Video Games and Plot: The Oil and Water of Our Generation
April 10, 2017

In the past, Iíve written to express my distaste for video game stories. Over the years, it has become clear that I am in the minority. Most gamers seem to think stories in games are freaking fantastic, to the point where they will rail against a game I love because it doesnít happen to have a sufficiently compelling narrative. So today, I thought I would come back with an old opinion of mine: video game stories usually are ineffective enough that I wouldn't mind if they weren't there at all.

I said ďusuallyĒ just now, but the reality is I canít think of a game story I genuinely loved, without reservations. Thatís after playing somewhere around a thousand games across a wide variety of genres. My problem, I suppose, is that I appreciate a good novel too much. Iíve read hundreds of those over the years, as well, and my overall impression is that even a thoroughly disappointing novel tends to do a better job of telling a story than the sort of video game that will win big at industry awards shows.

Consider the games people praise for their stories these days. One recent example that comes to mind is The Walking Dead, from Telltale Games. I believe its second season (the one that swept awards shows) was written by none other than Gary Whitta, a talented writer who has penned numerous compelling screenplays. He knows how to tell a story that makes a good movie, and he has written at least one novel that I know of. He was a natural choice to write for Telltale Games, and by all accounts, he did a great job.

But letís not kid ourselves. The ďvisual novelĒ is, by definition, a novel with images. To craft compelling characters, the developers must take away the playerís agency for long stretches of time. As that player, youíre hunkered down in front of a computer screen, reading a novel with nice illustrations and making the occasional choice. You might have to play through a quick-time event now and then. When you make a choice, there might even be a timer. But mostly, youíre just reading a simplified novel. Youíre barely ďplayingĒ at all.

I think the visual novel is worthwhile. Iím happy to see the genreís popularity increasing, and itís terrific that people enjoy those stories. But I have a hard time even counting them as games, any more than I count those old choose-your-own adventure books as games. And my main reason for that is the playerís lack of agency. You can only impact a storyís outcome in the way that the director intended. You can perhaps choose from three or four scripted choices, or even as many as 15 or 20. But to a certain extent, the greater the number of pre-scripted events you can choose from, the weaker the story becomes. Thatís because the story still follows a certain flow. As the writer, if you allow for a few variables and write with a few possible outcomes in mind, everything becomes a little bit weaker as a result. Thatís because you canít quite commit to any of those outcomes. You canít build toward those outcomes from the very first page, unless those outcomes are similar enough that they become dissatisfying. Character development, arguably the most difficult (and important) part of writing a compelling novel, becomes an even greater challenge.

When I think about story in video games, then, I chop the visual novel right out of the running. I look at the other games: the shooters, the adventure games, the action games. I think about stuff like Assassinís Creed, or Call of Duty, or Super Mario Bros. or The Witcher or The Legend of Zelda or whatever else. Those are all games and franchises that I enjoyed a great deal, but mostly I enjoyed them despite their stories. I enjoyed them for the parts that felt like playing a game, not so much for the moments I spent watching cutscenes.

Thatís my other big problem with stories in games: they get in the way of the play. If I raid a bandit camp and rescue a trinket, the first problem is that I will probably do something similar 20 or 30 times before I reach the gameís closing credits. So any related narrative ceases to feel like a proper reward. But letís pretend for a minute that I think that fetch quests with narrative excuses amount to fantastic storytelling. Iím still left with the trouble that it falls into a formula. I know that the hero will wander into the bandit camp. With difficulty, he will fight 20 or 30 goons and then retrieve the precious bauble. This accomplishment will trigger a moment of introspection, or a few witty lines of dialogue, and then he will head back to the castle or whatever. A point on the map will trigger the next bit of exposition, which might well involve another bandit camp. The process doesnít feel organic, and I canít break free of it because too much choice adds a bunch of demands to the gameís development.

What if, during that raid on the bandit camp, I decide that Iím sick of raiding bandit camps? What if I want to go fishing? Maybe the game has mechanics in place to let me do that, but I know that nothing significant will likely come of it. To make events continue, I must clear out that bandit camp. Even if I spend 20 hours enjoying other aspects of the game, the plot is essentially on hold until I best those bandits. And when I do save the day, I canít direct the scene to my liking. If the villain appears, I canít pull out a gun and shoot him. I canít whistle to my comrades who are waiting in the bushes, to stop the villain from speaking his lines and fleeing the scene. What Iím really getting are chunks of a barebones novel, with strict gameplay segments to separate them. I canít become invested because the point of the medium is to let me have choice and the only thing the story ever does is wrest control out of my hands.

