The Merits and Drawbacks of Traditional Storytelling in Videogames

hanselthecaretaker

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After watching the above clip it got me thinking about how far videogame characters have come in the last couple generations. When good writing and good performances work in tandem to convey their strengths, weaknesses, depth, flaws, motivations, emotion, etc. we end up with something no other medium can lay claim to. Because when we play, we take an active part in the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) story. We’re right there as an extension of them and along for the ride, every step of the way.

However, it also very clearly reminded me how muddled and distant the narrative role can get throughout the process of actually playing the game. By the time I was done hunting, fishing, exploring, horse taming, bonding, doing side missions, bounties, robbing, killing some people, saving other people, looting, harvesting, crafting, eating, gambling, customizing, etc. a lot of what was shown in the video I’d already more or less forgotten about. Or at the very least, it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind like it was after watching a more condensed recollection of it all. Although, at least with RDR2 there was so much incidental nuance to the in-game interactions that the moment-by-moment world and relationship building stuff felt like an extension of gameplay.

So, on one hand we’re gaining a deeper bond with the main character over the course of dozens of hours or more, but on the other we’re often so wrapped up in the “game” part that the story part can end up feeling distant and diluted. The effect varies from game to game and player to player of course, but it leaves me wondering what my benchmark example would be of gameplay and narrative reaching complete harmony. It always seems that one overpowers the other, and might be a big reason why I was drawn to the SoulsBorne style of storytelling, where it’s almost entirely done through gameplay and the player's interactions with the game world. The constant push and pull of gameplay and narrative is virtually irrelevant there.


Interested to hear what everyone else thinks
 
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BrawlMan

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Devil May Cry has always interesting stuff if you bother to look and pay attention.





 

happyninja42

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Yeah I've always had an issue with that disconnect between narrative and gameplay, particularly in open world games. It's especially jarring, when the game sets up a sense of urgency and tension...and then lets the player loose to just do whatever they want for however long they want. "Quick! We have only 1 hour to save Princess Place Holder from Count Von EvilpantsMcBadGuy!!" *cinematic ends...game prompts you to a location but nothing is stopping you from just fucking around on side content for another 20 hours* And I really dislike that, a lot.

I also dislike when a game doesn't actually consider the actions a character takes, versus how they are presented in the narrative. The classic example is the Tomb Raider reboot, where they emphasize Lara's innocence to all this violence stuff....but then she's happily blasting dudes, guns akimbo not an hour later...after having stealth shanked 20 dudes prior to that, with no real impact or acknowledgement in the game to this.

I'm not sure what the answer is honestly, I mean you can only code so many variables on a deadline, and you are always limited by the functionality of the engine. But, yeah it's an annoying disconnect for me.
 

Phoenixmgs

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The 2 major issues with narrative and games are...

1) The industry just doesn't have much writing talent and I would also imagine very few, if any, writers in other industries would give 2 shits about working in the video game industry. Based on news and articles about a lot of game devs (like Naughty Dog or Rockstar), I wouldn't choose to work in that kind of environment.

2) Games are developed backwards with all the game stuff created first (from mechanics to levels) and the writer has to come in and figure out some way to glue it all together. The writer actually working together with the devs is a rarity in the industry as John Gonzalez said in one of the NoClip Horizon Zero Dawn videos. The story and gameplay is going to almost certainly feel divorced in that kind of creation process.
 

SilentPony

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We're all talking about the gameplay taking away from the story, but what about the other way around? When the story takes away from the gameplay? Like a walking simulator, that's little better than a visual novel that begrudgingly forces the play to walk forward to continue the cutscene.
As much as story is important, I'd rather have a story-less game that's fun to play than a really good narrative that's miserable to play.

I mean Red Dead Redemption had basically interactive cutscenes where you're on the horse pressing forward to listen to Chief RunsWithPremise talking oil futures. And if you go too fast you have to start over. Too slow and you have to start over. Get attacked by wildlife, have to start over. And so there we are, a rootin' tootin' cowboy and a native american chief, and we're playing slow monopoly for minutes on end.
The plot got in the way of gameplay. Just have it be a cutscene for a few minutes and let me get back to robbing trains.
 

