Tuesday 9 March 2010

How Storytelling in Games Misses the Point

So I’ve just finished developing a 48-hour game for Warwick Game Design’s thrice-yearly competition. To be precise, my team and I just finished developing an RPG for said competition. Trying to create an entire RPG in 48 hours is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a stupid idea, and the game turned out to be one of the best stupid ideas we’ve ever had.

Creating an RPG is hard work. There’s a lot of assets involved - characters, scenery, music, dialogue - and they all have to gel together seamlessly. I’ve heard many accounts of why not to make RPG’s, not just for time-constrained competitions, but as an indie developer in general, for these very reasons. It’s all part of the storytelling, you see. The most important part of an RPG, apparently, is the storytelling.

Why I just don’t get Final Fantasy

Perhaps I don’t see what other games players see in the RPG genre. I like RPG’s, at least in principle, and there’s definitely one of them in my personal Top 5. I like them because of the blend of short-term and long-term strategy. There’s the battles: which attack to use on which enemy, when to use that behemoth spell or that last healing potion. And there’s the long-term development. Which characters do you choose, who do you train, which path do you take, and for what aim?

I played the first half of Final Fantasy IV, and got bored. Then I played the first disc of Final Fantasy VII and also got bored. The games seem to focus on the storyline as the most important element, and the battles seemed to exist only to pad out the space between the reams of dialogue. I could beat nearly every fight by repeatedly selecting the “Attack” command. The others I beat by repeatedly selecting the “Attack” command, then sometimes using healing and resurrection spells.

I had spent twenty hours doing this before I gave up entirely. To me, it was a hugely tedious experience, and I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it so long if it wasn’t so regularly cited as The Greatest Game of All Time. And I can understand why it has this great reputation. It’s because of the storyline. Yet personally I found it a chore.

Look, on the other hand, at Pokémon, and the excellent Shining Force III. The former has very strategic battles,with its paper-scissors-rock mechanic (is it worth giving up a turn to gain the type-advantage?), and its long-term strategies (which of my four moves is it worth giving up for this new one?). Shining Force III is more like chess for the 21st century, with a complex but thrilling battle system where your characters’ position in the landscape is of huge importance. Both are excellent games that I have replayed several times, and both of them have very limited storylines.

The fact of the matter is that there is no reason why the story should be the defining factor of an RPG, yet for some reason it has become the be-all and end-all in the eyes of both players and developers. Unfortunately, it appears the RPG isn’t the only genre that has become a slave to the narrative.

Move over Hollywood

When mainstream cultural media picks up on the rise of games as a medium, the second “interesting fact” they tend to cite (after the one that the games industry now outgrosses the film industry) is that game developers now employ professional writers to write the stories. The Guardian’s G2 supplement (11/12/09) had as its cover a screenshot from Assassin’s Creed II, and the title “Move over Hollywood”. When I first saw Batman: Arkham Asylum and Uncharted 2 on the PS3, my first response was “It looks just like a movie”. Every major title now contains voice acting and FMV sequences. Games are, apparently, the new cinema.

The idea that games are a new way to tell stories is everywhere. And I don’t have a problem with the concept. I agree that games are a new and exciting narrative medium, but I disagree with growing trend that every game has to follow this suit, because I worry that placing disproportionate worth on the storyline will become standard. I also see that the majority of story-centric games seem to focus more on emulating other media such as film and literature, rather than creating their own brand new vocabulary.

The potential of stories in games

From my own point of view, the storyline is an aesthetic element. Just like graphics, music and sound effects, it can add a lot of value to the game, but is by no means the defining factor. In Sonic Adventure 2, the surprisingly engaging story acted as the icing on what to me was a very tasty yet misunderstood cake. Its characters weren’t open books, it pondered some interesting themes such as the value of identity, and most surprisingly, ended ambiguously, with the player left to make up their own mind about who the character Shadow really was. Playing a section of the game and then being treated to a skippable bit of story was a nice treat that gave you a charming break, but it wasn’t forced down your throat if you didn’t want it.

Storylines also offer an extra layer of detail to the setting, which further immerses the player into the audio-visual experience. In Killer 7, the backstory is dark and surreal, adding to the tension and sense of insanity brought on by the stark block colouring and shrieking laughter of the enemies.

But to me, much more memorable is the story of Ikaruga. It’s a story without words. Five stages each with a different emotional hook. An orchestral score that moves through themes as the stage moves through areas. Waves of enemy ships that follow a choreography. It’s a story in the same way as a good symphony is a story (and if you don’t think that’s a good story then listen to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2). It has an emotional progression that moves through different ideas, before moving to an impressive and memorable climax, followed by a beautiful silence.

What Ikaruga does that most other games don’t is that it uses its own vocabulary to tell a story. It uses a vocabulary unique to games. No dialogue, no characters, but a blend of audio-visual elements and kinetic input from the player.

In search of a new vocabulary

What Final Fantasy VII, Uncharted 2 and their compatriots seem to do is emulate novels and films, then add a layer of interactivity. But games are a new medium, an expanding medium, and there is no reason that they should be like literature any more than music should be. They have their own vocabulary, and to shoe-horn them into an existing medium is a waste of potential.

It seems to be the indie gaming world, with its limited budgets and resources, that has taken on the challenge of finding gaming’s unique voice. World of Goo, the outstanding indie smash from developers 2D Boy, has a completely linear storyline, with no way to change the events. Yet every event is caused by the player himself, which makes the story incredibly immersive. Even though you cannot progress through the game without doing so, the fact that you’re the one who physically pulls the switch, presses the big red button, and builds the hot-air balloon, makes you feel actively involved in where it the tale is headed.

There’s also the fact that immersion in a game is much easier than in other media because the player has direct control over a particular avatar. It’s much easier to connect with someone who is an extension of yourself, rather than in a film or novel, where description is relied on to coax the player into a sense of immersion. Game designers aren’t just offered a free ticket to absorbing stories, but also an entirely new way to conceive characters.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is the physicality of the games medium. I can’t think of another form of media which is active rather than passive. Beyond a sense of involvement as mentioned above, there is a very deep and primal cause-and-effect mechanic in games. You move something, it does something. This is something that no other medium does, and there is so much more that can be done using this. About ten years ago, choices seemed to be the mot du jour in games: the user’s ability to change the story as they see fit, something still apparent in games such as Heavy Rain. But the simple physicality of the medium offers an infinite, rather than finite, number of possibilities for what can be done with a given game, and this aspect of the medium is where I feel it holds its true potential.

So what now?

Stories are massive. Everyone loves stories, and has done for as long as humanity can remember. And by all means, the storytelling potential of games should be experimented with and expanded on. But by no means is storytelling the be-all and end-all of games. They are just one aspect of the medium, not the main one. And there are most definitely excellent games that do not have stories at all.

Yet in the mainstream market, story-heavy games have become the norm, and I feel it is disappointing that the great potential of this new medium, still in its infancy, is being wasted. Games are not an extension of film, they are not an extension of books. They are brand new, they have their own vocabulary, and it’s up to us to find it.