The type of video game that I actually feel comes closest to offering good storytelling is the open world game. Thatís because it has moments where I get to create my own story, as the player. In Grand Theft Auto V, the first night I played it, I assumed the role of a young black man named Franklin. I walked down the street, innocent of any wrongdoing but wandering in a bad part of town. A police cruiser drove by, and suddenly my wanted level went up by one star. I hadnít done anything, but suddenly I was on the radar and it was time to beat a hasty retreat. So I ran down some streets and finally I shook off my pursuit. It was an unscripted moment, and it felt like a video game was finally telling a real story.

Grand Theft Auto V has other moments that are more like traditional, however, like when youíre playing as Trevor and you have to torture a potential informant to find important information. I didnít want to do any of that, but my only choices were which implements I used to extract the information. Because I was completing a ďstoryĒ mission, and thatís just how things had to go. This, to me, is ineffective use of the medium, and yet those scenes are the ones people will remember, the ones they probably have in mind if they argue that Grand Theft Auto V tells a good story.

So like I said, I donít like video game stories, particularly. I donít think they play to the mediumís strengths, and I know that game stories I donít care for arenít the result of developer ďlaziness.Ē Those developers work their tails off, and each option they give you could affect the game in dozens of different ways and introduce hundreds of hours of work that would blow the budget out of the water and prevent the game from shipping at any point during the next decade. Thereís not a lot anyone can do about that, and itís unfortunate. It also means that some guy sitting at his desk for a few hundred hours has a better chance of telling a memorable, truly effective story than a team of 300 or 400 people who work on a video game for 5 years.

I like video games. I adore them, even. But thereís a fair chance Iíve played through the game that has the story you loved and I just wasnít impressed by the plot in the slightest. Iím glad you liked it. And now you have a better idea why I probably didnít!

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pickhut pickhut - April 10, 2017 (01:15 PM)
Come to think of it, I don't think I ever truly got into a game's plot that involved multiple choices. I think it's because, in the end, it rarely ever mattered, because the game would still steer me in the same path after a brief, inconsequential diversion. Even if my choices did change the tone of the game, the main flow of the storyline stayed the same, so it still feels like I'm not really contributing in any true way to the plot. I think this is why, for me at least, games with plots I've enjoyed the most are ones that were strictly on a linear path, out of the player's control.

You know, this reminds me of something I read somewhere, about how some kind of novel writer was contacted to write for a video game. He/she was doing something like this for the first time, so they thought it was a very interesting process, but over time, it became a major hassle, because the writer couldn't write the story the way they normally did, because the developers kept telling them to modify it, so that it could conform to how a game flowed. For the life of me, I can't remember where I read this from, which is irritating.
honestgamer honestgamer - April 10, 2017 (03:19 PM)
I've written a lot of fiction, and I wrote much of it without even knowing where it was headed, other than general markers along the way. I've found over time that I write much better--even though I used to tell myself differently--when I know exactly where I'm headed and can tailor each scene to suit that eventual outcome. That's not something a writer can do when working toward multiple outcomes, so the fiction inevitably suffers. I know people have enjoyed stories in games. Some make them cry, or laugh, or whatever. But that doesn't mean that the medium is an ideal way to tell stories, or even that it does so particularly well. It could just as easily mean we're willing to tolerate a lot, because we love video games and also like the idea of them being taken seriously and telling good stories. Like I said, I realize I'm part of the minority on this one. I just hate seeing games slated for not having a terrific story, as if most games actually do. In my estimation, they don't! ;-)
bbbmoney bbbmoney - April 10, 2017 (08:33 PM)
Equating written text or dialogue to the 'storytelling' element in videogames is a reductionist viewpoint IMO. Games tell stories through a combination of elements and atop a foundation of interactivity. A juvenile script may be just that by itself, but pair it with 40 hours of everything else you get in a game and a quality story may begin to form in the player's imagination. It's a holistic experience, not an examination of only the chat bubbles and cutscenes.
honestgamer honestgamer - April 10, 2017 (09:37 PM)
That's why my argument included the discussion of Franklin in Grand Theft Auto V. I realize that a game's "story" is more than just the cutscenes and dialogue. What I'm arguing is that all of those elements combined still don't hold a candle to a good novel. And it's not because I don't like games. I love them. It's because game stories still have a long way to go before they're genuinely great.
bbbmoney bbbmoney - April 10, 2017 (10:01 PM)
Gotcha. I guess my issue is I can't really fathom a sensible comparison between a videogame and reading a novel though. Even thinking about the possibility is just strange. Like I could take a cutscene by itself and say pretty much all movies do this better. But then I remember the cutscene came after this scenario, or this boss fight, or after I spent this much time battling or pushing blocks around. And now I lose all connection to a movie or book or other mediums. It's just a really weird thing to measure and conclude that 'nah the stories just aren't there yet' in games.