Casual Shinji

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Games are developed backwards with all the game stuff created first (from mechanics to levels) and the writer has to come in and figure out some way to glue it all together. The writer actually working together with the devs is a rarity in the industry as John Gonzalez said in one of the NoClip Horizon Zero Dawn videos. The story and gameplay is going to almost certainly feel divorced in that kind of creation process.
This video shows how that can actually be a benefit.


Yeah, the story sucks, and even this scene doesn't really make sense overall, but in its own bubble it works very well and feels organic. And they apparently achieved that by designing the level and then writing how the characters would react to things in the invironment as they fleshed out the museum, like the skeletons and the T-Rex statue.
 

happyninja42

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We're all talking about the gameplay taking away from the story, but what about the other way around? When the story takes away from the gameplay? Like a walking simulator, that's little better than a visual novel that begrudgingly forces the play to walk forward to continue the cutscene.
As much as story is important, I'd rather have a story-less game that's fun to play than a really good narrative that's miserable to play.

I mean Red Dead Redemption had basically interactive cutscenes where you're on the horse pressing forward to listen to Chief RunsWithPremise talking oil futures. And if you go too fast you have to start over. Too slow and you have to start over. Get attacked by wildlife, have to start over. And so there we are, a rootin' tootin' cowboy and a native american chief, and we're playing slow monopoly for minutes on end.
The plot got in the way of gameplay. Just have it be a cutscene for a few minutes and let me get back to robbing trains.
Yeah I dislike that as well, though I don't see that as often personally. The thing about the example you gave, that annoys me the most, is that the pacing is never good. Like, I don't mind having me follow an NPC around for some exposition and narrative framing, that's fine. But when the game does things like make the person walk slower than me, so I have to constantly sprint stop, creep walk, sprint, etc. To just stay paced with them, I just want to scream "JUST MAKE ME MATCH HIS PACE WHILE WE ARE IN THIS SCENE DAMNIT!!" Or if they don't time out how long the conversation is, versus how long it takes to get to the destination, so you end up having this really interesting, personal conversation, cut instantly because you got close enough to the destination for "Here we are Hero McChampion." to interrupt their story about how their parents sold them to a brothel. And I'm just like "Wait, I want to hear their backstory damnit! It was interesting! "

It's made it where I now habitually just stand still if given the option during a travel dialogue, and make sure the conversation is OVER before going forward. Because I hate when the dialogue is cut short to scripted location updates.
 
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SilentPony

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I know it got shit back in the day, but the Mass Effect trilogy handled the little asides and quips just fine. Usually in an elevator or train or waiting for a door, all glorified loading screens, but then you have someone comment Tali is bouncing on her feet because she's nervous, Jack makes a joke about drugs, Garrus says something, Ashley whatever, Kaidan yadda yadda yadda.
They weren't overly memorable, but it added a little to the character and charm of the story, all while covering up a loading screen. It was the best way to handle it at the time. If gameplay had to be stopped to load, might as well throw a little story to keep you occupied. Better than a dry loading bar with 1/500+ tips, scroll right to learn how to reload now that you're 15 hours in.
 

happyninja42

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I know it got shit back in the day, but the Mass Effect trilogy handled the little asides and quips just fine. Usually in an elevator or train or waiting for a door, all glorified loading screens, but then you have someone comment Tali is bouncing on her feet because she's nervous, Jack makes a joke about drugs, Garrus says something, Ashley whatever, Kaidan yadda yadda yadda.
They weren't overly memorable, but it added a little to the character and charm of the story, all while covering up a loading screen. It was the best way to handle it at the time. If gameplay had to be stopped to load, might as well throw a little story to keep you occupied. Better than a dry loading bar with 1/500+ tips, scroll right to learn how to reload now that you're 15 hours in.
Yeah the elevator stuff was great, because it was varied depending on who you had with you, and it fleshed out the cast so wonderfully. Plus, it was actually TIMED to the elevator ride!!
I think the ME series was just fine, great in a lot of ways. I don't get the hate for the final game, but then gamers are a touchy bunch of little shit bags, who will whine/rage over the tiniest things, so...oh well I guess. Yeah the ending wasn't great, but, come on, 10 minutes of subpar content is enough to destroy the enjoyment of 3 games? I think not.
 

