A game with a good graphics engine looks better. A game with a good combat engine is more fun. So what about a game that tells a good story...?
A Storytelling Engine
When it comes to enjoying a good story, playing a game is not as straightforward as reading a book, or watching a movie. For most mediums, the quality of both story and storytelling is dependent on the skill of the author. The reader's only 'responsibility' is to be able to understand the language, context and conventions of that story's genre. A book or film is a very efficient way to tell a story.
Games, however, are very different. The 'author' of a game may plan out certain scenes and a narrative structure, but the integrity of their story is entirely at the player's mercy. This isn't limited to games with moral choices or branching narratives - literally every action the player takes can help or hinder a story.
It's something that we as gamers don't think about, or rather, have conditioned ourselves not to think about. I'm talking about all the cliches we've come to accept - invisible walls, NPC's with only one stock phrase, or all those times you run around a room like an idiot trying to find the key item you need. In any other medium these would be awkward, if not bizarre interruptions to a game's story - which is why we've learned to 'filter out' these moments.
Gamers don't only improve their spatial thinking and reflexes - they also learn how to navigate the genre: "When people are talking, that's the story part of the game. When I can control my character, that's the game part of the game", or, the time when you have to use your skills to 'earn' some more of the story. And so, Story and Gameplay gradually become opposed to each other. And now, we are a community that finds nothing wrong with numbers telling us how good we are in a gunfight:
It's easy to forget how strange game logic can be. The 'filters' can come off momentarily when a non-gamer watches you play, and suggests a logical Occam's Razor solution. For a moment you think, "Yeah, why do I need a key for this flimsy door when I have a rocket launcher? If I was a character in a movie, that's what the character would do." But the rules of the game are paramount - and the story is told through the rule structure... for better or for worse.
So I got to thinking... what if I took off the 'genre filters', and instead of playing as a single character in a story, I played the game as the director of the story? What if I decided who my character is from the start, based on the world they live in or the backstory the developers have given them, and made sure their actions are always consistent? What if I consciously tried to avoid these small, strange moments that erode the integrity of the narrative, and try to be just as responsible as the author in how well the story is told? And would the gameplay be less, or more fulfilling?
Any tabletop roleplayer will tell you that's easy, and that your only limit is your creativity. But in a video game, with a less flexible structure, it can be more of a challenge. Overcoming this challenge requires some thought not only from the player, but the developer as well. And I believe some developers have indeed started thinking about it. With this in mind, I looked at some different games and judged how well I could serve the story with my in-game actions.
The Director's Tools
For each of these games, I'm looking at 'tools' the developers have given me to enhance and guide the narrative. This doesn't necessarily mean that 'more freedom is better', like in open-world games - in fact, those kinds of games can be very difficult to direct. I'm not trying to tell 'my own story', I'm looking at how well a game let's me pick up the pieces, and direct a consistent story. Here's some positive examples of steps developers have taken to create effective 'Storytelling Engines'.
Red Dead Redemption Rockstar give you a huge world to explore and inhabit, plus the opportunity to be an upstanding gunslinger, or a terrible outlaw. The character you are directing however, John Marston, already has his own story laid out for him, despite what you want him to do. He is not an evil man, yet the opportunity for evil deeds is available to the player at all times. Thankfully though, it's quite easy to avoid the outlaw's path. In other Rockstar games, there is a lot of 'chaos' to deal with - it's easy to accidentally run someone over, for example - but in RDR there is a lot of space, and you won't find yourself stumbling into actions you don't want to take.
Another plus to RDR is that John Marston himself is never too cocky about his combat abilities, so even if you are struggling in a gunfight you don't feel like you're 'betraying' the badassness of the character. It never feels good to have a character that is a Superman in all the cutscenes, and utter rubbish when you're in charge of controlling him.
The game is also full of small details and actions that expand the world, like playing horseshoes, drinking at the bar, and hunting wild animals. These are good examples of gameplay enhancing the narrative rather than eroding it. When I'm 'directing' John Marston, I feel it benefits the story to have him perform honorable deeds, to be adept at surviving in the harsh wilderness, or to have a whiskey after a particularly arduous mission. These are all optional things, and some of my choices will mean I'll miss out on other aspects of the gameplay (like tying a nun to a railroad track), but they are all effective 'director's tools' that keep me in control of who I believe John Marston is.
