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Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fault

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OPINION: Andy Kelly looks at the complicated relationship between game design and storytelling

Storytelling and interactivity are a challenging mix. In most games your actions as a player directly conflict with the plot, and your immersion disintegrates. Sam Fisher single-handedly killing entire armies without a glint of regret; Niko Bellic lamenting his criminal past while absent-mindedly reversing over a prostitute's head; Max Payne shrugging off shotgun wounds by necking a few painkillers. It's often hard to think of these characters as real people.... read more

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Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fault

Postby DAEDALUS79 » 23 Aug 2012, 13:16

Your point seems to rest on the basis that a story needs to be realistic to be good. In any form of media; books, film, tv etc the best stories are often the most unrealistic. Look at the classic novels like Lord of the Rings, the hobbit, alice in wonderland, Gulliver's travels. Look at some of the biggest blockbuster films of recent years, like Avatar, Batman, Inception etc. These are all regarded as brilliant forms of media, and all tell compelling stories, not because they are realistic, but because they draw the reader/viewer in to a different world. This, for me personally, is why games can be the best form of story telling, as they can not only create a compelling world and alternate reality, but they create one which you can shape and alter through your actions. By letting your actions affect the story, that story becomes realistic and compelling on a completely different level.
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby Jingee » 23 Aug 2012, 13:37

DAEDALUS79 wrote:Your point seems to rest on the basis that a story needs to be realistic to be good. In any form of media; books, film, tv etc the best stories are often the most unrealistic. Look at the classic novels like Lord of the Rings, the hobbit, alice in wonderland, Gulliver's travels.

"Nail" and "Head" seem to come to mind. I personally can get engrossed in any game, so long as I enjoy playing it.
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby darry » 23 Aug 2012, 13:38

Entire levels can be dropped at the last minute, leaving a gaping hole in the narrative that the writer has to fill. If a level is cut that explains how a character got from one place to another, the writer will have to explain it some other way, and somehow still keep the narrative flowing naturally.


Replace 'levels' with 'scenes' or 'chapters' and this could apply equally to films, TV programmes or books.
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby lordirongut » 23 Aug 2012, 13:59

I disagree entirely, and there are a number of reasons for this:

1: You're in a game world much longer than a film world. Even the shortest of games is twice as long as the average film, and many, especially the ones which are plot-heavy, last upwards of 30, 40, 50, 60 or even more hours. This gives time for contextualization, characterization, lore-building and backstory, and just general depth of plot. When done right, a game plot can be more intricate than that of a film or even a book.

2: The control you have in a game is an excellent tool to make you care about a character or place. A film or book is like watching a play, being in a game is like being in the play. You are part of it. Aerith's death in Final Fantasy VII was something people cared about precisely because they'd been controlling her for the last 20 hours. Gordon Freeman's struggle is cared about because the player is Gordon Freeman. When the Orphanage is destroyed in Yakuza 3, you care because you've spent the last 10 hours caring for the kids there. None of those would have been as shocking, effective or moving in a book or film.

3: Think about this for a second. Would you rather play Half Life 2 or read Fifty Shades of Grey? Yeah, thought so.
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby Balladeer » 23 Aug 2012, 14:04

Oh come on Irongut. That last one is not a fair example! You'd have to compared FSoG with Zumba Fitness, or HL2 with... I 'unno, Terry Pratchett or something great.
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby funkyjack » 23 Aug 2012, 14:14

Jingee wrote:
DAEDALUS79 wrote:Your point seems to rest on the basis that a story needs to be realistic to be good. In any form of media; books, film, tv etc the best stories are often the most unrealistic. Look at the classic novels like Lord of the Rings, the hobbit, alice in wonderland, Gulliver's travels.

"Nail" and "Head" seem to come to mind. I personally can get engrossed in any game, so long as I enjoy playing it.


I don't think Andy was suggesting that the story's setting has to be realistic, he's highlighted Valve's games; Half Life 2 and Portal 2 as being games that other writers should take inspiration from, and I wouldn't call either of those realistic settings.

