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jestarinc avatar 6:36 AM on 09.08.2008  (server time)
The Shortcomings of Narrative-Driven Games (And What Can Be Done About It)

Ever since interactive entertainment became reality, game developers and publishers have, mostly, tried to reason the existence of the game experience through story and plot. Yes, many of these plots never made any sense (as plenty of these games came from Japan, and localisation has never been a forte of this industry), and many of these games didn't NEED a story to begin with. However, through the flood of melodrama and broken English, there have been games with a strong focus on story and character.

These are the games that manage to stand tall above all others (to the hardcore and game critics, mostly). Their ability to send the player on a trip of immersion and narrative has been steadily increasing over the years, as consoles and PC rigs became more powerful and developers became more skilled with telling a story through their art. However, we do not have ANY great works that can rival the pinnacles of film, literature, stage and composition (yes, I said it). There are four main areas that prevent narrative-driven games from being recognised by the artistic community and the general population as true works of art.

1. All action, all the time

Many of the great examples of the potential of our medium has can be found in the First Person Shooter genre. Say what you will, however it is hard to come by another genre in gaming that comes close to the immersion and ability to convey narrative that the FPS genre provides (and has proven). However, a pit fall of most games in the genre (and the expectations on every game that fits the genre) is of constant action. For some, this works beautifully, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a remarkable example of that. CoD4 captures the break-neck pace of war, and it even shows a glimpse of the suffering that war provides to those involved.

This steady-flow of action can do harm to the plot. In a civilised, peaceful setting (well, on the surface anyway), carrying a gun around constantly or always walking in an action pose does break the authenticity of the game world and the aura it conveys. Starbreeze realised this when developing The Darkness, breaking up the action sequences with completely interactive "assertive" gameplay. The scene in which the main character, Jackie, watches television with his girlfriend by his side is a brilliant example of how games can convey the human experience without throwing a gun in for the sake of "gameplay". While not perfect, The Darkness needs to be scrutinised by fellow game developers. They could learn a bit from Starbreeze's ability to make the ordinary so natural.

2. Violence "solves" everything

The action genre has always had conflict as part of its core, along with dealing with it through violence, no matter the form. Yet, as we all know, violence doesn't solve everything in the real world (it solves barely anything for that matter). One of the biggest flaws with GTA4 was Niko's craving for redemption, a new life. At the beginning of the game, you really feel for Niko's entrapment in his petty surroundings and circumstance. You know he doesn't want to kill, to steal anymore. But, as the game progresses, he somehow forgot his agony and became amoral and cold.

Perhaps if Rockstar North followed the idea of the free-roaming game, players could of had the choice of redeeming Niko, of bettering himself. Rather than killing his way to rid Roman's debts, Niko could have tried to find a honest living. Most players would still go with the "kill everything until my eyes go red" route, but giving players a choice with how they deal with problems makes a better game.

3. The Separation of Story & Gameplay

A big problem with many games and their developers is the execution of the story. Many look to Hollywood for advice, embracing the method of cutscenes to engage in their story. But you know what most people do with these cutscenes? SKIP THEM! And, as most devs do not even bother trying to put story into the gameplay, the player loses a major component of the game experience. Many have missed out of the gold of the story from the Metal Gear Solid series, and all because of a cutscene.

Rather than make the player a spectator in the story, LET THEM BE THE PLAYER! Bioshock is so gratifying and moving because it emotionally engages the player into the story, making the player feel the rage and sense of betrayal the avatar would feel after being asked "Would you kindly....?" A game becomes more memorable and more powerful if you allow the player to become emotionally invested in the game world and the player they control. No other medium has had this much power in this regard.

4. Are We Not Men?

Drama is one overlooked aspect in the execution of a game's story. Many would comment (and critique) on a game's voice acting, but not on the motion capture/animation.... the body acting. A game character could have the most convincing voice behind it, but if it looks like a limp fish when belting out such powerful prose, you've lost its power. Quality facial animations (Valve have been highlighting this for years with Half-Life 2 and its Source engine), hiring the same person for voice acting and motion capture (GTA4 got this right) and setting out the motion capture as if one was preparing a play (Heavenly Sword used Andy Serkis' theatre troupe for this) helps the believability of a game character. If you treat them like a silly idea, everyone else will too.

So, fellow Dtoids, what do you think? How can the delivery of narrative in games improve? What else is wrong with game narrative? Or, how completely off the mark am I?


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