Epic or bust, the problem with videogame storytelling.

Epic


 
YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM
It's a common word in videogame circles. Whether it's: "That was a fukkin epic boss battle", or "Bioware is looking to tell an epic story of good vs evil in Dragon Age: Origins", or any of the other myriad of uses, it's clearly a powerful term in the industry. Hell, there's even a company named after it. Unfortunately, it seems epic as a buzzword has gained a little too much cache nowadays, especially in regards to storytelling. Developers have no restraint to their ambitions-- whole franchises are created around a game before it even launches. Comic book tie-ins, animated movies, online ARGs, it goes on. All because the developer wants to whet your appetite for the "epic" story their game will allegedly tell (They also enjoy your cash monies). You have things as ludicrous as Bioware announcing the entire Mass Effect Trilogy at once. Developers feel obligated to tell a huge epic story, almost as a way of justifying themselves to gamers. Only problem?
 
They're not very good at it, and we have too many of them. Very few people can pull off a Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings. Those things are great when they're done right: fresh, grand, and entertaining. However, if it's not done just right, your story feels flat and boring.
 
There's nothing inherently wrong with an epic story, don't get me wrong. It's just not the only kind of story you can tell, something the videogame industry seems to have forgotten. Novels, movies, TV shows, plays, and all other forms of popular media vary wildly in theme, tone, scope, and focus. Games are a much narrower spectrum. Partially this is due to having to construct gameplay around your story-- the videogame equivalent of a romantic comedy is a long ways off, because no one has figured out how to make that fun to play. However, gameplay can't be entirely blamed for the death of unique and creative stories in games. There's plenty that can be done with the existing tools that simply isn't done.
 
YOU ARE NOT PART OF THE PROBLEM
One of my favorite games in recent memory, Hotel Dusk: Room 215, takes place entirely within a two-floor hotel, dealing with a very small cast of characters. The story isn't very epic, and it's told very conservatively- no sweeping orchestral score, there's no voice acting, and the character portraits are only lightly animated (they are nicely stylized though). Hotel Dusk succeeds because it went for a smaller, more contained story as opposed to what seems to be the status quo nowadays of epic, galaxy changing chronologies. It builds an interesting and layered cast of characters, puts a gameplay mechanic around them, and simply tells a small, personal story about this hotel in a satisfying way. It's fantastic. I wouldn't trade Hotel Dusk for twenty Halo's.
 
Small stories are great. Often, I find them more enjoyable than the sweeping epics. Mad Men, a show I've been making my way through recently, is about 60's advertising executives. Sounds boring as hell at first glance, but it's actually really very interesting in terms of characters and as a period piece. There's nothing (or very, very little) equivalent in videogames. When people lament the lack of creativity in videogame stories, they want more diversity, not more scale. Developers become caught up in the idea of players only liking epic stories (because that's what sells, or that's what metacritic says, or whatever their rationale), and then they become convinced they have to make an epic story themselves. If their game succeeds, the cycle perpetuates.
 
The problem is that companies see story in games as a binary choice: little to no story, or a grand epic. "Epic or bust". Really, this is a losing deal for both us and them. As gamers we get very little diversity, and a ton of poorly-told epics. For developers, they have to put much more money and effort into their stories by hiring big-name writers and having to script cinematics, and then risk the game failing and not recouping investment. Smaller scale means more profit, as long as you can attract much of the same audience. It also allows for a tighter, more focused experience, and possibly a higher level of quality.
 
More than just Firefight
While epic or bust is indeed still the prevailing attitude in the industry, there is some hope. Bungie actually, who were on the forefront of this movement with the Halo trilogy, looks to be setting an interesting example with Halo 3: ODST. Built off of the existing Halo 3 engine by a small team, ODST looks to cut back on the grand space opera and focus instead on a more human experience. As The Rookie, your only objective is to find out what happened to your squadmates while you were knocked out. Bungie has described the game as a film-noirish tale with smaller stakes than previous games. That's fantastic to hear, a big studio doing a smaller story-- of course, Bungie is also doing Halo: Reach, which looks to be seven kinds of epic, so they're clearly hedging their bets. Still though, it's an encouraging example in a market filled with far too little of little stories.
 
