Game People Calling

Game People Calling: Dr. Story Takes on Games

Game People | 21 Mar 2010 10:00
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Meet Mark Clapham, who reviews games for their narrative content as GamePeople's Story Gamer.

As a writer of fiction (novels and stories for series, including Doctor Who), stories in games fascinate me. These stories are not the same as ones told in films, novels, or any other medium. Compared to the plot in a fairly average movie, the story in even a highly praised game like BioShock is completely broken - ten hours of a silent protagonist engaging in destruction while being hectored over the radio, with a couple of twists thrown in. If I submitted this to a book publisher, I can guarantee it would be thrown out with a dozen critical notes: protagonist un-relatable, no character relationships and repetitive events with no obvious meaning.

But none of that matters, because games are different. No storytelling medium is as reliant on the engagement of its audience as games are: for a story to work, the player needs to meet the game halfway with their emotions and imagination. It's what makes reactions to the stories in games so personal, so subjective: for every gamer who lives for the next cut-scene, there'll be one who skips it without a thought.

I've been looking at various different types of game storytelling. As I've mentioned, most familiar are the techniques used in games like Bioshock 2, a traditional combination of non-interactive cut-scenes and environmental and dialogue cues triggered during game play.

BioShock 2's single player game could never be as fresh and novel as the first installment, but it makes up for that familiarity with improved mechanics and an engaging story of its own.

The original BioShock had one of the most praised stories of any game of the last few years, with a strong narrative journey as your character explores the sunken city of Rapture, taunted over the radio by the city's creator, Andrew Ryan. It had a memorable twist midway through, one that causes you to reinterpret your experience of the game up to that point, and alternative endings based on your treatment of the Little Sisters. The history of Rapture, of its construction and fall into anarchy, was told through scattered audio diaries and the environment itself, the evidence of dilapidation, graffiti and destruction.

Initially, BioShock 2 is familiar in a way that I found both comforting and slightly disappointing. The bits of Rapture we see may be new, but the way we see them is now well known, with characters sending us on endless fetch-quests to different parts of the city.

Although there are mysteries which are steadily explained, there's no big oh-my-god moment to be had here. Instead there's a softer, steadier story that builds throughout the game, one where your relationship with the other characters is shaped by your actions. It's an engaging approach that builds to an emotionally satisfying ending.

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