Storytelling in games

8 November 2011, by Kelketek

While there is a continuing trend to market games to a larger audience by basing them primarily on gameplay that is quickly learned and satisfying, there remains something to be said for interesting storylines in interactive media. How a storyline is presented, however, is as important as the story itself. Bad cut scenes that keep a player from playing the game might as well be loading screens.

There has been a tendency, historically, for games to try to emulate movies in the story telling department. Games will pause, a short video advancing the story will be played, and then the gameplay continues. There are a number of problems this creates in a gaming medium.

  1. Cutscenes take the player out of the game. Players want to be the badass they’re playing in game. It is fun to be Sam Fischer, or Master Chief, Gorden Freeman, or Cloud Strife. If you’re ever pulled into a cutscene, you stop being them, and they exist independently of you. The illusion fades.
  2. Plot-important details that affect gameplay are often introduced in cutscenes. This can be a problem if your cutscene isn’t entertaining and the player zones out a bit while your mage is explaining the crystal power system.
  3. Sometimes, the player honestly doesn’t care, or doesn’t have the time to sit through the full cutscene.

For this reason, some developers eliminate cutscenes altogether. One example of this is the Half Life series. The only time when you do not have free movement in these games is when your character really is physically restrained. You can technically walk around and look at other stuff instead of what you’re supposed to. But you usually don’t because the Valve developers are very good at drawing your attention to what needs to be highlighted. You can get an in-depth explanation of how they do these sort of things by playing with Developer commentary turned on in their more recent games, starting with Half Life 2 Episode 1. Here’s what they do:

  1. Intercept the player at a point where he MUST go eventually, and immediately bring out an attention grabbing element that will reel him in.
  2. Let the action that is going to take place delay until the camera view is in the right place. The player has a right to explore things a bit, so, when possible, wait until they are ready to actually show what you need to so you’re certain they see it.
  3. Make the character mute. The character cannot say something the player doesn’t feel like saying if the character can’t talk!

That last one is where the shortcoming in this method lies. There are major limitations in what you can do with a story where the main character cannot communicate and interact fully. The story ends up being one where the character is along for the ride or is the muscle for others. He doesn’t really change the story too much—Though he can take different actions, he can’t introduce ideas. You can make some excellent stories this way, but you may not be able to do the story you want, and the player can’t have do much to help ‘author’ it either. An alternative can be found in games like Bethesda’s Fallout 3. In this game, the player does have a big influence on the story, but they have to do a few things to avoid cutscenes.

  1. When speaking to another character, the game makes you face them and focus on them. You enter a dialog camera frame of sorts with a listing of responses you can choose to say at the bottom.
  2. The game has a complex quest-tracking structure that keeps track of what the player has done, when they’ve done it, and what prerequisites are needed to complete a task or make a new sidequest available. Certain quests have to be closed early and considered ‘failed’ if you choose to kill someone integral to them.
  3. The same principle of getting the character to look in the right place applies. They will often have a character run off in the direction you need to go right after telling you something, so you will be inclined to follow.

The key difficulty is in the second point. Fallout 3 is an excellent game but it is so terribly buggy at times that you can corner yourself in awkward ways. If you talk to certain people when the game doesn’t expect you to, you often can end up inadvertently making a side quest unwinnable. Incredible care must be taken to verify the validity and sanity of story trees. Fallout 3’s incredibly openness is its programmatic Achilles heel.

There are a few intermediary methods. One of them is exemplified by a lot of action games, where the character does speak, but the game play is not interrupted. This does still bring to the front that the player is not the character, but in many cases, this is preferable to losing control altogether. Other times, rather than making a cut scene that’s just as bad as a loading screen, some use a cut scene as a loading screen. Infinity Ward, for instance, tells the story and reasoning for your next Mission in the Modern Warfare series by playing a video while it loads the level into memory. This is much more enjoyable than looking at a static image, and these days playing a video is easy on the hardware, so there’s little downside to making loading screens useful in entertaining the player.

Even with all this said, there are still times when the traditional cutscene is what you need. But you need to know why you’re doing it, and you need to keep a few things in mind:

  1. You should only be using a cutscene if you cannot find another way to tell the story. The most likely reasons are an event taking place somewhere the main character isn’t, or an event where the character must say or do something that you couldn’t count on the player to do.
  2. Things said in the cutscenes are likely going to be things that are important to the player’s completion of the game. So you need to make sure that these elements are clear.
  3. A player may not care about your story at all, but enjoy your game play. There is no accounting for taste.

And, if you’re going to do cutscenes, shame on you if you don’t give the player the information he needs in an additional manner. If the key to completing a level is stored in a video that goes by only once, it’s a major source of frustration for the player if he missed something or didn’t understand. Give the player a reference object of some sort- a journal, a map marker, anything that can make sure they don’t end up frustrated and lost. Games are supposed to be fun.

My feeling is that if you really need cutscenes, you’re probably better off making a movie or a comic (perhaps as a feelie for your game). To me, much of the gaming experience is being the character. You can watch and enjoy characters in other mediums. You only get to be them in games.