Welcome to Extra Consideration, where we allow our contributors room to tackle the industry's big issues. While MovieBob and James Portnow were PAXing it up, Shamus Young and Graham Stark happily joined the Extra Consideration crew for a discussion of videogame stories. Are they better now than they used to be? What should a game story do?

imageYahtzee: The thing about story in games is that people often consider it an inherently good thing, but I don't agree. I look for games that balance the story and the gameplay; a story might be very well-written, but it's more important that it enriches the gameplay, rather than interrupts it. Works with, not in spite of. Planescape Torment is often given as an example of a great story, but personally I found the actual gameplay rather dreary and wasn't able to maintain my interest long enough for the story to get any hooks in.

For me, a great story game is one that weaves the narrative seamlessly into the interactive component, because interactivity is the one thing that makes games utterly unique. This is why film adaptations of games never work, because they're totally different methods of establishing a story; taking the game aspect away cripples it unrecognizably, like subtracting a person's torso...with a saw. My favorite story games are ones like Half-Life 2, where the story is told in the background and through implication rather than cutscene dump, and Silent Hill 2, where the bulk of the story experience is in the slow atmosphere building of the gameplay.

With that in mind, I do think video game storytelling is on a bit of a downward turn. On the one hand they're achieving new levels of maturity every year - Assassin's Creed is probably the standout of recent times, and the second game actually pulled off a non-gratuitous sex scene that no one tried to ban, miraculously. On the other hand, it's really leaping out at me how often games overuse cut-scenes these days. Seems like you can't move fifty yards without the game fading out and fading up on a non-interactive cinematic, often just to show you something in the room that you'd have to have been staring at the floor not to notice by yourself, and it really breaks the flow for me. Of my many unreasonable demands of game developers I have one that I absolutely stand by in every situation with no exceptions: never depict in a cutscene the main character performing actions we could have done within gameplay, whether it be gunning down enemies or running to catch a bus. Keep it interactive and it keeps the flow. Railroading isn't helping anything evolve.

imageShamus Young: To me it feels like game designers wish they were writing a book. Episode 100 of Unskippable is a showcase of everything that's wrong with cutscenes. The design force-feeds the player loads of overwrought text, a bucket of proper nouns, some mysterious calendars, and enough made-up history to make Tolkien blush.

Players end up taking turns with the designer. You get to blast bad guys for a few minutes without contributing anything to the story, besides your growing and frequently ignored pile of corpses. Then the designer gets his turn and gives you the next few minutes of the story he's thought up.

You mentioned Half-Life 2, and there's no denying that it's an excellent example of a game that shows instead of tells, without even interrupting the game. The two things that strike me as amazing about this is that:

1) Just about everyone who plays the game agrees that this integration of gameplay and story is wonderfully done and...

2) ...just about nobody else is even attempting to do this.

Developers are obsessed with this "gameplay | cutscene | gamplay | cutscene | gameplay" approach to game design.

Dialog trees are often maligned, but I think they can be a force for good if done properly. Do you care about the nation of Blandistan? Yes? Then here are a few blokes who will tell you various things about them. Can't be arsed? That's cool, just tell them to piss off and go back to shooting stuff.

Maybe this is a bit of writer's pride on the part of the developers. Perhaps they're just so enamored of their own material that they can't bear to let players skip it.

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