Phoenixmgs

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This video shows how that can actually be a benefit.


Yeah, the story sucks, and even this scene doesn't really make sense overall, but in its own bubble it works very well and feels organic. And they apparently achieved that by designing the level and then writing how the characters would react to things in the invironment as they fleshed out the museum, like the skeletons and the T-Rex statue.
That level right there is like all story really and on it's own, it's basically a walking simulator. I'm more so talking about like why are the ship levels in Uncharted 3? Or how every AAA game is, as Yahtzee puts it the same genre; "stealth action open world with crafting and collectibles". Most stories are obviously not going to work well in that "genre". The devs and writers should work together during pre-production to hash out the right mechanics and gameplay style for the story or vice verse like does this game even need an open world (Ghost of Tsushima or Witcher 3) or a loot system (Witcher 3 again or GOW4).

TLOU2 definitely felt like the story was written/storyboarded first, it's just that the story wasn't very good. The game really seemed completely hinged on the idea of doing the 2 perspective thing no matter the cost and whether it made sense to those characters and that world. Sorta similar to GOW4's single shot camera, which wasn't near the detriment as TLOU2's story premise, but it didn't really elevate the game much at all as the impact just isn't there like it is in film with doing a single shot for a long scene or an entire movie. Cory Barlog just had that idea in his head and wanted to do it no matter the game.
 

Dreiko

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I tend to only enjoy story in Japanese games for the most part since those are trying to be anime as opposed to movies, and I think anime fits a game format a lot more.


Either way though, all sorts of games have the component of player control either affecting how the story actually unfolds or affecting at the very least how people perceive certain characters. If you have a group and someone is the healer who is important for your survival you'll be using them a lot and may grow to like them whereas if you have a movie or something the healer character likely won't end up having all that many cool parts so you'll end up not liking em as much. It's this sort of thing that kinda changes how stories get digested by the audience in games. The best game stories are the ones that interact with the gameplay, both to enhance the gameplay and to get enhanced by it, so this very sterile assessment of a story as though its only job is to be a movie or a book, with no quarter given to the gameplay, I don't think is very useful at all.
 
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Ezekiel

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Item descriptions as a storytelling method feel kind of lazy. The protagonist doesn't learn the information that you the player read, which makes me feel disconnected from them. Item descriptions are pretty important in the Souls stories, so no, I don't think the storytelling is almost entirely told through gameplay. Not even close. There's a bunch of important dialogue too.

Video game stories usually work better when they're simple. The more complex they are, the more they usually fall apart against contrived (but fun) game design. Especially open world games. Most devs should be aiming for minimalist storytelling, so that they can do almost whatever they want with the gameplay.

I'd prefer a quieter character for most of Rockstar's games. Who speaks, but usually only when necessary and doesn't let his emotions show. A good example being the main character from Le Samouraï.



You don't know if he's a psychopath or a nice guy just by watching him a bit, if he has a code or whatever. Because the writers don't know if the player will screw around and murder pedestrians for fun or only kill when the story needs them to. Doesn't make sense to define your character so much, to give them so much personality, while also giving the player so much freedom outside the story.
 

Casual Shinji

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That level right there is like all story really and on it's own, it's basically a walking simulator. I'm more so talking about like why are the ship levels in Uncharted 3? Or how every AAA game is, as Yahtzee puts it the same genre; "stealth action open world with crafting and collectibles". Most stories are obviously not going to work well in that "genre". The devs and writers should work together during pre-production to hash out the right mechanics and gameplay style for the story or vice verse like does this game even need an open world (Ghost of Tsushima or Witcher 3) or a loot system (Witcher 3 again or GOW4).
The problem there isn't that it was made first, but that it was not properly implemented. Very few if any games let the writers completely dictate what's going to be in the game, whether it's the gameplay or level design. Most of the set pieces in Uncharted 2 were likely also planned before the script was finished. And actually, the shipyard level in U3 is easily fixed by simply ditching the 'Sully got kidnapped' plot, and just having it be that Drake needs to escape this place himself. You can do that without changing almost anything about that level. And then just end it by having Elena show up to wherever that cruise ship sunk to rescue him and tell him Sully got nabbed. The writers just did it the other way and it ended up coming off really awkward. So in that case it was actually the writing that was at fault.

