The Christmas Mega-Blog! Part Three - The Significance Of Story

Well, here it is - the third and final part of my tantalisingly ginormous Christmas mega-blog! Sorry for the delay, but I had a headache by the end of Christmas Eve and wasn't really in the right frame of mind to write. Then, believe it or not, Thursday and yesterday were kinda busy. But I've knuckled down today and decided to bring you what will hopefully be the most thought-provoking part of this mega-blog. If you missed Parts One and Two, I'd advise you to go check them out. Not because they need to be read to fully appreciate this final instalment of the mega-blog, but because (like I said in Part One), I'm a comment-whore. Now, in all seriousness, this last part of the mega-blog is going to deal with an issue that I've been thinking about on and off for some time. The thought was re-ignited on Tuesday when I read Pepsiman's latest blog about Persona 4 and the impact its story had on her. Basically, it's related to the role of storytelling within the gaming industry. I won't go into too much detail here - if I did there'd be no point in reading the blog, would there? I guess what I'm trying to say is... Read the damn thing!

A Pondering Look At Storytelling In Video Games

You don't need an incentive, just blow the damn thing up!
The story hasn't always been an important part of a game. In fact, it's only in recent console generations that fleshed-out plotlines have become a staple part of most games. Before that, with a few exceptions, there was relatively little emphasis placed on the story-driven single-player experience. Of course, there was always a little bit of backstory to be found in the instruction manuals of games like Sonic The Hedgehog, but the plot was never rammed down your throat via a series of cut-scenes. More importantly, you didn't even need to read those two or three paragraphs in order to get enjoyment out of the game. Sonic didn't need an incentive to run very fast to the right and smash up Robotnik's mechanical hordes - the player just did it, and somewhere between the thumb, the screen and the brain, fun was generated. Fast-forward to the current generation and storytelling has become a major part of the single-player gaming experience. Every action/adventure game we play now places a heavy emphasis on storytelling in an attempt to draw the player into the game world. This is, of course, the natural progression for games to make. As they become more cinematic, more focus is placed on telling a story that is up to the same standards as the game's presentation.

My first game with an incredible story that I cared about
As a result of this trend, people are now taking games a lot more seriously in terms of their power as a storytelling medium. People applaud games like Metal Gear Solid for their storytelling, their ability to create an alternate universe for the player to jump into in much the same way as a good movie or a good book. This is a view I've had for quite some time, albeit more generally - I'm a firm believer that every medium of entertainment is capable of telling a brilliant story, whether it be a film, or a concept album, or indeed a game. For me, games have represented an exciting alternative to films, and perhaps even novels, for quite some time. The first game story that totally blew me away, as some of you may know, was Final Fantasy VII. I first played the game when I was eleven years old, and at the time I'd never played anything with an involving storyline before. I got so engrossed in the game's plot, and enveloped in the actions of its characters, that by the time the game was finished I was a changed person. At the time I'd all but given up reading, but FFVII encouraged me to pick up books and get reading again. Yeah, that's right - a video game got me interested in literature again. FFVII is also the reason I became an avid writer. Much like Pepsiman with Persona 4, after experiencing such a story, I wanted to devote my own imagination to creating something that could have a similar effect on other people. The result of that desire is a work-in-progress fantasy novel.

Did Niko spend too much time talking and not enough time getting crazy?
As storytelling has now moved to the forefront of the game conception process, it has been argued that in several cases, this is often detrimental to the actual gameplay of the game in question. After the praise heaped upon the last generation of consoles for the ways in which they advanced gameplay, the current generation seems to be being slated for not making similar leaps forward in those terms. One major release that has been criticised heavily for letting the story take centre stage at the expense of gameplay is Grand Theft Auto IV. Before anybody quotes me on that, I'd like to add at this point that this is not my view at all. Being my first next-gen game, GTAIV showed me exactly what the current consoles are capable of, and it totally blew me away. Not only did I find Niko's story to be captivating, but I loved the game itself immensely. Despite this, however, I've met no fewer than five people who all share a rather different opinion of GTAIV - that in spite of its revolutionary storytelling, none of them think the game itself was actually any fun. Several of these people have since turned to Saints Row 2 for their open-world crime simulation fix because GTAIV's serious tone apparently didn't carry over very well into the gameplay. As I said, I don't share this opinion, but I can kind of see where they're coming from. While there's nothing wrong with the gameplay of GTAIV in my eyes, it's clear even to somebody like me that Rockstar deliberately placed a lot of emphasis on the story with this instalment of their biggest franchise. Whether this decision was a right one or a wrong one will no doubt differ depending on your opinon of the game.

