Disclaimer: The following post contains potential spoilers for The Walking Dead, Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 3, Assassin’s Creed 3, Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, and Dishonored.
No matter the medium, not all of the audience will agree with every choice the creators make. This holds as true for games as it does for books, comics and film.
We’re more forgiving of a bad story when the gameplay is there, and there are obviously genres where it less important. The bizarre reasons for the characters fighting each other in the Dead or Alive series are laughable, and whatever attempt at a plot through the Project Alpha storyline is entirely superfluous. The focus of many games that present themselves as shooters, such as the Call of Duty or Halo games, do present the player with a story, but the main focus of these games has always been the multiplayer element.
None of the Fable games were groundbreaking in their story, relying on well-trodden tropes of fantasy. They were interesting for their Sims-like approach to NPC interaction and the combat was fun enough, however none of the stories were particularly memorable. The most interesting aspect of the game was The Crawler, but the progression from there as a solid explanation for the brother’s actions to a money-management scenario was terrible. The story is an essential component of a roleplaying game and can transform it from forgettable to compelling.
Similar criticisms have been levelled at many of the Elder Scrolls games, and Tamriel does have a breadth that Albion lacks, though is still short of depth. Individual quests within Oblivion and Skyrim do excel, and the threads through the story of each guild are more interesting than the main story; they add richness to the world where the main quest doesn’t, where in Morrowind the main quest permeates throughout much more of Vvardenfell. It’s not clear if this is a case of the player simultaneously saving the respective worlds, yet still unable to affect change within them.
Could the stories have been better? Compare these games to the vivid world of The Witcher 2 which feels deeper, and more immersive. Each of the stories with the game feel better written, and the characters are far more memorable. Paarthurnax and Martin Septim were the closest to memorable characters in Skyrim and Oblivion respectively, Witcher 2 has an intricate cast.
Character is immensely important to the story. In Assassin’s Creed III, the main character Connor failed to make a mark with most of the game’s audience. Given the depth in character that came about through Ezio Auditore being developed over the course of three games, it was a difficult height to achieve through one. Starting the game as Haytham Kenway, who is undoubtedly a polite, well-mannered gentlemen that just happens to have a gift for killing people, means that the contrast between his character and that of Connor is amplified. Connor is not developed as obviously as his predecessors, and seems to have the same overconfidence in himself that Altair had prior to being defeated by Robert de Sablé and stripped of his rank.
He is at times curt with his allies, and is sure that what he is doing is right. This is present when he interacts with Achilles Davenport, and overrides the nuances to his character that aren’t as obvious as they had been with Kenway. The overall story of Connor is well told, and Connor makes a fantastic tragic hero who believes he’s doing the right thing, though all of his actions are futile. The pity is that the contrast means it’s Connors bolder emotions of anger and defiance that stand out, when a subsequent playthrough of the game reveals a much broader range of emotions. As great as Kenway’s introduction sequence was, it is a detriment to the presentation of Connor as a character.
The actions of the character need to support the story, and not be contrivances entered for the sake of gameplay. The original ending sequence of Fallout 3 presented a scenario where the player’s character was to enter a chamber flooded with radiation to activate Project Purity, which would result in the player receiving a fatal dose. At this stage of the game, some players would have had the intelligence supermutant companion Fawkes with them, who was resistant to all radiation. It seems logical that Fawkes could do it, but the scenario was railroaded into requiring the player to do it, presented as something that the character needed to do themselves.
While it may have been for the sake of ending the game at that point, it incorrectly prevents a logical solution, and instead ensures that someone will die. The worst aspect of this is it breaks whatever illusions the game had been able to maintain until that point, reinforcing that it is a game, undoing whatever good will had happened until that point. The Broken Steel DLC changes this to allow Fawkes to stand in for the character, ensuring that the game continues after the sequence, and fixing that particular plot hole.
The artistic method is subjective, and no materials created are guaranteed to find footing with an audience. Aside from editors, many authors make use of beta readers for their manuscripts to receive objective feedback, gaining a critical assessment of their work at many levels, including continuity, characterisation and plot holes. Movie studios employ a similar method, holding test screenings of a movie for a sample audience, to determine how well the film might be received by specific demographics, and what changes could improve the film. This type of technique can lead to studios pushing alternate views onto a producer or director, using the test scores as justification for the changes.
Films often run test-screenings to gauge what reception the film might receive. Should the alpha/beta testing processes incorporate testing for story elements, as well as gameplay and potential bugs?
Darren: That could be an interesting approach. But that assumes games adopt the production process of film, even though the medium is wholly unique. Should a book get test readings before publication? Or should one trust the author’s voice? Okay, yes, books have editors and multiple drafts, but again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to honing a creative work. It depends entirely on the medium, and with gaming neither book nor movie, perhaps a different approach is needed altogether. And gaming is still young; I’m confident that in time we’ll conjure something.
Jimmy: Interesting Idea! The test phase (I’m not a developer, so keep that in mind) is mostly about mechanics because, well, stories don’t “break”. Certainly proofreading and testing to make sure the story isn’t at odds with the mechanic is probably a great idea, but if a novel got to “Beta testing” it would probably be to ensure people like it, rather than to fix anything that was wrong with it. Games don’t have that luxury. The reason stories get neglected in this period is because a new story can be written in an emergency, new mechanics sorta can’t.
Chani: They definitely should. The story is just as important. It could be a game with the most user friendly gameplay and absolutely no bugs whatsoever, but if the story isn’t great why would I keep playing?
Hong: Hmm… I’m a bit conflicted on this. In a perfect world this would definitely be something I’d like to see, since I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played through a game’s plot and though “wow who seriously thought this was a good idea?” or noticed MASSIVE GAPING plot holes, or seen inconsistencies in characterisation that just make a scene awkward. Having said that, the enjoyment of a plot is VASTLY subjective and everyone seems to have an opinion that differs from the next person. There will always be someone out there who disagrees, and with this in mind I think ‘story testing’ would turn out to be an extremely messy process. I think the closest thing developers have to this for now is the internet. People on the internet really aren’t shy on giving their feedback… and yes, it might come a bit too late but the lesson is out there for next time if they want.
Tash: I don’t believe it should, because the rating of the quality of a story is an inherently subjective thing. I might believe something is exceptionally well told, whilst another person looking at exactly the same story might believe it is complete trash. Storytelling is very much concerned with shades of grey, whilst gameplay and bug testing is very black and white: with gameplay, something either works the way it should, or it doesn’t. In contrast, storytelling evokes emotions in players, which are by their very nature extremely subjective things.
I am also a firm believer in the author’s ownership of a story, and that it is theirs to write as they see fit. I don’t feel that writers should feel pressured to change aspects of their story simply because some players might dislike them. Having said that, I’m certainly not advocating that writers should have free reign to write stories that are obscene or incredibly offensive, and indeed I am completely against offensive material being included simply to generate publicity. But say for example a writer kills a beloved character as part of the story – who am I, as a player, to say to them ‘I don’t like that. Change it so that they live’? Writers are intimately tied to their characters, and whilst we as players can feel an attachment to these characters, in the end their creation is due to those writers. The ultimate decision of how these characters should be treated should therefore be left to the writers.
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