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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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About Andrew Kauzone of us since 5:10 PM on 04.30.2009

In loving memory: PAX 2009 (thanks ZombiePlatypus! And WalkYourPath, of course)

I'm Kauza, which is pronounced like cause-uh. My real name's Andrew Kauz, if you'd rather go for that.

I like talking to Dtoid people, so please add me on your favorite social networking site:
Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/kauza
Gchat: santakauz[at]gmail.com.

Basics: I'm 25, and I write things.

Eternal thanks go out to Y0j1mb0 for the amazing header image you see above. So, thanks, sir!

Look at some of the things I've written.

Things on the Front Page:

Mass Effect, Metal Gear, Moon Unit, and more: An interview with Jennifer Hale
The Future: Demanding more from the voices of videogames
Love/Hate: A plea to play as a female Shepard
A warning: Regrets from a former life and experiences yet unlived
Top ten games for people who hate Thanksgiving
The wrong thing: Being evil should be more like sex
Staying dry in a sea of spoilers is a matter of building a boat
Lessons on taking games just seriously enough
Come, take your pilgrimage to gaming's one true mecca
Here's to you, random-JRPG-dialogue-writer-man
The forgotten: Crushing disappointment at the hands of Crash 'n the Boys
The people who have the power to change the world
Improving game communities: Enough with the negativity
The draw of exploration: Antarctica to Oblivion, Shackleton to Shadow Complex
I suck at games: BlazBlue and a slapdash attempt at fisticuffs
I, the Author: My Everest
Untapped Potential: The Gamer's Education
Other Worlds than These: Our World, Only Different

A series sort of thing about status effects
Toxic Megacolon and other fresh status effects
Curse you, status effects, stop confusing my heart
Status effects are poisons that turn my silent heart to stone
Also check out the related forum thread.

The Fall of the Titans (wherein I talk about dead or dying gaming companies)

The fall of the titans part 3: What once was shall be again
The fall of the titans: Sega died so that we might dream of the future
The fall of the titans: Why do the giants of gaming die?

Stories from the Past (a series about my experiences playing certain games):

Stories from the Past: Tobal 2, Tomba! 2, and console double-vision
Stories from the Past: Diablo and the Dark Ride
Stories from the Past: What the f*ck, mom?
Stories from the Past: Xexyz and the battle aboard Turtlestar Lobsterica
Stories from the Past: The One-Balled Man-Bear
Stories from the Past: The Battle of Olympus
Stories from the Past: Suikoden 2

Storytelling (a series about, well, storytelling):

Storytelling: The Problem of Genres
Storytelling: Mass Effect, Vonnegut, and the Fourth Rule
Storytelling: Doing Nothing in "The Darkness"
Storytelling: The Power of a Single Line (Yeah, it was my first post.)

Other stuff that is good:

Lessons on taking games just seriously enough
A consuming power: The demon and the borderlands
Can games transcend good and evil?
Nothing is sacred: We won't let you go alone, but we have made a tragic decision
How Destructoid single-handedly changed my motherís opinion of gaming
Why Tecmo Super Bowl is the greatest sports game of all time
Seven reasons that I will end you in creative ways if you don't play Folklore
Mother Nature and the Impending Death of the Gaming Spirit
Times Games Forgot: The Dark Ages
The Sins and Successes of In-game Collectibles
The Lock is Broken
When Music Surpasses the Game
Truckasaurus Rex and the Humor of Games
I Want to Cry (storytelling related, but not part of the series)

I have others as well that you can check out on my blog. You'll enjoy them or your money back.

Since it seems like the cool thing to do, here a list of my favorite games that is coming straight out of my ass and onto your computer screen, and in no particular order.

Fallout 3
Uncharted 2
Suikoden 2
Mass Effect / ME2
Metal Gear Solid followed by any number you can think of
Tales of Somethingendinginia (OK, and the Abyss)
Battlefield: Bad Company
Xbox LIVE:kauza
PSN ID:santakauz
Mii code:kauza


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