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Not All Games Tell A Good Story

What elements are required to tell a good story?

[This is a repost from my original article at gameranting]

 Can you sum up 3 video games whose story inspired or moved you?  Recently I went through the list of all the games that I played and came to the conclusion that only few game stories left a lasting impression: Half Life, Fall Out 3 and Dead Space.

I've played plenty of games (bioshock, fable 2, the hitman series, devil may cry, resident evil, prototype etc).  All of these games have a storyline, yet not one of them is worth remembering.  The reason is that in these games the storyline exists in support of the game play: we need a simple excuses to start blasting virtual enemies to kingdom come.  In Half-Life, Fall out 3 and Dead Space, the story is on equal footing with the game play.  Both game play and story exists next to each other and strengthen each other.  As a result these games stand out not because of their game play but because of how story and game play create a wonderful experience for the player.

Is it possible to distill from these 3 games a template for a successful mix of story and game play ?

1. it's all about the player: most game stories resolve around the character, created by the designer.  The player is assumed to play the role of an actor, crawling into the skin of this fictional character.  Chronicles of Riddick is an extreme example of this: you are playing Vin Diesel, portraying a anti-heroic criminal.  Good game stories should resolve around the player and his emotions instead of forcing the player to become someone else.

2. No avatar: since the story should center around the player, he should see the world through his own eyes.  Displaying an avatar breaks the illusion.  First person games have a great advantage in this case, but third person games can still function provided that the designers use a very simple trick: never show the avatars face.  Thus the player can still imagine himself underneath the mask of the avatar.

3. real challenges and choices: Basically a game consists of challenge towards the player and the choices he must make to overcome that challenge.  For this challenge to have a real impact on the player, it must be a realistic challenge.  In other words, would the player, if faced with the same challenge in real life, make the same decision?  If the answer is yes, then this challenge will have a profound impact on the player.  Who would not, like in fall out 3, go in search of his missing father?  Bioshock instead never offered until midway into the game a compelling reason for the player to enter the sunken city (which is for me the reason why the story failed)

4. realistic world: when the player believes the virtual world to be real, it should also act as a real world.  This means that the player must have the impression that he is in a living breathing world.  NPC's move about, acting according to their own agenda, not merely there to form an obstacle for the player.

5. avoid the fourth wall
: any item in the game that reveals to the player that he is merely playing a game should be avoided.  Load times must be limited to a minimal.  Game play elements that can reveal themselves as such (I am thinking in particular about boss monsters)  posse a serious threat to breaking the suspension of disbelief.

6. forget about cut scenes and quick time events: if there is a surefire way to blow any immersion then its the use of cut scenes and quick time events.  Cut scenes reveal to the player that the story is not about him, while QTE's highlight that he's merely playing a game.

In conclusion, if a designer wants to use a game as a story telling vehicle, he must remember that the story is all about the player and his feelings and emotions and that immersion is the key ingredient.

Games failing to this are not necessarily bad games, they just are poor story tellers.

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