Storytelling in Computer Games (Part 2 - Looking Forward)

May 13, 2016

Last week I wrote about how storytelling has historically been done in computer games. In brief, despite having a four decade history, the vast, vast majority of computer games that involve a narrative fail to tell that story in a good way. This is particularly noteworthy given that computer games can essentially encompass all the different storytelling mediums: prose, film, songs, paintings, sculptures, et cetera. How then can games advance to tell stories better?

Fundamentally, in order to advance games as a storytelling medium they need to be approached from the point of view of telling a good story. That may seem like an odd statement, but it’s true. Too often developers will settle on a type of game that they want to create first and then build a story around that type of game to the detriment of the story. For example, if a developer sets out to create a first person shooter then the primary interactions in the game will involve shooting things. How many novels have you read or movies you’ve watched have involved the main character almost exclusively shooting? In those other mediums, such a story would be exceedingly unusual and done for a specific effect. In games, such stories are done as a matter of course and for no effect.

Developers need to educate themselves on storytelling techniques. Such things as plot structure, character development, tension and release in stories should be even more important to know than the mechanics of how to code a game or produce artwork. The important thing to remember is that each storytelling medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. It’s up to the storyteller to tell a story that emphasizes the medium’s strengths and minimizes its weaknesses. Even though different mediums operate in different ways, there are commonalities to how all mediums tell stories and how people have been raised to accept stories as either good or bad.

A good starting point is to look at some of the fundamental mechanics built into many computer games and ask one simple question: why?

Why die?

Imagine you’re reading a really great book. You’re engaged with the characters and the setting. You get halfway through the book and all of a sudden all of the main characters die at the hands of generic security guard #314. But the book doesn’t stop there. It carries on for another couple of hundred pages. That would be a weird story wouldn’t it?

And yet that’s basically how the story of any action game where the player can die works. Now think about this: What happens when a player dies in a game in this way? At best they reload their game and try again and quite probably grow a little more frustrated each time that their fun was brought to a crashing halt. At worst, the player decides that they’ve reached a good stopping point and leaves the game. Any time a player quits a game there’s a chance that they won’t come back to it. And so all of the developer’s hard work after that point is useless.

Then too, in other mediums, killing off a main character, when done properly, is always a big deal. It’s usually a point of some significance when a main character dies. It’s the point where the consumer of that medium is shocked that such a thing could happen. When was the last time you played a game where the character representing you died and that death elicited an emotional response? I’m guessing you’ll have to think long and hard about that question.

So if the player can’t die, then how do you prevent the player from progressing? Again, I ask why? Why prevent the player from progressing in the story? Isn’t this an opportunity to tell an even better story? In other storytelling mediums, if the main character is seriously injured the story usually doesn’t end. They don’t die. They maybe wake up in a hospital ward, or imprisoned by their enemies, or just recovering where they are. The point is, the story then continues from that point. It doesn’t come to a screeching halt. Instead the main character is faced with adversity that they must overcome and that makes for a much more interesting story than one where the character just breezes through (which is what you would get in a typical game if the player never died).

Why failure?

Death can be seen as the ultimate failure in a game. The player wasn’t good enough, wasn’t fast enough, or just plain wasn’t lucky enough to live. But there can be other types of failure in a game, some of which I’ve hinted at above. However, just allowing a player to fail and have the game carry on isn’t enough. It’s how the player fails and how the game presents that failure that are important.

I’ve long been a fan of the Wing Commander space combat simulator games. In those games you fly various missions trying to save the galaxy from the bad guys. Pretty standard stuff. What’s not so standard is that if you fail a mission, for example you fail to defend a convoy of supplies, but you don’t die in that mission, then the game carries on. However, because you failed to defend that convoy, the game goes down a different path and you’re presented with different missions than if you’d succeeded in defending the convoy.

This type of adaptability in story is something that games can do that linear forms of storytelling cannot. However, there’s a catch here. In Wing Commander, when you come back from a failed mission your commanding officer makes it quite clear that you failed. People don’t like to fail. I remember when I was young and would fail a mission I wouldn’t follow the “failing” path. Instead I would reload the mission until I was able to pass it.

Being able to fail in a game and have the game respond to that isn’t enough. Not to get all psychoanalytical, but I think part of why people like to play games is that they do impart a sense of control over the world. If you’ve failed at work or at school or whatever during the day, maybe you just want to come home to a game at night and have a little success.

Here’s where the storytelling really comes in. A good storyteller can carry a player through a failing situation. By making that situation seem inevitable or by softening that failure somehow, the player can be brought through that moment and possibly even be encouraged by it. It’s often said that we learn more through failure than success so why not encounter a deeper story through failure than success. The trick is to not make it seem like so much of a failure that the player just hits the reload button.

Why kill?

Many games revolve around killing or otherwise removing “enemies” from the game area. And it’s easy to see why. Such gameplay is very simple to develop. This results in bizarrely weird stories where a single character, usually going from a state of little to no military training, is able to mow down armies of otherwise highly trained adversaries. It’s the core mechanic of so many games that players don’t even think about it anymore. Killing anything that moves is just “what you do.”

