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A Story about Stories

LA Noire cars

Over a year ago there was a small explosion of outrage in the twittersphere regarding a piece in Edge magazine claiming that games can’t tell stories. It’s old, you’ve probably seen it before but then again the same is true of most of my inspiration for these articles. I was exercised enough about it at the time to want to write about it but I had no suitable mouthpiece. Now that I have, it would seem remiss if I failed to get my thoughts down while still vaguely relevant.

At the time most of the commentary regarding the article focused on the fact that it was clearly nonsense. Philosopher and designer Chris Bateman made a point of collecting gaming anecdotes from people in order to refute it. I mean, seriously, who hasn’t been awed, shocked or enthused at one time or another by the plot of a game? Whether it’s the huge twist in Knights of the Old Republic or the big reveal in Halo we’ve all encountered points in a game with enough intensity to wedge themselves permanently into our memories. So what’s an experienced and respected games journalist doing posting such twaddle?

Well personally I’m not so sure it is twaddle. I think the article contains an important point, albeit one that was perhaps not made very well. And that point is only tangentially related to story, and has everything to do with expectation.

When you put someone into a realistic, interactive environment, as most modern games do, their first assumptions are going to be that they’re in a realistic, interactive environment. They’ll explore, push boundaries, find out where the inevitable rules and limits are. But they’ll also expect that environment to push back at them, likely fairly aggressively. After all it would hardly be much of an interactive environment otherwise.

But at the same time gamers have become used to consuming games like they do cinema. They expect a plot, and characters, to engage them. Not just that but they also expect their avatar in the virtual world to be a key player in that plot. They want to feel important and powerful. Wouldn’t be much fun playing the cashier cowering behind the till when the petrol station gets robbed, would it?

This creates an instant contradiction. The gamer expects both to be able to ride a plot without foreknowledge of its twists and turns for the excitement and thrills it provides, while simultaneously being in charge of the game environment. You can’t have both. At its essence this can be expressed by the simple issue of the player killing NPCs who have pivotal roles to play in the plot. Games employ a variety of tricks to stop you ever doing this because doing so would expose the fundamental impossibility of having both a genuine story and a completely open world.

Skyrim Dawnguard E3 2012 Screenshot 7
It’s this disconnect that’s at the root of the perception that games can’t have a proper story. Not so long ago games were not particularly realistic, and they were not particularly open. Back then we were happy to consume the plot in a relatively passive way by riding the rails that the game placed us on. Technology has moved on, and so has game design. And we’ve arrived at a situation where the clash between plot and play is being exposed more frequently and more cruelly.

Currently, and quite correctly, when this conflict arises the game play is generally allowed to win over the plot. What’s less obvious is that there are other elements to what people think of as “story” besides the pre-scripted twists and turns along which the game will run. Atmosphere is one example. A game that makes good use of graphics, sound and setting to make the player feel squarely part of the virtual world that it creates can get away with a certain amount of plot railroading because it compensates for that break in realism in other ways.

Another is the emergent narrative that arises from the actions the player takes inside the mechanics and plot that the game provides. Everyone playing Gears of War will get the same plot, but the places and manner in which you kill your foes or triumph over the set-piece battles in the game will be different.

It’s a key element to consider because this is where the clashes between action and plot arise, and where a game becomes personal to the player. Designers have little foreknowledge of how people will interpret their games. Each long, languorous slow dance between a game and its player will be different, unique. And the best games only rarely manage to reach the audience that they deserve.

Mount & Blade: Warband - so ugly that I dare not show you a character's face
This emergent narrative points to one possible solution to the conflict, showcased best by the Mount and Blade games. In these titles there is no predefined plot but every effort is made to ensure the player can easily create their own instead. There is a flavourful world to explore, peopled with realistic and well-differentiated characters, and a slew of quests to complete alongside a meta-game which can lead toward various conclusions that most gamers would recognise as “success” of one kind or another.

But the problem with Mount and Blade is that it can take a long play time before even the most imaginative player appreciates and understands the game and its world sufficiently well to start building their own railroad. It’s simply nowhere near as engaging as a title that gives you a character, a motivation and a story and drops you into exciting action from the get go.

