I’m about to say many, many things which will likely result in everybody avoiding the actual article and going straight to the comments section. To those without time or patience with reading, I’m not campaigning against you (I would love your time) but I’ve placed a short Summary at the end for everybody to read.
Don’t hate me.
What is a story?
As in, fundamentally, what is a story? We journalists all label it as journeys, character pieces and yet we so loosely define it that it seems stupid that we grade it. There are some writers out there who will gladly put story before the actual game part of the game. I’m not going to say that’s a horrible way of dealing with any videogame, since you’re practically against a change in the system, but I will say that you don’t know what you’re talking about. You gamers who love your stories, you might not know what qualifies as a story, you just see characters and emotional development and label it as that.
Maybe Google can help us.
Story: narrative: a message that tells the particulars of an act or occurrence or course of events; presented in writing or drama or cinema or as a radio or television program;
There’s something to note, it doesn’t mention videogames. ‘Writing’ is quite loose but videogame story is so diverse that it’s hard to pinpoint it. It’s hard to compare it to any other medium, since we’re interactive and every other is merely observant narrative.
One of the main problems that games writers come across, way too often, is the big giant fact of actual interactive entertainment. Most of them don’t know how to tell a story through these means yet. That’s something we can naturally iron out, I’ll come back to it, but just one of the problem they encounter is the fact that the audience is not the audience, they are not observers; they are players. They are usually the main character in a giant chain of events and since they’re human, they have choices and emotions. This is what makes videogames so potentially great, we have more emotional power than film, literature or any linear means of narrative. We are so powerful because we are so open, we can practically do anything with the tools we have upon us.
But the audience, the players, the characters… they need to learn something. That means you need to learn something. That means I need to learn something, and it’s the smallest step we can take towards a bigger and better era of videogame stories.
I want you to think of your favourite videogame story or just videogame in general, and go through your head why it is such a great story. Once you’ve done that, I want you to tell me how it tells such a provocative narrative.
Not as easy as it sounds.
This is because so few games do it; I can only name a handful. This is what my main crux will be; we do not need to learn to tell stories. People have been telling fantastic stories for centuries, but the means they go about telling them have changed dramatically over the last hundred years. Film, television and now videogames.
Story doesn’t matter.
What matters is storytelling. The way a game presents its narrative is the way it has such a massive impact upon you. Game storytelling is different in that we have to completely rewrite hundreds of fundamentals surrounding storytelling. There is no other medium that is interactive, no other medium in which its audience is not observing but they are a character within the narrative. This is why games have so much power, but we need to all learn to start doing a little something.
Shadow of the Colossus. Yeah, it’s pretty inevitable I was going to mention it, after writing an essay on the thing. The way that Shadow goes about telling its story is not just through dialogue and cutscenes (a common staple of videogames); it goes about telling its narrative through the very game. You cannot tell Shadow’s narrative through film or television, and if you did, it wouldn’t be as powerful. Shadow of the Colossus is videogame storytelling at its finest, and yet there’s barely any string of narrative there. Why? Because there is massively different types of storytelling, and Shadow does one so well that it has the effects it still has today.
There are two types of narrative within videogames. There is the embedded story and the emergent story. I want you to imagine a road, now everything that is built before you is the embedded story. The characters, dialogue, set-piece moments and basic ‘high concept’ is all created by the writer. But the emergent story is the way you go down that road, the bumps and turns you choose to take. It is the narrative that you choose to construct yourself, and this cannot happen in any other medium.
Yes, we can have different outlooks on how linear narrative affects us. We can peel away symbology, as we do in videogames, and we can unravel the message that the writer is trying to convey. In videogames, none of that is done for us. We have symbology, we have character arcs but we do not have set rules on which to judge narrative within interactive storytelling.
Doesn’t that sound awesome?
Let me talk about when emergent storytelling and embedded storytelling go hand in hand. Take the early Silent Hill games as an example. The embedded story, the one the creator wants to tell, is one of weak humans being placed in rooms full of zombies who are hungry for brains. The emergent story isn’t told through dialogue and cutscenes, the embedded one is, it is told through the mechanics. The mechanics of Silent Hill go perfectly hand-in-hand with what the story is trying to do. Combat for the characters are always weak, because they are weak, it intensifies your connection with the characters.
