Hey, do you remember this post and this post where we talked about the advantages video games had with storytelling? Those were pretty awesome times, right? Talking all about the ways narrative was improved within our favorite medium, and only getting a little distracted with me mentioning how good I look all the time. Well, we weren’t finished with our discussion there. Every medium has both advantages and disadvantages when presenting a story. Video games are no different. I know, I know, it’s hard to discuss and read bad stuff about stuff we all love and negativity sucks in general, but I think it’s worth discussing the challenges a lot of games face when presenting a story. So, below the jump, lets talk a bit about the disadvantages video games have when telling their tales, and what developers are doing to overcome these challenges.
There’s a couple different ways this comes up in video games. We could talk about people who can’t afford the latest version of the Weespot 3.141592 console and so are always behind the curve, we can talk about people who don’t have internet and are thus completely unable to get a lot of the games out there, we can talk about someone who blew $60 dollars on a game that totally sucks and has lost faith in the industry as a whole, and we can talk about the nature of console exclusives and how those keep great games away from their loyal fans. Those are all fairly considerable issues. But those all also have their origins in meatspace, and meatspace is boooooooooring! If you want to talk about the real world issues with getting into games, we can do that later. If you’ve done all your chores. And eaten your vegetables.
The part I’m really wanting to talk about now is accessibility with the way games are presented and consumed. So, imagine this: you’re watching this really great movie. You’re really getting into the characters; a disenfranchised knight from a ruined nation and a Roma woman who’s on a quest to find a true home for her people. You’ve gotten enraptured by the story, which covers their quest to seek the very force behind fate itself. And things are coming up to the climax! You’re finally going to be able to see if they’re able to succeed, if they can restore both their homelands! And then it stops. The DVD won’t play until you can rub your belly and pat your head at the same time. And you just can’t do it! You keep trying, but you always either pat your belly or rub your head! You’re never going to know what happens! You could look it up online, but that just wouldn’t be the same! Eventually, you give up, and put the DVD back on the stack to try again in a couple years.
Has that ever happened to you in video games? You get really into the story, but then you get to a boss you just can’t handle. No matter what you do, it’s just too much for you. So for you, the story ends there, half-finished. The it was very good, but you can’t get past the skill gate needed to see the rest. Do you remember how much that sucks?! You don’t even get the full experience, because a boss is too hard or the gameplay is too broken to be manageable! The growing climax, the satisfying conclusion, it’s all out of your reach, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it!
“But Aether,” I hear you say. “I am, like, SOOOOO AWESOME at video games. You don’t even know!” Well, maybe you are. Maybe you don’t have this problem. Thing is, you’re the type of person that is so into video games that you go online and read stuff about video game theory from barely known yet incredibly handsome bloggers. But what about the average person? Or the person who’s into games, but hasn’t put in years of commitment to get good at games? Or the person who only likes a few, select franchises? Or a person who’s heard about what games can do with storytelling and world-building, and is interested, but is still inexperienced to the medium? A lot of them won’t be able to get through many games, and won’t get to hear the full story. They’ll be stuck with the same problems as a lot of George R.R. Martin fans: they’ll get really invested with the world and characters, but any sort of conclusion is going to be a looooong time coming for them.
It may not even be a difficulty issue either? What if the story’s good but the gameplay is just crap? Totally unpleasant to wade through. You could stick with it just for the story, but that’s going to be a lot of unnecessary hours of boredom. Most people would just get bored and move on to another, better game, whether the story’s complete or not.
So what are developers doing about this? For the difficulty issue, difficulty selection options have been common for decades. We’re getting to the point where you can even switch difficulty in the middle of the game! I’ve heard a lot of complaints about that, but it’s something I support. Developers are also implementing adaptive difficulty features into games, where dying actually gives you the chance to increase your level or carry other benefits over to your next life. Besides that, have you noticed that most games where the storyline gets a lot of importance are just a little bit easier? Think about the Megami Tensei series. It’s a JRPG series that is pretty well known for being tough. But the games where the storyline gets a lot of play (particularly Persona 2-4) are noticeably less abusive with their difficulty.
As for the crappy game problem? Well, developers are still making crappy games. The gaming community is getting around this, in a sense, with their Let’s Plays. They’re a good source for getting through games you just can’t stand.
Now, this is something games have long struggled with. If you’re going to be making a video game, you’ve got to make something for the player to do. Otherwise, you’re just making a movie. And if you’re going to make a movie, you can just, you know, make a movie. However, when you give the player stuff to do, you lose control over their experience. The more input they have, the more control you have to give up. When you’re talking about a player’s role in the plotline, it’s really difficult to have such an uncontrolled element in there and still make it coherent.
So a lot of developers strike a balance. They take their plot, and break it up into a series of points. Then they spread those points around the game world. They let you do the exploring and fighting and moving forward at your own pace, but your main role in the plot is just to connect those points. For example, a game may have your hero, Brick Stronggroin, start out by having to leave town. Then the plot takes a break and you get to explore the nearby mountain for a while. Then you get to a hotpoint, and the plot comes back in with Brick Stronggroin finding a damsel in distress being assaulted by a bunch of cyber-bandits. So Brick puts on his tough-guy face, and the plot goes away while you fight the bandits, then comes back just in time for Brick to kill the bandits and take the very appreciative damsel home. Are you seeing what I’m getting at here? A lot of games have their plot and their gameplay in separate sections. If there’s plot going on, you can put down the controller, because it’s not going to help anything. If there’s gameplay, you can turn your analytical brain off, because the plot isn’t going to move forward.