You mention a GTAV unscripted example with the police and you thought that was pretty cool, but not quite there yet. But I don't get what units we're measuring in. At what point is interactive experiences like that up to par with a Dr. Seuss book or some classic in literature. It just seems way too unique to jump across mediums and make that judgement call.

Anyway I guess my head just doesn't work that way. When people tell me a book was better than its movie counterpart, for example, I have like an existential breakdown. With games it's the same.
hastypixels hastypixels - April 10, 2017 (10:59 PM)
The games I having enjoyed with any story were the ones wholly dedicated to it. RPGs, when done right, don't give you a choice. They don't pretend you're doing anything more than ensuring your characters are strong enough to overcome any enemies you will encounter, and I'm okay with that. At that point, though, the issue of good storytelling becomes largely subjective.

A lot of people seem to have enjoyed Final Fantasy VII and VIII - I own the former and haven't had a file that lasts longer than 4 or 5 hours without me walking away in abject boredom. Final Fantasy IX hooked me right away, and I plunked 80+ hours into that one. However you flip it, though, these are story rich tales and do their job well.

Story is harder to communicate in other genres, though - or... with traditional means. For example, there's very little dialogue in Half Life 2, but the story is effectively told and difficult to mistake. It's deep enough that you understand more during a second play through than the first. Environmental storytelling can accommodate a lot of ground floor work. It is how we live, after all.

There's a funny example of branching dialogue that reminds me a lot of how most games pretend they branch as well as Mass Effect. In Secret of Mana, Luka asks you what you're afraid of - you can choose "the mana fortress" or "the sword", but you're only choosing which line of dialogue she's going to lead off before proceeding to the other.

Visual novels may not be playable, but they can more effectively explore branching storylines, and usually do. The question I ask at the end of it, usually, is: Did this game tell its story well? What was it trying to get across?

A good story poses a question, but poor writing skill is just that, and ... isn't the rule that 80% of all writing is crap true regardless of the mix of content? Of course it is. If novels didn't tell a linear story better than a game, it wouldn't be a novel.
honestgamer honestgamer - April 11, 2017 (01:20 AM)
People say "the book was better than the movie" rather often, and it's typically true. Movies are good at bringing a visual component to a tale, but there's a lot they have to leave on the cutting room floor (so to speak) compared to the text, because entire critical scenes might not translate well to video.

A book can tell you what the character is thinking, invite you into his thought process and give his precise thoughts on the matter. A movie either can't do that, or it has to accomplish it with a cheesy narrator. You have to interpret a lot more from an actor's grimace or smile, and it's simply not complete. A lot of conventions that make the written word so rewarding are also lost.

Video games typically settle--unless they are ridiculously close to simply being actual novels without a lot of character input--for even less than movies can present. Because if you have two hours of cutscenes in a Kojima game, for instance, the best you've done is perhaps managed parity with a movie... and that's still well behind what even a mediocre novel will manage.

Characterization, by the way, is typically the most important part of a story in any medium. I used to think other things mattered more, like an intriguing setting (setting is actually one reason I like fantasy so much). But ultimately, a story finds or loses its audience on the merits of the characters and their interactions, triumphs and failures. We have to care about the characters before we care about anything that happens to them. So it's no small deal that the characters in video games don't have the opportunity to develop that depth, and it's especially damning because you're supposed to have the freedom to shape those characters (and see the story warp around them), but really all you get to do is give them a name at the start and maybe choose from two or three options on the occasional menu.

To the point you were making, hastypixels, I believe novels are absolutely better at telling linear stories, and that games will fail at making narration a principle component until they get considerably better at telling non-linear stories where the player has real impact on the outcome, where linear storytelling all but disappears. I think we're still a number of years from that being truly possible, though, let alone common. Too many resources are still poured into making everything as pretty as possible, because "great stories sell," and not enough time is spent making sure that the stories take advantage of the medium and actually do interesting things with it.
zigfried zigfried - April 11, 2017 (10:50 PM)
Non-linear games are best when they let players write the story in their heads, and linear games are best when they keenly direct players to the action. If an open world game feels like you're forced to do something undesirable to progress, such as killing some harmless bandits, then the problem is that the developers forgot they were making an open world game. They made a poorly-directed, linear game instead. And then they inserted dumb dialogue to further detract from the action.

