Video Games Are Still Trying To Find Their Ways of Telling Stories


A little over a year ago I already did my “big post” laying out my opinions on cut scenes, gameplay, and video game narrative mechanics. The subject seems to have come up again after a double whammy of controversy in this industry.

I might be a little late commenting on the whole “Press F to Pay Respects” business in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, but right after that came Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s dismissal of the pursuit of “cinematic” video games. I just about completely agree with him.

I understand Miyamoto’s and Nintendo’s preference for making games that are more or less toys. In the Telegraph interview he says he doesn’t really see games as a storytelling medium, and it shows in how Nintendo approaches the stories for games like Mario and Zelda. A lot of people have disagreed with this over the years and while I definitely think video games can tell stories, I agree with Miyamoto’s dismissal of cinematic, non-interactive storytelling.

Miyamoto told Telegraph, “It should be the experience, that is touching. What I strive for is to make the person playing the game the director. All I do is help them feel that, by playing, they’re creating something that only they could create.” I see that as basically another way of saying the best stories in video games are often the ones players make with their own experiences. Of course I don’t think that’s the only narrative format available to video games. Most developers still seem to want to tell a straight, authored story through video games.

One big franchise that’s pushed this has been Call of Duty. All the campaigns in these games at some point try to tell emotional stories while using few or no cut scenes. They want the player to “experience” as much of the story as possible, even though COD’s developers have stumbled in this pursuit a lot.

This is why I don’t see “Press F to Pay Respects” as a complete travesty. Some people say that should have just been a cut scene, but I still appreciate the game for at least trying to do something that doesn’t cut to an imitation of film. This happens a lot in recent games. I thought it was equally ridiculous when Bioshock Infinite asked me to press X to accept a Baptism, but I still appreciate the overall effort on the part of the industry’s biggest developers to tell stories in ways not necessarily possible in film or literature.

I think the underlying problem behind games that do the “press one button to initiate a complex series of actions” — what Zero Punctuation now calls “Slow Time Events,” is they’re still stuck to a storytelling style based on film. They’re focused on telling a story that constantly moves in one direction. Video games weren’t originally built to tell stories, at least not in the same way.  The key is keeping the player in control as much as possible, which keeps them immersed in the game at a certain level. That doesn’t necessarily mean totally throwing the story into their hands like a Minecraft or a multiplayer game. Let’s go back to Advanced Warfare. I avoided talking too much about this game because I haven’t played it and I don’t know if I ever will, but I did start thinking about suggestions for how to make that funeral scene less ridiculous, and it basically caused me to mentally graft an entire different genre onto COD:AW, or parts of one at least.

I’m just guessing, but I imagine the game has you walk in what is effectively a corridor towards the casket where you Press F. I think it would feel better if you could more freely walk around the funeral area and talk to non-player characters. Even if it’s just pressing F before each one and hearing a single line of dialogue, it makes the place feel a little bit more like an event full of grieving people. Better yet, before that have some kind of area in the game where between action segments you can just walk around and talk to other soldiers including the guy who would eventually die. Remember the base camp at the beginning of Modern Warfare 2 where all you could do was look at soldiers doing things other than shooting guns, walk through the scene, and head to the next waypoint? I’d take that and open it up into an interactive area. I guess Mass Effect’s Normandy or an RPG town would be a good comparison. This not only breaks up the pace of the game, but also let’s in a lot more room for character development. Splinter Cell Blacklist tried this but probably compressed it too much. Basically what I’m asking is for COD and other shooter campaigns to have spaces where you can interact with things in ways other than shooting them, and pathways that are wider than straight corridors.

Really, the question I’m asking is why don’t shooters and action games try to incorporate the storytelling mechanics of RPGs and adventure games? If you really think about it, Mass Effect does a better job of developing characters and narrative than basically any other big-budget mainstream shooter, and that’s because it’s basically a shooter bolted onto the narrative structure of a western RPG. Players spend hours choosing what their characters say to other characters. This steers the storyline while also giving those characters ample development and varying up the pace. Why is it that only RPGs are doing this?

I hate to bring up ArmA II yet again, but one of that game’s early campaign missions is in my opinion an excellent example of an authored narrative that plays out in a uniquely video game-like way. In the mission you have to find a person by traveling around an open world, talking to witnesses with a dialogue tree, and occasionally hunting enemies. You spend at least half the time basically embarking on a detective adventure game which makes the combat feel more intense in contrast. You may not be shooting things a lot of the time, but you’re still making decisions that affect what happens in the environment. Why can’t someone try to make a Skyrim-like shooter that actually tries to convey its story the same way? The Far Cry games get kind of close.

Back to COD:AW, another much simpler thing to do would be to have the F key previously established as a gameplay mechanic relating to NPCs including the guy who dies. Ico expertly devotes one button to every interaction with another character, whether it be holding her hand or calling her. The ending of Metal Gear Solid 3 makes an excellent, poignant use of the “shoot gun” button. That kind of use would make “Press F to Pay Respects” a lot more meaningful when it actually does show up.

This is all really just my own suggestion. All I’m saying is, the industry is clearly trying to move away from being some kind of imitation of film. A lot of people are stumbling along the way, but that’s natural. Hopefully developers learn from mistakes like “Press F to Pay Respects” and push forward with new ideas instead of simply retreading old ground.


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