose. They can be subject to something like a Xanatos Gambit or a Batman Gambit: you did what you were supposed to do or were expected to, and that’s what the villain planned for and so you end up losing. Setting a mission up as a distraction while the villain goes and does something else also works. Or they can pull a move from Ozymandias from “Watchmen” and say that they’ve completed at least a critical stage of their plan, the stage you were trying to stop, before you even got there.
If the hero has to lose in a cutscene, then have them lose in a non-gameplay way. If you’re telling more than a very basic story, then you are going to have other concerns that simply shooting or beating people up — at the very least, whatever it is that is generating the missions to go shoot or beat people up — and having the story work so that you did well to shoot or beat people up but it wasn’t enough to stop the villain’s plan will usually work, as long as the villain’s plan is reasonably intelligent and not something you should have seen coming a mile away (other than being genre savvy). And even ones that the player can see coming can be easily papered over with you having to do it anyway and hoping that the villain won’t take advantage of it (not doing this will cost us too much support, get lots of people killed, or kill a loved one, for example).
If they cared, it’s not hard to do. I suspect that in those genres, the real problem is that they don’t care.
I haven’t played the Spiderman game so my impression of this moment might be wrong, but that screenshot of Scorpion getting the drop on Spiderman to be able to poison him highlights an annoyance that I’ve always had with Spiderman and that’s “Does he have spider-sense, or not?” It’s always bothered me how… narratively-flexible that power has been. If ever there’s a time that the spider-sense should be tingling, it’s right at that moment. In my mind, that scene is a double-decker narrative crime being committed.
In talking about how to have a character/player win in gameplay, but lose in a cutscene, that’s one I think about a lot, especially for someone who’s never worked in video games in any way. But I think back to a really old post in the Mass Effect subreddit that was fascinating. It was one of the many posts that came in the post-ME3-ending letdown that was like “If you think this story was broken, how would you fix it?” This one was different through because most posts like that had pretty specific rules about not deviating too far from the story we actually got, but this particular post was very “The sky’s the limit” and a lot of really interesting alternative stories came out of it. Of course I had my own pitch, but I was also thinking about that problem of having the character win the boss fight, but still take the big second-act loss. Basically, my solution was to have the player unequivocally win the boss fight in gameplay to then learn afterward in the following cutscene that the boss had actually pulled an Ozymandias and had already enacted the evil plan before being defeated. On one hand it let the player keep their victory while having the story take that big downturn, but on the other hand, it also felt devious in a way that felt like it would still be cheating the player. I don’t know if there’s any clean way of finding a good balance there.
It’s like characters who are Telepathic in stories. Their very power sets up headaches for writers trying to instill drama, so they just ignore or circumvent the power one way or another. See all of the times that Professor Xavier is taken out of the action, or how suddenly useless Counselor Troi becomes in many episodes where even sensing other peoples’ emotions would be incredibly useful.
It’s a shame they always removed Troi(‘s competence) in the episodes where she would actually have been useful.
She should have been totally OP with that kind of ability and its range. I mean, she could pick out and accurately identify the emotions of a single member of an alien species she’d never before encountered on the bridge of another spaceship miles away. How does she not rule the freaking universe?
(note: there is a novel where the next generation crew goes to the mirror universe. Mirror universe Troi is incredibly scary.)
I believe that Shamus once summed it up as Troi saying that she could sense hostility from the aliens that were actively shooting at them.
I was thinking this, too. Thanks, Troi!
I genuinely forget that she’s supposed to be psychic, sometimes – almost everything she says could be worked out by someone with emotional intelligence (and sometimes, the ability to spot the blindingly obvious).
The clever writer who needs to get around Spider Sense is usually pretty careful with how they do it. For example, if Spider-Man is being attacked by many people and incorrectly prioritizes one threat over another. Or they’ll have Spider-Man monologue that he knows what his sense is warning him about and he’s watching for it, but he’s actually wrong. A good example of the latter would be if he’s worried about Norman Osborn throwing a pumpkin bomb but then Norman presses a button that releases gas from all the vents in the room instead.
For Spider-Man being ambushed one on one… that’s a toughy. His spider sense should be absolutely perfect at avoiding this. The best way to get around this would be to have him injured already to where the spidey sense is buzzing all the time and he can’t really focus on what it’s telling him. Or a classic is to have Spider-Man really worked up about personal drama to where he’s ignoring his sense. Have him get an upsetting phone call or be agonizing that his Spider-Man patrol time is RUINING his job or his friendships. The sense can be working perfectly and he can still be bushwhacked if he’s just not paying attention to it.
“Don’t make the protagonist incompetent. Make the antagonist clever.”
