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Storytelling in Games

February 25, 2010

Another post about computer games! I’m in danger of turning this blag into a game review blag at this rate, as if there aren’t already enough of those on the internet. This has a specific point to it, though, one that I’ve been reading about and that I am genuinely unsure over which side to take. I’ve just been reading a review and the comments on it about the game Heavy Rain (which I’ve noticed has the UK as the last place in the world for a release date, even if it is only by a few days), and there is a massive debate in the gaming world over the influence it will have on the future of the industry.

The review can be summarised as the following:
Heavy Rain is a brilliant and unique new game, with a nonlinear story driven by the player’s decisions. It does have more bugs than your average top game, the voice acting isn’t great, and while the overall story is well-written some parts are pretty awful. But despite all this, you should still buy it, because it is something new and fresh, inspires emotion in a way never done before in gaming, and if we don’t the industry might never try it again.

Up until this point, I was sold on the game just from the nonlinear story aspect, and the adverts on TV look smooth and well done. Obviously the adverts aren’t going to actually represent the game entirely accurately, but after this review I feel disappointed. The comments thread quickly turned into a flame war between “pretentious douchebags” who agreed and “hardcore fps fanboys” who didn’t (their terms, not mine), but there were some very good points in there – do we need to buy this, despite its flaws, to stop the industry becoming solely about mass-producing poor quality sequels to popular games? Apparently the game designer himself has said yes to this very question, that if gamers abandon it then clearly all they want is the same old rubbish we get now; “If the game doesn’t sell, it’s going to close doors to everybody and for a long time… Do you want [games] to be just trolls and goblins and zombies? Then don’t buy it.”

That the game designer is using this argument to sell games makes me suspicious, being a massive cynic. Will this really happen if we don’t buy your game? As tempting as it is to believe, with current gaming trends, I don’t think it will. Whatever the game producers think, there will always be gamers that want story-driven games (like myself), and as long as that market exists someone will try to sell to it. If every single game that comes out is exactly the same, most of them won’t sell, and companies will figure this out eventually. It’s better to cater to a small market with low competition than a large one with lots of competition.

I suppose the important question in the debate, the decider for me, is this: Which is better, a well-written linear plot, or a mediocre nonlinear plot? Mass Effect 2 is stated as having a fantastic and deep linear plot, touching on most of the issues raised in Heavy Rain, although until I’ve tried both I can’t really compare. I’ll probably give Heavy Rain a try one day, if I get the chance (it’s currently PS3 only), and I hope it’s still a good game – I just have doubts that a game can be good when its main focus, the very thing it sells itself on, isn’t done well.

While I’m here and talking about game storytelling, I’d also like to mention an idea I had a few years ago, which I recently discovered was quite similar to a scene from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Back in 2005/06 I was messing around with RPG Maker, and there was something bugging me: why do characters have to level up, getting more powerful, to fight enemies who are also getting tougher? We all know the cliché of Bond Villains sending their weakest soldiers first, then the tougher ones, etc. I then had an idea for a plot, which would also explain the difficulty curve – what if the protagonist was getting weaker, instead of stronger? Fighting the same enemies would then get more difficult as the game went on. The first reason for this I thought of also struck me as a great opening plot device and motivation for the game – they were caught in a nuclear detonation at the start of the game, and the not-immediately-lethal dose of radiation taken would slowly weaken them until they died from it.

I am quite proud of this idea, as I came up with it myself and it works quite well with RPG or FPS mechanics, as well as providing an incredibly shocking and moving opening sequence. Sadly, I filed it away in my mind and didn’t write anything down, so no doubt now I will be accused of stealing it from the CoD4:MW Shock and Awe scene. This is a very moving scene where your helicopter is hit by a nuclear shockwave and crashes, and your character crawls around the ruins for a while before dying from the radiation, but I’m disappointed by it as I had envisioned so much more from my own similar scene. Also, being a physicist, I was irritated by the lack of research gone into the actual effects of a nuclear detonation by CoD 4, which for me ruins the scene.

I will not bore you further (900 words already!) by describing how I would do it, nor will I give away more of my ideas, except to say that my scene would be more interactive beforehand, giving you a chance to bond with the people around you before the city you are in is torn to pieces. It would probably also be somewhat more gruesome, being set in a busy urban area, but I can worry about that if I ever get around to doing it.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    February 25, 2010 2:44 pm

    A difficulty curve produced by getting weaker as you go on sounds absolutely brilliant, I want this game immediately.

  2. wickedday permalink
    February 25, 2010 3:53 pm

    I remember you mentioning the nuclear-blast idea, and it does still sound really cool. (Especially your plans for tying it in with the protagonist’s motivation.)

    The argument that “Oh, if X doesn’t sell no-one will ever try it again!” is incredibly specious. One of the few things that the free market is indubitably good at is making sure that supply reaches demand – as you say, there are story-driven gamers out there, and the industry is competitive enough that very few markets, no matter how niche, go un-supplied.

    Time will help, as well. Programming an environment where the player can do anything they want sounds like it’d be pretty process-heavy, and maybe we just haven’t quite got there yet – you could go a long way with slightly better hardware and slightly better AI than is currently the norm.

    Oh yeah, and I cleaned up some typos for you – couple of missing letters and a misplaced apostrophe 🙂

  3. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    February 25, 2010 4:29 pm

    I’m afraid I haven’t made it yet – experimentation with RPG Maker 2000 showed me that it was not capable of handling something so unusual, and I’m so far behind on my Flash projects that I’m forgetting how I wrote some of the old code I used. I’m also terrible at anything artistic or graphics-related, so my nuke idea will have to wait until I can sell it, or something.

    I do think it would work well as a system, though – not only does it make sense in-game, but I think it would make the game more enjoyable for different kinds of people, too. You don’t have to grind to get through the game, but if you want a challenge you can grind to lower your level. The only problem I can see is that there is a minimum difficulty – you cannot keep grinding your level up to make things very easy, enemies are weakest if you go straight to them, so setting the difficulty for this strategy is key.

    EDIT: Actually, not being able to reverse the lowering of your level isn’t great either. Funny how writing things down suddenly changes the way you think about them… Maybe have some kind of anti-radiation treatment to temporarily make you stronger?

  4. Seamus permalink
    February 25, 2010 5:02 pm

    The image that came into my head when you described it was of a race against time: if you don’t complete your objectives by the time you’re too weak to do so, you lose, GAME OVER, start again. Of course, that would make the game hugely frustrating if it was more than a few hours long. Perhaps it could play out as a series of fairly short games, playing different characters, each starting at the point of explosion, following different trajectories? And you can’t meet yourself from Level One in Level Two’s story, but if you leave something in a room two hours after the explosion in Level One and then go in there three hours after the explosion in Level Two, you’ll find it… oh damn, I want to make a game now.

  5. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    February 25, 2010 11:29 pm

    I considered the Fallout-style ingame time limit, only having x number of days to finish things, but then you have a fixed curve for getting weaker, and that’s even harder to get right. It’s easier for an FPS, if the only thing that’s getting weaker is your accuracy or bullet damage, or if the enemies are getting more health relative to you.

    I like the multiple-character option though, that sounds interesting, especially if they all have the same overall goal (revenge for the nuke was the gist of my plan). In fact, I’ve just had an awesome idea, which I’m not going to put up on the internet, I’ll tell you about it next time I see you.

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