[Slayn Bacon asks: What is needed for a compelling story in a game?]
Storytelling in gaming is still very much in its infancy, compared to other media both popular and not so. It’s a bit of an interesting conundrum–as of recent years, some video games want to take gaming’s storytelling to the next level, but whether or not the industry is ready for it is still up in the air. Many ‘mature’ themes are constantly been seen as ‘bad’ or ‘controversial’ when movies or TV can do the same with only over-protective mothers batting an eye. Heck, most of these people probably watch Game of Thrones, and if that stays true to the novels, nothing that I’ve seen in a gaming story can top that grimdark series.
That may seem like rambling, but it’s difficult for video games to tell a truly compelling story in some settings because of this aversion to certain (though not all) mature themes. If I’m playing a gritty brawler involving the underbelly of society and how truly brutal it is, I expect the full spectrum of mature content to come with it. I expect violence, death, sex, druggies, and pretty much everything else a child wouldn’t see–and an ESRB rating to reflect that so that kids don’t get their grubby hands on it (unless a parent lets them). However, even the mere mention of certain subjects like rape instantly turn gamers against developers, even if other terrible crimes like (mass) murder go without so much as a peep nowadays. But, now I’m actually rambling, as that is more of a U.S. society issue than anything else.
So, back on topic, I feel that a story is best told in the way it was meant to be, and all the good and bad that comes with it. If someone wanted to create a thrilling adventure tale involving an Indiana Jones-style hero? Well, besides being called an Uncharted clone, that tale should be allowed to be told in full, even if say a minor not-so-bad-guy is brutally crushed to death with a boulder that you in fact pushed. If you want to just tell a story about the fantastical life of a fictional pony, why not be able to go for it?
But really, such a view is too idealistic. Making video games is a business, after all, and while the indie community is rising to the challenge of bringing more thought-provoking titles, mainstream titles simply do not have that same flexibility (much like the indie/mainstream film industry at times). Games must make a budget, appeal to a wide variety of people so it will sell, and make it out on time. Sometimes games need to be toned back so that they will actually sell (as an Adults Only rating can many times damn a game’s sales), and other times the developers don’t have enough time and money to put everything they want in to their title.
Considering that, what is it that I feel can make a truly compelling story, given gaming limitations and giving myself more realistic expectations? Well… most people know that I’m a fan of JRPGs, Do I think JRPGs tell the best tales? Sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed other stories from other countries and genres. In fact, some of the most recent games I’ve played that I feel have a compelling story are not JRPGs, or were even made in Japan.
What is is, then, that made those stories so interesting to me? The games strive to make me feel for the characters. Let me take the example of a game I played recently that had a fantastic plot: Telltale’s The Walking Dead. I had not watched the TV series or read any of the comics, so I did not have the ‘fan’ potential going into the game, but the story was nothing short of great. Lee was a good main character that many people could empathize with, but what really made the episodic title shine was with the choices you must make in this zombie apocalypse. Many choices are extremely difficult to make, and the game will make you feel the results of your choice. I honestly felt how Lee did throughout the game–I was shocked, I was enraged, and I cried. Qualms about the game giving an illusion of choice when it may not have mattered in the long run aside, the plot in itself, and not taken in with the spoiler ridden Internet, was one hell of an emotional ride.
But giving me a choice of what happens to the story isn’t the end-all thing I need to have a great gaming plot. Many of the JRPGs I play and love don’t offer me choices, or the choices are really of no major consequence. In that case, instead of a character I can emphasize with, or choices that’ll bring the consequences of my actions to front and center, I would prefer to have an enticing world or setting to explore and learn about. This can be done in any number of matters; either the world can be open for me to explore and learn its lore, or maybe it could be spoon-fed to me as I progress through the tale. It hardly matters to me, but one recent title I played really gave me an interesting sense of its world and characters: Crimson Shroud.
It’s really an interesting thing; the game focuses on a small team infiltrating a monster-laden ruin in search of the ultimate magical artifact. You never leave the ruins, and see the outside world–but through the Giauque’s inner monologues and other story bits give you a glimpse into a truly interesting world. You never get to see any of it, but these little tidbits are more than enough to give you a feel for the world and its culture. Instead for everything being laid out to you, you get an interpretation of the world from an individual whose seen the worst it has to offer. Given it’s a pretty short game, I’m glad the title presents itself as is; otherwise, I may be disappointed that it never went any farther. But, the way this title works gives me everything I need to understand what’s going on and the levity of the characters’ quest, but without over-explaining to bog down the tale.
So… either an empathetic character, decisions that give me meaning, a rich world, or a combination of the three? Is that all? Probably so. In the past I would have said I would also want memorable characters in titles; some of my favorites like Final Fantasy IX thrive on its great characters. However, nowadays characters are rarely original; with so many video games in general it’s hard to, after all. I’ve learned to really look past characters themselves, as (with the case with so many JRPGs) they tend to fall into tropes to the point that many characters seem the same. I don’t want that to ruin my experience, so character in themselves don’t matter much to me anymore if the game is trying to shine elsewhere… although, I still find character development an important step to many (but not every) tale. They may be tropes for the most part, but they don’t need to be one-dimensional tropes as well!
I think that wraps this up pretty nicely. Then again, many of the games I’m playing don’t even have fantastic or epic tales, so maybe I’m not even looking for a compelling story right now.