Storytelling in Games
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.