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Narrative in Video Games (or, Let The Professionals Have A Crack, Why Don’tcha?)

Last Friday, Dragon Age: Origins was released for the PC and XBox. It’s a game I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, since it was developed by a company called Bioware, and Bioware are, frankly, the kings of storytelling as far as videogames go. Tragically, I still haven’t got to play it: my PC is too slow to run it properly, and I’ve heard the PS3 version is better than the XBox one, so I’m waiting for that. It comes out in a couple of weeks, which should neatly coincide with my delivery of the first ‘proper’ draft of The Black Lung Captain. Simple chance, or evidence of a divine intelligence that plays videogames? You decide.

The reason I’m excited is because Bioware is one of the only software companies I can think of that habitually treat videogames as a proper storytelling medium (the others are Black Isle – now defunct – and Bethesda Softworks). Videogames outsold movies for the first time ever last Christmas, and it’s an industry that’s growing fast, but a huge percentage of games released annually are still the same old stuff they’ve been churning out for years, with a fresh gloss slapped over the top. It seems that the only excuse anyone needs to come up with a new FPS (first person shooter, for those who don’t know) is some minor tweak of physics or slight graphical improvement. In this one, you can fight in zero gravity! In this one, you can absorb powers from your enemies. But wait, this one is set in the 60s! And this one has comic-style graphics.

People. They’re the same game. Most of them use the same game engine (the Havok engine, in case you care) which is why most of them, underneath the graphics, behave in a familiar way. I have the same problem with RTS (real time strategy) games. Dress ’em up all you like: in the end you’re only playing Command & Conquer Episode 27.

So why, you may ask, do I have a PC and an XBox and a PS3? After all, I’m evidently so cynical about the games market that I hardly ever use them, right? It’s because occasionally, perhaps once or twice a year, I find a game that does the kind of thing that I know videogames are capable of. A game that swallows you up, something that is more than just an orgy of repetitive destruction or a sequence of missions to be completed. Something that is more entertaining and absorbing than reading a book or watching a film. Usually – not always, but usually – it’s by one of the companies I mentioned above. Because they know how to tell a story.  Most other developers don’t bother. And by ignoring that aspect of videogaming, I truly believe they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

The most important thing, as an author, is to make your reader care about your characters. If you do that, then they’ll follow you wherever you like. If you don’t, you don’t have a chance. Similarly, screenwriters will allow us time to get to know the protagonist of a movie before the action kicks in. Otherwise, why do we care when their daughter gets kidnapped? Without that setup, it would be as emotionally engaging as reading about the kidnapping in a newspaper.

Videogames have an advantage over both mediums, because the gamer doesn’t need to be persuaded to empathise with the protagonist. Since they have control over the character, they automatically invest a portion of themselves in it. That little bundle of pixels becomes an avatar: the player’s representation in the game world.  That’s the hugely important difference between videogames and any other popular storytelling medium. In books or films, you are shown only what the author or director chooses to show you; you have no control; you’re a passenger. Games are the only medium in which you get to participate in the story (well, aside from Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, but we’ll leave them aside for now).

We shouldn’t underestimate the strength of that. I remember creeping through old houses in Resident Evil, terrified out of my wits, because my little avatar might get attacked at any moment by a zombie hiding in a cupboard. I knew nothing about the protagonist. The worst thing that would happen was that I would have to reload my last saved game when I died. But the psychological trick that put me in that house was enough to make me feel scared even when my character was barely a character at all.

Given that, wouldn’t it have been that much more powerful if I had known something about the character? If I’d cared about them, even a little?

The point is, the games player is begging to empathise. They’re primed and ready for it. In a situation like that, surely it would be easy for someone – say, a professional author, who was used to eliciting empathy in the much tougher medium of print – to grab that games player and twang his heartstrings like a lute until he was blubbering into his D-Pad?

Well, probably it would. The trouble is that games companies, like many major film companies, have traditionally regarded the story – and the writer – as the least important element of the package. The gameplay is the most important thing. Graphics, level design, game physics. The story? Well, it’s just there to tack together all those awesome levels we’ve just created. Give it to the office junior; he’ll do it.

