The subject of story in videogames is becoming more and more of an interest to me, so when I had a chance to speak with Chris Avellone, lead creative designer of Obsidian’s upcoming spy RPG Alpha Protocol, I had to ask what a studio famous for roleplaying games thought about the importance of narrative.
“It’s important. I don’t think it’s as important as systems design (which is moment-to-moment entertainment), or level design (which gives the systems a context), but the story is an important piece that gives systems and level a reason to exist, and helps to compel the player to move forward,” explains Avellone. “Don’t get me wrong, I love narrative and character design, but I prefer to create story and character mechanics that are game systems rather than divorced from the systems or levels — when the story is a mechanic, in terms of reactivity, perks, mission changes, and open/closing of hubs and endgame choices, I think that’s the purpose of a game story.
“In terms of improving stories for games, I feel that narrative designers should study writing conventions outside of games, both in scriptwriting and in other media, such as novels and graphic novels. In addition, a story should not be divorced from the actual gameplay, it should reinforce it, give it purpose, and when possible, work in tandem with a game’s systems and themes.
“When a story paralyzes a player (watch this cut scene, stop and read this book) or has to work to force itself onto the player with exposition, I think you start traveling down the dark road of cutting off immersion and turning a game into a passive experience, rather than an active one. Also, and to cue off a lecture from Ken Levine, I think much of a story or character can be told in a game level or in the environment itself, without a bunch of text or books littered around the game world.”
What do you think? Does gameplay overrule story, and do you prefer interactive exposition instead of cutscenes? While you mull that over, stick around and wait for our full interview with Chris Avellone coming this week, where we’ll discuss this and plenty more concerning Alpha Protocol.