The Dord of Darien

Musings from the Mayor of the Internet

Darien’s quick guide to storytelling

you idiots.

Storytelling is a big thing in video games these days. Last year’s big triumverate of storytelling games — Portal, Bioshock, and Mass Effect — ensured that it’s on everybody’s mind, and this year brought us the veritable Big Daddy of story-cutscene games: Metal Gear Solid 4. Everybody’s trying to tell a bigger, better story.

Well, knock it the fuck off. Storytelling is not something you want in your video game, because we’re not playing your video game to be told a goddamn thing. There are lots of books and movies and TV shows in the world if we want to lounge around and be told a story — and now that YouTube’s arrived and they’re all free and easily-accessible, hey, so much the simpler. What makes video games different from other media in the story sweepstakes isn’t that we have to jump through hoops to get to the next cutscene (well, except in some games I could name), but that they can involve us in their stories in ways that purely static media cannot. Stop telling the player your story and start involving the player in it.

Whenever I see a game where all the "story" bits happen in prerendered cutscenes with voiceovers, I’m automatically turned off of it, because I know the story’s going to be happening at me rather than around me. For the most part, the story will be happening in its predefined arc, and I’ll be walking around from cutscene to cutscene and not really participating at all — my decisions won’t actually have any weight. Getting the player’s decisions to matter while at the same time keeping the game in a sensible scope isn’t easy, to be sure, but that’s no excuse — lots of games have done this with some degree of success. Bioware got into that sort of thing through the Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic games; I’m told Mass Effect is actually very good about reacting to the player’s choices rather than forcing the player to follow along.

When reviewers praised Xenosaga for its incredible storytelling, they were just being lazy. It’s pretty easy to review a game that’s all movies; you can pretty much write the review while the cutscenes are running, and as long as you use the words "edgy" and "anime" and make sure you provide plenty of warnings that "this game is not for everybody," you’re off the hook. And when reviewers praised Portal for its storytelling, they were just being incoherent — hey guys, I don’t mean to be a wet blanket here, but Portal didn’t have any storytelling on account of Portal didn’t have a story. I’m serious. What’s the story in Portal? "Run?"

No. What Portal had was an interesting character who reveals herself to you over the course of the game and — importantly — while you play the game. You meet GLaDOS through her responses to your actions. Valve used the same idea to good effect previously, in Half-life 2: Episode One, where the player is introduced to Alyx in the same way. But this isn’t storytelling — in neither case are you being told a story. It is, in fact, better than storytelling; it’s a way of involving the player in the world of the game. It’s not the only way, and those are certainly not the only two games that do it successfully, but it’s an important illustration nonetheless; what all you guys got so moist and breathy over in Portal wasn’t storytelling. Please stop saying it is before another fucking Xenosaga game comes out.

August 15th, 2008 Posted by | Games | no comments

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