Rhianna Pratchett, one of the few writers who gets a lot of work in the videogame field, sums it up nicely:

“Gameplay and story can sometimes have quite different goals that can often see them fighting for space. And nine times out of 10, story loses. It’s really about finding the common ground between the two and thinking about story early enough in the development cycle that it can properly fit together with the gameplay. Not just lie on top of it like a kind of narrative custard.”

Gameplay and story are not exclusive. They just have to be made to work together. The Half-Life franchise married the FPS genre with a good storyline, and allowed the player to learn about the world and the story by making it part of the action. That’s why it won a bazillion industry awards and still sells tons of copies today, whereas the technically superior Doom franchise has languished. Taking it further is Bethesda, whose Elder Scrolls titles have swept up awards over and over. Bethesda specialise in creating massive open worlds, and allowing the player freedom to do what they like in them. There’s a story there, if you want to follow it. If not, fine: there are plenty of other sub-stories you can follow. Hell, just go into the forest and punch out a bear, if you like.

That brings me to another important difference between books and films and videogames. Books and films are linear narratives. Games can be, but they can also be what’s called a sandbox or open-world setting, in which the player can behave as I described above. Many games fall in between – basically linear, but offering the illusion of freedom, or comprised of small sandbox ‘episodes.’ Either way, it requires a whole new take on storytelling. Instead of telling the player what they see, games companies are forced to create an interactive world and let the player discover. Since you can’t predict what the player will do, every angle has to be covered. I personally find this idea very exciting. Lack of linearity makes a traditional narrative hard, but you can instead have multiple narratives that the player explores at their own pace.

Now I’m not saying that every game needs to have a great story. Sometimes games are just games. But most games would have been improved by a great story. Half-Life wouldn’t be the phenomenon it is today without it: it would have been just another Doom or Wolfenstein. And I’m also not saying that any old writer can drop in off the street and understand how a videogame narrative works: Raymond E. Feist and Orson Scott Card have both been involved in videogames back in the day, with underwhelming results (though, to be honest, I don’t know how much input they were really allowed). But professional writers, in general, are well practiced at making people care about their creations, and they’re very good at telling stories. If the industry at large started using that resource, then the world of gaming might be that little bit more original, and a lot more absorbing.

And really, there’s no reason not to. Games nowadays, like movies, are multi-million dollar affairs. The hiring of a writer is the cheapest part of the package when compared to the millions spent on middleware and coding time. And, just like with films, that little bit of money and time can turn an average game into a good one, and a good one into a classic.

Luckily, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Some people in the industry, aside from those companies I’ve already mentioned, are waking up to the potential of storytelling in videogames. Electronic Arts, in particular, have begun looking into ways to get professional writers onto videogame projects at early stages of development. I hope it catches on. Not only for my own sake (can’t you tell yet that I’d love to get in on that action?) but for the industry as a whole. The first gaming generation, of which I am a part, never stopped playing them, you see.  We’re in our thirties now. We want grown-up stories, not simplistic dialogue and clumsy drama used as a bridge between one bout of carnage and another. Games are becoming incredibly sophisticated now, but the stories that power them are lagging behind. You wouldn’t get a plumber to wire up your electrics, would you? So get the professionals in!

20 Comments

  1. Raihor says:

    I just got Dragon Age!! It’s really good so far (haven’t got out of the start area yet). The graphics run amazingly on my PC, better than most games, so your PC must be rather poor… Or I’m just incredibly lucky. I hope you have much fun when you get the chance (although I can’t imagine playing without a mouse!).

    And as much as I agree with you about what you said about FPSs, I think you mean the Unreal engine. The engine uses Havok physics in it. Slight difference, but I’m a nerd so meh :P. Oooh ooh I even know what games you’re talking about! “Zero gravity” is Dead Space, right? “the 60’s” is Bioshock maybe? And “Comic style” is Borderlands? Personally I think Borderlands is really fun to play >_>. But I am really, really dissapointed that they changed their mind on giving it a good story. They originally were focusing on the story a lot more, but meh.. And I also dislike RTSs. I only ever play Age of Empires II, because it is awesome.

