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90% of Videogames Shouldn't Have Complex Stories
by Ian Fisch on 03/18/10 11:14:00 pm   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 
 
MARIO IS JUST FINE
 
I love good movies.  I love good books.  I love a good TV series.  In general, I’m a huge fan of noninteractive media.  Yet I skip through most cutscenes in videogames.  Why is this?
 
When Super Mario Galaxy 2 released, some reviewers criticized its barely-there story. The game's story consists of the standard Mario Setup: Bowser kidnaps the princess, forcing Mario to traverse a bunch of abstract worlds in order to rescue her.  

That is more than enough story for me, thank you.  Games like Mario Galaxy simply shouldn’t have a complex story.  It's hard to imagine a compelling narrative that explains why Mario must ride a giant hamster ball accross a wooden plank floating in the sky, or why Bowser can grow to the size of an office building.
 
 

Of course, many videogame writers would try to bring all of these random parts into a cohesive whole, but would it be a story worth telling?
 
If Mario Galaxy were made by a different developer, Sega for example, the game might feature a cutscene where Bowser sucks Mario into his transdimensional warp machine, explaining the game's many absurd and varied environments.  Another cutscene could show Bowswer searching the universe for the legendary power orb, which would allow him to grow 70 feet.  And so on.  
 
But why?  What’s the point?  Is this really a compelling narrative? Is this a story anyone would want to tell on its own?  


STORY OR EXPLANATION?

Videogame cutscenes are often attempts to explain gameplay elements, rather than a means of conveying interesting plot points or compelling dialog. For example the puzzle-platformer Trine and its sequel allows a player to switch between three characters, each with unique strenghts and weaknesses, at any time. Thus, the story revolves around an ancient crystal with the ability to fuse three people together into one body.
 

Reviewers either derided or dismissed Trine's plot. It simply wasn't a story that needed to be told, but rather an explanation of a fun game mechanic.

 
 
 
 
GOOD STORIES DON'T FIT

The fact is that the average videogame structure just doesn't make for a compelling narrative.

Take your average 3rd or first person shooter.  The basic structure consists of the player trudging through about 15 levels, killing 30-60 badguys between in each one. Every few levels, he'll fight a boss.
 
 
This structure can be the basis for a great gaming experience, but is unlikely to also facilitate a great story.  It wouldn't even make for an interesting action movie. While your average videogame protagonist will wrack up a body count in the 1000's, Neo doesn't kill more than a handful in The Matrix, and neither Stalone nor Swarzenegger kill a single person in Rambo: First Blood, nor Terminator 2, respectively.   
 
 
MAKING THE TERMINATOR INTO AN ACTION GAME

Just for fun, let’s try to fit the story of The Terminator, a classic action movie, into a modern action videogame.  We'll try to convert its action scenes into game levels.

The movie starts off with the hero, Kyle Reece, teleporting into the year 1985.  He arrives in the middle of the night, naked and unarmed.  
  
 
He steals a pistol off of a cop and then hides in a department store.  That's the end of the scene.
 
 
 
 
So we’re gonna have to make some changes to make this into a good first level.  First of all, we’ll have to add at least 12 more cops, and Reece will have to fight them all.   So by the end of the first level, Reece will have murdered a dozen police officers. This only takes us through the movie's first 10 minutes.

The movie's next action scene involves a gun battle in a dance club between Reece and the Terminator.
 
 
 
 It’s a short scene.  Reece pumps a couple shotgun shells into the Terminator’s sternum and then runs away with Sarah, his love interest.   
 
So we're going to have to make some big changes.  Perhaps Reece could get into a gun fight on the way to the bar, with 20 to 30 nondescript gang members.   Once he reaches the club, the fight with the Terminator can be our boss fight.   
 
In the movie, Reece and Sarah quickly flee the club, but that won't work for our videogame. Instead, perhaps the club’s security door is locked, forcing Reece to remain in combat. While the the player keeps the Terminator at bay, Sarah can be hacking the security door.  We’ll make Sarah a computer expert in our videogame.    

Let’s skip to the movie's climax for the our last level.  In the movie, a car chase ends with the Terminator being burned  down to his metal endoskeleton.  
 