If videogames ever want to be taken seriously as a method for storytelling, they will need to diversify. This obsession with "epic" is a juvenile phase that will need to pass. Obviously, there are hurdles associated with changing the status quo, but nothing good comes without effort. Braid last year was a great example of a successful story that felt no need to be epic, or even easily approachable. Unfortunately though, such games are few and far between. Chances are, if a game's had much effort at all put into story, the developer is shooting for an epic. And put quite simply: there's more to storytelling than being epic. And games need to understand that.
35 Comments
36 Comments
Posted by Lies

Epic


 
YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM
It's a common word in videogame circles. Whether it's: "That was a fukkin epic boss battle", or "Bioware is looking to tell an epic story of good vs evil in Dragon Age: Origins", or any of the other myriad of uses, it's clearly a powerful term in the industry. Hell, there's even a company named after it. Unfortunately, it seems epic as a buzzword has gained a little too much cache nowadays, especially in regards to storytelling. Developers have no restraint to their ambitions-- whole franchises are created around a game before it even launches. Comic book tie-ins, animated movies, online ARGs, it goes on. All because the developer wants to whet your appetite for the "epic" story their game will allegedly tell (They also enjoy your cash monies). You have things as ludicrous as Bioware announcing the entire Mass Effect Trilogy at once. Developers feel obligated to tell a huge epic story, almost as a way of justifying themselves to gamers. Only problem?
 
They're not very good at it, and we have too many of them. Very few people can pull off a Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings. Those things are great when they're done right: fresh, grand, and entertaining. However, if it's not done just right, your story feels flat and boring.
 
There's nothing inherently wrong with an epic story, don't get me wrong. It's just not the only kind of story you can tell, something the videogame industry seems to have forgotten. Novels, movies, TV shows, plays, and all other forms of popular media vary wildly in theme, tone, scope, and focus. Games are a much narrower spectrum. Partially this is due to having to construct gameplay around your story-- the videogame equivalent of a romantic comedy is a long ways off, because no one has figured out how to make that fun to play. However, gameplay can't be entirely blamed for the death of unique and creative stories in games. There's plenty that can be done with the existing tools that simply isn't done.
 
YOU ARE NOT PART OF THE PROBLEM
One of my favorite games in recent memory, Hotel Dusk: Room 215, takes place entirely within a two-floor hotel, dealing with a very small cast of characters. The story isn't very epic, and it's told very conservatively- no sweeping orchestral score, there's no voice acting, and the character portraits are only lightly animated (they are nicely stylized though). Hotel Dusk succeeds because it went for a smaller, more contained story as opposed to what seems to be the status quo nowadays of epic, galaxy changing chronologies. It builds an interesting and layered cast of characters, puts a gameplay mechanic around them, and simply tells a small, personal story about this hotel in a satisfying way. It's fantastic. I wouldn't trade Hotel Dusk for twenty Halo's.
 
Small stories are great. Often, I find them more enjoyable than the sweeping epics. Mad Men, a show I've been making my way through recently, is about 60's advertising executives. Sounds boring as hell at first glance, but it's actually really very interesting in terms of characters and as a period piece. There's nothing (or very, very little) equivalent in videogames. When people lament the lack of creativity in videogame stories, they want more diversity, not more scale. Developers become caught up in the idea of players only liking epic stories (because that's what sells, or that's what metacritic says, or whatever their rationale), and then they become convinced they have to make an epic story themselves. If their game succeeds, the cycle perpetuates.
 
The problem is that companies see story in games as a binary choice: little to no story, or a grand epic. "Epic or bust". Really, this is a losing deal for both us and them. As gamers we get very little diversity, and a ton of poorly-told epics. For developers, they have to put much more money and effort into their stories by hiring big-name writers and having to script cinematics, and then risk the game failing and not recouping investment. Smaller scale means more profit, as long as you can attract much of the same audience. It also allows for a tighter, more focused experience, and possibly a higher level of quality.
 
