Thursday, September 13, 2012

Why video games often suck at storytelling

Warning: Contains mild spoilers for Modern Warfare 2.

When a video game attempts to tell a story that's worth to be called that, you will usually lighten up in joy. When it does tell its story in a coherent, capturing way, you are just opened a clam and found a pearl inside, or in other words, witnessed an event that's not bloody likely. Most video games tell sketchy and clicheed stories at best. They don't even try to do something else. Picture, for example, the "Modern Warfare" franchise. The games do a great job at providing great scenes that feel like a Hollywood Blockbuster happening with you in the middle, but if you waste even one thought about the story holding these scenes together, you will go in cathartic shock due to sheer dumbness.

I mean, seriously, look at the storyline of "Modern Warfare 2", where a terrorist attack on an Russian airport where the body of an American was conventiently found prompts not only the Russian government to invade the US in what is basically the better version of the "Red Dawn" remake we will soon suffer through. No, the American allies don't help them because it's basically their own fault. This story is so dumb that I currently hold the screenwriters of said "Red Dawn" remake in high regard for letting freaking North Korea invade the US by use of a EMP superweapon (or something along the line).

America has Thor, though, so fat chance, North Korea!

Even games that at their core tell a really good story, like the "Assassin's Creed" franchise, tend to divide their games into the gameplay part and the story part and let both pieces interfer with each other only on need-to-know-basis. For example, our favorite Assasssin doesn't kill innocents, which is cool, and the game punishes you for killing "civilians". When you get at your target, you politely listen to their last words and close their eyes. In between these high-profile-targets and the amorphe mass of civilians lay, however, the guards, your main enemies. These poor, hapless guys walk around in patrols or stand on rooftops, wating to be killed by a serious of really cool moves, which is nice, of course.

But it really doesn't make any fucking sense. The tenderness of the contract kill stands in stark contrast to the routinely performed kills on guards, which don't fit the "innocent" pattern just because they are wearing uniforms. You might now tell me that without that, the games wouldn't be fun to play, of course, and I couldn't but agree with you. And that is exactly the problem of video game storytelling. Contrary to movies, for example, video games require you to actually do stuff. Since much of the things movie characters do cannot be transported to the medium - like talking, looking around and performing any non-combat-related action -, only the action secenes remain to be played out. Think of an action-flick like "Transformers", for example. There are perhaps three real action scenes in the mindnumbing two-and-a-half-hours of running time.

The only parts worth it, but certainly not the only parts of the movie.
Having that many action scenes, however, presents you with another problem besides the boredom it might ensue. The latter you can avoid by simply making them different and engaging, but another remains unsolvable. It is best visualized by the first and most famous scene of "Saving Private Ryan", with the allied soldiers storming the beach of Normandy against German gunfire and bleeding heavily for it. In the movie, this scene is very intense. People fall down with their entrails hanging out, panic and fear can be seen on the soldier's faces, and you could be killed any minute. The problem is not to technically transport these feelings, make no mistake. That they perhaps could do in the near future.

The problem is the question if we really want to have this. Do you want to storm the beaches of Normandy while shitting in your pants? Do you want to see these kinds of things, things that led to trauma in reality? In the safety of a cinema seat, you have a certain distance, no matter how gross it is envisioned. When you play it, however, most of the distance is gone. You really don't want to reach that kind of immersity, or else be sued for mental torture by your players.

Just not the same without a weapon looming into the screen.
So, what video game designers basically do is to stretch the action scenes over the complete game, perhaps letting cutscenes interrupt the action to tell "the story". But cutscenes and other effects like this disrupt the flow of playing more often than not. Only very few games so far have managed to really use gameplay to tell stories. It is understandable, because it's hard work, and the target audience wouldn't really appreciate it anyway. But this is the one important reason why video games constantly lag behind in artistic appeal. It's the same with TV series - when all they could do was "Dawson's Creek" or "Al Bundy" as not to challenge the vierwes too much, it was just something to get off from work in the evening. Only when the work used the chances of the format to actually tell a story, the format took off. TV was never the same after the Sopranos, but somehow, we still wait for the video game to do the same.


  1. "Married... with children" was great, "Dawson's Creek" wasn't bad either though aiming at a young female audience.
    You just can't expect a great story from a product that is supposed to be bought by teenagers.
    This is probably the very reason why video games usually have such a crappy story. It's supposed to be bought by teenagers and they just don't care.

    Moreover, it's not like all games have bad stories. Morrowind had a good one, SMAC too although it appealed a little too much to the hippies. Starcraft wasn't too bad either.

    Finally, I simply fail to understand why you drool over "The Sopranos" so much. Somebody ripped off "Goodfellas" and dragged it out over hundreds of hours. And that is what you call the fine art of storytelling?

  2. I know that these were aimed at young people; there was no "adult" show back then, that's what I mean. Series weren't regarded as a serious tool for storytelling, and The Sopranos changed that. I don`t want to drool over it and praise it to the heavens, it was just the first "big" drama series that made such an impact and redefined the genre. "Half-Life" isn't the high-point of everything, either, but it was the first FPS that really did something different and reinvtended the whole genre. Before, FPS were pure action-flicks.

  3. You should play the Witcher series. Great story and gameplay :)

  4. I started Witcher 2 once and played until I stormed that castle in the beginning, but never quite warmed up to the gameplay.

  5. The prologue is very linear and 3rd-Person-shooterish but the world and story get much more open and complex from act 1 on.

    You really should give it another try. Especially if you are interested in narrative techniques of video games, since, in my opinion, Witcher 2 sets a new standard for non-linear storytelling.

    What aspect of gameplay did you not like? The combat? It can be quite difficult at the beginning. You just have to remember to use all means at your disposal: spells (aka signs), potions, sword oils, bombs and dodging. The combat system may seem to be a simple button-masher at first glance, but it is in fact quite deep and tactical.

    If you are annoyed by the frequent cut-scenes in the prologue I can tell you that there much less of them in the later acts. :)

    Again, I recommend the game. I think it's the only game of which I've completed four or five playthroughs in less than a year (and each of them with a different ending!)

  6. OK, that surely sounds interesting. I hope I'll find the time to look into it; right now, the schedule is blocked by Assassin's Creed 3 ;) Hope they do a good job, too.

  7. I like the above thought and I am glad to be the part of it.Thanks to The Nerdstream Era for sharing it!!
    video game franchise

  8. Problem is video games today are no longer 'games' and are more like ISIS training videos.

    It used to be games were for all audiences including 9 to 14 year olds who needed more advancement then Pokemon but not the blood and gore of Doom/Crysis. Games used to be ported over to other systems too.

    When I got C64 games thwy ere always bundled with other versions.

    Hell even Mario advanced within the 2D world with new features until the NSMB rehashing

    We must ban guns from lawful owners who have no felonies but allow the most corrupt video games to come out and gang rape anybody who dares say otherwise and label them trolls to silence them..

    Life would be a whole lot better if I were never born.