Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Games and Game Stories: Part 1

Or, why can't more video game studios make a good episodic game series?

In this day and age of rising development costs and digital distribution, episodic gaming seems like a natural choice for small, independent developers as well as larger, more established development studios.

I'm of the opinion that it isn't about the technology, or the team size, it's about the story. Game writing is - as much as it pains me to say this - largely laughably bad.

I can count on two hands the number of really good game stories, with well-rounded characters, etc. that have been released and have also been fun games to play. Game Writing, as others have lamented, seems to be in this push and pull between good narrative development in the dramatic tradition and interactivity.

In other words, you can't tell a good story in an environment where the player has a say in the outcome of the story. So, most game developers bail because:
  1. It costs too much money to work on something that few players will appreciate
  2. Gameplay always trumps narrative
  3. The average gamer doesn't really care about the story

In response, I say:
  1. The gamers that appreciate great stories are the ones that tell their friends that they should purchase the game.
  2. Got me there; this is the biggest challenge for writing in games, but it IS possible to integrate the two (see "Bioshock", "Mass Effect","Fallout 3" and "Max Payne 1 & 2") without failing either the gameplay test or the story test. The studios that set out to write good games and make fun games to play requires a integration of purpose and cooperation that seems to be lacking in most mainstream game studios. Even big studios, like Epic, have failed tremendously to great compelling stories that fully embrace their outstanding gameplay. Sure, Gears of War 1 & 2 are fun games to play, but I tuned out the story because it was laughably bad - in premise, dialog and characters.
  3. There is some truth in that, but do they not care because the story is bad, or they just don't care about a story at all.
Point 3 is perhaps the most intriguing, and it seems to me that the the logic behind the argument is circular. People don't care about story in games, because the story is bad, so we will put in a bad story.

One of the reasons why games in story are so bad is that the person often writing the story, characters, dialog, is also tasked with working on so much else. From designing systems (from the most basic UI to the most advanced AI), to tuning gameplay, to mocking up art, interface, sounds, and whatever else needs doing, Game Designers are also typically tasked to write the story, concieve the characters, write the dialog, and generally concieve the universe in general.

Designing systems is no small feat, and considering much of it consists of going back and forth between all of the departments to ensure that everyone has their say in what the system should do. All of this, I assure you constant reader, takes a great deal of time.

It's no wonder that Games get lambasted for their stories, the people entrusted to write them are overwhelmed with designing everything else for the game! Of course the stories come off as bad!

Well, I'm of the opinion that most games simply aren't planned to be that enduring and aren't built to be as such. Part of it is the ephemeral nature of the industry: if the next contract doesn't come, the next game isn't made and the company closes. The other part is that most Game Designers are not writers. We are responsible for so much...stuff...that every other department looks at the story, which should be the corner stone of the single player campaign, as an afterthought - a context through which their technical and artistic wizardry.

For Part II: how game designers should get more serious about narrative.

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