 
Reece's only weapon is a home-made pipebomb, which he lodges in the Terminator’s ribcage. The bomb blows off the Terminator's legs. The Terminator crawls after Sarah. She manages to crush it in an industrial press for the movie's climax.
 
So this one's gonna need a lot of work.  

First of all this is our final level. It’s good game design to steadily give the player new abilities, thereby steadily adding more depth to the gameplay.  So for the game's climax, we’ll have to supplement Reece's pipebomb with an rpg, a minigun, and a few grenades.  
 
Also the last level should be the biggest challenge in the game.  So we’ll have to add in some other Terminators for Reece to fight.  Maybe they teleport in from the future.  
 

Also, the Terminator, as the final boss, needs to become STRONGER for the last confrontation, not weaker.  So rather than being burnt down to an endoskeleton, the Terminator can plug himself into a powerline to become a 20 foot tall Super Terminator! With shoulder-mounted missle launchers!  
 
Only after a lengthy battle against the Super Terminator and his future army, is the Terminator reduced to crawling.  The game can then switch control to the Sarah character, allowing the player to crush the Terminator in the industrial press via quicktime event.
 
 

So there you have it.  We took a tight story with a clear antagonist and focused action and turned into a convoluted mess.  The game I just described has the potential to be a lot of fun, but doesn't make for the kind of non-interactive narrative that someone would want to watch. Why interrupt great gameplay to tell a 3rd rate story?
 

DOES THIS MATTER?

Ok so maybe most videogame cutscenes are inane wastes of time, but I can skip past them right?  Not always.
 
Far Cry 3, for instance, gives the player limited control over his character during long, unskippable cutscenes.  These cutscenes are designed to explain how an average Joe can become an unstoppable killing machine (hint: because game designers thought it would be fun.  Period.).  These cutscenes are so uninvolving that many reviewers advised gamers to skip the game's campaign entirely, playing the game's base invasion missions instead.  
 
Other times, a game will allow a player to skip a cutscene, but not without a cost. For instance, some games include pertinent gameplay information in their cutscenes.

For instance you’ll skip a cutscene and then you’ll find yourself standing in an open field with a mission objective on your screen that says “Pick up Shelly’s hyperdrive at Fort Blackstone”.  So then you have to ask "who’s Shelly?", "what the hell does a hyperdrive look like?", and "which one of those buildings in the distance is Fort Blackstone?".  All of those questions were answered in the cutscene you skipped and have no way of rewatching.
 

This situation may not happen often, but you never know when it’s gonna strike. So you'll end up sitting through hours of inane and unispired dialog because you’re afraid you might miss something important.  
 

WHAT GAMES SHOULD HAVE COMPLEX STORIES?

The games that should have complex stories are those which were based around stories to begin with.  If the inspiration for making the game was to tell a story, than there’s a chance the story is actually worth telling.  This might be the case for games like The Walking Dead, Monkey Island, King's Quest, and Heavy Rain but it's is not the case for Gears of War 3.  

So if you’re a game writer working on a game whose genesis was a story that someone was dying to tell in an interactive fashion, then go nuts.  Otherwise, briefly explain why I have to collect 8 pendants from 8 castles, and then shut the hell up.  
 

 

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Comments


Prash Nelson-Smythe
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Thanks. This was amusing. Especially the picture at the end.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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HAHA yeah this article really speaks my mind about those silly story games. Even though I would argue that altering the Terminator into that kind of game would undermine the point that you're playing the game for the movie, even though it might be fun.

Roger Haagensen
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You seem to be mixing plot and story here.

All games have a plot, but probably less than 25% actually has a story.



A plot simply ties things together. (any game that brags it has xx campaigns smells of a "plot only" game with no story to me)



Game types:

No plot nor story: Puzzle games mostly like Tetris, Pong, Checkers etc.

Plot only: Majority of games out there,

Story only: Rare as it's almost impossible to write s story without a plot (direction(s)) to hold it together.

Plot and Story: far less than one might assume, great examples are The Longest Journey by Funcom and Knights of The Old Republic by BioWare.



If the plot sucks then no matter how good the storywriting is...it will suffer. Likewise if the plot is good but the storywriting sucks the plot will suffer equally as well.



So please do not try and pretend that what games like Mario does is storytelling, because it's really not.