More than just Firefight
While epic or bust is indeed still the prevailing attitude in the industry, there is some hope. Bungie actually, who were on the forefront of this movement with the Halo trilogy, looks to be setting an interesting example with Halo 3: ODST. Built off of the existing Halo 3 engine by a small team, ODST looks to cut back on the grand space opera and focus instead on a more human experience. As The Rookie, your only objective is to find out what happened to your squadmates while you were knocked out. Bungie has described the game as a film-noirish tale with smaller stakes than previous games. That's fantastic to hear, a big studio doing a smaller story-- of course, Bungie is also doing Halo: Reach, which looks to be seven kinds of epic, so they're clearly hedging their bets. Still though, it's an encouraging example in a market filled with far too little of little stories.
 
If videogames ever want to be taken seriously as a method for storytelling, they will need to diversify. This obsession with "epic" is a juvenile phase that will need to pass. Obviously, there are hurdles associated with changing the status quo, but nothing good comes without effort. Braid last year was a great example of a successful story that felt no need to be epic, or even easily approachable. Unfortunately though, such games are few and far between. Chances are, if a game's had much effort at all put into story, the developer is shooting for an epic. And put quite simply: there's more to storytelling than being epic. And games need to understand that.
Posted by Video_Game_King

Eh, I believe the word "epic" can still be used appropriately, both in design and in analysis. Some of my favorite games can call themselves "epic" and nobody would bat an eye.
 
I blame the focus on epic stories on one other factor: the death of several genres. Platformers gave us lighthearted romps, and dating sims...OK, they've never been popular, but at least they can get the romantic comedy thing going. On that subject, adventure games and their death are also to blame.
 
Oh, and I sort of disagree with you about ODST, at least from the story part. HERE ME OUT, DAMN IT! They said "finish the fight" in Halo 3, and it doesn't seem like they're holding up their promise. I can accept Halo Wars because it's a form of closure, and Reach gets by on the "I've no idea what it is" excuse, but not ODST. For shame, Microsoft. Shame for telling us that the fight was finished, only to continue releasing games afterward. You're just like Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy after the first few games! *runs off, crying*

Posted by PureRok

Halo. A grand space opera? Don't make me laugh.
 
I laughed, and I did not want to laugh.

Posted by Dr_Feelgood38

Epic games serve the purpose of making players feel like a part of and, eventually, the center of something huge. I'm not sure people will ever get tired of the concept because it can be used to great effect when executed well (the prime example here would be one you mentioned yourself: Mass Effect). But you are certainly correct that when seemingly every game that comes out ends up being epic in scope it can really get old for some of us. Tight and controlled games like those of the horror and espionage genres certainly feel refreshing at times.
 
So, what about games that are not inherently epic in scope but change when more of the story is revealed (a la Assassin's Creed)?

Edited by JacobForrest

I don't really understand what point you're trying to make here. Any story that remains in the bounds of its own universe while also making that universe believable is capable of being good. The fact that it may take place in a large geographical scope is irrelevant. I find it disconcerting that you pretty much dismissed Mass Effect, because that's a great example of how to tell, using your terminology, an "epic" story. The characters were extremely engaging, the political plot was a tad cliched but kept you on edge, and the setting played a large role in the events. You didn't have to know the lore of the massive universe to understand the story -- but you wanted to anyway, because the game drew you in.
 
Now, take Max Payne. Like Mass Effect, it had a complex, over-arching story, but unlike Mass Effect, the story was contained in a few apartment buildings and city streets, like your example of Hotel Dusk. Therefore, it wasn't any sort of grand political drama, but it was a moody and introspective tale that drew you into the action. That's what game stories need to do: compel you to play further. I don't see where the "epic" factor negates that. There's no reason why an epic story can be any better or worse than a story that's contained. It's all about how much the developer puts into it.

Posted by PureRok
@JacobForrest: You didn't actually read the blog, did you?
Edited by JacobForrest
@PureRok: Yes, I did, or I wouldn't have commented. If there's something wrong with my post, or if I missed something for some reason, then tell me instead of posting trollish comments like that.
 
At any rate, I reread my post, and I can see why you thought I didn't read the blog. So I edited it to make my comments a little clearer; is that better?
Posted by crunchUK

I honestly couldn't care less about stories. I read lots of books, but come on so long as a video game story makes sense, and makes you want to kill whatever is thrown in front of you it is fine in my opinion. As my most proficient area, i shall use halo as an example. Let's face it, not a particularly complex or deep story unless you read the book spinoffs, but when you play it you don't think "oh i've heard all this before" because it has CHARACTER and style even though it doesn't really differ from other sci fi stories. You can spot halo from a mile off even if you don't own it, other games are not so lucky.
 