TLOU2 definitely felt like the story was written/storyboarded first, it's just that the story wasn't very good. The game really seemed completely hinged on the idea of doing the 2 perspective thing no matter the cost and whether it made sense to those characters and that world. Sorta similar to GOW4's single shot camera, which wasn't near the detriment as TLOU2's story premise, but it didn't really elevate the game much at all as the impact just isn't there like it is in film with doing a single shot for a long scene or an entire movie. Cory Barlog just had that idea in his head and wanted to do it no matter the game.
Yes and no in regard to TLoU2. It's very clear that the writers took the reigns on this project, but at the same time they were too locked into an action game mindset with that writing. Because Ellie and the story feel written in a way to get the player into the stealth action gameplay as quickly as possible, having Ellie act out of character in order to achieve that. Because if there's one game universe where the characters would not want to leave a safe environment for the sake of "adventure" under any but the most dire circumstances it would be The Last of Us. But seeing as a sequel can't NOT have stealth action gameplay, the writing must make sure that the characters are put in that situation. And so Ellie is set off eventhough it makes little sense for her character to do so, because gameplay.

And yes, the single-shot camera added very little to the gameplayplay in GoW '18 (though I'd have to see a version of the game that doesn't have a single-shot camera really), but I reckon it did have an influence on how the cutscenes were shot. Seeing as they couldn't cut they'd have to really plan out the cutscenes and how they're shot. And it shows, because the camera work in the cutscenes is pretty exceptional, actually emphasizing the characters and the mood of the scene. And very few story focused games really invest in cinematography. Even Naughty Dog, with how they're deemed the cream of the crop of cinematic games, have very boring camera work in their cutscenes, usually only doing shot-reverse-shot.
 
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hanselthecaretaker

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We're all talking about the gameplay taking away from the story, but what about the other way around? When the story takes away from the gameplay? Like a walking simulator, that's little better than a visual novel that begrudgingly forces the play to walk forward to continue the cutscene.
As much as story is important, I'd rather have a story-less game that's fun to play than a really good narrative that's miserable to play.

I mean Red Dead Redemption had basically interactive cutscenes where you're on the horse pressing forward to listen to Chief RunsWithPremise talking oil futures. And if you go too fast you have to start over. Too slow and you have to start over. Get attacked by wildlife, have to start over. And so there we are, a rootin' tootin' cowboy and a native american chief, and we're playing slow monopoly for minutes on end.
The plot got in the way of gameplay. Just have it be a cutscene for a few minutes and let me get back to robbing trains.
Yeah I dislike that as well, though I don't see that as often personally. The thing about the example you gave, that annoys me the most, is that the pacing is never good. Like, I don't mind having me follow an NPC around for some exposition and narrative framing, that's fine. But when the game does things like make the person walk slower than me, so I have to constantly sprint stop, creep walk, sprint, etc. To just stay paced with them, I just want to scream "JUST MAKE ME MATCH HIS PACE WHILE WE ARE IN THIS SCENE DAMNIT!!" Or if they don't time out how long the conversation is, versus how long it takes to get to the destination, so you end up having this really interesting, personal conversation, cut instantly because you got close enough to the destination for "Here we are Hero McChampion." to interrupt their story about how their parents sold them to a brothel. And I'm just like "Wait, I want to hear their backstory damnit! It was interesting! "

It's made it where I now habitually just stand still if given the option during a travel dialogue, and make sure the conversation is OVER before going forward. Because I hate when the dialogue is cut short to scripted location updates.
In the prologue it states to hold X to keep pace with the characters you’re riding with. Not sure how often or how far you need to go away from the happenings of a story mission or whatever to break it, but usually it gives a warning IIRC. Another thing like Uncharted 4 is if a conversation gets interrupted, it’ll usually get picked back up again once gameplay things settle down.

