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It's been a big week in the world of video games. With the release of big titles like Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea Part 2, which have both received positive reviews. There were also some smaller games released, like Fez on Playstation and Mercenary Kings. This week is also the introduction of more complex questions in our weekly User Discussion series. This week, much like MGS and BioShock, is about storytelling. Thanks for reading, and we hope you enjoy!
Is Storytelling in video games important?
The problem in your question is whether we're talking about storytelling in games or narrative, because these are two related but very different things. Storytelling is the art direction, the music, the level design, the assets, the gameplay, the pacing, and everything else coming together in one massive swirl of emotions and aesthetics. By comparison, narrative is merely a single part that pertains to all written plot, dialogue, and text in the game. It's the story, but not the whole story, just the part you can tell with or without gameplay (although if you can tell it without gameplay, you've either got a very basic story or a very bad story for a game).
I believe storytelling is important because without it we'd have no context or anything to define our games. They literally would just be abstract equations playing out in a basic 3D plane. It wouldn't work, as much as people swear that "games don't need stories", they do. Counter-Strike is often used as an example for a game without a story. Except, it actually has a story. It's about terrorists and counter-terrorists fighting over homeland safety in numerous countries in a hard-hitting, incredibly tense shoot out that can leave an entire squad of good or vile men dead to rights. You only have one life and have to make it count before you're taken out from behind by a knifing anarchist. Where in that is there no story? It sounds like you've got something there to me, they just don't try to fit a pre-written narrative in it. The narrative is your experience every round. You write your own story and own awesome and tragic moments. Are they always going to feel like that? No, but that's because amazing plays don't happen every single minute.
The problem of it not always feeling awesome is partially attributed to linear games' new dependency on set piece moments. Don't get me wrong, a good set piece works very well. So does a section that's purely about letting you be your own brand of badass. Max Payne 3 is an incredibly linear game yet also has a surprising number of moments where it pulls back, gives you a miniature sandbox to do a bullet ballet, and lets you go. The office shoot out and the airport sequence are still linear shooting fair, but are designed in just such a way to encourage you to push your luck and feel like John McClane or the Terminator. Instead though, we're seeing less of those moments that at least give an illusion of freedom and more moments that are just glorified cutscenes with button prompts.
For some, the novelty of being able to replicate a cutscene's action under your control is appealing. Unfortunately, it's held us back in our narrative capabilities. Instead of trying to blend the story into gameplay, we're doing the opposite and trying to blend gameplay into story. This is like building the roof of your house and then remembering you have to build the rest of it to. You'll have a very nice roof, but you constantly have to make a massive effort to lift it out of the way to do the rest of your work, and you'll probably just take the easier way out to get it done quickly instead of just starting at the bottom like you should have. Gameplay has to come first, but that doesn't mean you can't make narrative come immediately after or almost alongside it. That's how Bioshock worked, the story changed to suit the gameplay's needs and gave a sense of coherent design. Building it all in a far more fluid, writer-style of gameplay and narrative shifting far more in unison to the gameplay's benefit can be a headache and costly for the constant iteration, but it gets us games like Bioshock, Dead Space, Arkham Asylum, Gotham City Imposters, and Titanfall. So yes, storytelling in the world is important, but so is the narrative and how it relates to the gameplay. It's all very messy yet specific, thanks to games being both something of an art and a science. One's fluid and hard to pin down, the other is calculated and specific. The important thing is learning to go for what is an individual idea instead of trying to just appease some demographic with any particular element bent around that. That is not to say an experiment is unneeded for any given idea, just that it should be taken wearily and given it's own time to grow. You can make a game about almost anything, but making it enriching and fun is the hard part. - Paradigmthefallen
Like so many components, I'd have to say it depends on the game. Storytelling isn't something that gaming grew up with from the get-go of arcade machines and 8-bit consoles. I would say that it's grown to be as certain audiences have demanded it. Storytelling, as opposed to purely interactive based experiences from gameplay alone, is a very different way of looking at a world through a narration than pure exploration. Sometimes it's guided in more of a fashion than I'd like, but I feel it's a unique way for designers to impart ideas onto players that they otherwise might never know themselves. I like it to an extent, but in moderation when it's in a game that I play rather than just watch. Game makers have to tread that fine line between when to put the controller down and when to pick it back up. It's important to add a kind of extra depth to a game, but not alone. - Tim Gruver
I think gameplay is a bigger element to a game than story is. You can make a game like The Last of Us, with a compelling story and great characters, but it's not going to work if the gameplay isn't there, or is all together broken. Gameplay comes first, in my opinion at least. - Zbad805
Storytelling is an important part of some video games, but not all of them. In many games, notably RPG and Action/Adventure games, storytelling is very important as an enjoyable conduit for the narrative. For other games, like Puzzle and Platformer games, storytelling is not quite so important and often has no impact on the progression of the gameplay. Some games use storytelling in ways that are as important to the overall experience as gameplay or graphics. Metroid Prime, for example, tells the story mostly through the data logs of the Space Pirates and the lore of the Chozo. The data logs and lore are accessible only through exploring the world of Tallon IV and scanning the environment. In doing this, players are immersed in the world of Metroid Prime by partaking in elements that are integral to the Metroid experience, rather than having a series of scripted cutscenes (although there are a handful of cutscenes sprinkled in). In the case of a game like Donkey Kong Country or Super Mario Bros, the storytelling is tertiary and almost nonexistent. For those games, storytelling is not so important to the overall experience, as it does little to alter the progression of the gameplay or enhance the mood. - Thomas Stensland
Do you think that storytelling has drastically improved over the years, or just writing in general?
