Should AAA Games Think Smaller?

By the end of Mass Effect 3, the story is so big in scale, it's almost unbelievable, even for a video game, that one man (or woman, hey FemShep) could possibly solve the problems at hand. In a reverse way by having such a small cast fighting such a big fight, it made me feel as though the universe was actually underpopulated. And that goes for most games that involve destinies or saving the world. Infamous and it's sequel have you traveling through what is essentially and empty city husk. Even the side missions feel empty. Rather than being given to you by side characters, they're faceless, nameless NPC's.

I think the problem with these games is that in striving to give you such a huge spectacle, they lose personal stories. Aside from the main character, usually a generic, brown haired, white, thirty year old with a gravelly voice, the worlds feel comparatively empty. Even ones as big as Skyrim's. I think these major games should focus on smaller stories. Interpersonal conflicts. The Dark Knight was a massive movie, in scope and success, and the climax of that movie involves the Joker, some dogs, and two boats. No doomsday device. No saving the world. No chosen hero following destiny.

Game of Thrones shows the perfect roadmap. The consequences in Game of Thrones, both the TV and book series, are no doubt massive as entire nations go to war, but the inciting incident is usually quite small. Two families quarreling. One guy had a son out of wedlock, someone breaks a vow, one person is executed. Small struggles involving select groups of people that ripple outward as the repercussions suck everyone in. But rather than having a main villain be a cackling stereotype who wants to destroy the world for no real reason, or an omnipotent dragon, or an alien race who wants to wipe out humanity just because, have the villain be a person. Just a guy with a goal. A three dimensional, non cliche, whose goal runs contrary to the hero, thus causing the conflict of the story.

There's no reason to default to world destruction. Not every villain has to be evil. The lives of every human don't need to hang in the balance. By going smaller in scope, you can tell a great emotional story. Max Payne isn't saving the world. And the villains aren't looking to destroy it. And at times, you wonder if Max is even doing the right thing. Shades of grey, you see. Those are good.

30 Comments
31 Comments
Edited by ERoBB

By the end of Mass Effect 3, the story is so big in scale, it's almost unbelievable, even for a video game, that one man (or woman, hey FemShep) could possibly solve the problems at hand. In a reverse way by having such a small cast fighting such a big fight, it made me feel as though the universe was actually underpopulated. And that goes for most games that involve destinies or saving the world. Infamous and it's sequel have you traveling through what is essentially and empty city husk. Even the side missions feel empty. Rather than being given to you by side characters, they're faceless, nameless NPC's.

I think the problem with these games is that in striving to give you such a huge spectacle, they lose personal stories. Aside from the main character, usually a generic, brown haired, white, thirty year old with a gravelly voice, the worlds feel comparatively empty. Even ones as big as Skyrim's. I think these major games should focus on smaller stories. Interpersonal conflicts. The Dark Knight was a massive movie, in scope and success, and the climax of that movie involves the Joker, some dogs, and two boats. No doomsday device. No saving the world. No chosen hero following destiny.

Game of Thrones shows the perfect roadmap. The consequences in Game of Thrones, both the TV and book series, are no doubt massive as entire nations go to war, but the inciting incident is usually quite small. Two families quarreling. One guy had a son out of wedlock, someone breaks a vow, one person is executed. Small struggles involving select groups of people that ripple outward as the repercussions suck everyone in. But rather than having a main villain be a cackling stereotype who wants to destroy the world for no real reason, or an omnipotent dragon, or an alien race who wants to wipe out humanity just because, have the villain be a person. Just a guy with a goal. A three dimensional, non cliche, whose goal runs contrary to the hero, thus causing the conflict of the story.

There's no reason to default to world destruction. Not every villain has to be evil. The lives of every human don't need to hang in the balance. By going smaller in scope, you can tell a great emotional story. Max Payne isn't saving the world. And the villains aren't looking to destroy it. And at times, you wonder if Max is even doing the right thing. Shades of grey, you see. Those are good.

Posted by FesteringNeon

This would have made a great blog post, but to answer the topic I think it's up to each individual developer, and their willingness to go against the grain that is so embedded in many games today being "epic".

Edited by Clonedzero

you know, i kinda agree. i wish less stories would be about "saving the world" "saving the country" "stopping a super villain". i mean theres a reason why those cliches happen so often. but still.

so yeah. in short, i pretty much completely agree with everything you said. great post dude

Posted by Brendan

The fate of everything should not always be in the balance.

