Question about effective storytelling in the video game medium
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Posted 20 March 2011 - 12:48 PM
Over the past few years, there's been a big push for stories with branching plots that allow players to affect the path through their choices. In my opinion, this is largely a positive thing. It broadens possibilities by taking advantage of what makes the medium unique, player interaction. When executed effectively, it can lead the player to have a deeper buy-in and more carefully consider his/her options. However, depending on its implementation, the realities of developing such a story can mean that as the breadth of options increases, care must be taken to ensure that conflicts in choices don't arise, often at the cost of depth. Games like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain have taken different approaches in tackling these tradeoffs. While I unfortunately haven't had a chance to play the latter (don't own a PS3), from what I've seen of it, regardless of whether it completely succeeds in its goal, it's a step in a positive direction in the larger scheme of things. It aspires to create a deeper connection between the player and the character and place more emphasis on player decisions. Sometimes, though, it can feel as though choices are just slapped in there just for the sake of it.
Another often-cited factor in video game storytelling is that the player's freedom of action can lead in-game characters to do things that go against their nature, and can hamper the use of timing to create dramatic tension. People often complain about how so many supposedly "good" characters end up as mass-murderers because of how the gameplay is set up and how many bad guys they have to blast their way through, or they point out how silly it is that an NPC will wait forever for a player, even in a supposedly time-sensitive situation. As a writer, I can understand the complaint, but at the same time, as a programmer and a player, I also see where the problem arises; I want to create a fun brawler-like battle system and play around with the physics engine. At the end, I'm likely going to have to make a sacrifice, perhaps setting aside some of the things I want to accomplish and incorporating them into another project instead.
One big strength I find that games have is the very strong potential for creating a great sense of setting and atmosphere. Half Life 2 and Okami, in my opinion, both do a great job of pulling you into the world that they've created. However, I also don't find that either of them has a particularly strong plot.
Personally, I feel that game narratives have progressed a great deal over the years, but there's still a long way to go. Many of the stories that I remember fondly from my childhood just don't hold up as well now, and even most of the ones these days are just "pretty good... for a game". Of course, I don't have the audacity to claim that I have the talent to surpass any of them; I've just been wondering... is the broad, multi-branched story the inevitable future of video games, if they wish to progress as a storytelling medium? Do we, as writers, just need to accept the tradeoffs inherent in the technology and embrace the advantages that come along with them? Or, is there still untapped potential in the realm of the single-line story? Are there techniques unique to video games that we can take advantage of to convey a deep and mature, character-driven plot, without sacrificing the enjoyment of the game itself?
Once this discussion has run its course, I've got other thoughts I'd like to share on related topics, but this post is long enough as it is, I think.
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Posted 20 March 2011 - 02:39 PM
I didn't play either Heavy Rain or Mass Effect, but i did play Indigo Prophecy and Jade Empire. Indigo was an interesting game, and did involve the player in the story in several ways. The thing is, i never felt like i was making choices, i was just filling requirements for one branch and making notes to come back to another. The freedom to come back and try a different branch felt like tedium. Jade Empire was worse--i don't know if there was a branching story (never finished), but i never felt like any decision had a real impact. A problem when a game allows moral ambiguity is that you can't have serious consequence for choosing bad over good, or good over bad in the right situation.
On the other hand, i very much liked Deus Ex 2 for the Xbox. It's less that the story line branches and more that your decisions directly affected how everything would play out. You could sneak, go in guns blazing, or even achieve your goal through dialog at times. Listening to interviews by Warren Spector, he's mentioned how players have found solutions to puzzles that he never envisioned. But when you look at the narrative, you don't have a lot of attachment to the character. A victim of freedom is personality.
I could go on, but the point is i don't like branching paths being added to a game as a form of forced participation of the player in the story and as an illusion of choice.
Most of the games i found with great stories these days are very short, independent creations that tell a very simple, but involving story. Here are some links. I believe that game storytelling is very effective in games when the story is simple and related to the gameplay.
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Posted 20 March 2011 - 05:01 PM
In the witcher you come across situations where you have to chose one side. You may try to stay neutral, but one side will not accept anything but you taking their side. This is not unrealistic.
Your choices have som consequences in terms of variations in the story, and how some of the characters will react to you.
The more unique part is that there's no good and evil choice, only shades of (dark) gray. Especially by giving you hard choices,
you get more involved in the story, and the witcher excels here.
In bioware games it boils more down to reward vs if you're playing good or evil.
The witcher has some branching storytelling, and did it improve the game? Yes!
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Posted 20 March 2011 - 05:39 PM
Interactive storytelling on the other hand is not a mature medium. Which means that, yes, if you want to push a medium, that one has evolutionary potential. But the other side of the coin is that you have to sacrifice some of the more impressive things linear games can do to pursue interactivity, and what you manage to accomplish with your experiment may not turn out as polished or balanced as you could have accomplished with a linear game.
I dunno. Personally I love interactivity and really look forward to games that will be more like living an interactive story, but I've seen interactivity done so badly so many times that I hesitate to argue in favor of it. Creating a good linear story is already plenty hard, creating an equally good interactive story is definitely harder.
I have a general interest in 1. games involving pet breeding or farming, and 2. interactive story romance. If you'd like to discuss one of these you may PM me.
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Posted 20 March 2011 - 09:28 PM
"Or, is there still untapped potential in the realm of the single-line story? Are there techniques unique to video games that we can take advantage of to convey a deep and mature, character-driven plot, without sacrificing the enjoyment of the game itself?"
What does "mature" mean to you? What sort of gameplay do you want to have for a game that has a mature plot?
I am asking this because personally, if you give me a game where I am given a gun to shoot at enemies, I think no matter what you do I would think that the game is immature. Because the game wasn't designed for someone who had passed the enemy-driven motivation stage.