This can also come up a bit with games misusing their cutscenes. In general, cutscenes should be used to show only that which cannot be handled by the gameplay engine. Instead, you get a lot of scenes where the developers seem to think “oh man, the players desperately need to know what a badass Stronggroin is” and have him fight off 20 random mooks in a cutscene using moves there’s no way the gameplay engine would handle. The problems with this are twofold. First, fighting mooks is something that could easily be handled in gameplay, and would be a lot more fun to play than to watch. Second, giving the character moves that the player can’t use and actions that aren’t spurred by player impetus creates a disconnect in the player’s mind between cutscene Stronggroin and the Stronggroin the player has control over. And that disconnect ruins immersion. It makes the player seem like less of a part of Stronggroin, and keeps reminding the player that Stronggroin is just a mass of code on a disc.
Thankfully, this is one area that both the gaming community and developers are getting better on. Gamer complaints about misused cutscenes have seemed to have gotten more and more prevalent, at least to me. Developers, in turn, are starting to blur the line between cutscene and gameplay. Interactive cutscenes where you have the chance to make decisions. Plot being delivered through dialogue while you’re going about the gameplay. Thinking of plot as one of the purposes of gameplay rather than just the reward. All these are ways developers are better bringing plot and gameplay together.
Storytelling momentum is something games have always been sporadic on. Writing for games is very different than writing for other media, and games have not been used as a storytelling tool long enough for anyone to really become an expert on the subject. Moreover, maintaining narrative momentum would require the efforts of everyone involved to be focused on delivering story. Movies have large teams, and they’re all focused on doing the best they can to deliver the story. Television shows are the same way. With games, on the other hand, you’ll have a small team focused on creating the best story, another team focused on making sure that the guns kill people in the most optimal manner, a third focused on making sure the game is actually fun, a fourth making sure Cloud’s hair is as spikey as possible, etc. At the top of it all are the leads, who have to balance each teams priorities, of which storytelling is not usually the only one at the top. This isn’t a bad thing. Games would be pretty crappy if all they focused on was story, to the expense of gameplay, playtesting, making sure everything was fun, etc. But when gameplay segments are made to be entertaining rather than to best deliver the story, it does lead to situations where the narrative momentum dies.
To give an example of what I mean by that, let’s take a look at two scenarios. Both of them start with the evil sorcerer Sykh Wyked lighting your house on fire. Then he hits on your girlfriend. Then he finishes by stabbing you in the gut and leaving you to die. Well, you don’t die. The next scenes starts with you waking up, your house gone, your girlfriend smitten with the sorcerer, and the hospital orderly thought it’d cheer you up to stitch a smiley face into your stab wound. In scenario one, you go straight to his castle and confront him immediately. In scenario two, you do the same thing… except you spend two hours trying to find directions to his castle then fighting your way through completely unrelated monsters on your way there. Now, when you get there, in which scenario will you have more emotional weight? Which scenario will you be more invested? Is it the one where you get action immediately after the inciting incident, or the one where you’re dicking around a couple hours first?
In some cases, the very nature of video games create this problem. Video games tell their stories very long form. Often times, if you only have an hour to play the game, you have no idea how far you’re going to be able to get, or if the conflict will be at their emotional height when you have to leave. Most other media, you know when you’ll be able to leave safely, without the narrative at an high point that would be wasted by spending time away. Movies, you sit down for the full run time. Television shows have wound down by the end of their half-hour or hour period. Comic books will be safe to leave every 26 pages. Novels have short chapters where at the end of each you can safely put the book down and come back to it later. With video games, such things are not common. You can leave after beating a boss sometimes, but other times the narrative will only become heightened afterwards. You could put the game down when you reach save points, but those are often put right before a climax. In any case, during the normal course of play, you’re going to be starting and stopping the game at really odd points during the narrative. And if you stop with events are at their height? It’s going to be really hard to carry that weight over to your next play session.
As for what developers are doing about this? Not a whole lot, really. Some of them break things up into levels, others may have an episodic nature, other’s may break periodically and ask you if you want to save, but all these breaks are usually too far between to see practical use.
Seriously, why are these so prevalent?! The underground areas are usually the most creatively devoid in games, and sewer levels are the worst of these! Why do developers keep thinking I want to go the the sewers? What’s with that thought process? “Hmm, let’s think of where might be fun for players to go? We’ll have the magical flying kingdom of Dragongoria, the vibrant mountain lands of Mountainland, and oh, you know that one place, what’s it called? You know, where poop goes. The players will love that.”
Stupid sewers. They’re not even like the way they are in video games. In real life, sewer pipes aren’t anywhere big enough for people to get into. You know why? Because nobody wants to go to the sewers! What’s next? Games have you traipsing through castle-sized septic tanks? Ninja Turtles or no, sewers suck. And I don’t want to go in them anymore.