Adding plot to an open world setting, the solution explored by the Elder Scrolls games amongst others, tends to result in the worst of all worlds, as I’ve explored previously. That way the player tends to get sidetracked from the plot, while finding that it still has to conflict with their freedom of action. Long term this is probably the solution we should be seeking to explore. But the technology isn’t there yet. Frontier Developments tried with current generation consoles with a title called The Outsider, which attempted to defy linear storytelling in just the manner we’ve been exploring. But six years later the game is sidelined in development hell, because the hardware isn’t there yet.

That’s unfortunate. Not only because of the wonderful new directions that non-linear storytelling could take games in, but because I’ve started to suspect that its absence has become a real stumbling block over the progress of the medium. Lately we’ve discussed the issue of the clumsy manner in which violence is handled in most games. Could that be partly because the sort of subtle, nuanced plotting required to portray such serious issues sensitively requires exactly the kind of linear plots modern gaming eschews in favour of open-world design? Seems possible. It may well we need the means to overcome the fundamental contradiction between plot and play before gaming can truly grow into the mature form it deserves to be.

This is a Warning

Congressmen Joe Baca (D-Calif.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) have introduced a bill that would require video games to carry a warning label similar to cigarettes, only in this case the warnings would inform consumers that video games have been linked to aggressive behavior.

Finally! It’s high time the government steps in and lets consumers know that every game ever made, including those violence mongering Dora cooking games, can cause little Timmy to explode in a fit of rage at the slightest provocation. Also, it’s about time that Congress take time away from such trivial matters as unemployment, staggering wealth disparity, the growing surveillance state and dependence on foreign energy sources to tackle something that really matters, informing consumers of nebulous ties between games and aggression.

Unfortunately though, for all that the warning does, I don’t feel that it does enough. I think that games need specific warnings so that consumers can be shielded from unpleasant experiences as much as humanly possible. What kind of warnings you say? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Read Dead Redemption – WARNING: You may think you’re about to embark on an epic Sergio Leone style western, but instead, prepare yourself to pick lots and lots of flowers. Yeah, flowers. Also, we hope you like bears!

Dragon Age 2 – WARNING: Bethany’s boobs are not really as big in the main game as they are in the tutorial. I know, right? Such a let down.

Halo: ODST – WARNING: Upon completing this game, you may feel like Nathan Fillion is your very bestest friend and that he will totally help you move on Saturday. Neither of these things are true. Alan Tudyk, on the other hand, may be able to help out, but only for like, an hour.

BioShock 2 – WARNING: Playing this game and making choices based on your own notions of child rearing may uncover what a truly terrible parent you are. Please return your children to their womb of origin immediately.

Dark Souls – WARNING: Failure to complete this game will brand you as a worse player than Bill Abner. No greater shame can be imagined.

Marvel vs Capcom 3: Ultimate Edition – WARNING: All of your wins have been against the AI. You are not ready to go online. No, seriously, don’t—see, I told you. Man, that has to be some sort of record.

L.A. Noire – WARNING: Actually, there’s not much game here. Carry on.

Cooking Mama – WARNING: This bitch is crazy.

Mass Effect 3– WARNING: This game may do nothing to assuage your fears that every choice you’ve made has been meaningless and that the yawning chasm of unfulfillment that exists at your core has been excavated by a lifetime of poor decisions. Also, you may be inadvertently exposed to gay sex. Icky!

Angry Birds – WARNING: Involvement with this game in any capacity may make you prone to hyperbole and to proclaiming the death of any game that isn’t sold at the App Store for less than a dollar.

New Super Mario Bros – WARNING: You are no longer eight. Failure to adjust your expectations accordingly may diminish your enjoyment of and/or ability to play this game.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – WARNING: While playing this game, you may feel like you’ve played it before. That’s because you have, like nine times.

Left 4 Dead – WARNING: Todd will shoot yo–oh. You’re dead. Told you.

Braid/Journey/Limbo – WARNING: Failure to enjoy these games may cause feelings of inadequacies as you wonder if you’re just too stupid to “get it”. Enjoying these games may cause feelings of blind allegiance to common gaming tropes simply because they’re presented as being artistic. Eff it. Go play Call of Duty.