Disclaimer: The following post contains potential spoilers for Bioshock Infinite, Far Cry 3 and Mass Effect 2.
It’s impossible to look at the way stories are used by games without analysing the mainstream. Independent titles are well-versed in taking on riskier approaches, both in terms of gameplay and in story, and in many cases it is the low-to-mid budget games that take the risks as a whole. There are big-budget games (commonly referred to as AAA games) that do take risks, and that do focus on story.
This isn’t the case for all types of games, but storytelling in games is big, and has gradually been given more weight. Many gamers are no longer content to just shoot things, but want to be taken on a journey at the same time. It’s possible to look to the indie games as the exemplars of culture, story and art as one might with cinema, eschewing the summer blockbuster or two-hour toy tie-in for the sake of something that feels less manufactured, but it is no longer necessary.
Story is big. It’s truly a huge part of game production now. They may not cover new ground, but they offer fresh perspectives on old ideas. The Uncharted Series isn’t merely a set of jumping-puzzle shooters, but a cinematic experience. None of the cutscenes or set-ups are required by the gameplay, but they enhance it. Grand Theft Auto IV wasn’t just a bowling simulator, but had a story about a migrant fleeing his violent past, and being drawn into an equally violent present. It may not have been a unique story, but almost any story can be reduced until it sounds like another, as is done with The Hero’s Journey.
The end result is not guaranteed to be great. Stories can be as difficult with games as they are with books or movies, Where the writing, acting and cinematography are all progressively crucial throughout books, movies and games, games also require that the gameplay itself either enhances the story, or at the very least does not detract from it. In the case of the previously mentioned Spec Ops, the story is not necessarily enhanced by the gameplay itself, but neither does it interject as being a game challenge rather than a facet of the environment.
When Lara dies in the recent Tomb Raider game, a lengthy scene is played where Lara Croft is either gored, impaled, eaten, or just plain dies in agony. Dying in any game does affect the level of immersion felt, and the deaths intrude on the storytelling, but these scenes felt particularly stretched in a way that was very reminiscent of the original Prince of Persia.
The gameplay can also intrude upon the storytelling, as with Bioshock Infinite. The waves of enemies were more numerous than they were in the original Bioshock, and where respawning enemies there were rare, leading to some relative moments of eerie quiet, the floating city of Columbia offered no respite from the opposing hordes. It was possessed of a wrongness similar to Rapture, but there were no opportunities to wander through and marvel at the architecture, wondering what might have been if it were not Comstock’s city.
The grind of enemies appearing in this way, where each movement is followed by a round of combat, slows down the story and does not allow it enough time to fester in our minds. There were moments early in the game where this was different, moving through the houses of random citizens, exploring more of the city as a means of revelation, confirming Columbia as a possibility while also earmarking it as something very removed from our own world in both form and function. A floating city is already different, but the true differences manifest in the people and their beliefs. For the overall story being told, the gameplay does not seem supportive of it. Is it not the first story to pertain to the multiverse either, or to challenge redemption and consequences of our choices.
The way that the story slots into the world of The Last of Us feels natural, though it is not a unique story either. It is still a great game, and tells a decent story in a terrific manner, but the story isn’t unique. The change in characters. their personalities and such, that’s what breathes proper life into the story, and that pushes us to care. With that holding true, does it matter what story the characters exist in, they captivate throughout?
One of the larger criticisms that come out of story-focused games is that they offer nothing new. Those that attempt to do better and are seen to fail are lambasted for it, and those deemed to have played it safe have that mentioned instead. There are reviews for both Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider (among others) that state they offer nothing new. There are reviews on the Brigmore Witches DLC for Dishonored that state that it offers nothing new, though that it’s still satisfying and makes the Dunwall world richer. Same again for The Last of Us. The phrase “There is nothing new under the sun” seems applicable, and a reductionist approach to plot with the maxim “There are only seven stories in fiction” suggests that there cannot be something new to begin with.
Some see Far Cry 3 as a playable editorial on heavy-action games and the nature of gamers, laden with satire, yet its protagonist Jason Brody was not identifiable and the reception of messages therein were found vague to some, and too heavy-handed to others. The story itself may not have been new, but the story and message are not the same thing. It’s true that most of the games that force us to rethink the nature of gaming are usually indie games, as with the revelation at the end of Braid, that the player isn’t the hero that the game first suggests. The nature of storytelling through events experienced by a player means that the framing is different, and personal beliefs and biases mean the events are interpreted in different ways.
This could mean that there are new stories for us, even if they’re ones that others have already lived through. They may always feel like a game, though some will be less intrusive with reminders such than others. The integration of the character Vaas Montenegro into the marketing for Far Cry 3 also generated a lot of interest in the game beyond what the open-world shooter may have had. He was by far the most compelling character in the game, and Jason Brody’s story into something more than it was. It’s interesting to look at what Ubisoft was trying to achieve with the story as both a character development for Brody, and a note on the normalisation of violence from a gamer perspective.
