How Important Is Storytelling In Games?
“Story in a videogame is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” This is how id Software boss John Carmack reportedly responded when designers on FPS Doom suggested a sequence where story was developed and no shooting happened at all. At the time this wouldn’t have seemed like a particularly controversial thing to say. In 1993 it was true of most, if not all, games. Story really didn’t matter. But it wouldn’t be long before a new game, one built using his Quake engine, would come along and royally own John Carmack.
“There was a general, arrogant assumption that players of shooters didn’t want and wouldn’t care about a story; we just didn’t believe this,” recalls Valve’s Marc Laidlaw. “We were all big fans of the FPS genre. It was, at least at the time, my favourite type of videogame, and one that seemed as if it would get the biggest benefit from the integration of storytelling techniques.”
So in 1998, Half-Life was born. And since then John Carmack has been proven more and more wrong. David Cage, head of Quantic Dream and creator of Heavy Rain thinks it’s obvious why. “People love stories,” he told NowGamer “every time a new media was invented, it was used to tell stories. Cinema, television, writing, or whatever. People love stories in any country and in any period of time. Why would interactivity be the exception to this rule?”
Well, in the early days of gaming, this was because of technological constraints. The means of storytelling were limited to text and/or graphics too crude to express anything very meaningful. Plus memory and processing power were limited and were usually better channelled into making gameplay as fun as possible. In the Eighties, if you wanted story in a game, you usually had to read it off the back of the box.
But, during the Nineties and Noughties, computer technology came on in leaps and bounds and videogame storytelling became not just possible, but very popular. And, as Dan Houser, Rockstar Games’ co-founder and writer on Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, explained to NowGamer, good storytelling and characterisation aren’t just a luxury with modern hardware, they can be a necessity as well.
“We have evolved the process as the technology has allowed and demanded,” he told us “For example, we now do massive amounts of dialogue during missions that would not have been possible on PS2 as too much of the machine’s power was taken up with streaming in the world, so we had to keep dialogue to a minimum at such times, and equally, if [they] can speak more, then they have to become more rounded and complex characters, so they have something new to say.”
The blame for generally poor storytelling in games can’t just be laid at the feet of technology, though. David Cage thinks gaming’s reluctance to let go of tradition and convention is getting in the way, too, “I also see the limits of what can be done with the current paradigms. Technology gets more and more fantastic and you can do incredible things, but it’s still the same games. I mean, how many monsters can you kill? How many zombies can you shoot?”
While we find ourselves baulking slightly at the implication that killing monsters and zombies might ever get boring, there’s no denying Cage has a point. Developers do seem to have difficulty integrating decent stories into established game design templates. But then the mix between narrative and gameplay can get pretty lumpy even in the unconventional, story-centric games developed by Cage’s own studio, which suggests existing game design formulas might not really be the problem.
Sci-fi author and lead writer on Crysis 2 Richard Morgan certainly doesn’t think so, he told NowGamer “There is absolutely no reason why you can’t weld a really good narrative to a really cool shooting game. Uncharted 2 is the perfect example.” Uncharted 2 is indeed a perfect, and unfortunately very rare, example of gameplay and storytelling woven together really, really well. But this seamless blend didn’t come easily. Naughty Dog had to work hard to get it that smooth, as creative director Amy Hennig is always very keen to point out.
“We take a lot more time with it than other developers. It’s so important to our game and our experience,” she stresses. “We have an outline of the story, but we’ll write scenes as we go. We then rehearse on the mo-cap stage, work out what props and sets we need, make all the pertinent changes to the script from working with the actors, and then the following day we run through the [revised] scene.
"We record all the dialogue on a big sound stage. The advantage of doing this is that any natural moment you have on stage, that you couldn’t re-create in the studio, will happen now. Every unexpected reaction from the actors is there on screen. We get all the mo-cap back and the animators get to work. They do such an amazing job.”
“Sometimes you write something and think, ‘this is better than what you see in other games so that’s good enough’,” admits gaming’s leading comedy storyteller and Brütal Legend creator, Tim Schafer. “But then you turn on an episode of The Simpsons and think, ‘okay, they’re trying a lot harder and pushing it to be funnier.’ So you go back and revise the script and really take the entertainment pace of it seriously and not get lazy because it’s a game.”
In 1993, storytelling didn’t matter because your game only got compared to other games and it didn’t matter in other games either. But in 2010 it’s possible, with enough effort and dedicated resources, for videogames to stand up favourably against TV and movies in the storytelling stakes, and it’s inevitable that such comparisons will and should be made. So it does matter. It matters as much as any other facet of your game.
“In the same way that there’s, you know, good and bad AI, so there’s good and bad fiction,” attests Richard Morgan. “And no one would argue that, well, look, we’re only shooting shit so we won’t bother with complex AI. Well, no, because complex AI makes the game more kick-ass, so similarly, why should we bother with interesting characterisation?”
Yes, the John Carmack attitude to storytelling, narrative and characterisation in games is still prevalent some 17 years after Doom but it is slowly, surely on the way out. Developers (including id Software, even) are putting more effort into that side of their games and are finding smarter ways of using their stories to support gameplay and even ways of feeding them into marketing and publicity campaigns. However, for the vast majority of developers, even those who work hard at it, story still takes a back seat to gameplay and has to be geared towards it and fit in around it where necessary. The vast majority… but not all.