It's just a loosely tied plot with plot exposition, rather than a actual narrative story.



Luckily a few developers still get the chance to do narrative storytelling rather than just plot exposition to tie action stuff together. BioWare is exemplary in that regard. (KoTOR, Dragon Age, Mass Effect)

And games like GTA are a mix of both story and plot driven games, although there the story is placed inside the plot driven game. (small plot exposition for the various non-story missions)

Roger Haagensen
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I almost forgot to mention. Of those 25-20% of story based games, only a few are actually any good sadly.

And it doesn't help that hardly any review sites or magazines out there has no "Story" score. They score audio, graphics, design, and whatnot, but not the story.

I'd be perfectly fine to see Tetris with a 0 score for story (since it has none),

and a game like The Longest Journey with a score like 95% (it's got a story, and it's damn good).



For example: http://emsai.net/reviews/game/

This is mostly for my own amusement and testing, but the scoring system is interesting as it's reverse of what pretty much everyone else is doing.

It defaults to a perfect score, then for each flaw or dislike the score is reduced.

If a game really had no story to speak of then the story score could be 0.

If the game had no Sound the score would be blank (or if the sound doesn't work it would get a sound score of 0 obviously).



Sound, Graphics, Story, Design. are technical, Design is a catchall where sound graphics and story can't be used to classify what is being scored. Plot and puzzle etc would thus fall under design.

Total is my (aka the reviewer's) overall impression. The average of these thus becomes the final score. (reviewer's impression thus affect the final score by a 1/5th).



It's not easy to Google for games with a good story (or the reverse, those with bad ones), or games that has no story (which you seem to prefer when you just want to "game").

Roger Haagensen
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A typical Mario game could probably have it's story score described as: "A minimalistic story whose purpose is to only support the plot that ties the levels together!"



For a puzzle platform game this is fine, and although it would score low in my Story score, the game if well made would still score high in the total.



Note! I used to have a Summed score but that was rolled into the Total score, so if a particular the technical score pulls the game down (like a story score for a Mario game) then the reviewer can pull the total score up to what they feel it deserves). The point is, people that are interested in a story (or not) can easily look at the story score and determine their choice on that for example rather than the total score.

Brett Stuart
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It feels like I've been bludgeoned by how many times you wrote, "I don't care" in this article. We get it, you obviously don't want cut-scenes in your action games, but this has absolutely nothing to do with story. Your version of the Terminator game still had a story, albeit a very convoluted one that really didn't make much sense, with multiple terminators and a gang of thugs.



It's clear you want your action games to be non-stop, and the cut-scene device is what irritates you, you just wrongfully blamed the story mechanic as the source of your irritation.



Also, making up random statistics doesn't help to prove your point. 1 in 30 cut-scenes? The other 20%?

Adam Bishop
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I'm curious, Jerry, if you've actually played any Final Fantasy games? I'd say the differences between them tends to be fairly big - the difference between the materia system of FF7 and the Junction system of FF8 is pretty drastic, for example. I'd argue that, if anything, the problem with the Final Fantasies is that they change too much. How much does the gameplay change from one iteration to another of Call of Duty, for example? Or Grand Theft Auto? Or Gran Turismo? Or Ratchet and Clank? I think you'd be hard-pressed to find many popular series that continually reinvent themselves the way that Final Fantasy has.

Ricky Bankemper
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um, what? lol

Is a post missing here?

David Galindo
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I totally agree with the topic...a good example is the newest Red Faction game where you blow stuff up good, interrupted by heavy story scenes of drama with no humorous/interesting factor whatsoever. I'm on Mars, I want to blow stuff up good, and I'm listening to a boring storyline on Mars oppression unfold. Yuck.

Ian Fisch
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@Brett Stuart



"It's clear you want your action games to be non-stop, and the cut-scene device is what irritates you, you just wrongfully blamed the story mechanic as the source of your irritation."



It's not just the cutscene mechanic that bothers me. I don't like a story much better if it happens while I'm still in control of my character or if I'm forced to extract it from NPC conversations.



And it's not that I want my action to be non-stop. I like exploration, inventory management, etc. It's just that if I'm going to be forced to stop playing the game, I'd like to be doing something equally entertaining. Watching some game designer play movie director is generally not my idea of entertainment.

