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Story Telling in Video Games: The Good and The Bad


In our very wide and diverse chosen media we have a lot of different ways to tell stories. And, in my opinion, we have the best platform to tell interesting stories. However a lot of games seem to have lost their way. The obvious example of this is the modern military shooters: the Call of Duty games and the Battlefield games. These are very notorious for telling bad stories in a bad way. This raises the question, "what is the best way to tell a story in a video game?" There are two major types of story telling in video games: branching/choice driven story telling and linear story telling. 

Let's take a look at a good branching story, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. The Witcher 2 is one of my all time favourite games for almost only one reason, the fact that the choices I had to make made me stop and think. I won't ruin it though there is one choice in particular that involves putting myself at an extreme risk or blaming an in-game friend (that I had made). I can recall only a few games that make me stop and think about the consequences of my actions, what happens after this? The choices in The Witcher 2  are never black or white, there isn't a good or bad decision every choice is a mixture of the two. What this results in is not only realistic story telling but a greater connection to the characters in the game, you can't save everyone, so the people that you do help mean even more to you. Back to the example I detailed earlier, it was based on another previous choice I had made, if I had thought more about the previous choice I wouldn't have even been in the trouble I was. All of this results in not being just a story but YOUR story, it is this level of choice and the realism of these choices that puts The Witcher 2 at the top of branching story telling in my opinion.

An example of branching story that is not as effective (to me at least), is games that feature a clear right and wrong. The games that come to mind are Fable and Mass Effect, though they are not the only ones. These games do not have bad stories, I'd say the opposite, though the way they tell the story is questionable to me. Dialogue in these games is often black or white (or red/blue/green :P). And even worse than this is the immediate response from the game. In Fable for instance right at the start, you can give the little girl her teddy, or not. These choices don't make you think, compare that to the long-term effects of choices in The Witcher 2. The other problem with black and white choices are you often just stick to the one archetype, you become the ultimate incarnation of evil or the paragon of the righteous. And this results in a disconnection from your character, it's no longer YOUR character it is THE character.

Now onto linear story telling. Linear story telling has a lot of negative stigmatisation regarding it and a lot of people think it is a bad way to tell a story. I can't disagree more. Bastion is a great example of linear story telling, there is almost no choice in the game. There are two choices right at the end and you choose which levels you want to do first, that is the extent of the choices. You are thrown into the world with no cutscenes, and little background information. Although even without cutscenes it still tells a brilliant story, even in it's first 17 seconds. You know that this is an aftermath (of something), you play as The Kid whose world has been turned upside down and that The Bastion is your salvation and where the survivors are. All of this without interrupting the player, without a lengthy 'once upon a time' opening. Bastion is unique in its story telling through the narration, though it is not the only linear game to tell a great story. Narration is definitely not the only means to tell a story, engaging gameplay and fantastic music can both be used to convey a great story. These games never feel tedious in their story telling, and can carry boring mechanics.

Now onto bad linear stories, I won't go too far into this as I am sure you are all aware of how bad these are. It is because of these games that linear story telling has a negative reputation. An obvious example of bad linear story telling is Call of Duty. The gameplay is often interrupted by cut scenes and instead of playing these awesome moments you are forced to watch with no way of interacting. It's at that point where you have to wonder why even be a video game, why not make a bad movie?

What is the best way to tell a story? Well I think linear story telling cannot go much further other than invent fairly unique ways to tell the story, like Bastion did. Branching story telling however has a very bright future. The dream branching story will have highly personalised responses which will be great for character attachment. All choices will have negative and positive consequences, like real-life. I can envision there not even being preset choices and maybe a return to a more text based idea where the game interprets what you are saying and the characters respond in a realistic way.

Well that's all, hopefully the future of story telling in video games continues to grow in the right direction. Thank you if you read this far and leave your discussions and feedback.

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About dannazone of us since 8:15 PM on 10.20.2013

Bio: Australian, 19 years old, PC preferred gamer, university student - studying Psychology.

Favourite Genres: RPGs, ARTS, Racing Sims, Non-Military Shooters, Grand Strategy. I think I like RTS but been starved recently.
Mostly a single-player or co-operative kind of guy.

My PC specs:
CPU: i5 3570k @4.6ghz
GPU: EVGA 660ti @ +30/+300
RAM: 8gig (4x2) Kingston HyperX @ 1900mhz
MOBO: Gigabyte GA-Z77X-D3H
PSU: Silverstone Strider Plus 600W ST60F-P
HDD: Seagate Baracuda 2TB 7200RPM
CASE: Corsair 650D

Keyboard: Razer Blackwidow Ultimate (legacy)
Mouse: Razer Naga (legacy)
Headset: Razer Megalodon