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The Narrative of Video Games (Version 2)
Posted on Saturday, April 3 2010 @ 10:53:04 Eastern

This is a re-write of my Narrative of Video Games Blog that I have tinkered with for the past few months. Enjoy it guys, this is the entire article in full.

Today it is hard to imagine a world without video games, let alone the style of games many newer generations have become accustomed to. Like in “Back to the Future, Part II”, the scene where Marty McFly plays “Wild Gunman” in the Café 80’s, a young kid exclaims “You use your hands?! That’s a kid’s toy!”  It’s stranger still to think that video games have essentially been perfected to the point where innovation is now more about control over graphical upgrades, something that is actually new in the industry, if you really think about it.

When many of us were young, innocent, and impressionable children; the “Bit Wars” were raging, and the birth of fan boys blossomed into the intellectual (to put it nicely) masturbation that we see now on the internet.  We have seen 8 bit turn to 16, 16 to 32 and 64, and 64 cartridges to CD technology, and finally CD’s to Blu-Rays, on the PS3, at the very least. The progression has been rapid, fruitful, and impressive over the past generation, but in this shuffle of technology with improving graphics, sound, and controls in various ways, one thing has always stood as a problem with games today. Something that has been left in the dust of the tech boom that is slowly, yet surely, catching up, and that is adequate narrative structure, or storytelling, if you want to be less pretentious about it.

Going back to the 8 bit days, video games with stories were about as common as the Amish in a shopping mall, that is, as obscure as you can get. The reason? Well, I don’t know. Perhaps it was graphical limitation or more about the gameplay in those days. Hell, some of the most successful and addictive games have no true story to it. Look at “Donkey Kong,” “Pac-Man,” even “Guitar Hero” in the modern day; it was all about improving yourself to go that extra mile that one time to make it count, building skill and coordination. Add a score meter to measure your progress and you have a game of skill over a narrative experience.

Now a disclaimer I guess is warranted at this point. A lot of the following has been discussed endlessly on various forums, be it videos, articles, other blog entries myself and others have made, and so forth. So if I’m regurgitating something said before, without giving credit to that person, I’m sorry. But in the end, were all fighting in the same corner for the same cause.

Video games began getting stories back in the day through exposition and minor text quips. RPG’s primarily led the way to this, with “Final Fantasy” and pretty much everything done by Square and Enix being an example. It was simple at the time, minor stories that drove characters, usually a group chosen to save the world and what not, and the rest was made for you to follow in a linear fashion. It also gave birth to exposition and character development, again with RPG’s pretty much leading the pack here. Other methods of storytelling were usually through the game manuals and text, such as “Legend of Zelda” being a prime example. Everyone who read the manual knew that Zelda was the princess and was taken by Ganon, and our hero Link was there to stop him. It gave a small yet sufficient back story that has pretty much anchored the entire franchise to this day.

It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that stories began to become somewhat complex. Characters emerged to become emblems of adult themes, like Lara Croft (before she sold out), Duke Nukem (before he disappeared) and Sonic (before he sucked.) The simple stories of save the world, find magical macguffin, and so forth pretty much dominated these storylines, still well masked thanks to well done gameplay. Even a few of the more elaborate stories, like those found in “The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time” or “Final Fantasy VIII”,  had simple objectives, but were fleshed out with characters that can be personified more easily than previous generations.

But one thing is still lacking in many games today and some people tend to get touchy when this is mentioned. Most stories in video games are, at best, and at worst, rejected plots to B-movie schlock that Ed Wood would blush at. Now I’m not implying that games like “Halo,” “Final Fantasy XII,” or even “Super Mario Galaxy” have, at best, a mediocre storyline. I’m downright saying they have them. But let us back up a second before the firebrands come to roast me on a spit and explain what I mean.

If you really think about it, storytelling is more of an art form, like everything else in video games. Telling a story that is complex, productive, and emotional while letting players control the protagonist’s fate is difficult to accomplish. A lot of it is the art of telling a story in general, narratives, plot, characterization and other literary constructs that can be added to a game. But other factors need to be considered as well, since kind of like adding havoc physics or motion controls into a game. Just because it’s in there doesn’t mean it will work. A poor story can drag a game down, depending on how convoluted it may be. Conversely, a well written story can be a poor game, because while the writing may be similar to the works of Mark Twain or Edgar Allen Poe the gameplay can suffer for being repetitive, bland, unresponsive or uninspired.

