Thursday, May 28, 2009

Storytelling and Interactivity

We're all pretty used to video games telling stories by now. I've gone at length about the topic before. But one aspect of game storytelling I didn't cover in that lecture is how games are equipped to tell stories in a completely unique way.

Games have told their stories using several methods: cutscenes, scripted events, texts scattered across the world, NPC dialogue and others. Our medium has taken narrative conventions from literature, cinema and theater and used them to great effect.

But games are more than just a combination of other media. What makes games a truly unique medium is interactivity, and games rarely take advantage of that feature when telling a story.

I should qualify that statement: a certain level of interactivity is usually present. You aren't just sitting there watching a story being told from beginning to end. You are fighting the battles, navigating the world and interacting with the characters. You are accomplishing the goals necessary to keep the story moving forward. But outside of this common system, interactivity is rarely taken advantage of. And I think that's a shame.

Enter Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear fame. Now, I won't deny that Kojima has his flaws. He direly needs an editor to trim down his dialogue, but I am perfectly happy to overlook that shortcoming because of what Kojima does right. Though his games tell stories in an almost purely cinematic fashion, he uses interactivity at key moments to tell stories in a way no other game does.

Let me give you an example. I'm about to go deep into spoiler territory, so if you haven't played Metal Gear Solid 3 yet, beware. Also, shame on you.

At the end of Metal Gear Solid 3, there is a scene immediately after the final boss fight where Snake stands over his defeated enemy, a woman who is very dear to him: The Boss. Though Snake cares very much for this woman, he is duty-bound to end her life. After they exchange some parting words, Snake lifts his gun and prepares to fire. We cut to an overhead camera shot, looking down on the tragic scene and we wait as Snake hesitates to fire. And we keep waiting.

And then we realize: I have to do it. I have to pull the trigger.

Suddenly, the already somber event is even more painful. Snake doesn't want to shoot and neither do we. But neither of us has a choice. We can't complete his mission or the game until the act is done. With just a small measure of interactivity, a merely saddening cutscene becomes heartbreaking.

That is a glimpse of the potential this medium has. That is something games can do that no other storytelling medium can. If game designers and storytellers can learn to harness that potential, video games could become something amazing.

I enjoy games as they are now, but seeing glimpses of true potential like this makes me very excited for the future.


  1. I know what you mean, and I've always had that idea in my mind, more to do with online play.. where you could have a fight with someone else, and there're these options, to kill, to subdue, or to reach a standoff.. and I wanted each of these to be as moving as possible, maybe getting to the point of having side quests against your own friends, eventually leading to you either betraying them, or facing your own fate..
    there really is a lot of potential in that, and I dont think its only in storytelling, but in atmosphere as well.

    developers should really look more into that..


  2. I've couldn't agree more, I could do a game just as that, i mean the ending. My idea on my own game is more likely about a whole world war. The more i think of who should do what or what should and will happen, the more i afraid that i've talking too much crap or whatsoever. But i'll try to tie the story up and hopefully it turns out the best.

    But right now i should be more worring on how to take the G.D. course. I'm still in 2ndary school.

  3. The flipside to this can be witnessed in Prince of Persia (the latest title). Again, Spoiler alert.

    At the end of the game the princess you've been defending all this time dies and the character suddenly decides that's not right. So the game requires you to screw over the very world you spend the entire game trying to save. The problem here is its counter-intuitive. Yeah you've bonded with her and such but really, forcing the player to undo everything they did in the first place? Just an awful excuse for sequel creation.

    End spoilers.

  4. Somewhat off-topic, but the MGS anecdote reminds me of the first time I played BioShock - the introductory video played, the plane went down, the protagonist could be heard drowning and gulping for air and when he broke the water it took me longer than I'd care to admit that I now had control - the transition from cutscene to game was that seamless.

    The worst kind of story-gameplayer-interaction is occasions when I've been handing the Big Bad's ass to them but they arbitrarily escape or, horror upon horror, magically defeat me. If a game is going to rail-road you, it cannot afford to be so damned obvious about it.

    So what we really want is a seamless blend of story and gameplay, when one complements the other. Easier said than done, maybe, but at least devs can remember that games are interactive experiences all the time, not just when it is easiest for them.

  5. I also like the way that you play Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy. First of all it is a interactive movie; you don't just sit there and watch, you participate in the story!

    But the most interesting thing in the game is the narration and the switching point of view. First you are the killer, then shortly after you are the police trying to identify the killer. This keeps going on, switching from person to person, so that you can dive deeper into the story and the characters. I especially liked the section where you have to draw a picture of yourself (the murderer) at the police station. I am not sure if this is in the game or not, but it could be very cool if you had the choice to either draw a real picture of the killer or just make an entirely different man, so that the police wouldn't be able to find and identify the killer.

    This is something no other medium is capable of, and that's what makes video games so special.

  6. I felt the same kind of thing when I was playing God of War: Chain of Olympus.
    The part where you needed to tap the shoulder buttons to push your daughter away from you, in order to save the world.
    It was so sad, and I really didn't want to push her away, but there really isn't any choice in order to progress the story.

    This is really the key to drawing people in to video games, which is giving them the role of major plot advancements.

  7. GTA IV is a good example of having to pull the trigger yourself and also having a choice as you stated in one of your videos. I really spent some time thinking should I kill someone or not. Usually I didn't. If I had to choose between 2 guys I let the nice on live even though I didn't get payed by doing so.

  8. Ah yes. I've encountered one of these in Bungie's Oni.

    Penultimate level: You have to fight Shinitama, a robot girl who's basicly been your little sister and now returns from the dead as a zombie chained to the boss control system. After defeating her, we're treated to a cutscene where she breaks free and is shot by your (former) commander, and you manage to take his gun.

    Here's the fun part: Shoot him in the head, or walk away. Gameplay wise, all it does is affect the final boss battle. Storywise, though, there's a lot of impact, becuase YOU make the decision. And you get a unique schpeil about your character, depending on what you do. She either talks him down or claims she's a monster.... but hey, I've said too much.

    On another note, this comment-leaving system is cumbersome.

    Teller of Tales,
    Bard of Awesomeness

  9. I know what you mean about the MGS 3 decision. I remember getting to that point and pressing every other button than the one to shoot her. I tried waiting, moving, *anything* to avoid shooting. And eventually I had to resign myself and say "Wow, I've really got to do this, don't I?" I agree with you, to put the responsibility of acting in the player's hands, the choice of shooting or just walking away from the game, added a heavy new level of interactivity that would have completely been missed if the reluctant shot was just part of the cut scene.