They haven’t figured this out in most regular Hollywood films and television yet. I wouldn’t get your hopes up for video game writers. It’s just too hard to make smart Protagonist, smarter Antagonist.
I guess the need for traditional dramatic setbacks depends upon the nature of the video game story, and how much it requires of a developed character vs a silent (or Create Your Own) protagonist. In the latter case, since there’s no need for character development, there’s no need to have the character suffer a failure either, that’s experienced enough with challenges in gameplay. You can get away with the player experiencing a setback as long as it’s made clear is “things just didn’t work out in your favor” as opposed to Player Character picks up Idiot Ball.
To use the go-to Half-Life example, it’s perfectly fine when Dr. Mossman gets away with Eli in the game. You had no reason to expect her betrayal, and she was faster than you. It’s not perfectly fine when you let yourself get trapped in the humanoid transporter lift at the end, twice, as that’s you suddenly being stupid for no reason. In the first game, getting ambushed by the grunts is a mixed example. The player is just going through normal exploration when they were ambushed, which is great, but then the enemies change the laws of physics, which is not.
As far as “Create Your Own” protagonist stories, I guess the less said of the Fable games and their mandatory failure, the better?
Failure being disallowed until it’s mandatory is very frustrating. In LOTRO, you have an experience of this when you do the Fall of Moria. You hear the story of a Dwarf who held out against all kinds of waves of orcs and trolls, and it’s pretty much “He didn’t fall like this!”.
If failure is going to be mandatory, it shouldn’t be too hard to subtly (or not) change the numbers around so that you’re put in a fight that will naturally overwhelm the player through normal gameplay. Instead of a Game Over, they’re just moved on to the next part of the script. I think Final Fantasy IX did this with the fights against General Beatrix when she repeatedly kicks your tail.
There are always two issues with a fight encounter that you are intended to lose, played out as a fight:
1) Since you don’t know that you’re supposed to lose, you will use resources that you can’t replace trying to win it, such as potions, magical skills, and so on. This may make it difficult or even impossible for that player to win the next challenging fight.
2) Once you know that there are cases where the game expects you to lose, if a fight seems too difficult you may think that this is the case, lose the fight, and hit a game over.
I don’t like fights that you can lose or are expected to lose for these reasons.
I’m okay with them when they’re absurdly obvious. More recent games have unwinnable bosses take zero damage in those fights, as a clear indication that you’re not winning here.
There are occasional fights in the Disgaea series that you are expected to lose for dramatic or narrative reasons. It’s usually pretty clearly telegraphed, mechanically speaking. Are the enemies all twenty levels above you? Do they have a hundred times your hitpoints? You’re going to lose. The only questions are just how long it’ll take and just what the dramatic twist at the end of the battle will be. I don’t mind them so much, at least not in principle. The thing that bugs me is that it can sometimes take a long, long time to reach the foregone conclusion.
The worst offender is Disgaea 2 which features a battle that is impossible to win followed immediately by one that is impossible to lose. In the first battle, your party faces off against a single high-level enemy that they cannot possibly hope to defeat. Because there’s only one of him, it takes a long time for him to finish wiping your party of six (or possibly eight, I forget) people. Then, when all hope seems lost–or not, as this was obviously inevitable–one of your party gets a dramatic power boost and takes the enemy on solo. Because the enemy had to be strong enough that he could not be defeated by an entire normally-leveled party, he has so many hitpoints that it takes a long time for your boosted character to defeat him. The game goes from foregone conclusion to foregone conclusion and doesn’t respect your time in the process.
That said, the Disgaea series is, to a certain extent, all about ridiculous grinding, so the impossible battles are, at least in the first game, technically possible if you’re willing to sink enough time in the Item World or if you’re playing New Game Plus. If you do manage an upset, the game will note and respect your achievement. (And possibly also mock you for grinding so much. It’s that kind of game.) I hated the story in Disgaea 2 too much to ever want to experience it again, so I don’t know if the same is true there.
Maybe you could solve it by somehow replacing any items used, whether through IC reasons or not (When you wake up from the fight, you swore you used that Megalixer, but there it still is in your inventory.
Actually no, if she kills you it’s game over. You have to survive long enough to lose in the cutscene.
Haven’t played in a while, but isn’t the fight over when she does her super move that leaves your party at 1 HP?
It is. If you die before she does it, it’s game over.
Do not want.
The DMC5 example seems great, above. You’re clearly supposed to lose, but you can still win…and if you do, the game give you an achievement.
“They haven’t figured this out in most regular Hollywood films and television yet. I wouldn’t get your hopes up for video game writers. It’s just too hard to make smart Protagonist, smarter Antagonist.”
