Storytelling in Videogames: Something’s gotta give. (and my Mass Effect 3 ending response)

Update: my thoughts on Mass Effect 3 specifically have been expanded and fleshed out in this later blog post.

By now, you’ve probably heard about, or experienced for yourself, the ending(s) of Mass Effect 3. I won’t get into it, but my 2 cents on the matter: I find the lack of variation disappointing, and while I can accept the  of choice and the bleak outcome, I find the endings to be ambiguous, and to open up unnecessary questions. 

I’m not going to discuss what aspects I mean by that, but in general it seems a majority of fans share these same sentiments. If you are looking for a discussion about the nuances of the game’s endings, there are plenty of other forum threads and blog posts to seek out. This post is about an issue I feel Mass Effect 3 brings up, but no one is discussing; the Mass Effect series has proven that storytelling in videogames needs to change.

The Mass Effect games were  unique in that they offered players immersive interactions with a film-like narrative. The excellent writing and believable characters strengthened the connections players felt with the universe Bioware had created. But what really brought it all together was the deep sense of choice players felt, as if they had a real hand in shaping this story and its outcome. In the end though, we were reminded that Bioware were the ones truly in charge of the direction of our stories; a stark wake-up call we all felt in the form of controversial endings.

After witnessing the conclusion of this story, I pondered what it all really meant in the end, what choice I really had. I stated in an earlier post that Mass Effect only gave the illusion of choice. In the end, that remained true. It then dawned on me that Mass Effect, while appearing to break from the mold in terms of narrative and storytelling in videogames, was in fact no better at delivering story than games like Halo or Gears of War. Now, that’s not to say those games had poor stories. Both series have high points, and even manage to create emotional resonance with their fans. But what I mean when I say that “Mass Effect, Halo, GoW, etc. do nothing remarkable for storytelling” is in regards to how these games present their stories, not the stories themselves.

Blockbuster titles seem to be more and more concerned with mirroring Hollywood films in terms of narrative. Devlopers spend time and effort trying to script a compelling narrative with intertwining plots and characters as a backdrop to the gameplay. This creates two separate parts of a game: the story part, and the game part. What happens then, is we are fed the story by completing missions/quests/levels/et al. or by hitting certain points where the gameplay pauses, and we watch a cutscene or scroll through dialogue. This causes an obstacle from a design stand point: balancing the story bits with the actual gameplay. What many developers don’t realize is that such design choices are exactly what’s holding back videogames as a storytelling medium.

When talking about games utilizing this sort of cinematic exposition, it’s easy to see the point of those who denounce videogames as a form of art. If we spend all our effort trying to be like film or television, we undermine the strengths of this medium.

Videogames already have some truly remarkable achievements in how our medium can provide compelling and rich narrative. Recently released titles like That Game Company’s Journey is an example. Journey takes place in a desert, with players given a basic goal: cross the desert and climb the mountain. Players interact with various aspects of the world to move through the enviorment. Journey also allows for multiple players to share an experience, but without verbal or written communication. It seems like a simple scenario, but the reason Journey tells such a great story is because you’re the one telling it — every movement, puzzle, or interaction with other players is tied immediately with your story. The plot progresses with every step you make on your trek across the desert. Journey has been heralded by critics as a step forward in terms of storytelling in videogames, but the medium has been utilizing those exact same mechanics for ages.

One series in particular that takes advantage of this style of storytelling is Metroid, and no game in the series does it better than Super Metroid. On the surface Super Metroid may seem like a bare-bones plot about a bounty hunter… well… hunting, and to a certain extent that’s all it is. But what’s remarkable about that game is that — much like Journey — every action is progressing the story forward. Samus discovering a new item, a boss crashing through the floor, or countdown timer starting is an important and meaningful moment in the story. One could even argue that while games like Mass Effect give the illusion of choice, in Super Metroid you have even more choice available to you. Because of the game’s non-linear setup, every pathway is a choice, and your choices can be completely different the next time you play; theoretically there are an infinite number of stories Samus can have within Super Metroid alone.