It's a bit like songs. Most in a certain genre are nearly identical on a technical level. Same chord sequences, rythms and instruments. But it's the CATCHY and original ones that you're interested in, not necessarily the most complex and "unique".

Posted by CoverlessTech
@PureRok said:
" Halo. A grand space opera? Don't make me laugh.  I laughed, and I did not want to laugh. "
Alien races uniting to use rings that will unleash a hoard of flood on earth and wipe out human kind. I would say that is on the Epic scale of story, it's not like a character piece between two people or something. 
 
Maybe you just don't understand what he means? Or maybe you are just trolling.
Posted by PureRok
@CoverlessTech: Epic doesn't equal opera. Ok, so it happened in space, but there was nothing that made it a "space opera".
 
Space Opera:

Space opera is a subgenre of speculative fiction or science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in space...

Posted by ThomasP

You bring up an interesting point. I think style can contribute the most to making a good game without the big scale strory. Games like World of Goo and Super Mario Galaxy come to mind. The price of games are so high these days; I think the developers feel forced to include the epic stories.

Posted by Hamst3r

There are plenty of games that don't focus on telling an epic story. They're generally referred to as indie games. :)
Posted by Red

True. I find that most games take themselves way too seriously, which totally turns me off of games like Halo and Gears of War, which is possibly why I gravitate more towards whackier japanese games. 

Posted by Dj

I hate to be shallow and a cynic but it all comes down to capitalism. The term "epic" is great when you want to sell your franchise to the unknowing masses. The saddest part is that this problem will not get any better any time soon. With the economy in such dire shape, it's more likely that big companies will scale down and only release their "epic games" in order to be more conservative. 

Posted by Sweep

Great blog Lies, I completely agree. What's even worse is when games try to deliberately sell themselves in such a way; For example Legendary, or the Fantastic Four.
 
Someone throw me a life-jacket, I'm drowning in irony!

Moderator
Posted by MrSnow

epic puts to much pressure on you if  you ask me.  

Posted by FlamingHobo

Interesting read, and I partially agree with you. If companies were to focus on making their game fun, and then put story and graphics to a lower priority then the gaming industry would be better as a whole.

Edited by Gump

That depends on everyone's tastes, everyone's opinions.  Unfortunately, the storytelling in video games will often take a backseat to gameplay, many developers decide that it’s just not worth it, or that what they have is good enough.
 
To be honest, no matter how good the story is, if the gameplay isn't good or satisfying enough. The final outcome is simply disgusting.
 
Dark Sector is the perfect example of why I prefer gameplay over "epic" stories.

Posted by Damian

Keep in mind that most games are made with potential sequels being a concern. So setting a story up to be a little bigger or more "epic" is a natural extension of that. 
 
That being said, I don't perceive a shortage of smaller stories in this industry. I just see a bigger desire for epic stories. People get more invested in Epic. Star Wars. LOTR. Matrix. Terminator. These become WORLDs in which our imaginations play, and to many that is a damn sight more appealing than anything else. Rich mythologies have attracted us since the beginning of history. Video games are not an exception. 
 
If all you mean by Epic is the size of the bosses, or the breadth of the opera (potentially losing focus on tight story-telling) then I think what should be the issue is getting better story-tellers in the industry ... period. 
 
And lastly, I don't think it's fair to praise ODST here. A game like that is only possible because of the Epicness that came before. If there were no three successful Haloes previous to ODST, then ODST would just be the next Time Shift or Area 51.

Posted by The_Ish
@PureRok said:
" Halo. A grand space opera? Don't make me laugh.  I laughed, and I did not want to laugh. "
What did you think it was. :/ 
Posted by agentboolen

Only thing I can add is big stories aren't always needed.  When you get COD and other big name shooters a lot of times people only want to play the multiplayer.  Its nice to have a story and I'm still one of the few gamers that still like to buy a game that doesn't necassarily have to revolve around multiplayer but its getting to the point that many gamers only support multiplayer games.