So I guess what I'm saying is that "story" can work in a linear game, but it'll never work in an open world game. The only time an open world game feels like it has a good story is when it has stealthily put you onto a linear path that you actually want to follow... in other words, when it stops being an open world game.

Compounding the issue, most games have bad stories because the writers are bad writers. One game that had a surprisingly decent story was Enslaved, and surprise surprise -- the writer has actually done screenplays for (good) movies.

They also never hired him to do writing for any games ever again, because that would cost money.
JoeTheDestroyer JoeTheDestroyer - April 12, 2017 (02:38 AM)
I agree for the most part with Jason. Gaming isn't a particularly good medium for storytelling, but that hasn't stopped me from enjoying a game's story. What I'm looking for most in a game is to be entertained, and if it achieves that end using narrative elements, then so be it.

I do also rate games based on those elements (though not heavily), depending on the genre and how much the story is involved in the game. Obviously, I'm not going to rate Alien Shooter based on its narrative elements, but I am going to LA Noire that way. Typically, if I slate a game for its story, it's either because it told a genuinely bad one, missed an opportunity or didn't utilize something to its fullest.
However, I wouldn't give a mechanically good game an overall low rating for telling a bad story, nor a mechanically bad game an overall positive rating for telling a good one.

There's also translation to take into account, and I think calling out some game son their translation issues is acceptable. Rain Blood Chronicles, for instance, is a fun game, but I'll be damned if I can understand the story at all. The translation is incomprehensible. Then you have the US release of the GBA port of Tales of Phantasia, where the characters talk about the great war of Ragnarok Kangaroo.

I think my thing is that when I think of a good story, consequence comes to mind. Yeah, good characters are the most important thing, but that character's action and the things that happen to that character should have appropriate consequences. For instance, if you're playing GTA III and you start the game by killing hundreds of the mafia's men, wouldn't it make for the mob boss you meet during a later cutscene to try to kill you instead of offer you a job?

Obviously, I understand that that won't happen. With video games, there are actions that are of consequence to the story and others that are not. In Metal Gear Solid, you can start punching the air and Meryl will never question your sanity. Max Payne takes hundreds of bullets and never bleeds out or contracts an infection. Aerith gets sliced, clawed, zapped, bitten and burned, but one sword through the back and she's a goner. Phoenix down? Oh, well, I guess we'll inexplicably abstain from using one this time. Too bad.

Though I don't think this amounts to overall good storytelling, I do think game stories can add personality, especially when lore is involved. Have you ever played Diablo minus its story or its lore? Because such a game exists, and it's boring. The Souls games and Salt and Sanctuary also don't really tell compelling stories, but their lore is very interesting and creative.

I'm also struggling to think of some games without their stories. The Final Fantasy franchise basically becomes Final Fantasy Record Keeper, which was only mildly amusing. Gone Home becomes Real Estate Simulator 2013: Now With 40% More Obligatory Puzzles!
honestgamer honestgamer - April 12, 2017 (03:24 AM)
I hope I didn't give the impression that I think game stories can't entertain, because they can. Under the right circumstances, almost anything can entertain a person, though. And game stories just fail to deliver on a high level, in my opinion. I take the same approach you do, Joe. If a game is built heavily around the story, I'll factor that into any score I award and the discussion I devote to it. Story matters to a lot of people who might read the review, I know, so that often has to be discussed and I consider game narratives not against books and movies, but against other games. At the same time, I won't dock a game if its design doesn't need and thus avoids including a meaty story... because I don't think a story is all that important, anyway.
bwv_639 bwv_639 - April 12, 2017 (09:57 AM)
When you say

"People say "the book was better than the movie" rather often, and it's typically true. Movies are good at bringing a visual component to a tale, but there's a lot they have to leave on the cutting room floor (so to speak) compared to the text, because entire critical scenes might not translate well to video."

as well as other sentences in this post, what first comes to the mind is you prefer books to motion pictures.
You criticize visual novels (more precisely: you see as a downside of theirs) for not being interactive books. I love them for being interactive motion pictures.

"People say "the book was better than the movie" rather often, and it's typically true."

