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Pangloss avatar 8:38 AM on 07.20.2007  (server time)
Stories in Games part deux: Plot twists do not a story make.

So I already made one largely incoherent rant on the topic of game stories, but I fear my work is not yet done. Stories in video games have yet to make a miraculous improvement, even though I wrote about it on my blog. What gives, developers? Aren't you listening? The answer, assuming any developers had heard the question and bothered to respond, would be a resounding "no".

So anyway, down to business. The way I see it, most stories have three necessary components, plus twenty thousand other components I'm probably forgetting about. But if we make extremely broad and perhaps inaccurate generalizations about game stories, it boils down to three things: characters, setting, and action. Characters were for the most part the subject of my last post, and they're a huge problem in today's games, because it's not enough that an interesting character exists; He/she/it must have some sort of development to endear him/her/itself to the player. Setting refers to not only the place and physical environment of the game, but also the social and historical background of a game. Fortunately, setting isn't really a problem. We see rehashes of settings all the time, but for the most part it isn't that challenging to find a new game set against a fresh and interesting backdrop, the exception to this of course being WWII games. Setting is only a problem for most games inasmuch as it's usually the only element of a story present in games.

Action is a problem in today's games. Understand that when I say action, I am referring to the progression of the plot, including introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, etc. The number of games that have nebulous plots is truly staggering, but depending on the genre, that's not such a huge problem. After all, when you're running around shooting aliens and Nazis, or winning an international fighting tournament, etc., the story is largely something to be brushed aside so you can focus on the other kind of action, the stuff you're making happen on-screen. Stupid stories are much more of a problem when they make their appearance in RPGs, such as Grandia III, but typically storylines in RPGs receive much more attention and as a result contain less suck. At any rate, there's not much to be said about stupid plots, because there's no easy guide to making good plot progression.

One of the biggest challenges to decent plot progression in games, in my opinion, is the plot twist. All too often I see it used in lieu of an actual story, and it really is infuriating. A good, interesting, unexpected twist can elevate an otherwise decent story to excellence, but all too often it gets misused. There are good twists and bad, pointless twists, of course, but there's a third kind, far more insidious. I call it the placeholder plot twist, and it's the kind that is all too often what takes the place of an actual story.

It should go without saying at this point that I'm gonna be dropping mad OMG SPOILARZ from here on.

Gears of War is rather fresh in my mind at the moment, so I'll mention it as an example: the mapping bomb or whatever not working is a pointless twist. All it changes is where I am going, not how I am seeing the game. FFVI changed how you looked at the game, because an apocalypse tends to do that. As much as I love Baten Kaitos, and enjoy its story, it features one of the most pointless plot twists ever seen in the endgame: why bring back Geldoblame as a horrendously weak boss? It really does nothing for the story, and itís far too late to change something, especially for a character thatís been dead for half the game and can only deal 1 damage. You want an excellent plot twist in the finale? Try Beyond Good and Evil: Peyj being infested by the DomZ makes for mad suspense, denies you full closure, and is just a generally cool twist.

Placeholder twists rear their heads when a developer just canít be bothered to write an actual fucking story. And even worse, developers lately seem to be convinced that their placeholder twists set against a barren wasteland of a plot is, contrary to outside observations, an excellent, deep story. Epic and Gears of War, Iím looking at you. I distinctly recall CliffyB chatting the internets up about how great Gearsí story was going to be great, and it was going to have fleshed-out, interesting characters. I didnít believe it, but I did pause and think, ďWhat if?Ē Gearsí plot can be broken down to three main points, making it pretty standard for shooters: 1) use gadget to map tunnels for a bomb 2) shit, it didnít work, and the grand finale, 3) fire ze missiles anyway. I think if Epic had just left out step 2 altogether, they would have realized that their ďstoryĒ was a list of objectives, and then they might have bothered to develop a character or two. I realize I pick on Gearsí story, quite a bit for an FPS, but CliffyB drew my ire when he decided to talk big about it.

Please, please, developers. Before you stick that plot twist into your game, take a step back and make sure itís a piece completing a larger jigsaw puzzle, so to speak. Because if it isnít, that one piece of a story will look awfully lonely and stupid.

I know, I know, tl;dr. Basically, plot twists are what game developers seem to be mistaking for stories more and more. This sort of one-shot story development is one of many cancers killing game plots. If thereís anything Iím forgetting, or if youíd just like to call me retarded, hit me up in the comments. Next time I'll try to intersperse all those words with pretty pictures for the illiterate demographic.

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