Narrative Alone Does Not a Story Make.
During this lull in new releases that always tags along the end of summer I’ve taken to the pursuit of the platinum trophy for Bioshock 2. During this second playthrough I’m remembering what makes a game like Bioshock more engaging on so many levels when compared to other games with equal or superior budgets.
Over this last generation of consoles we’ve seen the level a player engages with their game become the most important focus of developers. Along this, it has been suggested that the storyline is the most important factor to consider when addressing player involvment. This is partially true, however a video game is not a stagnant entity. Unlike books or movies, which remain constant each time they are reviewed, video games contain the potential to deliver a slightly different perspective to each player depending on that individual player’s involvement with the game. Because of this, games need to approach story-telling differently than either of these two genres.
It’s easy to spot a game with a horrible story. But one in particular that serves as an excellent example is Final Fantasy XIII. FFXIII was toted by the developers as having all the emphasis being focused onto the story of the characters. To do so, the developers removed any kind of exploration until the storyline itself was near completion. The game went something like:
Walk forward -> cutscene -> cutscene -> bossfight -> walk forward -> cutscene -> repeat.
Along with exploration, any ability to converse with NPC’s was removed, replaced with characters who talk into the air if you should walk by. In essence the only influence the player had on the story was to deliver the characters from cutscene A to cutscene B in order to continue the narrative.
So what did this do? People hated it! Not only did it strip away what the core of an RPG is, that being the ability to explore a world and control the level of involvement one has with the game, but the story itself was reduced to dialogues between six characters who themselves weren’t very dynamic to begin with.
Now, let’s go back to a game like Bioshock. Bioshock succeeds where most fail because it doesn’t bother telling the player what doesn’t need to be told. The core of Bioshock is its environment, Rapture. What was once a utopia has now become a rundown, anarchic underwater city. When the player explores this environment, they discover through observation and the occasional diary what this city once was and what it has become.
Here is an example of storytelling gold: In Bioshock 2, towards the end of the “Ryan Amusements” level, you flip a switch that opens all the security doors in the area. One of these doors has been locked since the beginning of the level. If you investigate the room behind that door, you discover the gene tonic “Booze Hound,” which enables you to recover both Adam and Eve when consuming alcoholic drinks. Look around the room and you’ll find it is littered in all kinds of beer, gin, and vodka bottles. To one side is a mattress, blanket, and candles, and a book. On the floor, the corpse of a man, skeletal and hunched in the fetal position.
This is what storytelling in games should be. The above example is the story of a man trying to survive in a city gone insane, and not a single line of dialogue is spoken. Indeed, there isn’t a diary to be found in the area. It’s a classic show, NOT tell technique utilized in the very best of novels and cinema. Yet in this example, it’s up to the player to discover the room and put together the story themselves. Game designers seem to be so scared that players will miss out on the point of a story if it’s not shoved in their face. Thing is, the players that care about a story will seek it out, and those just there to play would ignore it all anyways.
Cutscenes and dialogue can only do so much for a game. If the player doesn’t feel involved in discovering what a game is about, the game is going to sour. What made older Final Fantasy’s draw the player in wasn’t simply the narrative. The worlds themselves, talking to the NPC’s, exploring the towns, discovering little secrets here and there, are what really gave these games their shape and value. When games remove these things, or ignore them altogether, then once the mechanics themselves are mastered there is nothing to keep the player involved.