In Metroid Prime, players experienced the story in a similar fashion, but were privy to an even grander tale which could only be discovered by the player actively seeking out each piece via scanning certain objects around the world. That’s something Mass effect can never do, nor any other game utilizing a film-style narrative (this includes Metroid: Other M).

Other games like Fallout and The Elder Scolls offer a similar experience. Sure, these games contain numerous quests and stroylines, but these quests can also be ignored altogether. This allows the player’s actions to take center stage as the true narrative of the game. Wandering across a desolate wasteland, attacking and looting raiders along the way might sound the premise for a videogame’s story, but in Fallout such experiences exist outside of the written narrative and are created by the actions and pursuits of the players themselves.

That’s not to say a game must be non-linear, or take place in an open world to deliver a great story. Ico is a prime example (as is Shadow of the Colossus). While there are scripted moments, it’s the experience and moment-to-moment interactions with the world and your companion that shape the story. The key is integration of story and gameplay, not separation.

A videogame’s story should be told through the gameplay and action itself, and not just the reward or consequence.

Half Life does this very well. It features a deep story, one that could rival that of other blockbuster FPS’s, but what separates it from Call of Duty or Halo is that — much like with Metroid, Ico, or Journey — the gameplay is what’s telling the story, not the dialogue.

Even games like The Legend of Zelda, and to a lesser extent Super Mario bros. and Rayman: Origins tell their stories through gameplay (though, whether these stories merit artistic accolades is another discussion). Others, such as Dark Souls or the Portal series, give players the sense that every motion or moment matters even outside of the story. What’s more, is the motivation behind every action or choice isn’t that of the character’s in the game, but the player’s.

You may have noticed, but nearly every game I’ve mentioned features a silent protagonist, or one where you directly input the dialogue response. I’m not saying this is something a game must have in order to do story “right,” but look at this way: in a game where a character speaks on your behalf — or worse, speaks without any input from the player — relegates us to a mere member of the audience, instead of actually becoming the characters themselves. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work in a videogame. Even in games like Pac-Man and Contra, we took on the role of the protagonists.

Think about it, we’ve already seen what it is like for a character like Samus to act as our proxy. Imagine if Gordon Freeman, Link, or your character in Skyrim had been given a voice, instead of acting as a vessel through which you spoke and interacted with the world? Our experiences in these games would be entirely different and, I’d argue, far less compelling and immersive.

Don’t get me wrong here, there are MANY examples of games with characters who speak and still tell a great story, that’s not what I’m arguing. I’m arguing in what way that story is presented; whether it’s through cutscenes or gameplay. It seems like the former is the widely accepted form of storytelling for this medium, and in no way does that make games. I loved Red Dead Redemption, it is among my top 5 favorite games of all time, and it featured a highly-cinematic story with a character whose actions and story were the result of his own motivations and personality (though, to be fair, Rockstar wrote probably the most likable protagonist ever with John Marston, and the open-world did create a stroy-telling effect similar to that of The Elder Scrolls games in certain instances). Heavy Rain is an example of a game that uses interactive storytelling, but still features characters who speak and act by their own accord, so a melding of the two can be achieved.

Therefore, it is my humble opinion that in order to truly begin exploring the depths of stroytelling videogames can accomplish we must embrace the interactive aspects unique to the medium, and cease the imitation of film, television, and other passive forms of media.

They say in writing you should “show, not tell” when it comes to explaining an event or progressing the plot. In games, the saying should be “don’t show, don’t tell, DO.” If a developer wants the main character to leap across a canyon to avoid a deadly explosion; deliver a brutal finishing move on an enemy; or crawl through an air duct to avoid being seen, let the player do those things directly, instead of stopping the action, making them sit through a cutscene, and then pick up a few few seconds later. Not only will it keep the pace up, it will make us feel like total badasses, and that our input directly affected the outcome of the game.

One of gaming’s best characters.

