Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Games Rant #1

Here is a ridiculously belated response to Alec Meer's Story Must Die! article on CVG.

Story must not die!

Story has not yet lived! True, at present stories in games remain a travesty; an irritating interruption akin to the insurance adverts in the middle of Hollyoaks, but why should this be the case? I’m confused.com!

The main issues that have gamers reaching for the ‘skip cutscene’ key faster than they can crowbar a headcrab lie with the implementation and content of the stories that clunk awkwardly through our games. Who wants to temporarily pause their game in order to watch a section of a poorly-acted sci-fi B-movie? Not me! But for some reason, many developers seem to think we do. It seems odd that in this lucrative era of ‘blockbuster’ games, many productions still seem prepared to settle for such an appalling lack of quality in terms of writing and acting.

More often than not, the story feels like a feeble attempt to justify the course of the game. Too often the player is reduced to acting as a mere chauffeur for the player-character, ensuring they are present and correct at the required moment in the plot. It’s a contrived and rudimentary solution to delivering narrative and it really needs to go: It’s one thing to include a clich├ęd, shallow and frightfully unengaging narrative in a game, but to regularly thrust it in the player’s face by forcing them to perform mundane tasks as a poorly disguised plot mechanic, or wrestle control from them to display yet another tedious cutscene, is quite another.

In order for story to succeed in a game it needs to engage the player, not artificially by locking their character into the plot, but by intriguing them, emotionally involving them and bestowing them with the power to advance it themselves (or not!). Imagine a braver BioShock: The player, thrust into the aftermath of the fall of Rapture, is left to assemble the plot from the fragments left behind. The true narrative of the game is in the hands of the player: the detective, archaeologist, explorer and survivor. The story of Rapture becomes an interesting sub-narrative that deepens the game experience.

Even Half-Life, although in story terms about as interactive as Desperate Housewives, is still capable of offering a level of depth to the proceedings. In Alyx, Valve have not only created the first sidekick who’s face you don’t want to empty your clip into, they have created a point of emotional impact. Even though the player has no control over the outcome, the story is compelling enough that it becomes a legitimate part of the game experience. It’s amazing what a small amount of characterisation and one iota of originality can do.

After all the immense technical developments of recent years, it’s about time games began exploring what is truly possible when you translate story into an interactive environment. Imagine the intrigue of Lost, the mythology of Heroes, the pacing of 24 and the drama of...Harry Potter or something, combined into one tasty interactive gaming package. I’m salivating at the prospect.

Further Reading:

Daniel Haggard's excellent analysis of narrative in the Half-Life universe

Alec Meer's original article
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