The fact you are red and I am blue is motive enough to kick your ass!
Then, of course, we have the other side of the argument - the fact that in a great number of cases, an involving story isn't a requirement for enjoying the gaming experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of multiplayer gaming. We don't need a backstory to have tons of fun playing Team Fortress 2, or Super Smash Bros. Brawl. We don't need a motive for our character when we're blastin' on fools in Call Of Duty 4's online mode. It's situations like this that serve to remind us how important the actual gameplay of a game is. When everything plot-related is stripped away, these games stand on their own merits, proving that a great game doesn't need a great story to function. If this is the case, why aren't developers pushing innovation in this direction? Why aren't we seeing as many advances in gameplay as we did with the last generation of consoles? The most obvious justification for this is that advances in cinematic presentation and storytelling could be considered more important when it comes to games being taken seriously as an entertainment medium. Film-quality presentation and script-writing in games is, in part, helping to remove the stigma associated with gaming as a hobby. No longer are games the sole retreat for pimply teenage boys with an aversion to sunlight. They're something for everyone, with something to offer to everyone. This console generation, for the first time, games are being widely accepted as a viable means of storytelling alongside films. That's a pretty big leap, quite easily comparable to the ones made in terms of gameplay last generation.

I like stories!
As I write this, MattBodega, brukaoru, BoG and some others in the IRC are discussing the role of stories in games. They've gone over pretty much everything I've outlined in this blog, as well as some great points I didn't think of but won't include in this blog, as it's gone on long enough. As a predominantly RPG/action/adventure gamer, and on another level as a writer myself, I expect the games I play to impress me with their stories. I consciously choose games that are praised for their storytelling. On one hand, that's what I love about these kinds of games - the way they deliver their plots not so much like interactive movies, but more like interactive novels. Additionally, I'm also constantly searching for my next Final Fantasy VII - the next game with a story that will provide me with that awe-struck feeling all over again. So I guess the question is, what do you want from a game? Great gameplay, or a great storytelling experience? Or both? Ultimately, it's what you expect from a game that will determine how important its ability to tell a story is in relation to the gameplay. Whether or not that story lives up to your expectations, however, is another matter. Thanks for reading my Christmas mega-blog, guys. Stay tuned for my 2008 review before the end of the year. In the meantime, I'll see you around.


DanK

---

Currently playing - The Legend Of Zelda: Majora's Mask (GC)
4 Comments
5 Comments
Posted by dankempster

Well, here it is - the third and final part of my tantalisingly ginormous Christmas mega-blog! Sorry for the delay, but I had a headache by the end of Christmas Eve and wasn't really in the right frame of mind to write. Then, believe it or not, Thursday and yesterday were kinda busy. But I've knuckled down today and decided to bring you what will hopefully be the most thought-provoking part of this mega-blog. If you missed Parts One and Two, I'd advise you to go check them out. Not because they need to be read to fully appreciate this final instalment of the mega-blog, but because (like I said in Part One), I'm a comment-whore. Now, in all seriousness, this last part of the mega-blog is going to deal with an issue that I've been thinking about on and off for some time. The thought was re-ignited on Tuesday when I read Pepsiman's latest blog about Persona 4 and the impact its story had on her. Basically, it's related to the role of storytelling within the gaming industry. I won't go into too much detail here - if I did there'd be no point in reading the blog, would there? I guess what I'm trying to say is... Read the damn thing!

A Pondering Look At Storytelling In Video Games

You don't need an incentive, just blow the damn thing up!
The story hasn't always been an important part of a game. In fact, it's only in recent console generations that fleshed-out plotlines have become a staple part of most games. Before that, with a few exceptions, there was relatively little emphasis placed on the story-driven single-player experience. Of course, there was always a little bit of backstory to be found in the instruction manuals of games like Sonic The Hedgehog, but the plot was never rammed down your throat via a series of cut-scenes. More importantly, you didn't even need to read those two or three paragraphs in order to get enjoyment out of the game. Sonic didn't need an incentive to run very fast to the right and smash up Robotnik's mechanical hordes - the player just did it, and somewhere between the thumb, the screen and the brain, fun was generated. Fast-forward to the current generation and storytelling has become a major part of the single-player gaming experience. Every action/adventure game we play now places a heavy emphasis on storytelling in an attempt to draw the player into the game world. This is, of course, the natural progression for games to make. As they become more cinematic, more focus is placed on telling a story that is up to the same standards as the game's presentation.