Imagine if the story of Mass Effect had been told this way. Instead of segmenting out the story moments, what if we assumed direct control (lol) of Shepard and the actions he/she performed. I know, it might seem as if the series already did this, but in reality that’s not the case. Instead of presenting choices in the form of a dialogue wheel of button prompt, what if the game’s character talked to you in real time, and your choices were made by the physical movements you made? For example, let’s say you were given the ability to either a) save a group of prisoners, or b) forget the prisoners, and go after an enemy (this is not based on any specific part in the ME series, just a hypothetical). Wouldn’t you feel more involved if you could move your character down the path to save the prisoners instead of just selecting the “We have to save them!” dialogue option? That way, every step you take towards rescuing the prisoners furthers your investment in that decision, and makes you own the consequences — good or bad — that your choice results in. If that were the case, it wouldn’t matter what the ending was, because you would feel like everything you did caused the outcome. Unfortunately, The Mass Effect series played out more like a choose your own adventure with videogame parts instead.

And by no means does this mean every game has to offer multiple choices, endings, or non-linear gameplay. All it means is that however a developer chooses to build their game, the story needs to be tied with the gameplay, not separate from it. You can give players a tightly knit, linear experience, just make sure we’re actively taking part in said experience.

I realize this post is pretty long, and probably disorganized, but this is where I’ll wrap it up. No matter how you feel about the ME3 endings issue, the fact remains that the story could have been presented in a much better way. I’m not saying that games which use a more cinematic style have poor stories, I just believe there’s a much better way to give us those stories in a videogame; ways that don’t require long cut scenes, or misleading players into believing dialogue options is where the real “choice” occurs. Videogames are interactive, and can present a narrative in a way that no other medium is capable of. So let’s get over this notion of “cinematic” experiences, and focus on interactive storytelling.

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6 thoughts on “Storytelling in Videogames: Something’s gotta give. (and my Mass Effect 3 ending response)

  1. I can understand the point your making, and I like the idea of the story blending WITH the gameplay more, but I don’t fully agree. Any game that features a silent protagonist automatically makes the story less interesting. Why? Because the protagonist then has no personality, no character, nothing that makes me root for him/her. To me, even though I’m SLIGHTLY in control, no matter how immerse the story is I am NOT the character and can’t be. You cannot trick me into caring about a plot or world under the guise of “it’s you!” I’m smart enough to know it’s not and can’t be tricked into caring for that reason, I NEED a very strong, outspoken protagonist to care about a plot.

    In fact, those games you listed, like Half Life and Portal, are stories I didn’t care about. Since I didn’t care about the story, I couldn’t bring myself to finish those games. I put about five solid hours into Half Life 2 before I just turned it off and didn’t care anymore. Granted not all silent protagonists automatically made a story less, Skyward Sword is a good example, yet even then Link really is his own character with his own quirks, you just get to make some ‘verbal’ word choices.

    I like experiencing the story first hand, but I also enjoy watching the story unfold from an outside set of eyes.

    1. I see your point, which is why I tried to mention Heavy Rain, which in my mind is a great example of how a game can give you an interactive story with fully realized characters. Say what you will about the story or gameplay, they integrated the two very well.

      And like I said in the post, it’s not a prerequisite for interactive stories to have silent protagonists (or open worlds, non-linear gameplay, etc.) but when it comes to game that I’ve played that utilize interactive storytelling, the ones I listed are the only ones I’ve played and therefore can speak about with a full and honest understanding. I don’t think it’d be fair of me to assume a game I haven’t played does or doesn’t do something, that’s all.

      I believe it’s a matter of taste. I personally find the silent protagonist method to be how I best connect with a game and feel fully immersed. But like I mentioned in the blog post, I also love the stories of Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect, and other games like The Witcher and Chrono Trigger. Those games have deep main characters I find compelling and interesting.

      My point here is not to imply all games must feature silent protagonists (or non-linear gameplay, etc, etc.) but that the story, characters, and event therein — whatever they may be — should be integrated and progressed through gameplay itself.

      A bit much to ask? Maybe, but I think given the proper time and tools, game developers will produce truly amazing interactive stories.

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