It is hard to strike a balance between these two seemingly polar opposites. For example, look at “Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time”. Some would argue that the story in “Ocarina of Time” was phenomenal in it’s representation, and I would be among those to defend it. It had an epic feel, enough twists to keep us interested in the narrative, had little exposition and overall was told really well. But, in hindsight, what was really new about it? It was generic sword and sorcery fantasy, taking cues from Lord of The Rings, old mythology, including Greek, Roman, and Japanese, and even a bit of surrealism from the likes of Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie. It blended it well, but it was still cliché and compared to great epics, not as memorable. What was memorable was the gameplay, being a powerhouse and innovation for 3-D adventures even to this day, so much so that I doubt most action plat formers would be using auto-jumps and Z-targeting systems.

Tim Schafer’s “Psychonauts” is the antithesis of Shigeru Miyamoto’s “Zelda”. It was well designed yes, but had rather generic gameplay elements, including old school plat forming and relatively stiff and rudimentary combat. But its narrative was complex, creative, and it made the game stand out, in gamers eyes at least, more than it did in the general public. In fact, the narrative was complimented by the design of the game, showcasing two ways to tell a story; one through words, and one through visuals. It has become a cult classic that deserves recognition because of its saucy banter and clever design, a true pillar of smart storytelling.

While both games I have mentioned each were great games and will always be so, what they lacked is a problem that affects even lesser games out there. Games heavy on design but light on story can have appeal as what they are, obvious, B-movie romps, like “God Hand”, “Madworld”, or more recently “Wet”. These games make no mistakes to what they are, and relish in it in their design, whether it is a throwback to the world of Grindhouse cinema or a tribute to Frank Miller pulp comics. These type of games work because, despite their controls being stiff or their designs wearing thin after a few hours of gameplay, it is just pure, unwashed fun you are dealing with. When these B-movie games take themselves seriously, like say….”Halo”, then it becomes hard to really enjoy the experience.

“Halo” is a decent game; don’t get me wrong, but anyone who says its story is amazing never experienced something like “Dune.” It is laughable frankly to see it compared to the “Star Wars” by some gamers, because “Star Wars” was at least a great story that had a fair amount of depth, characterization and a real sense of tension and release. “Halo” is like a 5th graders interpretation of a massive franchise, more comparable to the riveting dialogue of “Predator” over anything else. It’s not good writing to make paper-thin characters. If anything, Halo revolutionized the FPS with its design over its story, both on and offline, but it hasn’t done much to draw people into its narrative. In fact, a lot of the excess, the novels, machinas, and other little tidbits created around the Halo games have fleshed out the story more than the games themselves.

And now that I officially pissed of Microsoft, let me explain this more. As a player of the “Halo” games, I can appreciate the gameplay over the story. But the problem’s that do arise from the “Halo” games is that the story seems shoe-horned by the developers as an excuse to partake in epic space battles across against the Covenant and the Flood. The presentation is a major problem, and the real contribution to the plot is just an abstract device for you to continue forward. There is no real emotional attachment, despite characters dying or the epic music in the background blaring during those tear-jerk moments. It is augmented by the fact that all the secondary characters, Col. Johnson, the Arbiter, the Prophets, and so forth, never go beyond their character traits. Col. Johnson may be a bad-ass, but that doesn’t make him a great character. The same goes for the Arbiter, who arguably could have had the best storyline in the entire game; losing one’s faith and redemption from those mistakes. That was brilliant, but it was handled terribly due to bland writing and character turns, and keeping it within the cut-scenes.

While I know this a very objective opinion to have, I still feel that “Halo” is a flawed game in terms of its narrative. Thankfully, there is still hope though, as story telling has become a new field for developers and publishers to tackle when designing a game. Many a rumor has gone out that script writers and authors are beginning to pen game epics, although that could lead us into the never ending pits of epic fantasies with talking cats or steroid-eating space marines. Clichéd as these may be, clever methods to make a story seem more palpable during gameplay have been made in recent years, which one would hope can lead to new trends in how a narrative structure is produced.