The best stories always have believable characters, it's why Game of Thrones is so popular, my Mrs hates fantasy generally, but loves Game of Thrones, because the characters are believable shades of grey, rather than black or white charicatures. If they feel real, you care about them.

Great stories in video games always make the player feel like they are there, and the characters have to be interesting, otherwise the player won't invest themselves emotionally. [SPOILERS AHEAD] It's why I was torn between choosing to save Kaidan's life at the cost of losing Ashley in Mass Effect 1; it's why I felt so shocked in Bioshock when I discovered I was a sleeper agent programmed to respond to the key-phrase "would you kindly"; and it's why I agaonsied over what to do about Megaton in Fallout 3...I felt connected to the experience in each case, but I admire the Bioshock example the most. The game doesn't always have to give you a choice to make the consequences of the gameplay matter to you.
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby Demigod001 » 23 Aug 2012, 14:23

Opinion : What a load of drivel.
Game have been telling stories very well for years. They tend not to be realistic but neither are movies and vast swathes of literature. Some leads are arrogant idiots yes but again its the same in any medium. Some games do have bed stories but that is nothing new in any media, some have great plots that fail at the end, some have mediocre plots but great game play and some have both great story and great gameplay.

Devs are still finding new ways to tell stories, just because someone doesn't like cut scenes doesn't mean they shouldn't exist. A cut scene may take away player agency but it is often better then a dialogue wheel with 3 choices and 2 talking heads.

Bottom line games are a great story telling media that offers more avenues to shape and tell stories than another
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby paulhudd » 23 Aug 2012, 15:24

Max Payne 3 is a recent example of a game that relies on cutscenes to fuel its narrative, and suffers as a result. The controls are constantly snatched from you, killing immersion.


Not played Max Payne 3 but I keep getting peed off when Uncharted:GA on the Vita keeps doing it every 2 minutes. My brother is a Sony wh0re and lent me his Vita to play it and I'm going through it to humour him but I just don't care for him. Maybe it's because...

Games fail spectacularly at making you care about their heroes. They're always cocky, wise-cracking assholes who are inexplicably great at everything they do.


Rpgs have always been the king of story telling, but caring about the character or the outcome of the narrative are 2 different things. FF7 is my favourite game of all time, I care about Cloud and the outcome. Second favourite game is Link to the Past, I don't care so much for link himself, but I care about the characters of the world, maybe that's the point of being a hero in those games. One character of recent games I do care about is Fenix and Co. When character X experienced a certain event in Gears 3 I cried, the second time any game has ever made me involuntarily leak water. First time was when Aeris died. I don't think you can generalize that games can't tell stories when there are millions of examples that do. Granted there are millions of games that can't tell a story, Did Frogger or Pacman have a story, it's a game primarily, We've moved on a long way from playing 1 level over and over again, we move from one scenario to another, Mario Bros story consists of, Princess is in another castle, so no, Mario games are not good story tellers, but they are not trying to be. GTA, is not a story telling game, never started that way, they just want you to have fun, but to stop you from doing anything with no sense of purpose or reasoning, they give you a story, they have progressively gotten better since the top down originals, but still, not a story telling game and was never meant to be. Gears, Halo, Creed, Uncharted and the like have a story to tell but have gameplay mechanics to give, I don't the the issue is stories cant be told, like Nico not regretting his actions during gameplay but on the cutscenes he does, its just the blur between the 2 that needs to be fixed, Portal and Valve games in general, as mentioned, get rid of this obstacle by telling you everything in game, great for immersion, but you can miss stuff so I can see why devs have cut scenes. This has been a talking subject between me and my mates for years so I'll stop talking as I've already went on too long lol
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby illage2 » 23 Aug 2012, 16:14

I think story telling in games can be a lot better than story telling in any film or book.

Take Skyrim for example, sure there is a story element to it but how you as a character turn out is up to the player. No two characters on Skyrim will ever be the same, and you can even craft your own story (As is the case with Rags to Riches).

As I said, there is a story to follow in Skyrim but it's ultimatly up to the player whether they want to follow that story or not.

