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Why good game writing isn't enough.

While Xenoblade's story is well-written, it still doesn't engage me as much as a good TV series. Why is that?

Robert Bevill, Blogger

May 9, 2012

5 Min Read

It's unfair to say that video game stories are inherently bad. I'll admit that many games are more focused on gameplay and spectacle than telling a story, which is perfectly fine. After all, adding a story to my beloved Trials Evolution probably wouldn't help the game out. On the other hand, games that do not embrace the gameplay that's driving the story are almost doomed to fail, even if that story is a fairly competent one.

A recent example is the much-hyped Wii RPG, Xenoblade Chronicles. As far as storytelling in games goes, it's fairly good. The world is well-realized, the characters are varied and interesting enough for me to like them, and the story is paced well. Game mechanics are woven into the story in a way that makes sense. All in all, this should be a great game that should suck me in. Instead though, I can only play the game for so long before getting bored and turning on Netflix. I think I've nailed down the basic reasons.

The main problem is the presentation. I don't expect the Wii to deliver top-notch graphics, but instead, the cutscenes in the game just feel laughable. The lip-syncing is terrible, and facial animations just aren't expressive enough. Final Fantasy X came out over a decade ago and has better graphics than this. Compared to a Pixar movie, the animation just feels cheap. Compare it to live action, and it just looks awkward. I wouldn't say it falls into the uncanny valley, since it still looks very artificial and stylized in nature, but nothing about it is endearing. What's odd about this analysis is that I've gotten just as pulled into games with far less enticing visuals. The Phoenix Wright games have routinely pulled me in with their stories, as well as similar DS adventure games like 999 and Ghost Trick. If we up the technology just a bit, I consider Persona 4 to be one of my favorite stories of all time, but the static characters models, and cutscenes delivered only by talking heads would seem to turn me away by that logic. So what is it that makes those games stand out, but RPGs like Xenoblade lose my attention rather quickly?

I think I have the answer: Interactivity. Adventure games reward the player who pays close attention to the dialogue, as it allows them to uncover the mystery surrounding the plot even sooner. In this case, you are not just sitting back and enjoying the story; you are analyzing it, as the story is a game in itself. On the other hand, games like Persona 4, Skyrim, and Mass Effect allow the player a variety of ways to respond to dialogue. Even if these responses are mostly cosmetic, they still grant the player an additional sense of immersion. This is also what made L.A. Noire's story stand out so strongly.

However, there are still many other fantastic game stories that were meant to be watched, uninterrupted by player input. Portal 2, as well as the surprisingly good storyline of Driver: San Francisco, are stories that are not interactive. The gameplay serves as a branching point between story segments. Even if Portal 2 has very few "traditional" cutscenes, the story is still very tightly woven. However, once again the answer is simple - these are stories that can only be told within the game world. Chell's silence in Portal 2 allows the player to emphasize with her in her attempts to escape the facility, and the portal gun is a tool that both she and the player learn to grow and trust in over time. Meanwhile, the car-swapping mechanic that makes up the bulk of Driver's gameplay is an important part of the story that would feel very awkward and forced in a movie or TV series. Xenoblade's only really equivalent is the "premonition" game mechanic, but within battles it feels tacked on, and much more relevant in the story. So it begs the question - why bother? Xenoblade's story is decent enough, but wouldn't your time be better spent watching Game of Thrones or Legend of Korra?

The ultimate point I'm making is that even if a game has fantastic writing, it still needs to work within the gameplay. It can be a very tricky thing to pin down, even within its own series. The original Metal Gear Solid had an oddly gripping story, combining the feel of spy movies with the odd mechanics of video games at the time, while MGS2 deconstructed the idea of a sequel. The third and fourth entries in the series did not have the same appeal to me, as they felt more like action movies with segregated gameplay sequences. Not to mention, a mediocre story can still feel engaging in a game if done correctly. The Fire Emblem games have always taken placed in the medieval Europe setting that dominates so much of fantasy, but the miniature conversations between characters, combined with the knowledge that I could lose them forever if I made a mistake in battle made me feel much more determined to protect them. Heavy Rain's story is filled to the brim with inconsistencies and plot holes, but knowing how huge a difference my decisions could make made every decision much more intense. Not to mention Silent Hill 2, which terrified me from start to finish, and the story reveals caused me to look back on my experiences with a new light.

I can still respect Xenoblade for attempting to tell a good story, especially considering it does not overshadow the gameplay or rely on cliches. I'm sure it's filled with plenty of interesting characters and a great big world to explore. But when you get down to the small details of the experience, I'd rather just be watching Television.

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