My first game with an incredible story that I cared about
As a result of this trend, people are now taking games a lot more seriously in terms of their power as a storytelling medium. People applaud games like Metal Gear Solid for their storytelling, their ability to create an alternate universe for the player to jump into in much the same way as a good movie or a good book. This is a view I've had for quite some time, albeit more generally - I'm a firm believer that every medium of entertainment is capable of telling a brilliant story, whether it be a film, or a concept album, or indeed a game. For me, games have represented an exciting alternative to films, and perhaps even novels, for quite some time. The first game story that totally blew me away, as some of you may know, was Final Fantasy VII. I first played the game when I was eleven years old, and at the time I'd never played anything with an involving storyline before. I got so engrossed in the game's plot, and enveloped in the actions of its characters, that by the time the game was finished I was a changed person. At the time I'd all but given up reading, but FFVII encouraged me to pick up books and get reading again. Yeah, that's right - a video game got me interested in literature again. FFVII is also the reason I became an avid writer. Much like Pepsiman with Persona 4, after experiencing such a story, I wanted to devote my own imagination to creating something that could have a similar effect on other people. The result of that desire is a work-in-progress fantasy novel.

Did Niko spend too much time talking and not enough time getting crazy?
As storytelling has now moved to the forefront of the game conception process, it has been argued that in several cases, this is often detrimental to the actual gameplay of the game in question. After the praise heaped upon the last generation of consoles for the ways in which they advanced gameplay, the current generation seems to be being slated for not making similar leaps forward in those terms. One major release that has been criticised heavily for letting the story take centre stage at the expense of gameplay is Grand Theft Auto IV. Before anybody quotes me on that, I'd like to add at this point that this is not my view at all. Being my first next-gen game, GTAIV showed me exactly what the current consoles are capable of, and it totally blew me away. Not only did I find Niko's story to be captivating, but I loved the game itself immensely. Despite this, however, I've met no fewer than five people who all share a rather different opinion of GTAIV - that in spite of its revolutionary storytelling, none of them think the game itself was actually any fun. Several of these people have since turned to Saints Row 2 for their open-world crime simulation fix because GTAIV's serious tone apparently didn't carry over very well into the gameplay. As I said, I don't share this opinion, but I can kind of see where they're coming from. While there's nothing wrong with the gameplay of GTAIV in my eyes, it's clear even to somebody like me that Rockstar deliberately placed a lot of emphasis on the story with this instalment of their biggest franchise. Whether this decision was a right one or a wrong one will no doubt differ depending on your opinon of the game.

The fact you are red and I am blue is motive enough to kick your ass!
Then, of course, we have the other side of the argument - the fact that in a great number of cases, an involving story isn't a requirement for enjoying the gaming experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of multiplayer gaming. We don't need a backstory to have tons of fun playing Team Fortress 2, or Super Smash Bros. Brawl. We don't need a motive for our character when we're blastin' on fools in Call Of Duty 4's online mode. It's situations like this that serve to remind us how important the actual gameplay of a game is. When everything plot-related is stripped away, these games stand on their own merits, proving that a great game doesn't need a great story to function. If this is the case, why aren't developers pushing innovation in this direction? Why aren't we seeing as many advances in gameplay as we did with the last generation of consoles? The most obvious justification for this is that advances in cinematic presentation and storytelling could be considered more important when it comes to games being taken seriously as an entertainment medium. Film-quality presentation and script-writing in games is, in part, helping to remove the stigma associated with gaming as a hobby. No longer are games the sole retreat for pimply teenage boys with an aversion to sunlight. They're something for everyone, with something to offer to everyone. This console generation, for the first time, games are being widely accepted as a viable means of storytelling alongside films. That's a pretty big leap, quite easily comparable to the ones made in terms of gameplay last generation.

I like stories!
As I write this, MattBodega, brukaoru, BoG and some others in the IRC are discussing the role of stories in games. They've gone over pretty much everything I've outlined in this blog, as well as some great points I didn't think of but won't include in this blog, as it's gone on long enough. As a predominantly RPG/action/adventure gamer, and on another level as a writer myself, I expect the games I play to impress me with their stories. I consciously choose games that are praised for their storytelling. On one hand, that's what I love about these kinds of games - the way they deliver their plots not so much like interactive movies, but more like interactive novels. Additionally, I'm also constantly searching for my next Final Fantasy VII - the next game with a story that will provide me with that awe-struck feeling all over again. So I guess the question is, what do you want from a game? Great gameplay, or a great storytelling experience? Or both? Ultimately, it's what you expect from a game that will determine how important its ability to tell a story is in relation to the gameplay. Whether or not that story lives up to your expectations, however, is another matter. Thanks for reading my Christmas mega-blog, guys. Stay tuned for my 2008 review before the end of the year. In the meantime, I'll see you around.


