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Video Games as a Storytelling Medium


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#21 foxbunny

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Posted 16 December 2014 - 02:57 PM

Most video game storytelling has touched me by holding a pillow over my face and screaming "Movie! Watch the movie!" until I stop trying to participate. Most games act like movies. Your actions in the game don't matter because you are just the actor filling the role of Cloud for this performance of FFVII. Interactivity, in such cases, is just a gimmick without any real consequence. It's like Dora turning to the screen and asking the viewer to shout a word back.

 

I find myself annoyed by fetch quests that are designed solely to give me something to do as the player between cinematics. Rails/invisible walls are equally annoying because they don't make sense. And the no-fail element so common in games is ridiculous. Yet games with these elements are often praised for their story. Some of these elements are OK because they can be used to teach the player how the game is played. They are the training montages of video games--effective in limited use. In most games, these elements are the game.

 

When people share their stories of awesome things that happened in games (which means they were affected by those things) they are most often interactions between the game and the player--I wandered into a camp with three giants and did cool stuff and defeated them. Did the player write that story? The camp was a written into the game world by the developers. The way the giants reacted was written by the developers. The outcome, though, was uncertain. That is the power of video games. I could have run. I could have climbed a hill and fended off the giants with arrows. I could have been killed. And the result of that interaction would change my behavior as a player--confidence or caution.

 

The original Fallout games (the first two) were great for the fact that they had a well-defined stories and yet allowed the player to do as they chose--and they were actually fun. The story would continue without player interaction--which means the player failed the original quest by running around and goofing off or getting distracted by another interesting element. There were mysteries that would encourage the player to actually follow the main story (which had multiple solutions) and subplots, and the ending of the game was determined by the choices you made. It was a lot more like playing a campaign of Dungeons and Dragons than watching a movie or reading a Find Your Fate book. That's where I found the story that had the greatest impact on me as a player--when I had to choose between the mission and what I believed was right, and it was a real choice with real consequences in the game world. Most games are like funnels guiding you to the pre-determined ending.

 

Maybe I'm jaded because I know that developers can make a compelling story that's fun and actually allows the player to interact with the story rather than simply mash buttons to make the story continue.


Edited by foxbunny, 16 December 2014 - 03:21 PM.


#22 Direlda

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Posted 16 December 2014 - 04:41 PM

So I'm having difficulty with finding examples of how the narrative of a game, as Salem defines it, has affected me.

 

For instance, in Morrowind I never actually completed the main story arc. One of the things I remember most was trying to free the slaves and then discovering that despite having broken into the slave merchant's store and lockpicking the cells open the slaves wouldn't take their freedom because there was no scripted quest for them to go free. Another was having the random assassins that one of the expansions added in spawn in a closet in a Legion barracks, preventing me from falling asleep until I had opened the door and let the more powerful Legionaries take the assassin out. Stumbling across the person who fell from the sky and then trying out the scrolls of Icarian Flight only to meet the same fate the first time around. Or discovering that there is a mudcrab merchant. And having fun wandering around in Solstheim.

 

The stories of Myst and Guild Wars 2 are interesting, though they haven't moved me very much. The discovery of new places in GW2 or uncovering solutions to puzzles in Myst are what I remember more than the storyline.
 

But regardless, how we perceive the story doesn't affect the story itself.

Makes me wonder where else this talk could go. It would be as if, if we took Direlda's examination of Minecraft and applied it to a hike. Someone goes outside for a walk, comes across some deer, maybe. He continues on, maybe finds a clearing and punches down some trees to make a house (kidding). Instead he pitches a tent.

So we, the spectators, may call that a story because I narrated it. But if we were out there ourselves experiencing it, would it be a story then? We were not presented with a plot, but rather be writing it as we go along. I would think that in a video game, that maybe that experience would be limited and random. I might not call that a story but others may.

I guess my deliberation is a matter of 'if the story is written' or 'being written.' I'm unable to blend those two while consistently considering it story-telling, especially if it's coming right back to us.

 

I would say that our perceptions of a story do and don't affect the story itself. Disney's The Lion King is going to progress the same way every time you watch it no matter what you think of it. And yet, if you are familiar enough with Hamlet to see the parallels between the two stories, then that perception will alter The Lion King for you.