A few developers have started putting storytelling first and allowing narrative to determine and shape gameplay features once the story is set. Most prominent of all these studios is undoubtedly Quantic Dream. “I think that many games start with just providing adrenaline and say that that’s enough,” muses David Cage. “I think we are the very first ones trying really to take the story approach. People love stories, so let’s tell a story. So that adults can find an interest again in interacting. Heavy Rain proves that there are ways of telling the story using gameplay.”
But leading with your story doesn’t have to mean attempting to reinvent the way games are played. Kaos Studios’ Homefront has, in gameplay terms, a fairly conventional first-person shooter at its foundation. But it uses FPS basics as a kind of blank slate to be filled in rather than as a template to be worked from.
“The story is really our laser focus on this game,” explains lead level designer, Rex Dickson. “We’re actually not even pushing anything as being a brand-new feature or brand-new mechanic. What we’re really selling as our primary point is a unique core fantasy that you’re not going to get anywhere else.”
“And having that as a core is really nice because it frees you up as a designer to not have to exceed or compete in those ways,” adds single-player lead designer, Chris Cross. “It’s not just a mechanical competition. It’s about execution and expression; less about bullet points. Our weapon list [for example] isn’t driven by how many are in the game or by competing with somebody else. It’s driven by what we need for the story, and what’s going to help suspend the disbelief of the player.”
Making narrative a top development priority will surely help ensure a high standard of storytelling in a game, but it’s no guarantee of it. Ultimately, a game story still has to fundamentally be a good story if it’s going to be worthwhile. So how do you write a good game story?
“Well, the first thing you do is you make it more complicated,” asserts Richard Morgan. “You ensure that your characters have agendas which don’t line up with the player’s. So they’re not necessarily deliberately antagonistic to you, they’re not necessarily on your side, they’re just there, and they have their goals and sometimes those goals will line up with yours, sometimes they won’t. It’s a really basic technique, but it’s one that seems to be sorely lacking in games for the most part.”
The supporting cast does seem to be especially important in games. All games with genuinely good storytelling… well, both of them (Uncharted 2 and Half-Life 2)… have a group of memorable companion characters who fulfill a vital role in giving the games narrative context, meaning and purpose. Chris Cross notes that this is definitely something Kaos Studios has picked up on for Homefront’s NPCs, “Really they’re sort of mirrors for the player to experience their own feelings through.”
“It’s almost… I don’t want to go so far as to say it’s more like a reality show, but that’s what it is,” Rex Dickson adds. “When you have a bunch of people working very closely under high stress situations it creates a lot of conflict and a lot of drama and that’s naturally developed over the course of the time we’ve developed this game.”
As much as everybody loves the cut-scenes in games such as Uncharted 2, Grand Theft Auto IV and even, if somewhat begrudgingly, Metal Gear Solid 4, storytelling that never interrupts gameplay and never pulls you out of your role has the advantage of being truly unique to games.
“We always focus on being very much fast-paced and never stopping so you can listen to the story,” expounds Infinity Ward’s creative strategist Robert Bowling. “We want you to be experiencing the story through the gameplay. We never take you out of the moment whether, you know, like in Call Of Duty 4 where you’re dying from radiation or in Modern Warfare 2 where you’re climbing up the mountain. We want you to be in every moment, playing the story rather than just being told the story. I think that’s the difference in the way we make games. We’re very cinematic, but one that you’re very much in control of.”
It’s a philosophy that has served Modern Warfare very well, but one that was pioneered by a different series. Yes, we’re back to Half-Life again, the series that showed all other developers how to tell stories in ways that are unique to games, only for most of them to take no notice, trying instead to transplant the sometimes ill-fitting conventions of movie storytelling into game design. But a few took note including, once again, the team behind Homefront.
“We looked at Half-Life 2,” confirms Kaos’s creative director Dave Votypka, “and it did such a great job of the in-game storytelling, which really nobody has done much of. We were really inspired by that, and we really love the immersion that it brings you, as opposed to constantly being stopped by cut-scenes or whatever.”
“Yeah, that’s the model,” continues Danny Bilson, executive vice president at THQ and writer on Homefront. “There’s no cut-scenes. It’s all walk around, head tracking, people react to you. It’s very influenced by one of our favourite… fiction delivery systems, if I can call it that, because it’s more immersive.”
So, unless your game is about a well-oiled muscular handyman who’s just dropped by to fix the photocopier, the story in a game is not like the story in a porn movie (although we definitely wouldn’t skip the cut-scenes in that particular action-adventure). Storytelling in games is important and – with the right techniques, philosophy and, most importantly, effort – it can be done as well as in other media. Potentially even better in some respects.
If games are ever to really make a mark on the world not just as a form of entertainment, but as a form of expression, maybe even art, then more developers need to start giving storytelling the attention and consideration it deserves. Calling your story a “unique, compelling, mature narrative” when it’s actually nothing more than a bunch of shallow caricatures and trite clichés strung together by explosions, death and the occasional boob, isn’t enough.
As David Cage puts it, only a great game “can make you feel something or make you more clever, or even leave an imprint on you. So that when you turn off the console, there is still a part of the game in you. With games, you turn off the console and you go do something else. They don’t change who you are, they don’t change the way you see things.”
Very few do. But some do, and if some do, then more can. We’re going to give the last word on this to Media Molecule’s Kareem Ettouney. He’s talking here about what he’d like to see come out of the LittleBigPlanet 2 community, but also about the current state of game design and writing as a whole. Basically he’s summing up what gaming, now more than ever before, really needs, “For me, personally I like personal and expressive stuff. I think it’s lacking at the moment because of the amount of slickness that is around. There is no ‘me and you’ and our problems and our things and our jokes – a bit of that is nice. I would love to see some of that.”