DanK

---

Currently playing - The Legend Of Zelda: Majora's Mask (GC)
Posted by gunswordfist

Very interesting blog. Games are being taken more seriously and some of the thanks obviously goes to games with great stories.

What I want to see more of is games that combine gameplay with storytelling like Half-Life.

Posted by BiggerBomb

Great stuff, Dan! I'm also intrigued with the various interpretations of Grand Theft Auto IV; however, my interest is of a more critical nature. I find it bewildering that people bash away at Grand Theft Auto IV's gameplay, a style of gameplay that I thought to be leagues superior than the predecessors of the most recent installment. The dark tone, the increased emphasis of realism, and the cinematic presentation make Grand Theft Auto IV my GOTY '08 pick and one of my all time favorite games.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. That said, I find it necessary to point out that my opposition's opinions are entirely wrong! :D

There is one other thing that I feel I must point out, as I found your wording slightly ambiguous on the subject of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Were you insinuating that "COD4" does not need a story or that it does not have a story? Because I actually believe that Call of Duty 4 has an incredible story, one that touched me on a legitimate emotional level. This is largely due to the story's relevance in today's world of tenuous military relations; though I think the story is one deserving of praise, regardless of extenuating circumstances.

All in all, I'm with you here. Story is of increasing importance and I'm happy to see developers placing greater stress on enhancing the tales told. And while I do not agree that games are beginning to feature story in lieu of gameplay, it is definitely important for the studios behind the wheel to remember that a game is nothing without a game to play.

Anyway, keep up the good work Dan!

Edited by Pepsiman

A lot of people who read that particular blog about Persona 4's impact on me might conclude that I value a good story over gameplay, but at the end of the day, my biggest concern when playing a game is whether it takes all of the components which uniquely make it a game and create a cohesive and, ideally, great experience. Persona 4 could still have that great story, for example, but if it didn't have equally engaging gameplay, I would have probably been less inclined to invest the 63 or so hours I put into that game. It is, at heart, a game and I need that extra incentive in the gameplay department to keep me going so I can still have fun in-between major plot points. Sure, the intrigue of the plot can be a motivator in and of itself, but because I need to actively participate in the proceedings so as to move things forward, I still need good gameplay mechanics on top of an engrossing storyline to keep me satisfied. If Persona 4 were merely a movie, then it'd be a lot easier to sit back, bask in the plot, and say that story is all I need since I don't have to do anything to get from start to finish. But because I do, I want that optimal combination of a great story and equally great gameplay so I can come out entirely content with a game.

That isn't to say, however, I always need a good story to still have a really good time with a game. Indeed, if a developer makes something which is just plain old fun and didn't do anything to provide a backstory or a context for why I'm doing it, then chances are I'm still on board. Rhythm Tengoku, a GBA from the WarioWare team, is among my all-time favorites on that portable and it has absolutely nothing in the way of a storyline. The music gameplay is more than good enough for me to still have a great time with it and this is again because I find that it takes the qualities that uniquely belong to games and embraces them in such a way that they make for a wonderful experience. It simply turned out that story wasn't integral to fulfilling that mission for Rhythm Tengoku.

I believe what I'm essentially trying to say is that the most memorable games, the ones I'll look back upon fondly years after I've beaten them, are the ones who have a clear vision about what they want to do and they follow it through to the very end. I've found that virtually all of the games I can still recommend to this day have this trait where I get a clear impression of what the development team wants to do with their game and they don't compromise on that vision at all. If that means crafting a great story like Persona 4, then that's really great. Like all people, I enjoy good tales and I don't mind if a game compels me to reflect a bit. I enjoy the philosophical edge that such games can wear proudly. But if that means just going for something really fun and the developer does everything in its power to allow you to have a great time with their game, regardless of how unorthodox it might be, then I have an equal chance of falling in love with such a game, too. It's the flexibility that you can find across the spectrum of creators and developers that I think is why I really love games more than any other medium, because that trait means that those of who play them don't have to compromise on anything. We just have to look for a good time and, eventually, it'll come to us.

(Edit: Good god I'm sleepy if I used "bored" instead of "board.")

Posted by Manachild

Enjoyed reading this blog man, and i felt you brought up some really good topics related to stories in games. I really enjoy what valve is doing with thier games. Sure thier not the most dense story driven experiences that you have ever experienced. But, they have worked out this way of creating characters that evoke a response of recognition with the player where you already know more or less what that guy is about, what he probably did or was. It at least had that effect on me when it came to left 4 dead.

I feel that games with good stories shine the most when they portray a mixture of that sort of idea with a more traditional story telling method of giving you that extra detail. That way you are told the story but you also get a human recognition type response from what your shown in that character that just tells you what thier about without having to always say in the most traditional of ways.