Brett Stuart
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I think the key difference here is that just because there are plenty of games that tell an awfully boring story (typically through long cut-scenes), it doesn't mean it isn't possible to add more depth, more internal and external conflict, and more interesting character relationships -- it just means that it is challenging.



Like someone mentioned previously, the Final Fantasy series have an extremely involved set of character relationships structured around a very simple gameplay structure. This series has been wildly successful, and for good reason.



If the story of a game isn't interesting to begin with, no amount of beautiful cinematography, animation or special effects are going to save it. The player is going to be bored out of their mind, praying that the skip button works. However, when the characters in a game are compelling and empathetic, it makes you want to know more about them, it makes you care about their problems, and it very well may make you want to watch the cut scenes.



I just think you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. You have encountered a number of action games that had horrible stories, but that doesn't mean they have to be.

Bryan OHara
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The problem, in my opinion, is that stories are force-fed to the player. I just got done playing through Alien Swarm with a few friends. Great fun and lots of action. I personally wasn't paying attention to the story because I was too busy trying to keep my friends' faces from being eaten, but there was a story there. I plan on paying attention to it next time I play.



Come to think of it, Left for Dead does the same thing. Throw any player into any level and they'll have a blast but you will passively learn the story as you go along. There is just enough at the surface to make it believable and then enough deeper down, when you start to look for it, to satisfy those that want a story. I have a lot of respect for Valve for taking this approach with their games.



"Oh there's the car we drove out of the mall, but the highway is blocked so that's why we're on foot now..."

Nilson Carroll
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"Watching some game designer play movie director is generally not my idea of entertainment."



Ouch. That's the exact same thing one of my professors said, but I disagree. If I don't care about the characters, why should I bother saving their world? Unless we're talking about a game like Tetris, some form of story should be used to enhance the game's experience.



Though, I believe even Tetris could use a funny science-fiction plot...

Kyle Redd
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I think he meant to say "Being *forced* to watch some game designer play movie director is generally not my idea of entertainment."

Unskippable cutscenes are completely inexcusable at this point in time, and the only reason game designers force you to sit through them is because their egos cannot tolerate the fact that they aren't as talented at film making as they are at game development.

dana mcdonald
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I totally agree with the article, but I would add that I think stories do belong in most games, but not in the form that they do in books or movies. Sometimes I wonder how many people in the game industry really wanted to work in the movie industry but couldn't, and just decided games were the next best thing. So now they are trying to ram storytelling conventions from movies into games.



the story telling that belongs in games is the stories created by well executed game mechanics implemented in the right situations. Alien Breed is a great example of this. They have an awesome mechanic where you can weld doors shut just like in Aliens.

Now if this story was being told "movie style" there would be two specific doors in a level where large swarms of aliens would be coming and you would specifically have to close them in time or you would automatically die. Those would be the only two doors in the level that could be welded and it would basically automatically happen once you got inside and triggered an event.

Alien swarm does it "gameplay style" where you can sacrifice to keep a welder in your limited inventory and you can weld almost any door in the game so when you are in a desperate situation you can find a good room or hallway, weld the door shut, and get a moments respite before you leap back into the fray. All the while feeling like you are making it happen yourself and feeling heroic or clever, and it actually creates stories on it's own that you are excited about, and it's very memorable. Telling the story movie style is much more commonly done but much less potent.



I always see comments about how games can tell more immersive stories than movies because they are interactive, but that interactivity is rarely used for anything but letting players go through somebody else's story. But as somebody who would rather be making games than movies, I think the real storytelling potential in games can only be unlocked when we actually start using our medium to tell stories, and our medium has more to learn from sports and board games than it does from movies.

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Joshua McDonald
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/signed



In my opinion, one of the reasons that too much emphasis is put on game stories is game reviews. First off, they penalize games that don't have good stories (or more specifically, "good" relative to other games), and second, they all start with the story instead of the gameplay, regardless of whether that's appropriate for the game.



Let's take, for example, Just Cause 2. The game wasn't meant to have much of a story, but the game trailers review still slammed its overall score for the lack. To me, that's like penalizing Diner Dash for not having a good shooting mechanic. If the game wasn't mean to appeal to a certain type of person or play type, don't assume that it should because you're measuring it against some checklist of "what a game is supposed to have".