It's interesting that you differentiate between storytelling and writing, because there definitely seems to be a difference between the two. I'd say it's very much akin to speaking to an audience as opposed to writing a research paper. Both are just as important means of communicating a story of sorts to people, but the former's more casual while the latter's more technical. So it is with video-games. I'd say that storytelling is more similar to world-buidling, being more reliant on vision and idea pitching like you have in Bioshock, Mass Effect, or Metal Gear Solid whereas games like Uncharted and Paper Mario that boast the better dialogue, pacing, and characterization.
If I could say anything about this past generation, I'd say that storytelling became far more of a forefront in gaming than anything else. The Assassin's Creeds of the last few years have made me take more leaps of faith than just one in their story lines, but they have still been great fun anyhow as guilty pleasures more than art. I've never been sold on "realism" ever truly driving our games as much as developers try to for every stunt challenge in GTA V, but I think games are better off balancing the fantastic in the mundane. - Tim Gruver
I don't really think storytelling in itself has improved that much over the years. I believe what we've advanced in is our ability to use the technology we have to tell those stories. If we had the technology we have today back in the 1980's, I'm sure the developers of that time would have been able to come up with stories just as incredible as the ones we have today. At the dawn of cinema, people were just as good at thinking of stories as they are now. However, it took time to figure out how to use the technology that goes into movies to tell these stories. I think it's the same with games. It's not that the storytelling itself is better now, we've just gotten better at using the technology we have to do it. - Adam Kaye
To be honest I don't think things have changed that drastically other than the style of writing and the standard it's held to. We still get things like Red Faction: Armageddon and even our best works like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us are either overly familiar stories simply told through games or have massive plot holes to explain away complicated ideas faster than you can say "Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor". We're getting somewhere but as I said above, we've been hamstrung by certain focuses that have held back more experimental types of narratives, but give or take another few years, we should start to see the water mark rise up in next-gen as people finally start to demand better quality for their money. That's one of the few things that makes me happy about next-gen, people finally have the leverage to demand better products right now because there's still a huge percentage that haven't jumped ship yet. - Paradigmthefallen
I'm not so sure storytelling has changed very much over the last few years, but the prefered methods of storytelling seem to have shifted towards cinematic experiences recently. Most AAA titles we see today favor massive hollywood-style productions in their storytelling, like Uncharted, Call of Duty, Metal Gear Solid (post Sons of Liberty) and Gears of War, where most cutscenes are replaced by more interactive,cinematic breaks from traditional gameplay that maintains the player's control of the action. We've seen this kind of thing since the first Shenmue game, but it's recently become the most prefered method of storytelling in the Western market. - Thomas Stensland
Do you think that video games should focus more on story or other elements such as gameplay?
I suppose I said it once, and I'll say it again, but it always does depend on the game. I'm a firm believer that not all games have to tell stories, or very deep ones at that, but I would say there's something to be said for accomplishing what you set out to do.Cinematic gaming's been the latest craze of the PS2's generation and onward from Snake Eater to The Last of Us, and it's certainly opened the doors to the kind of Hollywood that gaming's become. I still do adore many of the stories we've gotten from that shift, but I'd say it's not and won't ever be considered a "standard" for the majority of games. People enjoy story-driven games for the variety I believe. It's most exciting to drop yourself into something like Infamous or Ratchet & Clank only to come down from that high with something more gameplay driven like Need for Speed or Super Mario 3D World. Video-game storytelling is going to become more important than ever, but only as a complement to everything else. - Tim Gruver
It really depends on the game. For a game like Super Mario Bros, there's no need to develop a complex narrative or storytelling methods. The focus of development should be on crafting challenging platforming and novel mechanics. Some games, like Uncharted or Heavy Rain, have the goal in mind to present a complex narrative that engross players in the plot and characters. In those cases, storytelling takes precedence over other gameplay elements. - Thomas Stensland
The most important thing for a game to have is balance between its storytelling and gameplay. Honestly I think gameplay is the more important out of the two though. No matter how good a game's story is, if the gameplay isn't good I won't trouble myself with buying the game; rather I'd just watch a walkthrough to get the story. Still, no matter how great the gameplay is, unless there's a good story to keep me interested, I'll probably have difficulty investing a lot of time into the game because I'll get bored with it. There are exceptions though, mostly in the arcade and multiplayer realm. - Adam Kaye
As I said, the focus should start on gameplay and making it stand out on it's own, then immediately building a story around that that fits and makes sense. Some kind of context for it all, even the most bare, is better than nothing in almost every case, especially for AAA games. Narrative should also be built around the core gameplay mechanics and aesthetics as soon as possible. In the rare case you can get narrative and gameplay out of the gate together, working fluildly as one unit in an entertaining way, you work as hard as you can to make that the best game you can with that lightning in a bottle that you've got. - Paradigmthefallen
Does focusing on story give a game a drastic advantage or disadvantage in the market?
