Each year we see games like Warlords that treat its story as just something on a list. There’s no real forethought, no serious decision if the game needs a story. The devs see the storyline as just another market value, an integer within the big complicated tallying of what it takes to make the most money possible when creating a videogame. This is the very first key issue I think we need to fix. Are we trying to tell a story or sell a game? If you’re trying to just sell a game then go to some other website. If not, then I think it’s time we laid out some solid ground rules for all games to follow from this point onwards.
So if we look at some basic English literature we see that all good stories normally have a beginning, middle and end (it doesn’t necessarily need to be displayed in that order). Every game is in some way trying to show us all a world, or rather a world and a specific event inside the timeline of that world. For Final Fantasy 10 it was the reemergence of “Sin,” for Infamous it was the birth of the world’s first hero, and for Halo it was the moment where Humanity finally found an advantage. In some cases we do see a change in the philosophy. Games like Radiant Historia, for instance, actually feature multiple moments that count as “events”(each of the moments had the same level of detail as you’d expect from the ending) but they were all really just background to the “True Event”(the focus of the story), which was the interference of the Black Chronicle. Normally I would consider this method to be messy, but since each moment in Radiant had the same quality as the ending I felt it served to enhance the experience. While Radiant’s style of hashing out in full detail all these moments of the game along with all the possible outcomes from every decision may be a tad difficult for most devs, I have grown amused by this style. Giving the audience a moment where everything you worked towards just flows together, all building upon itself to complete a mission causes an incredible moment of satisfaction. Just make sure these moments (and true event) don’t happen in the beginning (unless you plan on returning to it somehow). The beginning should be a chunk of the game where we learn the ropes, explore the world, meet some of the cast, meet some of the enemy (if we have one) and prepare for the next phase of the story. Plan the True Event to happen in between the middle and closer to the end of your story. Why keep it separated from the end? Because the ending should be something that makes us “feel.” The ending should see our myriad of characters planning what happens next (especially if this game is supposed to have a sequel), branching out on some additional story of what happened next in the world as the “True Event” was finally closed, and maybe bring a close to this particular tale. If this story had a romance to it, then I suggest showing a resolution. Dot. Hack used marriage as a way to illustrate this, while Final Fantasy 10 actually hinted at the fact that Tidus may possibly be alive (too bad 10-2 sucked so bad).
Now that we have established that this story has a beginning, middle, end, and true event, I think we should discuss the characters and the world. A few strong traits that we see from different genres (like visual novels) are that all information relevant to the story is explained at one point or another. Ever 17, for instance, disguised one of their characters being an AI as way to talk about theories behind clones, time, senses of self, and the Pygmallion Effect. All of it ended up serving an additional purpose or reason within the story. If your game has characters from a distant land or has some particular technology that’s important to the story, then make sure the player has a chance to learn more. Ever17 messed with a myriad of minute scientific beliefs/facts that barely anyone knew about, made sure you were given an explanation at some point in the game, and then tied them into the story. It left a level of satisfaction in me I can barely describe. Knowing that what I was learning was something about society that actually existed, and more importantly that it was all for a reason is the sign of a strong presentation. It reflects on the creators of the product, that not only do they wish to tell a tale, but also have an interest in talking about things they found interesting while writing up this tale. This is a process that all games need to incorporate in some form. If your game features enemies that exist in the real world then make sure you go over whom they are. Don’t just rely on the real world to fill the gaps or rely on the player to somehow know who they are (make sure what you say about them is also correct, Call of Duty has screwed up horribly in this area). If your game features some rare element called “Metatron” then make sure you go over why it’s so rare and why everyone is fighting over it. You don’t need to go into excessive detail if you don’t wish to. Bastion explained a lot about its society with just the architecture, the calming narrator was just icing on the cake.
Lastly let’s go over the area game studios have screwed up the most. Consistency of the presentation in games is our weakest link. The last half of L.A. Noire did not reflect the same impressiveness as the first part. Heavy Rain was “praised” for being an impressive narrative but was filled with so many plot holes, untouched important subjects, and utter nonsense that I can’t even call it a story anymore. Final Fantasy 12 tried to make Van go from being a child to being an adult in everyone’s eyes without ever showing his shift in maturity or why the other characters felt a shift had occurred. The list of mistakes I have seen in games over the last few years is especially outrageous. It’s become a trend of the industry (especially AAA) to start designing scenes (like you would do for a movie) before ever writing up the game mechanics, the plot, or the reasoning. In fact, Uncharted 3′s entire experience was like this. Someone at Naughty Dog thought underground London, a sinking cruise ship, and a vast desert would be interesting game locations. So the entire game was meant to shift from one interesting location to another using very terrible dialogue between a 9 year old version of drake and a very similar looking Sullivan as the glue. There’s no way he could learn a dead language, decipher what someone from 300 years ago had written, or for an adult to take a kid like that seriously, and it was never meant to. The game used that narrative as a justification to start the game out in London, then used poorly explained clues/puzzles as justifications for the next big moment of the game. It was sloppy, it was poorly planned, it showed a level of insecurity in the team, and was only meant to serve the scene. By the time you get about halfway through the game, you’ve already gone through several events that had already ended in explosions, and somehow found yourself heading towards a cruise ship for absolutely no reason. I have heard some argue that it was the studio’s way of showing how Drake would do anything for a friend, but nothing solid in the game has been built in to really carry that belief. The dialogue meant to serve that argument was only written because it supported the scene and likely reflects just how obsessed studio is with copying the Michael Bay section of Hollywood (and Indiana Jones). The end result of all this nonsense is that most players were likely to have more fun at the beginning, have something like a thrill towards the middle, then have mixed feelings on the end. Some may love it, I personally hated it for copying what was done in Uncharted 2, but it didn’t flow well for the story. As we talked about before, the game should be building for a critical moment where everything is tied together. Walking from scene to scene having all these little Mini events along the way with no real end in sight is not the way to show everyone what your studio (or group) is able to do. Build for those moments, make people see this digital metaphor as a true human being, and make them FEEL when the time is right.
Games have a chance to become something greater than they are right now, but before they become great we need to first fix some of these problems. Ironically the “AAA” industry did try to fix some of their presentations by looking at the movie industry, but for different purposes. In the hopes of making more money publishers became obsessed with the explosion and high thrill excitement that you normally see from “summer blockbusters”, but when they did this they completely ignored everything else around them. Some did it because they were angst filled wanna-be movie directors that just weren’t good enough for the movie industry, while others were just blinded by the money of cinema or were deranged enough to believe they had already created perfection. If these people had continued to study movies, (especially movies that we see closer to Christmas like Black Swan or Inception) then the industry wouldn’t be facing such a ridiculous 2 hard years of recession. Every medium in this world has strengths and weaknesses. We don’t necessarily need to like them, but we should still acknowledge things like books, TV, anime, visual novels, and manga as all different industries that are facing the same technical difficulties of trying to create something great that is also going to generate revenue. This is something very few individuals do. Hell, it’s hard enough to find a dev that’s actually played a recent game long enough to give an opinion on it. If we’re making a game that is set in space, has giant robots in it, and is set to make Hideo Kojima cry then we had better make sure to have played all the Zone Of The Enders games. After that we should go look at Ghost In The Shell to learn about the complex barriers between machine and humanity. For presentations and understanding personal plot line we should probably skip over to The Walking Dead, Ever 17, then take a long hard look at the constant changes of the Gundam and Macross models since they have been around for over 30 years at this point. There’s a wealth of information available from mediums all across the world that can help fix our games, and very few of us are actually using it to our advantage.