I’ve come to an odd realization that Roger Ebert may have been more right about games than I thought, specifically in that an interactive medium may be counter-productive to storytelling. Perhaps more specifically, interactivity makes it more difficult for the developers to tell you a story. While games do contain illustration and music and in a sense sculpture, in this instance I’m talking about two kinds of art: storytelling and interactive experiences. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but the more I think about it the more difficult it seems to do both at once. Speaking of longwinded storytelling, this time around I’m going to see if I can break tradition and make this post more concise than what we’ve had so far. Righto, let’s dig in.
This ponderance came about when I considered reviews for Mafia II that called it GTA without the freeroam. GTA4’s Liberty City is a phenomenal technical achievement and a great setting. It facilitates the telling of a good story, but can’t accomplish that on its own. Likewise the game’s cutscenes are great stuff, to the point that it felt a little jarring to me when the cutscene ended and I went ‘off the rails’ again.
This got me thinking about memorable moments in my gaming history, and noting how many of them involved little or no interactivity. No matter how fast you get to the chopper, the nuke still goes off in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. No matter how good you are at dodging and shooting, you can’t beat Mother Brain in Super Metroid until the hatchling shows up to help. No matter how obvious the proper course of action is to you, Squall still needs to be talked into rescuing his girlfriend from being launched into space in Final Fantasy 8.
Most games with a story to tell these days utilize cutscenes, scripted events, or some combination thereof. Depending on your point of view a quicktime event could be seen as a poor man’s scripted event or the ruining of a perfectly good cutscene. Cutscenes are definitely the easiest way to deliver a story to the player because they’ve no choice but to put down the controller and watch what you show them. They also serve as a nice little reward for a job well done, such as bookending big boss fights in Final Fantasy games. Unfortunately sometimes they go on too long, such as… well, Final Fantasy games.
Scripted events present a bit of a challenge to the game designers because you have to predict where and when your audience will be looking and listening without making it too obvious where you’re leading them. When it goes well you get Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty games, such as that feeling of suspense when a scripted chopper falls out of the sky right in front of you with whirring blades of death that won’t actually hit you but by golly it looks like they will. When it doesn’t go well you get the later F.E.A.R games where you hear a random piano chord because the game thought you would be looking out this window over here to see some shadowy figure run by, but you missed it because you were investigating a desk on the other side of the room.
My realization in both cases (and the connection of this incoherant ramble to Roger Ebert’s statements about games as art) is that the most direct way to tell a story is to take away interactivity. As long as the player is in control you can only place story elements in their path and hope they choose to take a look. This is where film excels in storytelling. You decide exactly how and when your story advances. No matter how many times you watch the movie, Frodo will never get stuck in an animation loop and be unable to walk into mordor. Likewise, opearting the dvd remote will never suddenly become so complicated that the audience is physically unable to watch the third act.
Such is the dillema of storytelling in games. If you give the player freedom they can have plenty of fun to goof around, but you’ll have a hard time telling a story. If you sit them down and make them watch your story play out for a little while you directly and (hopefully) eloquently present your message, but at the cost of the interactivity that makes a game a game. Developers continue to try to find the middle ground. Bioware’s history of branching dialogue has evolved into fully branching cutscenes in modern games like Dragon Age and the Mass Effect series. Quick Time Events can generally go die in a fire, but when used very carefully they can still contribute to the experience via storytelling combined with a modicum of interactivity. The small genre of visual novel games such as the Ace Attorney series have virtually no interactivity beyond presenting the right inventory item when prompted inbetween reading reams of text. Perhaps the true hurdle, however, is that perhaps we’re looking at the quandry of storytelling in gaming from the wrong angle here, with the addition that I’m glad for Ebert’s comments leading me to this train of thought.
Ebert is correct that a game cannot tell a story in the same way as a film because the storyteller must give up control of the story periodically to give the player something to do. You can sit the player down and have them watch your story, you can give the player a world in which to tell their own story, but doing both at the same time may be trying to serve two masters. Games shouldn’t try to be movies; games should be games. In the previous bit of Stairwell Philosophy I opined that the folks behind Broken Saints crafted something unique and interesting by not just copying the methods of related mediums sequential art and film, but creating an experience uniquely suited to online flash animation. So it must also be for games that if they want to tell a story they should do so through interactivity.
