Saturday, December 17, 2016

Why Video Games Continue to Struggle With Storytelling

Telling a coherent, moving story has been a longstanding problem within the video game industry. Time and time again there have been attempts to blend the core elements of a video game – mechanics, graphics, world building – with a narrative structure that adheres to the principles of what makes great novel or script – structure, plot, pace, rich characters, and a gripping tale. But most of the time (not all the time) these attempts fall short.


Now more than ever that question begs to be answered because as games become more cinematic (think Quantum Break, Call of Duty) – as games strive to become more like movies (which is an issue I will mention later) – the need for a cohesive narrative structure becomes critical to the design and implementation of the game.

So why? Why does the industry struggle? Let’s dig in.

For one, think back to the origin of video games. Pong was created in 1958 where you mimicked the game of tennis on a 2D screen. It didn’t have a story and it certainly didn’t need one. It was enough for us to play against our friend and try to win in a virtual game of tennis. The same went for many games that followed in the early years: Pacman, space invaders, asteroids, missile command. No narrative structure was required. You didn’t need plot to know that you had to gobble up dots while running from psychedelic ghosts. The point: storytelling – strong, cohesive storytelling – was not an essential feature in the early age of video games, unlike other entertainment mediums (e.g., movies, television, and anime). The incorporation of a narrative structure didn’t emerge until later, with such games as Final Fantasy I. With TV and movies, screenwriting – i.e., the narrative art – has always been essential to making a quality movie or television series. In short, video games, unlike other forms of media, are still in its early years of storytelling; writers and game directors are still getting their feet wet in merging a narrative structure with interactive media.

Second, with the emergence of 3-dimensional graphics, voice acting, and cinema-like cut scenes games changed: there was a new realm of possibilities beyond Mario saving his Princess Peach in a castle. Sure, there were games that had strong storytelling elements within them that were 2D – Zelda, Final Fantasy, Breathe of Fire, Secret of Mana, and Castlevania, to name a few. But 3D graphics and cut scenes allowed games like Final Fantasy 7, Metal Gear Solid, Grand Theft Auto 3, and Parasite Eve to excel in ways they never could prior this evolution, including the narrative story elements of each game: with the ability to create cut scenes, voice act, and build 3d worlds, the narrative structure could no longer be a part of the background; it had to be in the foreground, front and center.

As a result, we see games acknowledge this fact but don’t fully embrace it – Call of Duty, Gears of War, Fable, Battlefield, Assassins Creed, Dragon Age Origins, for example, have strong storytelling elements embedded within the game but fall short at creating a unique plot that’s rational, with well-rounded characters, crisp dialogue, and thematic threads. Simultaneously, there are games that have forgone innovative game mechanics and world building for creating a spectacular story more akin to a novel or a movie than anything else. Heavy Rain and Telltale Games are two examples of this (though I wouldn’t call Heavy Rain a spectacular story – too many plot holes). I argue that both extremes are flawed and contribute to why video games have not been able to tell a great story like other mediums.

Besides floating to the extremes on each end, the next biggest problem video game companies, script writers, and game directors have is believing that video games SHOULD be treated like movies. They shouldn’t. What makes video games unique is the ability to interactively participate and change the story that is unfolding. Gamers love discovering new mechanics, building weapons and armor, making choices about love interests and missions to complete. Maybe it’s just me but when a game pauses to introduce a 30-minute narrative or cut scene (think MGS4), I get taken out of the game if it drags on too long; it’s like an infodump in a novel: you sprinkle it throughout the book, not unload it in mass. One of the biggest criticism of MGS4 and Quantum Break was the “TV-like” or “Movie-like” breaks. Why? Because for some gamers (not all, mind you), those cut scenes take us out of the game, and out of the story – even if those very cut scenes are critical to the story themselves. The conclusion: story has to be weaved into action of the game, taking its shots when it counts and falling to the backdrop when it knows it’s overstepping its bounds.

So what works?

Mass Effect. The Last of Us. Uncharted. Tomb Raider. Games that have achieved the best of both worlds: mixing the action-adventure and game mechanics that made us kids want to play games in the first place with a fantastic story that weaves within the game itself rather than being a separate entity. Seamless would be the appropriate term. The games seamlessly blend the two, and you never forget you are playing a game.

In my mind, the definition of a perfect story in a game differs greatly from the definition for a novel or TV show – and should be written as such. A perfect story in a game occurs when you are absolutely enthralled with what’s going on, but your hands have never left the controller. That’s how I felt with Mass Effect, Uncharted, etc., and that’s what keeps us coming back time and time again (well, one of many reasons). Until video game companies, writers, and game directors discover how to modulate the story’s prominence throughout the game, we will continue to experience problems like clich├ęd storylines, choppy dialogue, excessive cut scenes, pacing, and plot holes. The narrative art is a tough one and incorporating it into the video game world may be the hardest thing to accomplish yet.

-- Matthew

Matthew is a novelist and video game script writer. You can order his scifi novel, FROM MOON TO JOSHUA, on Amazon in kindle or paperback here:

Be sure to check out the upcoming video game, MY EYES ON YOU, for which he is writing the script. MY EYES ON YOU, by Storymind Entertainment is murder-mystery neo-noir tale in which a player assumes the role of Jordan Adalien, framed FBI detective trying to investigate the case of mysterious serial killer in a carnival mask, while being at the gunpoint of the state police. Check out their website here:


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