Posted by Tylea002

I'd love  a game set in the ME universe or similar space opera epic scale story, but focusing on a small scale emotional impact of that story. Like a family torn apart by the war in ME. Showing the shit that the normal people have to go through, a true modern adventure game. (Actually, thats what ME on the iPhone *SHOULD* be)

Posted by TheFreshmaker

You made some very interesting points, and I kind of see where you're coming from, but I just don't think there is a "problem."  
 
I love grand scale adventures like Mass Effect and Uncharted, and I love intimate experiences like Flower or Braid.  There are good and bad games on every scale; your rant just seems a tad pointless to me.

Posted by Oni

I think epic is is so common these days because in an action game where you are killing hundreds/thousands of enemies, there needs to be a damn good reason to do so, and what reason is better than the fate of the world/universe? Bonus points if your character is the last/best of his kind or whatever, because then it becomes more plausible that you're this one-man killing machine. But some games just don't follow through on the scop of their game/world, like Gears of War. It's pretty huge in scope, but the actual story itself is almost nonexistant, it's almost entirely contextual: Go kill this, go blow up that.
 
The need to do an epic story can also undermine an otherwise great story: look no further than Fahrenheit, which starts out as a murder mystery and ends with the fate of the world in your hands, which is kind of a bummer. I hope Heavy Rain will not overreach the same way.
 
Max Payne 2 is a great example of a terrific action game that is focused squarely on the main character, his love interest and the antagonist, and it's all the better for it. In my opinion, that game has the best writing of any game, ever. But I'm a sucker for tragic characters.
 
Also much like Hotel Dusk, the Phoenix Wright games tell a terrific story about a bunch of characters. They manage to tie all the games together by the end of the trilogy, and make it feel epic, yet it is still only about the characters in and around the courtroom, rather than the fate of the world. And though the focus is on funny writing, the games can be very, very poignant at times. I cried, at one point. Terrific music also. Play 'em.

Posted by damnboyadvance

Nice read, and agreeable. I see what you mean. While I paticulary like video games because they can tell stories, therein lies the trick. If the story is a main part of the game, and the story is bad, then it ruins the game. Several games do a great job, such as Metal Gear Solid IV, in my opinion. But then almost every other game screws it up and just tries to be too epic, yet they aren't epic at all.

Posted by Sweep

My farm on Harvest Moon was pretty epic. I had 3 cows and a chicken but I sold the chicken.

Moderator
Posted by Lies
@Sweep said:
" My farm on Harvest Moon was pretty epic. I had 3 cows and a chicken but I sold the chicken. "
Oh shit.
 
Is there a tie-in novel about the chicken?
Posted by Ping5000

Yeah. I also think what happens with "epic" games is that they lose sight of the characters involved in it and instead, the game gets too enamored by whatever conflict the developers have put on your lap. That's okay, I guess, but sometimes, I don't have a reason to care about a so-and-so place fighting a so-and-so evil if the developers fail to make me care about the people inhabiting it. I think a lot of "epic" games screw up like this often.

Posted by JamesF

I fucking loved Hotel Dusk <333

Edited by upwarDBound

I generally feel that anybody touting their own creation as being  epic is a little pretentious. 

Posted by buzz_clik
Portal: Small and self-contained story, brilliant game.
Moderator
Posted by Kill

I got fucked by Hotel Dusk because I missed out on one obscure item in a room full of boxes, and it was the only key to escaping death at the end. No save file to go to. Never got to see the ending. It took me ages to realise that there was no way out.

Posted by LinksOcarina

I disagree with this notion entirely, mainly because epic storytelling is not a bad thing necessarily, as long as it is done correctly.
 
Phoenix Wright, for example, was not epic in the sense of a grand scheme of intergalactic calamity falling upon the people, but it was a well written, witty storyline with it's own quality to it. You don't have to be a giant, overblown story to be epic, it's just what people think  is needed to be epic, as you said. But epic stories  can be done well, if the narratives are well done. An example would be Fallout 3.  Yes, it's a giant world where you can control and have the freedom to do what you wish, but at the same time there is an "epic" feel to what your doing, especially if it's the main quest. All of the side missions can easily be little stories of their own, a kaleidoscope of novellas in the Fallout world. The Vault Dweller may be responsible for them, but it's like reading a book of stories on the Vault Dweller, his adventures captured in one volume, like Sherlock Holmes. Plus the fact that you can choose what you wish to do in the game also adds to this, you can make the story as epic as you wish it to be, in a sense.
 