Posted by Dagbiker

I agree, one of the ways movies get you to care about the world in the movie is by

  1. creating a background you can relate to.
  2. creating a background you care about.

A lot of games fail to set this up very well.

Posted by Sackmanjones

I believe this calls for

"go big or go home"

Posted by ERoBB

This is especially true in a franchise where you save the world in every game. Halo for example. No matter what happens, those games will always end with a countdown to some world destroying explosion unless Master Chief in a Warthog can stop it. And that's no doubt an epic scene, once. But when every game ends like that, the moment loses it's momentum.

To me, the best scene in Mass Effect 3 was when Shepard loses to Kai Leng. Two guys went head to head, and one lost. It was a small personal conflict, and afterward, Shepard was irrational and emotional and angry, because the chosen one isn't supposed to lose. And it was a great moment that they earned in smaller story telling. Threatening to destroy the world with lasers is easy storytelling. Having a believable moment like that is much harder to earn.

Edited by Dagbiker

I want to see a game where, you go in to fight the bad guy and stop the super weapon. You fail. The military comes in, kills the bad guy, rescues you. you are then Court Martialed for not waiting for the Military.

This blog reminds me of what this guy said about lightsaber fights.

Posted by frankfartmouth

I couldn't agree more. Games rarely hit a very personal note with their stories, and when they do with me, I find that it's usually some smaller side quest or supporting character who brought it on, not a major plot point or character.

But they're getting there. Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with face mapping, realistic character motion, and uncanny valley stuff. It's pretty hard to get deeply emotionally invested in a character whose eyes are bugging out for no reason and who chops around at the air with penguin hands when he's trying to make a point.

Once a lot of that is ironed out, I think the potential for gaming to produce subtle, more emotionally vivid stories will really launch off.

Posted by BestUsernameEver

It's harder to make a subtle story, so most action games are building tension by putting everything at stake, and only you can solve the issues at hand. But all I want is a game like the movie DRIVE, where not much happens in the film, but it's so well done that it's entertaining. Maybe that's why I like the GTA series so much.

Posted by ERoBB

@Sackmanjones said:

I believe this calls for "go big or go home"

But does it need to be that simple? Maybe it's that we live in an age of over-stimulation. But I felt nothing during the Modern Warfare 3 campaign. Even though huge things were happening. Iconic buildings were crashing down around me. But I'm used to it. Desensitized. I think it would have been much more affecting if say, the Humvee your character was in runs over an IED, and you're stuck in the overturned truck as enemies get closer. Small, tense, confined.

Heavy Rain did some great things using small personal moments. And Naughty Dog is pretty good too. I'd like to see more developers make personal stories instead of going bigger and blander.

Posted by ERoBB

@BestUsernameEver said:

It's harder to make a subtle story, so most action games are building tension by putting everything at stake, and only you can solve the issues at hand. But all I want is a game like the movie DRIVE, where not much happens in the film, but it's so well done that it's entertaining. Maybe that's why I like the GTA series so much.

Drive is a great example. Using ambiance and quiet moments, when the violence explodes it hits you so much harder. Dark Souls and Demon's Souls did that sort of. The quiet bits between fights had me more on edge than the biggest explosions can.

Posted by BestUsernameEver

@ERoBB: Yep, absolutely, I think games are starting to do that, look at Bioshock 1, Gta 4, and your example of the souls games. Let's hope it a continuing trend that makes it's way into game design.

Posted by Nottle

The best stuff in Mass Effect is the more character driven stuff. Geth Vs Quarians and the Genophage are much more interesting than the reapers. I think the best game stories have the big "we got to save the world" plots but the smaller character driven stuff is what makes it great. Uncharted is about stopping the villain from obtaining X but the stuff between Drake and his friends is great.

Look at Dragon Age, it is "stop the Darkspawn" but your helping out people by solving kind of difficult problems. The Villain Loghain is kind of just a dude with paranoia doing what he thought was right. Here the conflict is between people just trying to deal with what is going on the darkspawn are like zombies in most zombie stories a motivation for other people to be riled up or paranoid.

Devs need to stick to their strengths. It is why these Rockstar's games are interesting, they have smaller scale stories about people that are in rough spots. When you kill the dude that has fucked you over 12 hours ago it is much better than killing aliens that's goals are "kill humanity." Also small scale is why the fighting in Heavy Rain was effective, you could die forever and the hits seemed realistic.

