During part of Microsoft’s Xbox reveal and during the E3 conference the speakers promised that new hardware would provide the opportunity to tell richer, deeper stories. The problem is video game publishers and developers haven’t been able to show that they know how to write compelling stories with all of the tools they currently have. Video games are both and art and a skilled craft, and over the decade video games have evolved in many ways, in art, style, and the ways they interact with the player. The plots of video games haven’t evolved with the rest of the medium, however.
Take, for example, Anita Sarkeesian’s video series Tropes vs Women in Games. I personally disagree with her assessment that video games are sexist because it seems like she came to a conclusion first and then sought evidence to prove her point. One thing that is very clear about her series is how often developers of video games take the same basic plot themes and beat them like a dead horse that insulted their mother. It’s a symptom of a larger problem.
I’m not arguing that every game needs a story, I’m perfectly happy playing Trials without needing to know why the rider is suicidal. I’m not arguing that every game with a story needs to be deep. As a fan of writing, reading, and video games I think it would be nice to see our hobby occasionally try to craft a story that occasionally aspires to do more then rely on revenge, protection, saving a loved one, or saving the world as the central plot device.
Those aren’t bad plot devices, just overused. Nearly every video game uses them in some fashion because it’s simple to do. All of those plot devices can be set up quickly, are easy to empathize with, can create clear objectives to accomplish, and are easier to justify the need for violence for those games that rely on it. Many video games that use these themes don’t develop the story much beyond that initial introduction, however; you’re given a motive and goal and then work to accomplish that goal. In those games the story exists as a minor consideration and is essentially an afterthought.
Video games are a collaboration of various art styles, and while developers are working hard to make sure a shotgun sounds realistic, that the textures look good, and that the animations are fluid, little attention is paid to crafting a good story. Too much of the time the story is reduced to the bare minimum required to serve the needs of the game. Characters remain underdeveloped, motives are never explored, and the story doesn’t have a natural arc. While the action grows until a climactic final battle, the narrative doesn’t change or grow along with it.
This is especially frustrating in action games with plot points that are use in lieu of boss battles. Recently there have been a number of games that revolve around shooting a bunch of guys in the head. Since it would feel rather anti-climatic to face down the main antagonist and then just shoot him in the head and get a Mission Accomplished screen, many games now feature plot twists or major plot points instead of a ‘boss battle’. Typically these are delivered in the form of Quick Time Events, with a button prompt appearing on screen to propel the scene forward. These end up feeling unsatisfying, not only because the game suddenly removes much of your ability to control what is going on, but because the plot is tossed aside for most of the game then suddenly they expect people to care again for that moment. Very rarely is this managed successfully. The first Bioshock game managed to do so well by keeping the narrative as a driving force throughout and when the plot twist happen it felt both satisfying and shocking. The final boss fight was weak by comparison and felt almost redundant after that moment.
There are games that attempt to focus more on plot. In those games there is occasionally a cognitive dissonance between the story being told and the action taking place on screen. In Far Cry 3, for example, the game and the story often felt at odds with each other. On one hand you have the story of a person who is forced to survive, turns to violence, and discovers he’s good at it and maybe even likes it. The story has other characters concerned about the impact of such violence, and the story questions the line between survival, revenge, and just being a savage. On the other hand the game rewards acts of violence with experience points that unlock a bunch of better ways to murder things without any negative repercussions, and has a lot of additional content where the goal is to take over or kill people and animals that have little to do with the characters’ rescue and survival, which the plot just conveniently ignores. Games that do this often feel like they are programmed and written in completely separate rooms, which I’m sure they are. However, when a game attempts to make the story a strong feature in a game, then the message of that story should not feel at odds with the what you are playing.
Many video games at the moment feature lengthy tutorials. What I would like is for someday the same amount of time that is dedicated to teaching people the basic controls to be used to developing characters and plot line within the game.
In order for games to be taken more seriously as an art form, publishers and developers need to stop relying on the same few themes over and over again and branch out. Even if they’re not concerned with creating art, then just to create games that actually provide the deeper experiences that they have been promising instead of it just being an empty bullet point on the back of the game box.
Let’s look at another game. Metro 2033 is based on a popular Russian sci-fi novel by the same name. The video game and book follow roughly the same plot, but there are major differences between the two in both how the story is told, how events occur, and in the outcome. The author, Dmitry Glukhovsky, was asked how he felt about the differences between the book and the game, and he said that he liked how the game treated his story, and he understood that the game couldn’t be like a Quentin Tarantino movie and focus too much on dialog, otherwise the player would get bored.
There are many things that Metro 2033 the video game does well, and can even be said does better than the book. The atmosphere of the game is strong, and being able to see the tight, desperate conditions that humanity is forced to survive in underground in the game is fantastic. The game does a better job imparting the sensation of a claustrophobic civilization in the Metro than the book, not only by showing the player instantly how it looks, but having the player surrounded by people talking in the game about just random things breathes a life into the Metro that you can’t get from the books. Just walking around the stations and hearing things like a mother speaking to her daughter about how they can’t get a rat for her to have as a pet, and anyways that’s a waste of food. It’s the small details that are instantly accessible through being able to see and hear them that make Metro 2033 as a video game better in ways than the book, and the developer deserves a lot of credit for taking the time to add details like that to add to the experience.
Except the book manages to tell a better story. The game adds a lot to the atmosphere through sight and sound, however it still moves forward in the typical way most games do, setting up stealth or action sequences to carry the player forward until the next stealth or action sequence. The game loses some of the charm in the book. Artyom’s dark thoughts about ammo as currency, how each bullet could be responsible for taking a life, and it cost five bullets/lives for a snack. The book wanders all over the place in tone along with the journey of the main character. It touches on the individual stories people tell each other, fate, religion, the depressing thought of people fighting old battles underground long after civilization as we know it comes to an end, evolution, and the question if there is even a point to fighting as the human species may just be at an end. It’s a grisly read with great lines like a cannibal giving a pro-cannibalism speech that has the line “one man’s multiple hematomas, as it were, are another man’s cutlet.”
While the game does an amazing job using technology to create the look and sound of the Metro, it doesn’t convey most of the story aspects that make the book great. With respect to the author, I don’t think that part should be sacrificed out of concern that it might make the game boring, it should be on the developers to find a way to integrate those aspects into the game well. If we say that video games can’t even be expected to try and adapt a decent genre book without removing large parts of the story, then we’ve admitted to a significant flaw in both the art and craft of video games. I’ve seen dance routines that can carry out a complex, emotional story with nothing but the movement of the dancers. The video game medium should be able to do better with the tools we have available. One of the most common storytelling themes in existence is The Hero’s Journey, which involves several different stages, like refusing the call to adventure. Even in Metro 2033 Artyom questions his journey several times – how often do you see a character do that in a video game? As I said earlier, most video game plots revolve around a quick, easy setup that is rarely questioned or further developed over the course of the game.
George Lucas was recently quoted as saying the big game of the next five years will be a game where you empathize strongly with the characters and it will be aimed primarily at women and girls, and referenced the Titanic in an analogy to movies. I disagree that the audience it will be aimed at will be primarily women and girls. However, I do think that he is absolutely correct that the next big thing in video games will be this kind of step. We’ve made huge advances in art, technology, graphics, style, and so on in games, but have stagnated in advancing storytelling and making the story being told meaningful. The developer who figures out how to combine empathetic, emotional storytelling along with the game without compromising either the the story or game will be the first to truly create a next gen game. Until then everything else will just be prettier versions of what we already have.