Thursday, November 18, 2010

What has story cost us?

I frequently laud the power of story in video games and how they are an amazing medium for interactive storytelling.  However, there's a flipside to this argument that deserves analysis. What are we losing by having an increased focus on story in video games?  What negative impact is storytelling having on games as a medium for pure fun and entertainment?

Firstly, let's get address that by raising an issue like this, some might argue that I'm calling into question the whole "video games can be art" argument and proving that "video games are just for children/entertainment". But in that case, every "action blockbuster movie" that requires you to check your brain at the door does the same thing for films. Not every book or movie can be considered "art" nor does anything spectacular for their medium as a whole besides pure entertainment. There is nothing to say that an artform can't also purely provide entertainment at times.

Just turn off your brain and enjoy the ride

So with that aside, let's look at how storytelling has modified games. Games now frequently feature a narrative, albeit of greatly varying coherence and quality depending on the particular game. As a result, we also get characterisation and cinematic presentation to help facilitate that story. Good level design dictates that events within a level will help communicate the story and force the player towards their goal.

So what do we get when we combine all these factors to make a game? We have to have a plot that makes sense and motivates the player, and we need to amazing set pieces, either gameplay or non-interactive cinematics that progress the game's narrative. And if we're talking AAA titles, everything has to be pretty and the characters probably need voice acting, and our cinematics need good camera work, and the player shouldn't miss any of them, because then they're missing out on content that took lots of time and money to create, and we don't want to waste it because many players will only play the game through once, if that. So when we combine all these things... well, let's compare the map for an old FPS to a new FPS...

So... which one is supposed to be better, again?

I can't take credit for this picture (though I had seen it before pigeon's comment the other day), but it's somewhat brutally accurate. As much as we can applaud Half-Life for the effect it had FPS gaming, its success and critical acclaim have in no small part led to the situation where players are effectively being herded down a narrow corridor that does its best to not look like a narrow corridor. We've been forced to sacrifice freedom for the increasingly cinematic presentation of our gaming experience. Yes, we get incredibly moving and gripping cinematics or scripted sequences that we experience as the player because of this enforced non-linearity, and each of these has more potential impact because there's a steady pacing of narrative to keep the player engrossed and attached to the story. But we're on rails.

Compare this to something like The Bank Job in Thief 2: The Metal Age, where there were about half a dozen different ways just to get inside the building. The player could freely run around the building and thus "experience" the entire level, but they wouldn't necessarily work out all the different ways they could enter the bank. Even this very start of the level, where the player is merely trying to get inside the building helps reinforce the setting, the aim of the level and the character of Garrett as a master thief. He's so good that there isn't just one way into the building, there's several, and he has the ability to pick whichever one he wants!

Is this time spent creating wasted content? I'd argue not, because in providing a wider level, you give the player a real feeling of choice and empowerment, because not only are they choosing how to break into the building, they can visibly identify other ways to get in that present different level of challenge and risk. In the Half-life series, as well created as it may be, as a player you see one way to reach your goal, and you can easily identify that it is the only means to reach your goal.

I can just go in the front door?

I might be starting to sound like a bit of a broken record to regular readers, but I'd like more non-linearity in modern games. In Doom a player could explore side tunnels on most levels, but they'd eventually end up flicking the relevant switch or grabbing one of the three necessary coloured key/skull to get through the relevant door. If we applied that to modern gaming, we could easily have three sections that every player would be guaranteed to experience within the game, but the exact path they used to get there could be slightly different. We do run the risk of creating content that players may not necessarily see (which is an ongoing argument in itself between big-name game designers), but I feel increasingly constrained by being forced down "the one true path" in many modern games.

I imagine some people will stand up and say: "But we have non-linear games! They are sandbox games like Morrowind, Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption!" These games definitely have non-linearity, but they introduce this non-linearity by adding a lot of (dead) "transit time" getting from one location to another. I love exploration, but I'm not personally so much a fan when exploration (or traveling) turns into one of the primary mechanics of the game, at least not without a massive variety of landscapes or some other driving force (preferably a narrative force) to push me to explore. Games should "skip the boring bits"... commuting is one of those "boring bits".

Commuting is not fun

Where is the balance between these two extremes? Why does it seem like we've mostly fallen into games/levels with linear paths (albeit with attempts to disguise their linearity) driven by story, or completely non-linear games with very little story to drive us? More importantly, where is the happy medium that allow players choice while still keeping them driven by engrossing narrative? No one appears to have quite nailed this balance yet. It does appear that some developers are attempting to do so on a macro-level, i.e. across the entire game, but the idea of doing it within a level appears to have fallen somewhat out of favour, which I would argue is something of a loss for games when it comes to creating engaging levels.

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