Soapbox: The best stories are those not written

I have a problem with stories in games. Primarily because the vast majority are crap or exactly the same as the last 5 million games in that genre. The most popular games in the world lack stories that can compare with a good book or film. And for this reason, we will never have an artistic classic to rival Citizen Kane until developers realise this. Take for example Halo 3. Not the best story in a game, I admit, but its popularity makes it a valid example. It’s story shares many of its aspects with other FPS games (like Half Life 2 and even Doom), that of a person or group of people fighting against overwhelming odds to stop another group of evil people from taking over/destroying/screwing with the world. Its a stock storyline repeated a million times over in games and movies. But whats worse is the lack of connection to it. At the end of Half Life or Halo, I had absolutely no overwhelming emotional reaction. I didn’t care a monkeys if Gordon Freeman had had his brain eaten by a headcrab or if Master Chief was still alive. All it was was a set of levels stringed together with some dialogue (admittedly in some cases great (like the Gman at the very start of Half Life 2)). Even Bioshock, with its mindfuckery, still managed to ruin its own story at the end. Development teams on games need to learn that games require a different form of writing to films and books.

Games are better when the stories haven’t been scripted by the development team. Multiplayer games allow some brilliant experiences and stories that you can share with your friends. Like the time you held out in the farmhouse on Left 4 Dead with everyone only holding pistols or the desperate last defuseal in a game of Sabotage in Call of Duty or even that time in Company of Heroes, where you and your friends created a masterpiece of defensive engineering, only for one of your Allies to drop an artillery round on it by “accident”. These stories are the ones you will tell your friends excitedly the next day, not the story of some singleplayer game unless to compare your opinions on it. Games are a new form of media and so delight in making their own stories. My personal favourite for its story telling ability is the Total War series. The grand campaign allows you to weave a complex web of betrayal, treachery and pure bloody warfare in your own way, rather than following a set path. I could go on about the heroic defence of Texas by the Black Watch in my Empire campaign or weave the unhappy tale of Sir Talbot from my Medieval 2 story and (to be honest) you might actually find  it quite interesting (there isn’t enough time for those tales now, maybe later). Games like Total War (for example Civ 4) conjure up brilliant stories, many of which you went through with your friends. And this makes those stories even better, as you get multiple viewpoints on the same events. The victor and the loser, the man on the frontline and the man above in a plane, the rogue and the warrior. This different viewpoints add an extra layer to everything. One of the best games for this is Left 4 Dead. When the four of you just finish a campaign and sit back in your various chairs afterwards, you’ll be finishing each others sentences about what just occurred. Someone might start up one story about burning the witch with a fuel tank, which leads to someone else reminding everyone how they almost died by the same event which in turn starts a long, drawn out going over of what just happened. Then the next day at school or on a blog, you’ll tell other people who weren’t playing what happened. Comparing this to analysing someones else story, this lasts longer and feels more personal

I’m not saying all games have terrible stories. Classics from the past include Baldur’s Gate or the Sam and Max games. But these stories were back in the ’90’s where story was more important than graphics due to the technology. This decline in the quality of stories matches up with the improvement in technology. As graphics improved, the necessity of having a good story went away, as people were distracted by the pretty pictures on the screen. Recently, one of the most frequent complaints about games is that the stories are weak. This is due to development money being spent more on getting the graphics looking perfect rather than looking at a more important aspect, the story.

Tim Schafer is a genius who knows how important story is. Psychconauts is one of the greatest stories ever told in my opinion. Not only is the basic plot perfectly fine by itself, but Schafer also puts hints and links to the backstory alongside  the game. These are never thrown at you like in other titles, instead they are up to you to find them and look at them in your own way. Cruller appearing in different role? is it just one crazy man? or is it something much darker, maybe his fractured mind or schezophry. Schaffer is someone who knows how to use games to tell a story. Unlike (and this will be controversial) the creator of Metal Gear,Kojima. He creates games with a good (although crazy) story but mostly fail as a game. Someone want to play MGS has to sit through long cutscenes just to get to the action.

So I say this. Development teams of the world, think about how you are telling the story. Don’t throw events at the player. Allow them to savour the world they are in and discover the plot events by themselves. Don’t give us a long exposition at the start. Use the technolgy avalible to lead us through an experience. And then let us make our own and then share them online.