Posted by Nicked

I think we're starting to see more developers who are interested in making games with "smaller stories". That Fullbright Company dude mentioned his desire to, in so many words, make 'machine-gun-less' games and that's a sentiment that we're starting to see more and more from developers in the indie community.

I don't think AAA big budget titles will ever try to create these types of stories, though. Indie is to AAA as Drive is to Transformers. I would like to see more self-contained AAA titles. I felt kind of burned by AC: Brotherhood's story because it was clearly a stop-gap. Naughty Dog has done a good job of making the Uncharted games individual stories, which I appreciate. The three-game-long stories we see so much of today make me disinterested in some franchises.

Posted by ERoBB

@Nottle: I think a great point you bring up is that the villain should think what he's doing is right. Villains need better motivations. Having a villain that simply wants to "be more powerful" is such a cop-out. Same with having a villain that's working for the bad guys because he's brainwashed or something. Get rid of that. Have villains that are doing what they're doing because they believe it's the right way. They think it's the only way, and they'll kill you if you try to stop them from doing what's right. There was a great twist at the end of Infamous 2 that kind of begged the question of who is actually right, if anyone is right.

World domination isn't a worthy motivation. Give the villain a real motivation. Be it greed, love, confusion, fear. Something honest, and that would make you killing them all the more powerful. It's easy to kill an evil villain, but it's a lot more morally ambiguous to kill a guy who was only doing it for love.

Edited by whyareyoucrouchingspock

The problem with Bioware titles isn't the "scale". Each and every character in Mass Effect either sounds like "Data" or a "Vulcan" from startrek. It punts itself as the most personal emotionally engaging game ever Yet the characters are presented like they are totally devoid of emotion. Biowares writing and presentation is very sterile like in nature. I think it's probably the snooty attempt to appear "mature". You look at Halflife 2 for comparison, it involves the fate of the world, yes?

This relationship with a minor character "dog" that has very rudimentary features to emote is done better than anything Bioware has done. Likewise with Portal 2 characters. They are (ironically) more organic and personal than Biowares pretentious (and hypocritical) aspirations.

Edited by ERoBB

@Nicked: You're right, Drive was indie so comparing it to AAA games is a little unfair. But we also see Christopher Nolan making 200 million dollar movies about personal cerebral conflict. Most of the struggle in a Nolan movie takes place in the main character's psyche. Martin Scorcese, Quentin Tarantino, even Joss Whedon just made a massive blockbuster that balanced conversational interpersonal dynamic conflict with actual action. And The Avengers made a billion dollars at the box office in two weeks. So clearly people are hungry for a little intelligent meat with their action.

Sadly, games don't have as much of a middle ground between indie and dumb blockbuster.

Posted by Jay444111

@ERoBB said:

@Nicked: You're right, Drive was indie so comparing it to AAA games is a little unfair. But we also see Christopher Nolan making 200 million dollar movies about personal cerebral conflict. Most of the struggle in a Nolan movie takes place in the main character's psyche. Martin Scorcese, Quentin Tarantino, even Joss Whedon just made a massive blockbuster that balanced conversational interpersonal dynamic conflict with actual action. And The Avengers made a billion dollars at the box office in two weeks. So clearly people are hungry for a little intelligent meat with their action.

Sadly, games don't have as much of a middle ground between indie and dumb blockbuster.

Atlus... that is all...

Posted by FourWude

I want a game about a guy who just wakes up and wants to make toast to eat. But problem is he has severe, crippling depression. So every step he takes from the moment he wakes is a humongous act of sheer will. Every step is kind of like a mission to him, but in this case literally a mission would be taken with every step. A game within the story within the game. A 120+ hour epic of a depressed man's journey to make toast. Think about it, makes sense.

Posted by believer258

I thought you meant in budget allocated towards graphics at first. I was like YES! Give me great gameplay scenarios with only OK graphics anyday of the week!