 

And I would say that both examples of the hike would be a story. But that's because I view our lives as unfolding stories.

 

For me stories in video games are better when they are co-created by the player and the developer/game systems. Dungeons and Dragons as Foxbunny pointed out, is probably a good model of this. One player from the group takes on the role of Dungeon Master and decides how the NPCs interact with the players as well as throwing in events and quests. But the DM doesn't fully drive the story because how the players choose to act, where they go, and so on also affects the story. And seeing how I have many more stories of D&D affecting me, I would say such a system works.

 

The was the time when one of our party members swore all of us into eternal servitude to a dragon because his attempts to flatter and placate a dragon were interpreted differently than intended. Or the time we thought a Big Bad was called "Master Dinner" because one of his servants had shouted, "Master, Dinner!" but we hadn't heard the pause between the two (it was helped by the fact that Master Dinner was essentially a giant maw that ate through the floor). Or how we took to calling our adventuring party the Unfit Apocalypse (I can't remember if our communal Rock Band 2 band was named before or after our party name, as that was also called Unfit Apocalypse) because we always seemed to destroy quest hubs despite our best efforts not to. Or the time we did a campaign somewhat in the WoW setting and I had a minor miner Worgen Warden.


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#23 Rythe

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Posted 16 December 2014 - 09:47 PM

The final level of Bastion strikes that balance between gameplay mechanics and storytelling about as good as it gets, and in general, the game wove the two together incredibly well. Also amazing soundtrack.

 

Brothers: The Tale of Two Sons is suppose to be one of those games to play if you want to see what games can do with storytelling as a medium, but it's still on my to-do list.

 

Final Fantasy 6 has some remarkable moments of storytelling given it lived on a SNES cart, the famous Opera Scene for instance, and even added characterization to battle mechanics. But the game is paced JRPG slow and sooo many hours.  Still, a wonderful title and wonderfully powerful story if you can get through the gameplay slog. One of the top JRPGs of all time.

Which brings me to Chrono Trigger, which tells a delightfully wondrous tale of time travel, sacrifice, and hope. It's actually themed very heavily on things surrounding Christendom, and as far as my opinion is concerned, fixes the typical JRPG slog. As to storytelling mechanics, there's this one scene in the middle of it where your gameplay actions and choices at the very beginning of the game have great impact, and going into the game, you have no idea. It's an eye-opener moment. My favorite JRPG of all time.

 

But even then, I can't say I don't prefer the gameplay updates that Kingdom Hearts did to the formula.

 

There's also an old Tower Defense game named Immortal Defense that did something special in mixing gameplay aspects and the story it wanted to tell. Your towers are aspects of your personality - anger, Id, fear, and the like - for starters, and the rest, well, you'd just have to play through it to experience it.

 

The problem with Myst is that it's expansive and bewildering. There's suppose to be an amazing story there, but unless you're incredibly dedicated or most of the way to a genius (or use a guide, but that kinda defeats it), you'll probably lose the thread of that story trying to get through the puzzles.  I'm not that sort of puzzle person, so didn't have the patience myself despite trying a time or two. I much preferred the 'Drawn' series (Dark Flight/Painted Tower) where the puzzles are a pleasant distraction.

 

I do need to play Spec Ops: The Line still.

 

And I really do need to mention Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  It's a game that not only tried to ask the question 'What is it to be human?', it tried to make you question yourself as a player by the choices presented via game mechanics.  It all fell apart at the boss battles, but eh, certainly met with some success in the general sweep of things.

 

-

 

The type of thing that Direlda is talking about falls under 'Emergent Gameplay' or story in this case. Simple elements combine up to something greater dependent upon the player's actions.  It's the narrative we impart on a sequence of events to find meaning, which works very well sometimes, and at other times, unravels a bit at 'On his way to build a castle, Steve blundered into a dark pit and got half-eaten by spiders, then drowned upon breaking into an underground reservoir'. You can spruce those events up any way you like, reach deep into the human experience, but will still be hard-pressed to make a satisfying plot out of them alone. So in that way, such stories can be lacking, or missing some of the elements we look for in a good story.

 

Which has all been said before, but felt like putting my spin on it.