The unique and most important advantage of storytelling in games is the interactivity and the personal involvement of the player. In film and books and illustration you can empathize with the depicted characters, but in a game you are the character. I’m gonna go old school on you here with my first memory of a game eliciting an emotional response, which was towards the end of Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest on the NES. It was one of the first games where I got all the way to the end, so I’d been at this for quite awhile. I was getting ready to fight Dracula, one of the biggest baddest movie monsters around. The whole game was coming down to this. Did I have enough items? Would I be able to dodge his attacks? How far back would I have to go if I lost? Mind that the actual boss fight just consisted of bouncing diamonds around the room at him and jumping and whipping a lot. I don’t think he even moved around, and he certainly didn’t turn into a giant bat monster like he does in modern castlevania games. Many games before had made me feel tense because of a coming test of skill and reflexes, but this was the first time I felt in-character stress. I was going to fight Dracula.
Likewise the design of the levels contributed to this feeling. After battling hordes of bouncing/jumping/flying/etc. monsters across varying colorful environments with bouncy 8-bit music, I stepped into the catacombs leading to Dracula’s lair. The music was muted and ominous, soft bass tones gravely foretelling the coming showdown between multigenerational rivals. The rooms were simple white squares on black, taking me further from the familiar. I was going into the dark place where mortals fear to tread. Similar techniques are used with increasing frequency in the Metroid games. Background mood music and a stark lack of communication with other people reinforce feelings of solitude and loneliness. It’s just you and a hostile alien world. Nothing human, nothing familiar, no assistance, no communication, and if you get into trouble nobody will ever find you.
Speaking of Metroid, playing Metroid: Other M gave me a fine appreciation for the increasingly bygone era of the silent protagonist. Back in the day this was all the technology could handle, which I believe cultivated the stronger points of storytelling through game design. Every tiny animation of the characters and every pixel of the levels had to be put to use if you wanted to get any sort of story across. Silent protagonists can also dovetail well with people who tend to talk to the game as the play. As for the games with dialogue, there’s been a few really cool moments where the dialogue is going back and forth and my natural response is echoed by my character.
Here we get closer to the art of video games. Interactive entertainment has an innate advantage in making you care about what happens to the protagonist because you are the protagonist. The assisting npcs are your friends (and occasionally annoying hangers-on). I’m reminded of that recent Prince of Persia game (the one with the guy with the metal glove who looks like he just did a heist at an ancient persian laundromat). Influenced by the legendary Ico, the game has an npc sidekick. Unlike Ico however, your sidekick is an able combatant whose job is to generally keep you from dying. She uses magic attacks to take down special enemies, helps you make long jumps, and teleports you to safety when you’re about to be killed by various hazards. Now, mechanically, what this means is when you press the Y button a second character runs up and punches the guy instead of you punching him, and instead of going to a loading screen you just watch an animation whenever you fall off a cliff. What I like about it though is that it turns these basic game mechanics into storytelling tools, personifying the bits and bytes.
For example, when you jump onto a climbable wall your character will reach out and the sidekick will leap and grab onto you. Realistically I know that it’s a locked animation so no matter how far or fast I go the other character will always catch up because that’s what she’s programmed to do. But as I played I noticed that whenever I’d go jump onto a wall I’d pause there a moment to catch her before moving on, even though it’s impossible to not catch her. And if you need further proof of how personifying game mechanics can add to a game’s flavor, just go play Left 4 Dead and listen to people speak of the A.I. Director as though it were a fickle and spiteful deity.
Which leads to the final point of this mad ramble, and the key part to understand about games as art: a game does not need to tell a story to be a work of art. The purpose of music is to be heard. The purpose of a movie is to be watched. The purpose of a game is to be played. There is an art to great games that we can play over and over again long after we know the story so well we can skip all the cutscenes and still know exactly what’s going on. You see a ton of this from the indie developers who can afford to try out weird new ideas based around a game mechanic rather than around a movie license or a franchise brand, gameplay-focused ideas like Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft. I think that’s what’s kept me a Nintendo fan through the years as well. The Wii doesn’t get as much new game love in my house as the 360 and only barely more than the PS3, but it’s because the old games are still good. Just as I never tire of hearing More Than A Feeling or watching Princess Bride, I still periodically break out the various adventures of Mario and Link and the gang. Modern gaming technology can help games tell some pretty amazing stories, but the interactive experience is what really makes it tick, where you’ll find the true art of game design. As the saying goes, the play’s the thing.