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Leave The Meat Off My Bones, Please

Let's halt for a second and reflect on what story offers a videogame -- can it be damaging? What are good videogame stories? Are games with stories good because of the stories? Do we even need them? I have no idea, but I'd like to talk about it more.

As someone obsessed with the emotional pull and deep twining of stories, as an admirer of wordsmiths and those who construct experiences for me to read or see, my favourite games are skeletal creatures.

At someone who finished Call of Duty's single player and puts the disk back in the box I would deliver a quizzical stare.  This person, to me, has missed the point.  To be specific, Infinity Ward crafts incredibly well produced and appropriate narrative brackets around its time-tested gameplay.  Most of their story is even coherent.  But that, too, is missing the point.

Quite near to my fanaticism for cunning writing is an indescribable love for mil-sim.  That is, military simulation.  It's not spawned from some jingoistic tendency, I just love the simulated feeling of being at war.  Volunteer soldiers would no doubt (and do) relate that, after all their training, the thrill of combat is the carrot at the end of the stick.  It's just my paramount escapist experience.

That said, I have hundreds of little stories stored away from Call of Duty matches, from Battlefield, from countless other multiplayer-centric games.  Long after forgetting the narrative wrappings of the "main" game, I'm still filling in my own meat on their skeleton.  I prefer it that way.  They say the best writers are very good at not telling you things; our imagination never lets us down, and it will always satisfy my story receptors. 

Left 4 Dead is very aware of this.  It is at the same time a single player and multiplayer game, and their narratives are player created and supported by that special Valve knack for ambient character dialogue.  The game is full of clear set pieces ready to have experiences -- stories -- moulded around them.  I'm still fuzzy on the plot of Modern Warfare 2 after playing it twice.  I remember every area of every Left 4 Dead map and have rich experiences associated with them. 

Square Pegs in Round Holes 

I've been lucky to attend some talks fronted by Sony Santa Monica's Marianne Krawczyk, and later Gears of War writer Susan O' Connor.  One such talk was titled something akin to "Fitting Square Pegs into Round Holes", and stressed the importance of incorporating a writer from the get go.  

I think developers reading Gamasutra have the understanding that videogames are more business than some might think, and that the way they are scheduled demands local flexibility on the part of developers and time constraints made safer to hit by having a backbone set in stone.  

At the moment, to suggest that game stories have as much influence on a videogame as the way a movie script is written is a hilarious comparison of opposites.  While I'm not suggesting good story-driven games are non-existent, I think it's agreed that they are rare gems and products of large budgets and no lack of skill.  It is not the norm to have a story in your game that people will remember a month later.

Of course, games are games.  The fact that a game can exist without a story and a movie cannot (even Avatar had the obligatory plot to establish a reason for its CGI) is an obvious and clear sign that fitting stories into games is difficult to say the least.

Comparatively Speaking  

When I saw this Gears of War ad I was moved; but I was also angry.  I was angry because I knew the ad had more to say than the actual game.  There is more feeling in that stare from a wounded Dom and more purpose as Marcus makes the long walk under the narrator's breath than can be extracted as a flat sum from the entire Gears of War franchise.  All that from the reading of a poem.

Putting on my reality-shaded sunglasses assures me that there is no reward for having a good story to go along with well-paced cover-popping-and-chainsawgunning, so it's just not going to be there.  It makes for a development process full of added uncertainty, which means more money.  The business does not encourage such adventuresome thinking in the area of story and its fitting in the complex machinery of a videogame.

I would be more than ashamed to describe the plot of any game to, say, a novelist.  Any novelist.  I would be ashamed to describe the goings on in the written word of a videogame to a hack.  It's at best context-filling and formulaic, maybe snappy and funny -- at worst it's meaningless drivel that spills into your game and obfuscates. 

Some people are good at writing their meaningless drivel (Mass Effect) and some make me turn my sound off after four hours of it (Dragon Age).  But it remains inconsequential, and that is the death of a story.  I don't intend to be offensive in calling this meaningless drivel, I mean it in the truest sense -- I will forget about your plot and your dialogue because it has nothing to do with what I am doing.

I recall one mission in the original Mass Effect where I was helping protect some forgotten colonists, venturing out to turn their water back on along with other tasks to get them back on their feet.  I then defeated a plant monster that had been mind controlling people, or something.  There was probably a reason -- a reason related to the story arc -- that I was there.  I don't recall, and it's not just that I don't remember, it's that I didn't retain it.  It was useless to me.

Yet, like the set pieces in Left 4 Dead, I recall all of the plot points in Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  I recall them because they must interlock to make sense, and they were the point of the book being written.  Obviously that is the focus of a book, but a book is only a method of telling a story, as a game can be a medium for storytelling, a vein for it to flow through.

Plot Blocked

There has to be something else obstructing good game stories proliferating other than money and the business models of studios.

There are probably many, but one is close to me.  It's what I was taught in school, and it's called The Hero's Journey.  It's the super secret special story formula that, because it stems from ancient myth construction, is thought in some circles to be the way to write a popular story in entertainment. 

I'll leave Wikipedia to explain the intricacies of the formula, but it's easy enough to grasp that a) It's a formula b) It's about a hero.

Safe means fast means less money.  Videogames always have a hero.  What's so bad?

The father in Cormac McCarthy's The Road is not a hero.  Maybe he is in some moralistic sense, but in the eyes of the Hero's Journey he is nothing of the sort.  He is a man -- just a guy.  Videogames are afraid of being about humanity.  Often they are about their gameplay, and often their gameplay is direct and violent, which does not reveal much about humanity by itself.

Like a well-timed pause and acceleration back to a chorus in a song, even novels and movies about violence have moments of humanity.  There is nothing touching about Gears of War besides its commercials which, similar to the CGI guise produced for Call of Duty: Big Red One, is meant to mislead and promote rather than represent.  The game looks that much worse, to me, having shown me how much it is not.

While game stories might not strictly adhere to the Hero formula, they are similar in their focus and familiar structure -- this leaves for nothing but more variations of meaningless drivel to act as marrow in the bones.

Don't Say a Word

I'd like to end this ramble-on with just an example, as this is a subject that doesn't have some sort of essayist's conclusion.  Shadow of the Colossus.

Shadow is a game with a big story, and a big heart.  While there are only a few minutes of actual talking, that talking is the weakest part of the story.  As a boy stumbles towards a giant made of stone in a effort to save his love, you realize that when you change the structure of a story -- when the game is the story -- it is beautiful.  You could say the game is about a grip meter and horse riding, bow-shooting and sword attacks, and you wouldn't be wrong.  

It's the way they're put alongside one another and presented that makes the story -- you are not enjoying the swordplay because you are killing or hitting or making a combo.  You are not even thinking about that.  You are scaling and killing this beast.  When you learn that you have been committing atrocities the entire time in your selfish quest, it makes it all the more touching. 

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