 

-

 

As for the Skyrim piece, I fell into the same problem as you did, Salem.  Enjoyable to begin with but lost its way when I found myself spending hours selling junk and wandering the wilds for no particular reason.  The narrative structure was too loose, too samey,and easily lost, largely due to the experience presented by the gameplay.

 

I much preferred Witcher's model, although that is a game I'm obligated to say you shouldn't play due to adult content and straightforward pagan themes.

 

-

 

But back to the point of the thread, I think video games as a storytelling medium 'works' when gameplay mechanics are given meaning and import to the story being told. Most gameplay mechanics are completely unhinged from the story the video game is trying to tell, and it's that dissonance between action and narrative that breaks video games as a storytelling medium. World of Warcraft is very good at creating that dissonance sometimes. I remember one quest where you're basically told 'You! Prove you're different than the murderous barbarians slaughtering my people by going out there slaughtering all of them!' That doesn't work, as much as the writers try to hide it behind the world's generally broken morality.

 

The 'trick' is to remove that dissonance between action and narrative, and it's a very hard trick to pull off sometimes.

 

Here's a little ten minute flash diversion as one possible example - Today I Die

How well do you think it did as a storytelling medium or experience?


Edited by Rythe, 16 December 2014 - 10:43 PM.

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#24 SalemPertaeus

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Posted 17 December 2014 - 10:19 PM

I definitely understand some of the vibes. Video game developers often like to showcase their game's engine and they do that by cinematic cutscenes, pretty graphics, shiny objects, sometimes colors, character models, and engine features. In those cases, it's off-putting. I'd prefer an 8-bit game with gameplay and story potential over a game with photorealistic graphics and gameplay and stories that aren't good. Unity, recently, as far as I can tell, gets hammered for its gameplay and story (not reading actual critics, just reviews from players and a few specific people). And the graphics are not optimized either, leading to cruddy performance. Devs... don't show me your game, let me play it.

 

Quoting Rythe, those are a bunch of games that I'm familiar with.

 

Bastion - I hear great things about this game, but I could not stay interested in it.

Brother: Tale of Two Sons - This is the reason I bought a controller (it's necessary for gameplay). Issue is that I haven't been able to afford the game.

FF6 - I'm not a fan of Final Fantasy games, at least not anymore. But I know that I just finished this and think it's a likely comparison, from your description.

Chrono Trigger - I've wanted to play this for years.

Immortal Defense - This sounds really cool. I'll have to check it out.

Spec Ops: The Line - I just streamed 90% of the game last night for a friend. (I'll warn you lads for violence, though. This game is brutal.)

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - This game is fantastic. There was a Director's Cut release on the PC edition that fixes the boss fights, adds in more story, and smooths over The Missing Link DLC integration. Regardless, this game has been at my forefront of my interests for a LONG time. It serves as a prequel to the other two Deus Ex games (each consequent game went back in time. Even The Fall (terrible mobile-to-PC port) happened before DE:HR.). Playing a pacifist role was a lot of fun.

 

I've played The Witcher 1 before, didn't like the gameplay. Started the second and realized that the first game is vital for ANY sort of context. Also I still need to upgrade my PC to properly play it.

 

*swats at Warhammer and Warcraft games*

 

Today I Die was very interesting. I spent about five minutes toying around with it and could only produce one ending. Is there only one?

 

 

So how do we think video game developers should integrate stories with player action? Are all stories made by the player, or played by the player? Is the main character leading the story and we're playing him, or are we leading the main character and making his choices?

 

I often feel that there's a choice to be made between assigning a quest and giving a personal story involving the character. I think it's EXTREMELY hard to make a personally involved story-line for a player-made character. Although there was a method in The Last Remnant that may be interesting:

 

Imagine being given major and important quests by the characters around you. Those who play far into my RPs know that 'missions' and 'quests' are often personal stories given by in-game characters that often the player has bonded to. Those quests become personal. I've seen Mass Effect and The Last Remnant both do it, to varying degrees of success. The Last Remnant's text-based character voices ended up striking with me ten times more than Mass Effect's. Obviously, our mileages vary and these quests can falter.

 

(Also, for those who play my RPs and have the chance to read this, look out for "special characters." They're notable/remarkable. Especially in Starlight.)

 

 

I don't mind playing a very linear game if the story is good. I also don't mind playing an open-world do-as-you-will RPG if I'm able to find lore to dig myself into.