Move on to the GameSpot review. Gamespot was smart enough not to list the lack of story in the "Bad" section, so presumably they didn't cut the score for it. On the other hand, the review starts with a huge wall of text telling you about the story and storytelling, so that the information that anybody who is looking for that kind of game cares about is buried at the bottom of the article.



So many of the games-must-have-stories people will throw in the caveat "but it's okay for puzzle games to not have stories". Why do puzzle games get this exception and nothing else? To me, that's the same as when people say that Zelda games should never have voice acting but then they later complain if any other game skips on it. They've simply put their stamp of approval on what the industry has been doing for a while rather than properly questioning and analyzing why these trends exist and whether they should be strictly maintained.

Ian Richard
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I agree with you though I don't believe it's reviewers. Stupidly bloated storylines have been a staple of video game marketing for a decade.

Publisher's have been selling the "Look at out cutscenes " for a long time. They made the story the selling point... which meant more games focused on story.

This has created an expectation in players... just like tacked on multiplayer in an action game. Without it, player's feel that something is missing... even if doesn't actually belong there.

Reviewers are just like any other player. They EXPECT that an RPG must be 40+ hours, they EXPECT big budget graphics, they EXPECT enough handholding that they don't need to think and yes... they expect some awful story to tie it together. If the developer fails to meet the expectations it will have a negative effect on their enjoyment.

For better or worse, Stories are now almost a requirement in AAA games. Yes, there is room for exceptions.... but it will be a long time before the lack of story is widly accepted again.

Nathan Miller
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Really?....Really?



You seriously think that game designers are letting gameplay go by the wayside for story? I think that assumption is beyond ignorant. Story is what drives most games...and you know what you are getting before you ever open the box.



If you want to just run around and shoot people, there are a plethora of FPS games that not only have an engaging story, but also have mindless killing options for you attention span challenged; and you'll find similar results with nearly ever other genre as well.



The real problem is that you have a problem with all games not fullfilling your niche...cry me a river, again you know darn well before you ever buy a game, whether or not a game is being pushed by story or by mindless action. It's not enough that you can button mash your way through most cut scenes and story breaks...you just want to get on and never run into a 30 seconds of cinematic....OH NOES!!



Guess what...80's arcade stye is that way ------->

Ricky Bankemper
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This article has complete merit to it. I feel extremely similar to the author, even though I believe the article needs to be a bit more in depth to address the topic further.

His point is that he doesn't play certain games (in one example Mario games) for the story, so stop trying to force it upon the players. We only need the basic set up and we are ready for some platforming game play.

The author's attention span is likely completely normal. He, like many others, don't want/need unnecessary elements to certain games.

Do we need a story for minecraft? "I would like to know why I am building stuff"

No! no player wants or needs that.

Aaron Truehitt
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I personally love a good story and motivator to play my games. I personally hate games that are just about having the highest score or getting through the levels.



For example, Mario Galaxy and Mario Galaxy 2. I enjoyed the 1st one simply because it was finally a new Mario and the fight against Bowser was pretty epic. However, the second one showed no logic and continuity. Now you can say "yeah eating mushrooms isn't very logical or being in space with no air" but that's not the point. It makes sense in the mushroom kingdom. I would like there to at least be a motivation and a solid story, no matter how simplistic.



A great story drives the gameplay even more. When killing a character matters, or saving someone from being killed and it could affect the story, then the gameplay is amplified x100.

Christopher Totten
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There are some good points here. In one of my previous posts I talked about how game stories could and should be better integrated into the game mechanics. The Monkey Island games work because the mechanics serve the story. In your Terminator example, it assumes that you make a typical action game out of the movie with more or less canned mechanics.



I would say that Terminator could work as a game, but only if you carefully crafted the mechanics around the story, say, making it a more cat and mouse chase through the game levels while Sarah and Reese run from authorities. The Terminator could be a more tense adversary if he's made omnipresent instead of being in a few boss battles.



Anyway, I think this article does a great job of pointing out the problem with considering story and gameplay separately and adding them together at the last minute through passive methods such as cutscenes. Why watch it when you can be playing it?