    Story is indeed very important. Chris, I strongly reccomend that you get ahold of The Longest Journey, and Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (its sequel) by Funcom. Both can be found on Steam if you have that. Other places may have better prices though… But those games are both simply phenominal. Not because they have good graphics or innovative gameplay. It’s the story and characters all the way! I consider both games to be works of art. Look ’em up, I think you’d like them!

    I’m with you 100%, Chris! Video games need proper stories!! It would so totally be worth it!

  2. Jadranko says:

    (See above) I either get games that are built not to have a storyline (like Portal, which I’ve been raring to find for awhile) or have one that blows my brain out through the back of my skull. Nothing in between, I avoid it as best as I can.
    I might just add that Bethesda makes their game really pop by giving the player most of the tools they used to create it and pretty much handing it over to the fanatics who can make it better :). Morrowind is a definite must thanks to the hundreds of mod-makers who crank out story, land, and game mechanic one after the other in their free time. It’s 8 years old and one of the most impressive games I’ve ever played, period.

  3. @ Raihor – Yes, you’re right about the Havok thingy. Oops. I wasn’t thinking of any specific game, just pulling examples out of the air. Although since you bring up Dead Space and Bioshock, they’re both games that I loved because of the great atmosphere they created. Storyline was flimsy on Dead Space, but I didn’t mind cos it was so scary. Bioshock had a decent storyline; for an FPS it had a good stab at adding in a bit of a plot. And it was so pretty…

    Longest Journey was awesome, but Dreamfall I thought was a rare example of too much story, too little gameplay. Both of them were really absorbing because of the attention to character, but Dreamfall was a great tale attached to a fairly average game, IMHO.

    @ Jadranko – never did play any fan mods of Bethesda stuff. Morrowind was superb tho.

  4. Naomi says:

    Hey Chris,

    Sorry this is a long-overdue message, but I’ve finally caught up with myself to say thanks ever so much for the copy of Retribution Falls you sent me. I got round to reading it in August (I was going to come see you at the book festival but heavy traffic made us half-an-hour late (evil tram works!!!!)) and now that the story has had time to glue itself to my imagination, it’s still providing me with much enjoyment and I loved it ever so much.
    You are still the most awesome fantasy writer I know!! And well done on all the praise you got for it, it was well deserved.

    Thank you again and again. I’m definitely looking forward to the next one.

    Naomi x

  5. Kath says:

    Oh my. I had wanted to write something witty ages ago but then got distracted by real life. Anyways:

    I’ve always liked VGs more when they had a good story and great characters. Maybe that’s why I’ve been more of an RPG-gamer and adventure-enthusiast. The later Final Fantasy-games had really good storylines and lovable characters. And FFXII had even a good fight system. Not round based and no random encounters for even though I love FF I loathe random encounters. They interrupt the game and my PS2 used to crash whenever the fighting screen appeared in FFX. Also during cutscenes but that’s a different story. T_T

    What I loved about adventures was the mostly mad riddles and weird dialogues. I can imagine that adventures are quite difficult to create because you have to know what kinds of riddles are probable and solvable. Also, whenever the main character looks at something he or she should somehow express his or her personality while talking about some random object. I played The Whispered World a few weeks ago and it was really awesome how the main character would react when you combined random objects with each other. He would then say something that he associated with the combined objects. I had a lot of fun just combining items for hours. 😉 Also the dialogues have to be good. Really good examples are the first two Monkey Island-games. There are so many sentences that I still use from time to time… The story of adventures isn’t only expressed in the characters’ dialogues but also in the riddles. That… is somehow amazing, I think. XD
    I love adventures a lot. I mean, I grew up with the Lucasarts-Oldies before they declared the genre dead and focused on Star Wars. I still hate their guts for announcing and then cancelling a second Sam & Max-game but luckily, telltale games picked that up and… made it awesome. Sam & Max 2 was the first adventure in a long time that I played and I had to realize that they somewhat own my soul. ;P

    I haven’t played any of the games mentioned above… somehow it never occurred to me to buy them. ;D
    The first few months of owning a PS3 were filled with LittleBigPlanet because that was the only game I had. I bought Uncharted on a whim and haven’t regretted that. Even though it’s mostly about shooting random evil dudes I enjoyed it immensely because it’s about treasure hunting – a passion of mine. Also, I’m happy to announce that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a lot better than the first. We have more characters the main dude can interact with and show the gamer what his personality is like. The game was done with motion capturing and the producers hired real actors to do the job. They recorded the dialogues while “shooting” the scenes and there’s a lot of hilarious banter. The plot is also nice and the game looks so damn pretty… It has some flaws, though, because sometimes the shooting bit takes forever and then you die and have to try again… but then you get to watch these beautiful cutscenes and want to know what happens next. There are chapters but the game doesn’t stop after each level and just continues on so it feels like watching a movie. And did I mention that it looks so pretty?

