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Games should not be afraid to tell a simple story.

Open world games, games with rich mechanics, even simple platformers can be served best with simple premises, and leaving the player to map their own journey. Overly complex premises lead to convoluted storytelling. Leave the plot twists to the players

Engineers would say to keep a design as simple as possible, as a single small glitch in a complex system could damage it exponentially.  The same is applicable to narrative.

A common complaint I read online is that the best game stories don’t match up to novels and films. I find this a false comparison. Due to both game length and a sudden need to compare its own medium to novels and films, several game stories become needlessly complex.  “X is part of a grand conspiracy, that manipulated the player character the whole time!” or “quantum mechanics explain everything from ghosts to abrupt changes in character!”  However some of the most critically acclaimed, popular, and nostalgically remembered games present a relatively simple premise - which can and should be said for some of the most critically acclaimed, popular, and nostalgically remembered films..

Buy the Premise, Buy the Bit

 

Hollywood today relies on the “High Concept” movie, paradoxically this means premises that can be boiled down into short sentences - “A woman pregnant with the savior of mankind must run from a killer robot from the future.”  “A lone cop is trapped in a high rise with terrorists keeping a christmas party hostage, including his ex-wife.”  “A group of marines must battle an overwhelming amount of killer aliens.”  “A farmboy joins a rebellion against an evil empire after discovering he has mystical powers.”

 

Here’s where I should distinguish the subtle difference between premise, plot, and story.  A premise is the basis by which a story is built, a plot is a sequence of events, and a story is a plot with a beginning, middle, and end.  Beginnings, Middles, and Ends is where the complexity happens, but to keep it simple, the Beginning is where we meet the hero, the middle is after the hero goes on their journey and the trials therein, and the End is where the story reaches its climax, the antagonist is dealt with, and the hero returns (or doesn’t return) to the beginning a changed person.

 

Of course, we remember these films as having some greater complexity, and that’s due to plot twists that generally take place in the middle and toward the end of a film.  The twists are machinations organic to character, rather than a plot dictating where characters go - usually organic to the antagonist and the protagonist reacting.  This is where game plotlines tend to falter.  Due to a lack of trust in player agency, designers make these twists happen for the player.  This is why conspiracy stories, or stories dealing with an omnipotent antagonist tend to be used as common tropes and devices in game stories - it’s easier to make a twist happen for the player, rather than have the player make up twists themselves.  It’s easier to have the plot happen to the player, rather than the player drive the plot.

 

En Medeas Res (In the Middle of Things)

 

Another common game story trope is cutting straight to the action of a story - largely the middle.  For the most part, game stories live best in the middle.  Call of Duty will start the main character off in the middle of a firefight.  Splinter Cell and Metal Gear already has Sam Fisher or Snake on a mission.  Mario is already on his journey to rescue the princess.  

 

Action films do this all the time.  Star Wars begins En Medeas Res - it’s both Episode IV and starts as a ship in the midst of a battle with a Star Destroyer.  This turns out to be the inciting incident, the message in a bottle that’s about to start Luke off on his journey.  Die Hard takes some time to introduce their characters, but can’t wait to introduce the terrorists coming in a catering truck, as they tactically sneak in and take over the building, unbeknownst to the Christmas partygoers.  Even in classics - both the Iliad and the Odyssey begin en medeas res - the Trojan War is in full swing at the beginning of the Iliad, and the Odyssey picks up with Odysseus several years into his journey back from Troy.  Hamlet begins with his father already dead, and Hamlet himself grieving.  

 

In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey (This is the work most modern narrative structure is based, especially film - I’m not too fond of it myself, but it’s useful in illustrating a point here), he labels the beginning portion of the middle as “Fun and Games”. It’s where heroes learn to experiment with their newfound abilities and interact with the new world they find themselves in.  In Star Wars, it’s the portion where Luke is learning his Force abilities for the first time, in Die Hard, it’s the first few encounters McClane has with the terrorists while barefoot, bleeding, and with limited ammunition.  In Mario, it’s the first few levels where you learn how to jump and handle Goombahs and discover how to use various powerups.  In Metal Gear Solid, it’s that first open level where you learn the mechanics of the radar, knocking, and sneaking out of line of sight.

 

This is precisely why games seem to go by the Verse Chorus Verse like formula of “Cutscene Gameplay Cutscene”.  A Cutscene establishes a level and the stakes of the level, the gameplay revolves around playing through the level, and the final cutscene gives us a resolution.  

 

This is also where game plots should be hands off.  Once you start a player off with your Premise, most of the concurrent plot twists are best left to be driven by the player character.

 

I’ve Got a Machine Gun, Ho, ho ho.

 

One of the early plot twists in Die Hard is also one of the most organic to McClane as a character.  In the beginning of the film they put him in a position where he’s barefoot with only a few bullets left in his gun.  An early encounter has McClane face up against a terrorist with a machine gun, and he deals with him, grabs the machine gun (and a radio), and drops the body down an elevator shaft with the above message to announce to the bad guys that he’s around.  It is here where the power play between McClane and Gruber (the villain) truly begin, as he’s finally empowered and turning the tables on the antagonist.

 

And in gaming we know this moment all too well.  It’s the look on DoomGuy’s face when he picks up that first shotgun in Doom 1.  And better much like McClane above - it’s more satisfying because it feels completely player character driven.  It’s empowering.  Of course what’s really happening is the level designer placed an enemy with a shotgun there, and the player just killed the enemy and grabbed it.  Yet there was no objective marker, no directive to kill this enemy, nothing telling the player to grab the shotgun.  