Evan Combs
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"I would say that Terminator could work as a game, but only if you carefully crafted the mechanics around the story, say, making it a more cat and mouse chase through the game levels while Sarah and Reese run from authorities. The Terminator could be a more tense adversary if he's made omnipresent instead of being in a few boss battles. "

I think we have a winner here. This to me seems to be exactly the problem with most game stories. The game should be crafted around the story, but in most cases the story is crafted around the game. Instead of asking, "how do we turn this story into a game?" What is often asked is, "How do we fit a story into this game?" If you are wanting to tell a great story through a game that is the wrong approach. Story should come first, and game design should be based on that story.

You can still get great stories by starting with the game first, see Portal, but it is extremely difficult. Depending on what genre of game you are making will most likely determine the story. (i.e. FPS are almost always either about a soldier in a war or a spy)

If you start with the story you will create a much more unique and interesting game.

Ian Fisch
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@Nathan Miller



"You seriously think that game designers are letting gameplay go by the wayside for story? I think that assumption is beyond ignorant. Story is what drives most games...and you know what you are getting before you ever open the box. "



This is absolutely not what I think. I don't think designers are sacrificing gameplay for story. I think I'm sacrificing my time that I could be having fun on hearing a story that wasn't well thought out or well-written. Some games have good writing (Portal comes to mind) or good stories (Half-Life 2 for example), but most have neither.



I would rather have a simple setup that gives the action context than watch (or read) oodles of boring, poorly-written dialog. And despite what you might think, it's rare to know if a story's going to be good before you open the box. Game reviewers will give a story a passing grade as long as it meets the low standard of videogame stories.

Ian Fisch
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@Nathan Miller



"If you want to just run around and shoot people, there are a plethora of FPS games that not only have an engaging story, but also have mindless killing options for you attention span challenged."



I'm not exactly sure why you equate minimal story with 'mindless'. I like my games complex via interesting gameplay and level design. Some of my favorite games are World of Goo, Shadow of Colossus, and Super Metroid. I wouldn't call any of those games mindless, but they all had minimal story sequences.

Carlo Delallana
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There are two stories that need to be balanced; the story of the game and the story of the player. A game's premise has to be interesting enough for the player to be engaged. Gameplay should be the story as much as possible and leave enough things unanswered to accommodate the "other" story that belongs to the player. The player story revolves around the actions that the game gives them an opportunity to perform.



If the player's story of his or her gameplay experience doesn't mesh with the story presented in the game then we run into problems pointed out by Ian. This is when people start skipping dialog and cut-scenes.



A good story in the game anticipates what the player experience is and magnifies it. If you can pull that off then it doesn't matter how the story is delivered since delivery is not the problem here.

Carlo Delallana
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"As for stories driving a game, once again your logic is flawed. Its gameplay which drives a game, in fact gameplay is why people purchase a game in the first place"



I'll go ahead and challenge this statement but with the caveat that "story" in a game doesn't always mean Final Fantasy style expositions.



Humans tell stories. From cave paintings to modern day works of literature. A story can be real or fictional, literal or abstract but one thing is certain; story permeates the culture of humans. We make decisions based on stories that someone tells be it a lie or a sales pitch. We decide what to feel based on a story someone tells us and how its delivered from a break-up note to a motivational speech framed into a narrative of someone's struggle.



So I wonder why we as a species would suddenly not care about stories when we decide what games we want to buy?

Jason Swan
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I think there's a few flaws in your argument of stories not fitting games. First off, you list off some great action movies and say that they don't really fit into games, then go and use a different movie (I think most people would agree that the first Terminator wasn't as strong a story as the other movies you mentioned, except Predator). Secondly, you're assuming that action movies should directly translate to a certain type of action game. Lets face it, the example you gave was a bad design. That was the point you were trying to make. That doesn't mean it couldn't have been done differently and done well.



That said, I think your argument is more regarding exposition during gameplay than story itself. You mention Shadow of the Colossus in your comment above, but I'd argue that it did have a good story to it. It also had cut scenes, although they involved minimal speech and were all fairly short. Instead, you draw the story from the way the character, horse, and colossi behave during gameplay, as well as way your character changes as you progress through the game. If that's what you're really getting at, then sure, I'd agree with you. Exposition and cutscenes are overused in some games and flat out have no place in others. I don't think that means story should be focused on any less or at the expense of gameplay though.



