Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What makes a good video game story?

I recently came across a list of the 25 best stories in video games. Personally I think the list was awful, but it did start making me think about what exactly makes up a good story for video games. Thinking directly that story = plot I dismissed a whole bunch of games on the list, including ones that I really love and made a huge impact on me. Shadow of the Colossus for example was instantly dismissed, because the plot was so damn simple. Even if the setting was gorgeous, and the gameplay intuitive. I even scoffed at Ocarina of Time being in the top spot because the plot of that game was also so generic and simple.

It was almost embarrassing to see such simple plots make it into this list. If these stories were converted to the written word they would barely be able to take up a picture book! But, there's the catch! We're not dealing with the written word, we're dealing with a completely different medium! Games have a great many number of techniques to tell a story. Identifying how our basic elements of narrative affect a video game's overall story is the first way one can identify what makes a good story. There are also one or two additional elements that contribute to narrative that are completely unique to video games!

Going back to plot... A game's plot may be generic good vs. evil. it maybe something more, it may be something less. Ideally, a good game plot should not be forced, in that it shouldn't interrupt gameplay. No giant unnecessary walls of text that drag on and on, no pointless cut-scenes that drag on and on until you're finally dropped off at a place where gameplay actually happens. Plot should motivate the player to play (or continue playing), and plot should reward the player for advancing through the game.

What about the other elements of literature? Well, setting can make a big impact on a game, not only as arenas for play, but also as a way to remind a player of the story or provide immersion into the game. What would Bioshock be with out the leaky corridors of Rapture? What would Shadow of the Colossus be with out it's isolated, lonely overworld? What would Fallout 3 be without it's post-apocalyptic 50's themed world? These elements are essential to a good story.

While there are many other elements of literature we can delve into there is one more, I feel I should touch on before moving on to talking about gameplay, and that is character. In a game with several character options the characters should be unique to one another, and the overall plot and style of the game should be apply to the character's style and backstory. But, when constructing one single character for the player to the inhabit is infinitely more difficult. One of the most difficult things to address in gaming today is the continuing practice of a mute main character. Back when consoles were limited by their audio hardware, having a mute character is understandable. Nobody would want to click through dialog boxes, when the game was focus on action, but, these days we have characters that are in epic stories that still remain mute or mostly mute. Whether or not this is a wise choice, is a discussion for another post.

The last thing that contributes to story in video games is gameplay. This is the one element of story that is completely unique to gaming and yet... in many cases we find it woefully underutilized. Games have the potential to modify a users' emotions, make them feel confined, carefree, worried, or challenged just by manipulating how the game plays. Many games may have all the other elements of story work just right, but, the gameplay just never works out. Unfortunately, I have seen many RPGs fall prey to this problem. While the story and setting maybe unique, there a never any real elements in battle or in exploration that reflect these elements the battle system seems completely separate tacked on or phoned in. Many dialog heavy games fall prey to this too. If a game wants to use dialog often it should be influence by the players decisions. Luckily, games are remedying this by making the dialog take place during gameplay. Some games such as Mass Effect, Heavy Rain, or Phoenix Wright make dialog one of the primary gameplay elements, and are able to tell very complex dialog heavy stories without boring or alienating the player.

Only by having all the above elements work in sync can a game have a truly great story. While many games may have great plots, not incorporating gameplay does not do the medium justice. Only through video games can some stories be told, and have the impact that they do.

35 comments:

  1. My favourite story would have to be FF VIII, bit cliche but oh well! Also good to see Snake Eater so high, freaking loved that game.

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  2. I only play LoL nowadays so wondering how someone has this much talk about games lol

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  3. i always thought a fighting game like street fighter but in first person and have it be a rpg aswell. and your character travels the land fighting others.

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  4. I don't think anyone will ever get a perfect list of the "top games" because peoples opinions will vary. But I do agree, when I'm playing a single player game, if there's not a good story I'm just gonna put it down.

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  5. everyone knows mario has the best story...

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  6. Totally agree buddy! good read btw.

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  7. awesome post, keep em comin dude!

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  8. thats interesting stuff ive never thought of it like that. im mostly a sports video game kind of guy haha no plot there

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  9. I believe Red Dead has the best storyline in my opinion.

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  10. I've never considered that before, great post.

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  11. And then there's fallout, where no one can even keep track of what's happening.

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  12. I'm also a fellow LoLer so idc about story LOL

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  13. yeah, nowadays games are not as good as let's say 10 years ago, now they have graphics and that's all, but where's story line? anyways, great read, following

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  14. A good game is a good game indeed

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  15. In my opinion, graphics arent too important in creating a great game.
    Look at minecraft?
    Simple, blocky and chunky yet it's ridiculously successful.

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  16. Is it the sex? Is it the violence? Is it the drugs?

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  17. I prefer RPG, so story's are a pretty big deal for me

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  18. This is probably one of the best things i've read all day bro. Awesome, check mine out and we'll talk video game music!

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  19. good post man keep on going
    +1 follower

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  20. In my opinion it is hard to have a "formula" for a good game, many people have different opinions, if it is intriguing to me, then I will most likely like it!

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  21. Nothing pisses me off more than a "tragic hero" storyline in a video game

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  22. You should have covered the concept of including mesothelioma in PC games in there somewhere!

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  23. I'm not a RPG fan more into sports games and GTA so I guess story is less important. I always think the GTA storylines are great but are totally repetitive at this stage.

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  24. very well said sir, and i agree with your general idea on video game stories.

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  25. the story of the SP and SP gameplay is what appeals to me the most before MP tbh

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  26. i feels like the atmosphere is just as important. Games like bioshock dont necessarily have groundbreaking plots but they have such an immersing atmosphere and really artisticlly written

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  27. First of all, I LOVE this post! you could easily break it up into a MILLION different specific areas.
    That being said, I think the overall goal of any game is not just fun, but the element that makes it dynamic and memorable, immersion. Plot only goes so far without good characters, detailed setting and memorable engagin elements.

    GREAT BLOG!! Following till death.

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