    Other than that: Nothing beats Tetris.
    And: Games need a good story. I never liked WoW because I didn’t feel like I accomplished something. The enemies would respawn and nothing would be different whether I killed’em or not. Only gathering exp. isn’t enough for me. :<

  6. Redwolf says:

    Thats why final fantasy games are so great.

  7. Thomas says:

    I agree that games need a good story. Some of the best games I’ve played have a really good story, which is why I like RPGs so much. Most RPGs put a lot more time and effort into the stories than other games.

    I’ve also seen some good fps and tps games such as Bio-Shock, and Mass Effect.
    Then I like some puzzle games like Portal (the cake is a lie), Tetris, and Wetrix (tetris like game where you build dams too prevent floods).

    The only reason I really like MMOs like the new Aion is because of the social aspect. I’ve started getting really involved in my guild and helping manage it is a lot of fun as well as talking to all the cool people. The leveling can be a bit of a grind at times but it’s still a lot of fun. It has really pretty graphics and the story and cut scenes are pretty cool too.

  8. Emma says:

    The game wizardry 8 has a great storyline to it. It’s old though, and I think the company that made it (Sirtech) went bankrupt, so it is quite difficult to find – I picked it up purely by accident – and the graphics are a bit outdated. It wasn’t quite finished either, so there are a couple of plotlines that don’t get resolved, but they’re easy to ignore and don’t detract from the fun at all.
    The only problem with the game is leveling up – it takes ages and the longer battles drag on a bit.

  9. Joseph Evans says:

    Hi Chris

    You’re completely right about good storytelling in videogames. I’ve been a gamer, along with you, since the days of the original consoles (my first was the Sinclair Spectrum) and the games I remember and the games I have loved have been the ones with the most affecting stories.

    The game that has affected me most profoundly is, without question, Final Fantasy VII. I don’t think I will ever be so absorbed or so moved by a video game again, although I am open to be. My experience of Final Fantasy VII happened in 1997/1998 and I still think about the game now.

    The reason for this is pretty much down to one thing – its incredible story. As soon as the upper plate was released by the president of Shinra, crushing the people of Midgar (including Jesse, Biggs and Wedge), I felt real emotion, and this was when I knew this game was something very special indeed. After that event the storytelling continued to blow my mind with plot devices and twists that beat any book I’ve ever read.

    I know I’m not alone in having been so moved by Final Fantasy VII; it has been regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time since its release, and it always will be. It just goes to show, like you say, Chris, that gamers want a great story and financially, for companies involved, it is highly beneficial too.

    I just want to make a note on the other Final Fantasy games – Despite very mixed opinions on Final Fantasy VIII, I regard it as the second best Final Fantasy. Its story was not at the standard of VII (pretty much everything about the witches was uninspiring) but it tried its hardest and it succeeded in most of its attempt. The sense of being a part of a school at Balamb Garden was masterful, I thought, and watching Squall slowly fall in love with Rinoa was too. The reason Square decided to advertise VIII as a romance (the hugging on the packaging, the flying feathers, the ballroom dancing, etc.) was, I believe, down to the phenomenal success of Cloud and Aeris’s relationship in VII, and I think it was a perfect step in the right direction. I want more romance in video games, real romance, where people fall in love and get hurt.

