Sunday Extra: Why Video Game Narratives Fail

One of the greatest things that ticks me off as a gamer is when I’m playing a game and I can know where everything is going from the very beginning-there’s no element of surprise or suspense, and even if there is it’s only because characters act in unbelievable ways. Now, there’s a whole plethora of issues that cause this, everything from the fact that modern gameplay tends to not be as emergent as we claim it is to the fact that writers often can’t write video games or their stories do not get integrated into the game correctly.

The first pitfall of video game narratives is the fact that few are anything too great. Now, I’m studying to teach English, which means that I’ve read a lot of literature, so I probably can’t complain too much when I can identify and categorize every trope and convention used within a game, but I think that there’s a little more behind this. Often, video games are developed with the lowest common denominator in mind; this isn’t to say that a game like Call of Duty can’t have an engaging storyline, but the truth is that the game sells more on its graphics and multiplayer gameplay than the narrative it tells. Even when they’re not, the truth is that many writers don’t like doing video games, and I think that there’s an industry perception that it’s okay to “phone it in” because even half hearted storylines by professional writers will stand out as average or better for the industry if the team behind implementing them is competent. Look no further than the recently released Shadowrun Returns to see how this can become an issue; it’s a work that would be considered self-insert fan fiction were it not made by the official creator, and the player’s role is really just to witness epic events (which are already in the Shadowrun canon, stripping the player of agency) unfolding. This sort of video game “excuse plot” just serves to highlight the shoddiness of the narratives presented as a whole; some games just want to sell on explosions and guns, and they can do this without needing to advance the media as an art form or invest in creating meaningful experiences.

Of course, the odd nature of video games makes writing stories difficult; I’ve done interactive fiction and it’s nigh impossible to make everything have the same general outcomes (as is needed to prevent doubling up on assets) without creating major plot holes. Of course, interactive fiction doesn’t suffer as much from this as do video games, since one’s assets are text and maybe a few static art pieces, and the other is fully developed and must be crafted down to minute levels. This, however, is something that is perhaps the fault of traditional thought in game storytelling which states that there must be a narrative forced on the player. Some of the most entertaining video game narratives I’ve seen in recent days are entirely emergent, created from in-game events that are truly dynamic in games like Dwarf Fortress which eschew the idea of pre-built experiences in favor of creating an actual living, breathing world.

Naturally, there’s also some execution issues. Video games require assets and coding to get everything together, and the exact amount of this can vary from production to production, but fully voiced three-dimensional immersive experiences require a massive amount of production assets; voice, textures, models, shaders, music, sounds, game logic, and even more, none of which can be made into a polished final form without a professional, many of which require care so that they do not exceed the current boundaries of hardware. Just practically, adding another line of dialogue means taking in the voice actor and having them go into the studio, forcing the developers to figure out what’s going on in the background (if anything), and putting together the scene; much of this is automated, but automated content generation can be just as difficult, especially if algorithms and methods are used only a few times. To top it off, some of these content additions for narrative benefit are considered to be secondary to other parts of the game; for instance, Borderlands 2, which included physics-enabled water that never had any real difference other than looking pretty, but had the common real-time physics flaw of being not all that realistic and not being that much better than the pre-baked water was.

Of course, creator error can also come into play, and this isn’t always a reflection of issues with the development studio. For instance, I only finally played Mirror’s Edge a few days ago, and one of the things that I noticed is that I was flashing around from time to time and getting kind of disoriented. It turns out that the PC controls had skipping cutscenes be part of the main control scheme, so if I were to jump up to a ledge and climb over I may hit the jump button again and skip the upcoming exposition. Naturally, this is a major issue in terms of delivering the narrative, because I inadvertently skipped much of the early plot-I gleaned more from reading the scrolling text in the elevators than from actually watching the cutscenes until near the end of the game, when I’d gotten a pretty good feel of when I shouldn’t skip things. This sort of shoddy execution can come into play in other ways, however; for instance, if a game requires a certain audio codec but will run with errors if the wrong version is present, or if important subtitles can be overwritten by those for background chatter. I’ve played games where action scenes are used as vehicles for exposition, but the speaking characters are drowned out by gunfire, or where the subtitles cut out early or are wrong; Skyrim liked to do this a lot as trying to listen to people talk with random NPC’s discussing the weather could be disastrous.

However, one of the most insidious reasons why video game narratives fail is a reason why most written works don’t see broad publication; unoriginal, crummy, and poorly executed stories get published all the time in literary journals and are popular among those who just like to read things, just as they make it through in games where people just want to play things. The truth is that a majority of video game writing is heavily dogmatic; EA is one of the companies that is most known for this; they are rather unabashedly leftist, and while they aren’t necessarily extremists, their writing is, quite honestly, boring. Of course there are fantastical evil religious sects and racists, but they always get proven wrong. A mainstream person will love seeing the KKK or Westboro Baptist get beaten up, and indeed these people often make themselves valid targets as antagonists. However, making such things core parts of narratives does not further video games as an art any more than making another WWII game where Hitler gets stomped into the curb does. Dragon Age is one of the games that a lot of people I know love, but I just can’t ever stand for it because it feels so much like a “this is what we think” rather than actually trying to be a narrative. Oh, of course the elves are all lower-class citizens, because they want to work in a racial narrative that may be true to the experiences of much of the audience, but which is not actually creating a story. It’s not exactly a secret that video games have sold heavily on the idea of the protagonist as an agent, with Mass Effect 3 coming under legal attacks for failing to deliver a sense of grandeur to the player, but it’s not really helping the medium to create characters who are dogmatically evil and don’t care; true personal conviction in characters within games is often overlooked for convenience and it is this that causes them to have such issues with “unfulfilling” stories; characters may be given a core consuming focus, but their values and humanity are overlooked for the convenience of creating clear-cut decisions.

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