I think this quote from game designer Bob Bates sums up the idea of story within video games very well:
“Story and gameplay are like oil and vinegar. Theoretically they don’t mix, but if you put them in a bottle and shake them up real good, they’re pretty good on a salad.” (Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell)
From my time working in the industry I’ve heard a wealth of different opinions regarding the importance of story in games. I’ve met super heavy advocates of story who’ll try and squeeze out the vaguest of narrative elements from the latest FIFA title (believe it or not!), to those who like to deny its existence even in the very story relevant titles. Ok, fair enough, this is not an exact science by any means and there’s a lot of personal opinion coming through here, but to keep things sensible I’ll say that it’s foolish to treat all games equally when were thinking about storytelling, but some take storytelling ‘more seriously’ than others. I’m bearing modern action adventure/RPG/sandbox games in mind as I write this.
I think the quote above does hold very true, but how well the gameplay and story mix depends a lot on the designers approach to crafting the experience from the outset of a project. This is of course not always something that is in the hands of the game designers, but is often affected by deadlines, budget and publishers, etc.
It’s not always the goal of a project either and ‘tagging’ a story onto a game as an afterthought is something that is still frowned upon, but I always feel that this is an undue complaint from people who try to draw direct comparison between video games and film. They should really be trying to identify the differences between the two mediums.
Hack and Slash action adventure games are well known for featuring ‘nonsense’ tagged on storylines. But the goal of these games is to present the gamer with high-octane close quarters combat sequences, and to challenge the player’s reaction time and muscle memory. They achieve this very well and so long as the game environment and sequences are given a little context with a basic plot, this is all that is needed.
Heavy Rain (and all Quantic Dream titles) on the other hand is considered an interactive drama and is heavily story centric. The whole game and its elements are presented in such a way as to tie in with the overall narrative arc of the game. The gameplay is solely context sensitive and this allows the challenges which make up the game to be shaped around the plot and events. I suppose you could think of this as the exact opposite of a story which is tagged on to the gameplay.
Following on from this, since games are inherently different from other mediums, and I think it follows that some types of storytelling lend themselves more to games, just as some types lend themselves to books, theatre, etc.
One of my pet peeves is the notion among some that books are a superior medium as they allow the imagination to work in deeper ways. They are not superior, they aredifferent. Books play a lot more on senses with strong use of verbs and less intense description. (Books with too many adjectives read as though they were written by a 12 year old!) Film creates feelings with visuals and effects, and stage plays are about the emotion of the actors stepping into their roles. Games are driven by visuals and emotion also, but are very unique as they involve the audience. There’s a huge amount of untapped potential with games and I see titles such as the Mass Effect series as great examples of games which tell a story in ways that all the other mediums just couldn’t. The clever combination of travelling around the galaxy, undertaking various tasks and missions, and absorbing content (even as written descriptions) really brings forward the idea that the whole universe is alive. No matter what way I turn it, I can’t see this working as well in anything other than a video game.
All in all, these are my own opinions, and every one of us has our own with regard to story in games. The one thing storytelling isn’t, is easy! Games unlock a huge amount of possibilities with the potential for multiple branching narrative paths and the idea of ‘on demand’ storytelling (which is a topic for another post). I think a lot of professional writers would do well not to overlook video games as a great new challenge, and something to consider working with, or using as reference during research. I imagine many already do!
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