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#25 foxbunny

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Posted 17 December 2014 - 11:19 PM

Destiny of an Emperor was a great game (first one I finished). It had a great story, fun play mechanic (for a 1980s NES RPG), and had decent replay value because of some choices you could make as the player. There's an unexpected betrayal that actually touched me emotionally.



#26 Rythe

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Posted 18 December 2014 - 12:59 AM

The ARPG mechanics and visual style of Bastion can throw people, but there was a point where the gameplay just clicked with me, and it was all gravy from there. I thoroughly enjoyed how each level, challenge mission, weapon, and difficulty tweak had a story or cultural aspect associated with it.  You found something new, and learned how it all fit into the world that once was. And as much as people complained the visual style was 'cluttered', I appreciated how it was used with the level design and mechanics to showcase a world in the process of falling apart, bit by bit.  The narrator aspect of the game directly responding to player actions and thus adding those player actions into the narrative being told was a brilliant touch too.

 

In a lot of ways, your review on The Last Remnant does remind me of FF6, Salem. There's also this reverse design doc on FF6 that digs deep into what that particular game does right, both as a game and medium for a story. It was quite the read. Helped, of course, because I had experienced what it's dissecting. Very insightful on game design and such in general, tho'.  Your review also makes me think you would enjoy Disgaea 1: Hour of Darkness.  As a side note, you may appreciate Zero Punctuation's take on FF13, Salem, and it compares FF6 to the newer titles in the series.

 

When I say 'Witcher', I really mean Witcher 2. Never played the first, myself, so there was quite the learning curve at the beginning, but once I got over that, enjoyed it much more than Skyrim.

 

There are two endings in Today I Die that I recall. One involves acting at the very end, the other requires inaction.

 

And I forgot to mention the 13 something multiple endings to Chrono Trigger. Given time travel, you get a different ending if you manage to beat the game at specific moments or during specific eras. Puts a fun spin on player action determining the outcome of the story, far more than you usually get.

 

The reverse to that idea played out in Radiant Historia, which I felt was like a Chrono Trigger light (high praise from me).  The way Radiant Historia works is that you constantly hit a point where you 'lose' the game, the story ends in a fail state, and then you have to go back in time to change events and circumstances so the story can progress past that fail state towards a 'victory' kind of ending.  A bit repetitive if you don't master the skip button, but a very interesting take on telling a story and expanding out events for the player.

 

Much of the above speaks to the question of how video game developers can integrate stories with player action, but there's one bit I wanted to highlight -

 

I often feel that there's a choice to be made between assigning a quest and giving a personal story involving the character. I think it's EXTREMELY hard to make a personally involved story-line for a player-made character. 

 

It's less a choice between a quest and personal story and more how those two things are presented and developed. The 'quest' of today's games is basically the easy way of throwing any character into a situation and have some sort of consistent narrative. As a game design concept, it's intentionally made to work independently of the player's character. That method is easy, but is not nearly as rewarding as a narrative that is dependent on the player's character.

For a story with a completely player made character, you basically would have to design a system that reacts and changes itself according to the player character's actions and presence in significant, rewarding, meaningful ways while still funneling them along a plot structure and towards an end state of the story being told.  There's a couple ways to do that, but all of them quickly grow into massive, complex undertakings.

 

One is to create NPC characters that react realistically to the situations the player is allowed to present them, and rather than default the end state of those reactions to a very limited set of possibilities, let those reactions build naturally and cascade throughout the game system. The problem here is that the NPCs become obvious machines (guard types) most of the time because it's very difficult to developed them enough to properly tell a story through.  Civilizations in strategy games, often represented by some avatar, typically pull off this trick better, but still fall short because there's no overarching narrative entity guiding those reactions along some predefined plot structure. That 'overarching narrative entity' is the piece most often missing in this formula, but I believe games like Left 4 Dead are playing with the concept.

A second is to massively expand a finite state narrative structure - the writers account for a specific set of player choices and write in how those choices effect each part of the story. This second option is like a choose your own adventure type novel, only a very, very big one, or the Mass Effect approach.

 

In short, difficulties abound the moment you put a computer in the seat of a human GM type.


Edited by Rythe, 18 December 2014 - 02:20 AM.

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