    Sadly, very sadly, Final Fantasy has completely lost its way. IX and X were both fairly decent in that they both attempted good stories, though they seemed shallow in comparison to VII and VIII. Then came Final Fantasy XI, which I’m not going to discuss here as it was an MMORPG. Square were jumping on the band wagon here and it didn’t do them any favours. I think they’re embarrassed about it now. So the hope was with Final Fantasy XII, and what a bitter tasting disappointment it was. I have no real qualms with the gameplay, it plays just as you’d like a Final Fantasy game to play. The now non-turn-based battles seemed to work (I never actually had any problems with random turn based battles), but the story was almost non-existent. There was no real villain to hate, there was no sense of danger, there were no plot devices or twists, nobody fell in love, nobody died, nobody actually seemed to have any real part in anything, and everything that the player did just felt as though you were doing it for nothing.

    It’s a shame, because, as I said, the physics of the gameplay, the graphics, and all other technical issues were dealt with very well. If only more care had been taken to give the game a decent story, just something we can invest a little bit of emotion into, then it could have been great.

    Let’s hope that Final Fantasy XIII sees a return to the magic storytelling of Square’s finest days. We’ll find out in March 2010.

    Another thing I haven’t mentioned above is what I believe to be the second most important thing in videogames – its music. Final Fantasy VII had an outstanding score by the great Nobuo Uematsu, as did VIII. I really don’t know what happened with Square and why Uematsu is no longer working with them on their games (maybe he couldn’t write music to games with no story), but the score to XII was another thing that was lifeless and without merit. I cannot recall a single theme from XII, and yet I can hum one of Uematsu’s without hesitation and feel moved at the memory of it.

    Aside from Final Fantasy, I also had great pleasure in playing Bethesda’s Morrowind. For me, the allure of that game was its sandbox freedom and sense of exploration, which was a different pull to that of Final Fantasy. I can’t say that the storytelling in that game was great, I felt that the vast collections of history books, scrolls, legal documents and such that you find were mostly full of randomly generated names like ‘Urgrvaal Weatherbane’ and had the integrity of fan-made mod content as opposed to official storyline material. I also felt that Oblivion and Fallout 3 suffered from the exact same problem. Nevertheless I had fun playing Morrowind for its sandbox element, and I wasn’t looking for a Final Fantasy style moving story.

    Other games that I think should be praised for their fantastic storytelling are Monkey Island 3: the Curse of Monkey Island (not number 4), and Broken Sword 1 and 2 (not 3 and 4).

    Having not mentioned the Final Fantasy series in your post, Chris, I’d be interested in finding out what you think, if indeed you are a fan of the games.

    Lastly I’d like to say that it’s fantastic that people are talking about storytelling in videogames, as I think it is, like Chris explains, the most important thing. It’s the foundation that holds everything else together, and without it, the rest is just an empty, polygon-shaped shell.

  10. Pombar says:

    The decently plotted Final Fantasy games strike me as closest to good children’s fiction – overly melodramatic, subtle character plays can be present but not necessary to understanding the plot or even interactions, the setting overly reminiscent of, well, a teenage fantasy. Not unlike most of the output from that other generally-juvenile japanese medium, anime. It works for what it is, but there’s no FF I’d really point to as having an amazing story.
    Though the PS1 FFs did mark a (since stunted) evolution in storyTELLING in games. A pity that didn’t really ever go anywhere.

  11. I did love FF7 and 9, and 8 & 10 to a lesser degree, although I’ve given up on them now as the endless combat and constant random encounter make me want to slit my wrists. Plus I always get to the end guy and then have to spend hours levelling up just to beat him, which is where the enjoyment stops. I thought the storylines were good but it was more of an aesthetic thing with me: I love their character designs and their backdrops, and they had some great non-traditional fantasy ideas.

    You’re right about Morrowind, in that the story itself is pretty traditional, but it’s the sense of being surrounded by a world that makes that game. I can’t think of any other medium that allows you to wander around and just soak up the atmosphere like sandbox games do.

    MMORPGs I can’t get on with, mainly because I don’t enjoy the social element at all – I don’t really do online socialising (beyond the occasional forum post, obviously). Even the thought of logging on to Facebook blackens my soul a little, so the idea of being forced to group with a bunch of random players just to beat up some uber-goblin makes me reach for the power button. I’ve done it once or twice, and it was like trying to herd cats. ‘Just wait here 10 hours while I go into the next town and do some trading.’ etc etc. I just don’t have the unlimited time & devotion that MMORPGs all assume you have.