Well, what is nearly always the case (and could it not be that way?) is the original form of an artwork is better than its posterior adaptations.
The reasons for this are manifold (the first work was made out of real passion, the adaptation into another medium is more commercially inspired, ... not a work of the original author, ...); but the most important is: every medium has its own essence, and this essence is different than every other media's. Adaptations are commercial operations, no further weight should be attached to them.

If you love serious films and serious books equally, you'll see that a serious film (example: Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-den) adapted into a book gets as diminished as the serious books made into a film.

Likewise, no picture, no book could express the meaning of Chrono Trigger entirely. Whatever way the signal goes, signal quality undergoes heavy deterioration.

From your writing, the idea of a hierarchy of art forms transpires, or at least I get this impression. At the very least, there is a personal preference hierarchy, and cinema is below literature.

Videogame is a new medium, with the marks of something that came in a time of great technological progress.
When most of literature was written, image and sound couldn't have been used. And when image and sound could be used (the youth of cinema), there was no technological means to involve a player.

So videogame is a more composite form of art, with sound, image, text, and player involvement. Not games, but videogames. When they draw near to a film, they are less of a game, and vice versa.
If you ask of them what you ask of a picture, or a book, they'll disappoint you, but it's because they are something else.

If I understand it right, you prefer to turn to other media for anything but actually playing a game.
As a cinema lover with a liking for games, I am delighted by a game like The Silver Case, that plays like a motion picture which challenges you with puzzles from time to time. It gives me something books and films don't exactly.
And when I am in the mood to simply play, videogame supplies that too.

Balance is important too. The same kind and quantity of text that makes The Talos Principle a masterwork would be a troublesome and out-of-place burden on GTA IV. GTA IV, in its turn, would not be the masterwork it is without its own amount of text (of a different kind than Talos'), though.

As for RPGs, I feel much more at home with story-driven (mainly Japanese) than world-driven or open-world ones (mainly Western).

bwv_639 bwv_639 - April 12, 2017 (10:06 AM)
A combination of gameplay + textual narration gives us interactive fiction, that does without image and sound, and in my opinion is very interesting and can be very deep (my favourite if Hadean Lands). It's books with puzzles. To turn a page you have to overcome a challenge.

Would be great to see what a new, 2t-century Goethe or Kafka would come up with if they composed one. As videogame gains mainstream recognition as a medium, and is a part of thoughtful type's youth as integral as book reading or motion picture watching, the chances to get people as talented as the famous writers and directors of the past involved in game-making grow.
honestgamer honestgamer - April 12, 2017 (10:21 AM)
bwv_639, I think video games have the potential to realize good storytelling eventually, but I also think their creators will have to compose stories using the full range of tools they have--tailoring their tales to the medium--rather than mimicking previous techniques we already see in books and movies that can take advantage of them more naturally. Some of the current game directors already know how to do so, I imagine, but the associated cost prevents it from happening.

People often point to Chrono Trigger as a game that proves me wrong. I've played through Chrono Trigger, multiple times, and the last thing that impressed me about it was the plot. But then, I had played through Final Fantasy VI not long prior to that, which I felt had a far superior plot, so I'll admit to being biased in that instance.
hastypixels hastypixels - April 15, 2017 (12:05 PM)
I've got to agree with Total Biscuit's viewpoint on this one: Games are uniquely capable of interactive experience not possible in any other medium. You can be the good guy, hit the button and save the world - or destroy it, in rarer cases. Visual, audio language can communicate messages more rapidly to a wider audience who doesn't have to work as hard to consume it.

The potential is there, but often times it is no different than any other medium: The cost for good quality work boils down to what we are willing to pay for, what means something to us. Good storytelling is always a function of instinct and expertise, and most creators don't have both of those in equal amounts. Or, at all, in more than a few instances.

How often I've found a connection with others who have shared the same game experiences is both wonderful and no different than the occasions I've had lively discussions with those who have watched the same show, read the same book. Experience is the defining factor, and how we define good writing can be deflected by a slew of mitigating circumstances, such as coding, design and corporate impetus.

I savour good storytelling in all of its forms: Music, game, literature, television and movies, animated gifs - there's no practical or creative limit here. As for Chrono Trigger... well, I don't think it's the plot that does it. For me the characters and music were what I enjoyed so much, and I know exactly why. CT's story is actually very old - Chrono stepped on a butterfly, and returned to find his world upside down. Nothing wrong with a good retelling, so long as we recognize the value of the message.

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