One shining example is total immersion of the story to the games design. Instead of relying on cut-scenes, games like “Bioshock” have done away with the in game vignettes and instead make the story flow while you play. Almost in real time, the narrative happens passively, allowing the players to discover what happened to the lost world of Rapture through survivors’ eyes, through visuals, and through cassette tapes found in the world. What adds to the experience is the emotional investment that you also gain from this; instead of being detached to the story like in “Halo,” in “Bioshock” there is a sense of dread for the main protagonist, especially during moments such as when he has to make a choice in fighting Big Daddies for the Little Sisters. Plus it also helps that the story is cleverly written, well paced, and actually had a plausible twist to it.

Another method that is rather popular now is dialogue choices and “light/dark” pathways, popularized by “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” and pretty much every single Bioware game since then. While these storylines can be epic and well told, it is the choices the character makes that determines what happens in the story, sort of a “Choose your own Adventure” style of game. These games have copious amounts of dialogue and choice to get through, and while sometimes it can be overbearing and have no pacing, when it is done right, say in “Dragon Age: Origins” or “Knights of the Old Republic,” it can tell a really complex and deep story that would invest you in the characters in a way that would seem impossible. Plus actions within the story can affect your choices for later, such as killing someone important or going out of your way to save someone’s life, to name a few examples.

RPG’s have been the trailblazers in many ways for complex narratives. While Bioware’s patented representation is just one example, Bethesda would be another developer to highlight. Their “open world” RPG games like “Fallout 3” and “The Elder Scrolls” series lead to the same choices, but this time in a free-forming way instead of a linear storyline. You can pick and choose what you want to do, and how you accomplish it. There are still problems with this type of storytelling though, namely the immersion you feel is limited to the design of the game; to get anywhere you need to interact with NPC’s and receive quests. But the payoff is worth the journey in this case.

Finally, storytelling without a story has also been done, creating visual treats that would explain a games background more than the dialogue itself. Valve has been a leader in this, with games like “Left 4 Dead” and “Portal” offering a story with little or no dialogue, fun gameplay mechanics, and visuals that explain everything. Seeing a dead body or scribbled writings on an exposed wall is all you need to know about those who walked the paths before you in these types of games. It makes the world more detailed and realistic in some ways, although the lack of a true structure is apparent after a while.

These are just some clever ways to expand on the narrative structure around video games that I have noticed personally. While it is objective as to what one should do when creating a strong narrative, in reality it is more about the content over the method. All of the games above, for the most part, have either a simple storyline or a complex and deep narrative that can take hours upon hours of couch-sitting to get through. They can be cinematic like “Halo”, minimalist like “Portal”, immerse you into the world like “Bioshock” or let you choose your path like “Fallout 3”.  Presentation is one aspect that is being experimented on and has yielded great success for most games.

But for the presentation to be amazing, the characterizations and plot need to augment it. Going back to “Halo”, the supporting cast was paper thin and the motivations for the plot were excuses to have big battles, in one sense. There is honestly no right or wrong answer as to how you can make a story better, but for the most part, it all depends on the constructs of the story itself. If you can achieve a degree or emotion out of a characters death, such as Arieth from “Final Fantasy VII” or feel the surprise of a reveal of something major, such as the reveal of Darth Revan from “Knights of the Old Republic,” then the story, despite any flaws it may have, has done its job.

Video games are a new medium for telling good, emotional storylines with deep characters. These games can be epic and sweeping, and most importantly, fun. Complex themes can be explored both tastefully and tastelessly depending on the tone of the game itself. Characters can learn and grow through the experiences in the game, as many a JRPG has shown us. And above all, the gameplay does not have to be compromised if done correctly.  Be it a B-title game that is more about the action, but doesn’t shy away from what it is, or a sweeping piece that can portray three-dimensional characters in a setting you care for, games have come a long way from the simple pixel graphics that our fore-fathers once played. The narratives in video games can be clichéd or something new, but it is how they are told that that tells a story of its own for those playing it.
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