Brody is a stand-in, where we go from cautious and apprehensive on encounters, to charging in, so does he. There is also an undercurrent that points to none of what is happening being real, though it never quite decides if it means it’s being imagined or that it’s a game, before it abandons the thread. A second playthrough with the two endings known frames his story differently, where instead of being the saviour of the Rakyat, Jason Brody is a tool used by Dennis and Citra, who’ll be discarded when his job is done. It doesn’t quite find footing, in some cases erring on heavy-handed implications, and at other times being too subtle in its message.
Due to the former, the latter is rarely noticed. The free-roaming nature of the game does not help matters, as while Brody’s friends are in danger, he’s racing around on a jetski. The definition of insanity might very well be fist-fighting komodo dragons. There’s a disconnect there because of it, meaning that any dramatic tension built by the storyline dissipates because of the freedom the player has, and the environment itself is not infested with the themes.
There are gaps in quality between what the game elements offer, and what the story offer. There is a dissonance between the two, though much of the gap in AAA level games may be that the weight given to story is not equal to what is given to the gameplay. There is no doubt that game developers are striving for more ambitious stories, though are not quite there as a rule. That it is a goal at all is progress.
Much of the criticism surrounding AAA games that do strive to tell a story, is that they feel too much like a game, or that they offer nothing new. Meanwhile, there’s a commonly touted belief that there are no new stories, gaming aside. Do you believe the two viewpoints can be reconciled? How?
Chani: It’s hard when it comes to storytelling, especially when it’s limited by reliance on hardware specifications. All games, at some point, feel like a game. You realize that the background characters are on a loop or that you can’t walk over that hill. At some point you are going to find stories that at face value seem the same e.g. The Hunger Games, Twilight and The Host – two guys and a girl and some romance. It’s not until you get into it and see all the details that you realize that they are completely different (and that Twilight sucks). Games will always feel like games until they release some spiffy Virtual Reality, but even then, it’ll still feel like a game because you’ll have tasks to do, things you wouldn’t normally do in real life. As for no new stories, gaming aside, well until you’ve read every single story ever, you can’t say that. They can be similar but they will differ in some way.
Hong: I believe there is no limit to the imagination – so as long as we can imagine, there will always be new stories to be told. A story is more than just a couple of plot elements: the pacing, execution and other such subtleties can make an enormous difference to the final product, and with all these possible variations I think it’s impossible to run out of stories to tell. Even when the same story is redone by another person, like a film remake, etc, the outcome can be vastly different to the original -even having something told in a different language would introduce new elements to it! With this in mind, putting these familiar stories into a game is just another great way to retell something and offer new perspectives and new experiences that, in other mediums, are just not possible.
Tash: I believe that there are new stories, and that whilst elements of a story can be said to be non-original, the ways in which these elements are used, and the importance placed on them within the story can create something that is very unique. For example, a fantasy story will often include common elements – an enemy rises up for nefarious purposes and a band of heroes must step up in order to defeat said enemy and restore order to the land. Does the existence of these common elements make every story that includes them a carbon copy? No, because the worlds they occur in, and the characters they occur to, are what provides the uniqueness and the depth in any story.
I think we are seeing innovation in terms of storytelling in games, with developers trying new things and experimenting with creative freedom. Sometimes these risks don’t pay off, and titles that attempted to innovate fall flat. But for every failed attempt, there are three more that provide incredible experiences for us as gamers, and it is those games which highlight that yes, games can tell a story just as nuanced and immersive as any novel or film.
Darren: Even if there are no “new” stories per se, that doesn’t mean that certain genres of games can’t experiment with different genres of stories. Take Call of Duty, a series that traditionally follows the Michael Bay blockbuster template with a bad guy to defeat and lots of explosions to detonate. Why not make it, say, a character-focused drama? Why not try telling a story where, throughout the game, war horrifies the main character? (Spec Ops: The Line sort of attempted this by demonstrating how war can desensitise and dehumanise – quite a bold message for the genre.) There’s always a new idea or approach to try when making games, even if we accept at the base narrative level that there are no new stories.
Jimmy: The problem isn’t that “It feels too much like a game”, the problem is that the mechanics do nothing to help the story. There’s no reason to not use, as Extra Credits put it, Mechanics as metaphor. One game which did this really well, I thought, was Heavy Rain. There was a scene where you were a cop going through withdrawals holding a bad guy at gunpoint. you had to hold buttons as they showed up on screen and each button was further away from the last one. transforming your hand into a mangled mess, just like Jayden who was using every ounce of willpower he had not to drop the gun. I died quite a few times in that scene.
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