Just recently I’ve been playing a lot more video games, due to an increase in time and ability to spend money online easily. As such I’ve started using Steam a lot more. Three games in particular have been taking up my time of late, BioShock, Half-Life 2 and Psychonauts. All three of which are really excellent games that you should all go and play if you haven’t already. And if you haven’t I warn you that this blog contains some spoilers for them.
Now these games have gotten me thinking about videogames as a story-telling medium. All three have really great stories (well not Half-Life so much, but it’s not bad), but I have issues with how they are told. Indeed I have issues with the way that stories are told in videogames as a whole. There seems to be fundamental flaws in the way games work that make it very hard to tell a story in a satisfactory way.
Video games are, by nature, an interactive medium. They player controls the main character’s actions and, in some cases, choices. The main character moves through the story, controlled by the player; the player is essentially acting vicariously through the on-screen protagonist. This creates a unique level of immersion – the emotional connection to the main character can potentially be much greater than in any other medium because the player is acting through him (or her). However, with this level of control and immersion, it becomes very difficult to characterise the protagonist. I think Half-Life 2 suffers most of the three games I mentioned at the beginning from this. Gordon Freeman never talks, never interacts with the other characters and never actually makes any decision beyond which gun to use. Freeman simply does as he’s told by Alyx and the other members of the resistance. This is particularly obvious at the end of the game (or is it at the start of episode 1? I can’t remember), when Alyx is talking about how thankful she is that Freeman came to save her father and that he didn’t have to do it. The thing I couldn’t stop thinking through that scene was ‘yes he did’. Freeman never actually made the choice to go to Nova Prospekt, he was just sent there by Alyx to save her father. Freeman is little more than a puppet. He kills the Combine because he is told to do so. I can’t name one character trait of Gordon Freeman’s because he is not really a character at all; he’s an empty shell, a plot device that gets things done by shooting it. He does not drive the plot; the plot drives him, and thus the player, through the game. BioShock has exactly the same problem, but then the principle twist is built upon this fact. The protagonist is actually a puppet. He does what he is told because he is told to do it. He is, in the words of Andrew Ryan, a slave. The writers of BioShock had the self-awareness to play on this fundamental flaw, which is why it is one of the best written games I have ever played. Most games however fail miserably to do this, leaving them unapologetically lacking a main character.
There are a number of well trodden solutions to this problem, some of which are more effective than others. The first and most obvious is to wrestle control of the main character from the player and put all the characterisation and story development into cutscenes. The problem with this is that it’s just like putting scrolling text or voiceover into films – it’s not making use of the medium. You don’t go to the cinema to read a book or listen to an audiobook, you don’t sit down at your computer and fire up steam to watch a film. Japanese games are particularly at fault here – I’m looking at your Hideo Kojima. When gameplay gets interrupted for hours on end so you can sit and watch the story being told to you, things are going wrong. This leads to games being divided into gameplay and story – your task as the player is to safely take the protagonist from one segment of the story to another, the player is not involved or immersed in the story at all. Video games are an interactive media, so the story should be told in an interactive way, not by taking control away from the player. This completely breaks emersion and means that the player is no longer experiencing the story in the same way as he is when playing BioShock for example. I don’t think that cutscenes should necessarily be completely removed from videogames, but I think they should be used with extreme caution and very infrequently. The confrontation with Andrew Ryan in BioShock is a perfect example of when taking control away from the player works really well. When a cutscene there is a place in gaming for cutscenes, but they should be short and used sparing. A good example of well used cutscenes is Psychonauts, in which they are short and occasionally require you to make dialogue choices, which keeps some player involvement, not that these choices actually influences the game in any meaningful way.
This leads me neatly into the second solution to this problem – the RPG. Rather than taking control away from the player, RPGs give him altogether too much control. The player now creates the character entirely; looks, personality, gender, character traits. They make all the choices within the game; the main character, created by the player, decides which way the story goes by making choices based on the character he is playing. Problem solved, right? Wrong. Well the problem of characterising the main character is solved, but in a way that raises completely new problems.
The thing about a well written, interesting character is that he has to have a character flaw that leads him to making mistakes, which are what drive the story. As the character tries to resolve the problems of his own making, he realises the errors of his ways and develops as a character. When you let people create their own characters, this character development cannot happen. The character will not act according to his nature, but according to the whim of the player. One minute the character may be an angel, the next he may be a complete bastard, depending on how the players is feeling at the time. Through most RPGs you get the chance to help various people out, or kill them and take their money (ok it can be more complex than that, but you get the idea). A good character would always do one, or other of these things, whereas it is perfectly possibly for a character in a RPG to help one person and then shoot the next for no reason whatsoever.