And I totally disagree with Halo being a beacon of "epic storytelling." If anything, Halo is an example of how epic storytelling is hindering the game, rather than helping it.  The convoluted story is, granted, being fleshed out with ODST, and hopefully that game is good enough to spark some new life in the series as a whole, which I feel like lost it's luster towards the end of Halo 2 anyway.  But that being said, it will be a hard pill to swallow for Halo to be a forerunner in good storytelling.
 
What seems to work more is games like Braid, which is good, and I hope happens a lot more. But  on the more extreme ends, games like Bioshock and Fallout, I consider epic stories that were told right. Bioshock felt "epic" in the sense that this was something new, thought provoking, and tangible. You learned about the world as you played the game through the tape recorders and the crazy flashbacks, and it was done in a way that made the place more alive than most games out there. You actually cared if you killed off someone, because of the back story and the philosophy presented in the narrative. And Fallout I explained above. There is nothing wrong with epic stories, but it's the way the stories are told that needs to be crafted, as well as the content of the stories, over the scale and scope of the narrative that makes them memorable and a good experience. Going from one extreme to the other is impossible, finding a balanced medium of small stories and well written, large stories is the key for the medium as a whole.

Posted by Madyew

I agree completely with your view on this subject, and I'm so glad you mentioned Hotel Dusk. It's a gem. Braid also deserves every ounce of praise it gets, not just for its puzzles, but for the way the story blends in with it seamlessly.

Edited by Spacetrucking
@Lies: A good read but I disagree with your criticism and overall dislike (maybe disappointment?) for epic storytelling.
 
Telling a grand tale doesn't mean you can't have small, concise and relatable human stories in the middle of it, which is what you're looking for I think. You mentioned Star Wars and LOTR and both those series have a grand overarching story but what makes them so popular are all the little human stories behind the scenes. Han Solo is so popular because he is just a wiseguy (with no special powers) caught in the middle of this endless war between the Jedi and Sith. There is nothing wrong in aiming for such a experience. Mass Effect went for a very similar thing and I think they succeeded at it. All those side quests in BioWare games is basically what you're asking for.
 
Besides there is always a place for more grand adventures in entertainment. People like those things because its a nice break from your daily routine (I didn't care much for Braid's story because the character was just so mopy). You might not like it personally but thats what a lot of people are looking for in games.
 
Also you said

If videogames ever want to be taken seriously as a method for storytelling, they will need to diversify.

People play video games because they are interactive means of entertainment. You can't compare it directly to TV or movies because the player has no effect on whats happening on the screen. If a few sacrifices have to be made to make the story interactive then I'm all for it, just as long as the final experience is more fun.I'm going on a tangent but I hate Kojima's way of storytelling because he doesn't let you control any of the cool things happening in his games. On the other hand, Valve knows exactly why people play video games and what they want from it.Half life 2 is the perfect example of how you should design a videogame and how storytelling should be done in games. The story is grand but the characters are all very human and fragile. Also remember that every significant event in a game becomes 10x more enjoyable if you're actually making it happen yourself. You have to keep that in mind when writing a story for videogames. And most of the time that means that the event has to be something grand or eyecatching, thus the need for "epic" stories.
Posted by ashogo
@Oni said:
The need to do an epic story can also undermine an otherwise great story: look no further than Fahrenheit, which starts out as a murder mystery and ends with the fate of the world in your hands, which is kind of a bummer. "
I think this is the main problem. It's not that epic games are any better or worse than other games, but when developers try to overreach or focus on scope over substance, it detracts from the experience. Fahrenheit was a game so up it's ass in trying to be epic: it's starts off small-scale and exciting in a small diner, but quickly degrades into a terrible matrix-wannabe with really poor writing and no regard for interesting character development (which are supposed to be the game's strengths).