MARIO IS JUST FINE
I love good movies. I love good books. I love good TV series. I’m a huge fan of noninteractive media. Yet I skip through most cutscenes in videogames. Why is this?
The other day, a popular internet reviewer criticized Super Mario Galaxy 2 for having a weak story. The game's story consists of little more than Bowser kidnapping the princess and Mario having to go through a bunch of abstract worlds in order to find her.
That is more than enough for me. Games like Mario Galaxy shouldn’t have a complex story. What possible story could you come up with to explain why Mario has ride a giant hamster ball accross a wooden plank floating in the sky, or why Bowser goes from being roughly the same size as Mario to the size of an office building?
I’m sure you could come up with a story that explains it all if you really wanted to. You could include a cutscene of Bowser sucking Mario into his transdimensional warp machine to explain why Mario plays through so many absurd and varied environments. You could include a cutscene of Bowswer searching the universe for the elusive power orb to explain why he can grow to 70 feet tall. And so on.
But why? What’s the point? Is there really a story worth telling? If the story of Bowser and his transdimensional warp machine wasn’t attached to a game, would you want to read it? If you pitched the story to a studio do you think they’d turn it into a holywood movie? My guess is no.
STORY OR EXCUSE?
It seems like often the story of a videogame is really just an excuse for why it is that the player has to do some bit of gameplay. You can explain why Mario is suddenly riding a stingray down a hovering waterslide by talking about a multi-dimensional transporter, but he's really doing it because some Japanese guy thought it would be fun. And he was right. Likewise, Bowser is the size of a skyscraper because some Japanese guy thought it would be an interesting boss encounter. And it is.
In the puzzle-platformer Trine, there’s a long cutscene explaining how 3 people with different abilities touched a crystal which fused them into one body. This crystal is central to the plot, but it’s really just an excuse for why only one character is on screen at a time. The developers thought it would be fun to switch, on the fly, between 3 different characters who each had a unique ability. This makes a great game mechanic, but I wouldn’t want to read a novel about it.
GOOD STORIES DON'T FIT
The fact is that most compelling narratives from books and movies don't work for an action game. This includes narratives from action movies. Some of my favorite movies are Terminator 2, Star Wars, Predator, and 12 Monkeys. None of these work as stories for an action game.
Take your average 3rd or first person shooter. The basic structure consists of the player trudging through about15 levels, killing 30-60 guys between in each one. Sometimes he’ll have to flip a switch, take cover behind objects, move stealthily, defend a location for a set amount of time, or whatever.
This structure can be a lot of fun when it’s pulled off creatively. But it isn't very conducive to a good narrative.
THE TERMINATOR BECOMES AN ACTION GAME
For example, let’s try to fit the story of The Terminator, a classic action movie, into a modern action game. The movie has a number of actions scenes that we will try to make into levels.
The movie starts off with the hero, Reece, teleporting into the year 1985. He arrives in the middle of the night, naked and unarmed.
He steals a pistol off a cop and then hides in a department store where he steals some clothes. 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 for Reece to fight. So Reece murders a good number of police officers and is now on the top of the FBI’s most wanted list. And we're only 10 minutes into the movie.
The movie's next action scene involves a gun battle in a techno club between Reece and the Terminator.
It’s a short scene consisting mainly of Reece pumping a couple shotgun shells into the Terminator’s sternum and then running away.
So this is gonna require some big changes to make into a proper level. Maybe Reece gets into a gun fight, on the way to the bar, with 20 to 30 nondescript gang members that want to turn him into the FBI for the bounty. Maybe the fight with the Terminator in the club can be a boss fight for the level. Maybe the club’s security door is locked preventing Reece from fleeing the club like he does in the movie. So while the player keeps the Terminator at bay, Sarah, the movie’s love interest, can be hacking the security door. We’ll make Sarah a computer expert in the videogame version.
Let’s skip to the movie's climax for the last level. In the movie, a car chase ends with the terminator being burned down to his metal endoskeleton.
Reece is unarmed, save for a home-made pipebomb that he lodges in the terminator’s sternum. The pipe bomb blows off the Terminator's legs but Reece is killed in the process. Then the legless terminator crawls after Sarah. She leads it into an industrial vice, presses a button, and crushes it to death. So this one's gonna need a lot of work.
First of all, a character in an action game shouldn’t lose abilities as the game progresses. Rather, it’s good game design to steadily give the player new abilities thereby steadily adding more depth to the gameplay. So for the climax, we’ll have to give Reece 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, can Reece be killed. Then we can have Sarah push a button to crush the Terminator in a vice - a great quick time event if there ever was one.
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). But from a gameplay standpoint, the game I just described has the potential to be a lot of fun. So why should it keep being interrupted with a lousy story?
DOES THIS MATTER?
Ok so maybe most videogame cutscenes are inane wastes of time, but I can skip past them right? Why am I bitching?
Because sometimes skipping can cost you. It’s rare, but about 1 in every 30 cutscenes will give you some information you actually need to know to play the game.
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.
Again, this doesn’t happen often, but you never know when it’s gonna strike. It's not as if some game boxes say “all cutscenes contain no useful information”. So you end up sitting through pages and pages of inane dialog because you’re so afraid of missing something important. So this matters.
WHAT ABOUT THAT OTHER 20%?
So what types of games should have complex, involved stories? Easy: the games that are 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 is the case for games like Monkey Island, King's Quest, and Heavy Rain but is not the case for Gears of War.
So if you’re making the kind of game where poorly-written dialogue could significantly effect sales and review scores, then tell your writer to go nuts. Otherwise, briefly explain why I have to collect 8 pieces of triangle from 8 dungeons, and then shut the hell up.