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Andrew Kauz avatar 5:12 PM on 04.30.2009  (server time)
Storytelling: The Power of a Single Line

Let's face it: storytelling in video games still has a long way to go. In fact, what was perhaps my favorite game story of last year: Metal Gear Solid 4, was by and large incomprehensible in some places and created a variety of problems for a lot of people. But for all of its incomprehensibility and what some have described as "totally fucking up the entire story of the series," it managed to tell one story incredibly well: The story of Solid Snake.

If you have any plans to play Metal Gear Solid 4 at any point in the future, I would plead with you to do so before reading this post.

Where the game succeeds in its emotional impact is through the telling not of the events of the series but through the telling of the story of a man's life. And much of this emotional impact, for me, is encapsulated in one of the shortest and simplest lines in the game.

"Snake had a hard life."

Perhaps the bluntness of this line is exactly why it worked for me. I had played through each of the Metal Gear Solid games before that one and had never once stopped to think that, "Hey, this guy's having a rough time. Maybe he needs a hug." But at that moment, with that simple line, Snake was humanized. Not only that, the tragedy of his story was revealed. I had been playing as Snake for so long, and in such a detached manner, that I had never occurred to me that being Snake actually wasn't so great.

Of course, much of the power of this line can be attributed to the series itself: I've spent a vast number of hours with Snake. I can only speculate as to the effect that this line would have on me if MGS4 had been my first Metal Gear game, but something tells me it would be far greater than "Oh." Whatever the case may be, they did something very right with this line.

Game stories need more characters. For everything I like about a series like, say, Halo, Master Chief, as a character, does nothing for me. As I play through a game like that (or any other game with a faceless protagonist, either literally or figuratively), I do my best to simply ignore the person I'm controlling, as it feels like the game wants me to do that. There's no real person there; I might as well be controlling a floating armory. And don't even get me started on silent protagonists...

Does every game need a tragic figure like Snake? No, and there's plenty who would argue that video games don't need great characters at all. Perhaps I'm selfish, but I want the richest experience possible when playing a game. I want my fun, sure, but I also want my substance, and perhaps the best way for games to provide that substance is to give me a real, living, breathing character.

Game characters don't have to be Forrest Gump (and they certainly shouldn't be weepy, overwrought annoyances either), but they shouldn't be walking bullet sponges whose only duties aside from the aforementioned soaking up of bullets is to occasionally mention the vast amounts of ass that they're currently kicking.

So, developers, it's worth the extra effort to take some time to think about your characters. Hire a writer if you have to, but let's all move toward getting some real character development, whether those characters end up being tragic, comedic, or just real. Maybe all that you need is a single line to remind players that you're telling a story about people, not meat popsicles.

By the way, I'm thinking about doing a whole series on my thoughts about game story creation. If you read this post and like it, let me know; that way, I'll know that continuing the series is worth it.

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