Item descriptions as a storytelling method feel kind of lazy. The protagonist doesn't learn the information that you the player read, which makes me feel disconnected from them. Item descriptions are pretty important in the Souls stories, so no, I don't think the storytelling is almost entirely told through gameplay. Not even close. There's a bunch of important dialogue too.
I mostly meant not having to wait around for cutscenes. Even the dialog is just interacting with NPCs while you’re free to move around, change inventory, etc. in most cases.
 

Adam Jensen

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I'm sorry, but Red Dead Redemption 2 makes no sense. It's got interesting characters, well written dialogue and an interesting story. But ultimately, the characters are contradictory as hell and the narrative and gameplay are going in opposite directions. Ludonarrative dissonance can be a real problem in games with such a strong focus on story and characters. There are very few story focused games that do this well, though. But there are also only a few games where this problem is so pronounced that you couldn't possibly ignore it.

Ubisoft came so freakin' close to nailing it with Watch Dogs 2. But they were too chickenshit to create a game without weapons. If Watch Dogs 2 had no lethal combat options, it would have been one of the best games of this generation. A perfect blend of gameplay and narrative. But it's Ubisoft. Of course they fucked that up.
 

Trunkage

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I'm sorry, but Red Dead Redemption 2 makes no sense. It's got interesting characters, well written dialogue and an interesting story. But ultimately, the characters are contradictory as hell and the narrative and gameplay are going in opposite directions. Ludonarrative dissonance can be a real problem in games with such a strong focus on story and characters. There are very few story focused games that do this well, though. But there are also only a few games where this problem is so pronounced that you couldn't possibly ignore it.

Ubisoft came so freakin' close to nailing it with Watch Dogs 2. But they were too chickenshit to create a game without weapons. If Watch Dogs 2 had no lethal combat options, it would have been one of the best games of this generation. A perfect blend of gameplay and narrative. But it's Ubisoft. Of course they fucked that up.
Smacking someone around the head with nunchuck balls didn't make any sense. At least Aiden had a extendo-blackjab
 

Adam Jensen

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Smacking someone around the head with nunchuck balls didn't make any sense. At least Aiden had a extendo-blackjab
Not every part of the game has to make perfect sense. That was a fun and novel non-lethal weapon. Besides, the whole hacking thing makes no sense, but the game revolves around it. It's the main selling point. Things like that are not a problem. But when you have a bunch of people who are obviously not killers, but rather just a bunch of young adults fighting against the system through hacking, and those people can murder hundreds if not thousands of other people and face absolutely no consequences, keep cracking jokes and pretend like nothing's happened, it makes them appear as total psychopaths, and that's a big fuckin' problem.
 

happyninja42

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In the prologue it states to hold X to keep pace with the characters you’re riding with. Not sure how often or how far you need to go away from the happenings of a story mission or whatever to break it, but usually it gives a warning IIRC. Another thing like Uncharted 4 is if a conversation gets interrupted, it’ll usually get picked back up again once gameplay things settle down.
I'm not talking about Right Said Fredemption 2, I'm talking about that mechanic/trope in video game storytelling in general. Countless games use the "walk and talk with NPC", while you move from location A to B, and most of them do not give you a pacing mechanic. Some will just apply a governor to your movement, so you just stay with the npc and you just push the stick forward. But many games do no such thing, and yet they pace the NPC's at a speed that is impossible for you to match without looking like a hyperactive toddler doing laps around your parent.
 

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But many games do no such thing, and yet they pace the NPC's at a speed that is impossible for you to match without looking like a hyperactive toddler doing laps around your parent.
Skyrim was horrid about this. NPCs could pretty much go at whatever speed they wanted, but the player character had three default speeds (run, walk and crouch-walk) that never quite seemed to match them.
 
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I'm not talking about Right Said Fredemption 2, I'm talking about that mechanic/trope in video game storytelling in general. Countless games use the "walk and talk with NPC", while you move from location A to B, and most of them do not give you a pacing mechanic. Some will just apply a governor to your movement, so you just stay with the npc and you just push the stick forward. But many games do no such thing, and yet they pace the NPC's at a speed that is impossible for you to match without looking like a hyperactive toddler doing laps around your parent.
*flashes back to older style escort quests in World of Warcraft* I've seen some shit man.