    @ Naomi – You’re welcome. Glad you liked it.

  12. Joseph Evans says:

    I feel the same about MMORPGs. I subscribed to World of Warcraft when it got released back when I was in uni and I cancelled my subscription about three months later. There were very accomplished elements to that game – the music was absolutely outstanding, it was hairs rising on the back of the neck stuff, especially if you rode into Stormwind on the back of a griffin and the Stormwind theme began playing as you were soaring into the city – But the game felt lifeless, and this is down to one thing; MMORPGs have no story aside from a small amount of background padding.

    Unfortunately the nature of MMORPGs mean that these fantasy worlds are not populated by characters at all (aside from some minor NPCs that have very little, if any, story or personality) but by real people. What I want from a fantasy game is to be transported to another world with characters and plots that are epic and affecting. What I get in an MMORPG is a cast of hardcore gamers speaking to each other in gamer vernacular and standing around either doing nothing at all, or slaying wave upon wave of respawning creatures that seem to serve no other purpose than to level characters up.

    While I’m here I’d like to say that it was video games that got me into reading, so I will always defend video games when (usually clueless and ignorant) people say that kids are playing too many video games and not doing enough reading. I read the first Broken Sky volume back in 2000 because it had a manga cover and it immediately made me think that its story was going to be something like a JRPG’s. And I loved it. Broken Sky Volume 2 was then the first ever book that I bought with my own money, and by the time I had finished that I was completely hooked. I still regard the Broken Sky series as one of my all time favourite stories, so thank you Chris, for them.

    I’m a member of staff at the Cardiff branch of Waterstone’s and I’ve had the Broken Sky compilations face out in the children’s section with my staff reviews underneath them, but sadly, we’ve run out of the first volume and we can no longer get them from the publisher. It’s a shame that all editions of it have now gone out of print as every customer that asks for recommendations for teens gets directed straight to them. I also offer them Alaizabel Cray, as this is another fantastic book, and luckily we can still get hold of it.

    So, it was down to the storytelling of video games that I picked up my first Chris Wooding book. It just goes to show how powerful the medium can be. And if companies start turning to professional authors to write for them, then I think there will be some incredible titles ahead of us.

  13. Thanks for a wonderfully refreshing article. It’s nice to stop between reviews now and then, and think what makes videogames all they are, why do we like them, how we can improve them, or even if we should. Nice selection of contributors, also!

  14. Ben says:

    Couldn’t agree more. The strange thing is, many of the more popular games when I was entering my early teens did have this story-based, author involved-approach. The Gold Box games from SSI were novels and games, where you could follow the same story, but skew it in different directions if you wanted.

    The advent of of the FPS seems to have pushed forward the idea of character as a “blank slate”, where the player becomes the character. This is great if you already happen to be a gun-toting steroid-ridden powerhouse, but if you’re not, then the character of “you” is almost by definition false.

    When you take a “blank” character, and put them in a sandbox, then how does involve the player in the game on anything other than a “make thing go boom” level.

    I’d add one group to your list (which is kind of implied in what you’ve said) which is LucasArts. Back when they were Lucasfilm Games, they really concentrated on story with games like Monkey Island & Indiana Jones. Orson Scott Card worked on Monkey Island, and wrote another of their classics (as I’m sure you recall), The Dig, which was brilliantly ambitious. It failed, sure, and I think that was inspired LucasArts to move away from story for a while – that and the inexplicable failure of Grim Fandango – but they seem to be finding their way back, in cooperation with teams like Bioware and TellTale.

    I’m really looking forward to playing the first game you write. Can’t wait!

  15. Ayslia says:

    The only reason why I play games is for their stories. This, and the fact that I only have a PC, severely limits the amount I can play.
    Some awesome, and free, games with storylines are:
    Memento Vivere: A Reminder to Live (canceled, but the demo is worth playing)
    Quintessence, the Blighted Venom (and other games by Freebird games)
    Melolune (uncompleted)
    Mabinogi (MMO) (the company also made the famous Maplestory)
    Can’t think of any others off the top of my head, though…

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  17. Amanda says:

    Will you be making a second book to Silver, if so what is the name, if so could it take place on the grounds of an insane asylum?

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