Another example is God of War. I’ve never played a God of War game before, I’ve started right from the first one in the God of War Collection, but it’s so glaringly obvious to me. Kratos is a bad dude. He slaughters people, decapitates them, uses the souls of the dead to aid him in battle. He is not an anti-hero, as the story tells us. He is evil because of what Ares did to him, or rather, us. We don’t exactly identify with the murdering of his wife and child, since it’s a pre-determined relationship, but we perfectly identify with his rage. The mechanics are perfectly tuned in with the embedded story. You rip apart people with blades, hack their bones and tear off their heads. Revenge is always on the cards in the God of War trilogy, and good too. I already know what happens in God of War III, and how it suddenly tries to tell an opposite story.
You know Watchmen, right? The graphic novel that defines the very potential of comic books as an artistic medium? This is what Dave Gibbons, the artist of Watchmen, had to say about Watchmen’s story:
“As it progressed, Watchmen became much more about the telling than the tale itself. The main thrust of the story essentially hinges on what is called a macguffin; a gimmick … So really the plot itself is of no great consequence … it just really isn’t the most interesting thing about Watchmen. As we actually came to tell the tale, that’s where the real creativity came in.”
It’s not exactly an easy statement to compute, but generally, storytelling does not outweigh story. They are completely different things. Story progresses, improves, by the means that the way it is told. Citizen Kane showed us all those damn fine cinematography techniques, and that’s why it had such power and presence. We don’t need a Citizen Kane, we don’t need anything, but it’s more than perfectly possible to go one-step further. We’ve already brought grown-men to tears, so what’s next?
Here’s just something else I want you to identify and take away; how does this have the effect on me. When you’re playing any videogame, once in a while just take a break and just try and spot how it’s trying to engage in the narrative. Is it just using dialogue and cutscenes? Is there dialogue? Is the plot hand in hand with the way it is told?
Bioshock fell flat during its last third, but the first two thirds are completely storytelling perfection. It belongs aside Shadow of the Colossus. That old videogame design of “Objective” is turned completely on its head. You are enslaved; mind control and all that jazz, and once you’ve beaten Andrew Ryan to death, take a breather. Look back. All you were doing was completing objectives, not your own, but ones that were dictated. Bioshock’s story of mind control goes hand in hand with the actual mechanics, a common one, and objectives. Go to point A to point B
It’s a pity that perhaps all of these restraints could have been removed in the last third and just be given advice. I’ve spent 2/3s building up my character and all you need to tell me is where Fontaine is, and where the weak spot is.
It’s odd then, that after all I’ve said and how easy it is to grasp, we’ve yet to understand it. Take Limbo as an example, the incredible indie title that received massive critical praise. I played it, loved it and then felt bemused by the ending. I thought it was a tacked on plot-point. The mechanics of Limbo, you can only jump and grab, perfectly contrasted with the embedded story – boy lost in woods oh no. The ending perhaps tried to add on an extra layer of symbolism, but I think it perhaps went a bit far.
That’s why it boggles my mind when people say Limbo had a “Weak story.”
There was no story, there was no hints; Microsoft had to even put the plot synopsis for the game in the actual XBLA info box. Limbo does not have a weak story, its way of telling the tale is amazing. Its story does not matter, as it should with other games, as it naturally progressed throughout the game. The ending is not a tacked on story moment, as many might have guessed, it’s a way of adding on a layer of storytelling that probably pissed a lot of people off. Rightly so, in fact, but I feel it’s wrong to just label it all as a “Story.” In fact, that’s kind of insulting to a game like Limbo that ventures out from the norm. Yes, it’s indie and all that, but it does do something radically different.
I am a storyteller. I’m not ashamed and I’m not pretentious, I have many works of fiction in the pipeline. When I understand the capability of videogame storytelling, I want to write for them. It will be difficult, it will be completely different to any other capable form of communicating a string of narrative; but the reward it yields is more than worth it. Stories define mediums, they are what we remember.
Summary: Story doesn’t matter. As shown in every medium ever, as storytelling within it improves so does the narratives we are trying to tell. People have been telling stories for centuries, we do not need good stories in videogame, and we need good storytelling. Mechanics hand in hand with the basic plot (such as God of War; angry man wants revenge, hack and slash genre).
There are two types of story; embedded storytelling and emergent storytelling. The former is the one that the writer has set in stone; the latter is the one that we tell ourselves. The one that is exclusive to only videogames.
Story should not be labelled; you should consider how a game is telling its story rather than the actual narrative at hand. Do not worry about your precious character arcs and emotional moments, they will come naturally. Ask yourself how a game like Halo 3 tells its story: is it just through old techniques like dialogue and cut scenes? Or does it branch out into the only way videogames can, in an interactive sense, through the mechanics.