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Where we're headed as a storytelling medium

The tools to make games are improving rapidly - pipelines are being refined, engines becoming more sophisticated - but it doesn't help if only one or two parts in the machine are constantly being upgraded.

 

Recently I read somewhere a person attributing the recent decline in software sales to the smaller leaps in technology growth in games.  The author explained how exponential the growth in tech ability during the late 90's was, and said how things such as graphics are beginning to mimic photorealism so perfectly that each instalment of a new engine is less astounding than the last.

Frankly, I couldn't help but laugh a little inside.  I laughed because I view our industry completely the other way around.  Now that we have the resources, now that we have the attention of the world, and now finally that our technology can rival films' we can start focusing on what's important: making better games.  No longer will people be limited and hindered in their creative vision by 2d sprites and weak processors.  From what I took the author of the article I read above seems to believe the golden age of gaming is over - I think its just begun.  It's true, software sales according to the NPD have been down for the last while, but what it doesn't take into account is that now more people than ever play video games.  The market is undeniably growing, and though perhaps not at the exponential rate it used to be, the fact remains that more of the public is now being exposed to this medium.

So where are we headed?  Now that technology is providing so much freedom to developers what ideas can spring forth and bear fruit?  The graphics race isn't as frantic as it used to be, motion controls and 3D being the hot topic of hardware these days.  To start, what makes a great game?  Good graphics, great gameplay, immersion, sound, value, and story are most commonly the topic of critique.  In this sense, gamers are having a blast.  They're getting more bang for their buck than ever before, now video game audio tracks are now being recorded by live orchestras, and gameplay is continually being reinvented in creative new ways.  As I stated before graphics are becoming less of a factor, so I believe it's the other areas that can now be improved.  In particular, I think the future sees the most improvement in the area of storytelling.  

During the last few weeks I have been trying to catch up on playing new games, I began running through God of War 3 as well as Red Dead Redemption.  Both are fantastic games, and I can't recall the last time my hands sweat so much on a controller when battling a boss than in GoW3.  Red Dead is horribly fun, lassoing a person and dragging him behind your horse is disturbingly more satisfying than it should be.  I was about ten hours into each game, when Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker arrived for the PSP.   I started playing it, and realized for the next few days I had sunken almost twenty hours into the title, without so much as touching GoW and RDR.  Quizzically I sat down to try and answer why this happened.  I am a MGS fan yes, but I am also a really big GoW fan, I've bought all three in the series without hesitation and remember spending hours tantalizing over tidbits of news from the titles not to mention watching all the special features included in the second game.  

Then it hit me.  After every mission in MGS PW there was a cutscene, I was getting somewhere, advancing the plot somehow, changing the situation for some reason.  There would be twists and turns that I did not expect, and because the missions all end on cliffhangers I would keep coming back for more.  I didn't feel the same lure in GoW and RDR.  I realized the games gave me little reason to go back for more, little reason to continue their adventures because frankly I no longer cared about continuing Kratos and Marston's journeys.  Don't get me wrong, both games are really fun to play, but for me at least, no matter how fun the game is the gameplay will always repeat itself and eventually become familiar.  As humans we always like new things, changes to our routine, pleasant surprises that we didn't see coming.  In a video game it's not practical to reinvent and throw in completely new gameplay mechanics multiple times within a game, it would create way too much work and is quite impractical.  Therefore that change must come from within the storytelling.  I enjoyed the first God of War the most out of the series, I enjoyed following Kratos's plight and conquering one foe after another, with plot points thrown in just when it began to feel familiar.  However in the new title, I frankly couldn't care less.  When Kratos (spoilers) fell down from mount olympus and had all his initial weapons and powers stripped so that you could upgrade them all again, I was in a pretty damn state of disbelief.  Really?  That was what they came up with?  I said to myself.  As far as I've played in the story, the puzzles are great, the fighting is visceral and satisfying, but to be honest I really don't care that much for the spartan anymore.  He kills everyone he meets, literally.  It seems almost comic when I have friends over and they see a cutscene and they ask "is Kratos gonna kill that guy?"  To me it seems he is no longer fighting for revenge, rather it looks like he does it for a lack of anything better to do.  

In RDR, I was hooked from the beginning, the game is absolutely gorgeous, and the wild west never looked or felt more real.  Ten hours later, John Marston is still on the same quest he was on in the beginning, to find a man the government told him to find.  It was interesting to start, but now it just seems so blatant that the gameplay is being repeated for the sake of extending playtime.  I don't feel like there's a reason to be doing all these quests, because nothing ever happens after I complete them.  I hop from one clue to the next trying to find this man, but every time I get close surprisingly I get whisked away on another "kill these guys and I will tell you what you need to know" mission.

I will dare to say that as games, GoW 3 and RDR are more fun to play than MGS PW.  The hardware is limiting on the PSP and I can tell.  However because I cared for the story, I didn't notice that yes I virtually do the same thing every mission.  That's because every mission felt fresh, there was a new goal, a new situation that I found myself in and would now need to get out of.  Coupled with great-but-not-amazing gameplay I found myself still more drawn to play MGS PW than the two console giants.  Perhaps it is even an urgency issue, RDR and GoW 3 have amazing gameplay, but neither Kratos nor Marston seem in a rush to go anywhere or have anything happen, so I decided to focus my attention on the seemingly more pressing matter of a political conspiracy involving ICBMs and mobile nukes.  Alex Garland, writer of 28 days later and recently the game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West has this to say about the progress of video game writing, and in particular the lack of character:

"Basically, that’s what you have to be able to do in games. And I don’t think that happens, necessarily. Narrative is an afterthought, something which is stringing along a bunch of gameplay devices. The really important things that games need to explore - and there’s a long way to go - are to do with character. People say there’s character in games, and there is, but if you compare that level of characterisation to the kind you might get in Taxi Driver or Goodfellas or, for that matter, War And Peace or Hamlet, to be blunt about it as a games fan, there’s a f****ng gulf.

If games are going to achieve at least one area of their true potential, they need to do a lot of work. They need to involve and respect writers and place them in a particular position within their structure. That, I would also make clear, doesn’t necessarily mean me. I’m not ever going to write Hamlet or make Goodfellas, but my limitations don’t stop me from being able to recognize what’s true. At some point, there will be someone who’s able to do that, and when you combine the immersion and projection of the game experience with that level of characterization, you’re going to have an art form that’s obliterating in its impact and importance." -Alex Garland

Has film technology drastically changed within the last two decades? Yea, Avatar is of course a technological step up from Gladiator, but the jump can't be compared to the years of Charlie Chaplin and how quickly film developed in that era.  You can watch films like the Godfather and the lack of HD IMAX 3D film isn't going to ruin your experience.  What I'm trying to metaphor is that though the technology in films made 40 years ago hasn't been completely revolutionized, great films are still being made today.  The same can be said for games.  Though games made 40 years from now may not undergo the same exponential tech progression from games made 20 years ago, they can still bring new ideas and brilliant concepts to the table.  Perhaps they will be less eye popping and crowd wowing as they are now, but if there's a good story being told well behind it, if the gameplay is smart and fun, masterpieces will follow.

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