It’s not uncommon for “dumb protagonist, smarter antagonist” to be the case in Hollywood films. John McClane isn’t smarter than Hans Gruber. (And famously, Keanu Reeves isn’t smarter than Dennis Hopper, he’s just taller.) The protagonist in AAA video games is inherently a meathead to a far greater degree than in movies, since the only way he can interact with the world is by shooting at it. So maybe leaning into that somehow wouldn’t be a bad idea.
One game I thought handled the issue of killing the boss well was Overlord. Basically once you defeat the boss (using your minions) the boss collapses onto the ground and your minions form a circle around them and start cheering at your success. You then have to walk up to the boss and finish them off with your personal weapon. At that point there’s a brief cutscene showing you delivering this final blow, generally with a more impressive move than you can actually do in game.
I think it’s a nice compromise, you defeat the boss yourself (well using your minions), get to deal the final blow yourself and get a cutscene making you look cool.
Dragon Age worked in that way as well, as you get the dragon down to the end of its health and then whichever Warden is going to get the final blow gets it in in a nice cutscene. And just as interestingly, it doesn’t have to be the main character who does it, and you get to choose — based on a number of details you find out about during the game — who does it and what happens because of that.
Those were such great games. I loved both the gameplay, and the world (having Rhianna Pratchett write the story helped a lot – it felt very Discworld-ish).
Really enjoyed the article. Especially this:
This is something I hate more than just about anything else in video games. I already had huge problems with Final Fantasy XIV, due to the thematic content, the horrific combat system, and quests that explicitly waste the player’s time just to screw with you. Then I got to a story section where you have to fight some superpowered jackass you can’t hope to beat. It is obvious this is a fight you are supposed to lose.
But you can’t.
You have to play through a fight that is drastically more difficult than any of the other single player content you have done so far, and if you fail at any point you have to do the entire thing again. You have to complete this part of the story because story content gates game content. When you finally make it to the “end” of the fight the dude just immediately annihilates you, as you knew he would. It is one of the single most egregiously/offensively stupid and frustrating gameplay moments I have ever been subjected to. I honestly don’t know how people stand that game, but, I guess everyone has different things they care about.
I think the fundamental problem is that games don’t support cinematic storytelling, period. Video games are visual media, so when storytelling was added onto games, they automatically went with the recognizable language of cinema. However, I think storytelling in games should be fundamentally different. I am not some visionary genius who can say how, but they need their own language. Demon’s Souls approached it differently, putting almost all story elements within the game itself and the backstory in item descriptions. It wasn’t perfect, to understate it, but it felt like a small step in the right direction for storytelling in video games.
I think the Final Fantasies, Personas, and Dragon Ages would disagree with you. Chuck Sonnenberg’s analysis of Dragon Age would suggest that the interactivity can make cinematic scenes — in his case, the marching off of the assembled army — more evocative because you were the one who made those decisions, which isn’t the case in a movie.
I think the games Shamus lists here are trying to provide cinematic-style visuals without realizing that you either need a cinematic-style story or else be parodying and mocking that sort of thing for that to work.
I should have specified that it can work in an RPG due to the conversational gameplay aspects. I did consider that and then forgot all about it when I was typing.
Frankly, as an interactive medium, you should be making the story yourself as the player. There’s room for many genres and cinematic games and all that, of course, but there’s a damn good reason Kenshi and Rimworld are two of my all-time favourite games (speaking as someone who’s been playing games for around 35 years now).
New Vegas also goes into my top 3 games of all time, and that’s another game where you effectively create your own story through the actions you take and the choices you make. Not in quite the same way as roleplaying a game like Kenshi, but very similar.
GTA is a poster child for making your own stufd. And strategy games for making your own narrative.
All that’s fine but sometimes (or im my case, usually) I still want someone to have a good story for me to experience.
I think quite a few games have threaded the needle for acknowledging the possibility of failure. XCOM games and countless others have Ironman mode, where true failure marks the definitive end of your journey. The Shadow of Mordor series not only makes deaths an expected part of gameplay, but they even break your equipment at the right points of failure! (This should have been immensely frustrating, but I was deeply gratified to get stronger equipment back whenever I took revenge.) Rogue Knight explicitly uses your deaths to fuel its gameplay. Undertale checks the whole premise, even as it brings you back again and again. Bioshock uses Vita Chambers to justify your return from the dead. Prince of Persia chalks up your fuckups to an amusing hiccup in your narration.
There’s just no excuse for complete disconnect between gameplay and story anymore.
Yea some games do count even with catastrophic failure in one way or another, be it permadeath, or some meta narrative, or some sci-fi/metaphysical reason.
But I really can’t imagine every single game doing it so I don’t fault the game designers for just throwing you back to the last save point.