I think the more interesting topic is what methods of storytelling play more to the strengths of each genre or games as a whole.

Jeffrey Ollendorf
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Oh, yes. Sonic 06. A real facepalm inducer.



Anyway, I mostly agree with you. A story artificially tacked on to a game that doesn't need it is silly. But where does one draw the line between story and excuse? That is what the industry needs to do now.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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"But where does one draw the line between story and excuse? That is what the industry needs to do now."



Perhaps, part of the solution is to know what to cut? It's hard to throw away your hard work and expensive assets but the best creators in all media do it and ultimately it leads to a better experience. If you make a game and then realise the story is a bit tedious despite your best efforts then cut some out. Have the courage to throw away paragraphs of dialogue and minutes of cut scenes. This one takes strong leadership too, I would imagine, as it is likely to upset someone on the team.



I seem to remember the World of Goo creators stating that they threw away many levels before releasing their end product...

Nicolas L
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" So there you have it. We took a tight story with a clear antagonist and focused action and turned into crap (aka a typical action game story). "



I understand that providing a crappy design was useful to make your point, but I believe it's a more wider design problem. Game designers should stop to map IP on usual game mechanics, but instead they should try to find inspiration from the IP. Folowing arbitrary rules, like "a character in an action game shouldn’t lose abilities as the game progresses" doesn't help to catch what an IP is about. Moreover, Super Mario may lose his ability to throw fireball during the game, and it's perfectly fine !



A Terminator game faithful to the IP would be about fleeing away from the killer robot (aka : going through a level), and confronting him from time to time (aka : boss fight).

Fleeing away is well implemented in dino run, or in pac man (kind of). The first is an example of a somewhat linear level with a danger from behind, and the second is a non linear level, with dispersed "objectives". Both could inspire the terminator game.

A lot can be done : shotgun shot the terminator in order to stun him for one (cumulative) second, take cover when he decide to shoot, move when he reloads. Even the old trick with the explosive barrils seems valid (after all, the robot doesn't care...). In a multiplayer settings, it remember me splinter cell 3 : this game feature a 2 vs 2 mode in witch agent could only stun there opponent...

Sure, it would need a lot of prototype to get it right, but such a game have a great potential.

Piotr Gnyp
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@Ian - how can I contact You?

Ian Fisch
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@Piotr



if.inbox@gmail.com

Ernest Adams
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The game industry has been debating this subject since at least the mid 80s, when the hardcore gamers began to be annoyed by the growing popularity of graphical adventure games. I don't see that this article adds anything new to the discussion.

Bonnie Nadri
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Being reasonable about the legitimate use of story isn't that hard; being annoyed when story impedes play is (at least here) absolutely expected. The point is fairly well made for those who do not like or enjoy story (flavor) as part of their gaming experience. I also think the article does a good job of taking the "common sense stick" to a few games, but I think it misses the mark on really understanding how and why the kinds of things in the examples given actually occur.



This said, I think the real issue is the same it's ever been: designers and game companies either not being sure who their real audience/market is (and what they really want) or trying to "scattershot" and reach as much of everyone at the cost of annoying and potentially pushing away said real audience/market.



The supposed "argument" over the "importance of story" is a non-starter. We all know that what distinguishes one title from another in the market is not mechanics (which are relatively unchanged in the last, what, twenty years?), it's presentation; part of that presentation IS story.



It's what makes people perk and wonder what the title offers.



It's what makes them decide to try it.



It's what makes them decide to buy it.



It's what makes them tell their friends, family, and co-workers about it.



I do not think there really IS an "argument" to be had between mechanics and story. Rather, that there is a discussion necessary as to how much story is enough from genre to genre, game to game, and, more importantly, does the level and amount of story being presented compete with or enhance the mechanics?



Let's face it, games are not about story, but story definitely supports and enhances them. Any given "world" needs some degree of story to present its purpose, culture, and motivating factors. Whether or not it needs more depends heavily upon who one is intending to buy and play it.



For me, a game that allows story to interfere with "getting to the game" is little more than a demonstration that the company who made it doesn't deserve my dollars, and when a game gets it right (escapable cut scenes, replayable cut scenes, alternatives to cut scenes, et al), I not only remember, I tell my friends.



