When is the story handled well in a Video Game, and how can we tell?
I’ve been pretty verbal about my thoughts to do with stories in Video Games. An article I released last week and earlier this week showed that when I took aim at how certain areas of the scene make the narrative of games more important than the physical gameplay.
I’ve thought about this topic a lot, and I’d like to make out that there are some games that have gotten their propulsion of a narrative just right.
From what I’ve seen, a game can get a narrative right in two distinctive ways, which are almost exclusively applicable to Interactive Experiences – and although some games get it dreadfully wrong with cliche’s and stories as versatile as a wet cardboard box, there’s some shimmering examples that have been released.
In differentiation from a movie, which can expand into a franchise or exist on their own terms within a 2 Hour timeslot, games typically have a larger time commitment, and bend the rules of how information is processed, much differently to how a Podcast or a TV show would.
For that reason I think games need to use their own avenues of expression, and the first I’d like to address is through Lore based & Artistic Narrative.
What I’m getting at with this point is that with the massive time commitments that a game has, and in consideration of the interactive element coming first, the narrative needs to find a unique way to seep through into the users experience.
The point I’m addressing here couples especially well with arguments of why the art style in a game is so important, but also other elements. Without elements to support the interactive experience like unique sound design, art direction and narrative pacing, the game becomes a bland mess with little more than enemies to shoot at, buttons to press and points to collect. The player needs to feel like they’re in an experience.
That’s why I think Overwatch’s approach to narrative is promo-table. The game was largely criticized for its distinctive lack of a Story Mode in such a story-rich universe – and to be fair, the game is run by Blizzard, one of the most Story-Intensive developers.
But I think the criticism Overwatch drew for its lack of a Story Mode was particularly to do with it being an FPS with a Multi-Platform release. If you think about it, World of Warcraft was largely the same thing on release, as it was more Multiplayer Oriented than it was Story Oriented.
But back to the point, Overwatch doesn’t need a narrative, although we’d all like it to have one, and every now and then they release bits of a linear narrative through Co-op brawls.
The Narrative of Overwatch is through its player battles on maps, and is supported by the lore-enhancing cinematic that Blizzard releases now and again. The time commitments required to play Overwatch and really get into it only allow for small snippets to address lore and canonical instances, which makes the player experience the narrative.
The second way in which I believe a game can support a narrative is through the mechanic or allusion of choice.
Involving the player in the narrative and giving them an active role in the progression of the story-line guarantees the attention to be placed on either getting passed the narrative or honing in entirely on the narrative.
I will never not stop thinking about the narrative of Spec-Ops: The Line.
Portrayed as an intense shooter, but in reality much more than that, Spec-Ops: The Line is easily one of the most face value deceiving games of all time, promoting an intense FPS experience and offering a moral and brain-twisting narrative that I still think about today.
In opposition to Overwatch’s approach, Spec-Ops: The Line was a linear third person shooter with a more realistic approach to its art, which matching sound design, however, Spec-Ops: The Line’s approach to storyline is what seperates it the most from Overwatch.
Spec-Ops: The Line’s approach to storyline is through inadvertent player actions that actively involve and factor in the actions the player performs in the game to progress through the linear stages and hoards of bad guys.
The game produces the player some choices, in regard to actions performed or actions being considered at key moments of the games stages. Whilst they don’t dramatically bend the narrative of the game, the giving of the choice actively involves the player in the telling of the story.
I will recommend Spec-Ops: The Line to anyone – it’s a modern approach to dark and gritty stories of corruption of character similar to what you could see in Apocalypse Now or Heart of Darkness (Erik Kain Discussed this on Forbes).
Really the Narrative-Progressing choices could come down to everything. The upgrade systems in The Last of Us, the Heist setups in Grand Theft Auto 5, the Little Sister encounters in Bioshock, but Spec-Ops: The Line truly hits the nail on the head.
So what I’m getting at with Stories in Video Games is that in order for the narrative to be truly appreciated by the player it either needs to be an element that reinforces the gameplay or the progression of the player through the game needs to actively involve the progression of the story – the two can’t act indifferent to each other.