But it would be nice to make failures consistent across the board within a game at least. For example in GTA games if you are wasted, you get sent to a hospital, but if your mate dies, it’s a different mission failure. GTA4 had a mechanic where If you get your friend killed while partying, you van pick them up in a hospital afterwards, but not after missions I think.
Great video! I liked the joke where the last three points are about cutscene incompetence. At the last point only a fraction of the text is displayed and Shamus’ rant is cut off. It is as of Isaac was saying to the viewer: “oh boy! There he goes again. Well you (the viewer) and I (the editor) both got the point already and we both know he has to vent now, so let’s put him in this silent corner. He is probably too agitated to notice anyway! ;-)”
I thought that was very funny, and it needed some good video editing to pull that off, so compliments to Isaac!
I thought the overall information density, the script and the editing was of very good quality. I will probably watch it again, just like the fallout video.
I think we’re all grateful that Shamus decided not to cover the genre in which the game is a book, and the player’s job is to stick together as many of the pages as possible.
I found Kai leng to be a somewhat irritating enemy, so once he was down to his last sliver of health in the boss fight, I dashed forward and shanked him with the omni-knife thing. It felt proper badass. Then the cutscene happened and Shepard shanked him anyway.
It’s also hard to write stories for games because of incredible uncertainty – this boss encounter, which might game been a big deal in the story, might get cut because it tuned out there are some technical difficulties. The underwater level might get moved the the end of the game, because playtesters didn’t like that there was so much swinging RIGHT AFTER the zero G level. There might be no animation budget left for the eight-armed companion, so his personal quest can no longer be a part of the main story. And two levels have to be cut all together because we had so much trouble remaking the zero-g locomation, that playtested great internally but beta testers unanimously hated, level that we run out of time to include them kn the game.
Writing a game is like filming a movie while you invent the video camera, I’m shocked ANY good videogame stories exist. You need to have an incredibly flexible story and well-managed workflow to do it well.
A great writer can fork the ‘story’ every time they would force the player to lose a boss fight in a cutscene.
In one fork, the player performs well enough to pass the gameplay skill gate, but not well enough to defeat the powerful boss. They are defeated, and the cutscene defeat plays.
In the other fork, the player performs flawlessly, and the boss is either defeated or escapes.
One of the problems I have as a D&D DM is figuring out how to do the first scenario- the party is defeated, but the game can’t end yet!
This why certain games just stand out to me so much because they incorporate story and gameplay so tight:
Assassin’s Creed (the first one) – an upgrade from the PoPSoT’s “lemme tell you a story about how I died, oh wait I didn’t”, where everything is played out in VR and the synchronization shtick explains everything – areas locked away, regenerative health, intolerance against collateral damage, dying and just the overall gamification because it’s just how VR/AI/something interprets some stuff. You fuck up because you didn’t do something Altair would do so the system crashes and sends you to the last checkpoint. It’s kinda cheesy but it works. Also the beginning of the game shows how the bad guys try to get the information from the end of the story but it doesn’t work so you have to play through the game. So underrated.
David Cage’s games – Heavy Rain’s narrative just continues whatever happens including your player character dying, and the story changes based on that. Beyond Two Souls is easier on that, but there are still branching choices and when there’s a risk of you dying, the game just doesn’t allow it because that would be the end of the game.
Some games, Alpha Protocol comes to mind, reference stuff you did or didn’t do, what order you did them in and so on and your affiliations can change based on that. (Not uncommon in text RPGs but much less so with voice acting.)
Anyway Shamus, I watched this one on YT because my face, I mean my eyes are tired and if you don’t mind, I have some feedback (you did ask for it a few months ago). Please try to talk a bit slower, make more pauses.
It’s clear you have a lot to say and you have a clear picture how to convey it, but you sound well, like a programmer. Look at how Arlo talks, even with his silly fake voice he’s easy to listen to, maybe imagine talking using a puppet.
Also I know you like the Arkham but maaaan could you tone down the gushing for these games a little? Play some Devil May Cry or if you have a PS, some God of War, or Platinum stuff, or Puppeteer or Uncharted or Journey or I dunno but there are so many games with good combat and integrated storytelling you can make comparisons to…
Hey dunno if you played Brothers the tale of two sons? Check it out, there’s a game where truly the gameplay IS the story. Also it’s like 3 hours long.
I read the comments before I watched the video, so I saw lots of comments about you talking really fast in this one.
I still ended up putting on 1.2x
People on YouTube talk so damn slow normally. This was 30% better than usual!
This in-depth video was incredibly interesting to me. I was relieved to discover that there was more of it when I glanced at the time bar.
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