But, alas, you didn't. On to the topic of story! It would be nice to see another game whose story isn't that of a world-shattering conflict, or at least doesn't start out that way. I really think the issue is that big stories go for the big, destructive scenes when what we really want to see is someone, or a group of someones, that we like win those situations. For an example, I'll mention Full Metal Alchemist. Yes, it's an anime; no, it isn't a video game; yes, it serves my purpose. The show starts off at a relatively small scale. A pair of brothers searching for a way to make a philosopher's stone to return their bodies back to normal. That one plot thread blossoms into a huge plot later on, but not before we've begun to know the characters and situations involved intimately. None of them come across as flat or cardboard cutouts; they come across as 3-dimensional real people. We only get small snippets of information that suggest something bigger is at hand. A video game is well-suited to this sort of long, personal epic because it's not limited in length like movie is.

I'd also like to give Resistance 3 an honorable mention. It had the unfortunate position of being caught in the middle of one of those world-saving series, but Insomniac started the game with a small skirmish of a conflict instead of a huge set piece like, say, the second one did. The game doesn't actually involve any huge battles, just sneaking through pockets of enemies. Things about it feel huge because it's just you and every now and then some other dudes, but you realize that Capelli (the protagonist) must have never quite caught the attention of the entire Chimeran army, at least not until the end of the game. And throughout that smaller scale, I found that all I wanted was for the story to end with Capelli back with his wife. The whole damned fight just felt so useless and desperate, another thing that the character shows well.

I'll just wrap this up with what I think is one of the best cutscenes in video game history:

Edited by ERoBB

I loved the first few hours of Resistance 3. The opening of that game was fantastic. I started wondering who spilled quiet adventure into my first person shooter.

Posted by Nottle

@ERoBB said:

@Nottle: I think a great point you bring up is that the villain should think what he's doing is right. Villains need better motivations. Having a villain that simply wants to "be more powerful" is such a cop-out. Same with having a villain that's working for the bad guys because he's brainwashed or something. Get rid of that. Have villains that are doing what they're doing because they believe it's the right way. They think it's the only way, and they'll kill you if you try to stop them from doing what's right. There was a great twist at the end of Infamous 2 that kind of begged the question of who is actually right, if anyone is right.

World domination isn't a worthy motivation. Give the villain a real motivation. Be it greed, love, confusion, fear. Something honest, and that would make you killing them all the more powerful. It's easy to kill an evil villain, but it's a lot more morally ambiguous to kill a guy who was only doing it for love.

I'm going to spoil some of Dragon age origins and 2 just to elaborate that point.

Dragon Age origins had a save the world story but there I felt like it was earned unlike Dragon Age 2 were the main threat gets super powers for no reason at the end. Oddly enough the rest of that game was somewhat small scale, a lot of the conflict stems from bigotry and paranoia for the powerful minority, the villain being highly mistrustful of mages because of traumatic childhood events. In Dragon Age Origins your job was to unite everyone for the war and along the way you have to upset some people and make the ultimate sacrifice in the end. Kill yourself, Allistair or Loghain. OR impregnate Morrigan with a baby that will merge with the Archdemon's soul, which could make some sort of abomination. You fight a dragon but that was icing on the cake, everything lead up to that moment. There is even conflict in the party, Leliana and Wynn will turn on you for your sacrilegious actions towards Andraste, Zevran will turn heel back to his former employers if he doesn't like you enough, and Alistair will leave if you let Loghain join the Wardens because it would dishonor the Wardens good name. Characters have their own beliefs and they can take only so much before they break.
Edited by Rahf

Regarding the 'emotionless' emoting in the AAA RPGs, like Mass Effect:

Recording thousands of lines of dialogue means you have to try to keep it more subtle and level. If you have all the characters imbibed with anime-archetype personalities, then the player would get tired of it. Try listening to anything long-form where the narrator is 'working' very hard to get the message across. You just get fed up in the end. Powerful emoting works in short bursts, but not for a very long haul. You also have the difficult task of casting appropriate actors, and then record a huge script, while still staying on budget and within schedule.

As for the stereotypical villains, I reckon it's because many video game writers are just in their creative cradle, still. I'm going to generalize a bit to try and clarify my point: It can be challenging for some writers to go outside the spectrum of "good vs. evil", Where good means doing the right thing, while perhaps being conflicted about it. The problem for many writers is that you have to create sympathy for the villain, in order to have him be genuinely interesting. This can be challenging when you have a fairly simplistic crowd that, on the whole, want the story shoved in their faces and spoon-fed in comprehensible chunks.

Wheatley was a phenomenal character, as was GlaDOS. Cave Johnson was essentially J. Jonah Jameson with different lines. That is; absolutely hilarious.