That entirely depends upon the market and niche you're aiming for. If it's an adventure game, yeah, you want a strong narrative and storytelling focus unless your only objective is to make it a puzzle heavy experience with little narrative to go on. If it's grinding action-RPG, narrative isn't usually as big a deal even if storytelling still helps in keep things varied and giving a distinction to the world. You can't just make a blanket statement about it for every game or even for every genre, these sort of things are a case by case basis and there's not much else I can say on it. You've got to focus on what works for your game. - Paradigmthefallen
I won't lie when I say it's probably always going to be a rule that story-driven games will always be standing in the shadows of the social phenomenons of its gameplay driven rivals. Franchises like GTA and Titanfall are probably always going to be the system-sellers that games like The Order can never be. That said, it doesn't mean that our Bioshocks and Stanley Parables can't be successful, but only within their particular arenas. Story-driven titles just need to know what they're trying to be to their audience. I would tell anyone that The Last of Us wouldn't be anything to carry the PS3 itself in sales if it got anything less than a row of 10/10s. Short of that kind of all-star exception, story-driven titles are just out to pay for themselves with a tidy profit to boot as long as they learn to overspend and concentrate on what makes them: Stories. - Tim Gruver
Focusing on story does give a game an advantage in the market as it allows for more people to get interested in the game. Also, good storytelling in games allows the industry to compete with the older forms of entertainment media such as books and movies, which focus primarily on story. Games open up an entire new world of potential for storytelling because it allows players to take an active role in the story as it moves forward, as opposed to simply observing a story someone else has put in front of you. There's something so much more enthralling about playing Assassin's Creed II, as opposed to simply reading the novel adaptation which tells the same story, and that thing is the fact that you, as the player, move the story forward with your own actions. - Adam Kaye
In our current market, I would say that storytelling doesn't have much impact on the success of games. The most important advantage a game can have in our market is a solid online multiplayer component. An obvious and very recent example would be Titanfall. Does that game even have a plot? For other examples, one can look at Call of Duty, Battlefield, GTA and Pokemon. The reason Call of Duty and Battlefield are popular is because of their online multiplayer components. GTA has a single-player campaign that's just as popular as it's online component, but how many gamers laud the GTA series for it's storytelling, as opposed to it's sandbox gameplay? Pokemon has a plot, but it inevitably revolves around the gameplay aspect of catching, raising, and trading Pokemon. Games that feature stand-out storytelling appear to come in second to games that feature novel gameplay aspects. - Thomas Stensland
Of course they are important, just not for every game. Without the mind bending plot, BioShock Infinite's world, characters, gameplay, etc would be pointless. I suppose that goes without saying, but there are a few games that have done similar things. *Cough* Brink *cough*, but I digress.
Seeing as the very first game was Pong, and we now have games like... BioShock... I'd day so. I don't have much to add other than that, unfortunately. As many have said above, it depends on the game. I don't want a long detailed backstory as to why I'm blowing everything up in Just Cause or Mercenaries, but it is great when I'm given a purpose to what I'm doing. I suppose story-driven games will always be doomed to be a minority in the market, though I do hope it will pick up with the new generation consoles. - Myself
Storytelling for some games is important, but for others, it should be a secondary after thought. Miyamoto has stated several times that story in The Legend of Zelda, comes second. And I hope it stays that way. A Zelda game with an overly heavy narrative, like, say, Uncharted, just wouldn't feel like a Zelda game. Now, this in no way detracts from my love of the stories told in Zelda, however, I acknowledge them for what they are: Fairy Tales. To me, they are just the Grimm's Fairy Tales of today, and thus, there is no real need for a lot more character development and such. Overall, I think that storytelling hasn't improved, but writing has. Video games seem to rely too much on familiar settings for them to be considered AAA games. The only game I would say that has paved a clearer path for video games is the Mass Effect games. My mother, who is a literature buff (and almost had her degree in it), has continually stated that video games are poorly written and can't tell good stories, and most likely won't for a good long while. That was until she watched me beat the Project Overlord mission in Mass Effect 2. It made her cry. My mother. Cried. Over a video game. Something that she had deemed..well, pathetic. I know use this whenever I need to make a case for video game storytelling to her.
Gameplay is first, story second. You can have a killer narrative written, but if the gamplay is broken, it won't be loved. As for games that focus on story.. well, I think that they are at a distinct disadvantage. One of the problems I have with games that are narrative heavy is that of the question “Where is the gameplay?” I am not a big fan of QTE either, and I much prefer non-linear games. Furthermore by just looking at the numbers, you can see that while games like the Last of Us have sold well, the constantly good selling games are Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed type games. Ones that have a narrative, but not a cut-scene or QTE every thirty seconds. - RedQueen
Thank you for reading! And thanks to Adam Kaye, Paradigmthefallen, Tim Gruver, Thomas Stensland, and zbad805 for participating! Have anything to add to the discussion? Comment below!