Monday, February 21, 2011

Effective storytelling in video games

Let me get one thing straight right off the bat.  I have the utmost respect and admiration for Will Wright.  Without his hard work, the video game industry wouldn't be where it is today. He is a creative genius and a talented mind.  Having said that, I've got to say I also think he's sorely mistaken.  Let me explain ...

Last Friday, ran an article with the headline "'Sims' creator: 'Games are not the right medium to tell stories'".  The article, which was promoting Wright's show, Bar Karma, quoted Wright as saying, "Games are not the right medium to tell stories ... Video games are more about story possibilities."  Now, it's possible that the article may not be putting Wright's statements in the correct context.  Hey, it happens to the best of us sometimes.  But take a minute to read the article for yourself, and then come back here with it fresh in your mind.

Don't worry ... I'll wait.

Back? Good.  So, the way the CNN article presents Wright, it sounds like he's essentially saying that the video game experience should always be open-ended, and can't effectively tell a complete story.  If that's the case, I have to call "Bullshit".  That's right, I'm not mincing words.  It's that line of thinking that hurts the credibility of the game industry as whole.  The fact is, there are plenty of video games on the market that do a phenomenal job of presenting a complete story woven within the fabric of the interactive nature of the game.

Need an example of what I'm talking about?  Just take a look at EA's hit Dead Space franchise.  With Dead Space, EA and Visceral Games have built an amazing universe, complete with compelling characters, a rich background, all kinds of mystery, and more than enough horror to keep you up at night.  Take the first game as a prime example of good video game storytelling.  From the opening shots as the credits roll aboard the USG Kellion answering the distress call of the USG Ishimura Planet Cracker to the race for survival against the Necromorphs to the final, chilling shot with Isaac drifting "alone" in the shuttle, Dead Space kept players glues to the screen wondering what was going to happen next, and it told a thorough and entertaining story.  So how did Dead Space manage to successfully combine the interactive nature of gaming with usually static storytelling normally required to deliver a total and complete plot?  It accomplished the goal by never confining itself to having to be either just a game or just a story.

There's an old adage that says, "Getting there is half the fun." and that's never been more true a statement than it is with a good video game.  Generally speaking, whenever you've got a story to tell, it's got a definitive beginning, middle, and end. A leads to B, which leads to C, and so forth and so on.  What a good video game storyteller realizes is that there's a whole lot ground that you can cover in that space between A and B.  Games like Dead Space succeed by letting the player cover that ground in their own way.  If you think about it, in traditional storytelling, you're trying to tap into that part of your audience's brain that can make them suspend their disbelief and feel like they're actually watching the events unfold in front of them.  In video games, when you allow the player to become the driving force responsible for moving the plot forward, they feel more invested in the story.  Games like Dead Space allow the player some flexibility to progress through the story, but still manage to keep them moving along the necessary path.  The result ends up being a well crafted experience that you as the audience don't simply watch, but you actively participate in and become a part of, as you move along that path to resolution.

That covers games of a linear nature, but what about those games like the Mass Effect series?  Games where changes in the players' decisions have a direct and lasting impact on the progress of the story?  These are cases where A can not only lead to B, but can lead to M, N, O, or any other part of the alphabet.  So how can games like this succeed as storytellers?  Simply put, they succeed by following the same formula, but they tell multiple stories at once.  Instead of guiding the audience along a single predetermined path, these games branch off into different plots at key moments and carry those choices forward throughout the story.  Sometimes choices might take a different path to reach the same conclusions and other times it may lead to a totally different outcome, but it's still put forth as a cohesive narrative.

Before you think presenting multiple plot paths can't be done effectively (which you should know better if you HAVE played any of the Mass Effect games), keep in mind that it's already been done ... and in a "traditional" form of storytelling.  How many of you remember reading the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books when you were younger?  Obviously the books struck a chord with readers, as the original line of books ran for nearly two full decades, starting with Edward Packard's The Cave of Time back in 1979.  Hell, that book alone sported 40 different possible endings (it says so right there on that cover)!!  Okay, so most of them involved Not-So-Happily-Ever-After endings that had you quickly flipping back to the previous page to make a different choice, but the idea remains the same.  You, as the audience, were given a choice as to which path the story would take, accepting the responsibility and consequences of how events would unfold.  Of course, you were still guided along a certain path.  You couldn't just tell the book what you'd do in a given situation.  You had to choose from a predetermined list, with each choice leading to a new branch from the main plot.  Still, the choices you made created an adventure that felt uniquely yours.  Well, if The Cave of Time could do this over thirty years ago in a book that only had 150 pages, why is it so hard to believe that a video game like Mass Effect can craft a unique story over the course of 20-30 hours of gameplay?

Now, I understand that Will Wright is not known for creating video game experiences like Dead Space or Mass Effect.  Games like The Sims and Spore, both of which are Wright's brainchildren, aren't exactly known for their deep plots, nor do they need to be.  Wright's games tend to give players an outlet to just let their imaginations run free.  That's all well and good, and it makes for an entertaining experience, but there's a vast difference between story"building" and story"telling".  It's akin to the difference between watching a Disney movie in the theatre and giving someone a flipbook and a pencil and telling them to make their own.  While there's nothing really wrong with that, I just find it disappointing to hear someone who works so hard to give people the tools to create their own adventures apparently dismiss out of hand the fact that his peers in his chosen field are more than capable of crafting a quality story in that same medium.

Sorry, but this is one time that "Wright" is most definitely wrong.


Anonymous said...

"Getting there is have (half) the fun." :P

Very good points on storytelling and story building! Nice read!

Unknown said...

Yeah, I screwed that line (fixed now). I'll own up to it. My own fault for rushing.

Thanks, though, for also letting me know that it didn't take away from the point I was trying to make.