Summing up my thoughts: The video game industry is still young. Creatively, we are moving forward and backward at the same time. If you want truly original stories that demand some brain power; look to the praised indie titles.

Posted by Slag

totally agree that the "fate of the world" thing is way way overused.

Edited by whyareyoucrouchingspock

@Rahf said:

Regarding the 'emotionless' emoting in the AAA RPGs, like Mass Effect:

Recording thousands of lines of dialogue means you have to try to keep it more subtle and level. If you have all the characters imbibed with anime-archetype personalities, then the player would get tired of it. Try listening to anything long-form where the narrator is 'working' very hard to get the message across. You just get fed up in the end. Powerful emoting works in short bursts, but not for a very long haul. You also have the difficult task of casting appropriate actors, and then record a huge script, while still staying on budget and within schedule.

Which totally Mass Effect lacks.In fact it's practically all monotone. In fact you don't even need to actually speak much (if at all) to powerfully emote. Even just talking in an subtle tone you can come across as dramatic.

I feel a good example... "Nero" in startrek (2009) throws spears at people, shouts like a grumpy caveman and is designed to look like a dramatic nosferatu in a big green evil ship. They try to make him scary and intimidating but it's as subtle as a brick and thus less effective.

In Deep Space 9 on the other hand, a far, far superior startrek. The female founder character AKA the main villain of the show can elicit fear and intimidation through a civil exchange of dialogue. Aside from what is said and how it's said, part of the effect is the timing and responce of Garaks reaction. Shocked yet keeping a respectful and courteous front regardless of the implications.

Mass Effect has none of these type of thought out subtle well executed scenes. It's robotic and up it's own butt imo.

One of the most pompous games I have ever played.

Posted by Wailing

Games' focus on the big scale spectacle is a result of their failing to establish really solid sympathetic characterizations with their characters or to draw players into the conflicts of the game world (whether ideological, political, etc.) Now, should AAA think smaller? I'd sure like them to try, but it seems like these days the AAA games are inhabiting the same space as big-budget blockbuster films -- All about spectacle and hitting the biggest, easiest, most marketable themes. I'm really skeptical that big games will ever go for smaller stories just because there are certain things the videogame medium seems to be good at, and pulling off great, expressive characters and subtle themes isn't generally one of them (not that they can't be done).

Posted by spilledmilkfactory

I thought that Max Payne 3 was pretty good at getting across some of the more subtle, character-driven stuff, and it eschewed the "save the world" plot for something much more personal and ambiguous. Because of that, it's been one of my favorite games of the year so far (and the rest of my faves have all been indies with similarly personal themes, like Journey.) It's something that video games could be incredibly good at because of the 1:1 control, the ability to literally put yourself in anybody else's shoes, but frankly big developers just seem uninterested in exploring this promising new ground. Big-budget explosion fests like Call of Duty are where the easy money lies, and that's why you mostly see indies like the guys at Fullbright doing stuff like this.

But to answer the initial question posed by OP, yes, AAA games should absolutely think smaller. Almost all of my favorites of this generation, whether it's Bioshock, Uncharted 2, Max Payne 3, Journey, or Flower, have at least some element of personal, emotional conflict driving the action forward.

Posted by MordeaniisChaos

I think they just need to not do "I SAVED THE UNIVERSE. ME. I DID."

I like the way Halo does it, Chief is instrumental in the success but you know that there are massive actual battles going on, and you're just helping when those battles. And on top of that, often the battles are not a win for your side.

Posted by onan

@ERoBB said:

By the end of Mass Effect 3, the story is so big in scale, it's almost unbelievable, even for a video game, that one man (or woman, hey FemShep) could possibly solve the problems at hand. In a reverse way by having such a small cast fighting such a big fight, it made me feel as though the universe was actually underpopulated. And that goes for most games that involve destinies or saving the world.

What kills me is that ME3 is the same game that COMPLETELY explains the unbelievably of one person saving the galaxy entirely to my satisfaction, and yet somehow throws it all away and goes completely off the rails with the resolution.

Sigh.

Edited by EXTomar

If nothing else, they need to "think smaller" just to get costs under control. But that maybe impossible since modern big budget games spend a huge amount of time building assets. If your big and complex engine requires gigabytes of models and art to fill it the only way to do that is hire an army of artists.