Bar Banter: Video Game Stories
Imagine you are in the middle of a movie, all the major players are moving into position for what you can only assume is the beginning of the climax, battle lines have been drawn, weapons have been raised, and you are asked to take out the book provided to you and read pages 35-40 to get the details of the fight. How would you react to that?
The example may seem a bit extreme, but to me that’s how video game cutscenes always come off. They are obstructive to the user’s experience. I don’t want a game to stop and explain to me what is going on. If I wanted a more passive experience I would watch movies.
I’m not opposed to video games having stories in them, some of the best games I’ve played featured pretty decent ones, nothing ever to write home about, but that’s me. My problem comes whenever a game can never find a better way to tell a story than stopping for 5-10 minutes to explain what’s happening and what’s gonna happen.
“But how do you tell a story?” I can hear some people asking, and frankly I’m not a developer nor ever intend to be so I don’t have the answers to that, but I can give you examples that worked, and why.
The simplest solution is currently my favorite, have the story thrown about the world. Even though both Borderlands and Arkham Asylum featured cutscenes, a lot of the story was told by tapes/recordings/evidence you found throughout the world. This is a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t completed the game yet, but there is an entire subplot in Arkham Asylum where you never get a cutscene nor interact with the foe, but the story is told terrifically through collectible items.
Another example that may be a bit extreme, but works in a way was the Metroid Prime series, which again used cutscenes, but most of the story and backstory was told through logs you collected and could read at your leisure. The game also tied it into your progress making it something that wasn’t needed, but you felt compel to do.
Portal is a fine example of a game that tells a pretty damn good story without ever once resorting to the use of cutscenes. The story is told through, and I hate to use the pun, the writing on the wall. Actually come to think of it, Valve are master artisans when it comes to this, I can’t remember any cutscenes in Half-Life/2 (bare with me, its been some years since played either), and aside from an opening movie neither of the Left 4 Dead games feature cutscenes but still have extremely gripping tales. Again, its the subtle things you do in your game that help enhance the experience, not giving me 20 minutes lectures of what I should have been doing.
There’s more to it then that, and I hope in the future developers become more creative with their story telling. There is however just one more minor point I wanted to touch on and that was building characters in game. The best example that comes to mind is Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, in which you have a spineless and cowardly main character during the cutscenes, but becomes a bad-ass during battles because he has like a spirit within him. I’m sorry, but that’s just awful you can’t try and create a cowardly main character, but not have it carry out throughout the rest of the game. Take Luigi’s Mansion for example, he is built as a coward and that plays into the game. If you are gonna develop your character make sure it fits what you want to do game play wise.
The other thing I wanted to talk about, which was the main point, is you don’t always need dialog and fancy stories for character development. I LOVE the Uncharted games, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what either game was about story wise, but I could tell you that the character of Nathan Drake is an heroic fool, who makes light of his situation. And is that all from cutscenes? No, most of that comes from just random things he says throughout the course of the game, it also worked great for the Prince in Prince of Persia.
Anyhow, I think I rambled for long enough, that gives you an idea on my stance on story in games.
Interesting article, although I disagree with your initial “book-reading” analogy. The transferance from one passive (i.e. non-interactive / controllable) medium to another passive medium isn’t comparable to the videogame cutscene experience, where you go from an interactive (“game”) section into a non-participative (“cutscene”) section.
I have no problem with cutscenes – they serve to keep the action ticking over, explain complex plot points and generally provide exposition when this would be cumbersome for the player if had to be played through.
I agree that Portal managed to do the whole game without cutscenes – and was indeed a masterful experience, but let’s not forget there IS a cutscene right at the end where GLaDOS explodes and you end up outside (recently updated to provide an introduction for P2). Would that ending be better if you still had control? I can’t see it!
Cutscenes for me can be positive if done correctly – as you did, I enjoyed the uncharted games immensely (and they contained loads of cutscenes) – but only detracts (IMHO!) if the transition from game to cutscene is jarring or poorly executed, either in terms of quality (real-time to pre-rendered with obvious quality differences) or relevance.
Those are all fair points, but as I pointed out, I still think there are better ways of telling a story without taking direct control away from the user.
The movie to book example was an extreme, but I find the change just as jarring.
hehe i guess mgs wont be your cup of tea then.