By Lies 36 Comments
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.
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.
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.