I remember playing Tomb Raider: Anniversary. The Tomb Raider games, especially the most recent incarnations, have a lot of gunplay in them. What was different about this particular game was there was one point where an enemy who had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the main character Lara Croft had to be put down. This wasn’t done in the typical “boss fight” of most games. Instead the character was placed front and center on screen walking towards the player. Lara herself was removed from the display. It was as if you were right in her head having to pull the trigger. And not only did you have to shoot the enemy once, but three times. It was an unsettling moment to go through, hugely memorable for me, and what lead me to ask the question, “why kill?” in the first place.

In other storytelling medium, having the main character kill other characters is always given careful consideration. In a James Bond story, you have the double-oh agents. People who have developed the temperament to be killers, but what does that do to such people? In the Star Wars movies you have the good guys facing faceless characters like Stormtroopers or battle droids to set the violence at a step removed from its moral and societal connotations. In many stories, the main character, even if they’re a fighter, will refuse to use guns, owing to some childhood trauma or other. The point is that no other storytelling medium is as systemically blasť about killing as games. There is always thought given to the main character killing others and that thought inherently makes stories in other mediums deeper and more satisfying.

Why so long?

Most AAA games aim for “stories” that are 10, 20, 30+ hours long. And why not? If a game can continue to be fun and engaging at that point then why not make a game that long? The interesting thing is that the common storytelling wisdom is always that a story should only be as long as it needs to be. Stories should be tight. They should keep their narrative in mind and remain focused on their themes. Games are in this weird position of being as long as they are because all of their competitors are that long as well. But from a storytelling standpoint, all of those games are far longer than they should be.

An analogy that you’ll get in pretty well any kind of class that teaches principles of storytelling is the iceberg analogy. In a given story you do a lot of prep work and have a lot more details in your head than you’ll actually put into that story. The idea is that your story includes the 10% of an iceberg that you see above the waves, but its informed by the 90% beneath the waves to give it more depth.

Now games are in an interesting position. Given that they’re an interactive medium, it’s possible to include more of the iceberg. For players that want to dig into deeper layers in the game a developer could include some of that additional material as optionally playable content. Speaking for myself, if it’s a game I’m really enjoying, having optional material would be excellent to experience. If it’s a game that I’m not overly enjoying but would still like to finish, having a shorter but still fulfilling experience would be great.

In order to tell better stories, I do think games will have to become shorter. They could still have the same amount of overall content, if a developer wanted to do that, but that content would go into deepening the experience rather than lengthening it. There are many places where games could be cut down, but a good starting point would be to ask the basic editing question: if I cut this out, would it impact the story at all? If the answer is no then that’s a part of the game that can easily go. As with other mediums, the focus in games should be on meaningful story (or gameplay) not just length for length’s sake.

Where’s the challenge?

Ok, so this question isn’t a “why” but it’s an important question that arises out of the previous ones. If we as developers take out meaningless deaths and mindless killing and we shorten games down to the length needed to tell a compelling story, then where’s the challenge for the player?

The answer to this question is both easy and hard. The easy answer is that the challenge is in the story itself. Mysteries provide the challenge of being solved. Romances provide the challenge of getting two characters together. War stories provide emotional and mental challenges associated with the condition of war and who will survive and who won’t. In all cases, the challenge itself comes from the specific story being told. If you have to ask the question of where the challenge is then it’s a good bet you haven’t thought through the story enough. Start with the basics. Ask yourself, what is it that the character (player) wants in the story? And was is it that prevents them from having it?

Why cutscenes?

As I described last time, to date most games with a narrative are divided into two pieces. The interactive piece, where the player actually plays the game but doesn’t really do a lot to progress the story, and the cutscenes, where the player passively sits back and watches the story as they would a movie or TV show.

In general storytelling, the story is comprised of the challenges the protagonist encounters and the actions they employ to overcome those challenges. Certainly allowing the player to do their own thing in a game presents its own technical challenges, but when you consider the technical complexity of many games today that hardly seems like an argument against being responsive to what the player is doing.

Now, I’m not advocating a completely open storytelling sandbox, which would be complex indeed. And I’m not suggesting that all games become like TellTalle’s story games which offer the illusion of choice but basically proceed with their own story with only minor variation. No, I believe it’s possible to create something in between. A story where alliances are forged and broken based on the players choices. A story where the player may or may not visit different settings as appropriate. A story that behind the scenes may need to move important exposition points about to allow the player to encounter them.

As creative people, game developers should always be looking for inspiration on how to make better games, especially if they have any intention to include a story beyond the cynical, “we’ll tack it on at the end of development.” A story needs to be what it needs to be and that means the story must come first so that the technology can adapt to service the story. So watch movies, read books, listen to radio shows, study paintings, all of these and more. Start to see how these different forms overlap in how they tell stories and see too where they’re different. Then bring those lessons back to games. And question, question, question the status quo. Just because something’s been done “that way” for thirty or forty years doesn’t mean it has to be done that way.

I firmly believe that games can provide stories that are just as compelling, if not more so, as any other creative medium. The fact that they haven’t done this to date only means that the best is yet to come.