Heavy Rain While I was disappointed with the game's closing moments, there are a lot of interesting tools given to the player, to direct the narrative. The developer's intention, after all, was to make a cinematic type of game. In this game, it's the small things that count.
What I liked about Heavy Rain's approach to some scenes is that it asked the player to search their own understanding of film genres to 'perform' a scene in the way they wanted. And yes, most of these by themselves were tedious actions like brushing your teeth or sitting in a chair. But if you know where all of these 'actions' are triggered in the game world, and what they do, then you can choreograph some scenes in interesting ways.
For example, at the psychiatrist's office you can pace around, nervously switch chairs, and lean on things. Or, you can sit unmoving in one place. Both are valid approaches for that scene. The trouble is, on your first playthrough, you spend most of your time 'searching' the environment for the things you can interact with. You could even think of your first playthrough as a 'rehearsal' - on your second playthrough, could you make things more cinematic?
*SPOILERS* Nearly every action in this game is a director's tool, but all too often the player has no idea what an instruction will do, even in critical moments. I certainly didn't intend for Shelby to smash his way out of a sinking car to leave Lauren Winter to drown. That's kind of a massive narrative decision to assign to a wobbly little Sixaxis icon. Part II will talk more about this - the importance of 'Transparency' in player decisions.
The Last Express The Last Express is beautifully crafted, and has some of the most effective storytelling I've seen in a game. There are good and bad endings to the game, but the prime goal is for the player is to unravel it's story. Every character on the train has a history, motives, and their own set of secrets to discover. Not all of these details are necessary to win the game, but they enrich the story immensely.
This is a game where you can sit in the smoking car and pretend to read a newspaper while you're waiting for a passenger to leave their room, so you can sneak in and investigate it. While you're waiting, you might end up eavesdropping on a small argument between Sophie Bretheuil and Rebecca Norton, two women who are eloping together. You could play through the entire game and miss their whole subplot, so it pays to move about the train to see and hear as much as you can.
The animation of the characters is very expressive. It's full of small, refreshing details - like violinist Anna Wolff forcing a smile at charmless tycoon August Schmidt's jokes. The game's characters are amazingly real for a game made in 1997.
It's also very hard to undermine the actions of the protagonist, Robert Cath. Even if you make a choice that leads to your death, or a premature ending, these moments feel like real conclusions to the story. Like in Heavy Rain, the game gives you some directorial options - if you'd rather not just stand in the hallway doing nothing while eavesdropping, you could light a cigarette to perhaps look a little less suspicious, for example.
This is the game that got me thinking about how in most games, players are asked to inhabit a character rather than direct a story. The game made me think about not how to solve the next puzzle, but to consider the consequences of my next action. Not only for the protagonist, but for the other characters on the train. In the mid-way point of the game, there is a small concert where all the important passengers are gathered - a perfect opportunity to do some snooping. Whenever I was stumped as to what to do next, I would sit down at the concert, listen to the music, and look over at all the other faces - guessing at their motives and planning my next move. I would look at the stoic bodyguard Kahina and think of a way to get to the Firebird treasure before she could, all without betraying the trust of the girl who was safe-keeping it.
I wasn't pondering which path to take in a fork in the narrative (kick puppy/save puppy?), I was actually thinking what I believed Robert Cath to be thinking. The 'correct' path (yeah, I had to use a walkthrough) was actually something I didn't expect Cath to do - which was a problem since I had started to think of the protagonist as myself (as years of gaming had told me to do). Once I stopped thinking "Oh, I wouldn't have done that", and instead thought "That's an interesting turn for the story to take", I stopped feeling 'disappointed' by Cath's actions being different from what I expected.
In Part II, I'll be looking at some of the ways developers can hinder their storytelling, through the choices they give the player, and strange design decisions (lookin' at you, Bioware!). I'll also talk more about how multiple playthroughs can be like 'rehearsals', which I discovered when playing Fallout: New Vegas.
Do you have any comments about the games mentioned, or some examples of 'director's tools' and good/bad 'storytelling engines'? Leave a comment below!