In some games I do like a good story, but I like games that let me make my own story and decide the fate of my character. Will my character become the symbol or all evil? Will my character steal this item or not? and so on.
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby KK-Headcharge78 » 23 Aug 2012, 17:01

Well my thoughts have been covered by many already, my view is this article is wrong. Games, whilst primariy constructed for fun, can have great narratives and characters that the player connects with, recent examples for me would be Marcus Fenix, Max Payne, John Marston (RDR) and Soap Mactavish* Whilst few games scale the engrossing heights of an Inception, 12 Monkeys or Fight Club there are also tons of films that fail miserably and you can't even play them!

All in all a bullshit opinion, but we are all entitled.


*Ok perhaps I'm jesting on the last one.
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby BeauBeau » 23 Aug 2012, 17:18

There are plenty of games which tell coherent stories, from shooters (Bioshock, Gears of War, Halo, etc) to thinkers (Portal) and even sandbox and non-linear games. Where gaming gets elevated to real brilliance is when it manages to convince you that YOU made the plot happen yourself: Skyrim being the most effective case in point. Where plotting looks really weak is when these set pieces are stitched together in a ham-fisted way, and the CoD series is among the worst offenders. After the third 'helicopter got shot down' moment, you know that the poor shmoes whose job it is to stack up the various multiplayer environments into some sense of narrative order either haven't had the time, the desire or the ingenuity to handle it. And the single player campaign is consequently the worse for that lack of commitment.
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby G00N3R » 23 Aug 2012, 18:03

I haven't read the entire article but I've read enough to know that I disagree in the strongest possible terms. My favourite games are RPGs *because* of the fantastic stories and interesting characters. Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Deus Ex HR, Witcher. There are plenty of non-RPGs with good stories too, Alan Wake immediately springs to mind. I can list many more.

I don't need ultra realism to get immersed in these stories. But of course (and I think this has already been commented on) you can't talk about realism and then go "yay films" etc. I mean that's the medium where guns rarely run out of bullets and guys can survive falling from ridiculous heights and things blowing up a short distance from where they stand.

Also consider how many great stories in film, tv or books involve zombies, vampires, superheroes, aliens, other supernatural beings, etc ... none of those things are real so that argument automatically invalidates them.
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby darry » 23 Aug 2012, 18:44

G00N3R wrote:I haven't read the entire article but I've read enough to know that I disagree in the strongest possible terms.


I didn't read your whole post, but the first sentence means I'm not going to take it seriously as part of any debate.
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby CatfishMurphy » 23 Aug 2012, 19:12

I think if some people watched something other than Christopher Nolan films and read books that don't rely heavily of elves and wizards, then they would see how limited games have been in terms of story telling.

Will we ever see a game that explores the roots of all evil in America (oil & religion) like There Will Be Blood does?
Will we ever see a game that tips you head first into the despair and desperation of drug addiction like Requiem for a Dream?
Will we ever see a game show you the experience of a young man with Asperger's syndrome like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time?

No game has come close to giving me the cultural, educational and emotional experience that these - that I picked pretty much at random off the top of my head - and hundreds more pieces of other media have. I constantly see games simply aping the more mainstream tropes of very successful books and movies rather than relying on their main strengths ( (immersion, interaction and imagination) and telling more abstract, interactive stories that the player can interpret themselves, like Journey and Silent Hill 2 for example.

Once in depth games start being made for people other than stereotypical young males we may see this change, but for now story telling in games is generally adolescent at best because that's who it's squarely aimed at. And while I accept that there are design issues in putting together a comprehensive story in a game, that doesn't excuse the cultural autism of most of them.

This doesn't stop games being fun by the way or make them any less valid. I'm currently trying to max out achievements in Saints Row 3 and having a whale of a time, but culturally enriched... nah.
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Re: Games can't tell stories - but it's not the writers' fau

Postby IplayVideogames » 23 Aug 2012, 19:29

stopped reading this when they said portal had a good narrative.It has No narrative.
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