This leads onto another problem, specifically morality systems. If you choose to help the person, you get good karma (or some equivalent), if you chose the kill the person, you get bad karma. Often the resolution of the story will depend on how nice you’ve been to everyone through the game. Oddly enough, this is not how morality works in the real world. Evil people are not evil for the hell of it. Usually in such situations you don’t get much more reward for being a bad guy than for being a good guy, neither is the bad guy option any easier (indeed in many cases it’s harder, as in Knights of the Old Republic. Because of this there is no reason, as a player, to be evil other than just being a dick. People do evil because it is easier than doing the right thing, or for selfish reasons of wanting, or even needed something that another person has. BioShock is slightly better done in this regard – the decision to rescue the Little Sisters or harvest them for Adam – however it is slightly ruined by all the lovely gifts that you get for rescuing the little buggers every now and then. There’s no reason to mercilessly harvest them because you get the same amount of Adam either way. If games are going to have morality systems, they have to make doing the wrong thing pay better than doing the right thing, so people have to chose between an easier ride in the game or actually doing what is right.
Characters in RPGs are, by necessity, simplistic. When it comes to character creation, game developers have to give players a limited number of options as to what kind of person the character is, in order for all the different character archetypes to fit with the story. Take as an example Mass Effect, in which you are given 3 different character histories and resulting traits to chose from. In terms of creating a unique and personal character this is pretty sparse. Often you don’t even get this option at the beginning (meaning games have to play the ‘I lost all my memory’ card at the start, which is one of the most tired and unoriginal tropes out there), but you get the odd dialogue choice which serves for characterisation. Again these tend to be pretty wooden, boring and lacking in variation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve not really liked any of the choices I’ve been given.
RPGs also create a massive problem in storytelling. Specifically pacing becomes neigh on impossible, especially in games like Fallout 3 or Mass Effect. It is so easy to get bogged down doing side quests and gaining experience that you lose track of the plot. It becomes almost comic when you get told that you need to hurry before the token bad guy destroys the universe, but you then go off to dick around is not backwater planet or town helping locals to dig plantations or collecting animal heads, yet you still get to the bad guy’s lair just in time to save the universe. This is much more of a problem with more recent RPGs, which give the player far too much freedom to do what he wills. Sure this allows developers to show off the beautiful setting they’ve created, but at the expense of a well paced story. Some RPGs do get around this problem by being far less open – games like Knights of the Old Republic have a number of different locations you can go to, but it’s pretty limited and occasionally you get taken off to somewhere to complete something necessary to the plot that you don’t get any choice over. You still end up with a bit at the end where you can go finish off all your side quests, before finishing the game, but at least you do get some semblance of pacing. Either way you still end up with a poorly paced game – you tend to get a compulsory bit at the start, which tends to be quite well paced, then it opens out so you have a massive chunk in the middle which just meanders as you complete all the disjointed plot points between dicking about on side quests, then it all rushes to a conclusion. Hardly a steady acceleration to a climax.
I’m not trying to say that RPGs are bad games, or even a bad way of storytelling, just that it is not completely satisfactory. You get really big problems with characterisation and pacing which really need addressing. Small changes to the format could easily make RPGs a much better way of telling a story. For example the options you get need to be limited by what you have already chosen – so if you have been evil previously, you get more evil options and fewer good ones until you get to the point where you have a really evil option and a slightly less evil option and vice versa. In many cases morality systems need to be far more ambiguous, so it’s less clear what the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ options are – the player has the think of the consequences of a certain action and decide whether that is right for the situation, you know, like how the real world works. More importantly games need to be less open. It is very bad narrative progression to allow the player to go wherever he likes whenever he wants. Sure have different choices and options, but this should be along fairly linear paths, rather than being completely open. Games like Fallout 3 tend to focus too much on the absolutely fantastic setting, rather than the story. It works in Fallout because the setting is so good, but I think the game would be much improved if you simply experienced the world while completing the story, rather than completing the story while experiencing the world. Knights of the Old Republic tends to get this just about right, although it could benefit from being even more linear.
So of the three different ways in which stories are told in games: the RPG, the game with cutscenes and the game with the silent protagonist, neither is ideal. I think the solution probably lies in some fusion of all three. Control of the character should very rarely be taken from the player, however the protagonist needs to be characterised, so he needs to be able to talk and interact. There have to be conversations and confrontations with other characters, his choices need to drive the plot, not those of others, but these need to be done so that the player can still control the main character – very rarely should the player be sitting and watching things happen. There should be choices which effect gameplay and the resolution of the plot, but this needs to be done in a linear way.
Obviously this is would be a very difficult sort of game to make, but I think that, as technology improves and as games develop, storytelling will get better. The games industry is still young and working out what works. I hope sometime in the future we get it right, but in order for that to happen we have to realise that it is possible and focus on video games as a storytelling medium, rather than simply focusing on making gameplay as entertaining as possible. We can do both, but at the moment we are mostly doing the latter, and it seems to be working, so I don’t see a major shift in focus any time soon. We can but hope.