Oh, and I buy copies for them, too. (grin)

Alex Smith
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It's too easy when you only pick the most obvious examples of "not story." Go play Mass Effect 2 and tell me story doesn't matter or that the play mechanics are weak and you only played for the story. It isn't possible. Mass Effect 2 is a gorgeous game on so many levels.



Analyzing THAT game might add something new to the discussion.

Abraham Tatester
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Playing the original God of War (from the Collection on PS3) recently brought this same subject to mind. At the beginning I couldn't help but wonder why I, Kratos, was such a seemingly irredeemable psychopath. Sure, I was mostly killing demons—and the motivation for that doesn't take too much explanation—but when I threw an innocent captain down a Hydra's throat and was later encouraged to slaughter civilians to regain health, I was somewhat troubled and distracted from the arcadey fun of handing out indiscriminate ass kickings.



It was primarily through the cutscenes that I was able to get a sense of my character, and it was in anticipation of having his origins explained further that I pushed through the more frustrating platforming segments and QTEs. In short, while I'm sure there are plenty of gamers who would have loved God of War even with no cutscenes, for me, they made the game whole and worth completing: it was a mindless action game in need of a story, and by game's end it had a fairly decent one.



Regardless, it all comes down to taste. And there's room for all flavors. Not sure why more folks don't realize this.

Dave Endresak
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Ian, I have been playing games since they began, and I vastly prefer story-driven, character-driven titles such as the Japanese adventures, visual novels, and simulations. Mind you, I also play action-oriented arcade-type stuff when I wish, but those are not the experiences that stay with me. As an interactive medium, games like Xenosaga and the original Ys I and II, or even newer titles like Star Ocean: The Last Hope and Tales of Vesperia, clearly show why cut scenes cannot be skipped and work as a reward for players such as myself who want to feel empathy with characters and events taking place.

Alex Franco
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Well your first 23 paragraphs a simply opinionated pragmatism, but they are amusing. I have to say that some people appreciate the mundane quicktimes and cutscenes. I personally think mass effect 2 keeps cutscenes interesting with the occasional renegade or paragon action. Perhaps if more games incorperated gameplay into their cutscenes you would find it easier to enjoy?

Alex Franco
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Well your first 23 paragraphs are simply opinionated pragmatism, but they are amusing. I have to say that some people appreciate the mundane quicktimes and cutscenes. I personally think mass effect 2 keeps cutscenes interesting with the occasional renegade or paragon action. Perhaps if more games incorperated gameplay into their cutscenes you would find it easier to enjoy?

Dan Felder
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The root issue seems to be that you want to "play" the game and the story is getting in the way of that. However, playing a game is really just interacting with the game when you come down to it... And interacting with characters is a very solid way to not just tell a story, but let the player LIVE the story. The events are happening to the player, and cutscenes can often create an odd almost out-of-body experience - you're reduced to a bystander when all you want to do is take action.



Ultimately, we have to step back and examine why we want the depth of character interactions and conflicts themselves. Story is a device, and those principles can be applied to games - but they can't always be copied and pasted... Just as many principles in music composition can be applied to story-structure, but they can't be copied and pasted.



And that said, games truly need better writers and more interesting characters. Nine times out of ten, when I don't care about what's happening it's because I don't care about the characters. The same thing happens in film, the theater and novels. Games need to do a better job of making characters we actually like or find otherwise uniquely compelling.



Story does belong in games, though it isn't always necessary. Just because it hasn't often been done correctly in the few decades of commercial design doesn't mean that it can't, or shouldn't, be done.

Peter Park
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Thanks. This is what I was thinking. Even for those "story-oriented games", I think it's pretty much wasted effort in some ways, because games.. really are a poor medium for delivering narration of any type, IMO.



Now, can game designers focus on making interactions in games meaningful (not simply fun)?

Shay Pierce
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I'm getting to this post late, but just wanted to say that I really enjoyed it! Totally agreed with your point, and you made that point in a way that was both convincing and entertaining!

Clement Marthe
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Thanks for your Terminator spoilers!

Ian Fisch
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1984 called. It wants its indignation back.

Clement Marthe
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It was just a joke :)


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