 

This is also what’s known in screenwriting “obstacle storytelling”, in which a hero must go from point A to B, and obstacles are seemingly arbitrarily put in their way - yet each ‘trial” as it were feels organic and allows the character to develop.  It’s most common in road films.  The quintessential example of it is The Odyssey, in which Odysseus and his crew face obstacle after obstacle throughout the long journey home.  The premise - that Odysseus must come home to his family and raise his son never changes, but the obstacles complicate the story.

 

This is where a level designer or storyteller can control pacing and character development, as well as dictate narrative without actually - you know - dictating it.  Mario and Doom have very simple premises.  But every twist that happens feels organic to the player playing it.

 

Unfortunately most modern game narratives feel they must dictate and force a player’s hand in modern narratives in order to tell a deep story - and why it doesn’t always work.

 

Far Cry 3 has this issue.  It uses mechanics of freedom of movement and approach to different situations, and yet every major plot choice is carefully scripted and crafted.  Jason Brody must go through story missions in a specific manner - leading to an overreliance on first person cutscenes and corridor shooting in the process.  Take - for example - the girlfriend rescue sequence early on in the game - Instead of trusting the player to use the rich mechanical toolset available, both Brody’s narration and the scripting of flames force the player in a specific path to play out the setpiece as intended, hollywood moments and all.  It isn’t the player acting that makes this happen, it’s the player making the only choice available to them.  A player discovering that shooting pipes can put out fires is far more memorable than being outright told to do so.

 

On the other hand, Portal manages to unleash the player in a fairly linear plot with a small, but powerful, toolset and still allow the player to feel that they made these discoveries and drove the plot forward.  

 

No Mutants Allowed

 

Let’s compare Fallout to Fallout 3 (with New Vegas thrown in for good measure).  Fallout is an open world that starts the player off with a simple objective - find the Water Chip.  Fallout 3 is an open world that starts the player off with a simple - and more personal - objective - find your father.  And yet one feels like it gives the player less agency than the other.  Why?

 

The Fallout main quest line is relatively simpler.  Fallout 1 has you go to Vault 15 to find it abandoned and raided, and you find and follow clues strewn throughout the wasteland in order to find another Water Chip for your vault. It’s pretty open ended, but there is a deadline you need to be aware of, and actions appear to have consequence (at one point you can tell caravans to deliver water to your home Vault 13, but revealing the location exposes them to raiders, which leads to the final act plot twist).  Fallout 3 tells you where to go to find your father.  It tells you where to find the clues to “follow in his footsteps”, with some carefully designed setpieces along the way. One of the most poignant moments of the game happens while the character is behind glass, unable to interact with the world, every tool at the player’s disposal rendered unable to do anything to change it.   Like Far Cry 3, it gives you a rich toolset to explore the world, but dictates to you where and how to use this toolset rather than have you discover it for yourself.  

 

New Vegas bucked this trend by going back to simple, but open objectivesn in the main questline.  Your first objective is to go to New Vegas - the how is up to you.  There are several ways into the city, all requiring different levels of reputation with a multitude of different factions.  The premise is still simple - Find your murderer.  The resolution to that, leads to plot twists that feel organic to character, rather than dictated to you as Fallout 3 can feel (even up to the end).

 

Open world games seem best with simple objectives.  It’s more of a tapestry of characters to interact with - each with different clues, sidequests, and twists of their own, to get there.  

 

The same comparison could be made from Skyrim to Morrowind.  Morrowind’s main quest is given in the ravings of an easily ignorable (and killable) madman, with clues left around the world for the player to discover.  At any point the player can go to the end of the game to beat it (the speedrun record is under 8 minutes), but how to do so is a mystery to the player at the beginning.  The player must experiment, ally themselves, and grow their character before learning how to make the attempt.  Skyrim - on the other hand - takes you on a journey of spy vs. spy to slowly reveal the hows and whys of what should be a fairly simple premise - “dragons are back from the dead and only a Dragonborn can stop them.”  Instead of what could be a good game loop of a sandbox - kill a dragon for a dragon soul, dungeon crawl to learn new dragon words - the player must be led around by specific NPCs to do specific actions and make discoveries on the game’s tightly controlled story in a game meant to inspire freedom of action and affect on a world.

 

The Middle of these games are still complex, but rather than dictated to a player, it’s controlled by the player.

 

Conclusion - Simple Premise does not a Simple Plotline make

 

Game premises shouldn’t be afraid to be simple.  Game stories can still be complex, but are best -and more memorable - ways that are organic to character rather than convoluted by an ominpotent antagonist or dictated by a designer to make specific setpieces work.

 

Take Civilization.  Civilization is the story of the entirity of mankind as nations develop and one becomes a superpower.  This is a simple premise, but a complex subject.  Guns, Germs, and Steel - a nonfiction book that inspired much of Civilization V - while interesting - is an incredibly dense book attempting to explain similar concepts - that domination is more an accident of geography than in born dominance of a people.  The thing is - Civ V actually does a better job explaining this concept through the mechanics of play rather the book through several hundred pages of evolutionary theory mixed with sociology.  While Guns, Germs and Steel is far more informative, Civilization leaves this kind of discovery up to the player.

 

Open world games, games with rich mechanics, even simple platformers can be served best with simple premises, and leaving the player to map their own journey.  Overly complex premises lead to convoluted storytelling.  Leave the plot twists to the players (and the antagonists on occasion), but start them off with simple goals with varied and complex paths to get there.

 

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